Waking Up With Alaska
It’s mid-April and a soft mist hangs in the air.
Small beads of moisture have begun to form on our ship’s windows and on the jackets of those that brave the chilly weather and venture onto the outer decks. Though gloomy skies roll slowly overhead, there is a bustle of energy about the boat.
We have crossed into Alaska.
It has been five days since we left Seattle and nearly three since we last saw signs of human settlement, for few others venture towards the Last Frontier so early in the year.
On either side of us, impressive towers of dark rock loom upwards from a flat sea where they disappear into the low cloud layer that slowly chokes the sky above us.
Humble and unassuming, the Wilderness Adventurer is the first tour ship of the season to stir the waters at Misty Fjords National Monument.
Our path twists and turns, negotiating a network of immense scars left behind ten thousand years ago as retreating glaciers carved wide valleys and deep chasms into the Earth.
This is a special time. Few are lucky enough to experience Alaska awakening from its wintry slumber. All around us, the peaks of hills and mountains still remain blanketed in a thin layer of snow, though for the first time in months, areas of lush vegetation are beginning to poke triumphantly through.
Sinuous chutes of meltwater pour from nearly every cliff side, often plummeting hundreds of feet in freefall before reaching the sea below. In a few weeks, these streams will dry and this spectacular phenomenon will be forgotten for another year.
While there are no other boats around, the channels we cruise through are heavily trafficked by other life; waterfowl and seabirds constantly pass us by on their way to summer breeding grounds — some of which will fly as far north as there is land, well above the Arctic circle!
Harbor seals and the occasional sea lion are also spotted as we cruise near shore, taking a quick break to check us out before refocusing their attention on the bounty of fish and crustaceans that lurk below the surface.
On more than one occasion we are approached by a playful group of Dall’s porpoise that ride along our bow, delighting all aboard and seeming to lead us forward on this epic journey.
However, it isn’t just the sea that has awoken. Deep in the temperate rainforest, songbirds and red squirrels call from the trees, announcing their territories and eating their fill on the pioneer insects, nuts and fungi that have begun to emerge throughout this verdant landscape.
Brown bears also stir from their annual dormancy, taking to mud flats and sandy beaches at low tide for a breakfast they have anticipated for months.
From the safety of a skiff near Admiralty Island, we watch a skinny young bear explore his local beach, eagerly digging up what critters he can find and leaving little for the eagles, ravens and gulls that follow closely behind him, hoping for an easy meal.
Witnessing the Alaskan spring is not dissimilar to being awake for a particularly sensational sunrise; there’s quietness, a sense of isolation, but at the same time a building energy that seems to take hold in every living thing.
It’s a rarely-seen side to this dynamic landscape that most will never see — a secret kept well hidden by this time-lost world.