To Glacier Bay On A Converted WWII Minesweeper

Boarding the Sea Wolf for the 5-day cruise on Glacier Bay

Boarding the Sea Wolf for the 5-day cruise on Glacier Bay (click image to enlarge)DAY FOUR — “There’s really no cell service?” 12 year-old Max Weinberg wants to know. No cell or internet, I tell him. A week without texting? He’s having a hard time processing that.

Welcome to Glacier Bay National Park (www.nps.gov) that is reachable only by boat or plane. We’ve joined three other families — together we have seven kids ranging from one 11 year-old girl and six teenage boys — for a week-long cruise through the 300 square acre (the size of Connecticut!) Glacier Bay on the 12-passenger Sea Wolf — built in 1941 as a U.S. Navy Minesweeper — owned by Kimber Owen, her five member crew and her dog Boo, a Portuguese-lab mix (www.seawolfadventures.net). Carole Gibson is on board as a “mentor” to the kids and chief fun-maker, organizer, courtesy of Thomson Family Adventures (www.familyadventures.com) who organized this trip.
“Six hundred-thousand people a year come here but fewer than 1,000 kayak or hike,” Owen tells the kids. “The vast majority are on cruise ships. It is a big privilege to see the park this way.”

I’m not sure the kids get it yet. At least the two I’m with — 12 year old Max Weinberg, my cousin’s son, and his friend, 13 year-old Miles Singer, are half asleep. Yesterday it took us three flights (Kenai to Anchorage, Anchorage to Juneau, Juneau to Gustavus) to get to the tiny town (less than 1,000 people) of Gustavus, where we overnight at the Annie Mae Lodge and where the park headquarters are located. We begin our week-long journey through the park. Did you know that just 250 years ago Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay — a massive river of ice? Today, of course, that glacier is gone and fewer than a dozen smaller glaciers remain. The water is glass smooth.

It is the ultimate “un-cruise” — simple cabins (the generator goes off at 10 p.m. so after that we use flashlights. A comfortable parlor area with leather sofas and coffee table and lots of books about Alaska (and games), a heated dining area (the kids scarf down a plate of homemade cookies in two minutes flat). I hope I survive a week in a cabin with the two 13 year olds!

I’m glad we seem like such a cohesive group. Before we even have dinner at the Annie Mae Lodge, six of the kids are playing poker, sprawled on the rug. They share a table at dinner and the other adults get to know each other.

Laurie Redmond, a Las Vegas businesswoman, is traveling with her sons Drew, 17 and Grant, 15. They only planned to come a few weeks ago, she said. Steve Majercik, a college professor and Faith Barnes, a social worker, from Maine, on the other hand, have been planning their Alaska sojourn with their kids Charlotte, 11 and Xander, 14, for more than a year. Gail Blacutt, from Tucson, AZ is traveling with her youngest son Jacob, 15, while her two older children are elsewhere and her husband is working. “Alaska has been on my radar for a while,” she said.

All of these families have one thing in common: They don’t mind giving up creature comforts for the chance to get up close and personal with glaciers and wildlife. The 97-foot wood boat is cozy and comfortable and is the antithesis of a big ship.

“We wanted the experience where the kids could be much closer to nature,” explained Faith Barnes. “We wanted them to be able to really see and hear a glacier. We’re a very back to nature family. And we’re always trying to get away from the crowd.”

“The more you look, the more we’ll see,” Owen, a trained veterinarian and naturalist tells the kids — bears eating salmon on the beach, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales. There are very few small boats like this up here, she tells us, and proudly explains that she has outfitted the Sea Wolf so that it is accessible to those with physical challenges. “So everyone can have adventures,” she explains.

It’s warmer than I expected — near 60 degrees — and overcast. Alaska needs rain, we’re told but so far, we haven’t seen any. “The wind and the tides will dictate where we will go,” Owen says. “You can spend years and not see all of Glacier Bay!”

The best part, says Owen, is introducing families to this beautiful part of the world — a United Nations biosphere reserve. “Everyone has such busy lives at home and all of a sudden you have a chance to sit back and share an experience together that you will remember your entire lives.”

Let’s hope so!

Next: Kayaking 101

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