Icebergs, bears await intrepid cruise travelers in Alaska’s wilds

Book early, as many small group adventures, like these, sell out before the summer cruise season starts

Inside Passage, Southeastern Alaska-Clunks from chunks of ice, the submerged parts that we could not see, delivered an unnerving soundtrack as our metal boat danced among a thousand icebergs on a zigzag path toward the great LeConte Glacier.

A 28-foot outboard motor boat encounters icebergs at the opening of LeConte Bay, 12 miles from the LeConte Glacier

For nearly an hour out of the Alaska port of Petersburg, we had been traveling at a pretty good clip, seven of us in a 28-foot speedboat with a closed cabin to ward off the chill that open waters dispense, even in July. When our captain, Scott Roberge of Tongass Kayak Adventures (TongassKayak.com), turned towards the mountains into LeConte Bay, masses of icebergs seemed to block our way.

Clunk, banged a ‘berg beneath us on the right side. We swerved. Clunketty, clunk we heard from bottom left.

Passing a daunting iceberg from LeConte Glacier

We held onto our seats as Roberge maneuvered 12 miles through the packs and patches of floating blue ice, some containing families of dark seals, toward the glacier that soon we could see in the distance, growing taller as we motored closer.

The water was 51 degrees at the bay’s opening, 37 degrees as we approached the glacier, where Roberge edged as close as he dared.

We sat in awe of the power of the glacier as it calved wedges of ice crashing and splashing into the water, sending out a series of waves. LeConte is known for icebergs that calve under the water, then shoot to the surface in a manner that might not be favorable for a small boat.

LeConte Glacier is about ½ mile away from this spot, which is about as close you want to get in a 28-foot motorboat

The ride back to the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage was full of noisy clunks against the hull. Roberge would slow, turn, then gun the engines to slip through a sliver of seawater, with icebergs on either side and under us.

“Never fear,” he said. “The Titanic was riveted together. This boat was welded.”

That’s a taste of Alaska humor, which flows naturally from adventure guides who spend their summer days among icebergs and bears — and travelers, including cruise passengers, who are accustomed to neither.

Southeastern Alaska awash in natural splendors

My wife and I spotted nearly a dozen wild black and brown bears at isolated Anan Wildlife Observatory a day earlier, before our ride on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry (AlaskaFerry.com) from Wrangell to Petersburg through narrows that don’t even show on smaller maps.

Black bear fishes in Anan Creek, Alaska, beneath the Anan Wildlife Observatory platform

Anan, like the LeConte Glacier, is a favorite of tour companies in Petersburg and Wrangell. Wrangle’s Alaska Charters and Adventures (Alaskaupclose.com) offers a five-hour boat and hiking tour to Anan. Like other small Alaska companies, its tours tend to sell out in summer.

Anan, managed by the US Forest Service, has strict restrictions. Only 60 people are allowed each day on its hiking trail and observation decks.

It takes about an hour to boat to Anan, and then you hike about a half-mile to gated wood decks that hang out over Anan Creek, only 10 to 40 feet above rushing waters where bears slip in and out of the woods on a hunt for a meal of salmon that spawn upstream.

Where the bears get amazingly close

A black bear saunters without a care past travelers at Anan Wildlife Observatory

Our first sightings were several black bears about 50 feet away, on the far side of the stream. They poked through openings in large boulders as they sought a ledge, a nook, or streamside perch where they used their paws to grab a fish passing by.

I watched a mother black bear and cub approach from the woods higher up the stream bank. She attempted half a dozen times to coax her cub to climb a tree for safety so she could concentrate on fishing, but the recalcitrant cub kept sliding away from the tree, and eventually the mother gave up as they retreated back into the woods.

While two brown bear teenagers kept their distance further downstream, there were a few disconcerting moments when two black bears suddenly appeared on our side of the creek right at the edges of our deck.

Alaska guide Bob Lippert on the trail to Anan Wildlife Observatory

They didn’t bother to look at the humans, as they sauntered by on worn paths to the rocks below. I was worried that travelers at the edge of our deck, some snapping pictures with their backs to one of the bears, would be harmed because they were so close to animals in the wild. One bear nonchalantly slid into the creek to swim to the other side, and the other eventually moved on, too.

“What? We aren’t as tasty as the salmon?” I asked our guide, Bob Lippert.

“No question they know we are here,” he responded. Lippert was armed with a rifle and pepper spray, just in case. He pointed out that Anan Creek has the earliest pink salmon run of the season, which draws predators such as black and brown bears, bald eagles and harbor seals to fish in proximity to each other. It’s a rare occurrence in the wild.

Wildlife, he added, have little regard for the people watching them, and most are willing to fish within a few feet of the observation deck.

The half-mile boardwalk trail to Anan Observatory in Alaska has 307 steps

Humans and bears also manage to co-exist at Anan on the hiking trail from the boat to the streamside decks. The path has been used by bears for thousands of years, but it was changed by the U.S. Forest Service after President Ronald Reagan walked it in 1992. He fell on a rock during the hike, prompting construction of a boardwalk, which bears initially skirted though soon preferred.

That is the reason for guides to warn travelers that they should be alert on the narrow boardwalk, without hand rails, and to pay full attention where they step. Your guide will be busy watching for bears who seem to think this is their boardwalk; proof is in the form of occasional droppings of bear scat.

Don’t be surprised if your guide herds you off the Anan trail for a few minutes while a bear passes by. Only in Alaska.

Information

Winter is the time to book Alaska cruises, shore excursions, and tours for summer, as many small group adventures sell out before the summer cruise season starts. Both LeConte Glacier and the bears at Anan Wildlife Observatory can be reached from cruise ports at Wrangell and Petersburg.

We booked the 4-hour LeConte tour in Petersburg at Tongass Kayak Adventures (TongassKayak.com). Price, $200 per person, limited to six people on a 28-foot boat with a heated cabin. We booked the 7-8 hour Anan tour in Wrangle with Alaska Charters and Adventures (Alaskaupclose.com). Price, $338 per person late June to early September.

Viking Travel in Petersburg, Alaska, also can handle accommodations and excursions at their website, AlaskaFerry.com or call 800-327-2571.

Photos by David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise.   He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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