Idaho Inlet is a deep rent in the northern flank of Chichagof Island. Home to sea otters and brown bears, it is emblematic of northern Southeast Alaska. We stopped near Idaho’s entrance at Fox Creek. Here we walked over an undulating landscape cloaked in beach grass, then cow parsnip, then orchids and lilies, and finally forest. This rolling topography is the result of progressive storm swales forming over land that is rising after the melt of the Pleistocene’s crushing glacial weight. Once in the forest, we found cultural bear trails, where ursine feet touched down in the same spots for generations. We passed spruce cone middens built by years of hungry squirrels’ satisfied desire. Meanwhile, kayakers paddled by seals, shy but curious, and eagle nests.

In the afternoon we explored the Inian Islands. This archipelago forms a bottleneck in the great passageway through which tides fill and empty the northern Northwest Coast. Thus, currents race by with unusual ferocity. Though occasionally daunting, these currents stir the seawater to marvelous richness. All creatures, great and small, gather to feast on this dilute chowder. Gulls, ever hungry, scoured the water. Guillemots and murrelets pattered over the waves, or plunged into underwater flight.

But perhaps sea lions were the stars. Draped in untidy piles, they would seem to have found a life of blissful relaxation, but for their constant and noisy bickering. Juveniles romped on the rocks, and huge males, in splendid isolation, regarded us with calm distain. (Later, Colin, our undersea specialist, showed us what sea lions really look like. Beneath the waves, sea lions are lithe and graceful, delicate as ballerinas, and frisky as puppies.) Sometimes the ‘lions approached our boats, seeming all whiskers and eyes. Others leapt in our wake, as if ready for a circus try-out.

Some of us were lucky enough to find humpback whales. Most were resolute as steam-trains, intent on food. But one young whale was playing with sea lions as his mother worked. This whale thought that our boats might be as entertaining as sea lions, and so approached us, arching its back and spy-hopping to get a better look at us. It was thrilling to have so huge a creature at close range.

Icy Strait, brimming with life, is extraordinary, even in a land of superlatives.