Tracy Arm, Alaska, 7/26/2022, National Geographic Quest
National Geographic Quest
A small contingent of early risers, with their breath and cups of coffee steaming, smiled as if some secret, unknown to the rest of the ship, had been whispered in their ears. We were gathered on the bow, witnessing the curtain of a cool morning sun creep slowly across the south faces of domed rocks in the east. Blue-tinged glacial ice bobbed in the cold water, rocking gently in the ripples of our slowly spreading bow wake. Somewhere in the distance, a bald eagle greeted the dawn with a high-pitched chortle.
This is morning in Tracy Arm––a narrow fiord, carved by ice into what John Muir once called, “Yosemite in the making.”
An autodidact, Jim has spent a lifetime studying and exploring what he refers to as “the intersection of human progress and wildness.” Stumbling on the writings of Aldo Leopold in his early twenties—namely Leopold’s essay Thinking Like a Mountain —la...
National Geographic Quest arose amidst light clouds within the protected waters of Ushk Bay. This area is known for a salmon stream and yields plenty of opportunity for kayaking and exploring the vast meadows of its inner waterways. On this day’s occasion, guests were able to hike and paddle their way along the coast of Ushk Bay and witness firsthand the life cycle of Pacific salmon making their way upstream. As we transited through Peril Strait, we were lucky to see humpback whales. These immense mammals were “lunge feeding” very near our ship. Being able to witness this event was unique for guests and staff. Lunge feeding is process through which individual whales push their gaping mouths through the surface and collect any fish or planktonic invertebrates in the process. Witnessing this behavior was truly a remarkable experience for all. We will cherish this moment for a lifetime.
Many of our guests book their trip for one reason – they want to see a brown bear roaming free in wild Alaska. This morning, they got their wish! We dropped anchor in Pavlov Harbor located on the northeast coast of Chichagof Island. The area hosts a productive salmon stream, and the bears were there to feed! We staggered our guests to keep the groups to a manageable size and headed for the landing. Bears were seen even before we landed, and as we approached the stream we saw two large sub-adult female brown bears near the water. Closer to the small cascading waterfall, a mother bear was teaching her two cubs to fish while gorging herself on the abundant salmon. One more sat close to the waterfall, seemingly satiated on the feast provided by the returning salmon. Our first group returned to the ship, and we kept our fingers crossed that the bears would remain. We were not disappointed! In fact, the second viewing was possibly even more exciting. A total of eight bears were seen, and while we watched the waterfall action, the mother and her two cubs emerged behind us on the trail we intended to use! Our plans quickly changed; we loaded our Zodiacs and made our retreat, allowing the bears full access to the beach and their salmon breakfast. Before we pulled anchor and left Pavlov Harbor we had one more “real” Alaskan experience, the polar plunge! Seventeen brave souls lined up along the beach and charged into the chilly water. All survived and headed back to the ship for a hot shower and lunch.
Our last morning in the wilderness brought us to the protected inlet of Ushk Bay. A humpback whale repeatedly breached, slamming its pectoral flipper on the surface of the water before its tail smashed the sea’s surface. Over and over, this extremely active whale leaped and twirled as we delighted in its performance. The Zodiacs launched. Once again, we bundled into our rain gear and headed to shore for forest walks and strolls along a salmon stream. A wide meadow with braided streams ran through the thick forest. Random, rusting iron equipment from a long-forgotten enterprise was half buried along the pebbled shoreline. We crossed small, rushing streams. The stream on the far side of the meadow shivered with the fins of pink and chum salmon. We watched these creatures, driven beyond self-protection, as they completed their life cycles by spawning. We saw females turn on their sides and in a spasm of enterprise, writhe their tails along the pebbled bottom of the stream to make a perfect indentation for their precious eggs. Attendant males stayed within inches of busy females. The walking path was heavy with the bodies of salmon. Life and death in the Alaskan wilds surrounded us. We returned to the warmth of our ship and traversed the narrow passages toward Sitka. Mist hugged the trees as we saw night descend on our final evening in Southeast Alaska. Photo caption and photographer: Humpback whale. Photo by Rich Kirchner