I have been doing two of these trips Alaska Bear and Whale Photo Tours each summer for a long time now - I should count up how many I have led, but it's lots. Despite the many visits, I always get excited for this adventure since every trip is so different, but always great! By the way, all of these photos were taken during this trip.
Day 1. Things started a bit rainy for our day in the town of Juneau which isn’t unusual for Southeast Alaska. Everyone in the group came in a day early which is nice since there is so much to do in the Juneau area. We are all staying at the Four Season Sheraton an easy walking distance to everything downtown. It is strangely quiet, as this is now the second summer without cruise ships, I’m so used to there being a sea of people. We did our welcome dinner at the Hanger Restaurant. This is the first time we have used the Hanger and everyone enjoyed it, I think that will be a permanent switch.
Day 2. Captain Ben arrived with his van at 10:30 a.m. While Ben and I load up the luggage, Janine takes everyone else for a nice walk along the waterfront down to our yacht. This gives us a chance to get all the bags in each person's room. After greetings and orientations, we throw lines and are off. I should mention, it is now a beautiful sunny day, a great way to start!
Now I usually let folks know that this first day can be a bit slow as it is more of a relocation day getting us to the “good stuff”. Wouldn’t you know it, an hour out of Juneau we ran into a pod of orcas! This became a bit of a theme on this trip. Whenever I downplayed something, it exceeded expectations!
Most trips we anchor the first night at the head of Tracy or Endicott Arm so that we can explore one of these tide-water glacier fjords the next day. Every now and then, the tides line up just right and we can enter Fords Terror. Fords Terror can only be entered at high tide, and you need another well timed high tide the next morning to exit. As the tide goes out, the entrance turns into class 5 whitewater and is completely impassable. Captain Ben studied this area for years and was one of the first if not the first to figure out how to bring a larger vessel into this fjord. Well, the tide was just right for us to overnight this trip in Fords Terror. Think of it like boating through Yosemite with granite walls rising up thousands of feet around you. I have one well traveled guest who says this is his favorite place in the world! We went up close to some waterfalls before dropping anchor in the very back of the fjord. For what I predicted would be an uneventful day - well wow, what a great start!
Day 3 We were underway before 6:00 a.m. to time the high tide. High clouds and some moody layers of fog made for perfect light. Needless to say, no one slept in this morning. The trip out of Fords Terror was beautiful. From there, we hung a left and went to the end of Endicott Arm to see Dawes Glacier. Some years ice prevents us from getting close enough to see this active tidewater glacier, but not this year. Not only did we see lots of interesting icebergs, but had a great view of the glacier and of numerous harbor seals.
On the way out of the long and winding Endicott Arm we spotted an eagle sitting on an iceberg - always a treat. And numerous humpback whales. This is also a fairly long day of traveling since tomorrow we spend the day at Pack Creek Bear Observatory. As we got close to Pack Creek near the end of the day we received word of a brown bear walking along the shore. Since it was a nice high tide, we followed it fairly closely for a bit before dropping anchor off shore of Pack Creek and watching a beautiful sunset at about 10:00 p.m. This wrapped up a long but very productive day!
Day 4 Pack Creek. Pack opens at 9:00 a.m., and as usual, we were there at 9. It was good to get caught up with the rangers and they also gave us an orientation, then off to the creek we went. This is such a pretty setting with eagles, deer and bears, I like just hanging out there and taking it all in. We had a nice bear pass right by us up close which never gets old! Deckhand Alan took part of the group on a beautiful rain forest hike to the upper stand. I love that hike, and Alan and I usually trade off guiding it each week. Unfortunately they didn’t see any bears up there. Most years we go back to the boat for lunch, but we were having too much fun so we had sandwiches on the beach. The high tide kicked us out of the area not too far before 7:00. After a wonderful dinner, I think everyone slept great after all that fresh air and bear encounters!
Day 5 Frederick Sound. This is what I think of as one of the “whale days” as this area can be so productive, but first we had to see the sea-lions. There is a large haul out, and watching these larger sea mammals is surprisingly entertaining!
We had been looking hard for humpbacks, but only seeing a handful here and there, not the big numbers we are accustomed to seeing. Conversations with other boats only confirmed the lack of whales. So Captain Ben decided we should try the other side of the Sound where none of the boats had gone, and wow did it pay off! High overcast skies and flat calm seas made for ideal whale photography. Plus, lots of whales! And they were active, often coming up very close to the boat, sometimes tail slapping, other times breaching. We had an evening destination in mind, but as is often the case, we changed it to a bay close to the whales so that we could spend more time with them! Finally we had to leave and anchor in a place I have always enjoyed because of the beautiful waterfalls and meadows make for a great morning hike.
Day 6. Frederick Sound. Many of these places we visit will go unnamed including our anchorage last night. It is getting harder to find areas without other visitors, especially bear viewing areas, so we try to protect the few still around.
The weather was stunning. Blue skies and perfectly calm seas! We hiked across the meadow and along the creek and watched lots of salmon swimming upstream. You can tell there had been lots of bears eating salmon in the area, but despite sitting quietly, we didn’t see any. One of these days I’m going to see bears in this amazing setting, but that wasn’t today.
The plan was to pull anchor and cross Frederick Sound and visit a black bear area that I had never visited before. Like most plans, that one too quickly changed as we got into the middle of a great group of humpback whales again! Probably the same ones from the day before, and how could you motor by such amazing creatures. We spent many hours with them before heading to our anchorage for the night on Baranof Island. This bay is probably my favorite in the Southeast, so beautiful and protected, perfect for kayaking or skiff cruising. I warned everyone that although this bay is beautiful, don’t expect bears. Well wouldn’t you know it, there were great bears! I took part of the group in a skiff while the rest kayaked, and everyone was able to get great bear viewing which is a perfect end to a “whale day”.
Day 7. Bear Day! Today we will visit two of my favorite bear viewing areas in the Southeast Alaska. The first place we stopped, the action was non stop! Right away a sow with 3 spring cubs showed up. Then we watched bear after bear catch salmon after salmon, there was non stop action. It was another sunny day which isn’t perfect for photography, but sure great for humans. After this, we motored up to a spectacular waterfall, before breaking for lunch and the trip to my other favorite bear viewing area.
The second area is where we would spend the night and we made it there with plenty of time before dark so we headed straight to shore. The reason I love this area is because of the beautiful setting that contains a waterfall background, with an even larger mountain behind the waterfall. I have had great bear viewing here in the past, but the last two years for whatever reason I didn’t see a bear. So I warned everyone, this was a bit of a gamble, and wouldn’t you know it, we had great bears! Particularly a sow with a spring cub that walked right past our group on the same side of the river. It eventually caught salmon on the waterfall where an eagle sat nearby watching the sow and cub eat the salmon as it waited for any scraps. What a highlight! We got back to the boat at last light where we could see three more bears walking along the shoreline.
Day 8 We went back to shore early and waited for the bears. By 8:30 the sow with the little spring cub was back for some more waterfall salmon fishing magic! It can be so hard to pull yourself away from such a show as I could stay there all day. I’m glad we didn’t stay too long as another amazing show awaited.
Not too far down the coast we ran into a large group of humpbacks who were bubble net cooperatively feeding. In short, a couple of the whales dive deep, and then swim toward the surface in a large circle all the while blowing bubbles which creates a “net” of bubbles. This concentrates the bait fish, and eventually the rest of the group join in, and they all break the surface in one tight group with mouths wide open! Not only did we get to see this, but they did it over and over for a couple of hours straight! And in perfectly calm water so it was easy to see the ring of rising bubbles. Ben has been traveling on boats in Southeast since the 80’s, and running his own boat since the 90’s and he had never stayed with a group this long - but the show was so good!
We eventually need to head toward Juneau. At this point we didn’t have any spare time, so we motored right by small groups of humpbacks and sea lions, but that was ok. Our final night is always a bit sad - the sign of cabins on the shore, and the large increase in pleasure boats certainly signals the looming civilization. Chef made us one more killer dinner -all his meals were so good, we were really spoiled.
Day 9. We pulled anchor for the couple of hour trip back to downtown Juneau. Packing up our cabins is never as fun as unpacking at the beginning of the trip. Everyone was certainly happy and the trip really could not have been more perfect. Plus, the weather made it even better!