Eight-year-old Melanie is ankle-deep in a glacier-fed stream, grabbing
for a slippery, thrashing salmon with her bare hands. That's a lot
easier than it sounds. In late August, this icy stream, like others in
Alaska, is choked with scores of spawning pink salmon that will die soon
after laying their eggs in the rocks.
Fifteen-year-old Matt and 13-year-old Reggie are in the water, too. They
keep one eye out for black bears and bald eagles that use streams like
this one as personal refrigerators, pulling out a salmon when they need
lunch for their young or a snack for themselves.
Bears. Eagles. Glaciers. Squirming salmon. We're about as far away from
our mundane suburban life as we can get.
Maybe we're nuts, but this little excursion slogging upstream in our
rubber boots, swatting mosquitoes as we go is exactly why we're not
seeing Alaska from the deck of a luxury cruise ship, though we're
spending just as much for the privilege.
We're tooling around Prince William Sound aboard the M/V Babkin, a
58-foot boat skippered by 38-year-old Brad Von Wichman, a
second-generation Alaskan, and his 33-year-old Norwegian-born wife
Kjersti, a former ski racer. They were waiting to greet us when we got
off the train in the tiny town of Whittier, south of Anchorage.
I'd told the kids that on the Babkin, they could help drive the boat.
We'd fish whenever we wanted, kayak with sea otters, and hike to
glaciers. I hoped we'd have a better shot at those once-in-a-lifetime,
just-us adventures that build memories than would be possible on a big
ship, where we'd be bound by schedules and surrounded by other people.
"Some people have a hard time understanding there's no real itinerary on
a trip like this," says Brad, who seems to know all of Prince William
Sound better than I know my backyard. "This is true wilderness," adds
Kjersti. There are no signs, no interpretive displays, and very few
trails. It's not Disneyland. You can't expect to press a button and a
whale shows up, and then you push another button and there's the bear.
Kids coming from cities need to see that the wilderness is still here!''
Brad and Kjersti met a decade ago as college students working on the
Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up. They give us a firsthand account of the
spill damage; they still have a plastic bag filled with oil-slicked
sand to share with us as we look out at the obvious success of the huge
and expensive recovery effort.
Icebergs float in crystal-clear water, playful sea otters twirl in the
placid sea, salmon jump in the air, and hundreds of gulls congregate on
rocks near shore.
Even the kids are awed by nature at its finest. We let what we see
dictate what we do. That's easy, because on the Babkin it's just us, the
Von Wichmans, and Kurt Kutay and his 10-year-old son, Tarek. Kutay's
Seattle-based adventure travel company, Wildland Adventures, helped me
arrange the charter of the Babkin, which sleeps 10-12.
We're all delighted to be away from phones, faxes, and e-mail. We tell a
lot of jokes. We play Scrabble and cards late into the evening. It
doesn't get dark until 10:30 PM, and then the stars come out in all
their glory. Except for the commercial fisherman who proudly holds up
his 60-pound halibut for us to admire, we don't see anyone for four
days. We do meet lots of seals, sea otters, and even a bear.
We're on our way back from a before-dinner foray in the kayaks when we
spot him along the shoreline eating dead fish. Reggie is 20 feet away,
watching the bear gorge. He doesn't seem to notice us. It's unbelievable
how normal it seems, sitting in a kayak watching a bear eat his dinner.
The next day, we're 2 miles from the anchored Babkin, watching huge ice
chunks calve off the Nellie Juan Glacier and crash into the slate-gray
water with a loud roar. The glacier itself is ice-blue, just a finger of
a huge, 19-square-mile ice field. Because it's active, we don't climb
it, but hike to the top of nearby ridges for a better view. On the way
back, we stop to pick up some iceberg chunks, called "berg bits'' to
stock the coolers. The kids suck on glacial ice: Better than snow cones!
The next morning, serious salmon fishing is on the agenda. We all take
the kayaks to shore and hike up a stream, over slick rocks, through
knee-deep water to a series of freshwater pools, where the water runs
deeper and the silver salmon, we hope, are resting. Melanie gets
frustrated very quickly. Fishing is no fun if you don't catch anything
immediately. Back on the boat, Melanie takes a rest. Even in the
wilderness, she explains, kids need some down time. Later, she's all
giggles when Matt and Reggie decide the time is right to jump off the
boat into Prince William Sound. The water is not even 55 F, but the sun
is shining. Now I know how they felt on the Titanic,'' Reggie gasps.
He and Reggie haven't even gotten warm when the real excitement starts.
Orcas! We realize there are at least eight of them, even some babies. We
rush to get the binoculars and more rolls of film. One swims right
under the boat. We don't put down the binoculars until the whales are
out of sight more than an hour later.
It's our last night. Everyone's smiling and a little sad at the same
time. I'm more stunned than anything. For once, a trip has lived up to
expectations, even surpassed them. I may not have caught any fish, but
I'm taking home the bragging rights to a near-impossible score: the
perfect family vacation.
Gear: Don't forget sturdy rubber boots, the kind you can get for less
than US$20 at the nearest surplus store, as well as quick-dry hiking
pants and fleece pullovers rather than sweatshirts. Rain pants and
jackets are essential, as are binoculars. Pack extra disposable cameras
and travel journals so children can keep a personal record of the