Thirteen years ago (June 28, 2005) my husband and I embarked on a journey that, at the time, we simply called the “Big Adventure.”
It turned out to be a seminal event in our life together. Indeed, it has influenced almost every decision we have made since.
On that overcast day more than a decade ago, we left the safety of Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham, Wash., and set out on the first tentative leg of a trip to Alaska. By ourselves. On a private motoryacht. With minimal boating experience.
Oh, yes, we had previously spent time on boats, from small individual sailing rigs to fast motorboats, offshore fishing boats and even substantial yachts. We had owned a few boats of varied types and sizes over the years, and we were confident about operating them.
The allure of the sea
Our cruising grounds for the past couple of years had been the San Juan Islands of Northern Washington and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, on a comfortable power cruiser owned jointly with another couple. It was a boating paradise. We were happy. We were self-assured about our abilities and our safety in those waters.
We loved the calm and the quiet of the sea, but we also loved arriving at other piers and the experience of going ashore to meet people, see the sights and enjoy the flavor of seaside towns and boating communities. We enjoyed fishing and trapping crabs, but we had no need to depend on those skills for our dinner. We had been seduced, in effect, by what we viewed as a lifestyle of endless freedom and few worries.
We escaped to our boat as often as we could, but rarely for longer than a week or 10 days at a time. For several months, we considered a longer trip, planning to head north to Desolation Sound, approximately 90 miles up the inland passage from Vancouver, BC. Known as the province’s Sunshine Coast, it is even today primarily a pristine area with only a few rustic resorts and fishing camps. The waters are protected and usually calm; it is a prime destination for private boaters and kayakers. Thirteen years ago, it was about as isolated as we thought we wanted to be.
Then one day, someone offhandedly spoke about Alaska. I can’t say that’s all it took. In fact, it took a great deal more than that! But we could not shake the question.
Why don’t we go to Alaska?
The more that refrain echoed in our heads, the more we began to seriously consider it. We pored over maps and charts; we read books and talked to other boaters. We found a handful of sailors who had made the trip, some of them solo. On one of the wettest days in Seattle history, we signed a purchase agreement for a newer motoryacht. We registered for a seminar entitled “Taking Your Own Boat to Alaska, scheduled the next month. We were, at the time, far from committing.
Ocean Spirit, a sleek twin-engine pilothouse motoryacht, was new to us. We had not spent much time aboard. She felt unfamiliar; she seemed enormous.
We knew how to “point and steer” her, how she performed on the water, how to return gently to our dock, and how to secure the lines. But we had never ventured more than a day or two away from home port. At the time, we had never dropped anchor to spend a night on the hook with only lapping waves and stars for company. Not on Ocean spirit; not on any vessel!
Are we really going to Alaska?
Looking back, perhaps the die had already been cast. At the time, we looked upon the whole exercise as an excuse to get us to the water from our home in the Desert Southwest at times we needed a break from daily routine.
Now? Now we know that, had we not chosen to go that summer, we would most likely never have gone. We may have chosen to take a “big ship” cruise sometime during the next decade, but we’re not sure. And we would have missed what we still consider to be one of the most exciting, memorable and rewarding summers of our lives.
It was an epic trip, one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that one looks back on with awe. Counting a few days in port at either end of the voyage, the trip spanned 72 days. It led us into a whole new era, taught us things we could have learned in no other way, fueled our thirst for new adventures and our ability to move in different directions. We consider it a gift that we will always treasure.
Part II: The Return
On Friday we fly to Anchorage. It will be new to us. On Ocean Spirit we did not venture that far into the Gulf of Alaska, even though we did spend a wonderful few days in Sitka, looking westward with longing toward the Aleutian Islands. On Saturday, we will board the Golden Princess, a modern cruise ship with about 2,600 other passengers, for a seven-day southbound voyage to Vancouver, B.C., leaving the navigation — and the driving! — to another captain.
And why now?
Well, the truth is that Alaska is the kind of place that is hard to forget; it’s difficult to shake the allure of pristine waters, starry skies, whales and eagles, icebergs and glaciers. This trip was a whim, a spur of the moment booking because, quite honestly, the price was right — actually, better than that. It was truly so good we couldn’t resist!
Also, quite honestly, we want to compare the experience of being close to the water and totally in charge of our own destiny with the prospect of having nothing to do other than drink in the sights, enjoy the food and service, meet fellow passengers, and relax. Over the years, we have come to love big-ship cruising almost as much as we savored the lifestyle aboard our own vessels.
On our previous trip we developed an abiding respect for the U.S. Coast Guard, on duty patrolling the “marine highway” of Southeast Alaska. We have vivid memories of the flowers that brighten every Alaskan town, of icebergs and sunsets, of cloudy skies and chilling rain, of gorgeous water and spectacular vistas, of eagles and bears and whales, of fish on our lines and crab in our traps. We are eager to be on the water once again.
It will also be interesting to see if, and how much, the Alaska we remember has changed in the past 13 years. We know it will be crowded with tourists. But statistics tell us that tourism numbers to the ports of Southeast Alaska are actually not that much higher today than they were then. Even in 2005, there were a lot of cruise ships sharing dock space in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan.
We have been to these ports, but the vantage point this time will be different. I expect the memories will be vivid, both of the trip that now seems long ago and of the coming week.