See Alaska right! A week aboard UnCruise's Wilderness Adventurer

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Photo by A.V. Eichenbaum
Photo by A.V. Eichenbaum

"Look over there!" Jill, the woman who became one of my regular mealtime companions aboard the Wilderness Adventurer, was pointing out the window of the van. "Bald eagles!"

Wes, our driver, shrugged. "Yeah, probably about 30 or 40. They're trash birds."

I blinked. "What?"

"They're trash birds! Y'know, scavengers. They eat scraps. The ravens around here pick on 'em all the time."


Thus began my weeklong sojourn into the wild and wonderful world of Southeast Alaska, a trip generously provided to me by Seattle's own UnCruise Adventures.

Summarized: Unpretentious. Exciting. Educational.

I learned a lot about moss.

To know more, you'll have to keep reading.

The ship
If you are accustomed to vacationing aboard monstrous floating palaces with lavish accommodations alongside hundreds of nameless strangers, UnCruise may not be for you. We were at half-capacity with 31 passengers — all COVID-tested, all friendly. Jill remarked at dinner that this sort of trip "weeds the jerks out on its own." After spending time getting to know everyone — whether during a hike or happy hour — I'm inclined to agree.

The rooms were modest: compact showers, a shelf storage area, and a single window made complete with a pair of binoculars for birdwatching or sightseeing once we were underway. I found out quickly that my neighbors had a Bluetooth speaker with them.

They were fond of Adele.

Humble though the accommodations might have seemed, we were by no means roughing it. My first thought when walking into my room — a Trailblazer cabin — was that the bed was twice the size of the one I have in my studio apartment. Softer, too.

My second was that the wood paneling was absolutely gorgeous. The Wilderness Adventurer was built in 1984. I guess I'm a sucker for the classics.

The crew
We were greeted before boarding by Captain Alan, a warm man with a genuine smile. The few conversations I had with him were pleasant and, having not left Seattle for several months, refreshingly down-to-earth.

We got to talking briefly one misty afternoon on the sun deck. "The way I see it," he said, "I wouldn't ask this crew to do anything out here I wouldn't do myself. Sometimes, I sit down there with the stewards and clean glasses with them."

That openness and passion for the work resonated throughout the ship's crew, who hailed from all different backgrounds. Their lives — a Seattle bartender, an MS in fisheries science, an MA in gender studies, and a career in the fashion industry, to mention just a few — were all changed and guided to the UnCruise by their mutual love of our ocean and the life in it.

There was a strong femme-driven energy to the vessel. Working and living on a ship has long been thought to be "a man's job," and it was heartening to see so many strong femme presences, especially when taking into account how many families with children ride with the UnCruise every season.

"Last week, we had a little girl who got picked on at school for thinking bugs and nature are cool," Taylor, an expedition guide, told me one evening in the lounge. They smiled. "And after seeing me and this crew, she was like 'Wow! I can do that? I want to do that!' It was really awesome."

One steward, Roberto, confided in us one evening that it was his first time working on a ship.

"It's great here! Everyone's really nice. It's only my first week, but if that changes by the end of it, I'll let you know."

Whether it was a kind word in the morning from a steward or an enthusiastic slideshow lecture from a guide when the day was winding down, you could see the spark in every crewmember's eyes. They wanted to be there, and they were excited to share this adventure with you. And it made sense.

That first morning, watching the sun rise over the mountains of Tracy Arm, I felt a sense of wonder swell up in my chest — something I'd thought was long since stamped out by leering luxury high rises and overpriced coffee.

Thank God for mask mandates or else every time someone looked at me, they'd have seen me grinning ear to ear like an idiot.

The voyage
Our path was pretty clear-cut. We traveled from Juneau into Tracy Arm, where we stopped to see the South Sawyer Glacier. Out on a skiff, we witnessed a magnificent glacier calving, blue and white cascading down from impossible heights in the summer sun.

From there, we traveled to Thomas Bay and Cascade Creek, where I had the pleasure of learning how to kayak for the first time before hitting a lush Tongass National Forest hiking trail.

Each day's activities were determined the afternoon prior. We were told on the first night that our plans and trajectory could change from the original script if it looked like we would cross paths with a different cruise ship, or our way was blocked by some sort of natural phenomenon. Options were presented daily, with activities ranging from all-day bushwhacks to mild skiff tours.

This made the trip accessible to all ages: the oldest of the passengers was 87, the youngest 11. I'll be the first to admit I was relieved to see a family of five on board, if only for the simple fact that I was no longer the youngest. I still have an irrational fear of being sent to the kids' table, despite having lived and worked with people twice or three times my age my entire career. Beyond that, it was nice to see a family having a good time.

Every day, as previously mentioned, we wound down in the lounge with an educational lecture on a variety of topics. One night was a speculative journey through what it takes to live in the ocean. Another was about conservation and leaving no footprint behind as we explored the wilderness. Another taught us more about moss and lichen than I'd ever hoped to know. Did you know that moss can have sex with itself? And even if it appears dry or dead, it may just be cutting back on life support, so to speak, in order to survive in drier climates.

That particular lecture kept coming up in conversation among the passengers. If you get a chance, I highly recommend it.

On the third day, I opted for the "Yak 'n' Whack" in the Bay of Pillars: two hours by kayak to land, two hours of bushwhacking through untamed wild. I was assigned one of the stewards, Lindsay, as a partner. "They encourage us to try to get us off the boat as much as we can," she told me when we were about halfway to our destination.

Lunch on a bed of sphagnum moss in the middle of an old-growth temperate rainforest is an experience unlike any other, though "peaceful" isn't the first word that comes to mind. Laughing, sweating, and singing camp songs to ward off bears, we made our way through the woods on Kuiu Island to the beach and back again.

The rest of the days were spent much the same way, one adventure after the next, with some downtime in between. From there to Takatz Bay, to George Island, to Glacier Bay National Park, and then back home again. Snorkeling gear was provided for the bolder among us on the fifth day. I would've regretted not going if it weren't for the other things out there to see.

We were encouraged to mark the wildlife we spotted on a large whiteboard located near the dining area. We were notified over the comm system any time whales were spotted. Notable among the other wildlife sightings were a black bear, six-legged sea stars, and, at 9:30pm on July 31, passengers swear up and down they spotted a bright white UFO hovering overhead.

I cannot promise your experience will include a UFO.

I can say with certainty that the sheer majesty of these places — George Island in particular, where we were led to a hidden rocky beach, complete with a dark obelisk painted by electric violet flowers — will fill you with awe.

There was no cell service for most of the trip, but it didn't matter. We were busy exploring.

Those moments of calm and wonder that come with finding a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom the size of a small dog or a prime specimen of bone sheath lichen in the middle of a drizzle-filled morning hike are ones you have to feel for yourself, moments you won't capture in your Instagram story, moments you won't have again.

The food
Three hots and a cot are all I hoped for when boarding the Wilderness Adventurer. Regular readers of my column will know my usual breakfast here in the Emerald City consists largely of cold coffee and nicotine gum.

What we were served well surpassed my expectations. Three gourmet meals a day — starting with a breakfast buffet and ending with a choice of sea, land, or vegetarian options — is what we got. Salmon the first night. Lamb another. On another, steak. All expertly prepared and followed by a dessert specially prepared by the ship's pastry chef to complement the course.

UnCruise works with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to ensure that their seafood options make as little impact as possible on the ecosystem, another example that stood out to me of the company's commitment to spreading ecological awareness, as well as enjoyment to their passengers.

What's more, I noticed on several occasions their willingness to work with guests' dietary restrictions and allergies at what seemed like a moment's notice.

We dined with other passengers. Most of the time I ate with Jill, as mentioned, and her friends Susan and David, a couple from Seattle who invited me to dinner once we were back in the city. (The answer is still yes to that, by the way.) Our dinner conversation delved into topics like politics, transhumanism, science fiction recommendations, and even Elon Musk. There are few things I appreciate more than interesting dinner conversation, and, no matter who I sat with, it was never boring.

For the last meal of our trip, I was among a handful chosen to dine at the captain's table. I ordered the stuffed portobello and listened with interest as those at the table discussed raising kids, living meaningfully, and, ultimately, various philosophies on life itself. If this sounds like a good time to you, you're in luck. Spending a week with strangers on a ship elicits conversations like this regularly.

Food and drink are included in your ticket price, and every evening before dinner we had cocktail hour in the lounge. The bartender, Heather, was kind enough to make me my favorite — Death in the Afternoon — on the first night, and it became my not-so-secret mission to convert my fellow shipmates to Hemingway's absinthe and sparkling wine blend by the end of the week.

Sitting there in the lounge, surrounded by books on local ecology and chatting with other passengers while we gazed out at the ocean, I — a twentysomething Queer journalist with badly chipped nail polish — felt completely at ease among the myriad retirees, teachers, and government scientists on board. I determined once again that Jill's previous assessment had been true: this type of trip naturally weeds out the assholes, leaving nothing but interesting people with fascinating stories.

My one complaint would be the coffee, which, though provided freely and without limit, didn't quite meet base levels of the freakish amount of caffeine I consume on a regular basis, even at four cups a day.

The last day
We'd been blessed by unusually warm weather most of the week, leading some to hope the dry spell would last until Friday. Pulling into Glacier Bay National Park, the sky was a gray expanse. Little droplets of rain hit us during our morning stretches on the sun deck.

Some of us opted for a hike to the top of the glacier, while others chose a skiff tour or kayak around the area.

Clambering up the side of the mountain, my regret at not having packed any bug spray quickly gave way to my appreciation of the view. There's something about the enormity of a glacier that makes you lose track of perspective. Sitting on a cliff ledge and looking down, I could see the ship, small and insignificant against a backdrop of blue-white ice reaching up into the clouds.

Allan, a psychologist and jam musician from Delaware, had brought his harmonica with him to the top. As he serenaded us in that icy landscape, I watched as glacial ice fell slowly into the water.

It brought to mind a saying from Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher we had to read in school. "You can't step in the same river twice."

To me, this trip was once in a lifetime. My experiences are my own, and no matter how many people go on the same or similar cruises, there will only ever be this one.

That feeling is enhanced by the unseasonable sunshine we encountered.
The climate is changing. The ice is melting. Several crew members remarked how, in their few years working in Southeast Alaska, the glaciers had receded quickly from where they'd been for decades, if not centuries.

You can't step in the same river twice. No two ice-faring adventures are alike, and, as the world keeps changing, eventually even that river will dry up.

A bittersweet end to a dream-come-true voyage, but don't worry. Any depressing philosophical musings I had were shoved out of my head during the Polar Plunge later that day. Doing a cannonball next to a mountain of ice will do that to you.

To learn more about UnCruise Adventures or schedule a trip of your own, visit