Exploring Alaska on the Wilderness Explorer with UnCruise (Initial Trip Report)

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I’ve seen Alaska by tour, by train, by mega-cruise, and most recently by adventure cruising. If you want to EXPERIENCE Alaska, take a small expedition boat with UnCruise Adventures through the Inside Passage where you’ll be reminded at every turn that we are truly only guests in this Great Land. Hike, kayak, explore low tides, photograph bears, watch for whales. It’s impossible not to fall deeper in love with Alaska when you UnCruise.

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“If you feel like you’re being watched, tell me immediately,” said our guide.  “It’s actually true that the hair on your neck will stand up if a wolf is watching you.  Your body knows before your brain does.  So let me know.”

We glanced around a little nervously, and I asked: “Okay, so if we see a wolf, do we gather around you like you trained us to do for bear sightings?”

“Heck no, that doesn’t work on wolves. Standing still will just encourage it to come closer. We will stick together and calmly and slowly make our way directly back to the boat,” said our guide, and then marched on cheerfully pointing out the edible mushrooms peaking beneath the moss, the lichen dripping from the trees, the bear claw scratches on the trees, and the original wolf droppings that had prompted her lecture on being alert.  We scrambled to keep up, our rubber rainboots seeking traction in the squishy moss that covers so much of Alaskan wilderness.

I was on a deserted forest-covered island during my week on the Wilderness Explorer, an 70-passenger expedition boat sailing roundtrip from Juneau featuring two days in Glacier Bay and exploring some of southeast Alaska’s most remote waterways.  Most places in this area are inaccessible by road and so the water has been the major mode of transportation for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  There is no other way to experience the rich marine wildlife, stunning wilderness, and incredible animals that graciously let us become guests in their home for a few days during a trip to The Last Frontier.

The mega-cruise ships have a monopoly on advertising and would like to have you believe they are the only way to “see Alaska”.  But small boat cruises with an emphasis on active adventure are quietly gaining well-deserved recognition especially after last year’s events.  There are a myriad of ways to see Alaska, but if you want to experience southeast Alaska and not just see it, take a small boat.

UnCruise’s mission is to “provide our guests an enriching adventure travel experience and inspire an appreciation of local cultures and the natural world.” And indeed, enrichment and inspiration were around every corner during my Alaska trip. 

A highly skilled team of (mainly young) expedition leaders accompanied us on various excursions – their skillsets were awe-inspiring. For instance, one had led sea kayaking expeditions in Antarctica while another ran a full-time dog-sledding racing team in Alaska.   All were highly talented and had unique strengths that enhanced the passenger experience. Their passion for the outdoors, their impeccable safety training, their wealth of knowledge and eagerness to ignite a love of Alaska in their guests, were all truly inspiring.  It created a magical environment onboard, turning our group of strangers into a band of explorers bonded together through this experience.

It’s hard to envision what it means to be on an expedition/adventure cruise “with no ports” till you’re actually on it.  UnCruise was inspired by and designed for “people who don’t like cruising” and so there is much that is different from traditional big-ship cruising.  There are no casinos, no Broadway shows, no assigned seating at dinner or dress codes. Most of UnCruise’s itineraries in Alaska only start and end in towns and then are truly in the wilderness for the rest of the week. They also have itineraries in Baja California, Hawaii, the Galapagos, Belize, and Costa Rica!

Yet the lack of ports don’t prevent you from getting on land – it merely means you’re closer to wild Alaska.  Every day you have the opportunity to get onto land and explore – perhaps through bushwhacking, a term coined to describe hiking with no trail through fallen trees, tall grasses, muddy marshes, or up a steep incline, all in the name of adventure.  For a milder pace, try the beach walk or forest poke excursions, where guides will urge you to try to taste sea kelp or sea cucumber, or take a photo of you kissing the banana slug for good luck.

Skiff rides (inflatable Zodiacs) were also available every day, taking you off the boat towards the shoreline to explore by water, which is how we saw our first bear sighting on Day 3, a mama bear and her cubs staking out their claim near a river in preparation for salmon season.  And kayaks were also available almost every single day, both guided and unguided options.   Don’t worry, a Kayaking 101 class is offered early into the trip, allowing you to get comfortable and practice paddling before going out on a tour if you’d like more confidence.  I had a little trepidation since I was not an experienced kayaker, but after the beginners’ class I was in awe of how how majestic the fjords looked from my watery vantage point and knew I had to sign up for another kayak experience later that week in Glacier Bay.

I must admit I was a little nervous before departure on my UnCruise- I’m not unfit, but I’m also not a go-camping-every-weekend type of person. I thought I might be surrounded by 60 other passengers who had all climbed Mt Kilimanjaro or who regularly ran marathons or love climbing rocks with their bare hands, and that maybe I would be the least accomplished outdoors person there.

I didn’t have to worry.  While UnCruise in Alaska definitely tends towards the active & curious passenger, there were still a wide range of choices each day – you could take a skiff tour every day if you didn’t feel up to walking/kayaking. The passengers were a wonderful mix of ages and demographics and various physical abilities. The guides were always available for assistance or to give you insight on which activities you should choose tomorrow. For example, hearing me express concern about my fear of heights, the expedition leader made sure my assigned group for the glacier ridge hike was with people whose pace I could match and who wouldn’t mind if I needed to take it slow. (Spoiler: the glacier ridge hike was my favorite activity and I wasn’t scared after all!)

Lamplugh Glacier UnCruise

Some afternoons, some guests opted to enjoy the scenery from the bow or help themselves to the onboard library’s books.  No one forced you to do anything you didn’t want to do. I would say the only requirement would be mobility – this particular vessel does not have an elevator, and there are stairs required to step down into the skiffs and/or move about the boat.  The activities themselves were a good length as well – the pace of travel still managed to be relaxing, because since we were split into small groups for the excursions, not everyone could go out at the same time. 

Sometimes you might have a break after breakfast if your excursion wouldn’t depart till 10:3am during your UnCruise Alaska adventure.  Others might be the first excursion to depart after lunch, but would be back in plenty of time for showers, reading, investigating the snacks in the lounge, or taking a nap before dinner.  The time zone change for East Coasters like myself meant there were quite a few more naps than we had anticipated! 😉 There were almost always a morning and an afternoon activity offered and you often have a choice of 3-4 different excursions all designed for different abilities and tastes.  After the first day of activities, I was hooked.  Our interior room had a large window to the outside and I was even able to spot a bear through the mist right opposite us before breakfast one day.

Once we boarded the boat, we tossed our wallets in a drawer and didn’t open them again till disembarking.   Everything was included except staff gratuities – and I mean everything.  A glass of champagne at boarding and afterwards whenever you liked, daily skiff rides, kayaking lessons, guided hikes and beachwalks, hot chocolate for glacier viewing (tinged with Bailey’s if you preferred), warm cookies in the lounge every afternoon, open bar all day, interesting talks given by the guides in the evenings. Who knew a presentation on plants could be so funny and informative? Thanks Megan, I’ll always remember your opening line: “Everything in Alaska is edible…at least once!”

UnCruise Alaska kayaking

No other cruising style gets you on land quite as much as UnCruise in Alaska- and no other cruising style lets you experience Glacier Bay in the same manner.  Glacier Bay is one of the most beautiful places in North America – I had visited it before on a large cruise-ship, but of course never left the boat and simply enjoyed the scenery from my balcony. On UnCruise, while we certainly had the same scenic cruising  (and THREE bear sightings in the same day in Glacier Bay!), I also got to participate in a glacier ridge hike, climbing high next to Lamplugh Glacier by scrambling up a rocky cliff-face.

The same day, I kayaked close to the glacier face and a grey harbor seal popped his head up next to me to say hello. The stillness of the glassy water was broken only by the cracking of the glacier as it calved.  There was no noise pollution, no city lights, no loudspeakers.  Just nature and us tiny humans.

On our last night on UnCruise, as the ship navigated through Glacier Bay one last time before returning to Juneau, we abandoned our packing to rush onto the bow to a thrilling sight.  Humpback whales, who had accompanied us several times throughout the week, were there to escort us back to Juneau and swam with us for miles as the sunset turned the sky golden.  And suddenly we saw the orcas (killer whales), who the crew told us hadn’t been seen for five weeks. 

UnCruise Alaska orca

There were two orca groups, on each side of the ship, surfacing multiple times and playing with their prey.  We cheered on a lonely sea otter as he escaped their clutches and paddled past indignantly.   The orcas kept pace with us for an hour, then disappeared once more.   The captain of the Wilderness Explorer turned our nose for home.

This wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, and it won’t be my last, but certainly UnCruise transformed a magical land that I already loved by turning it into a fantastical world of bears, whales, glaciers, foggy mornings, and enchanting nature. I actually did try to persuade Mr TravelObservations to stay on for another week, but he seemed to think our cat might be miffed if we didn’t go home. 😉

As for the wolf, we never spotted him on that hike, although we knew he was there from the physical evidence, and he is probably still on that remote island we hiked on a mild afternoon in the Alaskan wilderness. UnCruise varies their itineraries each week and so we won’t know if another group will be hiking there again this summer. That’s the joy of small-boat cruising – aside from Glacier Bay on certain sailings, there are no firm promises about where you’ll go each day, as the captain will maneuver your route for the best animals, weather, and activity options.

There’s so much more to describe about my UnCruise in Alaska experience and I look forward to sharing further advice and tips about UnCruise in Alaska on my website soon. In the meantime, click the buttons below or scroll for additional blog posts to help inspire your next adventure.