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A Day on the Catalyst

The rising sun melts the fog, revealing the surrounding mountains, thousands of feet high and veiled with snow so thick and smooth that it resembles mounded whipped cream. As the warmth of the day grows, the fog retreats down the mountain’s flanks, until it slides free of the forest’s embrace and finally evaporates all together. In the calm dawn air, the only sounds are the water chuckling away from our boats passage, the slow-turning heartbeat of the engine, and the muted, almost reverent whispers of our shipmates.

We sip our coffee as the jade-green waters slide past our classic wooden ship. Our chef prepares breakfast, and the smells of a smoked salmon frittata with blueberry scones, combine with the snowy mountains and deep green forest’s reflections to create a sensual symphony that overwhelms our ability for description.  All we can do is watch, smell, listen and embrace a perfect moment.

We have many days like this aboard Catalyst; days in which whatever else we’ve done and whatever we thought was important slip away from our conscious mind. Voyaging aboard our 80 year old, immaculately maintained 75’ former University of Washington Research Vessel provides us an ideal platform to experience the essence of Southeast Alaska’s natural beauty. But Catalyst is far more than a conveyance; she is also a time machine. Crafted in 1932, and still traveling under the power of her original (and unique in the world) 6-cylinder Washington Diesel engine we can easily imagine that we’re heading north to begin the trek to the Yukon’s gold fields, or are carrying John Muir on one of his epic explorations of Southeast’s mountains and glacial fiords. We may be hauling freight and mail to the scattered fishing villages, or a missionary doctor to deliver a baby or reduce a fever.

After a few hours travel we reach our day’s destination, and our anchor chain shocks a quiet cove as it races out of the hause pipe and into the clear water. The guests, now dressed for exploration, gather at the rail as kayaks are lowered from the top deck. Two by two they settle into the sleek yet stable little boats, and prepare to circumnavigate a small archipelago of islands. The embracing sea abounds with life; Humpback whales course through shoals of herring and krill, gorging themselves in preparation for their winter fasts. Stellar Sea Lions drape themselves over rocky cliffs, appearing Dali-esque in their improbable limpness. Pigeon Guillemots and Oyster Catchers patrol the shallows and reefs, while King Fishers chatter their characteristic staccato with every short flight. As we paddle over the transparent surface we can see the stipes of Bull Kelp winding down into the depths, curious juvenile Sea Lions flash in and out of view as they investigate the clumsy interlopers above.  As we pass current polished headlands we notice subtle changes as the plants and animals reveal their specialized niches, and as the tide falls we see the greens of the upper littoral zone replaced with the deep reds of deeper dwelling organisms.

Rounding a tree cloaked islet we are almost surprised to see the Catalyst laying at anchor, and as we paddle to her side we’re greeted by the chef and captain and helped back aboard to revel in the scents of the chef’s baking and to see what miracles await our sampling in the cookie jar. We have a couple of hours aboard before our next activity. Lunch will consume some of the time, and the rest will disappear into naps for some, while others join our Naturalist in looking for the answers to questions raised during the mornings paddle. The naturalist is seldom stumped, but when she is, the answers are found in our extensive on-board reference library.

After our lunch and some quiet time aboard, it’s time for our next adventure, a walking exploration of the island in whose lee we are sheltered. Skiffing toward the beach landing we may see more roving Sea Lions, River Otters, almost invisible among the rocks, or several Bald Eagles keeping watch from the tree tops. Once ashore we enter a fairy land of deep moss and twisted spruce trees. The liquid light that slips through the canopy illuminates a palette that is made up of myriad shades of green. Even on windy days, the air in this forest is calm, the bending treetops absorbing the energy of the winds above. The richness of this woodland is best seen from a very, very close range. Dozens of species of moss and lichens are woven together into an inches think carpet of green. Lay down in this bed, and you float as if weightless.  Walking a narrow deer path, or an otter trail, we wouldn’t be surprised to see any imaginable mythical creature stepping from behind the next tree to invite us in for a tale. After a few hours in the forest we return to the beach and our ride back toCatalyst. Hors d’oeuvres, wine and conversation await us back on board, with a gourmet dinner to follow. The dinner show is our fellow guests and the crew. We settle in and hear one another’s stories and dreams, and relax into a restful state that we haven’t experienced since we were children and had spent a busy day outside discovering a new and exciting world.

As twilight settles on our cove, we may hear the concussive sighing breaths of passing Humpback Whales, or even have one swim through the anchorage, lunge feeding for herring along the shore. It isn’t uncommon to be awakened here by a whale passing within a few yards of our sleeping vessel. Our eyelids are fluttering and we can’t believe that it’s so light, so late, and that we’re seriously considering going to bed hours before we would at home. But here, our timetable is freed from commutes and meetings, and bound instead to tides, moon, and the living ocean around us.

This was our second day. There are five more to go, and we can’t wait to see what adventures await us tomorrow.