The Last Frontier
Story and Photos by Neil Rabinowitz: MOTOR BOATING AND SAILING/AUG. 1997
Adventure is guaranteed on a cruise of Alaska’s glacier-studded southeast coast on board Catalyst, a classic explorer.
Two grizzlies before breakfast were more than we had bargained for. We dared not twitch as we sat I our kayaks just 50 feet away, eyes fixed on the two yearlings, listening intently for mama grizzly’s return. Paddles across our laps, hands poised and ready to back-paddle in a panic, we floated downwind a few lengths from shore. The bears played on the beach, rolling boulders, rustling crabs and wrestling on the tide line, frequently glancing up at us as we eased back toward our mother ship, Catalyst, anchored in the bay. We had awakened early on board and quietly slipped into the kayaks for a sunrise
Paddle on Reed Inlet in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Towering blue ice walls had lined our route. We’d knifed thorugh sparkling icebergs and past seals sprawled on ice floes to catch the sun’s rays. Bald eagles stood sentry on ice pinnacles. Bear sightings had been frequent throughout the voyage so far, but this face-to-face encounter, close enough to smell them and hear their claws scrape the sand as they foraged, reminded us that one mistake and we could be on their menu. They say bears like kayakers because they’re crunchy on the outside, soft an gooey on the inside.
The two grizzlies’ attention soon became unnerving as they started minding us more than their morning bouillabaisse, smelling and snorting our way. Once they started wading in our direction, huge paws splashing, heads bobbing, our adrenaline pumped and we paddled back to the boat, fast.
Alaska’s summer sun, known for its lingering golden glow at sunset and sunrise, climbed higher and the smell of bear faded with the aroma of fresh muffins and coffee wafting across the deck. We were mid-voyage on Pacific Catalyst’s Glacier Bay expedition, and by now the bears, eagles, whales and majestic glacial mountains were becoming almost routine. At 74 feet, our classic adventure cruiser Catalyst offered a special intimacy with the land and seascape. Constructed in 1931 for the University of Washington as the West Coast’s first oceanographic vessel, it’s a classic characterized both by rustic charm and solid practicality. Built on steam-bent timber frames of white oak, Catalyst has proven stout through 67 years of service, including its tour as a floating marine lab, and its WWII Coast Guard patrol duty-complete with 50-caliber machine guns and racks of depth charges. It later hauled tungsten ore between Alaska and Seattle for a mining company, spent a few seasons fishing for tuna, and ultimately wound up with a series of private owners before being restored by Pacific Catalyst’s (former) Captain Tom George and partner Pete Dellavalle of Port Townsend, Wash.
Double-planked with Alaskan yellow cedar, with a keel of Douglas fir and teak joinery inside, Catalyst was built to take Alaska iin stride. A nearly impervious girdle of Australian iron bark wraps around the waterline two feet wide and an inch thick, and comprises the keel’s heel itself. “They didn’t know how to build things to wear out back then,” Capt. George said as he signaled for the anchor to be hoisted, and moved Catalyst ahead.
Durability is also an understatement when it comes to Catalyst’s power plant. The chugga, chugga, chugga of the 1,700-pound, heavy-duty steel six-cylinder Washington diesel throbbed out 120 hp at a soothing 300 rpm, just a half step ahead of our own heartbeats. It gave cruising on Catalyst a rhythm, a soft-spoken pulse as we eased unobtrusively into the quiet spaces of the wilderness at a slow-paced 8 knots.
Catalyst nosed cautiously toward the face of Reed Glacier as kayakers from its crew circled and scouted paths through the ice. Alaska has many wonders, but nothing is so impressive as the immensity of the landscape, the breathtaking scale. Standing on the foredeck as the glacier loomed closer, we felt the cool air of the ice. It appeared near enough for us to touch it, although the radar showed us still more than quarter of a mile away.
There are no roads to the glaciers or fjords or forests of remote Southeast Alaska. You have to journey to them by boat or float plane. But they are best experienced on a classic boat from the era of exploration, with strong old timbers and lots of varnish, in the company of like-minded companions. Throughout the season, 12 passengers and four crew scour the Alaskan and British Columbian coasts on Catalyst, a group that might include naturalists, anthropologists, native storytellers and simple adventurers seeking educational wonders on trips that range from one to two weeks. The size of the party offers a good balance between providing company and information, and respecting solitude and reflection.
As the sun hit Reed’s ice wall, the glacial conveyor started cracking and sizzling in the sun, breaking off monstrous chunks, calving whole mountains of ice, which fell in slow motion into the sea with thunderous rumbles and seismic waves. We sat in silence on deck, watching the spectacle, a measure of time at glacial pace.
Catalyst rounded the corner north toward Johns Hopkins Inlet. Despite everyone’s eagerness to charge ahead to its glacial face, we hung back several miles once we saw that the ergs were covered with thousands of seal pups, not wanting to disturb them. An environmentally educational approach guides all of Pacific Catalyst’s wilderness outings. A sensitive exploration isn’t necessarily the most timid, however. Trim enough to get into the most remarkable hidden places, Catalyst is not always shy. Capt. George and his rotating staff of specialists know all the tidal intricacies of every nook and passageway in the region.
The captain stepped outside the wheelhouse to the wing deck, where he scanned the horizon for ice and the shore for moose and more bear as Catalystleft Johns Hopkins and turned south down the eastern shore of Glacier Bay. Just two hundred years ago the ice was 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide and extended more than 100 miles. Today, 300-foot high walls of ice barely nip at the ocean, receding inland at a frightening pace. The land along our route has been revealed after thousands of years under ice. Exposed for less than two hundred years, it now grows wildflowers and conifers in hillsides of forest tweed.
The ice-capped Fairweather Mountain Range serrated the horizon with peaks up to 15,000 feet high as we approached our next anchorage at Beartrack Cove. We were watching a pack of coyotes prance along shore when we were forced to throw hard to starboard to avoid a black bear swimming the gap of the 50-yard channel to a small island. Its head and shoulders surged through the icy water as it dogpaddled across. The bear swam much faster than any of us could, and we recalled that earlier on the trip one had leapt from a lethargic, swaying stroll to an electrifying spring faster than a horse. Zoos and Hollywood have made it difficult to grasp the Alaskan animals’ wildness and their proud survival in a world of humans, but our voyage had brought it vividly to life.
Glacier Bay is a national park that highlights one of Catalyst ‘s trips each season. Other voyages take it south through misty green fjords bordered by forests and waterfalls. From the wheelhouse, trimmed in early 1900s brass and teak, we could see the landscape becoming more pastoral as we cruised the park. Puffins nesting in rocks and ice turned to lowlands shrouded in lacy clouds.
Just outside the Glacier Bay National Park boundary is Point Adolphus, where orca, minke and humpback whales spend summer days feeding in the welling currents. We shut our engines down and drifted back and forth through the feeding leviathans.
That night, we found a peaceful anchorage in Swanson Harbor. Our final stop would be Juneau’s Auk Bay, before Catalyst began its next voyage.
Catalyst’s expeditions often have a specific focus, whether it be natural history- retracing John Muir’s wanderings or the Harriman Expediton, for example-cultural origins or artistic exploration with a variety of experts. Like more typical crewed charter vacations, it too offers fine wines, gourmet food and cozy bunks, but Catalyst, a boat from an era of discovery, does more than just move you to a new location. It truly leads you to a different place, personal and profound.