Alaska Travel: Into the Mild
People are always surprised to hear that I’ve been to Alaska five times. It is a place that seems so vast, so wild, so far. People want to make the trip once, and then cross it off their bucket list. But for an outdoorsman like me, there’s no better place to have an adventure: I’ve skied peaks in the Tordrillo Mountains reachable only by helicopter, and I’ve taken float planes to pristine streams in search of steelhead trout.
Now, however, my travel style has shifted. I’m married with a toddler, and it isn’t practical for us to tour Alaska by helicopter, float plane or snowboard. But I still want bears and glaciers—plus a bit of comfort, and maybe a babysitter. Once I’d dreamed up this hypothetical vacation, I realized that it already exists. And it floats.
There’s a reason why most people visit Alaska by cruise ship (nearly 60 percent of visitors in 2011): It’s the simplest way to see the broadest swath of the state. But, to help ease my transition from gonzo adventurer to family man, I booked us three days in a wilderness lodge first.
To reach Tutka Bay Lodge, we boarded a small boat that took us from the little village of Homer to a remote peninsula. Ozzie, a sea otter, greeted us at the dock; other regular guests include bald eagles, humpback whales and black bears.
Tutka sits at the foot of a jagged seven-mile-long fjord. Once our boat puttered off, we were left standing in utter silence, staring out at the spruce-covered islands and down at the countless red and yellow and purple starfish beneath the surface of the clear water. But enough about the scenery: We came for the food.
Tutka Bay Lodge co-owner Kirsten Dixon is perhaps the best-known chef in the state. She has published two cookbooks and is a fixture on local television. Though she trained at Le Cordon Bleu, she’s anything but fussy. With a tight ponytail and hiking boots, she looks like an outdoors-woman; she forages for beach asparagus and other wild herbs. And she teaches cooking classes in a crab boat.
Dixon and her husband, Carl, renovated the Widgeon II to give the rough-hewn boat a bit of style: A gigantic driftwood chandelier floats above a monolithic, hand-carved wooden table. The boat isn’t yet wired for electricity, so Dixon outfitted the main cabin with battery-operated lights, candles and individual gas burners that serve as workstations.
Being a chef here has its challenges, she told our six-person class. “Almost nothing grows in Alaska,” she said, and the little that does grow has a short season—just three months.
Salmon, however, is always available. It is so abundant that it’s practically the state symbol. (In fact, Dixon explains, “It’s written in our state constitution that all Alaska salmon sold in-state must be wild-caught.”) While a piquant salmon curry burbled away on gas-powered hot plates—my class was on the cuisine of Goa—Dixon walked us through a spicy rhubarb chutney. She then presented an unusual collection of condiments, including pickled bull kelp that washed up on the lodge’s beach and fireweed honey, harvested from bees that eat fireweed, a pink flower native to Alaska.
A few times a year, Dixon teaches on the Holland America Line cruise ships that pass through Alaska, though she wasn’t one of the 1,400 people who boarded the MS Zaandam in Seward along with me and my wife and son. Still, there were more cooking lessons to be had: After walking up the gangplank and into the boat’s giant belly, my wife, Gillian, and I split up to do some exploring. I poked my head into the Culinary Arts Center (presented by Food & Wine). Party planner Rebecca and cruise director Andrew assisted chef Andie (employees on the Zaandam seem to have no last names) as he torched the sugar atop a crème brûlée before a 200-person audience.
I was glad to learn more about Alaskan foods the next day, while we sailed by the 100-plus glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park. US park rangers had boarded the ship and were narrating our tour, pointing out the harbor seals sunning on ice chunks and the crumbling Johns Hopkins Glacier. We heard a rumbling sound, and a chunk the size of a New York City apartment building broke off and crashed into the water.
A park ranger explained that the bay has always been sacred to the Tlingit people. A native interpreter named Bertha had come aboard to talk about their 9,000-year-old civilization. She poured dollops of sweet, floral fireweed honey—the same orange kind that Dixon let me taste—explaining that nearly every Tlingit knows how to harvest it. She passed out samples of halibut jerky and salty dried black seaweed.
With such long winters and short summers, Bertha said, locals have come to embrace whatever nature provides them. That could be tiny wild asparagus, or the eggs of the glaucous-winged gull, which only residents can collect legally. “And we always have salmon.”
The state of Alaska accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s supply of wild salmon. On a previous fishing trip to Ketchikan, a few hundred miles south of Juneau, I saw the abundance first-hand: I caught so many cohos, it took me a year to use up the haul that I froze and shipped home. I couldn’t wait to fill up my freezer once again. In Juneau, Gillian and I left our son with an onboard babysitter and set out with the bearded young Captain Kevin Burchfield on his boat, Fissues. When he handed us his lucky fish-shaped cap, we fought over it, sure that whoever wore it would catch the most fish.
Turned out, all the luck in Alaska would not have helped our cause. We were a week late for the pink salmon run, and still too early for the coho silvers, so mostly we cruised around the bay, flipping through Burchfield’s self-published vampire and zombie novels. We each caught just one pathetically undersized king salmon, which we promptly threw back.
The day took a turn for the better—for me, anyway—when word came that a single seat had opened up on a helicopter trip to a dog camp. I happened to be writing a book about dogs, so the spot went to me.
Each summer, more than 200 huskies train for the Iditarod atop Mendenhall glacier, just outside Juneau. I arrived to see a temporary city of doghouses, each containing one Alaskan husky. Though the dogs are in training, they spend most of their day basking in the sun—until they’re called for their daily exercise, a.k.a. dogsled tours for tourists like me. My guide was Matthew Failor, a young musher who works for the four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser. He hitched up 12 dogs and took us on a romp through an ice field, with craggy black peaks and ice waterfalls in the distance. I took my turn at the controls, which basically consisted of holding the reins still while the dogs traveled down the familiar route, yipping and wagging their tails furiously.
The trip to the glacier and back lasted only an hour, which was OK by me: I had enough time left for a pit stop at the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau. I’d tried its tangy Alaskan Summer Ale aboard the ship. At the retrofitted warehouse, the bartender poured me an Alaskan White Ale, a Belgian-like beer. The brewery offers six free samples per person; some locals, he said, take advantage on a daily basis.
I made it back to the ship in time for cocktail hour, having already started mine early. The drinks aboard the Zaandam were impressive—that local beer, plus the good Washington-state wines we had with dinner each night.
All the cruise line’s ships host the Evening at Le Cirque, a weekly dinner for which the Pinnacle Grill is transformed into a reasonable facsimile of New York City’s famous restaurant, right down to the logo plates and silverware. My wife and I ate caviar, foie gras, lobster salad and a juicy chateaubriand. To go with it, we chose the spicy, smoky Col Solare Meritage from Columbia Valley, Washington. For an hour, I forgot we were sailing the Inner Passage and that humpback whales were likely breaching in the dark far below this plush, curtained room.
For a guy who adores Alaska’s wild side, it almost felt like cheating to be eating and drinking so well while the wilderness whooshed quietly past. I wished there was a way to better meld the experiences—invite some grizzlies to wander the decks, perhaps.
On our final night, I was spearing a hunk of king crab when my wife spied a dolphin through the dining room window, swimming in our wake. She gasped. “Look, another one,” she said. “And another!” The dolphins were multiplying. Soon, half the dining room was crowded around the windows, exclaiming over and filming one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen—and I’m including helicopter drops on peaks never before visited by humans. Hundreds of dolphins were leaping and splashing in the Zaandam’s wake, which was tinted orange by the setting sun.
Josh Dean’s book Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred came out in February 2012.
Alaska Travel Black Book
Holland America Line
Cruise ships visit Alaska from May through September. F&W Best New Chef 2010 Jonathon Sawyer will cook on the tour that leaves Vancouver on August 19. From $549 per person for a seven-night cruise; from $899 for Sawyer’s cruise; hollandamerica.com.
Tutka Bay Lodge
This lodge combines adventure (sea kayaking, hiking, sportfishing) and luxury (cheeses are flown in weekly from New York). From $800 per night; withinthewild.com.
Alaska Icefield Expeditions
Visitors ride dogsleds with Iditarod racing champions—then play with puppies. akdogtour.com.
Alaskan Brewing Company
The Juneau Icefield provides the water for brewing. Customers can try Rough Drafts Limited, sold only in Alaska. alaskanbeer.com.