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Hooked on Alaska

A luxurious cruise to Alaska may not be the manliest experience ever, but it's certainly a fun way to catch a lot of fish—and come back with some adventures to brag about.

Standing in the center of the immense lobby of Crystal Harmony, my father considers its two-story ceiling, pink-marble staircase, massive waterfall and enormous mahogany reception desk. "This room is," he says in a stage whisper while sweeping his arm a full 200 degrees around the lobby, "a rather aggressive challenge to Archimedes' principle." In his enthusiasm he manages to send both of our fly-fishing rods tumbling across the deep-pile carpet.

Our ship, a 50,000-ton liner in the Crystal Cruise fleet, is sailing from San Francisco. After a night in Victoria and an afternoon in Vancouver, it will head to Alaska's fabled Inside Passage, making several stops before turning around and heading back to California. At each port of call in Alaska, guests can go on all kinds of shore excursions—a helicopter tour of the glaciers, say, or a kayak expedition in a bay or fjord. Dad and I plan to fish. A decade ago, Crystal was the only luxury cruise line plying the waters of the Inside Passage and that head start means the company has developed an impressive network of local fishing guides and outfitters.

Before arriving at our first fishing port of call, Dad and I have five days to explore the ship. More than two football fields in length, Crystal Harmony can hold 940 guests. Most of the public spaces offer panoramic views: first of the open ocean, then of glaciers and icy fjords in the Passage. More earthly delights include a 277-seat movie theater, a disco, a casino, a cigar bar, a lending library and a 5,000-square-foot fitness center and spa.

If you were so inclined, you could spend the entire 12-day cruise eating. There's the 24-hour room-service menu. Then there's the main dining room, plus the Japanese cuisine at Kyoto and the Italian restaurant, Prego, an offshoot of Las Vegas's Valentino. The Bistro serves wine and cheese, and there's an ice cream parlor and a beach-club-style grill. Crystal also hosts guest chefs who give cooking classes and prepare a dinner; recent invitees have included Mark Sullivan, an F&W Best New Chef 2002, of the Village Pub in Woodside, California, and Celestino Drago of Drago in Santa Monica, California. Randy Lewis, an F&W Best New Chef 2001, now at seven-0-seven in Santa Rosa, California, is on board with Dad and me.

Salmon Jackpot in Sitka

The ship's first stop is Sitka, the most famous of the former Russian settlements in the state. Pulling into the harbor, we're surrounded by an expanse of slate-blue water fronting a thick pine forest that blankets the face of Mt. Edgecumbe and Harbor Mountain. After a buffet breakfast, we're squired in one of the Harmony's tenders.

Sitka Sound is just lousy with trophy-size salmon. After our fishing group—which includes Lewis and his girlfriend—boards the trolling boat Sea Quest, it doesn't take long for the captain, George Huntington, to locate a school of salmon and keep up with them as they dart about, ducking hungry seals and preparing to make their spawning run—which is when they lay and fertilize eggs for the next generation, then die shortly after.

Lewis, a casual fisherman, holds his own, and my Dad and I put in a decent performance too, catching a few fish each—though Lewis's girlfriend snags the largest of the day, an 11-pound Coho salmon. Harmony's chef, Stefan Giebels, encourages anglers to bring their catch aboard so that he can prepare it for dinner the same night. I'm disappointed to discover that he won't be able to use the salmon roe I brought him, or turn our catches into sashimi (Crystal has to abide by strict food-safety regulations), but Giebels does offer to roast the fish we caught, and Dad and I spend the rest of the day in eager anticipation.

That afternoon, before our fish dinner, we attend Lewis's cooking class. I'm not optimistic, since it's my experience that celebrity-chef cooking classes are just opportunities to sell cookbooks. But Lewis isn't selling books, and though he may be a middling fisherman, it turns out he's a great teacher. In a clear way, he demonstrates how to prepare a Moroccan-inspired lamb loin with almond milk, saffron raisins and couscous. If the lamb recipe is challenging enough to hold an adept cook's interest, the couscous is so simple that it restores the novice's courage.

That evening, Dad and I sit in the main dining room in our suits, surrounded by a bramble of silver and stemware, and stare at the roasted face of our salmon lying on its sterling platter. We'd elected to have our catch roasted whole with new potatoes and served with steamed haricots verts and other vegetables. Giebels and a crew of no fewer than eight darting waitstaff proudly deliver the largest of the day's fish, one that could serve our table of seven and many of our ogling fellow diners. The waiters are pleasingly solicitous and make an appropriately big deal about the heft of our catch.

Bald Eagles, Crashing Glaciers...and Karaoke

One day later, in Haines, we opt for a fishing expedition of an entirely different sort. A giddy ride aboard a converted school bus delivers us to the 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which has nearly 100 nests. But in the fall, locals say, as many as 3,000 bald eagles gather here for the "Congregation," when they feed off the enormous fish population that migrates up the Chilkat River.

We board rafts and paddle off on the river for four hours of unrelenting bald eagle action. We watch the giant birds feed in the shallow water, dropping down and lifting off with 12-pound salmon clenched in talons that are, I swear, the size of human hands. An eagle can drop on its prey at speeds reaching 100 mph. The raptors are clearly showing off, as it is entirely unnecessary to dive-bomb a semiconscious, spawned-out salmon at anywhere near that speed. Still, it is a sight to behold.

It's either the lesson in mortality provided by the eagles or the long cocktail hour before dinner, but late that night, Dad and I find ourselves roaming the ship. We're so hungry for action we peek in on a karaoke session at the disco and stop by the casino and its crowd of glamorously dressed Europeans and Latin Americans. I gawk like a teenager, just as bitter as one tethered to his parents.

My thoughts are interrupted by my father's hand on my shoulder: "I just met an old widow at the slot machines and, while I was gasbagging with her, she won $5,000!" he says, gesturing to a blue-haired woman in a black pants suit. "Would you like to meet her?" I demur. Instead, still dressed for dinner in suit and tie, we compete late into the night in a heated game of table tennis.

The next morning the ship is abuzz with nervous anticipation. Rangers from the National Park Service had boarded the vessel and the conspiratorial murmur over coffee and croissants is that they're preparing to use the public address system. Nobody seems to know why but there is plenty of paranoid speculation. Eight days at sea together and we're a village of 691 gossiping neighbors.

As it turns out, we're entering Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the members of the mysterious boarding party are our guides. By noon, Crystal Harmony is creeping up a fjord toward the terminus of what is described over the P.A. as Glacier Bay's most immense glacier. Just how colossal is hard to determine from the deck of our huge cruise ship, yet still we ooh and aah on cue. The ship's engines are so tamed that the only sound is the occasional crash as a wall of ice collapses into the otherwise calm water.

It is not until I spot a whirl of 50 or so seagulls at the base of the glacier that I understand the scale of what we're witnessing. The birds appear no bigger than mayflies, which means the glacier is roughly the size of the Chrysler Building. Big boat. Bigger ice.

Fishing in Bear Country

Alaska's capital, Juneau, is a former gold rush boomtown that eclipsed Sitka as the territorial capital in 1906 and became the state capital when Alaska joined the U.S. in 1959. Dad and I make our way to the airport, which houses the no-frills headquarters of Bear Creek Outfitters. A floatplane ferries us and the rest of our fishing party along the coast for 25 minutes and sets down in a grass-choked estuary at the base of a small fjord in Tongass National Forest. Chris, our guide, is wearing chest waders like we all are, but unlike the rest of us, he carries a 12-gauge shotgun rather than a fly-fishing rod.

We each make our way up the small, twisting river, eventually congregating at a spot where the banks are densely wooded—impenetrable, really. Chris is coaching me through a tricky cast under low-hanging branches in front of a school of Dolly Varden, a common char, when we hear what sounds like the thud of a refrigerator that's fallen from the heavens and crashed through the undergrowth about 20 feet in from the bank.

"Bear?" I squeak, turning to Chris, who appears not to have heard a thing. I figure, I'm standing next to the only guy with a gun, and if he's okay with this situation, then so am I.

After retrieving my fly, I cast it again, this time doing precisely what Chris has told me to do. When I look to him for a nod of approval, I see that he has silently unslung his shotgun and is training it on the woods where the refrigerator has just landed. "Let's move on and find another school," he says just as calmly, but a little more quietly than before.

The rest of the afternoon proceeds without incident. Dad and I reel in more than our share of salmon and I hook a Dolly Varden. (Because Bear Creek has a catch-and-release policy, I slip it back into the water.) We return to our cabin proud of the day and, over glasses of bourbon, laugh about my brush with the bear.

The Best Fish-Camp Meal Ever

Ketchikan, where we stop on day 10, is the final stop before Harmony begins its three-day journey on the open ocean back to San Francisco. We've signed up with Baranof Skiff Excursions for a day of fishing for rockfish and halibut, followed by a picnic lunch. I am skeptical about our dining prospects. Apparently, somebody, somewhere, some time ago, told fishing outfitters that the most important ingredients in a serious fish camp are bread crumbs from a cardboard tube and canola oil.

But while I'm suiting up in full-body rubber rain gear at the Baranof store, I notice, among the fishing tackle and gewgaws, the familiar yellow label of a can of harissa, the Tunisian chile paste. I've eaten countless disappointing meals served by outfitters bragging about their culinary gifts; the presence of harissa suggests that our next meal is in the hands of a competent and inventive cook.

Fishing in 225 feet of very cold water, near a rocky shoreline crowded with new-growth Sitka spruce, I hook into what I am certain is a discarded truck tire. It turns out to be a 12-pound rockfish that our positively spunky retired high-school principal-turned-fishing guide keeps calling a "snapper." Whatever. It's bright orange and huge, and there's another one just like it in the open skiff's live well—more than enough for lunch. And, since all five of us on board are starving, we make for the fish camp.

With the exception of the canvas tarpaulins that shelter the camp, which is set up on a beach at the edge of a rain forest, everything of structural significance is made of salvaged driftwood. The tarps lend the fish camp the excitement of an old-time circus big top. After taking off our rain jackets, Dad and I sip coffee by a fire and wait for our lunch of bouillabaisse-like stew flavored with harissa-spiked rouille and served with potatoes and a tomato confit. Even from the harissa's spicy perfume, we can tell that this dish will do our rockfish righteous justice.

Most fishermen who make the pilgrimage to Alaska return to the Lower 48 and proceed to charm (or bore) their officemates with tales of angling derring-do, of berserk bush pilots and back-to-the-earth deprivations. Dad and I can do nothing of the kind; but as time passes, I can't promise that as with all fish tales, the embellishments won't include some of the above. All the same, it's likely that we fished more hot spots than many who have preceded us on more rough-and-ready modes of transport. It may not have been the manliest, most hair-raising fishathon in this awesome state's proud history, but it was certainly efficient, not to mention luxurious.

Manny Howard lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Details and GQ.

Published July 2005
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