The Mother Goose Flotilla to Alaska spent three gorgeous weeks of its 16-week run in a triangle between Juneau, Elfin Cove and Skagway.
Every year, the NW Explorations crew organizes a Mother Goose Flotilla to Alaska that allows couples or families to charter a boat and follow a lead boat — run by a U.S. Coast Guard–licensed captain — along a designated path through the Inside Passage and up to the 49th state. With a mechanic, a naturalist and other experts in tow, the flotilla offers experience, knowledge, camaraderie and, perhaps best of all, a chance for people to get a taste of cruising to Alaska before trying it on their own. This year, legs five and six of the flotilla went from Juneau to Skagway and back. We present a partial log (kept by naturalist Chelsea Thaw) of those two legs, in large part because with Glacier Bay in this area, the channels and inlets and towns outside the park and between Juneau and Skagway are often the road less traveled.
Leg 5: Juneau to Excursion Inlet
A red sun rose in a smoky sky over the ghostly Juneau harbor Monday morning. The raucous fishing fleet, having provisioned, prepared and partied all weekend, emptied out of the harbor early in the morning, leaving it unusually still. The Mother Goose Flotilla followed suit and got underway, leaving the Alaska capital behind for Excursion Inlet. Less than an hour underway and the fleet came upon a number of humpbacks off Point Retreat. The fleet slowed to idle to watch as the humpbacks repeatedly dove, feeding on thousands of small herring under the water, before reemerging again.
Farther along in Saginaw Strait, the fleet came across a playful group of Dall’s porpoises. The rotund black and white porpoises glided and zipped, rolling over one another in effortless grace. Curious as they are quick, the porpoises took a liking to Bonum Vitae and Arctic Star, riding their bow wake as we traveled along.
The fleet arrived to Excursion Inlet just as the afternoon light turned to wash the mountainous island hemlocks in a deep golden hue. Lily scrambled ashore and expertly set Deception’s stern line to hold our six-boat raft. Jordan called the boats in one by one, and soon Mother Goose had its very own boat neighborhood settled into the serene waters of Excursion Inlet.
Deception hosted a lively social hour, featuring an expertly plated baked brie from Thea and a scrumptious cheese plate from Arctic Star’s crew. A little while after our social hour, Al spotted a lone black bear wandering along the beach across the inlet. Eric and July from Discovery, “Big Camera” Bill from Arctic Star, and Ann, Annie and Vickie all piled into dinghies to get a closer look. Meanwhile, 7-year-old Walker off Bonum Vitae caught a yellow sol, his third fish of the trip! Shortly thereafter Morrey, of Thea, also hooked a fish, which prompted Walker to declare a fishing challenge: who could catch the most and the biggest fish. Not to be outdone by our fleet’s fishermen, Discovery, Thea, and Bonum Vitae’s crews all managed to get a good haul of crab before turning in for the night. And just as the sky finally started to darken, Mother Goose was graced by a black bear and a brown bear walking slowly along opposite sides of the shore. Quietly, with reverence, we watched as the bears padded along the beach and finally slipped back into the brush, disappearing into the peaceful night.
Leg 5: Excursion Inlet to Elfin Cove
It’s another beautiful day in the neighborhood for the Mother Goose Flotilla. The fleet awoke to the calm waters of Excursion Inlet. Before getting underway for Elfin Cove, Bonum Vitae pulled up a few more crabs. Underway the fleet saw humpbacks fluking and sea lions swimming in the tidelines. At one point the fleet passed more than 100 sea otters rafted up, floating side by side amid the wide channel. Around this time of year, female sea otters will group together and form large rafts, called nurseries, for the protection of their newborn babies. What a fantastic sight to see so many sea otters thriving after near extinction.
As the fleet neared Elfin Cove, a fog bank appeared, shrouding our destination in mystery. Carefully we pressed on until the misty tree line of Elfin Cove appeared, almost magically, out of the fog. It is easy to see why Ruth Swanson, founder of the post office in 1935, picked elves as the town’s namesake. Hidden in the misty fjords, the town’s brightly colored houses and boats peek out from overgrown bushes and moss-laden trees all tied together by a creaking boardwalk and the sheer determination of Elfin Cove’s residents.
We had to see for ourselves if the rumors of elves were true, so on arrival we went for a walk through the town and into the forest. We were richly rewarded with copious garden gnomes and an enchanting waterfall surrounded by a lush forest loaded with salmonberry plants. The bright yellow and
red salmonberries provided a tantalizing trailside treat that everyone enjoyed. Most of all by Walker, who went after salmonberries with bear-like enthusiasm and dexterity. While we might not have seen any elves in the woods, Elfin Cove certainly cast a spell over all of us.
Leg 5: Elfin Cove to Dundas Bay
Fourth of July celebrations were in full swing in Elfin Cove today, and it wouldn’t be an Alaskan Fourth without fish. Kicking off the party in the early morn were Ann, Annie, David, Ted and Morrey of Thea, all of whom went out on a fishing charter. The rest of the fleet that didn’t go fishing went into town to enjoy the annual Fourth of July Pancake Feed at the lodge. Elfin Cove’s winding boardwalk and historic houses were decked out in their finest buntings and flags, so Jordan and Al decided to dress Deception in its code flag finery to match.
The fish festivities continued with the return of Thea’s fishermen, victorious with 12 fish caught. To top it all off, Elfin Cove residents held a raucous and competitive fish toss, which required participants to toss and catch humpies at ever-increasing distances.
At high tide, the Mother Goose Flotilla bid Elfin Cove a fond farewell and, destined for Dundas Bay, headed back into the fog. The fleet traveled through mist and sunshine and spotted humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions and a whole host of pelagic birds. Eventually the fleet broke through the fog and cruised into sunny Dundas Bay. With the sun pouring over the hemlock hillside, the fleet anchored for the night. After a fun and eventful day, Deception’s bakery brought hot apple pie around to each boat by dinghy to top off a July 4 that couldn’t be beat.
Leg 5: Dundas Bay to Swanson Harbor
When Mother Goose awoke, Dundas Bay’s evening residents, the fishing trawlers, had left, leaving the bay still and sleepy. Taking their lead, we fired up the coffeepots and weighed anchor. Ted, an artisan potter from Pennsylvania, got quite the surprise when up came Thea’s anchor covered in beautiful green clay. Most people don’t consider cleaning the anchor a trip highlight, but for Ted, Dundas Bay held something extra special.
Cruising through Icy Straits, the fleet spotted porpoises and humpbacks on the horizon. As we came to the opening to Swanson Harbor, we got a very close look at a humpback sleeping near the shore. Humpbacks, like all mammals, don’t have gills and must come to the water’s surface to get oxygen. Unlike most other mammals, which live on land, cetaceans — whales, porpoises and dolphins — evolved to breathe voluntarily instead of involuntarily, to avoid accidentally breathing under water. This means whales only breathe when they consciously think, “OK, time to breathe.” When asleep, they must remain partially conscious, meaning one half of their brain is resting while the other half is regulating their breathing. This might sound like a lot of logistics for a nap, but our sleeping humpback looked very peaceful bobbing at the surface, slowly breathing huge whale breaths.
The fleet pulled in to the floating docks in Swanson Harbor, the midafternoon sun heating the wooden boards under our feet. Once everyone was tied up, we were ready to go explore. Ann and Annie from Thea immediately hopped in their kayaks to go for a paddle along the shore. Walker and Grandpa Bob, our resident fishermen, got their tackle out and headed off in their dinghy with hopes of catching the big one. Meanwhile, Chris and Ashley took Deception’s kayaks out for a spin, basking in the sunshine. David, from Thea, and Ann, from Bonum Vitae, opted for a more terrestrial activity and went for a walk along the beach. Walking along a path of scraggly pickleweed and discarded mussel shells, we came upon a group of nesting black oyster catchers, all chittering loudly. That evening the Thea and Bonum Vitae crews hauled in a bunch of crab, a number of which were keepers. Time for crab dinner! The fleet went to sleep, just like our humpback, bobbing gently in the water, full and happy.
Leg 6: Haines to William Henry Bay
Saturday morning started out slow and easy for the Mother Goose Flotilla. Crews went up to the Haines farmers market to check out the local produce and arts scene. The Saturday market is held at the Haines fairgrounds, which is composed of a stage, a Ferris wheel and several old-timey buildings connected by a boardwalk built as a set for the movie “White Fang.” After production wrapped, Disney left the set intact and the city of Haines has used it as a charming venue for concerts, markets and the Southeast Alaska state fair ever since. Robin and Lisa, from Patos, popped into the community garden to chat with local gardeners among the flourishing fava beans, cherries and strawberries. Doug and Melinda, from Discovery, along with the Bonum Vitae brothers — Joe, Mark and David — strolled around the market and perused the wares of local vendors selling vegetables, honey and knit hats.
The smell of decadent, fresh-baked goods mingled with the sound of neighbors greeting each other over the local bluegrass band playing in the background. After a while, we walked back into town and left the scent of fresh blueberry scones and the twang of the fiddle on the breeze behind us.
By midafternoon the Mother Goose Flotilla fleet was waving goodbye to the charming borough of Haines and headed south down Chilkoot Inlet, making way for William Henry Bay. As we were pulling out of the harbor, the Thea crew called out two brown bears along the shore. Shortly after, the fleet saw the first humpback of [Leg 6]. By late afternoon we had transited halfway down Lynn Canal and were settled in the serene waters of William Henry Bay.
Leg 6 William Henry Bay to Swanson Harbor
All days on the water are wonderful but some days are just “marvy.” Humpbacks, orcas and bears — oh my! A day out in Southeast Alaska doesn’t get any more marvelous than this; the day was, in the words of Discovery crewmember Melinda, “Just marvy!” The trip from William Henry Bay to Swanson Harbor is typically pretty quick, but on today’s journey Mother Goose couldn’t turn around without spotting some truly fantastic Alaskan wildlife.
Right away Discovery’s crew spotted a black bear meandering along the beach, turning over rocks looking for a midmorning snack. A short time after, the fleet spotted blows on the horizon and slowed to watch a lone humpback feed. Humpbacks are lunge feeders and migrate in the summer to fishing grounds where they hunt for herring in the nutrient-dense cold waters of Alaska. Again and again she came up to the surface to breathe and then dove down, fluking her massive tail, lunge feeding on baitfish. We watched the graceful humpback complete several cycles before we moved on.
A bit later Discovery called out Dall’s porpoises riding on their bow. And then to everyone’s surprise two families of orcas appeared next to the boats. One family included a baby orca, who moved with playful energy among its mom and aunties. The Dall’s porpoises became bored by our lack of wake and meandered away, milling nearby. While the two ecotypes of orca — resident and transient — might look strikingly similar to us, the clever porpoises knew these particular orcas were the fish-eating residents, not their mammal-eating counterparts, and thus they, as a marine mammal, could safely be nearby.
After all that excellent wildlife viewing, one would think the fleet would be tired. Not so with this group. As soon as we pulled into Swanson Harbor, the Patos crew hopped in the dinghy and were off to drop a crab trap. Melinda and Doug from Discovery decided to go for a leisurely kayak trip around the shoreline. The Walkers on Thea, truly living their best life, got a surprise visit from their pilot nephew, who delivered them pizza by floatplane.
Leg 6: Hoohah to Baranof Warm Springs
With the promise of a decadent hot-springs bath at the end of the day, the Mother Goose Flotilla left behind the lovely town of Hoonah and began the trek down Chatham Strait for Warm Springs Bay. Partway down Chatham we spotted a few sailing vessels surrounded by blows. As we slowed, we realized those blows belonged to a group of humpbacks who were bubble-net feeding. Bubble. Net. Feeding! Had I known our fleet was going to be in an episode of “Blue Planet,” I would have started the day with a British accent, à la David Attenborough.
(For the full experience, read this next bit as an Attenborough voiceover.) Of the thousands of humpbacks who come to Alaska to feed every year, only a handful have the cultural adaptation for collective lunge feeding. Aptly named, bubble-net feeding requires several humpbacks in specialized roles working together to corral and catch schools of baitfish. First, some of the humpbacks blow a ring of bubbles around the fish, trapping them in one place. Next, another humpback, typically a male, emits a loud scream that frightens the fish into a tight bunch. The group of humpbacks then lunge feeds, mouths open and throat walls red and distended, up toward the surface in a carefully choreographed fish buffet.
Witnessing this extraordinary behavior up close is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With our collective jaw still on the deck, the fleet turned away from the group of humpbacks and continued on to Warm Springs Bay. Our jaws were really getting a workout today, because as we turned the corner into Warm Springs Bay, we were met with a stunning view of a beautiful waterfall not yards from the dock. Crews trickled in and rafted up. Many crews took a hike to a freshwater lake and then doubled back to visit the thermal pools. Nothing like relaxing in a natural hot spring, the sounds of a rushing waterfall nearby, to wrap up a perfect Alaskan day.
Read about the full Mother Goose Flotilla adventure at NWExplorations.com/adventures.