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Wild West Coast cruise

Tall-ship tour offers intimate look at Alaskan wilderness

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SITKA, Alaska -- Like George Vancouver, I want to experience the Last Frontier from the bowsprit of a tall ship, the wind riffling my hair as the wooden hull sluices through the frigid waves of the North Pacific, just an arm's length or two below.

I want to be close enough to Alaska's wildlife to almost reach out and touch the animals, except, of course, the grizzly bears. Those powerful bruins I want to observe in their natural habitat, but from a distance -- no full-on dental inspection, thank you.

I want to reel in a slippery, silvery salmon and bait and haul in a trap filled with delectable sweet Dungeness crabs and spot prawns.

Most of all, I want to live raw nature. Walk the mossy floor of one of the planet's largest old-growth temperate rainforests, gaze upon the most northerly American state's monolithic glaciers, sit quietly contemplating all the pristine beauty and, finally, leave with a rich taste of untrammelled Alaska.

That is exactly what I and seven fellow adventurers get, and so much more, on a 12-day early July eco-adventure cruise into the remote coastal wilderness of northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska aboard the Canadian-registered Maple Leaf, a gorgeous 28-metre twin-masted tall ship.

Maple Leaf Adventures promises guests will experience Alaska "by becoming a part of it, not steaming through it." Stops include Ketchikan, Petersburg, Frederick Sound and Baranof Island, among many others.

While most sea passengers tour Alaska's Inside Passage aboard behemoth cruise liners, bigger is not better for nature lovers. Smaller allows itinerary flexibility and the pursuit of guest interests, getting close to wildlife and nipping into coves where cruise ships cannot venture, most times leaving the great outdoors just to you and your ship mates.

From the rails of passing cruise ships, we on the Maple Leaf look like ants. But we are proud ants preening aboard the classic beauty, with her immaculate deck and polished mahogany gleaming in the sun's rays.

Never does she look more magnificent than during the two days when winds are "sweet" and the quickstepping crew, with the help of guests, set her four white sails, the main emblazoned with a red maple leaf.

A fine example of Canadian craftsmanship, she is solidly built of Douglas fir, yellow cedar and mahogany. British Columbia's oldest tall ship has a colourful history.

Constructed at the Vancouver Shipyards in 1904 as a luxury racing yacht for West Coast businessman Alexander MacLaren, she was later converted to a halibut longliner, labouring for some 40 years in the wild Bering Sea. (You know she can withstand most anything after watching the historical video of her fishing days.)

In 1986, she was restored to a passenger ship and began duty transporting tourists and students on natural and cultural history cruises into one of the world's last remaining great wildernesses.

Aided by a perpetually cheerful and energetic Canadian crew of four, owner Kevin Smith captains our voyage.

Like a father, his pride in Maple Leaf, which he and wife Maureen Gordon purchased in 2001, shines, as does his love for this wilderness coast and the surrounding natural beauty.

"The biological diversity is huge here," he says, promising we'll be treated to "nature's drama at its finest."

As is true in the early moments of many sea adventures, Day 1 of the Alaska Supervoyage is a little rough.

Embarking in Prince Rupert in driving rain (we are in a rainforest after all), our first feat is crossing the whitecapped Dixon Entrance from British Columbia to Alaska.

Although it becomes the longest first day ever, Smith assures us the brewing high sea will be worse tomorrow if we don't push through.

As the waves swell to two metres, those of us feeling a tinge green -- huddled like drowning curs on the deck, shoulder-to-shoulder with eyes glued to the horizon -- wonder what we are getting into.

For landlubbers, it's a telling introduction to the nautical world, in which tides and weather, rather than the clock, rule.

last the ship anchors in a calm cove off Duke Island and we join the captain for a wilderness gourmet dinner, miraculously prepared in the tiny galley by Edmonton-born chef Stephen Letts (now living in Vancouver), it is clear the wet-dog experience was bonding. Just hours ago, we were strangers from Germany, the United States and Canada.

The camaraderie among passengers and crew grows. By the third night, seated elbow-to-elbow in the horseshoe-shaped dinette, dinner conversation is animated, with everyone swapping tales and laughter to the point of tears.

Shipboard routine rapidly becomes second nature. Mornings begin with a generator-starting wake-up call and hot beverages, usually on deck. The sun obliges, brightly greeting us on Day 3 and every day thereafter.

Smith reports on the weather, the journey he has charted for the day and the marine and land adventures the crew have planned to experience Alaska's biodiversity.

Enthusiastic naturalist, craft-maker and artist Briony Penn shares her passion for nature, leading expeditions to intertidal zones, river estuaries, bogs, beaches, forests and towns, as sometimes does the captain. He's one of 20 full bear-viewing guides certified by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia, a non-profit he helped co-found to promote sustainable bear viewing to protect wild bears and their ecosystems.

Aboard zippy inflatable boats, we manoeuvre into rocky outcroppings to examine low-tide sea life -- sea stars, bull kelp, edible sea lettuce, hermit crabs and other critters. We circle a seabird-nesting island straight from the set of Jurassic Park and carefully motor close enough to the icy pinnacles of Endicott Glacier, startled by the gunshot cracks of chunky silver-blue ice calving and plunging into the cornflower-blue water.

There is kayaking, hiking in the near silence of ancient rainforests and making cedar mats. There is taking a turn on the wheel -- Maple Leaf is much more difficult to steer than she appears -- and soaking in tucked-away natural hot springs, a stone's throw from the head of a thundering waterfall, where the intrepid squeal as shampoo is rinsed from their hair with ice-cold water.

My camera is rarely still. The Wild West Coast delivers always-changing wildlife -- racing white-sided dolphins, lightning-fast Dall's (aka "splash") porpoises, breaching humpback whales, mischievous Steller's sea lions, sleepy harbour seals, shy sea otters bobbing on bull kelp fronds, adorable tufted puffins and soaring eagles.

"It's like a watery version of an African safari," Smith quips.

On Day 9, we see the brawny ursine we've been seeking -- a mama grizzly or more correctly, its close relative the Alaska brown bear -- and her chubby two-year-old or so cub munching sedge on the shore of Kilinin Bay.

Although Smith's bear-guiding credentials and park ranger experience have assuaged my fears, I feel safer in the Zodiac.

One of Smith's bear-guide duties is patiently teaching guests grizzlies are not the savage, human-eating predators most of us fear. Rather, understanding their behaviour and respecting them is critical, he explains while watching for signs indicating whether our approach is disturbing mom.

"You're the visitor here and the bear is at home," he reminds us.

This summer, Alaska guests should get more bear-viewing adventures, as Maple Leaf has been awarded a rare peak-season permit for Pack Creek and neighbouring Windfall Harbour on Admiralty Island, a prime bear-fishing spot where just a few daily visitors are permitted.

Although dreams of Alaska may be far away in the midst of winter, only two Alaska Supervoyages are offered in July, each carrying a maximum of nine passengers. For sailing aficionados and nature lovers, it's a trip worth the splurge.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Getting there

Alaska Supervoyage trips are Prince Rupert to Sitka or vice versa. Both can be reached by daily commercial flights (Air Canada, Alaska Airlines). Maple Leaf can arrange airport transfers and provides travel planning assistance. A valid passport is necessary.

About Maple Leaf Adventures

Maple Leaf Adventures, based in Victoria, has been offering natural and cultural history cruises since 1986. Everything (accommodation, shore excursions, meals and snacks, wine and beer and use of gear including kayaks) is included in the trip fee, except gratuities (which the staff certainly earns) and a $100 sustainability fee.

Only two Alaska Supervoyages are offered in July. Book early as each sailing carries only nine passengers. 2012 trips include an extra night (11 on-board and one in a hotel), July 7-19 (northbound) and July 19-31 (southbound). The cost is $6,780.

Other trips: From April to October, Maple Leaf Adventures also offers multi-day sailing cruises to the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, the Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Special-interest trips include art at sea and tall sails and ales for beer lovers. Family/group charters are possible. Maple Leaf also partners with an Ecuadorean company to offer Galapagos Islands cruises.

In 2011, its Great Bear Rainforest trip was voted one of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime. It was also ranked one of The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth by National Geographic Adventure in 2009.

More Information: mapleleafadventures.com or 1-888-599-5323.

Tip: Follow the provided packing list. You'll more or less live in long underwear. Good rain gear, including rain pants, is essential.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 D1

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