The whale's blowhole spray hit me in the face. Within arms reach of our 92-foot sailing ship is a humpback whale that's getting a little frisky. It's with unbelievable grace that it maneuvers its gigantic body from one side of the boat to the other followed by a cacophony of camera clicks. Occasionally its tubercle-encrusted head breaks the surface, scoping us out with a quizzical eye.
"I love you," whispered an engineer from Alberta. The other 13 of us merely nodding in agreement, words escaped us as the whale dived deep, its fluke sinking into the water with finality. The sense of peace and awe left behind permeates the years of city dwelling, job stress, and family responsibility that the modern traveller tends to drag with them. Out on the water, where ocean and forest are all you can see for miles, is a place of peace.
We are a group of 14, five staff and nine passengers, aboard the Maple Leaf, literally floating along on a piece of Canadian history for a journey that would take us over 680 nautical miles from Sitka, Alaska to Prince Rupert, Canada over the course of 12-days. Built in 1904 the Maple Leaf was the most expensive pleasure craft on the Pacific Coast and was the private yacht of prominent businessman Alexander Maclaren. The Maple Leaf is a sailboat but it is fitted with a motor for when Mother Nature doesn't provide the fuel. No sailing experience is needed, although a love of small spaces is a definite advantage.
In comparison to the gigantic, bulbous cruise ships that we leave behind in Sitka, the Maple Leaf is a slim and stealthy vessel that our captain, Kevin Smith, isn't averse to steering into the path of adventure. As quickly as day three we found ourselves amongst a super pod of killer whales. Dropping a hydrophone into the water we could hear the clicks, trills and whistles of around 35 whales. Jumping into one of the attached Zodiacs we floated out into the water and waited, sitting like the proverbial ducks, until a six-foot dorsal fin sliced its way through the water towards us.
Smith had secured a permit for us to visit an area called "Pack Creek" in the Tongass National Forest. The native Tinglit people named this place "Kootznoowoo," which means "fortress of the bears" and it's an apt name. We watched as a mother grizzly bear taught her cub to fish for the chum salmon making its way back up the stream. It was like watching a soap opera made by the National Geographic channel as more bears came onto the scene, and all of this intricate interplay was only about six-metres away from where we stood.
As we sailed towards the edge of a receding tidal glacier, jewel-like icebergs bobbed in the water cracking and popping like a bowl of Rice Krispies. We were about to head out in the Zodiac to get a closer look when there was a sudden boom and cracking sound as 10,000-year-old ice plummeted into the waters below. The ocean heaved with the additional weight and we retreated, but not before we scooped up a few ancient blocks to chip into our evening whiskey.
It was a good job Smith had some warming fluids aboard as those brave enough were encouraged to partake in the ultimate polar bear dip — jumping off an iceberg into the glacial waters. This was certainly a heart stopping life experience.
Life onboard the Maple Leaf is surreal. Each morning begins in the mist, as it lifts it exposes a land of rugged beauty, a vast wilderness that houses wolves and bears on the ground, bald eagles and gulls in its skies, and salmon and whales in its waters. On board the ship I had initially felt like a visitor to this place — even though I had seen its richness in books and on TV there was a disconnect, a sense of the unreal. But as you run your hand over the mixed shells of a midden beach, touch the wet underbelly of a starfish, catch Dungeness crab and spot prawns, and rest in a moss bed looking up at lichen laden branches of the hemlocks Alaska begins to become real, without losing any of its magic.
More information visit: www.mapleleafadventures.com. The ship sails from April until early November, with destinations ranging from Alaska, to the Great Bear Forest, Gulf Islands and Haida Gwaii.