If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Small ship cruising in Alaska

Coast hopping through Southeast Alaska


Daring travel adventure does not always involve towering heights, raging rivers, gnarly trails or precipitous slopes. This particular misty June morning, in a damp and mossy rainforest woodland, is a good example.

“Who’s going to be first to lick the slug?”

Dead silence.

Our naturalist guide, Megan, shows the circle of cruise passengers a five-inch banana slug, native to the Pacific Northwest, resting peaceably in the palm of her hand. From some reactions, you’d think she was holding a scorpion. A few adults literally back away a step or two, as if the slug could leap from Julie’s hand and glue itself to an innocent tourist’s nose.

But the kids – some, anyway – are enthralled. In particular, a 14-year-old boy from North Carolina who’s delighted by the idea that licking a slug can be medicinal.

Megan tells us banana slug slime contains a numbing agent, and southeast Alaska Native peoples used it to ease scrapes, burns, toothaches and other ailments. So, lick our gentle slime-lord, and your tongue will go numb.

“It works!” Nathan exults after a thorough tasting. I quell a guffaw while imagining his report next fall in the “What did you do over the summer?” class session.

In this case, the answer is, I went on a smallship cruise in the Alaska Panhandle.

I know what you’re thinking: Cruises are overwrought examples of the glut of tourism’s excesses, with boats the size of Star Trek intergalactic ships spilling polyester hordes into hapless seaside cities and towns. Off to the notorious bars and fake gold crucifix stores they go, spilling money and whining for pizza along the way. Cruising is as adventurous as Candy Crush Saga.

There is a better way, and Southeast Alaska is the best place for it. Thoughtful travelers who value authentic experiences in natural surroundings will enjoy the itineraries offered by companies such as Seattle’s UnCruise and Juneau’s Native-owned Alaskan Dream, with boats holding fewer than 100 passengers, crews who are almost always comprised of Alaskans (or at least West Coasters), with itineraries that include small ports far, far from the madding crowds.

That slug-slime morning, in fact, aboard UnCruise’s 86-passenger Wilderness Legacy, we’d been anchored overnight in a bay on Admiralty Island with no town in sight. Those of us – which means most of us – heading ashore for what the cruise line calls “bushwhacks” had piled into dingys and alighted into an untracked coastal rainforest.

We strolled through glades of sphagnum moss reaching our knees. We admired thousand-year-old cedars. We dodged devils’ club thickets, notorious plants whose thorns are reputedly as toxic as slug slime is helpful. We ogled a brown bear “hot stomp,” where these behemoths mark their territory by crashing their considerable feet into forest duff.

And Nathan, the young North Carolina traveler, had encountered his most-sought sight, a red-breasted sapsucker. “Awesome,” he declared evenly, like a seasoned naturalist.

On other small ship cruises, I’ve kayaked across a wilderness bay to glide above a pink salmon run, thousands of fuchsia fish shimmering in four feet of emerald water like dabs of pointillist paint. That same paddle, we admired a black bear on the beach harvesting seaweed, which is as healthful for ursids as for us.

This was aboard Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream’s 49-passenger boat whose shallow draft, narrow beam and modest length enables access to inlets and docks that bigger ships simply cannot get to. That’s why it can tie up in small hamlets such as Kasaan, a tiny Haida village (30 or so people) 25 miles but a world away from Ketchikan, a major cruise port. In Kasaan, local artists are trimming away at a new cedar totem, and one invites me to try my hand at adzing, the scallop notching iconic to Northwest Coast carved art.

The pole will feature Raven, the Trickster; Thunderbird, king of the skies; and Bear, monarch of the woods. It will not feature, as it turns out, carving by Eric, as my efforts are uneven and ragged.

Carver Harley Holter hands me some sandpaper.

“Hmm. Maybe try smoothing out this part here?” he suggests, not unkindly.

Kasaan artists have recently restored their traditional longhouse and a few adjacent totems, and residents show their work proudly to we two-dozen visitors from Outside, as Alaskans call the rest of the world.

On the ships sailing these remote waters, Outside is truly far, far away. Cell service is rare. Fast food consists of the expertly cooked seafood the galley staff trots out each night at dinner – with less than a hundred people to feed, there’s no buffet, little waiting, and not a speck of dry, overcooked chicken in sight. The passenger reading lounge has an antique globe or two, several jigsaw puzzles, and guides that describe all the animals scrawled in magic marker on the whiteboard that charts wildlife sightings. Someone has included “unicorn” here, and who’s to argue?

So, did I try licking the slug? Certainly. And on the final day of the voyage, parked at the foot of Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay, the captain called his passengers to the back deck for the ritual, de rigueur climax to a small-ship Alaska cruise. Twenty or so hardy travelers donned suits (wetsuits, for sissies) and lined up just above a swim deck that the rescue-ready crew lowered gleefully.

Bets were made; a few would-be adventurers had a look and backed away, as if a marauding banana slug was on hand.

The water was 42 degrees.

Its indigo depths held narwhals, kraken and giant squid, not to mention orcas and the dreaded Pacific viperfish.

Ice crumbled off the glacier nearby.

A pleasant, sunlit 56-degree breeze scurried north.

The drop to the ocean surface was a tidy five feet.

When the captain asked who would be first, I raised my hand.    X

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, squash and apples. He lives in peaceful coexistence with banana slugs, but favors Tylenol for pain.