Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.
It’s practically sacrilegious to visit Alaska and not go whale watching or salmon fishing. One rainy afternoon in Juneau, we did both.
Despite the bad weather we’d been experiencing, we tracked down a boat captain and convinced him to take us out. We were hoping to get lucky and we did. Not only did the weather clear up shortly after pulling away from Juneau, but the boat trip we took turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
The boat was captained by Harv and Marv (above), two buddies who run Harv and Marv’s Outback Alaska. Those aren’t their real names. Their nicknames go back to some inside joke they shared when they first met in the fifth grade. They’ve been best friends ever since; today, no one calls them anything other than Harv and Marv.
This lifelong friendship was immediately apparent even before stepping onto their boat. Although the two of them rarely captain a boat together anymore (each captains his own), this was one of the rare times they were working together and as a result, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves in an infectious, fun-filled way that only best friends can engender. Over the years, I’ve hired a number of boat captains and tour guides but none have been as friendly, genuine, and just plain down-to-earth as Harv and Marv. They were great. I’d have been happy to just sit in a bar with these guys and hang out.
It’s this personal approach that makes their trips so worthwhile. For starters, I was pleased to discover that they never took more than six people at a time on their tours. I’ve been on enormous whale watching boats before, as well as large fishing boats and, let me tell you, it was nice just hanging with friends and not fighting for rail space or fishing poles with drunken strangers. In addition, the 26 foot Hewescraft was just the perfect size and offered plenty of inside space when the winds picked up and it got a bit chilly.
The truly personal touch however, came when Marv motored us past his home and out came his son and daughter in a small outboard motor with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.
Incidentally, Marv has a side business as well: giving tours of his family’s off-the-grid, sustainable living homestead located on Shelter Island in the middle of Stephens Passage. The island has no roads, electricity or phone lines. The kids are home-schooled and the cabin is powered by solar and wind power.
Marv’s home is not so far from a popular whale feeding area. In fact, it’s practically just down the block. This hometown advantage explains why he confidently offers a $50 guarantee that his passengers will see whales on their whale watching trips. I was a bit skeptical at first, but once we arrived at the location I immediately changed my mind. We ended up bobbing in the water for more than an hour watching numerous whales surface and dive, their enormous tails flicking straight up into the air as though waving to us before slipping deep into the waters.
Boats are not allowed to pull up close to a whale, but if the whale decides to wander over to the boat, not much can be done about it. Harv told us how one time a whale actually surfaced underneath his boat, gently lifting it in a playful manner before moving on. Naturally this got us all a little concerned and every time the boat rocked a bit, there was a brief fearful moment that Moby Dick was screwing with us.
The whales do come rather close to the boat but not dangerously so. Their graceful surfacing, aquatic gymnastics, and geyser-bursting blow holes kept us engaged for more than an hour before the excitement wore off and we started up the engines and went in search of more palatable fish.
Marv sold each of us a one-day fishing license and then began setting up the rods. The back of the boat had four places for rods and Marv had a great system to ensure that everyone caught a fish. Initially, each of us had a specific rod. The rule was that as soon as someone caught a fish, the rod was recast and turned over to a person who hadn’t caught one yet. As the afternoon progressed, a person might end up with dibs on 3-4 rods until one of them hit.
The fishing was actually slower than I had imagined. I had heard for many years how very easy it is to toss a rod into the Alaskan waters and pull out salmon as though bobbing for apples at the country fair. We weren’t as lucky, however. Harv had to circle the boat through a handful of fishing areas and make careful use of his fish sonar before we all managed to reel in one salmon each.
It was an exciting feeling. My ten-pound coho salmon was the largest fish I’ve ever caught. It put up a pretty good battle but, as you can see in the photo above, man once again triumphs over nature.
Of course, my fish was nothing like the monster Jessica reeled in. Yikes!
Since most of us were a few thousand miles from home, and a few days from actually returning, we turned our fish over to the Alaskan Seafood Company to take care of shipping it home for us. The company can either process the fish into lox, smoke it, can it, or vacuum pack and flash freeze it.
I opted for the flash freeze option despite the surprisingly expensive cost to vacuum pack it and FedEx it to my home in Los Angeles. My little ten-pounder ended up costing $63 by the time I got it a few weeks later. But, it was all worth it when I invited my family over for an Alaska slide show and salmon feast which I barbequed atop an alder wood plank. Mmmm…. I must say, it was extraordinarily delicious! Thanks Harv and Marv!