Given the blowing, driving, and utterly dripping snow falling from a leaden sky between Anchorage and the Whittier Tunnel, it seemed my choice to take a winter day cruise around Prince William Sound was a bit overambitious. Why, oh why did I suggest this trip to visiting family travel writer Heather and her family of boys. Showing off the strength of my XtraTufs, perhaps? Or betting that the blue skies that had flown over Southcentral Alaska for the past week would continue? Fat chance.
At any rate, there we were, making our way down a rapidly-deteriorating road surface that nonetheless seemed ephemeral in its white dress coat after so many months of dreary, gray tweed. Snowflakes splashed and dripped down the windshield of the car, and landed on our jackets when we got out to stretch our legs at the tunnel waiting queue.
But, as happens with the fickle nature of Alaska geography, once we emerged through the two-mile tunnel, the snow slowed to a trickle, and the atmosphere was merely spongelike as a vanload of tourists and our party checked in at the Lazy Otter Charters office overlooking the Whittier Small Boat Harbor. Normally a bustling place of cruise ships and train passengers in the summer, winter in Whittier is dreary, slow, but overwhelmingly Alaskan in nature (as in “Only in Alaska-ish), so Lazy Otter’s offices were partially shut down for the season. But, as owner Kelly Bender told me, day cruises are hot, and getting hotter.
For four years Bender and her skeleton crew of wintertime staff have been operating day cruises around the closer-in bays of Prince William Sound, a breathtaking section of Southcentral Alaska rich in wildlife, history, and important maritime industry. Usually, day cruise companies ply these waters in search of whales, calving glaciers, and marine treasures like otters, seals, and a bevy of bird species. Bustling from early morning to late at night, Whittier Harbor and the channels around Prince William Sound are a highway of marine traffic.
Winter, though, is something different. And this is where Lazy Otter is able to drive the focus away from the “usual” and tend to the “unique.”
Ever ridden a day cruise boat that seats only 15, with a front deck and roof fitted for as many kayaks? They’ve got ’em. What about crunching through an inch or so of fresh ice on the way to Blackstone Glacier’s bluish face, made bluer by peaks of white overhead and all around? Go there.
In the course of five hours, our party was able to experience the intensity of winter in Alaska, with all the boldness of color and texture one would expect, in a way none of us anticipated. Two glaciers are visited up close, and by “close” I mean three miles or so, safe enough from unpredictable episodes of calving, when chunks the size of houses, or larger, come crashing down into the water: Beloit and Blackstone, both accessible by boat, and both stunning to look at on winter afternoon.
Lazy Otter Charters adds to this cruising experience with the landing of their aluminum craft on a beach nearby. The chance to splash through ankle-deep water and inspect rocks and shoreline on a clear March day was exactly what we needed; we found wiggly fish and small shells all within a short walk of the boat as the sun shed streaks of late afternoon light on our shoulders. This delightful addition to a traditional day cruise felt positively liberating, and I found myself wandering across the slippery rocks until the call came to board for the harbor and home.
This is the Alaska I love, in an unplugged sort of experience that reminds me once again of why I choose to make my home here. But more important, would my friends go back?
Yes. As they and anyone else fortunate enough to visit during the winter should. Wild and rugged, that’s Prince William Sound, and that’s what you’ll get.
IF YOU GO:
Lazy Otter Charters offers tours through April 30, when the structure shifts a bit to accommodate the summer season. Two departure times are available, one in the morning and one in the early afternoon, so call for times.
Cost is reasonable for a day cruise of this magnitude: $185/pp, kids under 2 are free. BUT – I would hesitate to bring infants or toddlers on this tour – seating is tight and walking space is sparse. I’d recommend this trip for ages 5 and up.
Lazy Otter provides snacks, coffee, tea, and water. Lunches can be brought on board along with your own snacks, but be aware that space is tight. That said, everyone did the best they could and no one complained.
Wear (or bring) snow pants, waterproof jacket, boots, gloves, and hats that cover the ears. Even on a sunny day, the wind is sharp heading out and around the bays. Tours go rain, snow, or shine, so be prepared.
NOTE: Allow ample time to pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, opening on the half-hour going into Whittier, and on the hour back to Portage. Times can vary, however, depending on freight train traffic. See the link in the first paragraph for details.