Minutes after leaving the dock in Auke Bay, the Cape Aialik's engines slowed. The captain maneuvered the 70-foot catamaran closer to the rock-strewn shore.
A bald eagle apparently was swimming -- "doing the breast stroke," the captain quipped over the ship's intercom.
So it was. The giant bird was engaged in a desperate match for survival, perhaps 100 yards from the tourists on the Aialik who were witnesses. Its problem was ironic; it clawed a fish for lunch, but the fish dove. The eagle's hyperextended legs prevented its talons from releasing the prey.
The eagle gained the advantage with the furious beating of its wings and remained above the water's surface. Once on land, its talons relaxed and shed the fish. The battle now reversed, the eagle pecked away at what appeared to be a hefty salmon. It then flew the leftovers to the top of a nearby spruce to feed another member of its family.
The Aialik's passengers were told they had just witnessed a special event, though excursion guides also say drowning is a frequent cause of death among bald eagles in Alaska. The encounter set the tone that brisk day in July for four hours of wildlife observation in the cold waters near Juneau. The adventure concluded with a spectacular show by a humpback whale as big as a freight car.
Whether by catamaran, float plane, helicopter, four-wheel drive or canoe, thousands of cruise passengers a week patronize nature and history tours at southeast Alaska's ports of call in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka.
The shore excursions can add $1,000 or more per couple to the seven-day cruise bill, but don't assume Alaska's version of Wild Kingdom will unfold from the balconies of a cruise ship that is as tall as a 10-story building.
That means you have to get off the boat for a closer look, forgoing the unlimited buffets, putting tournaments and casinos while the ship is docked. If you ignored the cruise lines' mailings about shore tours, there are independent vendors available when the ship arrives at one of the scheduled stops.
In Ketchikan, meet Shawnmarie, a school teacher when she is not driving a busload of visitors to Totem Bight State Park. There, Sitka spruce and cedar grow on stumps of fallen trees because their roots cannot penetrate the rock below the thin layer of topsoil. A walk through an Alaska rain forest ends in a meadow by the Tongass Narrows where a collection of totems and the replica of a native clanhouse stand.
Shawnmarie chatters about life in southeast Alaska -- the boat that brings the weekly shipment of toilet paper and other essentials, the houses that are built on floats so their occupants pay no real estate taxes, the halibut burgers that can be substituted for a McDonald's quarter-pounder.
The city of Ketchikan grew over water as well as beside it. The sliver of land beneath Deer Mountain where Ketchikan was established was soon exhausted, so developers extended the wharfs to accommodate more commerce. Some streets on the town map are, in reality, wooden stairsteps up the adjacent slopes. Because it may rain more than 150 inches in a year, the baseball field is gravel.
The rain also produces foxglove, rhododendron, daisies and blackberry bushes that flourish in the parks and along the roadside and nature trails. If a tour bus is too confining, a three-mile trail starts at the Totem Heritage Center near downtown. Weissmann Travel Reports of Austin, Texas, cautions that it "is for moderately experienced hikers -- in other words, it's steep, so wear your hiking boots ..."
The Totem Heritage Center houses 33 totems or totem fragments, some more than 150 years old. The quiet, musty and dark enclosure is an ancient library of sorts, because totems told stories for native people with no written language. They were not objects of pagan worship, as missionaries originally thought.
Before the cruise ship disembarks, make time for a tasty lunch of chowder and biscuit ($3.50) at the New York Hotel Cafe next to Ketchikan Creek. At the mouth of the creek is Dolly's, a restored bordello on Creek Street. The legacy of Ketchikan's rowdy past, today's Creek Street is populated by galleries and curio shops.
The first "cruise ship" to Alaska was a steamer from Seattle in 1884. So says a display in the quaint and entertaining Corrington Museum in the rear of a gallery in Skagway by the same name. Women were instructed in a tour brochure to bring shoes with spikes for walking on glaciers and to wear short skirts that would not snag in the ship's railing. The cruise price in 1884: $98.
If time for excursions in Skagway is brief, you must choose between the town's gold rush history -- sometimes colorful, sometimes violent, sometimes heroic -- and the environmental bounty of the Chilkoot and Chilkat basins. A six-hour automobile trip from Skagway, the basins are less than an hour away by the Fairweather Express II, a fast ferry across the so-called Lynn Canal to Haines, a former Army post. From Haines, Alaska Nature Tours provides "a well-equipped expedition bus" -- it's a converted school bus -- and a pair of informative guides for a trip to see the eagles.
The Chilkoot River's name means "basket of large fish." It flows downhill from a glassy lake to the tidal estuary, bisecting a dense forest. The Chilkoot is a popular salmon run, which the guides drolly report is "very popular with the salmon's predators -- the bears and eagles."
Strands of reddish-orange fireweed flank the road. Beneath the forest canopy are wild blueberries, dwarf dogwood, pungent yarrow and the disreputable devil's club, a drooping plant with tiny spikes on the underside of its fronds. Tree stumps are shoulder-high to match the height of the snow when the trees were cut during the previous winter.
A muskeg, centuries in the making, displays the end of the forest cycle. The stunted hemlock and pine look dead, but actually have adapted. In the clearing is a natural bed of sphagnum moss that absorbs up to eight times its weight in moisture.
Scores of bald eagles populate the trees that surround the estuary. Spotting scopes provided by the tour operator reveal nesting eaglets, creatures so rambunctious that the parents may abandon the nest and drop food to them while in flight.
The adult eagles are both scavengers and aggressors. They calmly await opportunity from their alpine perches, their brilliant yellow beaks closed and the white tufts of their "necklace" blowing gently in the breeze. When several of them swarm, their squeaks sound like basketball sneakers on a polished gym floor.
Across the Chilkoot inlet, surf scoters provide comic relief. The all-male flock floats in a single wavy line. If one bird dives below the surface for a mussel, the rest follow like collapsing dominos. They reappear in virtually the same order.
The Lynn Canal is a fjord carved by retreating glaciers. Its depth allows the cruising ships to stream into Skagway four at a time, temporarily doubling the size of the restored turn-of-the-century town. En route, the 1,500-foot Long Falls snakes down the mountainside, offering a perspective of the canal's depth -- Long Falls is as high as the fjord is deep.