Earlier this year, we undertook a challenge - take our 34 foot Catalina sailboat “Onward” up the inside passage from Seattle to Glacier Bay and back with our 6 y/o daughter and our 9 y/o golden retriever - over the course of 4 months. We were also not able to leave until late June, which is significantly later than folks generally leave for a trip of that magnitude - especially when their boat has a cruising speed of just 5.5 knts. Both my wife and I had about 10 years of sailing experience each - but this was the first boat we had owned (we purchased Onward about 8 months before the trip) and the first time we had taken a trip of this magnitude - prior to this our longest trip had been just over a week. All that to say, this was a big trip for us and we had lots of stories to tell!


Our boat seemed perfect before we left the V-berth is the perfect size for each of us to stretch out, we had a spacious cockpit when the cabin felt small, and we had all the storage space we could desire in the various lockers and under-seat cabinets. We found out very quickly however that the v-berth wasn’t the quite big enough when we were together (each night, we got to play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to have their feet on top), our cockpit was not enclosed so we were only able to use it when the bug/weather were tolerable, and we filled every square inch of storage without any trouble. So our boat was perfect - it was rough at times, but she got us there and back in one piece.


We had heard from a friend that people live in rural Alaska for two reasons - because they lack social skills and don’t want to be around people or because they have social skills but have decided they no longer need them. We did find those people - the ones that want to end the conversation with you as soon as possible - but we also found people so nice that they would literally give you the shirt off their back in a snowstorm. We met a fairly equal number of each, but it’s the former that made the greatest impression on us: We met the creator of the “Molly in Denali” kids show while visiting a tribal shop in Hoonah. While stuck for a few days in bad weather, we met a woman living in Funter Bay who, after waving to us while we were tide-pooling, invited us in for dinner - only to find out that she was an award-winning chef and had run her own restaurant for several decades (spoiler: we ate really well that night). We met a man in Kake who lived year-round on his 32 foot wooden sailboat in Alaska with two 90 lbs huskies - He gave us a crash course on how to deal with moisture on a boat - could not imagine a better person to give the lesson.

Of course one of the biggest highlights of the trip was the wildlife. Our daughter has been forever changed by this trip - she speaks proficiently of habits of pigeon guillemots, humpback whale bubble-feeding, harbor seals pupping on icebergs, and can identify 90% of the marine invertebrates she sees with accuracy. We decided to do a night kayak at Millbrook Cove and spent the next week talking about bioluminescence - and looking out for it when we flush the head at night. One of my favorite moments was passing by Five Fingers island where there were easily 100 whales feeding in an area of no more than 5 sq miles - several times they surfaced within 50 feet of our boat. After we left the area, the Five Fingers lighthouse called us on VHF to thank us for slowing/stopping in the middle of all of the whales and to ask us for an email address so they could send us the amazing pictures they got of our boat in/amongst all of those whales.

While our daughter is generally able to make fast friends, she honed that ability on this trip. Some of them have even become lasting ones - she has sent/received postcards to the daughter of the caretaker in Plumper Cove Marine Park, the 3 children of the caretaker in Ocean Falls, and … She has also gained confidence, asking insightful question when she is curious - She learned how to make a seal skin drum from a Tlingit artist in Glacier Bay, she learned all about Salmon from the park ranger in Mendenhall Glacier, and she learned all about the culinary uses for Sea Asparagus in Funter Bay.

Glacier Bay was certainly a highlight of the trip - not just because it was the goal attained, but also because it fulfiled the promise of the National Parks which, in my mind, is to envelope you in the truest feeling of being wild. It was cold, it was rainy, and our solar panels did nothing the entire 6 days we were inside the park. We saw wolves, bear, puffins, mountain goats, sea lions, and no less than a thousand sea otters. We also saw a iceberg calving off of Margerie glacier, hiked up to a deep blue ice cave that was 3 stories high in Reid inlet, and cold-plunged with icebergs - because we got tired of fending them off with boat hooks and decided it would be easier to jump in and push them away.

The trip was not without its scars - rather “learning opportunities”. We chiped our gel-coat at the Petersburg fuel dock after incorrectly reading the current direction. We shreded the leach & foot of our headsail in a rogue 35 knt wind gust off of Point Gardner - the sail was still usable, but we looked like the Black Pearl every time we put it out. We smashed a fender and had to cut a dockline in the Gustavus dock - not fully understanding how poorly protected the dock was from the full brunt of wind/waves coming off of Icy Strait. One of the boats we ran into several times during the trip was a beautiful custom wooden boat called “Nevermore” - her captain Billy had been sailing her for 30 years and unfortunately had a run-in with an iceberg on this bow. Scars are part of every journey, he said. His other bit of wisdom was - The best places leave you with a list of things you want to do at the end of your journey longer than when you started, and they keep doing it every year you come back.

When we got home, after 4 months of living on the boat and over 2500 nautical miles traversed, our daughter got out her globe and asked me where we went on this trip. I showed her where we went to and she replied “so we just went to this little part, not like Real Alaska, right?”