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It’s tough to keep smiles and laughter at bay while exploring Alaska aboard the motoryacht Kayana

By Kim Kavin

When the tip of an iceberg topples, it is a rare and precious sight. Most shatter into chunks and melt near the glaciers from which they calved, but occasionally, a mammoth mountain of thousand-year-old ice floats far enough south for humans to see. The one we’ve just encountered has survived about 22 miles, all the way to the end of Admiralty Island’s Tracy Arm, where its edge is grounded about 70 feet below. What remains of its 30-foot-tall, 85-foot-wide snowcap is heaved over on its side, dripping a slow death under the August sun.

We approach in our suddenly very small, 18-foot Nautica. To starboard, endless layers of 4,000-foot-tall mountains collapse into one another like cleavage. The iceberg’s exposed belly glistens like a crystal pendant, so compacted by time and pressure, so flawless without air bubbles or fissures, that it cannot absorb the color spectrum’s indigo rays. It reflects them like the most turquoise Caribbean waters, only in a deeper, more penetrating blue, the kind that makes it impossible to look away and deny that it has captured you.

“I’d sure like to climb all over that thing,” says John Martin, the college-age deckhand at the wheel. He carefully noses the Nautica’s bow under the beads of water rolling off the sideways ridge of snow. A travel magazine editor from Texas pokes his face underneath the cold droplets. He grins as they run down his cheeks, then laughs like a child.

Another guest, the grandson of a Vietnamese prince, rubs his hands and exhales a cloud of warm breath into the cool air. “I’m going to take a photo to a sculptor,” he says, “to keep it on my desk.”

A guest from Florida who lays tile for a living thinks for a moment, then says, “I wonder if we could chip off a few cubes to put in our drinks later.”

No matter your background, your age or your previous journeys, moments like this—which we enjoyed just five hours outside of Juneau—will captivate you in ways unimaginable. I found the majesty of the Alaskan landscape difficult to internalize even when I was smack in the middle of it, as if I were trying to guess how many gallons of water the Grand Canyon might hold. However, my more intimate memories are countless: touching that dying tower of ice with my bare fingertips, listening for the shotgun-loud blasts that precede a glacier’s visible crack, lapping my kayak paddles in near silence as a brown bear searches for breakfast along the shore.

It’s the stuff of thrilling adventure and solitary exploration, and it’s accessible only by private yacht. 

From the iceberg, we returned to our mother ship, the 120-foot Vosper-Thornycroft Kayana. She’s half the fleet of CEO Expeditions, a Washington-based charter company formed in 1999 when owner Bruce Milne bought his first yacht, the 100-foot Burger Katania. I was the first marine journalist to cruise with CEO Expeditions, back in summer 2000, and could see the company’s potential through the occasionally thick gauze of the still-being-refurbished Katania and her brand-new crew.

This time around, aboard Kayana as CEO Expeditions’ guest, I was shown not only a great time but a great leap of maturity in the service and experience the company offers.

It starts, of course, with the boat. I last saw Kayana in Fort Lauderdale about a year and a half ago, just after Milne bought her. He had sparks of excitement in his eyes. Then again, maybe it was the reflections from the sea of mirrors in the bright white saloon and dining area. I recall a lot of pink accents, as well. Very 1970s chic.

What a difference nine months in the yard and a healthy dose of woodwork make. From more elegant window coverings and carpeting, to beautiful madrono paneling and new teak decking, to high-grade plumbing and pumps, all of Kayana’s improvements combine to create a comfortable ambience for guests. “It’s a lot more luxurious than it used to be,” says Brantley Sweat, the company’s lead engineer. “If you have high demands, we can meet them.”

Sweat gets that attitude in part from Capt. Russ White, an all-around great guy with an easygoing personality and a true devotion to detail. I spent a good deal of time jawing with him in the pilothouse each day, watching him cater to guests’ needs while keeping an eye out for Orcas and telling stories about some of the charters he’s done. A favorite was the time he and Kayana’s crew painted a wine box to look like a treasure chest and left it in a marble cave on Baranof Island. They drew a map with a red X (even burned the edges to make it look old) and threw it into the water in a bottle for their young guests to find, then helped them navigate on foot to the treasure of candy and Kayana T-shirts.

“When you’re 4 or 5, you don’t remember a lot of your life,” White says with a satisfied smile. “They’ll remember that.” 

It would be easy for a lesser crew to let Alaska itself make all the memories. Every time I opened my eyes, on or off the boat, I saw something I’d never seen before. And every time I looked closer, I realized there was even more to see.

Take the morning I kayaked to the shore of Baranof Island’s Takatz Bay for a better look at that hungry brown bear. I drew closer and saw clouds of white gulls overhead, as thick as the fog squatting on the mountaintops above, all squawking and screaming and circling in vulturous glee around the river flowing from the peaks. I looked back down and the bear was gone, but its breakfast buffet remained, trapped in the lowest of low tides.
Pink salmon—thousands upon thousands of them, each a foot and a half long—wriggled and flapped and slithered atop the riverbed’s brown and green rocks in a futile attempt to spawn upstream. I beached my kayak and walked into the water, which barely ringed the ankles of my wading boots. Salmon writhed against my feet, against each other, against the rocks. Some scraped their scales off in fits of desperation, literally peeling themselves before floundering to the water’s edge and suffocating in silence.

The struggle was a show that defined their very lives and deaths. The gulls squealed like a delighted audience in the balcony.

I kayaked back to Kayana, where chief stewardess Lisa Reedy and second stew Jennifer Hunt awaited me on the aft deck, as always with warm smiles and steaming hot chocolate. I resumed my own breakfast of thick, fluffy blueberry pancakes and realized I’d yet to enjoy a hot meal aboard—not because chef Randy Ortega’s original recipes were lacking in any way, but because every time I tried to sit down and eat, nature beckoned with a miraculous encounter just outside the dining room window.

The surprising color of the water (the blue-green of the Turks and Caicos, only opaque and 1,200 feet deep) interrupted a lunch of papaya-marinated guinea hen salad followed by an amaretto coffee cake. A pair of Dulles porpoises pulled me from barbecued beef, pork, chicken and salmon, all slathered in a zesty sauce and accompanied by Grand Marnier-laced watermelon slices. Three humpback whales chose to breach just off our bow as I attempted to finish a Dungeness crab tower with couscous salad, tomato, avocado, caviar and freshly caught roasted shrimp.

I suppose it was all for the best, allowing me to save room for Ortega’s spectacular four-course finale dinner: a tomato stuffed with wild greens in a beet vinaigrette with balsamic syrup, followed by seared ahi in a soy glaze with pickled ginger and seaweed salad, followed by a roasted pillar of beef and lobster tail with gorgonzola mashed potato, mushroom sauce and roasted asparagus, followed by a chocolate tuile (a thin, crisp, cup-shaped cookie) with vanilla ice cream and blueberries inside a spun sugar cage.

Just wondering what the California native might have prepared during a second week aboard made me salivate, the same way thoughts of what other encounters and adventures Alaska has to offer made me reluctant to disembark. I left Kayana and her crew sadly, then headed for the airport in Sitka, a historic town settled by the Russians long ago and occasionally swamped by cruise ship passengers today. With each stop my taxi made to let T-shirt buying couples cross the narrow streets, I felt more and more of my exciting adventure melting into memory.

And I realized I’d seen the tip of the iceberg.