Author: Dr. Jonathan Moreno, Department of Bioethics
When I was asked to serve as the faculty host for Penn Alumni Travel’s “Discover Southeast Alaska” I said “Yes!”
Then I said, “Now that we have a deal, you should know that I don’t know anything about Alaska.” It turns out that I now not only know a good bit about Southeast Alaska, I have also come to appreciate how the knowledge gained on the cruise fits with my own work.
But first, the trip.
On day one, we were welcomed with a native Alaskan dance by a troupe that ranged in age from one toddler to a few seniors. The excitement of the Tlingit people about the opportunity to exhibit their culture and to rediscover it after decades of suppression and misunderstanding was palpable. Cultural interpreters were also on hand throughout the week to share and explain their native culture to us.
Then to the vessel. The cozy surroundings of the Admiralty Dream contrasted with the magnificent scale of the natural sites we visited. Monday’s highlight was a tour of a salmon hatchery, where we learned how to distinguish between farmed and ranched salmon – a lesson I will not forget when I make my next visit to Whole Foods – and how the rearing of ranched salmon is coordinated with the natural cycle.
At Hidden Falls, we were joined for the day by a remarkable young Park Service ranger who was positively poetic in her narrative about the significance of the region. So were the two naturalists and the cultural guide who stayed with us for the entire week. I now realize that they brought us along carefully as we explored one setting after another in the inland waterways.
Kayaking in Gambier Bay brought us close to the vegetation and views that could not be achieved aboard the boat (speaking of which, a few hours in Juneau under the shadow of massive cruise ships made us all very happy that we were on the Admiralty Dream, which was vastly more suitable to the surroundings and took us places that are inaccessible to the behemoths).
The whale watching on day five was astonishing. At one point, we were surrounded in the hours before dusk by half a dozen whales, including two who were swimming, surfacing, and diving in harmony. The consensus favorite site of the week was Glacier Bay, where groups of us went out on inflatable boats to observe the sea lions, one of whom also seemed to take great pleasure in observing us in return. The naturalists and cultural interpreters emphasized that we are visitors in their territory, so a tradition of respect is cultivated among the traditional peoples. The point was driven home the last day on a hike where the naturalists hoped very much to run across some bears, while I suspect many of the rest of us were perfectly happy not to have done so. I am, however, now an expert in recognizing bear droppings, which seem to be used to inform humans that they are in the neighborhood. Fair enough.
I haven’t said anything about the food, which was excellent and abundant, or in particular the positively sadistic desserts that kept coming out of the kitchen. Nor have I acknowledged that presence of non-Fighting Quakers on board, though the friendships that developed transcended institutional loyalties.
And my personal takeaway? I should have appreciated more than I did how important the region was to the history of geology, as the concept of glaciation is owed to John Muir’s travels in Southeast Alaska. He and another naturalist of the era, one named Charles Darwin, transformed our understanding of the natural world, all within a couple of decades of each other in the middle of the 19th century.
But I bet our desserts were better.
[Penn Alumni Travel will be returning to Alaska next year. Click here to learn more about our July 5-12, 2014 tour with Professor Larry Silver].