A Real Backcountry Adventure in Juneau

Challenging But Rewarding: A Ventures by Seabourn hike to the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seabourns Seabourn Sojourn made her way down the Gastineau Channel early this morning, coming alongside Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. Not only that, but today is Independence Day – and that means we’ve got a full house of cruise ships here.

With thousands of guests slated to pour ashore and streets closed for parades and other Fourth of July shenanigans, I chose to get out of town and do something different.

Seabourn Sojourn docked in Juneau on a rainy Independence Day. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our small group (foreground) sets out for our hike to the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Ventures by SeabournMendenhall Glacier and Ice Caves” hike was the answer to my desire to get away from the crowds. At eight hours in duration, this $399 per person shore excursion is only offered to Seabourn; no other cruise line has this tour available to book onboard. In addition to tour two local guides, Seabourn Ventures Expedition Staff members Juan and Kirstie would also accompany the 10 of us on today’s adventure.

What an intense adventure it was. Most cruise lines over-rate their shore excursion offerings. A moderate hike is probably an easy hike for most active folks, while an advanced hike is generally an intermediate hike – at least by the standards of those who hike. Not this. When it says, “advanced hike”, it means “advanced hike.”

In fact, this was less of a hike and more of a proper bushwhack/scramble. An all-out, no holds barred journey into the wilderness along a “trail” marked with bits of ribbon lashed to trees and placed under heavy boulders.

Into the Woods We Go: the trailhead is well-established…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and even includes markers denoting where Mendenhall Glaicer used to be. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

With pouring rain and increasing humidity, photography becomes a challenge! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

With the exception of the 30-minunte walk from the parking lot and the 45 minutes or so down at the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier, this baby was almost entirely made of steep ascents and descents over exposed rocks, loose terrain, small streams, and enclosed forest.  It was about the time that I found myself pulling myself up a small cliff face with a system of ropes that I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. When we had to scramble down, butt-first, on a steep slope filled with loose gravel and watermelon-sized boulders that gave way and cascaded recklessly down the 200-some foot face of the mountain, I knew I was in over my head.

That calm terrain disappears quickly. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

For much of the hike, today was an all-out bushwhack-boulder scramble. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

It was intense. I’ve done adventure hikes in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Australia’s Kimberley Coast, and in the Far Arctic island of Svalbard. All of which were demanding, but well within my abilities. Nothing I’ve ever done tested me like today. But once you find yourself coming down, inch by inch, a nearly vertical cliff face with an elevation of a couple hundred feet, you’re committed.

Now, I’ll say this: physically, I kept up just fine. It was more the insane nature of our terrain that started to make me think that Seabourn needs to put a few more descriptors in their shore excursion wording on this one. For example, I managed to destroy my hiking boots in the mud and the water; waterproof footwear (or reasonably water-resistant) is essential.

The scenery: breathtaking. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Into the Fray: A challenging, but rewarding, Ventures by Seabourn hike into Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I also destroyed my waterproof Columbia pants, which ripped clean through the back on one of our more adventurous slides down some sharp rock faces. I only realized when I got back to the ship that I had an issue, but I should have known. Things felt drafty back there.

I think the description of the excursion also caught the rest of the guests off-guard, as it states there are “some inclines and many areas of uneven terrain.” That downplays the experience a little – the whole thing was nothing but inclines and steep descents, with uneven terrain throughout. This wasn’t really a hike by the strictest definition; it’s a true bushwhack and boulder scramble.

On level ground…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…we make our way into…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…the ice caves. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

However, I should point out that every single person managed to complete the entire eight-hour excursion. Everyone helped each other ascend and descend each and every hill and mountain we went over, and towards the end of our journey, an amazing camaraderie had build up amongst our small group. I am just superbly proud of my fellow guests, who completed today’s “hike” with the good nature and easygoing humour that helped us forget about how challenging this was. Most of what we encountered couldn’t be photographed; simply keeping both hands free was of paramount importance.

I’m also certain that Seabourn will smooth this one out by the time you read this post. Our local guides were nice, but they were young, twentysomething girls that had lots of practical hiking experience with friends, but who didn’t seem particularly adept at guiding a group of fiftysomethings around. They got lost more than a few times, and I started having misgivings whenever they said we were going to “take a shortcut.”

Loose terrain, including the hill on the left, made the hike challenging. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Mendenhall, as seen from our walk out. Note the figures on the rocky path at the bottom. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I can’t say enough good things though about Ventures team members Juan and Kirstie. At every step, they were helping guests at at the front, back and middle of the group navigate the challenging terrain. They kept things light, kept the mood up and the vibes positive, and kept everyone safe. This was their first outing on this hike as well (remember, this is Seabourn’s first experience in Alaska in 15 years), and I’m sure both returned to the ship with valuable insight for how future hikes will be conducted.

Today exhausted me, but it was so enormously rewarding. I loved it, even when parts of it genuinely challenged me. I’m just the writer; I’m no mountain climber. But the sense of accomplishment, when after seven hours of continuous hiking over a vertical distance of nearly 1000 feet in elevation and 6.5 miles in total, we returned to the parking lot and our waiting van, which whisked us back to Seabourn Sojourn just in time for us to set sail.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Wiped out, I cancelled dinner plans and had a hot shower. I picked up the phone and ordered a cheeseburger – the heaviest dinner I could think of – which room service promptly brought about 15 minutes later. I devoured it, watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on my suite’s television.

I decided Indiana Jones jumps from moving trains with far more grace than I hike mountains. But it looks like we both had an incredible adventure.

Back onboard, my calorie-filled reward, courtesy of Seabourn room service. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report from Seabourn Sojourn’s Ultimate Alaska voyage continues tomorrow with our final port of call, Sitka. Follow along with our latest cruise adventures on Twitter: @deckchairblog.

Seabourn Sojourn - Ultimate Alaskan Sojourn

Monday, June 26, 2017Vancouver, British ColumbiaEmbark Seabourn Sojourn1700
Tuesday, June 27Cruise the Inside Passage; Seymour Narrows; Queen Charlotte Sound
Wednesday, June 28Ketchikan, Alaska08002300
Thursday, June 29Scenic cruising Misty Fjords
Friday, June 30Wrangell, Alaska07001600
Saturday, July 1Scenic cruising Glacier Bay National Park10002000
Sunday, July 2Cruising Tracy Arm and/or Endicott Arm
Monday, July 3Haines, Alaska07002000
Tuesday, July 4Juneau, Alaska08001700
Wednesday, July 5Sitka, Alaska10001900
Thursday, July 6At Sea
Friday, July 7, 2017Seward (Anchorage), Alaska0700Disembark

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