I suppose the real question to be asked, even before taking off for uncharted waters, is what a city-bred person with a love of the arts and a profound uninterest in the great outdoors is doing on an expedition cruise to the remote reaches of Alaska in the first place.
It is a question that keeps occurring to me on every leg of this 12-day voyage aboard L’Austral, a cruising yacht from the French company Ponant with a passenger capacity of 264. My 26-year-old daughter, Zoë, and I are to set sail from Nome, Alaska, and on the flight over, I busy myself reading an Insight Guide that Zoë has brought along. All around me I hear smatterings of French, a language I have failed to conquer despite years of study. Meanwhile, I discover that Alaska was bought by the United States from the Russians for $7.2 million in 1867, and that its population now numbers 700,000, almost half of whom live in Anchorage. “It is said,” the guidebook goes on to report, “that Alaska can still astonish the most jaded of travelers” with its “huge, untamed spaces.” I prepare inwardly to be astonished, although I must admit that when, three hours into the flight, everyone rushes to the windows to take photos of a vast expanse of snowcapped peaks, I am not quite sure what all the excitement is about. It turns out that we are flying by Mount McKinley, 20,000 feet above sea level, which was soon to be restored to its original name of Denali by President Obama.
Nome itself is somewhat barren-looking, featuring square-roofed houses that sit on brown tracts of land interspersed with patches of shrubby green. Our group of mostly French cruisers is herded onto three yellow buses, then into tenders that will take us to the ship. The weather is overcast, bordering on chilly; it is August, and I am dressed in the thinnest of summer clothes, white linen pants and a T-shirt, as is my daughter, in contrast to the other passengers, who have layered on scarves, sweatshirts, and parkas. As we cross over on choppy gray-green waters, with a few lonely seagulls circling, I can’t decide whether we are intrepid Americans compared with the bundled-up French or merely woefully underprepared.
And then, 20 stomach-lurching minutes later, we reach a sleek vessel flying the French flag and get our first look at L’Austral. Everything is done up in shades of taupe, cream, and white, from the public spaces to the cabins, with elegant touches provided by black-and-white Philip Plisson photos and occasional bursts of Swarovski-crystal lighting. The overall effect is serene and generically chic, like a minimalist boutique hotel. There is a gym, a beauty salon, a pool, and a small shop that carries lots of Lacoste shirts and three kinds of binoculars. Zoë and I are ensconced in a suite on Deck 6 that has twin beds, a sitting room, and a bathroom with a glass-enclosed shower that looks out on the water. There is a tiny balcony that accommodates (just barely) two rattan chairs and—best of all, from my point of view—the beds have excellent light for reading. The suite also comes with a personal butler, but we never make use of his services.
We have our first dinner on board in the main dining room with two other guests—both guys in their late 30s who are friends, one a travel agent from Fresno, California, and the other a lawyer from Münster, Germany. If I was worried that there would be no other English-speaking passengers, I need not have been: Zoë and I make several friends, including a genial Australian couple who are seasoned expedition cruisers, having been to Antarctica and Greenland, and who are happy to share their knowledge of this corner of the planet. The French, meanwhile, stick mostly to themselves.
The ship sets sail at 8 p.m., and the next morning we wake to a pleasant rocking motion and an overcast sky. In fact, we have crossed the International Date Line overnight and in the process skipped a day. After breakfast (flaky croissants and all manner of eggs), the English-speaking passengers—about 16 of us in all—gather in the main lounge to hear about our itinerary from the expedition crew, a group of six experts in various fields, including an ornithologist, a land and landscape ecologist who “reads” plants, and a specialist in marine mammals. We are informed about the wildlife we may see if luck is with us—orcas, seals, and bears—and are promised a glimpse of fjords and glaciers at the end of the trip, though the expedition leader, Nicolai, reminds us that, this being an expedition cruise, the plans can change at any time.
Indeed, our plans change before we’ve even begun. As it turns out, there is a certain improvisational quality to the whole venture, as we find ourselves stopping at places no one has stopped at before and marveling at the air and rock and scenicness of it all. Although the original itinerary called for several stops in Russia, a geopolitical kerfuffle has scuttled these plans, and we are now heading to St. Lawrence Island instead. (In a mini-repeat of the Cold War, it seems that everyone wants to claim the Arctic, and everyone treads carefully so as not to upset the Russians.) But wait: on our way to St. Lawrence, we take an unscheduled detour to a former military base on the Russian side of Alaska, near the Bering Sea. After a few hours’ delay while we wait for our mandatory meeting with Russian officials, we set foot on Provideniya, which at first glance has the desolate feel of a dystopian film set in Eastern Europe circa the 1960s. The buildings look like they have been constructed out of Lego blocks, and there is a general sense of abandonment. Most of the 1,700 inhabitants are Siberian Yupiks, who depend on tourism and hunting (they still use harpoons and kayaks) for their livelihood. A group of them, wearing brightly patterned clothing, performs a series of native dances in the school gym, utilizing birdcalls and subtle hand movements, accompanied by drumming. The drums are made of walrus intestines and the drumsticks are made of baleen or wood. There are tables outside the gym where various tribespeople, young and old, male and female, hawk trinkets and ivory handiwork, priced in American dollars.
In Savoonga, a similarly desolate outpost on the American side where we drop anchor the following day, we are treated to another round of ceremonial dances. Afterward, I check out the items for sale in the town’s only supermarket, which are all lavishly priced, from a can of Pam ($10.85) and a small bottle of Bertolli olive oil ($15) to a roll of Brawny paper towels ($4.69). There are no restaurants, and most of the food is imported from Anchorage or Seattle; one young woman I meet in the supermarket tells me that she prefers to order dry goods from Amazon Prime. Savoonga, like Provideniya, has a subsistence economy, with much of the population (1,000 in all) helped by food stamps and government funding. As the sunlight ebbs, Zoë and I stand around talking to the locals—I promise to send a copy of my essay collection to an eager young woman and buy an expensive handmade doll, complete with fur boots and a fur parka, from another woman—until we are the last passengers left behind and have to hurry to board a Zodiac boat to get back to the ship. The lack of pop-culture stimulation other than TV in these towns makes them feel stranded and infinitely far away, and the people I meet seem desperate for human contact. The last time a cruise ship stopped in Savoonga was in 2010.
Although we will eventually reach more-remote polar regions than Provideniya and Savoonga, my own sense of faraway-ness—of being at an unimaginable remove from the world I know—is most vividly kindled not by majestic rock formations or silent tundras or sightings of glistening seals but by these two ghost towns. They put me in mind of the poet Arthur Rimbaud and his endless sojourns to distant places, rather than the formalized curiosity of even the most intrepid traveler of today. Rimbaud, who grew up in the provincial French town of Charleville-Mézières, read adventure stories as a boy and would eventually alight in 13 countries, becoming the first European to settle in the “forbidden city” of Harer, in what is now eastern Ethiopia. His wanderlust was as elemental as the contemporary traveler’s deluxe safaris are not, suggesting a permanent state of transience rather than an elegantly accoutred and professionally guided break from the digitalized life.
In the ensuing days, the cruise begins to exert a rhythm of its own. At sea we make felt bear brooches or white fabric flower pins with Kamel, the ingenious cruise director, or listen to one of two classical pianists. Nighttime diversions include burlesque acts performed by a quintet of dancers, four females and one male, as well as two singers who serenade us with sentimental favorites. There are also scholarly lectures in which I learn about the kelp forest, bubble-net feeding, and the flora and fauna of the tundra. I find the crew has a tendency to romanticize the people we encountered in Provideniya and Savoonga, underplaying the poverty and alcoholism, and highlighting instead their close-to-the-ground, unspoiled nature. When I challenge one of them during a presentation, I feel I am ruining the official narrative, but later, other guests tell me they agree with my point. I play Ping-Pong one morning with unseemly competitive spirit but lose to a young boy with his own cheering section. There are occasional shows of wildlife: a flock of short-tailed shearwater birds flies by, a tufted (as opposed to horned) puffin with an orangey beak puts in a fluttering appearance, and some humpback whales breach the waves.
The truth is that after two days spent zooming over waves on a Zodiac to a tundra in the Aleutian Islands whose landscape, ripe with edible berries and fireweed, resembles that of northern Scotland—and then on to Chankliut Island, where we walk for what seems like hours on high grass flecked with mini-daisies known as “pearl everlasting”—I can’t make up my mind about what the experience of being on the cruise adds up to, other than a smidgen of foreignness and lots of waterways. I find myself musing upon whether the cruise is aimed at people who just like to get away from the known world—people like Pete, a veteran L’Austral passenger who says things like “we’re in real frontier country here”—or whether it appeals to the specific interests of the botanically or geologically minded, people who thrill to the distinctions between earless and eared seals, or who go wild for a glimpse of a bald eagle. I know I would have gladly traded in one more sighting of a brown bear to have met more locals and found out about their nearly eclipsed way of life. One afternoon, as we cruise in a Zodiac, watching the salmon jumping, and pause to study a little grotto teeming with mollusks, sea anemones, starfish, and barnacles, Zoë says to me, sotto voce: “This feels like being with every science nerd.”
I wonder whether our restive culture has bred a fascination with remoteness for its own sake, for the sheer one-upping experience of being at the far edges of the earth—and then going home and crowing to your friends about it. It is also my growing conviction, based on an entirely unscientific analysis of my fellow passengers, that as much as travel can expand one’s mind, it is also used to confirm who you already are. The most provincial couple on the cruise, filled with insufferably smug opinions, are also the most well-traveled. When my Australian friend Geoff tells the female half of the couple that he got a pedicure in the ship’s salon, she answers sharply: “I’ve never had a manicure or pedicure in my life.”
Still, there were moments I will never forget, such as the afternoon Zoë and I skipped the Zodiac run and instead sat on a patch of beach and sunned while she created a portrait of a craggy-faced woman out of stones. Or the afternoon we went out in Hallo Bay and spotted a big black bear as well as some sea otters that beat an exit the minute we came upon them. In the background were beautifully sedimented glaciers, some of them covered with conifers. The sun was out, the bay water sprayed on our faces and clothes, and I felt like I was having my own Born Free moment—never mind my inner urban skeptic. I felt as far removed from the quotidian universe of reality-show antics and on-camera shootings as I ever will. I have to admit that there was something bracing about being at the far edges of the earth, something that made me put my own life in perspective and gave me a chance to survey the wide, alien world—a world that has existed before me and will go on existing after me. And if that meant going halfway around the globe and acquainting myself with the Sitka spruce, the murre, and the way geologically older ice turns blue, I’m only the richer for it.