A day on Stan Stephens Cruise with Prospector Jon
A Summer 2015 Yukon Prospector Web Extra.
Colleen Murphy has the best office in the world, and she knows it. “Every day is a little bit different. I never know what’s going to happen. The other day was the worst weather, but I saw the best Orcas,” she says.
Murphy works for Stan Stephens Cruises out of Valdez, Alaska. She’s lived in the city most of her life, and it’s her second summer working for the Stephens family. She spends her winter’s down in Oregon, majoring in Social Work.
“I didn’t realize how awesome Valdez was until I left,” the young woman says.
It’s not hyperbole. Valdez is one of the most beautiful places in Alaska. It sits on a typically calm bay on the southern coast of the interior. It’s surrounded by some of the highest coastal mountains in the world. Ice caps dot the landscape. Waterfalls are everywhere. You could spin in a circle in the middle of town and be constantly amazed by the sights. It’s breathtaking.
The Meares glacier cruise offered by the Stephens family is much the same. The nine-hour ride takes you down the coast of Alaska and, on a good day, within a quarter mile of the currently advancing Meares glacier.
Usually in August the area is covered in clouds and rain. An effect of the high mountains trapping the weather in, says Captain Amanda Bauer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Really, anytime is a good time to go. In June and July there’s no rain, and August is the best time to spot Orcas,” says Bauer.
However, on August 13, 2015, the sky is a lapis lazuli dome. The water is calm. The sun hot.
This is the captain’s 21st year with the Stephens family. She’s a rare embodiment of the American Dream. Bauer started working as a boat cleaner, worked her way onto the crew, and now she’s the captain of a massively popular day-cruise. Over the loudspeaker she speaks in calm, curious tones that demonstrate her love for what she does. There is no sense of boredom, nor apathy, even though she’s been steering the same route for the last 8 years.
She’s a veritable wealth of knowledge for the passengers of her ship, pointing out the different species of animals, spouting facts about the glacier, and telling the tales of tragedy that have rocked Prince William Sound over the years.
“You’re going to have the time of your life out there.”
As the boat made its way down the coast the captain stopped the vessel to point out “rafts” of otters, multiple kinds of puffins, sea lions, seals and a cadre of marine life. When humpback whales were spotted, she pulled the ship to a respectful distance, and waited while they dived and surfaced so people could snap photos.
The cruise makes for the best kind biology class. One that’s entirely immersive and interactive, with a teacher passionate about what she does.
While the wildlife spotting was a crowd pleaser, one cannot discount the sheer majesty of Meares glacier. The towering mass stands nearly a kilometre above the water, and 2.5 km wide. Often glaciers are described as living things, but you can’t really grasp that until you get close to one. The whole thing snaps and groans. Ice chunks fall off seemingly at random. Large cracks shoot through it with the sound of gunshots. While watching it a massive, 30-story chunk splashed into the water met with cheers from onlookers.
The journey is a magical experience. And it’s brought to you by a wonderful family. Stan Stephens,who passed away in 2013, is a legend in Valdez. The city is the end of the Alaska pipeline, and since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Stan worked relentlessly to make the industry safe for the area.
“He had a very large presence in a quiet way,” says his daughter Colleen Stephens, who runs the cruises. “He was a soft spoken man, but when he talked you knew you had to listen.”
Part of what makes the Stephens cruise so unique is their dedication to the area. All the staff is Alaskan, and Colleen says their perspective provides guests with a one-of-a-kind look at life in the area.
“Most of the people we have working for us started when they were 14,” she says. “It’s like one big family.”
One of the mandates Colleen tries to set out for her staff is to make sure they engage each guest, and give them a personal experience to remember.
“The whole philosophy is just getting people out on [Prince William Sound]. They’re not about making tons of money,” says Captain Bauer.
As one returning guest was overheard to say before embarking “You’re going to have the time of your life out there.”
The Meares Glacier cruise is a full day experience. It costs $160 US for the 9 hour cruise. Lunch is included, as is coffee, tea and water. Snacks can be bought or brought on board. The crew says that any time of year has its benefit. In spring, you stand a great chance of seeing humpbacks and it’s not too rainy. In August it rains a lot, but it’s the best time to spot Orcas. Otters, seals and sea lions are always hanging out.
The Stephens family also run a short cruise to Columbia Glacier. It's US $125 for the 6.5 hour cruise.
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