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Cruising Alaska with badass female guides

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The SS Legacy. - PHOTO BY TERESA BERGEN
  • photo by Teresa Bergen
  • The SS Legacy.

As my group approaches Dawes Glacier, Cherese Taggert weaves the skiff between chunks of blue, white and clear glacial ice. Clad in black rain gear, blonde hair streaming in the wind, she looks as if she's grown up piloting groups around Alaska. It's the first morning of our wilderness cruise with UnCruise Adventures, and we're the first skiff of the season to venture into the area.

While Taggert steers, expedition leader Sarah Sinn-White points out the heads and necks of Alaska harbor seals periscoping from the waters, and leans over the skiff to snag a large chunk of ice. She passes the ice around to touch and taste. While our cruise ship, the 88-passenger SS Legacy, has plenty of men aboard, expedition boss Megan Moran decided to send all the single ladies and women travelling without their men on the first skiff, so we could lead the way as adventurers. Sinn-White hams it up with girl-power antics. But beneath a willingness to play the clown, I feel her palpable pride and competence. I experience that from the ship's other three female expedition guides and several women deckhands over the following week. Despite them all being younger than me, I spend the cruise hoping to be more like them when I grow up.

Kayaking between icebergs. - PHOTO BY TERESA BERGEN
  • photo by Teresa Bergen
  • Kayaking between icebergs.

Yoga, Fitness and Adventure

I came aboard for a special themed yoga and fitness cruise of southeast Alaska. Each day started with 6:45 a.m. yoga on deck—I've seldom seen so many hats and gloves in a yoga class, but the views of sea and mountains were beautiful. Days were full of adventure activities, mostly bushwhacking, kayaking and zipping about in skiffs. In keeping with our wellness theme, evening activities included optional workouts, nutrition talks and meditation sessions. Our guides gave evening presentations on wildlife and Alaskan history. While passengers partook of the full bar, this was not a party ship. Cruising Alaska with UnCruise is for people who are more excited about whales than nightlife.

Kayaking between icebergs. - PHOTO BY TERESA BERGEN
  • photo by Teresa Bergen
  • Kayaking between icebergs.

Lives of Guides

Whether bushwhacking, kayaking or skiff riding, I gravitated toward the female guides. Being a nature lover with few survival skills, their trajectories from little girls to fearless wilderness leaders fascinated me.

Before starting at UnCruise, Kalyn Holl guided kayak, canoe and hiking trips. When kayak guiding, she'd carry two tandem kayaks at once up and down a steep rocky slope. "Customers would come up and say, 'I'll get those for you, I'm a little stronger.' And I'd say, 'No, I don't want you to trip on your face.' It's maybe a nice gesture," she reflects, sounding doubtful. "But I don't need it."

Passengers question Sinn-White about her personal life in a way they might not question men. "An older Australian guy last year asked, 'If you ladies are always on the boat, how do you ever meet any fellows?'" But Sinn-White laughs it off, instead focusing on the strength of female guides. "Women especially gravitate towards naturalist guiding, where we're bringing people out for the experience and creating community for a group." What she describes as the "gung-ho, shove you down this waterfall" type of guides are a mix of genders, she says. Taggert, who works as a deckhand, says that what women lack in pure strength, they make up for in more attention to detail and safety.

Tasting a chunk of glacial ice. - PHOTO BY TERESA BERGEN
  • photo by Teresa Bergen
  • Tasting a chunk of glacial ice.

Many of the women passengers seem both pleased for the female guides and a bit bummed they missed out. Walking along a tidal inlet one day, expedition leader Lilly Stewart tells me, "Especially the older women sometimes say, 'I never knew this was a possibility.'"

Fearless leaders and badass bitches

One morning Megan Moran leads my kayak group. Moran is the boss of all the Legacy guides and second in command only to the captain. We're paddling by Kuiu Island, known for its high concentration of bears. I notice Moran has brought bear spray. "On a kayak?!" I ask in surprise. Sure, Moran says. Bears swim. "And they don't like kayakers very much." Hungry bears cranky from their recent hibernation might just go for a kayaker, she tells me.

Misty view from the skiff. - PHOTO BY TERESA BERGEN
  • photo by Teresa Bergen
  • Misty view from the skiff.

Do bears really gnaw on kayaks and kayakers, or is she messing with a gullible resident of the Lower 48, as they say up here? I make a note to myself to Google it later (very unlikely, but I find one viral video of a black bear chewing an empty kayak). Meanwhile, Moran goes about the business of educating her group about the anemones and sea cucumbers hanging from rocks, unfazed by bear threats or the white caps the wind stirs up.

Sinn-White's assessment of her colleagues and mentors who work for the company was right: "All my friends are badass bitches."

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