The day started under a dense fog that made for a surreal sailing to Cascade Creek. Only the bellow of the foghorn cut the silence. In preparation for the day’s adventure, we donned our waterproof boots and boarded Zodiacs. We headed for the rockweed shores of the Tongass National Forest, the largest protected forest in the United States. Within minutes of arriving to the beach, the fog lifted and rays of sunlight beamed through the forest. It was time to chase the light and begin the day’s hikes.

Tongass National Forest is a temperate rainforest. These forests receive between 50 and 200 inches of rain per year, and they host an incredible array of life. Mosses, lichens, and mushrooms blanket the trees, while dwarf dogwood and false lily-of-the-valley carpet the forest floor.

Hiking into the forest, we were greeted by the fresh fragrance of the greenery surrounding us. The sound of falling water called us deeper down the trail, but before we could get too far, we came across an unexpected sight – a rough-skinned newt! These poisonous newts rely on microbes living on their skin to produce a paralytic neurotoxin. When ingested, the toxin can cause tingling or even trigger paralysis. It is best to admire this critter from afar, so we snapped our photos and continued down the trail. Cascade Waterfall did not disappoint, and breathing in the cool mist from the falls re-energized us for the hike back.

The afternoon was beautiful for our cruise through Frederick Sound. All eyes on deck focused on the waterline in search of whales. The area is an active feeding ground because it is an area of convergence that brings deep, phytoplankton-rich waters to the surface. And where there are tiny phytoplankton, there are shrimp-like krill, herring, salmon, and whales.

Our wait was rewarded – we observed humpback whales and a pod of orcas hugging the islands that dot Frederick Sound. Complete silence fell upon National Geographic Sea Lion. As we listened to the orcas take one last breath before diving, a humpback whale breached in the distance, closing out this spectacular Alaskan day.

Photographers: Paola Espitia, Naturalist, and Kimberly Wood, Zodiac Driver