On the final full day of the voyage, we were greeted by the scenery that we’ve grown familiar with over the past week: a ceiling of light gray skies, calm waters, and the muted greens and grays of the spruce-hemlock forests. The low cloud ceiling found its way down to peaks and slopes of low, rounded mountains. This new acquaintance is Southeast Alaska, and we’ve gotten to know the place more personally over the past few days. 

We have seen what it looks like beyond the confines of the ship. We have developed some intuition for what lays below over the surface of the waters, beyond the curtain of spruces, and how the rounded mountains have been shaped by glaciers come and gone. 

We hadn’t quite gotten to know the salmon better until today, however. The role of the salmon on the ecosystem is far greater than one might imagine. Eagles, brown bears, Bonaparte’s gulls and crows have been drawn from far and wide to greet the homecoming of salmon, which return to the very streams they were born in after years at sea. They’re here to spawn, if they’re lucky. 

Where sea meets the land, freshwater streams serve as veins for the lifeblood of this part of Alaska.  By foot, kayak, and paddleboard, participants on National Geographic Venture explored the terminus of Ushk Bay. Mink and bear prints dotted the sandy banks of the streams where salmon had been gathering. Bird calls from lush patches of cottonwoods and alder broke through a soundscape of moving water. 

It is the salmon, too, that bring nitrogen with them when they die. Enriching the streamside plant community, they bring life to other organisms in the form of transferred energy and nutrients. Rock and glaciers helped to engineer the landscape, salmon play a role in maintaining the place.

After activities, our youngest guests, the Global Explorers, joined staff in driving Zodiacs. Parents and grandparents watched with excitement. The energy found its way into lunch and beyond, and we set off towards Sitka to disembark, but not before punctuating our weeklong experience with stories and reflections of our time in the Inside Passage, and a nod to salmon, guests, and all the people on the ship that keep this system moving.