Discovering Alaska With The Stephens Family Cruises
Stephens Family, Valdez, Prince William Sound
MRV: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider. Written By: Renee Wright.
Sharing Alaska With The World: Stephens Cruises
Taking Its Guests On Full-Day Excursions To Two Of Alaska’s Largest And Most Spectacular Glaciers
For the Stephens family, Valdez and Prince William Sound are home. “We’ve been running boats out of Valdez since 1971, when my father bought his first boat,” Colleen Stephens, currently president of the Stan Stephens Cruises, tells The Buzz. “At first it was sportfishing, but in 1978, we began our glacier and wildlife cruises. This is such an amazing place, we just had to share it.”
Colleen has headed the company since her father passed away in 2013. Her mother and two sisters take part in the family business as well. “My mother goes out on cruises two or three days a week,” Colleen says. “And she makes the chowder we serve for lunch on board.”
The Stephens family currently operates two boats making full-day excursions to two of the area’s largest and most spectacular glaciers: Columbia and Meares. Although both are tidewater glaciers, opening into Prince William Sound, they are quite different, Colleen explains.
“Since the mid-80s, Columbia has been in what they call a massive retreat. It’s melted 13 miles back since then, in the last few years losing about a half mile a year,” she says. “It’s the last Alaska glacier from the Ice Age to begin what the scientists call a catastrophic retreat and it’s moving fast. This results in a lot of big icebergs in the water, but our boats can get pretty close to the face.”
The Meares Glacier, on the other hand, has been advancing in recent years. “It’s what we call a stable glacier,” she says. “We’ll see this spring if it’s still advancing. The face of Meares in one mile wide and we can usually get within a quarter mile for an upclose look.
“Both glaciers are active with lots of calving, which we often get to see. Sometimes we are cruising past icebergs bigger than the boat.”
Every Stephens cruise includes a wealth of wildlife sightings. Marine mammals and seabirds thrive in Prince William Sound, and humpback whales, puffins, orcas, bald eagles and a wealth of other native creatures are frequently seen. Sea otters, seals, and Steller sea lions hitch rides on chunks of ice and haul out of rocky islands.
Sightings of land animals are less certain, although mountain goats and bears make frequent cameos. Colleen says that the captains of the Stephens fleet, each veterans of decades on the job, are experts at spotting wildlife and explaining its life story.
They are also, she says, masters of local history and lore, pointing out historic sites and sharing stories of the Native American tribes in the region, the mining industry, salmon fishing, and, of course the oil pipeline.
Valdez came to international headlines in 1989, when the tanker ship Exxon Valdez came to grief shortly after loading oil at Valdez. The resulting cleanup of Prince William Sound proved a decisive moment in environmental protection. Stan Stephens found himself and his boats in the heart of the cleanup, chasing oil up and down the Sound. The experience caused Stan to dedicate his life to protection of the environment.
“As they come into the harbor, our captains describe the oil shipping process and explain how it has changed. It’s amazing where we are today with oil shipping safety. Valdez is now one of the world’s safest cold water ports for oil. Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to give you a wake up call. And that’s what happened in ‘89,” Colleen says.
The company likes its captains and crew to interact with passengers during cruises. “We encourage the personal touch,” Colleen says. “We are a local company, here for 46 years, and most of our employees live in Valdez. We are committed to our community. Our goal is for people to get off our boats understanding Alaska better.”
One of the things that makes Valdez so special, Stephens says, is its relative isolation. “Valdez is the perfect destination if you have a couple of extra days in your Alaska itinerary. The setting of the town is amazing - mountains 360 degrees around you, coming right up out of the water, with snow-capped peaks all year. The drive itself is worth coming here… the last two hours through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon are unbelievable.”
The relative isolation means that you will have Valdez almost to yourself, without the hoards of tourists who visit more easily reached areas of Alaska every summer. “The extra time it takes to get here is worth it because you are here with fewer people,” Colleen says. “For example, 60 sightseeing boats go out of Juneau every day in summer. Three go out of Valdez and two of them are ours.”
The best part of her day, Colleen says, is going down to the docks to meet the boats coming in every afternoon. “I love to hear the passengers and crew talk about the amazing things they saw.” She says she hears people who have toured other parts of Alaska often say the same thing:
“This is the Alaska I’ve been looking for.”
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.
Make Sure To Stay At:
Big Bear Campground & RV Park, family owned and operated. This clean and friendly campground has much
to offer to the Alaskan traveler. Centrally located in the heart of the
Mat-Su Valley and just a few miles from both the cities of Palmer and