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Our Eight Day Photography Excursion Aboard the MV David B — Part One

Dear Family and Friends, 

In January, I came across an advertisement in a photography magazine for a very intriguing workshop — adventure cruising in Alaska. I forwarded the link to Dave and said something brilliant like, “Wouldn’t this be awesome to do some day?” His reply? “Why not?! What would we wait for?” Indeed!

The more we researched the offering, the more it seemed perfect for us. A chance to practice our landscape and wildlife photography, in spectacular surroundings, guided by two talented professional photographer/instructors, aboard a refurbished 1929 fishing vessel that carried a maximum of eight passengers. It would go where the big ships can’t go, and we wouldn’t have to dress up for dinner. 

In February, we cleared our taking time off in August with our boss in Grand Teton National Park (where, for those of you that don’t know, we volunteered in the park for the past four summers), and signed up with Northwest Navigation to cruise the islands and inlets of Southeast Alaska aboard the Motor Vessel David B.

returning to the M/V David B after an excursion ashore

The David B was built in 1929 as a cannery tender to work as part of the Libby McNeil fleet operating in the Bristol Bay salmon fishing grounds, and named after a cannery manager. After sitting abandoned on a beach for 30 years, the workboat was rebuilt and refashioned over eight arduous yet hopeful years to become Captain Jeffrey and Christine’s dream of a small boat cruise ship. 

If you are interested in knowing things like the beam, draft, and displacement, click to the details page: https://northwestnavigation.com/the-motor-vessel-david-b/

And for diesel fans (we are now!) this article in Soundings Magazine has all the engine details, and a video so you can listen to the sound that had all the passengers tapping their toes to the rhythm of the Washington Iron Works three-cylinder diesel engine: https://www.soundingsonline.com/features/time-machine.

Leading up to the trip, Sarah who handles reservations and questions from land, was very helpful with periodic suggestions on prepping for the trip. My favorite piece of advice (which we struggled to abide by) was to “pack more camera gear than clothes.” We now see the inherent wisdom of that!

I must admit that this trip came at the perfect time. Park staff here refer to the eighth month of the year in the park as “Angry August.” It isn’t that we don’t like our jobs, but being the professional, always helpful party host to a nonstop stream of guests for months on end can wear on the cheeriest of us. A day or two off and a change of scenery can be just the thing.

It always makes me think of our time in the Navy when Dave would be gone on six to nine month deployments. At some point, usually around month five, I would end up having a pity party. For about a week, unplanned, the stress of managing the home-front alone would get to me and I’d be pretty grumpy. I’d treat myself to a steak and beer at Outback, get over it, and start planning the Welcome Home party. This August, I was feeling ready for a break, so the timing was perfect.

As our plane approached Juneau at sunset, we could just make out where the David B was tied up waiting below, dwarfed by the gargantuan cruise ships with dubious monikers like Miracle of the Sea, or, something like that. We’d have to wait until morning meet our boat.

The David B awaits us in Juneau Harbor. You can just see her among the eight little boats near the gargantuan cruise ships – the last in line on the left side of the pier.

Our directions to find the boat were to go to the Intermediate Vessel Float, located behind a ‘smokery’ restaurant, which amused the taxi driver to no end. The David B was patiently waiting for us at the end of a long floating pier, dwarfed in a canyon of cruise ship walls. Very briskly, I was relieved of the shoulder-bruising weight of my camera bag and stepped over the glossy dark painted gunwale onto the deck of the wooden boat that would be home for eight days.

Permission to come aboard!
the cruise ships along side felt like fjord canyon walls next to the David B

In short order we were introduced to Jeffrey the Captain and co-owner with his spouse Christine, Matt the deckhand, John and Alan our photography workshop instructors, and five other guests. (Buck & Margaret from Florida, David & Hillary from Canada, and Bill, also from Florida)

We were given a quick tour of the sixty-five foot long boat, and left to unpack in our stateroom. Dave wasted no time in finding himself in the pilot house as Jeffrey prepared to get us underway. Unpacking entailed leaving the camera bags in the lounge, and dumping the suitcases under the bunk before heading on deck to watch a tourist tram ascend a mountain to our right, uh, starboard, and a float plane take off to port. 

Dave in the pilot house with Captain Jeffrey as we depart Juneau Harbor

The passengers’ staterooms have been carved into a space on the boat that at one time in its life was used for storing fish.  Fortunately, it doesn’t smell like 50 year old fish anymore; however it seems appropriate all the staterooms are named after various species of salmon.

the passageway to our berths

Our room, The Chinook, had a door that was narrower than I am at the shoulders. So it always amused me that I had to come and go sideways. The queen bunk was secured about four feet off the deck, with a nice thick comforter and decadent pillows. Under the bunk were life jackets, a step stool, and space for two roll-aboard suitcases. Standing in the doorway, at my left elbow in the corner was the sink with power outlet and petite vase of fresh flowers. To my right was the door to the private head – which being a marine toilet required you to press a button to engage the vacuum pump and get a green light in preparation for use of the foot pedal to flush. 

I stood in the hallway to take this picture of our stateroom

There were thoughtfully placed sturdy handles secured to the overhead which one could use to help haul themselves up into bed at night. The ceiling was rather low on the outboard side of the bed, and I only smacked my head once a night rolling over — I always felt bad for our neighbors, as the overhead had a sheet of tin over head and it was noisy when I hit it. 😀 Really, it was no big deal, and a part of the adventure. 

The lounge in the center part of the ship was our classroom and study hall. Each day had a lecture/demonstration session. Most days students displayed their latest favorite photos for a very gentle and often helpful group critique. We were always an admiring audience! More on the photography workshop later.

photo taken from the pilot house of the captain briefing us on tomorrow’s schedule – our cameras were always at the ready, sitting on the window sills

The galley was the next most frequented place on the ship. Co-owner Christine is a whiz with a wood stove and cooking for 12 people three times a day (plus nibbles), especially when it came to pastry treats, such as the Pain Au Chocolat she made from scratch for our last morning together. Another David B galley tradition is having chili for lunch on the day we visit a glacier. Yum!

Christine’s duty station was rarely idle, and is wonderfully efficient. She even has a tablet that will let her check on business email or see the boat’s progress on the digital navigation app operating in the pilot house.
the wood stove is known as “Sweet Heart” I’d love to know the backstory!
cooking gear at the ready
an ingenious way to store cooking sheets
coffee mess supplies

The dinette reached across the stern of the boat, seating eight for amazing meal after meal, as well as doing duty as overflow seating for students working on their photo processing homework. Dave camped out here quite a lot, often getting up by 04:30 to start working on his photos and keep the chef company. 

The dinette took up the stern of the ship. On the left, my camera is resting on the hatch to the engine room.
Oh how those galley windows rattled! This lovely carved shim was how the windows were kept closed. To open, remove the shim and the window slides down into a pocket.
a typical breakfast served aboard the David B
Dave keeping the chef company and working on his homework
sometimes several of us would gather at the table because it was the last place with an available power outlet

The pilot house was open to visitors and we all took turns admiring the view from our Captain’s perspective, and sharing stories up there as well.

On the upper deck there were deck chairs for relaxing and taking in the view, as well as the skiff and crane for shore excursions, and even crab pots for occasionally catching dinner. It was a fantastic lookout for Orcas and Humpback whales too. 

Attention to detail was very obvious throughout our stay. One of the most beneficial were the slop boots. One of the trip’s preparation steps was to inform the crew of our shoe size. They had slop boots waiting in the stern of the boat so we could just wear slip-on (aka clean) shoes while on the boat, then step into the rubber boots before loading into the skiff to go ashore. Very smart. I am sorry I was so stubborn to bring my hiking boots – they could have stayed home. 

Okay, so that is the tour of the David B

Photography Workshop

Dave on the upper deck of the David B

As for the photography workshop, it is a bit challenging to explain. This was not a how-to-use your camera course, nor even one focused on aperture & speed settings for getting the photo. 

I would have to say it was more focused on the creative side; finding different ways to look at things, such as an abandoned boat being subsumed by the forest, and making a moody photograph highlighting the texture of rust and peeling paint paired with the soft shadows of dappled light playing through the forest canopy. Or walking in a forest that had never been logged to photograph slugs, toothpick sized mushrooms, or feathery moss. Or finding patterns in nature such as a squirrel’s cone cache, a clump of purple muscles and white barnacles, or sunlight shining through kelp fronds. Extra points given if the way you cropped and created the photo made it hard to tell (initially) what you are looking at. Dave found their talks on composing an image very helpful. 

exploring a glacier terminal morraine
photographers roaming the ruins at Taku Harbor in the background, a stack of tin fanned like an open book with pages blowing in the wind lay abandoned on the shore
Dave’s take on the same bundle of tin
someone’s pride and joy rests forgotten by all but the forest
discarded pine husks near a squirrel’s nest
This mushroom was barely an inch tall. I didn’t see the spider until back aboard and looking on the computer!

The main focus was on learning how to use software (specifically Adobe’s Lightroom) to bring out the nuances in a photo. 

sorting through photos of the Dawes Glacier

[Skip this part if you aren’t into photography — We shoot photos in the format called RAW. In a nutshell it has all the color and light information about the image stored in such a way that the settings I choose in processing reveal the image. A JPG, such as your smart phone or point and shoot camera take, is just an engineer’s choice of settings for what the image should look like, and then throws away any info not used to save space. RAW keeps all that data so that I can do things like darken mid-range shadows to bring out the details in a pelican’s feathers, as an example. ]

Quick example of Lightroom adjustments: — on the left what a jpg might look like with the white sky obliterating details in the tree and the colors are flat — on the right we recovered much of the detail in the tree branches against the sky and warmed up the mid tone greens and browns

Both of us have used this software before, but it turns out we only scratched the surface of what it is capable of. We are both happy to have a much better understanding of what it does, even if we are still a bit clumsy at the controls. 

TS Eliot said “The journey, not the destination matters…” On this trip, it was both! Many cruise ships design their itinerary to remain in port for a day and then steam all night to the next location. You miss the journey. Our itinerary was the opposite. We anchored in tiny, secluded, gorgeous coves at sunset to rest in the peaceful arms of Mother Nature each night. Only one night did we have any company in sight. At six am (0600 Dave’s time), the sturdy Washington Iron Works engine rumbled to life, bringing its passengers to life as well. And in the daylight hours we would motor through places like Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound, to further explore destinations like Taku Harbor, Admiralty Island, Pack Creek, and a favorite – Fords Terror. We might stop once or twice a day, in the course of our journey, to take the skiff ashore to explore and photograph to our heart’s delight. 

It was a distinct advantage that the person at the controls understood they had photographers on board, and would motor close to a fjord wall so we could run out on deck to photograph a mountain sized waterfall, or put the engine in idle so we could linger in an area Orca were feeding to watch them. And I especially loved that Christine kept her camera close at hand in the galley so she could dash out and snap a few photos with us before returning to her KP duties. 

we took a good look at this iceberg!

Over our eight days we cruised into narrow fjords, circled icebergs, hiked virgin forests, crunched our way through tidepools, and stood transfixed before a tidewater glacier. We spotted fast moving Orcas, delighted in being surrounded and visited by Humpback whales, marveled at spawning salmon surging against riotous currents, and laughed out loud to see grizzly bear cubs play fight with their mother at the edge of a salmon stream. 

We’ll save those details for the next installment.

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