Steamboat Springs Mike Braal is finally captain of his own boat, and the Forest Queen and the humpback whales are calling him back to Alaska for the summer.
After 18 years working as a kayak guide, leading saltwater fishing trips, leading hikes through the remote Brooks Range and piloting tourists to the whale feeding grounds, Braal has launched his own business.
Braal considers Steamboat Springs home. But rarely does he experience summer in the Yampa Valley. He's been heading north to Alaska every summer since becoming intrigued with humpback whales on a trip to Maui.
"I was sailing with a friend and we found ourselves in the middle of a group of whales," Braal recalled. "We dropped the sails, slipped over the side and went swimming with him."
Braal never quite got the experience out of his head. And if it seems odd that a vacation in Hawaii would prompt a man to spend two decades of summers in Alaska, consider that the whales make the trip from the coast off Lahaina to the Icy Straits of southeast Alaska each year.
It was a chance acquaintance he made while on a Grand Canyon trip, that really aimed Braal's internal compass north. When he met a woman from Alaska he asked her if she ever sighted whales.
"Oh yeah, they're in my backyard," she said. I rent kayaks to tourists. Come on up I'll give you a kayak to use."
Braal made the trip in 1983 and one thing led to another.
"The next thing I knew I had a job guiding kayak tours," he laughed.
Today, Braal has a low interest development loan from the state of Alaska to help with the $70,000 purchase of the 45-foot twin diesel Forest Queen. He's about to embark on his first full season running his own eco-tour business, Whale Bay Charters.
"Now I can design the trips and take people places where I want to go," Braal said. "We're going to explore a lot of different places."
Braal is a self-trained naturalist as well as a Coast Guard certified captain. He delights in sharing his knowledge of Alaska's marine mammals, birds and tidal pools with his clients. Over 18 years, he's signed on for a succession of Alaskan summer jobs before he found his calling. He typically begins working construction in Steamboat in mid autumn, and returns to Alaska each May.
After a season as a kayak guide, Braal went to sea in a bigger boat.
"From there I went into commercial fishing trolling for salmon and long lining for halibut," Braal said.
After the rest of his crew insisted on pushing its luck in stormy seas, Braal decided it wasn't the job for him.
"It was scary," he said of a night when 40-mph winds sent waves crashing over the bridge of the fishing boat.
"The end result was we were jeopardizing our safety for not enough money," Braal said.
If there was a lasting benefit to his tenure as a commercial fisherman, it's that he tested and qualified for a Coast Guard captain's license allowing him to set to sea with six passengers. Later, he upgraded his license to allow him to pilot 25-ton, then 50-ton vessels.
With his license in hand, Braal began a seven-year career guiding anglers on sport fishing charters around the islands and channels in southeast Alaska's Inland passage.
After years of pursuing salmon and halibut on behalf of others, Braal grew weary of constantly striving to meet his clients' often unrealistic expectations for angling success.
"It's very competitive," Braal said. "It's very high stress. When there are four boats leaving out of one lodge, if you don't catch the same amount of fish as the others, your clients are looking at you," with a look that makes their disappointment clear.
Wanting to see more of Alaska than just the coast, Braal embarked on a new career and became a guide for combined canoe and hiking trips in the Brooks Range.
"I'd still love to do that, but the season is short," Braal said. He was lucky if he got in 30 days of paid guiding during a summer, and that didn't justify the expense of travel between Colorado and Alaska each season.
After four years, he returned to the ocean, working as a captain for other outfitters, guiding tourists from all over the world to see whales and other marine mammals. Braal found himself as excited as his clients.
"It was so incredible," he said. "Each day I had to write in my journal to keep up with what had happened. Each day was a totally wonderful encounter with whales. Sometimes there were mothers with babies, other times adolescents. It gives you the goose bumps."
Southeast Alaska is the summer feeding ground for 600 humpbacks, and about 100 stay close to Glacier Bay.
Braal bases the Forest Queen at the tiny one gas station town of Gustavus.
The boat is equipped with a hydrophone, which allows his clients to listen to the whales communicating with one another."
Occasionally, the chatter switches away from Humpback talk as a pod of Orcas approaches.
"I can often hear Orcas approaching from four miles away, and we get in position and wait for them," he said.
The Forest Queen can sleep six passengers and two crew comfortably. After a morning searching for whales, the guests might spend a portion of the afternoon exploring tidal pools in kayaks or engaging in casual fishing. Braal can also launch the inflatable Zodiac and take his guests ashore for a walk in the Tongass maritime rain forest.
In the late afternoon, the crab pots and shrimp pots go overboard to snare crustacean appetizers.
Braal hires a combined first mate/cook each summer and the guests feast on fresh seafood each night.
Braal is 58 now. And sometimes leaving Steamboat is a bittersweet experience. But he expects the joys of guiding visitors to Alaska to its natural wonders will sustain him for many years to come.
On the net