My Chat With Captain Dan
On the bridge of the S.S. Legacy ship, I sat across from Captain Dan Blanchard. Dan—once a Washingtonian, now a man of Alaska—was spending the week cruising the Columbia and Snake river in the Pacific Northwest. When I met Dan the day before, I had not guessed he was the owner of the ship and UnCruise Adventures—a small ship adventure and river cruise line. He had mingled amongst passengers and quietly introduced himself as “Dan.” Now, unpretentious, and authentic in charm and jovial mannerisms, he rotated the white captain’s chair where he sat and chatted with me about his life and company.
Moments earlier, before Dan arrived, Scott, the full-time Captain of the S.S. Legacy, reached his hand to the ceiling above his head and pulled down a set of triangular handles. The extension of the handles set off a series of shrill sounds—whistles. One whistle had a tale behind it: a high school basketball game, a red wagon, and a blow horn attached to the ship whistle. Scott was in the middle of the tale when the hinges of the bridge door squeaked. Captain Scott’s voice raised. “Wait. There he is right now. His ears were burning,” he said, as Dan arrived.
Dan said, “Oh, that was for Ingrid. Did you blow the whistles?” He chuckled and sat down in a chair between Scott and myself.
I smiled and shook my head. “No, it wasn’t me,” I said.
Scott motioned to the handle above his head. “I was just going through your whistles and the story of you being expelled from high school for three days,” he said.
Dan confirmed the legendary tale with a mischievous grin and nod, and Scott’s rich guffaw erupted into bridge's open space.
I studied Dan for a moment. A white beard, cut close to his face, wrapped around his jawline and highlighted his sharp blue eyes—eyes that reminded me of my father’s. I said, “Is the S.S. Legacy the first ship you bought?”
He said, “No, but I’ve had a relationship with the boat since she came out with another company to the West in 1987 or 88. I spent a little time with her during the [Exxon] Valdez oil spill in 89. This boat was the communications vessel in the oil spill recovery team.” He lifted his hands and placed them behind his head.
I readied my pen, and said, “What is special about the ship—things a passenger wouldn’t know?”
His voice lowered, softened. “Two of the tables in the lounge belonged to my grandmother,” he said. A moment passed before he continued. “There’s a tribute to a guy who was a mentor to many of us. It is a picture of a young aviator named Chuck West during World War II. He owned this boat at one time. It was his favorite vessel.
When I got the ship, he had passed away. We got the family to give us pictures of Chuck and on the other side is a picture of Marguerite, who was Miss Alaska in 1937. The jacket outside the manager’s office is his jacket,” he said.
“Oh, I saw the coat. It was in a frame."
Dan’s voice filled with sentiment. “He was the father of Alaskan tourism post-World War II. He was a hell-of-an energetic, wonderful man. I worked for him for twelve years,” he said.
Silence permeated the room. I scribbled the last of his nostalgic words. I looked up from my notebook, and said, “Why do you call your company UnCruise Adventures?”
He complimented my question, and said, “In 2007, we started to rejig our model to more of an adventure base. After a three-week stretch of cruising with travel writers and 'industry folk,' they began to refer to the cruise line as the 'Uncola.' The experience was the antithesis of what was offered on large cruise ships. A couple of writers began to use the term, 'UnCruise' and it stuck. So, when we rebranded, we went with UnCruise Adventures.”
He added, “When I go down to Seatrade and give a talk, here I am in the midst of Mega cruise lines speaking about small, niche cruising, and I have to tell them right off the bat, ‘You aren’t my industry. My industry is more the adventure and small group travel.’”
My thoughts turned toward the day we disembarked from Portland, Oregon, and said, “Your other ships are adventure-based. Why did you decide to make the S.S. Legacy along with the historical lines of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery?”
“This trip has a history and exploration model to it, because of the physical location of where we are. However, as you learn on the trip, there is a whole history of salmon and agriculture. There is a whole other flip beyond Lewis and Clark, about the Native cultures here. You look at all the rolling hills of the Palouse area, and you think, Wow, who could have lived here?. But these were rich, rich areas for native people for tens-of-thousands of years. And that’s another piece when you are on the Columbia and Snake river you need to talk about because it is part of the local color,” he said.
As he spoke, he was direct, but not intimidating. His eyes stayed with mine, and I noted it was easy for him to look people in the eye when addressing them. He folded his arms. “One of the reasons there is so much detailed information is because the Columbia watershed was the largest watershed for salmon, bar none. Bar none!” he repeated himself with force. His voice cracked, and tears welled in his eyes.
He paused, then continued, “If I get a little emotional when I’m talking this way, it’s because I’m so into what is happening with salmon recovery in the world. The very dams that are allowing us to travel on this river are the dams that have reduced the amount of availability of salmon that get upstream. And the pools that we are traveling on right now when they get warm in the summer make it more difficult for the fry to survive, as well if they go downstream. There are certain complications, and I’m not going to jump out either way and say, ‘tear down the dams or keep them,’ but the modern world has encroached on the largest watershed known to humankind. We think about Alaska and the Reds up north, and we like to believe that is the all-time threshold for salmon, but it was here.”