Peace of Kake

Cruising is a pilgrimage. Some days are humdrum: you just move ahead. Others take you completely by surprise, full to the gunwales of sights, sounds and situations unfamiliar or the challenging. Both start the same way: Jack serving coffee at about 5 am, pointing to the charts with our route, and announcing “It’s a piece of cake.” For several of the days that we remember because they weren’t, Kake was our destination or starting point. The peace came when we were snugly tied up to the floats of this small Native community.

Heading for Kake on our northbound trip, we braved the swirling black rapids of the north end of Wrangell Narrows only to encounter bergie bits the size of school busses that broken off LoConte Glacier about thirty miles to the east. Once we got out in Frederick Sound is was humpbacksville. A long day passed quickly by the time we got to Turnabout Island but we still had to do the endless rounding of Cape Bendell and Point Macartney to enter Kuiu Strait. What’s more our chart and cruising guide had little to say about where to spend the night other than that there was a lot of very shallow water and that Kake had two docks a couple of miles apart. We took one look at the first offering and headed to the second. which bore no resemblance to what was on our charts. Much to our surprise and delight, Kake now has a fine small harbor with lots space and it’s free.

By the next morning, June 14th, we were so rested we just kept going. Twelve hours in an open cockpit. Good winds, spectacular views of the snow covered mountains of Baranof when we pulled out of Frederick Sound into Chatham Strait and the whole spectrum of wildlife in one day: a huge haul out of sea lions, seals, sea otters, eagles, a huge pod of orcas and humpbacks, including one that waved to us with its fluke right next to the boat as we were heading to our anchor.

On our southbound trip the wind wasn’t behind us so we straightlined it from Baranof Warm Springs to the notorious Point Gardner, where the great flows of Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound unite or divide, inevitably troubling the waters. We took the same route south of tiny Yahya Island, where Cruz had astutely commented, “If this were Canada, there would be a lighthouse.” Where Canada has wonderful light houses, Alaska has wonderful wildlife and I was eager to see again the haulout of nearly a hundred sea lions there. As it happened, we passed a little too close to the six fathom shoal just south of the island and gave Aurora one good toss. Down below things flew. The scooter battery slid from below the nav station to slam into the small, little-used locker under the oven, breaking off a small piece of teak. Goodness, I thought. Aurora has sailed around the world with her beautiful teak intact and we manage to break something!

It was great to pull into Kake for a good sleep and mental preparation for the notorious Rocky Pass. The intrepid Douglasses do nothing to encourage this alternative to the Wrangell Narrows. They note that the dredged channel between Kupreanof and Kuiu Islands slits up to depths as little as two feet. The Coast Guard keeps adding aids to navigation so they don’t necessarily show on charts. While electronic charts may show the buoys, there’s mismatch in the electronic chart quilting that occurs at the trickiest part, aptly called Devil’s Elbow. They suggest reconnoitering the shallowest and narrowest passes first by dinghy, which is difficult for a crew of two.

But the Douglass Guide also recommends just talking to someone who has done it in a boat similar to yours. For this we thank Urs, a Vancouver photographer whose home is the 50 foot Raven Song. “You’ve got to do Rocky Pass!” were among his first words when we initially met him, at Kake, both boats northbound. In Sitka, both he and Peter Frost sat down with Jack and briefed him on this winding, narrow 21-mile channel the is a favorite of kayakers.

It was spectacular.

As for Kake, it’s distinguished mainly by being home to the world’s tallest totem pole. At 136 feet, the totem is so tall it needs the support of guy wires, which make it look more like an old-fashioned logging spar. And the adjacent microwave and TV towers are now probably a tad higher. Like most Tlingit villages, its somewhat scrappy housing stock is balanced by fine public buildings – high school, community center, longhouse – and a bunch of churches. The Presbyterian church is home to the Peace of Kake Café.

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