In Southeast, transportation takes a backseat to all other uses of a car. For panhandle Alaskans, their vehicles have other roles. Waterproof shopping carts. Dog kennels. Moveable offices. Giant toolboxes. Ad hoc shelters. Bumpersticker racks.
They certainly have enough cars. Someone in Sitka said there were over twenty thousand vehicles in that town of barely nine thousand souls! And Alaska’s fourth largest city has a mere 23 miles of streets and roads. They go nowhere really. People in Hoonah brag that they have a road that can take them 14 miles out of the village to hunt and freshwater fish. But like the state capital, Juneau, most towns in Southeast are landlocked. You just can’t get there – or out of there – by car. Cars come and go only by barge, or by the ferries that make up the Alaska Marine Highway.
(The exceptions are the Southeast towns of Haines and Skagway, which connect with the AlCan Highway. Ambitious folks from British Columbia and the lower 48 arrive via the outposts Whitehorse and Dawson Creek to join car totting ferry passengers and the busses that meet the cruise ships. The result is to turn these two otherwise charming, walkable towns into parking lots.)
Prince of Wales Island is where inhabitants are really proud of their roads. Most of the communities of the third largest island in the US (after Big Island Hawaii and Kodiak) are connected to one another by road, the exceptions being Point Baker and Port Protection. This means a locksmith in Hydaburg can respond to a call in Whale Pass, a family from Hollis can buy groceries in Coffman Cove, and pet owners from most parts of the island can drive to Craig on the third Friday and Saturday of the month when the vet is in town. Roads bind Prince of Wales communities into a common local economy. “More than 2000 miles of roads reach into Prince of Wales Island.” boasts the 2012 Chamber of Commerce brochure. Then it goes on to say that only 105 miles are paved!
By and large, however, Southeast Alaskans go places on boats and planes. Your car is a runabout, a utility vehicle. It is enough trouble to keep it registered, licensed and insured. Indeed, driver lapses fill the police blotter of every small town newspaper.
So it was not surprising to overhear a Wrangell bar patron say, “Oh. Road trips are reallyhard on a car”. The bartender had mentioned that her sister wanted to borrow her car, take it by ferry down to the lower 48 and then drive to Montana! It just wasn’t feasible, was it? Her customers were utterly sympathetic. Use a car for a road trip? What would happen to the car? Just not part of the culture.
This year our north-south transit of Dent Rapids, Gillard Passage, and Yuculta Rapids in one go on a difficult spring low slack was perfect. Taking a whole bunch of things into consideration, Jack worked out a strategy that put Aurora in the middle of each rapids exactly as the tide turned. What’s more we entered the series with the ebb and exited with the flood. It doesn’t get better than this.
When to take the rapids is something that mariners have to work out for themselves after studying tide and current tables and talking to people. Cruising guides such as Waggoners can only offer so much help. After forty years of cruising the Inside Passage, Bob Hale in his one page essay “Running the Rapids” (p. 241) stresses that every rapids has its own personality, characteristics and moods. He lists the four variables that mariners have to assess to find the “window of opportunity” during which they can safely transit.
First, while it’s always desirable to pass rapids at slack, you have to account for differences between high water slacks vs low water slacks. Second, every fortnight at full and new moons there are spring tides with extreme highs and lows; these are balanced on other weeks of the month by neap tides. Third, rapids are affected by the size and shape of the bodies of water on either side of the narrows. Fourth, you need to factor in the direction you’re traveling and the speed of your boat.
In time we have learned to visualize these things so that Hale’s conclusions make sense:
The window is narrowest at lower low water slack. Spring tides mean waters rise very high and fall very low.
The window at high water slack is wider on neap tides than on spring tides. With so much water moving the calm waters between flow and ebb don’t last very long.
At high water slack, the window is narrower on the rise from lower low water slack. It’s wider between the high waters of the subsequent tide cycle.
But then we encountered the Tlevak Narrows. This very short span of water just south of Craig, Alaska separates Prnce of Wales Island from Dall’s Island. The Douglass cruising guide had led us to believe they were tricky but had little to offer in the way of guidelines, except one. There’s a red buoy at the north entrance, which is visible from the south entrance as well. The currents through the Narrows are so strong that this buoy regularly disappears under the surface of the water! The corollary is that you transit only when it’s dead vertical.
So, knowing the value of local knowledge for such challenges, we started asking around “What time is slack at Tlevak Narrows?” The more we asked – the Harbor Master, commercial fishermen, cruisers – the wider the range of answers and opinions we got. After two days of this we knew every boat Craig Habor that wanted to transit south when we did . Our cumulative experience seemed to indicate that slack would be around 1 pm, that the window was very short, maybe five minutes, and that we should arrive by noon to keep an eye on the red buoy.
It was a beautiful day and while we were underway, Jack decided to check AyeTides on his iPad and, low and behold, slack at Tlevak was listed for 10:45! We radioed the other boats with the news and said we were pressing on ahead. When we arrived the buoy was straight up. No more ripples on one side than on the other. No sooner were we fifty yards beyond it in the middle of the Narrows than we saw ripples indicating the waters were ebbing out to the North, creating problems for the boats behind us. Within five minutes we were exiting the narrow southern end, sharing the space with northbound traffic. On port was a brand new blue 100-ft fishing tender from Seattle. On starboard, a humpback whale!
Behind us our friends in smaller sailboats struggled. It took Scott with his outboarded Daniel Howard a full twenty minutes to make the transit. A Canadian single hander in a slightly bigger sailboat spent an hour searching for back eddies so he could push through.
It all ended well and helped us see rapids in new ways. In order to be helpful, local knowledge needs to be experienced and appropriate to similarly powered boats. Tide and current tables do not lie and now they’re available even for out of the way places; $4.99 for the AyeTides app was the best investment of the year.
And now when I think about narrows, I envision the topography of the underwater walls and floor. Bottoms can range from 10 to 500 feet deep. I understand how every minute of the life of a rapids may be different from every other one in any monthly cycle of a tidal pattern. It’s sobering.
Saturday, June 23 57º28.38’N 133º53.78’W Appleton Cove off Rodman BayThis is the most beautiful day of the summer, and of all our Alaska spring. In T-shirt and sandals with my yoga pants rolled up above my knees, I sit on the spinnaker locker in front of the mast scanning the shores of Olga and Neva straits for bears. It’s early in the day and they could be there. But they aren’t. Creatures of the evening and those of the morning inhabit different worlds.
When the broad waters of Deadman’s Reach put us farther from shore, I go below to brew a pot of Deadman’s Reach dark roast. Kinza introduced us to this coffee several years ago and and bag with nautical chart design was magnetted to the fridge for many months. Only now do I notice the fine work of Ketchikan artist and musician, Ray Troll, and the whimsical addition of place names such as Ray’s Trolling Grounds.
Sunday, June 24 and Monday, June 25 57º05.32’N 134º49.96’W Baranof Warm Springs
Peter and Kelsey said we had to visit to Baranof Warm Springs, where they’d wintered over as caretakers. (Or was it as caretakers for the caretakers?) While we we the only boat in sight for most of our northbound journey up Chatham Strait a week ago, yesterday we had the company of a couple of dozen of seiners, out on their first opening day. In fairly rough seas, we watched them setting their nets against thickly wooded slopes topped with treeless, snowbound summits.
Tuesday, June 26 56º56.80’N 133º53.78’W Kake
We navigate Rocky Pass! We exit at a rocky reef with squirming sea lions on starboard. Marvelous orcas on starboard. A male and a female. “They are up to no good,” says Jack. Bad dogs that adapted to the rich pickings of the oceans.
Wednesday, June 27 56º26.09’N 13º54.73’W Alvin Bay on Kuiu Island
This is a wonderful anchorage. Splendid wildlife all the way here and now the opportunity to watch the behavior of sea otter moms and pups up close.
Thursday, June 28 56º05.10 N 133º22.54 W Devilfish Bay off El Capitan Passage
We cross Sumner Strait. For ten minutes we have great wind in our sails and a perfect heading to Shakan Strait. Then the wind dies. No other boats until a tug with a tow appears to follow us into Shakan Strait. We think it impossible for it to enter the narrow El Capitan Passage, so named because of the resemblance of the area to the Yosemite Valley. Just as it starts to rain and we lose visibility, the tug turns north toward Marble Creek, where there’s a marble mine, and we head into narrow, shallow El Capitain. Fortunately, the rain abates bringing a riot of wilderness colors and a raft of sea otters. We pass one local boat fishing and four kayaks.
Friday, June 29 55º44.40’N 133º17.75’W Kaguk Cove
Without a clear destination, we continue south through the watery, island-studded wilderness of the west coast of Prince of Wales. South of Sea Otter Cove and after passing many individuals and several rafts of sea otters we drop the hook at Kaguk Cove.
Saturday, June 30 55º28.82’N 133º08.63’W Craig
Every sort of wildlife. Rafts of sea otters, haul out of seals and sea lions, humpbacks spouting on all sides and one passing us close in the channel as the town comes into view. After topping off with deisel at the most pristine fuel dock yet – it’s run by a woman – we tie up at the transient dock in North Harbor. The docks are wide and generous with fine metal pylons with street lights on them. Electricity and hot shower.
Sunday, July 1 Craig
Fourth of July festivities start with an hour long fishing derby for kids, followed by a greased pole event, Cross the pole or fall into the chilled water. There are prizes for ages 3 and up. At ten am barely coordinated tots with miniature fishing poles but real baited hooks invade the docks. We succeed in making the dangerous passage to shore with our heavy sacks and retire to the warmth of the village laundromat. Shopping, schlepping, new charts, oil change, fluids check, etc.
Monday, July 2 Craig
Sick of boat work, I insist on a day to do something more creative. Get a couple of blog posts up on slow internet.
Tuesday, July 3 54º42.89’N 132º07.82’W Nicholas Bay at the southern tip of Prince of Wales
We anchored under a full moon right near 54º40 , which marks the border. Must have been only boat for miles around. We were near Hada Gawaii and it would have been nice to visit, but needed to first pass Canadian customs at Prince Rupert. (Same thing northbound when you want to visit Misty Fiords but have to pass US customs in Ketchikan.)
Wednesday, July 4 Prince Rupert 54º19.21’N 130º19.14’W
Days shorten with the season and the latitude. By the time we wind through Venn Passage it nearly dark. We check in with Customs by phone from special dock to nowhere. They know we’ve been through and ask about Cruz, who flew home from Alaska. Jack passes me the phone when the customs official asks the usual questions about what’s in the fridge. The unexpected good weather that let us continue across Dixon Entrance has left us with extra fresh food. I enumerate: one apple, two oranges, one onion, a small head of lettuce, six carrots and a couple of pounds of potatoes. The potatoes – from Washington State, Husky Brand – are an issue. The official tells me to put them in the freezer. Huh? I ask him if this means I should destroy them and but not dispose of them in Canada? I figure he doesn’t know that you don’t freeze potatoes don’t freeze. He says, no, I can keep them. I say the freezer is tiny and full. He says okay then just double bag them and put them in the bilge. Okay I get it. We can’t eat our potatoes in Canada but we can eat them as soon as we get to the San Juan Islands. Last year in Friday Harbor we had one pepper and one tomato confiscated so we have a record. I will be ready to produce the double bagged potatoes from the bilge when asked. Customs number is #20121860713 . We’re through.
Since our northbound visit to Prince Rupert, an interpretative center for the Port of Prince Rupert opened. Most interesting with information present with state of the art interactive displays. Good visual explanation of the workings of the grain shipping operations, the coal export dock and the Fairview Container Terminal. Containers are simultaneously loaded and loaded as rail cars and flat bed trucks sidle up. The claim is that Fairview is the most secure terminal in the world, with all incoming and outgoing containers scanned. Prince Rupert is 1200 miles closer to Shanghai than Long Beach. That’s a lot of miles. The Port is being rolled out little by little over the next decade and promises good jobs for everyone there and those who will move in. Prince Rupert is still tiny – maybe 13,000 people, but there isn’t a city in Southeast Alaska remotely like it. Prince Rupert is blessed with road and rail connections, deep water that comes right up to land and a vast natural bay able to accommodate numerous huge trans-Pacific ships.
Thursday July 5 Prince Rupert
The sun broke forth. We went “bare poles.” I rode my bike to the library in a tank top. Scott of the 26-foot S/V Daniel Howard came for supper. A master of small boats, he first sailed around Van Island in a 19 footer with a full keel. He’s headed south and then back to finish for the second time another segment of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Friday, July 6 53º51.93’N 129º58.58’W Kumealon Inlet on Grenville Channel
Perfectly calm day. Very disappointing as we’d hoped to sail a good part of the way. We saw a big Cosco freighter pull out of the Fairview Terminal and head to Asia. passed three big seiners from the Puget Sound. They weren’t flying the Canadian pennant so we figured they were driving straight through. No trouble getting into the inner cover behind the island but the sea bottom is crazily uneven. We dropped in 32 feet which within five minutes had become 64 , so we let out 225 of chain – and suddenly we were in 85 feet. No wind no current. Didn’t see another boat for a couple of hours when we passed the gleaming new aluminum F/V Haida Girl.
Saturday, July 7 53º25.46’N 129º15.05’W Hartley Bay
Good to be done with Grenville, the south end less dramatic than the north. But what lies just south of Grenville is truly spectacular. At Hartley the fuel dock attendant lets down the hose to the low tide float. When I go up to pay the young woman with long dark braids and twin silver studs in her low lip, I ask the status of fight against Enbridge, the pipeline from Alberta and the tankers. They are all weary; the decision will come within the year. With my receipt for the diesel she hands me two stickers: “Clean Water. Wild Salmon. No Enbridge Pipeline. PipeUpAgainstEnbridge.ca” and the far more axiomatic: “No Pipeline No Tankers No Problem”.
As we pull up to the free floats between a beat up seiner and the small plastic rec trawler Far Horizons, George jumps out of the later and takes our line. Soon Trish joins him on the dock. They introduce themselves with words nearly identical to what we’ve heard from other happy, aging cruising couples: “We used to be sailors but we crossed over to the dark side.” They are giddy. Last night they tucked into Lowe Inlet off Grenville, dropped the hook and went to bed. They woke up at first light – there was a small bump – and everything was completely different. “We dragged two miles!” giggles George. “Oh, maybe just one,” Trish laughs. “But it took us a while to get reoriented.” They live in Comox in a small house on the sand spit not far from the north guest docks. “Come see us,” they say.
Sunday, July 8 53º05.13’N 128º26.13’W Kurtze Inlet
The waterfall still has ice right at sea level. Dropped anchor in 40 feet in front of waterfall. Soon we were in 14. Brought up anchor. Dropped in 40 feet a boat length away. Soon we were in 105. With barely 2:1 scope. Anchor didn’t budge. Even with the afternoon williwaws. 250 feet of heavy chain. Way to go.
Monday, July 9 Kurtze Inlet
Exquisite day of sun and cold. Took a hundred photos. Dinghy ride to figure out shape of tricky shoal. Crab pot comes up empty.
For a long while we watched an eagle attempting to fish in the shallows. It would circle, spot a target, find the right angle of approach, and dive quickly talons first. Then a series of awkward flaps and splashes to get airborne again and to fly in a big shallow arc, often just twenty feet or so above our dinghy. It tried and tried, always coming up empty. Clearly an amateur. “Untalon-ted,” said Jack.
Tuesday, July 10 52º35.55’N 128º31.33’W Klemtu
Jack, at 5:30 am calling down the companionway to the cockpit:
“Got you ass in gear?”
“Yes! I’m putting on my boots.
” Well, if you’re putting them on your ass, that’s a problem.”
Fog keeps me at the bow with the horn until things clear. We see a couple of other boats and a red and white helicopter playing pick up sticks with huge logs and dropping them into the channel in a small area marked by balloon buoys. We figure it’s the coast guard doing search and rescue exercises. A closer look at the fuselage shows the name Helifor; must be a logging operation. A big beyond a couple of tiny tugs are assembling a log boom.
Undecided on whether to go all the way to Shearwater or to stop in Klemtu. We’re checked out by a couple of sea lions as we enter the narrow channel along Cone Island. The only other rec boat at the dock near the big house is Daniel Howard, so we stop and say hello to Scott.
Wednesday, July 11. 52º08.85’N 128º05.27’W Old Bella Bella/Shearwater
Good dry weather but no wind so we motor for a little more than six hours. On the open water of Milbanke Sound, the Columbia passed on its long run from the Aleutians to Bellingham, the bright tents of independent travelers visible on its upper deck. The joy of seeing this fine ship was balanced by the sight a fish farm being towed north. The proliferation of fish farms is shocking but by and large it’s south of the 52nd parallel.
Then there is a busy day of laundry and route planning and provisioning and checking email. Shearwater is a small outpost that is all business. The little settlement across the water from the First Nations town of New Bella Bella serves north south boat as well as those cruising the grounds east and west. It’s a good place to get information. Scott shows up just after we do and with his small boat he’s always tracking weather as far out as possible. The beautiful hot sun is a harbinger of strong northwesterlies that will make rounding Cape Caution tricky.
I pay $10 for the password and it takes the duration of both the washing and the drying cycle for mail to flow in. But it’s convivial. A friendly fellow laundry folder says, “Wasn’t it you who game us those nice herbs in “Koots” Inlet. Face and place name are unfamiliar so I say I don’t think so. Then she talks me through it and I realize “Kootz” is Khutze, which we’ve just been told is pronounced koot-see. Indeed it was from the S/V Melody from which a gift of fresh crab had been delivered by dinghy and herbs from the pot on deck had been sent back with the male half of the crew. As it happens, I’d been admiring the bimmini on S/V Melody, which turned out to be custom-designed by the owners, first prototyped using ordinary plastic tarp. It features three horizontal pockets holding 1 inch PCV pipe into which wooden dowels have been place to get just the right shape. The whole thing is bungied up under the mast and down to either four or six points on deck. It is so perfectly shaped, in fact, they it serves as a rain catcher. 10 inch segments of cord are glued to the edge on either side to direct rain toward the middle bungie, where a funnel and hose can be attached to direct water right into the tanks! Much as we like this model, Jack realizes we can just add the pipes, dowels and bunnies to our current bimmini, which is such a pain to put up. We’ve also come to an agreement that fully enclosed dodgers don’t map sense. Why? They fog up. They impede visibility at the helm. They obstruct views of towering peaks and the stars. They take time to put up and take down? They are frightfully expensive. One of the joys of sailing is the open cockpit. Warmth and protection come with layers of clothes and for rain, rubber boots, back up foulies, and dozens of pairs of gloves. When you’re outdoors you should be outdoors.
Nothing earth shattering in the mail and it’s too slow to check news. The headline of yesterday’s Vancouver Sun is about a new US study lambasting Enbridge’s handling of a 2010 oil pipeline break into Lake Michigan. Central coastal communities are united against the pipeline to Kitamat; let’s hope they will prevail with provincial officials so BC can try to push back on Ottawa. By the time our first fresh provisions since Alaska are stowed, it’s late so we dine at the pub and I quickly post some text on the blog.
Thursday, July 12 51º19’64’N 127º44.13’W Millbrook Cove on Smith Sound
A long 10 hour day starts off in a promising colorful bright pre-dawn but by the time we are in Lama Passage we’re enveloped in the fog. I hate fog but we’re learning to handle it better every time. Jack powers down. I put on the radar and then go up to the bow to listen carefully and put out occasionally 5 second blasts with fog horn and then listen again before running back to the companionway to toggle the radar in and out. The sun is behind the fog and my eyes hurt, my perceptive powers becoming exhausted. But last year we did this drill for a full seven hours. Finally we hear a hefty fog horn somewhere not too far in front of us. Jack gets on the radio to respond to the grateful captain who identifies us on his radar while we find him on ours. He assures us we’ll be out of the fog pretty soon and thanks us again for making contact. Fog lesson: Fog horns echo. When answering a blast wait a few seconds. It’s easy to confuse the echo of your own horn off the mountains or shore with a reply from another ship.
It clears in Fisher Channel and the 10 hour cruise down Fitz Hugh Sound, partly under sail, it spectacular. It’s dry and colors are again crisp. We have a big breakfast. I read Ada Blackjack. Jack does the whale watch and spots quite a few.
Going north, we’ve anchored at Green Island Anchorage, off Fish Egg Inlet but for the trip south Millbrook Cove on the north shore of Smith Sound near the entrance puts you much much closer to Cape Caution. It’s straightforward to enter if you pay attention and once inside calm, comfortable, and pretty with a view outside to the waves crashing upon distant shores. Smith Sound itself has no settlement whatsoever and looks like spectacular wilderness.
Friday, July 13 50º54’26’N 127º17.19’W Blunden Harbour
The weather report last night was ominous. We went to bed not knowing whether we’d leave in the morning or stay holed up in Millbrook unitl Tuesday or later. This morning’s report was slightly more encouraging though the coincidence of Friday and 13 felt weird: we’re only marginally conscious of days and dates. But the water was like glass when we got up at four and we only needed a window of six hours or so.
We could’ve been out in the darkness had I not jammed the anchor chain while raising it due to poor visibility. But even that I’m better at: this time I used the snubber to manually take weight off the windlass. Had the jam been more severe, I could have brought everything up on deck by cleating the staysail sheet to a link and winching the whole thing up on deck. Problem quickly dealt with we were off before dawn on very calm seas. In fact, it was spectacularly beautiful. We’d reefed down the main hoping to sail but it was too calm. We were cheered by seeing two enormous northbound coastal barges – one with six or seven sizable boats perched on top of layers of containers. We rounded Cape Caution without discomfort even with the swells on our beam.
We saw the fog ahead in Richards Channel and soon enough we were in the thick of it. So we repeated yesterday’s vigilance, with Jack at the helm tracking nearby ships on AIS, which is built into our relatively new VHF radio, and me doing radar, bow watch, careful listening, and the foghorn. On top of that, the radar was throwing up dark grey confetti: it was logs, which we had to dodge on very short notice. Moreover, we had to deal with some turbulence where Slingby Channel empties into Queen Charlotte Strait.
When Jack found us on a potential collision course with Ocean Titan, which he immediately suspected was a tug boat because it was traveling at 8 knots, he hailed the ship using the automatic call button. Again, a grateful captain responded immediately. Jack asked to switch to another channel, reported S/V Aurora to be on a heading of one-five-oh magnetic. The Ocean Titan captain noted our closest point of approach was a mere 0.2 miles and helped determine a plan of action. First he picked us out on his radar from a north bound cabin cruiser – we suddenly saw it passing us – that he said was traveling 20 knots! That reckless hazard out of the way, it was decided that both of us would turn several degrees to starboard and pass port to port. When his sophisticated radar said we were in good stead, he thanked us again and signed off. Advancing slowly, we peered through the thick, moist greenness off the port side of our bow until the shape of a sizable tug loomed before and then beside us before disappearing in the fog just as the much larger tow appeared and then disappeared in turn. Once safely past, the captain again came on the radio, asked us to switch to 10 and once again thanked us for contacting him, implying that it was the correct way to do things (and that the mighty white cabin cruiser had not.) He also suggested that we could listen to Vessel Traffic Service on channel 71 and so we powered up our second, handheld, VHF. As he signed off with more words of appreciation, it hit me that the big boys
Fog Lessons: Monitor AIS and let the big ships know where you are and ask them to tell you what to do. Monitor VTS 71. Recognize that in fog and on a radar screen a tug and tow may appear as unrelated vessels. Nothing would be worse than passing between them. All the information that running light provide to those traveling at night, disappear in the fog. In the fog, radio is your best friend.
After a couple of hours the fog lifted and we had clear views of Vancouver Island across the Queen Charlotte Strait before pulled into Blunden Harbour in full hot sun. We anchored in the 6 fathoms that characterizes the bottom of the entire bay and spent the afternoon, barefoot, bare-legged and bare-armed sprawled out in the cockpit reading in the hot sun. I beg to stay another day.
Saturday, July 14 50º54’26’N 127º17.19’W Blunden Harbour
A bit after midnight I get up to watch a full firmament of stars twinkling in the still water of the anchorage on all sides. I switch off the anchor light to intensify the sight, among the most sublime of sailors experiences. Not a ripple. It would betard to hold a kayak as still as out boat is. Stars are the consolation for shorter days and lower latitudes.
By the time we get up at seven, four of the eight boats sheltering here have left. The others stay. The wind has come up but not cleared the sky for sun. Today there will be no rowing our small inflatable to explore the white shell midden beach. In fact, even the dog walkers stay put. The wind does nothing but grow all day long and by noon, it howls and whistles in the shrouds and covers the bay with “white horses”. Beaufort’s original and poetic name for whitecaps. Out in the Strait it’s already blowing 25 and will build through tomorrow. (On the West Coast of Vancouver, Solander Island is reporting 5 meter wind waves and 40 knots of wind.) Our anchor will hold. It always does but we worry about the other boats. Three other boats come in, later than they should have if they’re southbound. If they’re northbound, perhaps they’ve come just to wait it out.
We’d had our sights set on Sitka since casting off a month ago from Port Townsend. Not only is it a completely wonderful place, Cruz had childhood friends here and his mom and brother would be flying up at the end of the week.
Sitka is only a few souls larger than Port Townsend but isolation makes it so much bigger. It’s always had to fend for itself. People have had to manage differences and where they haven’t the consequences have taught lasting lessons. Residents are a mixed lot with distinct identities. A full quarter claim native Tlingit status (through at least one great grandparent, as I understand it). Russian heritage is represented, evidently, by three old families. Plus the priest at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The rest are a mix of pioneers of European descent, I think largely Scandinavian, and newcomers. The Coast Guard station, US Fish and Game and the Forest Service account for a number o federally-employed people, many who stay on or come back. Sitka is also an important regional center for education and health care, serving dozens of even more isolated communities. There’s a boarding school for Native youth from all over Alaska, for example.
Isolation means lots of attention to transportation. Direct flights from the lower 48 arrive at an airport on Japonski Island that happens to be within walking distance of downtown. Ferries link the city with points all over Southeast ad beyond. The Fairweather, a catamaran ferry that travels at 36 knots and has space for 35 cars, gets passengers to Juneau in a mere four hours. Then there are five harbors, by and large filled with commercial fishing boats. Others are sports fishing vessels, the small boats that families use to fish for personal consumption, a very few recreational boats and the a handful of floating abodes of cruising bums like ourselves.
Although there are bicycles everywhere – Sitka has been designated one of America’s Bicycle Friendly Cities – Sitka has a lot of cars. (Did I hear that there are three vehicles for each inhabitant?) But unlike pointless urban cars, these serve multiple purposes: safe transportation through the many hours of winter darkness; carts for hauling provisions and gear from ferry to home and home to boat; shelter to get out of the rain; portable offices to keep one’s affairs in order. The best part is that drivers make eye contact with cyclists and pedestrians and wave to one another. (I wonder what they do after dark.)
How strange it is to go for more the a month with no real “after dark”; how sobering to think of winters with no real daytime brightness. But, as a noticed during my first visit to Seattle over thirty years ago, darkness brings people inside and together. Los Angeles seems to empty and lonely. Sunny places become human-scaled and convivial only when people are thrown together, like in Marrakesh. Of course Marrakesh has walls, albeit walls with bright blue sky over them.
So how did we spend our time in Sitka? First day back, Cruz was off to see his friend, Jack was off to the Hames Center Gym and I to Balanced Practice. How delightful and healing to be able to do everyday yoga with Chrystal. No matter Petersburg’s chiropractors had been out of town, the kink in my neck that had come with an awkward snatch of a mooring buoy disappeared after several sessons of yoga. Although I’ve loved having this cruise force me “off the grid”, it was good to finally get to the library and my email. From my table next to the windowed wall of the Kettleman Memorial Library I could ruminate on whatever had come in while gaze out on the water, islands, mountains, and sky. This was the week to submit abstracts for the Summit in Durban in December and magical cooperation among six colleagues produced the necessary by the deadline.
Solstice at mid-week brought many celebratory offerings and the need to choose how to spend our time. On top of that, we’d arrived in the middle of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Fine Arts Camp was in full swing. How a town of 8,000 people can pull of things like this boggles the mind. The Fine Arts Camp recently purchased a building on the historic campus of the Sheldon Jackson College, which closed abruptly in 2007 and is gradually being saved from the ruin of time and weather by the community. Every day there was at least one performance or exhibit. The week we were there the The Sitka Music Festival, under the direction of cellist Zuill Bailey, has been stretched out to a full month. I heard the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet perform at Harrigan Centinnial Hall for a spellbound audience in rain gear and Xtratufs. The back stage is a wall of windows overlooking the entrance to Crescent Harbor. As the black and white clad musicians played, iconic trolling vessels would glide past through the mist like ballerinas on a monochrome set. A midweek concert at noon, featured a trio of favorite Alaskan musicians. As a couple of hundred folks traipsed into the forest clearing at Sitka’s renowned totem park, there was a sudden sun break in six days of nearly ceaseless rain! Throughout the performance the eagles and ravens voiced their astonishment and delight.
The community has done some good number crunching to investigate the economic return on investments in the arts, which is reminiscent of what Mayor Sam is doing for Portland. (The night after we left and I was still in range of KCAW radio, I listened to the City Council meeting. There’s an agenda slot for new of available grants and proposed action to meet deadlines.) This past year Sitkans responded to an opportunity for a matching grant with 20,000 volunteer hours and $500,000 in the space of four months! For a town so small this shows stunning citizen engagement, including from the large Native population which enjoys deserved special access to federal fundings.
In addition, Sitka’s main social events are fundraisers. For the annual all-you-can eat crab fest on a Sunday in the pouring rain, Jack took our place in a line that snaked all all around the wooden pavilion which the rest of the week serves fishermen as a net loft while I set up our little teak table with a cloth, wine and glasses. We chatted with the Cypress viola player and a dear elderly woman who’d played for years with the Anchorage symphony. After finishing off our first round with rhubarb cobbler, we went back for more.
Our most memorable evening was meeting Cruz’s friends, the Bruhls. Eliott is a family physician with SEARHC, the Native-run group that provides health care to throughout the far-flung settlements of South East and Sara is a physical therapist who can be seen going from visit to visit on her bike. As we dined on halibut tacos with Baranof Inland Brew in their hilltop house with water views all around, we talked about things I hadn’t thought much about. Like what does it take to provide safe childbirth in mid-winter to a woman from an isolated settlement. Answer: Ask her to come into town at week 28. And how do you hunt without a car? Answer: You anchor your boat, dinghy to shore near a cabin, and eventually shoot the deer. But as soon as you do, the animal has to be quartered, carried to shore, put in the dinghy and taken out to the boat before the bears appear for a free lunch. The ABCs – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof Islands – have no black bears, only brown ones, otherwise known as grizzlies. Wow!
On Wednesday when we were having supper with Cruz and I mentioned that he just had to meet Peter Frost, the young captain who helped us bring Aurora back offshore two years ago. Jack suggested I phone there and then so I did leaving a message. On Thursday as I was swabbing the decks in the setting sun, who should row up in a small dinghy but Peter and Kelsy! Privateer was at anchor just a couple of hundred yards away. What a wonderful reunion! They love Sitka. have moved the base of Pacific NW Expeditions here and become Alaskans.
Our final day in Sitka started with a rainbow,a blazing bright sky, and everything in sharp edged techincolor. I went to Highliner Café shortly after 6 am for one last double shot latte and a final shot at email. Then back to the newly cleaned boat where Cruz appeared with mom Tracy and brother Penn. Everyone was making such a fuss about the good weather that even the Californians felt blessed. Just fine in the worst of weather, Sitka is spectacular under the sun.
With Cruz at the helm and instructing the rest of us, we headed out across sparking swells toward Mt. Edgecomb. By lunch we were in shirt sleeves making a big circle under sail in a nice breeze. As we headed back to the harbor, we saw Sitkans in bathing suits on the neighborhood beaches that dot the shore along Halibut Point Road.
Tracy is as taken with Alaska as we are. She talked about her kayak trip in Misty Fiords last summer with Sara Bruhl and two other Alaskan women with long experience in the wilderness. No sooner would they pull their kayaks up on a beach to camp for the night, than they would gently, ceaselessly call out to their fellow land mammals. “Hello, Bear. We’re here, Bear. Just want you to know, Bear. No, Bear, we don’t want to surprise you. We’re here, Bear. and if you don’t mind, Bear, we ‘re going to set up our camp.” I hope Tracy will write a great book about hiking around Sitka. It needs to be done and she is the person to do it. Over the years Tracy Salcedo Chourré written a couple of dozen hiking guides. This summer she’ll update a ten year old guide to the trails on Mt. Lahssen. She’s hoping her three boys can meet her there for an update of the author’s photo, where she is pictured with her nine-year old twins Cruz and Jesse and 5-year old Penn. I desperately want to go hiking with her.
In 1897 Skagway was a town of several hundred that in the space of a year saw 10,000 people arrive. Then they left. Today it’s a town of 800 people which in the space of one summer day sees 10,000 people arrive. Then they leave.
There’s no shortage of information about Skagway because the Gold Rush stampeders took photographs or kept journals or, like Jack London, wrote stories about it. And people still do.
Before throwing anything onto that messy pile documenting expectations, disappointments and travel for the sake of travel, let me digest the takeaways from our two day visit to this northernmost point on the Inside Passages. Here are some snapshots. Consider this a placeholder post. I’ll be back.
This is the classic American journey everyone should take. Public transportation through the wilderness. The highway through roadlessness. Part pajama party, part hootenanny. The dreamers, those weary from work, the hopeful unemployed, ordinary folks going home or leaving home all in the same boat. In how many places in America do you find yourself traveling alongside locals, particularly locals who can spot a grizzly on a far shore or predict exactly when the humpback will dive right under your nose?
For an overview watch our slideshow. Music is Jack’s composition Petersburg from the CD North to Alaska.
The journey offers amenities in just the right doses. The 400-odd foot long M/V Matanuska has three levels above the car deck, all served by multiple stairways and a single elevator. Kids range freely, the sporting do laps on the deck. If you pay a modest bit extra for a cabin, you get a berth with proper linens on good mattresses and your own hot shower. If you’re traveling with your own gear, you stretch out on deck chairs in the heated solarium or pitch your tent on the deck. Or you leave your stuff in a locker, sleep wherever you like inside and then freshen up in one of the public shower rooms. Why can’t we live this way on land?
A DIY ethic seems to be built in. As you pull through the setting sun beyond Bellingham, Washington’s pretty little harbor the Purser kindly asks nurses, doctors and medics to introduce themselves. After supper, the First Mate plays his banjo and other musicians join in; by the third evening they are a five-person orchestra. The pudgy guy with the unruly mustache in a fisherman’s faded plaid shirt shows up on Sunday morning in a clerical collar as its announced that Episcopal Reverend so-and-so will lead a non-denominational service in the cocktail lounge at 9 am.
The food is spectacular. Halibut burgers with mountains of french fries. Platters of fresh spinach topped with mounds of shrimp. A pair of huge pork chops, fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes that barely fit on the plate. We learned to order one meal and cut it in half. There’re daily specials, a very long a la carte list, a deli counter with soups, salads and made-to-order sandwiches, a hot table with too many choices and, best of all, old-fashioned short order cooks at the ready.
There is no Internet.
Every night is briefer than the one preceding it so you don’t miss much. You sleep through Seymour Narrows on night one, the border crossing through Dixon Entrance on night two and Frederick Sound on night three. But the route often dips far inside the Inside Passage, closer to the route Aurora took last summer than anything a cruise ship could manage. To our surprise and delight, our Captain heads into Klemtu Passage, greeting the inhabitants of one of Canada’s most isolated First Nations villages with three stately blasts of the steam whistle and giving us a look at their spectacular long house. He also navigates the shallow winding Narrows – which boast 62 buoys in ten miles – between the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, which the cruise ships never visit.
But the best routes of the Alaska Marine Highway are the local ones. Our final stretch takes us on the three-and-a-half hour ride from Juneau to Hoonah on the much smaller M/V LeConte.
For breakfast I go for berry pancakes and Jack for the eggs, toast, hash browns, and bacon. The short order cook fills me in while I wait. Yes, the LeConte sometimes fills up with all 300 passengers for the Hoonah route. It did a couple of weeks ago, before the summer schedule kicked in bringing three runs a week. “On sellout days we just hope it doesn’t rain so people can spread out on the decks.” I ask how they manage to plan for meals and keep the wonderful short order service which slows any food line. “We just know,” he says. It seems enough people show up with their own copious meals – which they warm in on board microwaves – so everyone eats well and enjoys the trip.
When he flips my hotcakes I notice they’re still berryless and chid myself for yakking away and distracting him. Then he flips the first one onto a plate, tops it with a soup-ladle full of marion berries mixed with raspberries and blueberries, and puts the second pancake on top. As I admire the sandwich, another helping of berries is ladled on top. Oh my, delicious!
After breakfast, I stay in the dining area. The dreamers on the ferry are up in the bow quietly gazing out on the ocean, the convivial sorts are in the starboard lounge, where curtains are drawn to create the movie house the village otherwise lacks. But the dining area is the part of the ship where the industrious ones are: the accountant with a tabletop full of chits, an artist with a pad, a couple of folks with laptops, and people working on crafts.
A young woman sits fashioning a Tlingit quilt/ceremonial robe spread out on a four person table at a window booth. A little girl crawls onto the seat opposite, admiring and inquiring why she’s chosen bright turquoise bound with the broad black band instead of the traditional red. “It pops out. You notice it.” she says. As an employee passes her table, cleaning up after the wave of hungry breakfasters, she asks his name. They link up in mutual recognition when she introduces herself as the payroll clerk for the ferries. The man with the mop then strikes up a conversation with a bight eyed boy who’s just finished his sophomore year in high school. Taking a break from his work, the older man puts pen to napkin to share “the very cool way” that the early Greeks – “or maybe they were Arabs,” he says – used to come up with the mathematical concept of Pi. How good it is to see this: Elders claiming their space and kids joining them in it. In Alaska, the village raises the kids.
Finally, we round Icy Strait Point and the old cannery that has been lovingly restored by the native corporation. We disembark, grab our 42″ rolling duffel with the new nautical charts and set off through the village to the harbor. Everything is as we left it except for the early spring flowers and the snow on all the peaks. Heading down the ramp we see the fishing troller Happy Hooker still tied up beside Icy Lady, whose skipper busy getting her ready for the opening of the season. And there’s Aurora, looking beautiful and remarkably clean and dry.
Finally the sad moment came when we had to step off the Aurora. I made a quick trip down the dock to say goodbye to the other cruisers: Diana and Neal on Dinero, the Smiths on Perseus, and Mike on Discovery – and stopped to congratulate Sean, the fishing guide moored next to us, on the 170-pound halibut he’d caught and was preparing to filet. We walked through town -past the school, the fish packing plant, Hoonah Trading – to the terminal wharf, where the ferry was just pulling in.
As Jack stood in line, the women at the counter were having trouble processing his simple request for two $33 tickets from Hoonah to Juneau, both places with only a few miles of road that connect to nowhere else. But this being our very first trip, we of course weren’t in the system.
Fellow travelers included an elderly couple off for their annual family camping trip and caribou hunt. Ron Blough had worked as a logger and a preacher all over Alaska; before that they were missionaries in Japan.
The Le Conte, the small ferry on the Community Route had less than a third of its passenger capacity of 300 and only five or six cars and trucks. It was very comfortable with nice touches, like a children’s library. I read books in English to my seat mate, three-year-old Lea, while her grandfather spoke to her in Tlingit.