Sitka and Petersburg. A week in each has reacquainted us with these two gems in Southeast, as Alaskans call their panhandle.Both enjoy Tlingit culture, huge fishing fleets, and miles of docks along which you can stroll and talk to fishermen. But they’re quite different.
Sitka looms large in American History as the capital of Russian Alaska and the place where Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867. Sitka’s multilayered past comes alive as you visit the National Historical Park with its totem poles, Castle Hill, St Michael’s Cathedral, the Bishop’s House, and the Sheldon-Jackson and city museums and attend performances of the Naa Kahidi Tlingit dance troupe, the New Archangel Russian dancers, and summer chamber music festival.For natural history, there’s the Alaska Raptor Center, a bear rescue operation, and the extraordinary Sitka Sound Science Center, to which the locals attribute their children’s documented high levels of science literacy. Everyone should spend a week in Sitka.
For me, Petersburg stands out as a bright story of immigration to America. It was founded by Peter Bachmann who arrived from Norway in 1897. He chose the site because of proximity of fresh ice from the nearby Le Conte glacier. In time recruited hundreds of his impoverished countrymen, who built houses on pylons and great wharfs with canneries over the waters of Wrangell Narrows.
Okay, you say, Norwegians settled many places in the Pacific Northwest; so where’s the story?Well, Alaska produces about 60% of all US seafood and Petersburg a good portion of that. The old canneries now house modern fish processing operations to which the catch is delivered 24/7 during the summer. People walking down Nordic Drive speak Tagalog, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Slavic Languages, and varieties of Englishes (thatfor Number 45, with his preference for Norwegian immigrants, mark them as potential terrorists from “shithole countries”).More than any agricultural community in the Central Valley, Petersburg hammers home the reality that workers like these, who willingly leave home to follow the harvests, are the heroes of our national food system. They are responsible for the food security we currently enjoy.
I talk about Sitka here; let me just share some photos of Petersburg this week.
Tuesday 3 July 2018 Appleton Cove on Peril Strait57º25’N 135º15.7’W
In Sitka we take shore leave from the comfort of our home base on Aurora. On terra firma our minds and muscles get a different kind of workout. For the first time in ten days, Jack and I spend some time apart – more than forty feet!I ride my bike to the laundromat or the library, clear email, have phone meetings, ensure distant aspects of my life are on track.Jack scoots all over town, works out at the community gym, and anguishes briefly over news from Washington that tumbles in all at once. We bathe in chamber music. We walk the docks talking to crews of trollers, gillnetters, seiners, recreational boats, and large tax-haven flagger yachts waiting for their guests. We revisit favorite sites: from the deep dark forest floor we gaze up at the totem poles and the eagles circling, singing above as ravens call out to us. We spend time with Sara and Brian, Gus and Emma and pepper them with all our unanswered questions.
We’d arrived thinking this is the last time we’ll visit Sitka on our own keel.We leave thinking it won’t be.
The clouds hang heavily over the spectacular peaks that rise sharply behind the city the whole week. Twenty minutes after we cast off, dawn breaks, enveloping us in its warm embrace.
We leave as we came, spending just enough time on the buoy at Schultz Cove for lunch and naps before transiting Serguis Narrows at slack.Going through we pass Teas for Two and wave to Helen and Ian, who call on the radio for a brief chat.
Whales, porpoises, dolphins spout and jump. The air is bone dry.Appleton Cove’s Alaska State buoy is unoccupied.Where are our fellow humans?
Wednesday 4 July 2018 Baranof Warm Springs 57º05’N 134º49.9’W
Another beautiful morning on Chatham Strait.We arrive at low tide and Jack turns Aurora 180º with inches under the keel for a starboard tie on the north side of the dock.We head for the bathhouse and get very clean.
Boats come and go, leaving a mostly convivial crowd for Fourth of July celebrations. The exceptions are a couple of larger boats with commercial guests and generators running.While barely audible above the roar of the falls, they spew fumes. Ted, the retired resident who helps collect moorage for the Sitka Harbormaster, requests they desist and they do. But after dark when the last of the outdated, disposable marine flares soar above the bay, the gensets come on after we go to bed. (Which inspires Jack to complain to the Sitka Harbormaster, who replies that a sign with the rule is a good idea.)
Friday 6 July 2018 Cannery Cove in Pybus Bay57º18’N134º08.7’W
There are a dozen seiners in the Bay when we leave Warm Springs, their crews sleeping off a couple of days of fishing. It was so much fun the last time when these big ships flouted the rules and rafted side by side from the float out across the Bay.
Saturday 7 July 2018 Unnamed Cove on Tracy Arm57º48.5’N133º38’W
Monday 9 July 2018 Cleveland Channel
Rather than go on to Portage Bay on the south shore of Frederick Sound, we decide to break the trip to Petersburg in two passages of approximately 5 hours each. So we drop anchor in Cleveland Channel at southwest end of Stevens Passage just north of Cape Fanshaw.
When we check the weather during before dinner drinks, all reports have been updated. It seems rapidly moving low pressure system is on its way, predicted to blow though and wear itself out in about 36 hours. We’re okay with small craft advisories of 15 to 25 knots of wind. This report, however, specifies gusting to 40 knots. And we are not yet around Cape Fanshaw at the point where two huge bodies of water meet: Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound.
We go to bed with the prospect of having to spend a day waiting out the storm and expecting to be awakened by wind starting in the middle of the night.
Tuesday 10 July 2018 Petersburg
We wake up early to the eerie calm that proceeds a storm. It looks like we’ll have no trouble rounding Cape Fanshaw and getting into Frederick Sound. By 5am the anchor is up and we’re underway. Before leaving Stephens Passage we see a couple of humpbacks, the only whales we see in days on two vast bodies of water known for their whales. On a previous trip through Frederick we had to wend our way through dozens of half-sleeping whales.
Soon enough it begins to rain and we lose visibility while neither the wind nor the sea state is troublesome. We don’t see a single ship until we approach Petersburg and find ourselves in the company of a large fuel barge on starboard and a tug and tow on port. Looks like everyone is on target to enter the Wrangell Narrows on a high tide at slack. No sooner do we enter the channel than the tug skipper, who had been shortening his cable, announces to “all concerned traffic” that he’s coming through. We scramble into low water on the side as the huge tug and barge slide by a boat length away.
We head for the fuel dock where the enormous tanker is already unloading gas and diesel. We fill up to ward off winter condensation that will put water not our diesel. I ask the attendant how the fishing is. Not too good. And where are the whales? “Yes. Where are the whales? I’ve been here ten years and a couple of times each week would see groups of humpbacks or orcas head down the Narrows. Not this year.”Aurora’s new home is stall 106 right in front of Ocean Beauty’s huge fish processing operations.
Suddenly, a light blue paperback is thrust before me by a set of hands turning open the cover and luring me in. “You’ll love it.” The woman who’s sidled up up next me goes on, “Stories by 34 women who lived in Haida Gawai and other parts of the North Coast in the 60s and 70s. I’m Jane,” she says, snapping the volume shut and pointing to her name on the title page, “And I got these women to write about their lives.”
We’re at Blue Heron Books in Comox. On arrival I’d greeted the saleslady, telling her how good it was to be back and inquiring what about new titles for our shipboard library. Hidden in the art supplies corner overhearing our exchange is Jane Wilde, who masterminded a unique look at a period and place. By the time I check out Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love and Survival on the British Columbia’s North Coast a is signed and waiting for me at the cash register.
Jane’s right. Great book. In our three days on the hook off Rebecca Spit I devour it along with Grant Lawrence’s Adventures in Solitude, stories of life in Desolation Sound over the past 50 years. Serendipitous companion volumes.
“When are you going to get rid of your president?”
At the Salvation Army store next to Blue Heron, I find a treasure trove of used forks, teaspoons, chowder spoons, and so many knives that I choose only the smaller bistro style ones. Ten cents each. When I’m ready to pay up, I spread I spread everything out on the glass jewelry case. The clerk wonders if I’m organizing an outdoor wedding, “Nope. This is to help save the Salish Sea! We’re getting rid of plastic at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival.” With so many schools and organizations going plastic free it’s hard to find good utensils I tell her. And yes I’ve left enough behind for a couple of households.
My colors revealed, my fellow shopper voices her distress. She looks a typical Port Townsend progressive. But she’s Canadian and Canadians are taking Trump really hard. They need reassurance.
Slowly and surely the wheels of justice are turning, I say. Meanwhile look at what’s happening at the state and local levels. People in the US are awake, learning the ins and outs of government and taking it back. State legislatures are stepping up to salvage social justice and climate action. And communities everywhere are launching new initiatives to strengthen democracy and local resilience.
“I’ve been here forty years and this was the worst winter yet.”
Jack and I are in line at the Comox Valley Harbour Authority to pay for another day’s moorage at the Fishermans Wharf we can enjoy the Sailfish catamaran races.
The sun is intense. The joy is palpable. Kids skip. Bounces in the steps of sandaled feet. Skin and ink everywhere. The weather out of the northwest seems to have finally vanquished the the unbroken wintry systems from the southeast.
The man ahead of us, shakes his head with a smile. He’s fished these waters – commercially – his entire career. Winter was bad. No, it wasn’t just imagination. Not just aging joints complaining. “Do you remember how it started? Before the end of September? Not a decent stretch of a few days until now.”
Is there any other creature on earth for which that adjective is more apt? Their faces are adorable. Their mannerisms are adorable. And then there is the mutuality of the adoration. When you glide past sea otters they invariably face you, their big eyes looking up at you adoringly. They paddle up on their backs then relax, their long feet sticking up humanlike and just stare, pleasantly. Holding their meal on their bellies with one front paw, they appear to wave with the other. Or they engage more enthusiastically, treading water furiously until they are head, shoulders and mid section above the surface straining to look into your boat. Adoring. Adorable.
Without the blubber that protects other marine mammals, sea otters have to eat all the time. They never leave the water, spending long hours foraging about a quarter of their weight daily. They relish a highly varied diet that includes Dungeness crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.
The otters’ preferred foods are among the cash harvests pf the Prince of Wales fishing industry. The produce flies fresh on ice to hungry mouths in China and Japan. Perhaps we should think of it as the Silk Route of artisanal commercial fishing. Sea otters seem to be taking their revenge. They were exterminated in the fur trade of an earlier Northwest economic boom that was followed by an absolute bust.
Luxurious fur with 125,000 hairs per square centimeter also helps sea otters manage without blubber. I’ve twice felt an otter’s pelt. First at the museum in Wrangell, where we stroked skins of beaver, fox, mink, ermine, and otter to understand why the species disappeared in the fur trade. The other time was at the old Icy Bay Cannery in Hoonah, an interpretive center run by the Native Corporation. There was one simple square pillow in the shop. $300. I’ve since thought of this an the ultimate luxury gift and one that might doom the otter anew if experienced too widely by too many people.
Later in the Tlingit village Klawock on the west coast of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, I ask if anyone is harvesting otters. I learn about a man – Native people can get harvest rights – who lives in the blue house on stilts at the head of the dock. I look for him to no avail. A week later at Cowpuccino’s in Prince Rupert I hear two fishermen commiserating over the demise of their livelihoods. “Nothing to do. People love the otters.”
I consult Marine Mammals of British Columbia by John K. B. Ford that is always at hand on the boat, at home or when I’m docenting at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sea otters, a single species, is in the Mustelide family along with the weasels but the only one considered a marine mammal because they rarely if ever leave the water.
Canada has kept a pretty good population counts. Between 1785 and 1809 55,000 pelts were sold in BC, although a portion of these hunted in Washington, then Oregon Territory, and Alaska. The Sea Otter was commercially extinct by 1850 and apart from a handful of pelts and live sightings, did not reappear until 89 individuals from Alaska were reintroduced along the northern part of the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1967. By 1995, reports Ford, aerial surveys showed a population of 1500, representing a remarkable growth rate of 18 or 19 per cent per year. Today, Sea Otters off this coast are reproducing at 8 percent owing to less abundant food. Unlike marine mammals that store calories in blubber, Sea Otters must keep moving, foraging a quarter of their body weight daily.
Ford explains that the Sea Otter’s “large hindlimbs are oriented backwards and flattened into flippers for swimming” while its “forelimbs are short with highly dexterous paws.” With the help of a paddle-like tail, it can dive down 50 meters to fetch food from the bottom. “Sea Otters capture prey with their forepaws and can carry it along with rocks or other hard objects – which are used as tools to break open shelled prey – in loose folds of skin under their forearms as they swim,” writes Ford.
We glide past in awe as these furry, whiskered, round-headed, sub nosed marine mammals use their chests tables at which to fix and eat their meals. Adorable. At the same time they are altering the dynamics of the food web, decimating the many invertebrate species on which they feed. Once devastated,they are now devastating.
Wednesday 22 June Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W
More whales and Sea Otters. Perhaps they leave us tired when we enter the proterws bay at Klawock on a lowish tide and entry to public docks confuses us. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery. I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for tribal members and organizing a food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today and there should certainly be space at the public harbour.
There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of skips coming and going.
Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and Native villages.
Prince of Wales – land of watery wonders and deep culture.
A sign pasted on the inside of our pantry door at home proclaims says “Dream POW-ABC.” It’s the fruit of a collision between my January resolutions and a list of the largest islands in the USA. Did you know that four of the largest are in Southeast Alaska? Prince of Wales, Admiralty, Baranof and Chicago. We’d already done a major part of the shoreline of each one, so why not go back and systematically circumnavigate all of them?
Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. With hundreds of small protected coves in which to drop anchor, there would be no need to hurry. All spring we looked forward to our DIY luxury cruise. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and villages. Since available books on the area are so out of date we wrote our own Cruisers’ Guide to Prince of Wales Island to document port facilities and other amenities.
Sat 11 June – Kina Cove, Kasaan Bay 55º20’N 131º31’W
Once we flee Ketchikan, we head up Chatham Channel to Kasaan Bay. Kina Cove is the perfect place for a much needed weekend of rest. It’s not the most beautiful spot as there has been recent clear cutting. But no one is there, holding ground is good and we have five bars of AT&T and tether to strong wifi! I even manage to post the first part of our log.
Mon 13 June – Kasaan 55º32’N 132.23.9’W
In their decade-old cruising guide the Douglasses say don’t even think about spending the night tied up at Kasaan’s rickety docks. As we glide by, even at a distance, my binocs pick up some rather splendid infrastructure for a village of 65 people. It’s right there on the vast uninhabited shores of Kasaan Bay. As we approach we see the float plane dock, lots of empty slips for boats of all sizes and a hefty float capable of handling a large barge.
We walk up the ramp, along the shore, past the fire hall and a handful of houses. Up the hill are the offices the Organized Village of Kasaan, the health clinic, library and a small modern school that features a climbing wall and a new green house where the villages vegetables are growing in traditional containers and hydroponic tanks. The library seems like the appropriate place to request permission to visit the totem park and get directions to the path. The lure of Kasaan is one of the finest collections of Haida totem poles on coast. “Of course” say the folks in the library, “and place don’t miss visiting the carving shed as well.”
The path through old growth is beautifully maintained and no problem for Jack on his scooter. Just before the totem park, however, the steps onto an otherwise fine log bridge block his progress. I cross and go onto the narrow paths around the poles and take lots of photos. The longhouse, however, is surrounded by orange plastic tape that marks it off limits.
Back down the trail we visit the Carving Shed where Stormy Hamar is carving the top motifs of an enormous yellow cedar log. The drawing he shows us speaks to the sophistication of Haida art (confirmed in the collection of the BC Museum in Victoria.). It represents the fruits of hours of interviews he, in collaboration with master carvers, has carried out with elders. Stormy, who seems barely in his mid thirties, insists he is not a master carver.
Again and again on this trip we meet young, dynamic, smart, focussed Native artists, naturalists and political types for whom deference to elders is the norm. I wish I lived in a society like this.
The orange tape, Stormy explains, is because this Whalehouse, one of the oldest Haida structures on the coast, is being restored. Artisans and carvers from neighboring Tlingit tribes are helping these northernmost – and hence minority Haida – with the work. In fact, everyone is preparing for once in a lifetime ceremony to rededicate the Whalehouse on September 3, 2016. Their kin from Haida Gawaii and the coastal mainland BC from whom they are cut off by the international border will be among the guests of honor.
On the walls of the carving shed are hung red cedar strips for basket weaving, small ceremonial paddles made by kids and a splendid small Haida canoe with a delicate design burned into its gunwales. I comment that it is very sad that in recent years there’s been no native canoe at the Port Townsend Wooden Bast Festival.
Stormy smiles proudly and says the canoe is his son’s work. In fact, his son is a student at the Port Townsend School for Wooden Boats. Jack and I perk up in recognition: this spring the Port Townsend Leader profiled a young Haida carver. I have the profile of Eric Hamar on my desk and Kasaan Carving Shed has a computer print out tacked to the wall. Our communities are linked.
Tues 14 June – Thorne Bay 55º40.9’N 132º31.4’W
A tiny break in the thickly treed shoreline marks the long winding entrance to Thorne Bay. Unable to find the fuel dock we call it a day and tie up at the mostly empty new docks, Greg jumps off the 50 foot sailboat docked nearby to welcome us and help with our lines. He and Cheryl are Thorne Bay liveaboards on Toccata, which says Greg, “We’ve been building for the past 28 years.”
Toccata looks pretty shipshape to us and when we’re invited for drinks the next day, we get the whole story. Yes, Greg and Cheryl launched their dream 28 years ago, not to sail blue waters, but to live in mindful comfort in the coastal wilderness. We look through the photos of the long construction process, every stage of which they managed hands on. The splash day in Port Townsend is celebrated with a part for all the people from the boatyard who helped out with this a small floating house for two people. Exquisite woodwork. Wonderful head with colorfully tiled shower. Hasse sails and rigging by Lisa and Dan.
We hear that the fuel dock is best visited on a high tide so we head deeper into the bay the next morning. As we prepare to tie up a float plane arrives with the mail and we’re asked to wait. First plane leave and a second flies in to drop another dribble of cartons from Amazon.com and first class mail on the dock. Then we pull up only to find there’s not a single cleat so we use the short lines the float planes uses. Then we discover the electricity is out and the pump won’t run. Gary, the owner, says, “Never mind, it’s pretty shallow here for you anyway, I’ll just bring your diesel over to the dock later.”
After Gary’s visit to us we stop by his store that sells fishing and hunting gear and licenses. We talk about bears, learn that there are no grizzlies, only black bears on the Island. Last year nine bears were taken, some by locals who hunt them mid season for their meat and some by trophy hunters who take them later in the season, when their meat tastes fishy but their coats are thick.
Thur 16 June – Coffman Cove 56º00.6’N 133º37’W
Unlike Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove doesn’t hide. It’s houses string along shore and it’s easy to find the docks. The Doglass guide is again way out of date on the the condition of the facilities. Docks and floats are new, with steel ramps that let folks drive right up to their boats on the floats. There’s lots of space.
The fishing fleet is small, it seems to be mostly personal use and subsistence fishing. Small fleet. Community seems to serve local folks, although I meet an RVer, an Oregonian from Salem, who comes to fish and consume everything he catches on the spot.
We really need a fisherman on board. Just a little bit too much to manage ourselves what with navigation, sailing, VHF underway and cooking, eating, planning, chart organization, exploring, talking to folks on the docks, journaling, reading, and fixing things when we’re not.
Minus tide reveals Two rocks. I snap a photo To remember them
Unless you get mixed up with those rocks that mark the start of the lagoon beyond the docks, Coffman Cove is easy to enter and exit. The islands just to the north are rich with sea life. Humpbacks dive and blow. Steller Sea Lions swim around our boat to join a huge group of their kin on a rocky shoal.
Again today! Three hundred sixty degrees No other humans!
Sat 18 June – Point Baker 56º21’N 133º37’W
Long enchanted by fisherman-author Joe Upton’s accounts of life at Point Baker in Alaska Blues, I want to go. Jack thinks we were there in 2014 but he’s confused it with Port Protection, which is several miles south. Both tiny off grid communities are at the very tip of Prince of Whales above the 56th parallel.
Point Baker will be our northernmost stop. Founded in the 1930s, it has about 35 residents on boat and in houses clustered around a tiny bay. At one end of a long float are the public buildings – post office, community center with library, and fire hall. At the other, the businesses – fuel dock, grocery, bar, laundry and showers – apparently all operated by one family. Up on the hill there’s a communication tower that doesn’t include cell service and a shiny new cluster of lights like you might see around a fancy tennis court. I discover it’s a new tank farm adequate to meet the fuel needs of the gill net and troll fleets. Less than two miles away, in a slightly larger bay is Port Protection, population 63, which offers a similar mix of services.
I go chat with a pair of fisherman, shuttles in hand, who roll their gillnet off the drum to check and repair it. There’s a good rhythm to the work of this father and son as they prepare for this week’s Sunday noon to Thursday noon salmon opening. The knife clenched in his teeth does not deter the father from conversation. They’re out of Wrangell.
The net is 24 feet wide and 3/8 of a mile long. It’s a five and one quarter inch net – that’s the distance between knots on opposite side of each individual “net square” when pulled away from each other. There’re aren’t a lot of tears in the net itself because the float tine at the top and the leaded line at the bottom are bound to the net with the lighter thread on the shuttles. Consider it sacrificial: if something big like a shark gets caught in the net, the thread breaks not the net and the shark leaves. They are fishing sockeye and hopefully kings. Last year their best haul netted $3200. Yes, cloudy days are better; when it’s sunny the fish go deeper.
A pretty girl arrives, fresh laundry in hand. She’s the son’s partner, the third fisherman on a pair of 32 foot boats fishing together.
So, I ask, what are rec boats supposed to do when we see a working gill netter? The tiny red buoy that marks the end of the net looks just like what crabbers deploy over their traps. New rule of thumb: Head toward the boat itself. These guys watch for boats, using radar in the fog. You can call them or they will call you.
Point Baker’s float plane dock is extra large because it doubles as a helipad, the communities emergency evacuation point. Unattended boats don’t tie upthere but on a calm sunny day in fishing season this large float makes the perfect net loft.
Monday 20 June – Devilfish Bay 56º05’N 133º22.5’W
This is most varied passage of the trip is from Devilfish Bay. A garland of splashing Dall’s porpoises crosses our bow as we make a pre-dawn departure from Point Baker. Heading west we round Port Protection at the tip of Prince of Wales. Sumner Strait is full of whales. The rock outcroppings of nearby peaks rise above the clouds. Isolated sea otters enjoying the ocean swells give way to larger groups as we enter Shakan Bay. Near the mouth of Dry Passage, I spot what looks like a tidewater glacier but cannot be. It turns out to be the marble mine, newly reactivated if mining mostly marble dust. I’m at the helm as we wiggle through Dry Passage. Jack has his iPad open to Navionics and all we have to do is get the countless red and green aides to navigation in the correct order. We’re just coming off a low tide. Next is El Capitan, narrow with peaks all around.
When the waters open up again we see an UnCruise boat at anchor. The Wilderness Discoverer takes only 76 passengers and it would seem a kayak, SUP, skiff or inflatable for each one. Then again, they are too big to get into where we have come from.
Tuesday 21 June Kaluk Cove 55º44’N 133º17.5’W
Day starts with windlass problem. But I’ve got a strong back that I take good care of and the ergonomics of the manual raising are okay. Later it dawns on us that I am the culprit. Jack had suggested that the new inverter should be mounted on the wall of locker in the aft stateroom. The mounting brackets allow air to pass around it. To find a suitable place for it I pick it up only to see a flicker. One the red plastic screw on the back is loose and the copper ring collides with the one on the black screws, causing the short. The new inverter is dead.
We have our pick of pretty coves off Sea Otter Sound and choose Kaluk, which is perfect.
Wednesday 22 June – Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W
To raise the anchor without the windlass we run a line from a winch in the cockpit and snapshackle it to a link of the chain. Soon the chain is up on deck and even easier than usually to flake in the chain locker. We embark on another day of whales and sea otters.
Perhaps the excitement of it all has left us tired. When we enter the protected bay at Klawock on a lowish tide, we’re not sure how to get to the public docks. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery.
I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for their members and organizing the food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today. But there should certainly be space at the public harbour.
There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of ships coming and going.
This large Tlingit village – population 850 – seems like a good place to moor a boat to winter over. While hardly in the thick of things, Kwalock has a real airport and a harbor that charges an annual moorage rather of only $11 a foot! Look up from your boat and there is Kwalock’s renowned totem park.
Thursday 23 June – Craig 55º28.6’N 133º08.6’W
We’re in AT&T land so Jack is on the phone with Michele in Craig, a town that captivated us on our last visit. She has a place for us. Jack writes down where it is- behind a blue hulled trawler. After stopping for fuel at Craig’s fuel dock – a first class docking adventure facilitated by young strong life-vest-clad attendants – we slip past the fish packing packing plant and into North Harbor. Narrowness, rocks, traffic, current, you name it. Man, I can’t find that trawler. There’s a blue hull but it’s a troll rig! We go on almost dead ending into shoe and there’s a space. It’s behind a recreational boat resembling a fishing trawler and style recognized as such.
Jack tight turns into the dock for his usual flawless landing for a starboard tie. But something is off. I get down on the stern rail to fend off the trawler, whose crew appears to help. Easy landing, but this is the first sign transmission is awry.
Trawler crew – sixty something Jack and Jills from Washington State are nice. They’re in Alaska for the summer. Going to Kasaan for the September 3 Whale House rededication. A daughter has become Alaskan. They’ve been coming for years. Man says, “It’s addictive.”
When I go to pay moorage, Michelle and I laugh about the “troller” and “trawler” confusion – the two fishing boat styles sound almost the same. From the emergency preparation handouts on her desk, I discover she’s a community activist. Completely attuned to infrastructure vulnerabilities and the need for politically powered community resilience.
Craig docks are wonderful, even better if you’re tied near the ramp to the street and can follow all the comings and goings of the whole community. The last time we were here it was the Fourth of July, Three years olds casting baited hooks in the fish derby; older kids in the log rolling competition. Tradition. Alaska style chaos.
Just across from us is Mixie, crewed by aging commercial fishermen Charlie and Lee. She’s from Craig. They troll in the summer and retire in the winter. And like Greg and Cheryl in Thorne Bay, they built their boat themselves and sailed up from Port Townsend! I learn it’s a Hoquiam hull, distinctively curved, and that there are four similar boat at Craig, including one built by their son.
At Napa store we ask Mike who might be able to answer some of our questions about our inverter. He says find Dave. Retired Master electrician who lives on a sailboat near yours. We find him and sure, he’ll take a look. Climbs around following wires, talking to himself. “What is that I wonder? All right. It’s right there. Okay. Al righty.” There must be a breaker
Like most single handed liveaboards, Dave’s a talker. He worked all over Alaska, turned to alcohol, as many do, lost his family, heard God, embraced an orthodox Catholicism. I find him better informed about Church history and politics than anyone I’ve talked to in a long time. Today his technical smarts make Dave a local legend. Slowly he’s getting back close to his kids.
Qualms. Cramped thoughts. Weary. Spooked. Unready. For Tlevak Narrows.
I recuse myself. Jack calculates, navigates. Dead on. We glide through.
Monday 27 June Hydaburg 55º10.1’N 133º41.7’W
Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States. We’re the only visiting boat at the spacious and largely empty so everyone knows who we are. A few people greet us. Lisa, Chair of the Native Corporation, does so in Haida. She lets us struggle with a few words before filling us in in English. Hydaburg’s big, two-day Fourth of July celebration is coming up and then at the end of July there is culture camp, a week of workshops in traditional skills, arts, and music as well as language classes.
The houses are modest ranch-style while the school, the health clinic and city hall are stately and well-designed, which seems appropriate for a people of a round shared culture. The foundation for new longhouse is being built and carvers in the shed are working on the poles. There’s a tiny Alaska Commercial Company store and emergency medical services and a small fleet of three village busses to take people around the island via a road that is slowly being paved.
Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States but residents are separated from their Canadian cousins by customs requirement that make the journey between the communities onerous. Like us, they must enter Canada at Prince Rupert rather than going directly to Haida Gawaii. And returning from there, they must pass US Customs at Ketchikan. This is surprising given the special status of Native Communities in both countries.
The weather for crossing back south looks good for the end of the week. So we leave, curious to come back.
Water’s lavender Blues, silvers, sun mirrored mix Of dawn’s clouds and sky.
Wed 29 June – Nichols Bay 54º43’N 132º08’W
Nichols Bay is at the very south tip of Prince of Wales, reached though many hours of wilderness. Forgotten by all save a few commercial fishermen, it lies a couple of miles from the Canadian border. We snug into a little nook off the first bay and turn in early as we have long day ahead.
Thurs 30 June – Prince Rupert
In the predawn darkness of Nichols Bay, some seaweed “floating” off our stern turns into rocky bumps as the tide ebbs out. We bump into the uncharted drying peaks as we exit but gradually find our way out into the light of early morning.
We sail from the cape And a flat line of horizon Closes around us.
Silky silver sea
Your billowing swells push us.
Where we need to go.
Humpbacks spout, cross bow Just as sun burns hole through clouds Giving whales haloes.
Bull kelp grows longer By a foot each shorter day. To guide us over shoals.
The Gnarled Islands Misted monochrome west Deep color stretches east.
After passing customs in Prince Rupert we discover the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club has a space, albeit it a port tie. Jack attempts a bow out-stern in but the transmission is suddenly funny and the current strong. So we give up on that. As I scramble to move fenders and lines to the port side, the usual helpful and competent contingent appears on the docks and helps us in. We sleep soundly leaving boat issues for the morning.
Not too long ago nearly all working boats sailed. I keep this photo at the ready to remind myself of that. The year is 1942 and the magnificent six mast schooner, Tango, is loading its cargo at a Portland wharf. Steam-driven passenger ships and new vessels with diesel and gas engines would be moored nearby. But the War has abetted Tango’s longevity. I like to think that Rosie the Riveter and her Portland girlfriends have walked past on their way to the Kaiser docks to build Liberty Ships.
This puts my life in a new pocket, a different frame of reference: I arrived on the planet shortly after the end of an age of sail. As I exit, sometime toward the end of the short Age of Fossil Fuels, sailing working boats will likely have made their comeback. At least, that’s what I’m thinking.
Along the bountiful North Pacific coast where so many souls fish and so many souls sail there are certainly memories of doing both at once. Joe Upton, a superb writer who fished commercially for decades, says that Alaska’s gillnet fleet was not allowed to use power until the 1950s. Regulations favor fish and motors do not. Somewhere in the minds of old fishermen lie the memories and knowledge of wooden boats rigged with both sails and gillnets.
Halibut schooners are still around, though no longer operating under sail. There’s one at Sitka and we’ve chatted with the crew during their long hours of baiting hooks and arranging them artfully around the edge of the baskets (or are they plastic drums?) on top of the coiled longlines. While the schooner had been missing a mast, by this summer the bow spit – a magnificent 40 foot yellow cedar – had broken off. But she’s still pulling her weight.
Michael Crowley fell in love with halibut schooners as an aspiring greenhorn deckhand in Alaska in the late 1960s. When the docklines of the 65-foot schooner Attu were being thrown off and its cook hadn’t appeared, Crowley began his first of many seasons on halibut schooners out of Seattle. Not a single one was built after 1927 and most came from Ballard where he says “they were shaped with adzes, slicks, steam-powered ship saws, and the brute force and ingenuity of square headed ship carpenters and designers.”
But I only started thinking about sailing and fishing after Tora caught my eye. It was in the sleepy but well laid out harbor of Kake, Alaska. What is that? A sailing ketch with a trolling rig on the aft mast. Wow! That was on our northbound leg. (Coming southbound, on the cusp of salmon season, we followed Tova out of Kake Harbor into Rocky Pass toward the famous fishing grounds off Prince of Wales Island near Point Baker.)
I doubt that it’s efficient to simultaneously sail and operate a commercial troll, which involves managing a couple of dozen individual hooks and handling each salmon with respect. But sail boats are lightly powered and work well at the 4 knot trolling speed.
In any event, my eyes were opened. I started to look out for these hybrids. And Alaska revealed them (while British Columbia did not…probably having to do with commercial fishing regs).
Leaving Sitka – no one leaves Sitka without a smidgen of wistfulness – we spied a small sail wooden sailboat. And lo and behold she was rigged to troll. At Baranof Warm Springs, balm to all commercial fishermen, we saw S/V -F/V Blue raft up to a seiner at the dock. We never got to meet the skipper, who must have headed for a high altitude hot soak, but we learned Blue has a female captain.
When our Aurora made fast at Craig on Prince of Wales Island, an attractive neighbor captured my attention. Abundance is a triple whammy: a steel boat (I have a thing for steel boats), a sailing ketch and a fishing troller. I hung around, making numerous trips along a very long float to Craig Harbor’s laundry, showers and restrooms, hoping to get a glimpse of the captain. My heart sank when I looked up from my boat work to see Abundance leaving the harbor.
But the next day, she was back! Not at dock, mind you, but selling the catch at Craig’s packing plant. It must have been good because it took a while. I know because I watched and waited, hoping to welcome Abundance back at the dock. But the sailing troller just turned around and went back out to fish some more!
Sources: The photo of the Tango is, I believe, from the archives of the Oregon Historical Society. I got it from the Facebook page of the Oregon Maritime Museum, which is on the waterfront in my Portland neighborhood. Joe Upton educated me about trolling and gillnetting in Alaska Blues and about the Alaskan crab industry in Bering Sea Blues. Michael Crowley’s story “Greenhorn” appears in Leslie Leyland Green’s wonderful book Hooked!)