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?
Here’s where the Aurora took Jack the Skipper and First Mate Baggywrinkles this summer. We cruised a thousand nautical miles along the Inside Passage, north from the 48th to the 59th parallel parallel and west from 123º to 136º. We sailed out of our former home port of Port Hadlock on Port Townsend Bay, Washington, on June 13th and arrived at our new home part of Hoonah, AK on August 1.
The year 2009 will be remembered for a magnificent summer that followed a monstrous winter. Our most difficult day was the very first – crossing Juan de Fuca Strait; our most difficult hour was also the very first, rounding Point Wilson for the umpteenth time. As for the normally obstreperous waters of Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait, Cape Caution, Milbanke Sound, Dixon Entrance, and Icy Strait, they all behaved for us, as our endless stream of sun-filled photos show. Next year when we come south through the usual rain, fog, or storms, we will have the vision of these spectacular vistas still in our heads.
Have a look at our pictures. Those of the Skipper and First Mate together were taken by Piers Rippey, who brought welcome hands to our deck for ten days from Prince Rupert, BC and Auke Bay, AK. The photos are arranged chronologically on one page; slide show takes 18 minutes. No photo captions at the moment but here’s our route.
June 13 Mitchell Bay, San Juan Island, WA, at dock 48 34 N 123 10 W
June 14 Montague Harbor, BC on mooring buoy 48 53N 123 25 W
June 15 Nanaimo, at dock 49 10 N 123 56 W
June 16-17 Comox, at dock 49 40 N 124 56 W
June 18 Campbell River, at dock 50 02 N 125 15 W
June 19 Kamish Bay/Granite Bay, at anchor 50 14 N 125 19 W
June 20 Shoal Bay, at dock 50 28 N 125 22 W
June 21 Forward Harbor, at anchor 50 29 N 125 45 W
June 22 Lagoon Cove Marina, at dock 50 36 N 126 19 W
June 23 Laura Cove, Broughton Island, at anchor 50 50 N 126 34 W
June 24 Sullivan Bay, at dock 50 53 N 26 50 W
June 25 Blunden Harbor, at anchor 50 54 N 1217 17 W
June 26-27 Duncanby, at dock 51 24 N 127 39 W
June 28 Green Island, Fish Egg Inlet, at anchor 51 38 N 127 50 W
June 29-30 Shearwater, at dock 52 09 N 128 05 W
July 1 Klemtu, at free dock 52 36 N 128 31 W
July 2-3 Khutze Inlet, at anchor 53 05 N 128 16 W
July 4 Hartley Bay, at free dock 53 25 N 129 45 W
July 5 Klewnuggit Inlet, East Inlet, at anchor 53 43 N 129 44 W
July 6-10 Prince Rupert, at dock 54 20 N 130 18 W
July 11 Brundige Inlet, Dundas Island, BC, at anchor 54 36 N 130 53 W
July 12-13 Ketchikan, AK, at dock 55 21 N 131 41 W
July 14 Meyers Chuck, at free dock 55 44 N 132 16 W
July 15 Frosty Bay, at anchor 56 04 N 131 58 W
July 16-17 Wrangell, at dock 56 28 N 132 23 W
July 18-19 Petersburg, at dock 56 49 N 132 58 W
July 20 Portage Bay, at anchor 56 59 N 133 19 W
July 21 Hobart Bay, Entrance Island, at anchor 57 25 N 133 26 W
July 22 Taku Harbor, at free dock 58 04 N 134 08 W
July 23-24 Juneau, at dock 58 18 N 134 26 W
July 25 Auke Bay, at dock 58 30 N 134 39 W
July 26-27 Hoonah, at dock 58 06 N 135 27 W
July 28 Bartlett Bay, Glacier Bay, at anchor 58 28 N 135 53 W
July 29 North Sandy Cove, Glacier Bay, at anchor 58 43 N 136 00 W
July 30 Sebree Cove, Glacier Bay, at anchor 58 46 N 136 10 W
July 31 Bartlett Bay, Glacier Bay, at anchor 58 28 N 135 53 W
Aug 1-present Hoonah, at dock 58 06 N 135 27 W
It’s called winterizing a boat and we’d never done it before.
In his hefty tome, Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual: How to Maintain, Repair and Improve Your Boat’s Essential Sysetems, Nigel Calder offers his usual weighty, complex, comprehensive advice on the topic. But when we actually, started talking to folks on the docks, we discovered putting a boat into hibernation mode involved lots Nigel missed, including a good mix of common sense and folklore.
Harbormaster Paul assigned us a great slip near shore kitty corner to his own boat and just opposite the slip of Assistant Harbormaster Arlen. He told us to dock bow out (or, rather, into the bad south winds) and to tie up real tight, lines dock to deck. Some people, including wooden boat owners, go for loose tie ups but Paul says he tightens them all lines up no matter. And woe to those who tie up deck to dock with leftover line laying about: those lines gets chewed up in the snowblowers.
But we weren’t even there yet. First we needed to change the fuel filters which meant retrieving the emergency supply of diesel from under the dinghy. Easy lift using the halyard and the Milwaukee Wrench, the unsung hero of the cruise, which deserves a picture. (Normally when sailors want to reduce effort they install spendy winches and hydraulic davits. Hardly anyone realizes that a $400 Milwaukee Wrench with a little adapter can perform as well if not better.)
Then there was an overdue oil change. Just when we thought we had it down to a system, it ended up taking all afternoon. Suction pump on the blink, oil spraying about, horrible hot sweaty day, everything invisible behind the forest fire smoke drifting down from the Yukon. To add insult to injury we couldn’t get the oil filter off and spent an hour retrieving the wrench when it got stuck. As we were taking a break from our discouraging slide down the learning curve, Howard from the Perseus walked by and told us to tell him if there was ever anything he could do for us. So we squeezed him into the space , provided light and orientation, and he got the thing off. Lesson learned: hand tighten the oil filter.
Then we topped off the tank with diesel to prevent any condensation. It was low tide and the attendant up on the fuel dock at Hoonah Trading lowered the hose 45 feet to reach us. Climbing up the little ladder to pay, I saw the Aurora from a new angle and realized I’d missed a photo op.
Tying up was heart wrenching: the absolute end of our cruise. Next we removed on to the sails, taking pictures of the cunningham and the reefling lines so we can get them back in the right place next year. The sails more or less flaked themselves right on the deck and we commended Carol Hasse for the generous cut of the sail bags, which helped us get them on with no trouble.
One morning Jack woke up with a solution to a nagging problem. On the deck of Aurora are three dorades or air vents big enough to accommodate a weasel or other animal that might choose to shelter their nests in Aurora. He ran off the Hoonah Trading for supplies and set to work. He cut ovals of wire screen, fit them over the dorade openings and clamped them on with 8-inch circle clamps. Brilliant. (I took a picture but it seems to have gone missing.)
The next job was to put new antifreeze into the fresh water system and, for good measure, into the raw water system: we closed the throughhull, dumped the antifreeze into the strainer, and briefly started the engine to suck it in.
On the last day we drained the water tanks, closed all the throughhulls, and dumped something pink and non toxic called Arctic Ban into the tanks, the sinks and the toilet. We put pots under the aft cabin mattress to let air flow under it and piled other cushions and sleeping bags onto it. We pushed the sails through the big hatch in the V-berth and brought them into the salon, where the mainsail goes clear from the head to the galley sink. Into the V berth we chucked the rescue equipment from the cockpit.
Then I hosed the mud off the anchor and scrubbed the deck, tying or bungee-ing halyards and lines off the deck surface, and fastened the dodger and covered the windshield, winches, hatches and rails.
We didn’t tarp, although many of our neighbors said they do. Sailboats are designed to have water wash over them; power boats are not.
We supplemented two small electric dehumidifiers with five buckets of rock salt, which are supposed to drink moisture out of the air. We opened up all the lockers in hopes that air would move around our clothing and bedding
That’s Aurora there in Hoonah Harbor, the tall mast behind the blue tarp. It was really hard saying goodbye.
The Hoonah Tlingit have taken a bold approach to cultural tourism that may be a wave of the future.
Inside Passage cruise ship tourism is a two edged sword. It brings income to coastal communities and affords visitors an experience both spectacular and affordable.
We thought we’d run into cruise ships frequently. As it happens, Petersburg and Wrangell take no large cruise ships. A single large ship a day is allowed in Glacier Bay and they cannot dock or anchor. Prince Rupert, British Columbia has only one a week, Vancouver of course a few more, but we didn’t go there this year. In fact, in our whole passage through Canada we encountered underweigh a single large cruise ship, one of the classic, never-very-large vessels of the Holland America Line.
Unfortunately, Ketchikan and Juneau have fallen victim to what the an editorial writer in The Juneau Empire calls “the magic blingdom” on the waterfront. Mind you, four ships a day can dump 56,000 people a week on towns with populations of less than 8 and 31 thousand people respectively. I assume the same is true of Skagway, Haines and Sitka as well, though some towns manage better than others. In addition to obvious environmental concerns huge, it’s very sad to see shops operated by the cruise companies themselves or by merchants from the Bahamas, who simply move their operations there every fall.
The attraction for visitors is clear. Cruise line welcome all members of the family, able bodied or not. Cruise ships can afford to take on leading scholars, naturalists and historians. Many if not most cruise ship folks appear to be foreign visitors to the US, for whom the week on the Inside Passage out of Seattle must be an affordable respite from land based travels. But so many average foreign tourists traveling in foreign flagged ships probably weakens demand for historical, cultural and eco tourism.
Enter the Hoonah Tlingit and their locally based approach. The original people of Glacier Bay, they were forced south across Icy Strait to Chicagof Island when the glaciers advanced in the seventeenth century. In the early twentieth century many fished for or went to work at the large cannery established at the entrance to their harbor by investors from Port Townsend. From 1912 to 1953 the Hoonah Packing Company operated as a full fledged cannery. After that, it turned to other types of fish processing and eventually served as a maintenance base for the purse seine fishing fleet until 1999.
In 2001, the Hoonah Native corporation, which had purchased the site, implemented the new concept of a private, purpose built cruise ship destination known as Icy Strait Point. The wonderful old buildings of the cannery were renovated to accommodate a museum, restaurants, and thirteen, small Native-owned shops, including a bookstore. The tribe constructed a new Big House for cultural presentations for themselves and to share. Beyond the water front there’s a boardwalk with benches, totempoles and a daytime campfire. Beyond are hiking trails and a ride down Mt. Hoonah on the country’s fastest longest zip line. And visitors can walk the 3/4 mile to town or hire local guides for fishing, bear tracking, whale watching and the like.
There are no plans for a cruise ship dock at Hoonah; rather ships anchor out and tender passengers in. Only one ship is allowed at a time for an average of 3.5 visits per week in the summer.
A really nice touch is that Icy Strait Point is open free of change to all local Hoonah people and to visiting fishermen and cruisers in Hoonah Harbor. We spent a fine sunny afternoon there, a welcome break from oil and anti-freeze. While the experience is was more packaged than our visit to the North Pacific Cannery with the well trained teenagers of Port Edwards, British Columbia, Ice Strait Point really does have something for everybody.
As much as we liked Wrangell, we’ve decided to make Hoonah our temporary Alaska home. We’d first heard the name from a neighbor in Port Hadlock when we were asking about the best places to leave a boat. Hoonah is blessed with comparatively mild winters, a small protective harbor and the uber competent Harbormaster, Paul D., and his assistant Arlen S.
Hoonah also gets accolades from Don and René Douglass in their fat, indispensable cruising guide on Southeastern Alaska. In general, the authors take pains to explain to recreational cruisers that Alaska is different; since there are no marinas specifically serving recreational boaters, one should not expect help with lines or any of the fawning service that typifies facilities in the San Juans and Gulf Islands. (Think Roche Harbor: who needs it?)
It’s so much better to tie up next to commercial fisherman with local knowledge, news of the day, and a knack for predicting the weather. In addition to fishermen, fishing guides, local working and family boats, Hoonah, Harbor serves Alaskan cruisers who reside inland and several boats from the lower 48. Harbormasters check dock lines and water lines every day. When the temperature plunges, they go on board and plug in our heat lamps. When the snow gets thick, they hire folks to shovel it off the boats. For our 40 foot slip and this service we pay $850. Electricity is additional. Last winter, a hard one, total snow shoveling amounted to $50.
The largest Tlingit village in Alaska, Hoonah is on an inlet known as Port Frederick. It’s accessible only by air and water, although there are a few cars and several roads out the town to the sawmill and areas where residents fish, hunt and pick berries. The village itself stretches along the waterfront from the old cannery on Icy Strait, passing the ferry terminal, the brand new not yet used TravelLift boat hoist, the Hoonah Trading Company, a public wharf and float, the food processing plant, the school, the float plane float, the harbor, the post office and a small airport that accommodates the tiny planes of Alaska Wings.
Hoonah Trading Company is the kind of store you dream about. It has only what you need but everything you need. It sits atop a long wharf with a fuel dock at one end and a gas pump at the other. Between are a fully stocked Ace franchise with lumber, hardware and housewares and a small supermarket with abundant, inexpensive fresh produce.
The school is a stone’s throw from the harbor. It doubles as a community center, the tribal big house being out at Icy Strait Point and the halls of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood needing repair. The school houses the public library where we access Internet and the gym always seems to have kids playing basketball. The school curriculum seems to include native Tlingit skills such as red cedar bark weaving and wood carving. I should have asked about language study and whether the kids compete in canoe races using the dugouts parked out front near the totem poles.
As for housing, it’s not Hoonah’s strong point. Although there are attractive and well constructed homes up on the hill and toward the airport, most of the homes near the waterfront are scrappy little salt box bungalows. Small and weather beaten, many have a single downstairs room with a pot belly stove in the middle.
Then we figured it out. The museum has before and after pictures of a 1944 a fire wiped out the wood-planked front street and the contiguous buildings on either side. The wharves over the water and the small Russian Orthodox Church on a knoll behind were spared, but the heart of the village disappeared. The fire had spread from a household smoke house and it seems that the chief of the clan to which the family belonged offered gifts and then committed suicide. Then emergency housing came in on a ship that had been on its way to Hawaii; it was temporary military housing designed for an entirely different climate.
Commercial fishing is the last vestige or the hunter gatherer phase of human cultural development. The tools of fishing used today evolved directly from those of our ancestors. Nearly all fish catching devices in Alaska are simply improvements on one of three basic types of devices: hooks, nets and traps.
Here’s my take away and and what calls me back. Time and space are different in Alaska. It’s not just in a different time zone. Not just long days suddenly reversing into long nights. An ice age flows right into the present in Glacier Bay. People there sense things differently. Eventually, you do, too.
Alaskans practice the wisdom of the ages as they move across the waters and the land in search of subsistence. Natives and settlers alike, share an age old ethic of self-sufficiency that distinguishes them from most other Americans. Halibut hooks and other tools of the trade adorn totem poles. Contemporary families budget time and energy to take care of their food needs and look forward to it.
Alaskan waters are so abundant that there is a thin line between subsistence and commercial fishing. Many commercial fishing vessels become the family home during the summer months.
Alaskans are genuine foodies who make most chefs and diners look frivolous. Of course, they have supermarkets. In fact produce is amazingly high quality and fresh and the prices are just fine. Summer nights are too short to grow corn in Alaska but it arrives with its silk glossy and damp. Melons do well on the long trip are apricots, peaches and pears are respected and protected. Local growers turn out beautiful summer salads and greens and families brag about the size of the cabbages in their household plots. But meat and fish? Nearly impossible to find at the supermarket.
It was great to see the excitement of the Blough family as they left for their annual reunion and caribou hunt. All the Alaskan cruisers we met were looking forward to the hunting season. Everyone takes their annual allotment of deer, which is 6 small Sitka deer per adult. Most of them were also hoping to get a moose. Dianna licked her chops in anticipation while sharing her recipe for bear ribs. Many folks hunt black bear but seem to agree that brown bear is not very good at all. Since Neal and Dianna have professional butchering equipment at home, they also order two cattle and two pigs on the hoof.
At Hoonah Trading Company, canning jars, rubber seals, and canning parifin were flying off the shelves as folks came out of the woods with pailfuls of salmon berries, then blackberries and next huckleberries.
It was the fishing we saw up close. Every dock has a number of simple fish cleaning tables with a fresh water hose. Around 4 pm every day people line up to use them. Huge sockeye, pinks and chum, many males with the hooked jaws of spawning season. The largest halibut we saw was 170 pounds, but everyday we saw people bringing in lots of smaller ones.
Our cruising neighbors, some from the inland areas of Alaska, have promised to show us the ropes next year. Most of them clean, cut into portions, vacuum pack and freeze their catch on their boats. Out of town sport fishermen take their fish to a small shop behind the Harbormaster’s that processes and packages fish for shipment. The morning we flew out of Juneau airport, I felt pangs of sheer envy at the huge cartons of frozen fish that many travelers were checking with their baggage.
As for commercial fishing, we’ve had to learn about the rigs of the various fisheries just to navigate past them. We learned about gillnetting from Joe Upton’s Alaska Blues and from the talkative Arnie. After LaDonna’s dramatic story of the Wrangell purse seiners, we peppered seiners with questions. Trollers were everywhere, from the lovely antique double ender in whose company we negotiated Green Rapids to the dozens in Hoonah Harbor. Our favorite boats there, moored side by side, are Icy Lady and Happy Hooker.
We saw our first longliner leaving Frosty Harbor: a bizarre non contiguous assortment of red balls and flags stretching nearly across the channel. We consulted our Canadian charts book, which has good illustrations of a troller, a gillnetter, a purse seiner, a long liner and a trawler. Identifying how fishermen in each fishery set their lines and nets is an essential part of cruising the Northwest Coast. (Alan Sorum’s artlcle “Identifying Alaska Commercial Fishing Boats” has the basics but poor pictures.)
This post has wandered and taken time to write. As I try to finish things up here, I am distracted and feel a powerful call of the wild. It’s the end of August and the wilderness of southern Oregon should be spectacular. So I’ll end this with quite from an anthology called Alaskan Stories (edited by John Miller) hat I picked up used during my final visit to Juneau’s Rainy Retreat Books. (And read as I tried to fall asleep in a hotel bed, which didn’t move the way our bunk on Aurora does.) All the other Alaska books are safely shelved on Aurora but this one sneaked back to Portland, making my reentry all the more difficult.
Robert Coles, the great psychiatrist, teacher and Children of Crisis author, brings us these words of a fourteen year old Eskimo girl who once spent six months in Fairbanks.
I remember waking up in the house we had in Fairbanks; I went to the window, and I saw – another house. I bent my neck and looked, and there was the sky, a small piece of it – the size of meat or fish we have in the middle of the winter, not the fish or meat we eat in the summer. Everywhere we went there were houses and stories. We kept looking at walls. I couldn’t see beyond a street; there were always cars and buildings. The sky was not the sky I knew. There was no ocean. At school there was a playground but across the street there were stores. My mother said she felt a lot of time as if she wasn’t getting enough air. My father ended up in bars at night, drinking. He didn’t see anything except the beer inside a bottle.
One day he came home and said he wanted to go back to our village; he wanted to stand near the ocean and look at the water, not drown in beer. We left the next day. My uncle has been in Fairbanks a long time, but we couldn’t stay, and I’m glad we’re back here. As soon as we got home, my grandmother told me to go say hello to the ocean, and to the ponds, and to take a walk through the grass, and to watch for foxes and say hello to them. And to not forget the sky; she never does – she’s always looking at the sky and watching the clouds, and she can tell if the weather will change by the way the clouds go across the sky. She won’t tell me her secret. She says I’ll learn it by looking at the sky long enough myself!