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 Since available books on the area are so out of date we wrote our own Cruisers’ Guide to Prince of Wales Island to document port facilities and other amenities.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.
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.
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.