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.
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.
Having cruised around Prince of Wales Island in June 2016, the crew of S/V Aurora would like to share notes and encourage others to make the trip. Since there’s no current cruising guide to this area, we’ve tried to collect key missing details.
Having cruised around Prince of Wales Island in June 2016, the crew of S/V Aurora would like to share notes and encourage others to make the trip. Since there’s no current cruising guide to this area, we’ve tried to collect key missing details.
The information in the Second Edition of Exploring Southeast Alaska by Don Douglass and Réanne Hemingway-Douglass is indispensable for anchorages but a decade out-of-date on docks. Today the Island is well served with new harbor facilities operated by Prince of Wales’ “cities”, sometimes jointly with Native Corporations.
For current information we turned to the 2016 Visitor Guide issued by the Prince of Wales 2016 Visitor Guide issued by the Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce. While this publication is oriented to visitors traveling by ferry and road, it lists harbormasters’ phone numbers and includes good information on population centers.
Prince of Wales offers wilderness we’ve found nowhere else in Southeast Alaska. The third largest island in the United States lies wholly within Tongass National Forest and has only 3700 inhabitants. Unlike the roadless Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof Islands, Prince of Wales has roads connecting settlements on its east and west coasts. In this respect Prince of Wales looks inward: roads enable a single electrician or plumber to serve most of the population. Scheduled floatplane service fills the gaps, delivering mail and picking up passengers. Each of the destinations not served by roads maintain helicopter pads and volunteer emergency medical service teams.
The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway do not serve the island; rather the Inter-Island Ferry Authority provides daily roundtrip service between tiny Hollis and Ketchikan. By and large the traffic is local, devoid of any large cruise ships. All in all, the light footprint of this transportation system has left virtually all of the POW’s thousand mile shoreline unmarred by infrastructure.
Cruising around Prince of Wales means a spectacular sweep of natural beauty teaming with wildlife: whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, seals, sea lions, eagles and heron. Its docks and harbors offer opportunities to meet the people – the Haida,the Tlingit, the gill netters and the trollers. In future blog posts we’ll share our stories and document our anchorages and the passages. Now let’s circumnavigate POW counter clockwise and provide information on visiting the Island’s communities.
Hollis Population 165
Hollis is where the Inter-Island Ferry for Ketchikan leaves every morning at 8am and returns in the evening at 6:30pm. Th 35-mile trip takes three hours each way. Houses dot the shoreline of two coves off the south arm of Kasaan Bay. Unfortunately, it is not an inviting overnight destination. The bay where the ferry calls features a floatplane dock but no other moorage, not even for dinghies. The much larger bay to the south is shallow and seems threatened by williwaws from nearby hills. This is the only place we visited where the 2007 assessment of the Douglasses, who also did not dock here, still holds. “It has been reported that the Hollis Dock is extremely small and usually filled with local boats.”
According to the POW 2016 Visitors Guide this unincorporated community founded in the 1890s as a mining camp offers these additional services: emergency medical services, public telephone, library, accommodations, RV service, and boat launch. More at the website of this unincorporated community- www.hollisalaska.org.
Kasaan Population 65
Located on the northeast shore of Kasaan Bay, the Organized Village of Kasaan is home to members of the Haida First Nation, whose ancestors migrated north from Canada’s Haida Gawaii, until recently known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. They founded “Old Kasaan” seven miles away and in 1976 incorporated at the present site, which had since the late 1800’s hosted a mining camp, sawmill, postoffice, and store and later a cannery that operated until the mid-twentieth century.
While somewhat unpromising at first glance, Kasaan is a must see cultural destination for Inside Passage cruisers. At the end of a trail through heartbreakingly beautiful old growth forest (which hides the second or third growth struggling to cover nearby hills) lies an enchanting totem park and a historic longhouse which is to be rededicated with a once in a lifetime ceremony late this summer. Here’s the story as recounted in the 2016 Visitors Guide.
A two-third mile walk on a forest trail leads to Kasaan Historic Totem District and Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House or Naay I’waans. “The Great House” built around 1880 is the only traditional Haida longhouse in the U.S. In the 1930s, totems from the old villages were moved to the totem park. Between 1938 and 1940, Civilian Conservation Corps carvers restored the longhouse.
Kasaan offers a unique eco-cultural tourism experience in 2016…The Whale House and its house posts have undergone extensive renovation by a team of Haida and Tlingit carvers since 2014 in a joint project of the village corporation, Kavilco, and the tribe, the Organized Village of Kasaan. To celebrate restoration efforts and to honor this historic time for the Haida people of Kasaan, the tribe plans a rededication event for September 3, 2016. For information see http://www.kasaan.org or call 907.755.2261.
Visiting cruisers are greeted by brand new sturdy docks with the essential safety features but no electricity. At one end is the float plane base and the other a hefty float to accommodate small cruise ships, such as the 49 passenger Baranof Dream operated out of Sitka by the Tlingit First Nation. At the time we visited in June, there was no opportunity to pay moorage. Support for the Whale House Rededication, however, can be made online. The tribal newsletter covers the carvers’ progress and things to come.
Kasaan has a clinic, emergency medical evacuation, float plane service, a fine small library, a school, a green house with traditional and hydroponic vegetable gardens, two 2-bedroom vacation cabins, and a new Totem Trail Café. More into at www.kaasan.org.
Thorne Bay Population 500
Lying at the end of a long bay behind a nearly hidden entrance, Thorne Bay offers excellent moorage, unrivaled by anything we’ve seen elsewhere. Brand new floats are broad planked with 9-inch toenails and have electricity, water and the full range of safety features: fire extinguishers, life rings, permanent “swim” ladders, and, at the top of the covered ramp, a bright yellow locker with “Kids Don’t Swim” life jackets. Restrooms are particularly well designed for public use, the shower is roll in and all of the ramps are smooth. I believe moorage was 75 cents a foot.
Shane, the energetic and personable young harbor master is married to a teacher at the local K through 12 school and well integrated in the community. Thorne Bay was founded as a logging camp and incorporated as a residential community in 1982. The A&P (Alaskan and Proud) market is excellent. There are three churches, a liquor store, one of POW’s rare sit down dining restaurants but no bar. Currently, there’s no laundromat: one wonders if there is not a potential mini-business in dockside pick up and delivery. Other services include daily service by three float plane companies, emergency medical, library, sleeping accommodations, RV service, a gas station and a boat launch. Cell service is good.
Thorne Bay’s weak point is its fuel dock, tucked in a nearby shallow bay. Keelboats should purchase fuel only on a mid to high tide and, as we discovered, be prepared to hold as float planes land and disgorge passengers and mail. However, there’s an alternative: fuel can be delivered dockside in 5-gallon containers. Gary, owner of The Port, which runs the fuel dock and the post office, and the Tackle Shop at Throne Bay is very accommodating and highly knowledgeable about hunting and fishing.
With its current huge excess capacity and with moorage at less than $1000 annually, Thorne Bay is an option for cruisers who wish to winter over and fly or ferry in. More on these websites: www.thornebay-ak.gov and www.thornebayalaska.net.
Coffman Cove Population 200
Founded as a logging camp in the 1950s, the City of Coffman Cove was incorporated in 1989. When logging jobs disappeared the community had to reinvent itself and get into the business of recreational and commercial fishing. It’s a pretty but very unpretentious place. Modest vacation rentals and residences are strung along the shores of Clarence Strait with spectacular views of the white peaks beyond Wrangell.
The floats are good and the main ramp to them accommodates vehicles the serve the small commercial fleet of gill netters and trollers. Sport fishing is huge here, serving mostly Alaskans in pursuit of the annual personal use catch that will see them through the long winters. Small boats carry folks across the Strait for the day; a fleet of Lund dinghies takes them to the nearby, wildlife-rich islands.
We couldn’t raise the harbor master on the VHF but easily found dock space and paid fifty cents a foot, dropping a check in the box at the head of ramp. The sign there illustrates three ways to contact Harbor Masters at small Alaskan ports.
Coffman Cove docks are served by electricity but we didn’t connect to shore power as our solar panels love Alaska’s long days. As we were to learn, most electrical outlets belong to permanent moorage tenants. We heard a range of attitudes toward borrowing electricity from a vacant plug. Boats requiring power at smaller ports with part-time harbormaster would do well to contact local authorities during business hours.
Tiny Coffman Cove offers visitors a whole range of modest services. Bait Box Takeout has food and seating. The Riggin’ Shack is a general store with a variety of non perishable groceries. On Monday or Tuesday they get the fat weekend edition of The Ketchikan Daily News from the previous Friday. All the liquids are offered under one roof: Rain Country Liquor, the Dog House Pub and the office of R and R Fuels. There’s no fuel dock but the friendly owners of the business will run a hose to your boats or deliver diesel by dock cart in 5 gallon cans. There’s an excellent coin-operated laundry at the Ocean View RV Park, a short walk from the docks. Other services include an ATM, a clinic, emergency medical service, a float plane dock, and new monthly car ferry service to South Mitkoff Island.
Public phones serve Coffman Cove, which has no cell service. Dial 83 to use a prepaid card or 85 to use a credit. Free calls can be made for the weather (81), for commercial fishing safety reports (82) to call in an emergency spill (84) and to reserve a forest service cabin (86) or a place on the ferry (87).
Free wireless internet is offered around the clock at the Coffman Cove Library, which is staffed by an AmeriCorps volunteer under a program to bring more digital services to small Alaskan Communities. Local people may sit on the porch for hours or just pull up in their cars and quickly check their email. There much more on the official website of this vibrant community – www.ccalaska.com – and you can download a pdf of the brochure “Coffman Cove: Alaska’s best kept secret on Prince of Wales Island.”
Point Baker Population 25
At the northernmost tip of the Island, Point Baker offers an entirely different cultural experience, one immortalized for me by former fisherman-resident Joe Upton in Alaska Blues. In the third week of June this tiny floating community was crammed with gill netters preparing for a Monday through Thursday opening. There was no space at the dock and the small bay does not easily accommodate boats anchored out. On the recommendation of a fisherman, we rafted to a ferrocement boat, seemingly abandoned. No one asked for a moorage fee.
Port Baker is an unincorporated community of about 25 households. All public and commercial buildings are moored on the lee side of a 440-foot state dock with boats docked along the other side. A post office, community center, and small store operate very limited hours while the fuel dock,laundry and showers appear to serve boat and crews 24/7. A pub opens seasonally and there is some overnight accommodation. The state dock in good condition and offers a clear pathway whereas access to buildings is unkind to disabled cruisers.
There’s no cell service but there’s a public phone that requires a pre-paid card number. The large float plane dock doubles as a heliport. During salmon openings, fishermen raft their boats and repair nets there.
The evening before we pulled out of Point Baker, the Calder Mountain Lodge put up their welcome sign and opened for to serve sports fishing clients brought in from Petersburg. Their kind reply to my inquiry confirms they do not normally serve cruisers. For current info try the Point Baker Community association phone – 907.559.2204.
Port Protection Population 63
Port Protection is two miles and 2 minutes of latitude south of Point Baker but these two tiny fishing communities have no roads and are not connected. It lies at the end of a cove named for Wooden Wheel Johnson at the beginning of the last century. At mid century there was a trading post and a permanent community was established here in 1981 through the State of Alaska land disposal program.
We didn’t visit this year but enjoyed watching the low-key activity around this pretty and well-protected bay when there in 2014. We tied up at the free state float in the company of a variety of active and inactive local boats.
Seasonal services include float plane service, emergency medical, fuel, groceries, simple accommodations, a library and a public phone. The 2016 Visitors Guide recommends calling Wagon Wheel trading Post at 907.489.2222 for information.
El Capitan Cave Dock
Since this float does not accommodate cruising vessels, we simply mention it in passing. We do recommend, however, that all cruisers experience Dry and El Capitan Passes on their southbound journey and this route takes them right past this dock. It is owned by the State of Alaska and marked with a US Forest Service sign indicating the El Capitan Cave Interpretive site. Dinghies that tie up here are a mere 45-minute walk to the largest of the Islands’s more than 500 caves.The US Forest Service offers free tours of the cave several times a day in the summer. Visitors can reserve a spot for a specific tour by calling 907.828.3304 at least two days in advance. Maximum group size is six; minimum age is seven.
Boats can conceivably anchor nearby and dinghy in, although the nearest sound anchorage is Devilfish Cove, four miles south. An alternative would be to have a member of your crew drop others off and remain with the boat until the tour is finished 90 minutes to two hours later.
Naukati Bay Population 140
Located in the strait between the main Island and Tuxekan Island off Sea Otter sound, Naukati Bay lies about a quarter of the way down the southbound route. With so many exquisite anchorages in the area, we expect most cruisers move on to drop the hook, as we did. As the webpage of the community association boasts “Naukati Bay is the center for world class saltwater sportfishing, record black bear and Sitka black-tail deer hunting, breathtaking scenery, whale watching extraordinaire, sea kayaking and canoeing, spelunking, hiking, stream fishing for big steelhead trout.”
According to the POW Chambers 2016 Visitors Guide, “the newly constructed floating dock and boat launch are near the Naukati Bay Shellfish Nursery where oyster spat (seeds) are grown and provided to many oyster farms in the area.” Naukati Bay boasts float plane service, EMS, groceries, fuel, and an ATM. On the Fourth of July local kids compete to find huge skunk cabbage leaves, which dwarf them. For more information call the Naukati Bay Community Association at 907.629.4104 and visit the website www.naukatibay.com.
Klawock Population 850
The traditional summer camp for the Tlingit community from Tuxekan Island, it was chosen chosen as a permanent site by Chief Kloowah. It is also home of Alaska’s first cannery, established by San Franciscans in 1878, and its second oldest hatchery. Today, Klawock is best known for the twenty-one extraordinary poles in its totem park. There are replicas from the 1930s of poles that stood at Tuxekan as well new poles by contemporary Tlingit carvers, which have been raised with great ceremony by the community.
The well-built modern public dock and floats lie inside a sheltered peninsula with view of Klawock’s renowned totem park. On entering the harbor, your first see a set of floats between the cannery and a wharf with a large tidal grid. These busy floats belong to the tribal association. Go on into the harbor to the public facilities; the narrow channel is deeper than it first appears.
Because so many boats were out long term or for the day when we arrived, there was lots of space at the dock. Most of the spaces are rented, however, and owner’s lines may be on the dock but you can tie up and then check with the Harbormaster if you have not done so ahead of time. Electricity is another matter, as permanent tenants are already paying the meter and electricity is seldom offered. In all the POW ports except Craig, S/V Aurora was the only visiting cruising boat.
The Harbor Master’s phone is 907.755.2260 and the office is at the top of the ramp along with excellent restrooms with showers, baby changing tables and other amenities. I noticed that the women’s sometimes appeared locked but it’s a design flaw. The shower stall is spacious and ADA accessible but as stall door does not reach the floor, someone taking a shower might lock behind herself in the interest of safety. Rose Kato, Kwalock Harbor Master for seventeen years is retiring in July 2016. Transient moorage is a rather mysterious $11.45 a day for all boats regardless of size. Mariners interested in leaving boats to winter over in Alaska will be delighted to know annual moorage is a mere $11 a foot.
Craig Population 1,127
Craig is a charming little town with both the north and south coves of its harbor packed with tolling vessels, most local but many from the Puget Sound. The historic waterfront boasts an impressive series of wharves. Up the hill there are great views of the waters surrounding Craig’s compact peninsula. Known as West Craig, this is where you find the library, a traditional general store and chandlery atop a pier, the float plane dock, the popular Dockside Cafe, a convivial bar, and Voyageur Books and Coffee, with a fine selection of titles by Alaskan authors and books about Alaska. East of the harbor is a large Alaska Commercial Company supermarket and liquor store, a laundromat, and a whole range of services.
Most cruisers arriving from the north stop for fuel at the large sturdy Petro Marine float near the tank farm outside of town. Often rough waters can make tying up difficult but the staff is competent and helpful. This is a good place to confirm slip availability, even if arrangements have been made ahead of time. Craig is a port that practices hot berthing and asks boats to declare departures as well as arrivals. The Craig Harbormaster can be reached on 907.826.3404 or VHF 16. The office is located on the road that links East and West Craig and separates North and South Coves above year-round public restrooms with heated public showers. There’s much more information on the city website www.craigak.com.
Hydaburg Population 376
The largest Haida village in the United States, Hydaburg was founded in 1912 and is perhaps the best place in Southeast Alaska to appreciate the age-old culture and contemporary politics of a Native community.
Nearly a century before George Vancouver explored the area, a group of Haida people from Haida Gawaii – the former Queen Charlotte Islands – migrated to Prince of Wales Island. The first group settled at Kasaan on the east coast while others established villages on the west coast; in 1911 these villages came together at Hydaburg.
The village was incorporated in 1927 and governance passed to the Hydaburg Cooperative Association when it was founded in 1938. The HCA Mission is “to honor, strengthen and preserve our Haida Culture and Language through fostering healthy children and families who have pride and dignity in the community and culture, and by creating economic development opportunities for all our people.” This community appears to doing exactly that, with the HCA, the economic development-oriented Haida Corporation and The City of Hydaburg all playing a part.
At the time we were there, Hydaburg folks were busy planning for two major July celebrations. July 3rd and 4th are packed with races, parades and events to commemorate U.S. Independence Day. Each summer at the end of July, the Hydaburg Culture Camp brings together elders from this village and elsewhere to teach the Haida language, song, and dance and traditional skills of wood carving, weaving, beadwork, and food gathering and preparation. We were warmly welcomed to these festivities and hope to attend on a future cruise. In addition to organizing these events, Hydaburg folks will join their fellow tribe members at Kassan for the September 3, 2016 dedication of the Whale House.
Dominating the central water front in front of a large modern school, is Hydaburg’s totem park. The colorful poles are both intricate and bold. Some are well-preserved replicas of village poles that were carved in the 1930s while others are the work of contemporary artists. Recent years have seen a number of communal pole raisings. Master carvers remain busy in the Carving Shed at waters edge, sculpting works for the community’s new Tribal House being built nearby.
Hydaburg has a state-of-the-art complex of docks, floats, several hundred feet of breakwater with moorage space, and a boat launch with its own long float. While docks are well lighted, electric meters have not yet been installed at all slips and there are no restrooms or showers at the site. Hydaburg City Clerk Stacia Miller serves as Harbor Master. Phone her at 907.285.3761 to request moorage and pay fifty cents a foot at city hall. As there is currently excess capacity, cruisers are welcome to leave their boats over the winter. Hydaburg has excellent cell coverage; wifi is available at city hall and at the library in the school when it is open. There’s a small Alaska Commercial Company grocery, a health clinic, emergency medical service and a float plane dock but no fuel.
Getting to and from Prince of Wales Island
Crossing US-Canadian border requires approval from customs and border authorities before proceeding to other coastal areas. Northbound cruisers must pass U.S. Customs at Ketchikan, Alaska and southbound cruisers must pass Canadian Border Services at Prince Rupert, B.C. It’s important to become familiar with current official procedures as well as guidelines for navigating large ship traffic into and out of these two key ports.
Ketchikan lies 82 nautical miles north of Prince Rupert, a logical stop following the long passage along the coast before crossing the open waters of Dixon Entrance. Check tides and currents if you plan to exit Prince Rupert via the narrow and shallow Venn Passage.
After crossing Dixon, weather conditions and/or boat speed may make it advisable to anchor in US waters enroute to Ketchikan. This, however, requires prior approval from US Customs and Border Protection. You may contact US authorities in Ketchikan from Prince Rupert or by phone from your boat. The number is 907.225.2254. U.S. Customs officials normally approve overnights at Foggy Bay and will expect to see you the next day.
As soon as you tie up at a Ketchikan dock, all crew must remain on the boat until you receive clearance. U.S. Customs officials have always visited our boat to check our passports and personally welcome us. The wait has never been very long, particularly at Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin, which is adjacent to the federal building. You’ll probably want to spend the night before continuing up Tongass Narrows to Chatham Strait and the east coast of Prince of Wales Island.
This requirement to enter the United States at Ketchikan and Canada at Prince Rupert is why most cruisers take a counter-clockwise route around Prince of Wales.
Cruisers leaving the west coast of Prince of Wales can anchor at the south tip of the Island before crossing the open waters where the Gulf of Alaska and West Dixon Entrance. Nicholas Bay offers good protection but be aware of poorly charted rocks beyond the main channel. Nichols Bay is miles from the Canadian border and just north of Haida Gawaii. Unfortunately the protected wilderness and rich First Nations culture of these islands can only be accessed after entering Canada at Prince Rupert.
Our passage from Nichols Bay to Prince Rupert in beautiful weather took over 13 hours. We set up an informal watch system to manage our stamina so we would be sufficiently rested to navigate Venn Passage, pass customs dock and moor or anchor for the night.
To pass Canadian Customs, the traditional option is to tie up at the Lightering Dock which lies somewhat isolated near the center of the Prince Rupert waterfront but with no access to land. From this unattended location you can call Canadian Border Services at 888.226.7277 using your cell phone or the phone on the dock. Your request will be processed by an official based in Ontario with a closed circuit camera view of your boat.
Canadian authorities recently started to allow cruisers to check in with customs as soon as they dock Prince Rupert. To the south of the Lightering Dock are Fairview Small Craft Docks and terminals for BC and Alaska ferries. Just north is Cow Bay, with a new marina of the same name and the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club, and beyond that the Rushbrooke Floats.
Cruising with differently-abled crew members
Unlike most sports teams, cruising crews accommodate a range of ages and abilities. And as cruisers age or find themselves in recovery from accidents, invasive treatments, or joint replacements, they are less likely to want to go hiking or squeeze into an airplane seat for a vacation in Europe, Africa or Asia. During our time on S/V Aurora, we’ve been considering the services offered to crews of mixed abilities and documenting the accessibility and safety of moorage facilities on the inside waters of the Pacific Northwest.
We were delighted to find that most of the harbors on Prince of Wales Island allow the user of a wheelchair or electric scooter to roll safely along a float, up the ramp, onto the wharf, and out into the community. Nothing in the informational literature or standard cruising guides had prepared us for this pleasant surprise. The harbors at Craig, Klawock and Thorne Bay, moreover, offer well-maintained restrooms with grab bars and roll in showers. By and large, stores carrying groceries and essential gear were also accessible.
The gateway cities of Prince Rupert and Ketchikan have also made improvements. Moorage along Prince Rupert’s waterfront floats over about 150 feet of water, where wakes, tidal currents and wind perpetually rock boats. Now all sections of the Rushbrooke Floats have been joined by metal plates and the ramp offers wheelers a smoother transition. The Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club has a new ramp; while metal finger docks are still narrow and dangerous, staff helps tie up arriving boats. New in summer 2016 is Cow Bay Marina at Atlin Terminal with safe, accessible facilities: wide wooden floats with water, electricity, laundry, restrooms, and showers. Ketchikan has thoroughly rewired floats and added wide, covered, metal ramps at Thomas Basin and helpful, uniformed harbor staff visit boats to collect moorage.
We visited two important Prince of Wales sites maintained by the National Forest Service. The tour of El Capitan, one of the largest caves in the US, is open only to fit hikers over the age of seven. However, a related – and in many ways much more interesting site – is the Beaver Falls Karst Interpretive Trail. It demonstrates the dynamics and features of the ongoing formation of the Island’s sinkholes and caves. A beautifully laid out 0.7 mile boardwalk takes visitors through scrub forest, over muskeg, past pools whose acidic waters dissolve limestone, through dark old growth forest and over deep caverns adorned with exotic plant life and waterfalls. Detailed, illustrated interpretative signs are placed all along the route. The first specified this: “The trail was designed to be barrier-free to the extent possible without disturbing the site. The distance between the rest areas exceeds AA standards. Maximum distance between the rest areas is 300 feet with a maximum grade of 14% for 30 feet.”
Also impressive is how many communities lend life vests through the Kids Don’t Float. This was the brainchild of the Homer, Alaska Fire Department in 1996. Later the same year, the Alaska Department of Health, the U.S. Coast Guard and community groups collaborated to grow the program. Now life jackets for children, teens and adults are found at most docks. Look for them in phone-booth type lockers, trunks or loaner boards with attractive graphics and motivating messages.
Kids Don’t Float spread to Canada in 2003, supported by police, municipalities, and businesses. This is a good idea . Let’s work with authorities, ports and marinas, and civic groups to bring more Kids Don’t Float facilities to Washington and Oregon.
Map of Prince of Wales Island
This map is from the Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce 2016 Visitors Guide, which is available free in print and online. While we primarily anchored out in the Island’s wilderness bays and coves during our cruise, we found this the best source of current information on POW’s unique communities. Folks at the Chamber can be reached at 907.755.2626 0r firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’d like to hear from readers as well. Please share your thoughts below, both news of your discoveries and corrections we should make to our brief “Cruisers’ Guide to Prince of Wales Island.”
Friday, June 6. Dixon Entrance and Foggy Bay. 54º56.9’N 130.56’W We leave Prince Rupert at 5:30 am and wend our way through Venn, head north past Dundas Island and over the border where Jack and Cruz lower the Canadian pennant with ceremony and glee.
As soon as we pickup cell phone signals the blissful ignorance of Canada is replaced with pinging messages, Tweets, and emails. We also call US Customs for permission to moor at Foggy Bay, which is granted. Everyone knows us, we’re tracked by officials both sides of the border. Track record is good: we don’t smuggle cheap US booze and finish off produce purchased on one country before crossing into the other.
Dixon Entrance is beautiful. Clear skies, and flat windless seas. Foggy Bay is a sweet little anchorage. Two other sailboats are ahead of us; must have left Prince Rupert really early.
Saturday, June 7 Ketchikan 55º21’N 131º41’W In Ketchikan they measure rain in feet not inches. Thirteen in the past year.
So here we are, back in the cloudy drizzle that characterized our whole last passage to Alaska. Damp, dank, dusky, musty, moldy everything. We get a solid 36 hours of drops. We’re moored at Bar Harbor rather than up downtown because we again have chores to do and the chandleries and markets are nearer. Turns out I need to make two trips back and forth from town. Through a mid-day dose of driving rain the wets to the skin two additional sets of clothes in addition to the fouliess that are already hanging outside under the dodger.
Then it stops. I get back on my bike and go back downtown in quest of the Portland Loo. It’s on the other side of downtown, south of The Creek, in the area of the waterfront where Stedman meets Thomas Street. This is where the Asians were forced to live. That is until the Chinese community was decimated by the Exclusion Act. Which left a bit of elbow room for Americans from Japan, until they were booted out to desert camps by FDR in 1942. In their wake came folks from the Philippines and they seem to have kept coming ever since. When we stop for lattes at McDonald’s to survive a drenching, all we hear is Tagalog. Ketchikan’s Filipinos are everywhere! They seem so upbeat. Maybe that’s just the way they are, or maybe it’s worked out. They have clubs and churches and normal teenagers and jobs and history. Middle class; don’t live south of the Creek anymore.
South of the Creek there’s a traditional-and-contemporary Skid Row, a national Historic District, and a tireless neighborhood association. Does this sound like Portland’s Old Town Chinatown, our old neighborhood? Yes. And the Portland Loo is on the dock right between the Salvation Army and the Salvation Army Thrift Store. It’s the Stedman-Thomas Neighborhood Association that inspired the partnerships and raised the funds to purchase and operate the Loo.
Monday, June 9. Meyers Chuck 55º44’N 132º15’W Folks here do things so nicely. For example.
There’s US mail on Tuesdays. There are only a handful of year-rounders. Others are fisherman or just fans. The wood smoke from their chimneys and the flags flying let you know that they are here.
Daryl is third generation and full time Myers Chuck except for construction work gigs that take him away. He first came here to visit his grandfather. Then his parents had a summer house here. In time, he just decided it just was his kind of place. Upon hearing we’re from PT, he scratches his head and says think a couple of women come here from there summers.
He’s building an angled set of stairs up from the main path as we chat. New house or what? Land sale he says. State needs money so they sell off mental health lands. What? That’s what we call them he says. So everybody has a generator? Almost. What about toilets? Most of the year-rounders have flush. It goes into the bay. Flushes from three sides. But I’m a honey bucket guy. You don’t mix pee and poop, do you? Course not. I pee on my garden.
Tuesday, June 10. Wrangell. 56º27.9’N 132.22.9’W Wrangell Harbor Master says Petersburg has renovated their docks. About time I say. And since they raised their fees, lots of their boats come here now. New marina looks great I say. And the brand new red and white travel lift, which announces Wrangell, Alaska, Home of the Wolves. But as for us transients, so glad you’ve left space right here in the middle of things.
Nice mix of neighbors. Troller Hornet waiting for flood tide to put it up on grid and ebb so they can get bottom work done. Annie B. from Port Angeles featuresTom Pope, Marine Surveyor. We’ve seen his name on bulletin board in PT. He and Lillian had just adopted a pup – sort of a wire haired terrier named Sport. They ware thinking of changing his name to Peter because he tried to walk on water. Seems he took a running bound off the stern not understanding that water isn’t hard. Got fished out; all it took was a boat hook under his collar. Brown Sugar, a gill netter without a gill net, crewed by a couple, busy and cheerful, endlessly fixing things. First time the boat’s been in the water in four years. Then there’s a big Grand Banks from Napa CA. Polished people drinking chablis on the fly bridge started in Anacortes and are turning around here. The only other sailboat is Black Bear. More on Skipper Steve soon.
When we head home after drinks at Raymes, Wrangell’s finest dive bar, we find Jack’s scooter has given up the ghost and have to push him home. Cruz spends the whole next day taking it apart without riding anything amiss. In Southeast folks hang out on their boats so Jack can manage.
You can’t help but love Wrangell because Wrangell folks love it so much. They especially brag about having the best Fourth of July in Southeast. What a lead up to it! The weekly Wrangell Sentinel has given over three pages to introducing candidates in the Queen competition. Seems to be a singular Wrangell tradition. Candidates raise funds for the parade, for a favorite charity, and for themselves. Local businesses divide up their sponsorships am among them but the candidates put real effort. They make posters, and sell tickets and proffer sandwiches at food stands decorated with the stars and stripes. Candidates range from accomplished business women to a pair of twelve-year olds vying for the title of Co-Queens. With ingenuity like this, I figure they’ve come up though the ranks: another tradition is Lemonade Day, an entrepreneurship competition we’ve just missed.
Thursday, June 12. Port Protection. 56º19’N 133º36.8’W We pass Point Baker, once the summer home of fisher poet Joe Upton, and go on to Port Protection, so named by George Vancouver himself. The two communities are close as the eagle flies but connect only by sea. Steve of S/V Black Bear has recommended this place.
Friday, June 13. Kake. 56º56.8N 133º53.7’W We don’t register that it’s Friday much less the Thirteenth. Just as well as the long, formerly unnavigable Keku Channel and Rocky Pass is intimidating enough. The weather has turned and we need constant attention to tides, currents, charts and red and green buoys. Northbound seems longer than our last time through. We’re really tired when we tie up on the little Tlinkit village of Kake. Since the weather is rainy, cloudy and windless and dealing with various mishaps means we haven’t had a day off since we left PT so the Captain relents and we get one.
Kake is the perfect place for this. Its only claim to fame is an unattractive totem pole supported by guy wires which may possibly be the highest in the world. It’s not as tall, however, as the communications tower right next to it, which gives five bars of AT&T. We retether to the rest of the world.
If any place can claim to be the Arts capital of America, it’s Sitka. Our stay has coincided with the annual Summer Music Festival, which brings classical artists from around the world, and the Sitka Fine Arts camp, which give Alaska’s most promising middle and highschoolers a leg up in their formal training in the visual and preforming arts. Galleries of local artists and spaces for visiting ones abound and dancers and musicians perform all the time. Even Raven Radio, the listener-friendly local NPR affiliate whose call letters are KCAW, is absolutely tops.
Prominent in the mix are Tlingit artists. They range from masters and professionals with the highest formal and traditional training to ordinary tribal members practicing the everyday arts their ancestors.
We had a good chat with master woodcarver Tommy Joseph, who showed us aroung his studio. In addition to carving totems and masks on commission, he is exploring every aspect the material culture, combining technical reproduction with innovative improvization. He showed us breast plates he’d fashioned of wood and animal gut twine and a number of traditional objects decorated with bits of leather, skin, fur, teeth and bone. A national treasure, Joseph frequently travels to exchange techniques and ideas with other tribal peoples and mainstream artists worldwide. He’s particularly inspired by the strides made by the Maori of New Zealand in bringing their culture and language back into the mainstream.
Artists like Tommy Joseph have a treasure trove of material culture to study, copy and rif upon in the remarkable Sheldon Jackson Museum. Sheldon Jackson was a friend of President Benjamin Harrison, supported the Organic Act of 1884 which provided Alaska with systems of justice and education, and served as First General Agent of Education in the territory. As director of the Sitka Industrial School and Training Institute, Presbyterian mission Sheldon Jackson did much to separate young Natives from their families and culture. However, he respected many aspects of Tlingit culture and built a solid museum – Sitka’s first concrete building – to house the collection of Native artifacts he has amassed. The original cases and dozens of drawers out thousands of artifacts under the eyes of visitors and in the hand of schollars and artists. Everyday the museum features a working craftsperson who can testify to the healthy state of Native arts in Sitka.
But the best evidence that the Tlingit arts are alive and well are the daily events at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House on Katlian Street. This street along Sitka’s working waterfront used to be lined with a succession of fine long houses each accommodating seven to ten families. That is until the white man came along and decided that communal accommodations were unhealthy and had them torn down. Today tribal members, young and old, performing professionals and ordinary folk gather daily to share their culture with outsiders.
To refer to the Naa Kahidi troupe as “dancers” does them no justice. Indeed the event combines a dazzling fashion show of garments handed down from elders or made yesterday by the wearers, a splendid array of sets and props, sonorous rhythms on traditional instruments, and a community parade with grandmothers showing off tiny tots in full regalia. Most important, however, are the songs, poetry and stories, all carefully researched and attributed, usually to elders but frequently to neighboring Haida, Tsimshian or other Tlingit bands.
Perhaps everyone was particularly inspired this year having just returned from Celebration, the biannual gathering of the Southeast tribes for which the Hoonah Tlingit were preparing when we were there. The SeaAlaska Heritage Institute is working to document, preserve and develop arts of the Tlingit, Haida and the Tsimshian. They offer copious on line resources and artist bios and organize Celebration in Juneau.
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.