An uncharted island of ancient ice in Stephens Passage.
We’ve been moving between bergs and burgs. You never leave the wilderness here in Southeast Alaska, even when you finally see other boats or get cell service, If anything, you grasp the of the wild when you tie up somewhere and talk to folks who have carved out a life within it.
In the rest of the Pacific Northwest, we talk about resilience. Here that’s a fundamental given; the skills you need are for subsistence.
Another of my misconceptions fell and broke just this morning. I’d been under the impression that the subsistence lifestyle was that of Alaskan Natives, the folks here from American pre-history, many of whom self describe as Indians. But it’s far broader. Any rural Alaskan has access to fish stocks and game populations “customarily and traditionally” used for subsistence. Take pukka Petersburg, founded in 1896 by a handful of Norwegian pioneers led by Peter Buschmann, who emigrated to Port Townsend and headed north. Norwegian flags still fly here. Employment is mostly commercial fishing and federal, state and local government jobs. But with only 3000 people and no road connections to any other place, Petersburg is one of the subsistence communities we’ve visited: people proud of their ability to live off the land and sea. (More on legal aspects of Alaskan subsistence here and here.)
Sunday, June 15. Appelton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W We leave Kake at 5:15 am in anticipation of Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait. Isn’t this supposed to be all about strong winds? Not for us. Strong seas for sure, especially where the two large bodies of water meet at Point Gardner, the south tip of Admiralty Island. We rock and roll, taking it wide, too far off shore to see the sea lion rookery on the island just south of the point. We give Baranof Warm Springs – and the promise of a warm soak – a miss and continue up the Strait. In time, the sun burns off the mist on the Baranof peaks, improving the scenery but dampening chances of a breeze and making us feel sleepy.
Sunset after 10 pm ends eventful day on Peril Strait.
But then comes the narrow Peril Strait that separates Baranof and Chicagof Islands and a swimming mammal show that doesn’t quit. First we pass a pod of orcas on port, right where they were when we went by two years ago! We give them some distance only to see a group of spouting humpbacks on starboard! There are six of them and they are bubble feeding as they move into the strait. We make sandwiches and enjoy an hour-and-a-half lunch together, humans and humpbacks all moving along at a lazy 3.7 knots. With remarkable regularity, every 4 to 6 minutes, they perform a 60 or 90 second show. There’s spray, a ruckus of glistening grey backs, splashing and churning as they sound, their marvelous flukes in the air.
In the course of our transit of Peril Strait a pair of frolicking sea otters swim past, harbor seals play the shallows, a solitary sea lion powers through the current looking a bit like a bear and three large mother deer who, at the narrowest part of the strait, walk into the water to cross. And then the sudden sound, a snort, a nasal rush of air. Midships starboard. I rush forward to see the first one announce its presence. Suddenly there are five synchronized swimmers diving into our bow waves. A celebration of explosive joy. In a minute or so, they are off. What are they? Pacific wide-sided dolphins with short attention spans? Or the larger, more powerful Dall’s porpoises, also at home in these waters? A cameo performance but I can’t identify the actor. (Note to self: To learn to discriminate among waterborne choreographies, try YouTube. Oh, and get some video from our lunch with the whales up soon.)
Crew says farewell to Sitka and photographer Gus.
Monday, June 16. Sitka. 57º03’N 135.21’W There’s too much to say about Sitka. Above what I’ve said before here and here and here. This is largely thanks to Cruz’s old friend Gus and our new friend Sara and stepping into the world of normal/exotic Alaskans.
So I won’t say anything except that after a Sitkan had asked where we were from, I commented that their town was “the second best on the Inside Passage”, only to be corrected. “But we’re on the Outside.” Yes, remote, far away, outlying, off any track, beaten or otherwise. Peripheral, almost extraterrestrial in sense that Sitkans are half oceanic.
Sunday, June 22 Appleton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W One amazing sail across Hoonah Sound. Gusts to 25 knots and the rail practically in the water. Rough, invigorating. But then we lose sight of a sailboat we’d seen dangerously over powered. We search with the binocs. Then in the distance along the far shore, we spot the little boat (maybe 25 feet?), bare poles now. An hour later, Canadian flag flapping, it passes us! Is this some magical back eddy? Is that outboard supplementing a diesel engine? What about hull speed?
The next morning, we raise anchor before 5am and see the sail covers on the little vessel, its dinghy drawn abeam covering half the length of the hull, its astute crew sleeping off their adventure. We look for the but do not see them again.
Tenekee Springs, population 98.
Monday, June 23 Tenakee Springs. 57º46.69’N 135º12.22′ Travel took us east out Peril Strait to Chatham. then north, then west 9 miles to Tenekee Springs, population 98. The tiny city is stretched out along the shore on either side of the mid-town: the dock, the float plane landing, the store, the bakery, a cafe, and the bath. There’s no natural harbor here, just nice wide floats behind a couple of floating breakwaters. You write your boat’s name on a used envelop crossing out the previous name, leave some money and write yourself a receipt. It’s a rather expensive for Alaska $0.60 a foot. We forego electricity, which costs another $20 because Tenakee has to make all their own, currently by diesel generator although they are going to supplement with micro hydro. Other infrastructure: a combined city hall and library, a fire station and a school, which closed last year when a family decided to home school but which will open in September as there are again enough kids. The bakery serves breakfast 9 to 2. The Blue Moon café serves food “when Rosie feels like cooking”, according to an old Southeast guidebook and “on several hours notice,” according to Rosie, a fixture here for 58 years.
At the library, I join another reader, settling in with an intriguing mid-century biography of La Pérouse and a collection of essays on Alaska by Alaskans, designed to counter dubiously informed views such as mine. “Two readers of real books!” exclaims the librarian, most of whose other interactions are chat about the latest films on DVD. I’m actually there to learn about this strange, endearing town, so she gives me a fat three ring binder with several years copies of The Store Door. Issued by the Tenakee Historical Society, it includes obituaries, historic photos, excerpts from old newspapers and current projects, the most ambitious of which is the recent renovation of the bathhouse.
Tenakee Springs’ only public toilet.
Tenekee sprouted up in the 1870s or 80s, balm for discouraged Gold Rushers. Seems today it provides respite for Juneau folks weary of cruise ships, part-timers though with admirable kitchen gardens. The ferry calls twice a week, going to and coming from Juneau. Passengers only; Tenekee is carless.
Some of the year rounders, like the librarian, live “off grid”, that is a mile or so by skiff beyond either end of the path. Everyone is high on the place. It seems to have just the right diversity of age and Native blood and, like Meyers Chuck, a balance of tiny and not so tiny houses. Gentrification-immune, it has the usual amount of surplus stuff, charmingly overgrown with salmonberry bushes and cow parsnip. An outhouse on a dock above the beach behind the fire station is its only public toilet.
After supper, I hear snorting and take my book up to the deck. A humpback is swimming in the opening between the breakwaters. No wonder, herring are jumping out of the water all around the boat. I wait to see if the beast will come into the harbor but with bounty everywhere, there is no need. I watch him blow through the former-nose-evolved-to-the-top-of-the-head until the light dies and I turn in, closing the hatch to block out the snorts.
Wednesday, June 25 Funter Bay, Admiralty Island. 58º14.6’N 134º52.9’W A rare perfect wind took us up and across Chatham Strait on a broad reach. Lines taken by Bea, half of the crew of Salty, a tiny, well-used, outboard from Juneau that was drying out after a wake wave had drenched sleeping bags and everything else in the boat the night before. She’s Asian, Brian a blue-eyed blond, celebrating 20 years together. When I awoke from an I was sad to see this welcoming, upbeat couple had pulled out, presumably to drop the hook in some romantic anchorage known only to them.
Funter Bay has a nice 150′ government float, though a bit too shallow on the shore side to get out on the next morning’s spring low. So we switched sides and took Salty’s place behind two larger boats. A Juneau banker – and climate change denier – remarked nostalgically that back when the state floats were built, they’d accommodate far more boats. 21′ footer s like Salty being more the rule.
Auke Bay has splendid views of the Juneau ice field.
Thursday, June 26. Juneau 58º18’N 134º25.7′ An early morning departure takes us up Chatham into Lynn Canal. The Fairweather, the catamaran ferry that links Juneau to Sitka, As we turn into Auke Bay, as we turn into Auke Bay. For once we run into it in ample waters, although we’re so taken with the hanging glaciers we hardly notice. Since the day is still early, we decide to go around Douglas Island and up Gastineau to Juneau rather than tie up with the big boats at Auke Bay. It’s a quick decision we will later reevaluate.
The route along Douglas is long and Gastineau seems endless. The weather’s been hot and the seas calm so there’s no excuse for impatience. It’s just that 11 hour days are tiring. In fact, it’s almost worse without the adrenalin of facing continual challenges or simple driving rain that calls for hourly soup, ginger tea or hot chocolate. You find yourself complaining, like a spoiled child.
We’re barely by the cruise ships, when Jack hails the harbor master and Cruz and I get the fenders and lines ready. Remembering the strong currents we encountered entering the Harris docks four years ago, I note it’s slack and ought to be okay. We pass smoothly under the bridge that links Juneau to Douglas, but what’s that scraping sound? Yikes. It’s a high slack and this is Alaska! We tie up and assess the damage. Gratitude that it’s minor mixes with alarm at my/our, well, mindfulnesslessness and I start to cry like a child.
Thanks, Cruz, for going up there to fix that.
Within minutes, Cruz has rigged the bosun’s chair and we hoist him up the mast using our two spare halyards. (The tallest mast north of the bridge, we now note.) He bends the wind vane so it rotates again but has to remove the 10 inch cylinder that contains the white anchor light and the tricolor for sailing nights off shore. The plastic attachment ring has snapped, sacrificially. A sailor from Bellingham comes from across the docks to send up the tools we lack. We let Cruz down, he spends the rest of the afternoon fashioning a fix with epoxy, and – after a night on the town – goes up the next day to put the light in place.
By then I’m off hiking. I arrive at Mendenhall Glacier on the first bus, determined to get a good leg stretch. A girl in a National Forest Service uniform gives me a photocopied trail map and I’m off. The 3.5 mile circle route is lovely I pass only four people: a young Tlingit couple and an Alaskan grandmother pointing out her grandchild how far the glacier has receded. I’ve add another two or three miles by branching off on the Nugget Creek Trail, where I find myself crawling across fallen trees. When the trail meets a lake above the waterfall and I’m even farther away from vistas above the tree line so I retrace my steps, figuring the NSF greeter must be a summer intern.
Selfie with falls and glacier
Later, a mature ranger says, “Nah, nobody much does the Nugget Creek Trail. Brown bear up there.” As for the the loop trail, it’s designed to be short enough for cruise ship visitors. I mention I didn’t see a single one “They just get overwhelmed.” Yeah, I get that. And down near the lake, I see a lot of strollers and hear a lot of Japanese and Hindi. But a couple or three miles of wheelchair able trails that make a 13-mile blue glacier accessible to everyone? You can’t knock that.
The Mendenhall is special and everyone should visit. And it’s especially special to the residents of Juneau, despite a their abundance of outdoor options. How good to see bathing-suited families lying on the beach, kids building glacial silt castles, toddlers splashing around in water liberated after thousand of years in the ice field. I want to return to Juneau in the winter and join these folks in their little sliver of daylight to drive along a city street to the lake to walk or skate among the blue bergs to look the glacier right in its towering face.
Saturday, June 28. Snug Cove on bay behind Gambier Island off Admiralty Island. 57º25’N 133º58’W.
The scenery along Stephens Passage south of Juneau is overwhelming. This is the Alaska of the State Ferry and the big cruise ships if the weather is perfect, with just a few clouds for effect. As I sit on the spinnaker box, leaning on the mast, wandering, wondering musings take over. This is no time to write.
We puzzle about a couple of large islands in the middle of the passage that are not on the chart. They turn out to be ice bergs, better known as “bergie bits” since they’ve calved from glaciers. They are not at all bitty but big. The one in the photo has about fifty Glaucous Gulls on it and they are big birds – over two feet from head to tail.
Southeast Alaska’s symphony of blues along Stephens Passage.
Our attention turns to navigation as we approach Snug Cove, a little nook on a bay in Admiralty Island behind Gambier Island and a string of reefs. It’s a wonderful place with good mud holding the anchor. Real wilderness. A day from Juneau and a day from Petersburg, with nothing but wildlife in between. Would like to spend a week here sometime.
Early morning departure from Snug Cove on Admiralty Island.
Sunday, June 29 Petersburg. 56º48.8W 132º57.6’W. Yet another 11 hour day motoring on flat seas, though broken by encounters with humpbacks. By now, the Captain knows he can push the crew so rather than drop the hook and laze around Portage Bay, we press on through Frederick Sound until dropping south into Wrangell Narrows. We call the harbor master as we wind thought the northernmost aids to navigation, including red 63, a sea lion bunk bed buoy.
It’s barely and hour after high slack so Peterburg’s legendary currents should be relaxed. (The last time we were here the stream has slammed the Alaska State ferry into its own dock, disabling it; other errant ice bergs have ripped through pylons)
Sea lions bunk bed buoy.
At that moment it begins to pour. Straight down hard. We head into our slip and find the opposite half empty. A blessing as the current pushes us to the wrong side. No problem, Aurora’s worn teak rub rails are in the right place for the new docks. We back out and try again, succeeding with the help of extra hands which suddenly appear on the finger to catch our bowline. When I go to register, and express my surprise at the current, the harbor master explains that all the rain rushing into Hammer Creek suddenly flows into the harbor. A large power cruiser with bow thrusters doesn’t even try to come in, but spend the night outside on the end float.
Nonetheless, the new docks at Petersburg are generously designed with lots of space. Broad tenders share space with slender wooden schooners. Lighting, fire hose connections, electrical outlets are state of the art. At night the place looks more like my idea of Saint Tropez than the rough and tumble fishing port that it is.
Doesn’t Petersburg look posh with its new docks?
Tuesday, July 1. Wrangell 56º27.8′N 132.22.9′W We had a civilized morning today waiting for slack before navigating the 70 or so aids to navigation that guide us through the Wrangell Narrows. It’s low tide, in fact a negative tide. The crab pots are sitting on the mud next to their buoys.
At last we emerge into the open waters of Sumner Strait and the peaks of that tower over the Stikine River Valley come into view. The Stikine ice field, which is shared with Canada, has the southern most tidewater glaciers and is even larger than the Juneau ice field (which is the size of Rhode Island.)
The Wrangell docks finally have some rec boats in addition to transient fishing boats of all kinds. This week there are openings for seiners, gill netters and crabbers and the ubiquitous trollers seem to fish all the time. There’s no room for us near town so we tie up across the way.
Wrangell has the best laundromat in Southeast, it’s open until 9 pm and I’ve got three weeks worth of dirty clothes and linens. I get on my bike and ride past houses festooned with bunting and bows for the Fourth of July. I mentioned, didn’t I, that Wrangell claims to have the best celebration. Wish we didn’t have to move on, but we’ve miles to go.