A Cruise To Alaska 2012 - Part One
Two days after returning from Norway, and my short sojourn aboard Venture II, I was driving north to Vancouver Island to start our summer cruise to Alaska. I chose to drive the 1300 miles partly because I had a lot of camera gear to carry and also because the indignities imposed on us at the airports make air travel as appealing as Dustin Hoffman's run in with the dentist in Marathon Man. (Is it safe?)
Over the winter months, Venture II had been retrofitted with Sea Torque shafts which, together with her earlier installed Hypro electric steering, brought her more in line with refinements directly resulting from the Venture cruising program. As usual, the refit had been efficiently carried out by Delta Marine Services, Fleming Yachts service agents for the Pacific Northwest.
We did some last minute provisioning at the most upmarket Walmart that any of us had ever seen where even the trolleys rode alongside the escalators on their own dedicated track. We cast off at noon mindful of the time of slack water in Dodd Narrows just south of Nanaimo - our first destination. We were four on board - Captain Chris, Christine, Louisa from Taiwan and myself.
We had dinner that night at the nice little Mexican restaurant on the dock in Nanaimo and the following morning met up with Vincent the Frenchman who runs the international media company now responsible for much of our on-line media content. Chris and I visited Nanaimo Maps and Charts in Church Street and, from this excellent chart and nautical bookstore, bought numerous paper charts covering our route in Alaska as backups to our electronic charting systems.
At 11 AM we headed north up the Georgia Strait skirting the edge of Whisky Golf - the code letters given to the torpedo testing range used by those engaged in the business of firing and recovering torpedoes. We spent the night in April Point marina which, although still a nice spot is, I have to say, looking a bit run down these days.
Just north of here are notorious Seymour Narrows through which the current flows as fast as 16 knots during spring tides. This channel was once much more dangerous due to Ripple Rock which lay just a few meters below the surface in the centre of the narrows. After some failed and fatal attempts to eliminate this hazard, the radical decision was made to sink a shaft from adjacent Maude Island, tunnel under the narrows and then drill upwards into the offending rock, pack it with explosives and blow it apart. The explosion, in 1958, was billed as the largest non-nuclear, man-made explosion up to that time. I wanted to cast an eye over Maude Island to see if anything obvious remained from this operation. All there was to be seen without going ashore was the short causeway to the island from much larger Quadra Island which forms the eastern shore of the narrows.
Seymour Narrows is the gateway to Discovery Passage which leads into Johnson Strait. The strait is subject to strong tides especially in the narrows aptly named Race and Current Passages. These, in combination with strong northwesterly winds, can produce extremely unpleasant conditions. We had favourable winds but the tidal stream was against us. We hugged the steep-to shore and boat speed over the ground was as slow as 4.5 knots around the headlands but as high as 10.5 knots in the counter-currents downstream of them. There was lots of snow on the mountain peaks whose slopes were covered in trees except for bald and mangy patches from extensive logging. Vigilance was necessary to spot numerous floating logs which were often hard to see until you were right upon them.
We turned off Johnson Strait into Port Harvey where we had anchored on our way south from Haida Gwaii last year. This time we tied up at the small Port Harvey marina dock where we met the proprietors, George and Gail Cambridge, after they had returned from a supply run to Vancouver Island. They were not yet fully open for the season and charged us a lower rate. They have had a house here for many years before deciding to live here year round and build a small marina operation. They had had some damage during ferocious storm in March 2012 packing winds in excess of 180 km/hr - around 110 mph. George told us they often saw black bears but he had recently seen a big grisly on the shore opposite the marina. The owner of one of the other boats at the dock told us that he recognized Venture from the picture on the cover of a recent issue of Pacific Yachting magazine.
The following day we were underway at 0800 and had barely entered Johnson Strait when we hit a log with a tremendous bang that continued thumping its way under the hull. We were all in the pilothouse looking forward but somehow missed seeing it. The log, about 35ft long, was jammed below the transom on the starboard side. After pushing at it ineffectually with the boathook, we finally got clear of it by using the stern thruster in combination with driving the boat ahead on the port shaft which was rotating freely. The section of log stuck under the boat was much larger diameter than the outer end and had a kind of hooked base. We checked first for leaks and then, successively, stabilizers, steering and shafts but, amazingly, everything appeared OK with the boat running normally with no vibration. My initial reaction after the initial impact was that we would have to limp back to Campbell River and the Alaska trip might be over. Although the boat ran fine but we decided to head for Port McNeill and have a diver check the underside of the boat.
When we reached port three hours later, Chris asked the dockmaster about the chance of finding a diver over a holiday weekend. The guy on an adjacent fish boat overheard him and said that he could do it for C$100. I agreed and he checked out the boat and found no problems which was amazing. He was a diver engaged in collecting sea urchins mainly for the Japanese market and had been working up north during the winter. He was on his way south to Vancouver for repairs and recuperation. He had spent a couple of years in Taiwan and shared his experiences with Louisa.
The following day was Canada Day which meant that the post office was closed which was unfortunate timing as I had been hoping to mail a CD with photos. It is amazing when you cruise just how often Sundays and public holidays seem to coincide with arrival at a port even when you have been in remote areas for days. We did have some degree of internet here but it was painfully slow and almost useless. There were gale warnings for the Queen Charlotte Strait but almost no wind where we were moored just around the corner.
In cold, grey and rainy weather, we topped up our tanks and, just before noon, got underway for the Nakwakto where water from a catchment area of over 1,000 sq miles, draining and refilling through a channel just 400 m wide, creates one of the most powerful tidal rapids in the world. In fact it there is insufficient time between tides for all the water to make it though the narrow channel and the tidal range upstream of the rapids is only 4 ft compared with as much as 16 ft on the seaward side. We arrived at Nakwakto just one hour before flood water slack but the current was still running impressively fast. A small islet named Turret Rock obstructs the centre of the Channel. Also known as Tremble Island this tree-covered island is decorated with boards carrying the names of visiting boats. The guide books say that slack is as short as 5 minutes at springs. There is a wealth of cruising opportunities in the fjords above the rapids but we had no time to explore them on this trip. We could have passed through quite safely if we had wished to continue and log tows pass through here routinely. At usual it is just a matter of getting your timing right.
We retreated around the corner to Treadwell Bay to anchor for the night. We appeared to be in an entirely landlocked bay with the tree-clad slopes; the still water a luminous green in the evening light. In contrast to the rush of the nearby rapids, the bay was utterly calm and peaceful. Once the sun had set it was as black as the inside of a cow with no stars or moon.
The following morning we arose early to return to see Nakwakto at maximum flow on the ebb. The tables forecast a current flow of 11 knots as we were four days past springs. There were very impressive upwellings (boils) and whirlpools. We spent about one hour playing on the edges of the current taking video and photos before continuing on our way. The flow of water down Slingsby Channel created choppy, breaking waves where it met the open sea. The next piece of land was Japan and we now encountered ocean swells on our passage to Calvert Island. This is the first of two sections of the Inside Passage which are exposed to the open ocean. We continued north through Fitz Hugh Sound and then branched off into Lama Passage passing between Bella Bella and New Bella Bella around the corner to Shearwater.
We awoke the following morning to a light rain and mist that came almost down to the water. We were underway at 0630 and 2 ½ hours north of Bella Bella the sea was a little rough for about one hour at a short exposed area at Milbanke Sound. These decreased as soon as we came under the lee of Swindle Island. We continued north up Finlayson Channel and, diverting into Klemtu Channel, passed the small settlement of Klemtu. We were reminded how few people now live in this vast area of mountains and forests. The surrounding peaks were capped with extensive snow but would be hard to reach because the slopes were covered in dense forest, doubtless choked with undergrowth and deadfalls, which extended right to the waters edge. Nevertheless there was much evidence of logging activity almost everywhere. We saw two humpback whales blowing off Heddington Point but they sounded as soon as we approached.
In the afternoon we reached the small settlement of Butedale where there was an impressive waterfall and which had been our planned stop for the night. Many of the buildings were in a state of collapse so we decided to continue on and anchored in Stewart Narrows behind Promise Island at 1828. Today we covered 103.8 miles.
We awoke to beautiful sunny morning which was perfect for our trip up Verney Channel between Hawkesbury and Gribbell Islands. The scenery was magnificent and the weather wonderful with towering cliffs and lots of snow on the peaks. The snow line had been gradually coming lower as we moved north and here it extended right down to the water in a couple of narrow gullies. We entered Douglas Channel and on up to Kitimat where we pulled into MK Bay Marina. One guy on the dock asked whether it was the same boat he had seen on the cover of a recent issue of Pacific Yachting. I said that it was.
After dinner a couple stopped by and asked what a Fleming was doing in Kitimat. I said that the town had been in the news recently and I wanted to check it out. There is a proposal on the table to build a pipeline to carry bitumen oil product from the tar sands in Alberta to an oil terminal to be built in Kitimat. It would then be exported from there to Asia in as many as 225 supertankers a year running through the pristine Douglas Strait and past islands which are the habitat of the unique spirit bears. Many people on the whole of this coast including Haida Gwaii are strongly opposed to this project but they are up against powerful interests supported by foreign money. Local people are also worried about a pipeline being run alongside the Kitimat River. He told us that it was already a "done deal" for natural gas to be piped through to Kitimat for export by gas tankers running through the Douglas Channel. On a more positive note they told us that it is always possible to see whales in Whale Channel which was just a short diversion beyond the turn off into Grenville Channel which we intended to take the following morning.
The wonderful weather continued when we headed down the Douglas Channel the following day. Beautiful snow-capped mountains surrounded us on all sides. We paused briefly at Jesse Falls before continuing on into Whale Channel. We went down the channel for about half an hour and then turned around and reversed our course. Alas we saw no sign of whales. The central coast of British Columbia deserves much more time than we have available this year. We entered Grenville Channel which runs straight and relatively narrow due north for 45 miles with frequent waterfalls along its length. We encountered the same BC ferry, Northern Adventure, we had previously encountered heading south just south of Klemtu Channel a couple of days ago.
After 14 miles, we entered scenic Lowe Inlet and, on the second attempt, anchored in 101 ft of water in Nettle Basin just around corner from Verney Falls. There were three other boats in same basin including the Mikelson power boat we had been tied up next to in Kitimat. We launched both tenders and took a cruise around the bay filming and photographing Venture and the waterfall. The following morning I took the tender and shot video of the anchor being raised and the boat departing down the inlet before re-entering Grenville Channel.
The morning was fine and sunny but gradually became overcast and light rain as we proceeded north. We passed within 3.6 miles of Fleming Bay just south of Prince Rupert. We passed coal and grain loading facilities on the starboard side as we approached the last Canadian port on the Pacific Coast. We tied up at Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club dock at 4 pm. The Mikeleson boat came in shortly after us and the Nordhavn, Penguin, was already at the dock when we arrived.
The next day was Sunday and we decided to spend it in port relaxing and getting ready to make the crossing to Ketchikan across the Dickson entrance - the second of the open passages along the Inside Passage. Also, Monday was Memorial Day in the USA so there was little point in arriving in Ketchikan on the Sunday.
Several sail boats making the same passage had already left by the time we got underway at 0700. We felt our way through the narrow, twisty channel which led to the open ocean in Dickson Entrance. This can be a nasty inlet in bad weather so it is vital to check the weather before embarking on the crossing. We found ourselves part of a small convoy of private vessels taking advantage of the weather window to head north. We crossed the US border and arrived in Ketchikan late in the afternoon and tied up in a berth vacated by a commercial fishing boat out at sea earning its living. Although still early in the season, cruise ships towered over the town and the air was busy with the coming and going of float planes landing in the water alongside them. It is 12 days and 728 miles since we left Vancouver Island and time to get this blog on its way. I will continue to report our progress as we head farther north to Icy Strait and Glacier Bay.