A Cruise To Alaska 2012 - Part Three
Juneau To Prince Rupert
In my last blog we were preparing to depart Juneau and head towards Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. Before leaving, we visited the Mendenhall Glacier which, despite the drizzle and being a major tourist attraction, retained its ability to impress. The excellent visitors' center explained history of the glacier and even had chunks of clear ice for you to touch. Arctic terns, nesting in the area, flitted about our heads. These birds migrate every year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back - a round trip of around 44,300 miles!
Before taking Venture into Glacier Bay, I was keen to try to arrange a flight for an overview. I also wanted to see Lituya Bay which, in July 1958, had been the site of a local tsunami which had created a wave 1720 ft high. This is not a misprint! Using the internet I found that Fjord Flying Service offered flights out of Gustavus and I reserved a flight for five of us at 1 o'clock on Wednesday 20th for an overflight of both Lituya and Glacier Bays. As required by the park authorities, we also confirmed our visit to Glacier Bay. This has to be done within 48 hours of your visit or they cancel your permit.
Christine left us here to return home and we were joined by Fleming 55 owners Peter and Bernie from Western Australia. They were experienced boaters, having taken their Fleming 55 across the top of Australia from Sydney to Perth - a voyage of over 6,000 miles.
June 18th Monday.
We left Juneau in calm seas. Overhead, cirrus clouds of an unusually beautiful pattern swept across the sky. At 1500, we dropped anchor in Swanson Harbor, adjacent to Couverden Island. Already at anchor was a beautiful schooner named Windjammer which had Brisbane as a hailing port. We launched one of the inflatable kayaks and Peter paddled across to find out that the couple on board, Ashley and Cathy, had indeed sailed the boat from Brisbane via Tahiti and Hawaii. Some of their sailing legs were 21 days. They were taking advantage of the rare good weather to complete some varnishing and I invited them over to Venture for drinks and spaghetti after they had finished their chores. We had a great evening. One of the best features of cruising is the interesting people you meet along the way.
Late that evening, I took to the tender to photograph Venture against a background of coloured clouds.
June 19 Tuesday.
After a visit to Windjammer for morning coffee and a look around this very nice, traditional boat, we were underway at 1016 for an uneventful cruise to Gustavus. We tied up at the dock where there was a three hour limit. Around 4 pm flotillas of small charter fishing boats started returning - each with a catch of large halibut equal in number to the number of charterers on board. One boat captain I talked said they had actually caught 40 halibut but returned all but five of them to the water. Another had caught 35 and returned all but four. The retained fish were soon filleted and the carcasses tossed over the side. All the catch belonged to the clients. After our three hours were up, we anchored out in the bay with some difficulty because of the strong currents.
June 20th Wednesday.
Today was the day of our eagerly anticipated flight over Lituya Bay and Glacier Bay and we anxiously watched the weather. Initially we were concerned about the mist but this slowly dissipated throughout the morning. We were all ready ahead of time - especially me! I donned my frayed camera jacket and armed myself with my Panasonic camera and three lenses. Chris let out all 400ft of chain as we would be leaving the boat and the currents were strong. We went ashore in the tender and walked up the road to meet the taxi. At the small airport we were delivered to a tiny office. Standing outside was a guy with a bicycle with tires that looked as if they belonged on a motorcycle. He and three others had mounted an expedition to cycle down the coast from Yukatat taking with them some sort of flotation device to get them across rivers. One of their number had freaked out after four days and they had been forced to abandon their expedition. He was from Colorado, which was not short of its own wilderness area, but he said that Alaska was the real thing and you really felt its size and isolation when faced with it. He said they had seen tons of debris on the coast from the Japanese tsunami with many water bottles and other plastic detritus marked with Japanese writing. He said it was depressing to see just how much of it there was and knowing that it was not going to go away.
We took off at 1 pm and had the most wonderful experience. Flying first over Glacier Bay - both east and west arms. We could see that Johns Hopkins - billed as the most scenic of the glaciers - was still choked with ice. It was, in any case, closed to all vessels because the ice floes were used as birthing platforms for seals at this time of year. We flew over Margerie Glacier and saw a cruise ship reduced to a miniature by the immensity of its surroundings.
To reach Lituya Bay on the outer coast we had to climb to more than 8,000 ft to get over what the pilot referred to "these hills"! We had a splendid view of Mount Fairweather at 15,300 ft before descending through the clouds into the bay which is exposed to the Gulf of Alaska just north of Cape Spencer where Icy Strait connects with the Gulf of Alaska. It was still just possible to see the line where the trees had been creamed off the mountains by the immense wave 54 years ago. We followed the coastline, flying at 200 ft looking in vain for to any debris from the Japanese tsunami. We then turned inland over the extensive Brady ice field, 50 miles in length, before over-flying Bartlett Cove and returning long to Gustavus airport.
The weather had turned fabulous with warm temperatures and a wonderful sunset. I went out in the tender to take photos of Venture silhouetted against the blazing sky. Drifting around in the tender watching the sky change colour on a dead flat sea with snow capped mountains all around was a wonderful experience. Finally went to bed close to 11 pm while it was still light.
June 21 Thursday.
Up at 0700 and raised anchor at 0726. Under way to Bartlett cove on mirror calm sea and light overcast with patches of pale blue sky and some hazy sun. As per instructions, Chris called the park radio as soon as we crossed the demarcation line at the entrance to Glacier Bay park. We were given instructions regarding the distance we had to stay from whales, and the requirement to stay at least 100 yards offshore and only approach it at ninety degrees. We reached Barlett Cove at 0910 and tied up in front of a mini cruise ship named Safari Explorer. We went ashore at wide dock and walked up to visitor center and Lodge where they had an interesting museum/display. We had our orientation at 1100 which consisted of a video and an address by a kindly lady who told us that her young grandson - after his sister was one year old - had confided in her that he should have done more research before requesting a sibling.
We were underway again at 1200 and the weather slowly deteriorated until it started to rain. We passed South Marble island from which, during our orientation, we had been instructed during to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards because of nesting birds. The adjacent rocks were well populated with Stellar Sealions. During the afternoon, the weather began to clear from aft and was fine by the time we turned into Reid Inlet and anchored at 1725. The others except Louisa and myself took the dinghy to the face of Reid Glacier which was just shy of one mile away although it looked to be much closer. After they returned, Louisa and I took our turn but the tide was falling and we touched bottom a couple of times and were not able to reach the glacier face which the others had been able to do.
June 22 Friday
Up anchor at 0812. Beautiful day. We headed down towards Margerie Glacier passing the mouth of Johns Hopkins which, as we had seen in our over-flight, was choked with ice. Although not mentioned in any of the literature, this inlet is closed to all boats from May 1st to June 30th and cruise ships from the same date until August 31st because the ice floes, calved from the glacier, are used for seal pupping. A huge amount of ice had emerged out from this inlet and we had to nudge our way through it at ultra slow speed for a considerable distance. After spotting us on AIS, we were called on the radio by the cruise ship Statendam to say they were on their way and they asked about ice conditions. We reached the face of the glacier before they did. We hung about for at least a couple of hours in front of the spectacular face hoping for major calving but this didn't happen although the ice appeared to be very unstable and the glacier was very vocal with cracks and bangs. We finally left at 1230 in the wake of Statendam in the hope that they would help open a path through the drifting pack ice. We overheard communications between two other boats that passage to the east of Russell Island was clear of ice so we took that route and actually overtook the Statendam. Today we reached our maximum northing of the trip at 59.02.9 degrees and maximum west at 137.03.4.
We continued in wonderful weather to North Sandy Cove where we anchored after considerable trouble at 1735. Initially the anchor would not hold due to the rocky bottom. A 40 ft Nordhavn was already anchored in the best spot. This was Celicia which we had previously seen at Taku harbor. A couple of birds we identified as barn swallows zoomed around the boat and eventually landed on the bow railings. I got a great photo of them. This was a lovely secluded bay surrounded by tree-covered slopes which provided a complete contrast to yesterday's anchorage. This area had been closed to campers because of the number of bears but we did not see any despite keeping a sharp lookout.
June 23 Saturday.
Underway at 0825. High overcast with hazy sun which turned into a warm day with scarcely a cloud in the sky. We went down the Muir Inlet to McBride Glacier in the north arm of Glacier Bay. Water was flowing out of the inlet at a good rate bringing with it small pieces of ice which tinkled merrily as they banged into one another but the inlet was blocked by grounded ice and we could not enter. We were about one mile south of where we were yesterday at a latitude of 59.1.8.
We retraced our route up Muir Inlet and turned into Wachusett Inlet which, although normally closed to motorized traffic, had a temporary opening. The water was a pale aquamarine colour and the sky baby blue. We went up almost to top of the inlet which was a wasteland of barren rocks left behind by a glacier that had retreated and not yet been re-colonized by nature.
We saw some whales in the distance as we entered the special whale protection area just north of Bartlett Cove where we tied up at 1800. There was not a cloud in the sky and the temperature reached 23 degrees C (73 F). The captain of a small cruise vessel came up to me and said he had met me at Annapolis boat show in 1963. He said he had always been an admirer of Fleming boats. We had dinner at the lodge at 7pm and anchored in the bay as time at the dock was again restricted to three hours.
June 24th Sunday
We were underway at 0835 and headed first for Adolphus in the hope of seeing whales bubble feeding but it was windy and quite rough so decided not to bother and turned east for the outside passage to Sitka. We had marginal cell phone coverage for about ten minutes in Icy Strait just outside Glacier Bay which was just sufficient to send a pre-written text to advise that we were still alive.
We saw a couple of whales just before Elfin Cove but too fleeting to be able to take pictures. A strange and rather beautiful mist descended from the mountains and eventually enveloped us in a grey blanket. We passed the small settlement of Elfin Cove. A brief exposure to the open Pacific produced some mild ocean swells before we tucking back into the protection of Lisianski Inlet. Here, the mist dissipated and the sun returned as we continued on to the small town of Pelican on Chichagof Island which we reached at 1330.
It was Sunday and Chris called the harbormaster several times with no response. We hovered looking for a place to tie up in the tight harbor when another boater called us on the radio and directed us to a very nice spot. We had to back in and Chris took over the controls from the cockpit after I had turned the boat around. There was a strong cross wind and docking was quite tricky but Chris did a masterful job. A small sailboat from Holland arrived shortly afterwards. It is a very long way from Holland to Alaska and they had been traveling for two years.
The town was built on stilts along the edge of the water. A tree-covered hill rose steeply behind the town which looks across narrow Lisianski Inlet to snow-covered mountains on the other side. Although windy it was a lovely sunny afternoon. The others - except for Louisa and I - walked though the town looking for somewhere to have lunch but everything was closed. Later in the afternoon, two float planes arrived and the floatplane dock briefly became a hive of activity. Included among the arrivals was a family of Australian Chinese who had come for three days of fishing. Rosie's pub opened at 5 pm and we went there for pub food dinner. We had interesting conversations with other boaters.
June 25 Monday.
We awoke to a misty, rainy morning and listened to the weather forecast to decide whether we could leave today as planned. Our guests had to be in Sitka by the 27th in order to meet their travel schedule. If we were weather bound in Pelican their only option was to fly to Sitka by floatplane. The weather forecast for the outside route did not sound good for today and the limited visibility made flying conditions doubtful. To everyone's surprise, a float plane suddenly materialized out of the mist demonstrating that planes were flying under the current conditions. Peter needed to call Sitka to book a flight but cell phones did not work in town. A public phone was listed in the guide book but turned out not to exist. We could have used the sat phone but Peter and Bernie, together with Chris, walked up the hill to the town dump where locals told us that cell phones sometimes worked and there was also a chance of seeing bears which was high on Bernie's wish list.
They saw no bears but were able to connect with Sitka to arrange a float plane to pick them up in the early afternoon. They later told me that they had flown at around 200 ft most of the 80 miles to Sitka and the pilot told them that he had 45,000 flying hours and it was extremely rare for a flight to be cancelled due to weather. Floatplanes are a lifeline for this town which is visited by only two ferries per month during the summer and just one per month during the dark days of winter.
Charter fishing boats returned later in the day. The Chinese Australians had caught a 196 lb Halibut 72" long. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the fish when I see how marvelously they are put together with their pink gills etc.
June 26 Tuesday.
Awoke to another grey rainy day. Weather forecast outside still sounded pretty bad but we decided to go anyway. We delayed our departure until the tide was slack through the narrows in Lisianski Strait where it meets the ocean. Just before we left we were presented with a huge chunk of halibut by one of the other boaters we had met in Rosie's which someone had given her. I would not be surprised if it came from the huge fish we saw yesterday. The catch belongs to the charterer but what are they supposed to do with a man-sized fish?
We were finally underway mid-morning and back tracked to the turn off down the strait towards the ocean. At Stag Bay the mist grew thicker - reducing visibility to less than ½ mile. The water was rough in the ocean but nothing compared to conditions we had experienced in the past. We caught a fleeting glimpse of a couple of Orca not far from the boat. After about 45 minutes we turned into Portlock Harbor and threaded our way through narrow and shallow channels which were very scenic even though they were mostly hidden in the mist. I spotted a grizzly bear and I took some photos but he was really too far away. He stood observing us for a while.
We anchored in Kimshan Cove completely surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains. As usual, there were no communications and the feeling of complete isolation absolute, reinforced by the steady drizzle. We could have been a million miles from anywhere. The name comes from the Chinese for Old Gold as this was the site of the Hirst-Chichagof mine which opened in 1922 and produced $2.5 m in gold by 1938 when the population of this remote spot was as many as 200. All that now remains are the ruins of a jetty and a derelict house on the shore. Around the corner, in Klag Bay on the other side of Doolth Mountain, was the Chichagof mine which opened in 1906 after two young Indians said they had seen signs of gold in a stream. By 1938 this mine had produced $13,000,000 in gold and nearly $1,000,000 in silver.
June 27 Wednesday
The weather looked much better when we awoke but soon degenerated into mist and rain. We raised the anchor at 0900 and threaded our way through scenic and very narrow channels towards the open sea. The weather improved but remained misty. The seas were lumpy and confused but smoothed out as soon as we entered the tortuous and narrow channels leading to Sitka.
We arrived at 1455 to find there was no berth for us. We were added to the waiting list and found a temporary spot on the floating breakwater.
June 28th Thursday.
We awoke to a sunny morning but it soon clouded over. We moved to an inside berth, with power, at 0840. Louisa and I walked into Sitka and looked at the shops. They have some very nice souvenirs at very reasonable prices. We went into the Russian Orthodox Church and paid $5 each to get in. It was very beautiful inside and, to my surprise, photography was actually encouraged. An orthodox priest showed up and Louisa asked if he could take his photo to which he readily agreed. He turned out to be Irish and had converted to Russian Orthodox in San Francisco.
We visited an excellent bookshop where I bought a book entirely devoted to cooking halibut. They gave me a small free booklet on cooking Alaskan fish to go with it. That had even more halibut recipes in it.
We walked back to the boat and I could not decide whether to cook on the boat or go out to dinner. This was resolved when Cathlyn called from Penguin and suggested they come over with a bottle of wine and some smoked salmon. That was a great idea and they came over with Douglas's sister who was visiting. We had a great evening. We had originally encountered Penguin and her crew near Hartley Bay in British Columbia and we had been playing hopscotch with them ever since - meeting up in many harbors along the way.
June 29 Friday.
Rain this morning. Surprise! Surprise! Louisa and I walked to town around 1030 by which time the rain had stopped and did not start again until after we returned to the boat around 3 pm. We walked all the way to the Sitka National Park where we followed trails through the forest and saw the site of the battle in 1804 between the Tlingit and the Russians. There were many totem poles along the way. We then walked to the Raptor Center where some eagles and other birds of prey, including owls, were being rehabilitated. We learnt that the female eagles are appreciably larger and more dominant than the males and the only way to tell the sexes apart was by DNA testing - presumably this does not apply if you are an eagle! Juveniles do not get their white heads until they are five years old. The young are fully grown and ready to leave the nest three months after hatching from an egg slightly larger than that of a chicken. They usually lay three eggs - sometimes 4. We also learned that owls cannot move their eyes within their sockets which is why they twist their heads around. The can turn their heads 270 degrees and have 14 vertebrae in their necks to allow them to do this. We have 7.
The next day, Louisa and I walked in the rain to the Russian cemetery which was situated in an overgrown woodland with graves all higgledy-piggledy. Most were overgrown and toppled but a few were surprisingly recent.
July 1 Sunday.
It was actually not raining when we arose this morning. I walked to the floating breakwater to take photos of Venture and also the funny looking dog we had seen from the boat. He was being pestered by crows who drank from his water bowl. After a while he could not stand it any longer and barked at them but ignored people. Interesting that the collective noun for crows is a murder of crows! We filled the water tanks and got underway at 0940.
We retraced our course through Olga strait and the Whitestone Narrows in Neva Strait through to Salisbury Sound. This is quite an intricate, but well-marked, course that needs to be followed carefully through tree-covered islands and headlands. In Salisbury Sound we turned east and entered Peril Strait where the current was strongly against us and very swirly. The chart says that they can reach 8 knots. The red marker buoys were bent well over in the current which pushed the boat all over the place. We had a hard time overtaking a small but well equipped sail boat with a small girl, aged about ten, dancing around on deck. We met another set of rapids at Rapid Point before the channel opened up. We passed Deadmans Reach - so named after more than 100 Aleuts from Baranof's expedition in 1799 died agonizing deaths after eating contaminated mussels.
For a while the water became as smooth as glass before an easterly wind created a chop which threw spray over the boat. We anchored in calm water in Appleton Cove at 1540 where we counted more than 100 floats for pots. This was not as bad as the situation in Maine but the number of pots restricted places to anchor without risk of becoming entangled.
The sailboat we had encountered earlier entered in the bay about three hours after we arrived. They launched the kayaks immediately after anchoring and two kids set off to explore the bay. This seems a great way to teach kids to be independent.
July 2 Monday.
Underway at 0850 in much improved weather. We continued northeast along Peril Strait. Towards the eastern entrance we encountered a high speed catamaran ferry from Juneau running at over 36 knots. As we exited the Strait we had unexpected cell phone coverage which we realized must be from Angoon directly across Chatham Strait. As we traveled south down Chatham Strait along the eastern side of Baranof Island it was immediately apparent that there was much more snow on the mountains than on the western side. Presumably this is due to there being less rain.
I was at the helm when we hit another log which bumped its way under the hull. I had not spotted it, being busy watching for waterfalls on the coastline. You really cannot allow yourself to be distracted in these waters. We diverted into Waterfall Cove to investigate a huge and powerful waterfall. We had spotted it several miles away as a white slash in the forested slopes, first believing it to be a snow filled gully. We were able to get quite close to it and see and hear the enormous quantities of water thundering down the precipitous slope.
At 1400 we entered Warm Springs Bay - the location of the small settlement of Baranof. At anchor near a huge waterfall was the large motoryacht Shogun with whom we had shared the downtown dock in Juneau. On the northern shore was a dock which appeared to be fully occupied. After a quick look, we decided to continue another 15 miles south to Red Bluff Bay.
The scenery along the eastern shore of Baranoff Island was magnificent. When we reached the location of Red Bluff Bay the entrance was not easy to identify although to the north of it was the bare, reddish bluff that gave the place its name. It was not until we turned that we could identify the channel and we were able to thread our way through a huddle of islands. Once inside, the scenery was spectacular with sheer cliffs and precipitous wooded slopes. There were numerous waterfalls fed by the melting snow including one as large as the one we had gone to look at earlier in Waterfall Bay. There were a couple of anchoring spots along the length of the fjord but we went right to the head and found a place to anchor on the north side. We dropped the hook at 1630 and launched the tender. Louisa and I drove right to the base of the big falls. The falling water created its own wind which blew spray over us. Initially we had the bay to ourselves but not long after we had anchored Shogun showed up and anchored close to us with a line taken ashore from the stern. This was a nuisance because it interfered with photography of Venture although Shogun herself looked very good where she was with the right light and background.
July 3rd Tuesday
A stunningly beautiful morning. I had been hoping the Shogun would leave early and get out of the way of photography but they were still at anchor when we were ready to leave at 0805. Chris pulled up the anchor while I got in the tender to take video and photographs of Venture underway. It was only 6 degrees C but the sun was shining and it did not feel too cold. I took photos as Venture made her way down the fjord. Once outside, Chris stopped to pick me up. It was a quite rough and the rib banged into the side of the boat deck as we brought it aboard. We were underway south at 0902. Red Bluff is a top destination which should be on the list of anyone visiting this area. Our only disappointment has been not seeing any bears. The beaches and grassy areas at the mouth of rivers and streams would seem to be ideal bear habitat but alas the bears don't seem to agree.
As we headed south down Chatham Strait we saw three cruise ships on the AIS and a Holland America ship was going north as we went south. The sea and sky were pastel shades of blue reflected in the glassy surface. We proceeded almost dreamlike with the horizon lined with snow-capped mountains, many wearing a wig of fluffy white clouds, while overhead feathered fronds of high cirrus swept across the skies. When the current relaxed sufficiently to allow the breeze to riffle the water, the surface exploded into showers of diamonds. The eastern side of Baranof Island is worth an extended visit with many small bays and inlets to explore.
Under these conditions it is easy to allow the mind to wander but we had to keep reminding ourselves to maintain a sharp look out for sizeable chunks of wood floating level with the surface of the water. These are not easy to see and most of the time a reflective glint turns out to be a length of bull kelp or occasionally the sleek head of a curious seal. The tide was against us reducing our speed from the usual 9.5 knots to as low as 7.9. As we approached Cape Decision with its prominent lighthouse the sea turned a dark blue and became choppy and erupted in white caps from a breeze blowing in from the open sea. We were now following the Outside Inside passage. We saw a couple of whales blowing today but too far away to photograph.
We passed Cape Decision into Sumner Strait and anchored in Warren Cove on Warren Island at 1640. There was a sandy beach which is a rarity in these parts. Quite a number of fishing boats entered the cove during the course of the evening but they all anchored much further out than ourselves. They left their outrigger poles deployed. When the wind dropped the boat swung broadside to the shore and it was occasionally quite roly. A full moon rose above the horizon and hung like a lantern in the sky above mountains with a band of white cloud below them. A path of light reflected on the calm sea and a fishing boat completed the picture which I was able to photograph at 2230.
July 4 Wednesday.
Arose at 0615 and we were underway at 0740. The sea was smooth but undulating until we came under the protection of the land in Bocas de Finas between Hecata Island and Anguilla Island. There are many Spanish names in this area. We crossed the Gulf of Esquibel and down San Christoval Channel where we saw a couple of whales diving and surfacing. There are many whales in these waters but you need luck and patience to photograph them.
We encountered another whale some way ahead of us directly in front of the boat. We slowed down and he blew about 100 yards ahead of the boat. We stopped and watched as he went on his way blowing at regular intervals for just a few seconds moving steadily away from us. His progress was marked by circles of glassy water created by the displacement of his large body.
This whole area has been comprehensively raped of its timber. The hillsides are bald and scarred with ugly clear cuts littered with the bones of the timber not considered worthwhile to be carried out. In places the shoreline is piled high with discarded logs waiting to be floated away on a high tide to become hazards to navigation. Indeed many were afloat as we passed by at high water springs and today we encountered more than 200 pieces of timber varying in size from fence posts, through telegraph poles up to massive tree trunks more than two feet in diameter at the bole and twenty feet long.
We decided to continue until late in the day to secure a better anchorage for the night and to shorten the crossing to Prince Rupert tomorrow. We made our way into the Nichols Bay at the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island. This has a narrow, entrance with a natural rock breakwater which protects it from the open waters of Clarence Strait. We had some trouble getting the anchor to grip.
July 5 Thursday
Underway at 0720. Beautiful calm sunny morning. We hand steered Venture out through narrow channel past a natural rock breakwater which protected it from rough seas. We dallied for about 20 minutes after we spotted a pair of whales feeding. Unfortunately they did not come close enough to be able to get pictures. We have sighted many whales but never very close.
We crossed the Canadian border about 0815 and made the 65 mile crossing to Prince Rupert in absolutely calm conditions. Early in the crossing there was an interesting ocean swell from aft but it was smooth and unbroken. Later the sea became completely flat and glassy with slight undulations - a slightly paler blue than the pale blue sky. Our progress was mesmerizing but we could not afford to relax as we encountered a great many logs today.
We tied up at the Prince Rupert Yacht Club dock at 1535 and talked with the owner of a Dashew 65. The boat had been built in New Zealand and he had sailed it back from there. Chris phoned Canadian customs and gave them the details they requested over the phone and they gave us our clearance. The clocks went forward one hour here.
July 6 Friday.
Lovely sunny morning. We were able to connect to the internet and spent time catching up on e-mails