A Cruise To Alaska 2012 - Part Two

Ketchikan - 730 Miles

 

Twelve days and 728 miles since we left Vancouver Island we entered busy Ketchikan harbor and cleared Customs into the USA from Canada. We were allocated a berth vacated by a commercial fishing boat now out at sea earning its living. Although still early in the season, cruise ships dominated the harbor. Most were huge - extending 1,000 ft in length and towering over the town like multistory apartment blocks that, after a few hours, would float away to be instantly replaced by another of equal size.

Downtown Ketchikan abounds with souvenir shops. Much of the merchandise on offer was of better than average quality but the plethora of jewellery shops was a bit puzzling. Most of the passengers disembarking from the ships did not look like the sort of people who had jewellery on their minds.

Amphibious craft called Ducks - based on the WW2 military vehicles with a similar acronym - ran tourists through the town on their wheels before heading down a ramp and taking to the water for a harbor tour. Overhead - and in the water alongside the ships - squadrons of floatplanes were busy taking tourists on flightseeing trips or flying freight to remote communities.

Louisa and I attended a lumberjack show which had its interesting moments but which was but rather spoilt by being dumbed down to kid level.

After two days, during which we re-provisioned and re-fueled, we left for Meyer's Chuck just thirty-three miles north. We had called here in 2006 on our first journey to Alaska in Venture. As before, the dogleg entrance into the inlet was invisible until the last moment. This time we were able to tie up at the free government dock where Doug and Cathlyn from Penguin were there to take our lines. Meyers Chuck is a tiny community. There is a small gallery featuring art work made by local residents. The collection times for the one post box shows just one entry - Tuesdays at 10 AM. The post office itself is a dinghy ride across the small harbor and the post mistress visits the visiting boats every morning with sticky buns for sale. We went for a walk along a well-maintained trail through the woods. Along the way we came across a couple of forest artworks - one resembling a heron and the other a spider's web spun between the trees.

All us visitors were invited to the christening of a new dock extension constructed by a handful of enterprising residents using materials scrounged from wherever they could find them. A few desultory fireworks fizzed and popped in celebration of the completion of this project to accommodate tenders from boats anchored in the bay when the dock was occupied. Even the government dock was not maintained by the government and, when it threatened to sink, its flotation was augmented by barrels installed by the residents of this tiny community whose year round population was now reduced to two. They told us that as many as 500 boats call in during the season but, being a government dock, they could not charge any money for dockage.

That evening we entertained our new friends from Penguin and exchanged photos we had taken of each other's boats while underway. One problem with cruising is that you never get pictures of your own boat unless you launch the tender and go to some considerable trouble.

The following morning, soon after the lady from the Post office came around with sticky buns, we were underway for Wrangell where we arrived in Heritage Harbor, Cemetery Point, in the early afternoon. A light rain fell relentlessly and, with the marina a mile out of town, no one felt much like walking there and back for an evening meal so we had lasagna on board.

To reach Petersburg from here we had to negotiate Wrangell Narrows. This sometimes narrow and twisty channel is 21 miles long and well marked with over 60 navigation aids as well as five sets of range markers. The visibility was good and we did not meet any state ferries or other large craft en route so we had no problems. When we reached Petersburg we were again directed to a berth vacated by a fishing boat. Venture looked quite small surrounded by business-like fishing boats.

Louisa had a nasty fall when she tripped over mooring lines from the adjacent fish boat and banged up her face and knee. Christine organized cold pads using packets of frozen peas and mixed vegetables! The following day was Sunday and although Louisa's knee seemed slightly better it was heavily bruised so we felt we should visit the Petersburg Medical Center to have it checked out. Fortunately it was not too far away and we walked there. The staff were very nice and thorough but, being a Sunday, it took a while. First we saw a nurse then an intern doctor and finally the on-call doctor and radiologist were called in. Fortunately a soft tissue injury was diagnosed with no fracture of the bones or damage to the ligaments.

Rain is an ever present feature in this part of the world and you need to take full advantage of those rare days when it is absent. Most of our neighboring fishing boats were in good condition for that type of vessel and on this rare sunny day, the guy in the next berth first dried off the wooden hull with a large blow torch and applied three coats of paint within the course of the day.

After two days in port, we were underway again at noon on June 4th. An Alaska State ferry overtook us in Frederick Sound and met a southbound ferry just ahead of us. The chance encounter against the back drop of the mountains made a fine picture. We crossed to the eastern shore of the Sound and entered Thomas Bay where we took a look at the Baird Glacier and Scenery Bay before anchoring for the night in Ruth Bay. The evening light produced a pink glow in the sky with Venture silhouetted against a line of snow-capped peaks.

Over the next couple of days we continued north and across Tracy Arm bar into Holkham Bay. Large chunks of ice littered the entrance - some glowing an electric blue and providing perches for eagles and seagulls. Since our last visit, cruise ships have started to include Tracy Arm in their itinerary and we were overtaken by the Disney Wonder shortly before we entered the bay. We had planned to navigate the full length of Tracy Arm the following day but the weather so good we decided to take advantage of it and head up into it right away. The fjord is 24 miles long and the scenery so spectacular it was hard to know where to turn ones eyes. Countless waterfalls, fed by the melting snow, cascaded down the face of soaring cliffs with trees growing out of all but the steepest of them. Increasing amounts of ice filled the water including brash which was hard to see and which thumped the underside of the hull. Some pieces were sculpted into marvelous shapes resembling fish, pelicans or swans. We passed a gaggle of kayakers in multi-coloured kayaks so small that they were almost invisible except through binoculars. For a while we could see the Disney ship on AIS until the towering rock walls cut off all communication including GPS. The amount of ice became increasingly more tightly packed as we progressed through the twists and turns of the fjord and we wondered how far we would be able to go before it blocked our progress entirely. We passed Harbor seals on resting on the ice flows. Some were timid and slid off into the sea early while others just watched us warily as we approached. Bloodstains on some of the floes were evidence of a recent birth. When we reached the point where the fjord divided into separate channels leading to the north and south faces of the Sawyer Glacier, we caught sight of the Disney ship well up towards the glacier face of the southern arm.

These are tidewater glaciers, meaning that they extend into the sea which undermines the foot. As the glaciers creep slowly down, huge chunks of ice break off into the water. The face of the glacier at the waters edge was a deep blue. Chris called up the Disney ship to ask them what their plans were as we did not want to get in their way. They told us that they were turning around and were halfway through their turn. We launched the tender and Louisa and I climbed aboard while Chris cautiously nudged Venture through the ice floes towards the face of the glacier until our way was blocked by a floating wall of blue ice.

The photographic excursions in the tender provide the highpoints of these trips. The ride was cold but spectacular and I was pleased with the photography that resulted. The Disney ship departed and about one hour later we did the same. It was hard to stop taking photos and video during the return journey down Tracy Arm. By the time we anchored in Tracy Arm Cove it was almost 8 pm but, this far north, darkness did not descend until almost 11 pm with dawn breaking around 3 am.

The following morning a small iceberg was stranded on the rocks at the entrance to the cove when we got underway at 0940 for Endicott Arm. When we re-crossed the Tracy Arm Bar the red port hand marker, which the previous day had been missing in the strong tide, had reappeared although its survival was now being threatened by a beautiful but menacing blue iceberg. The weather was grey and rainy which did not bode well for our visit to the head of Endicott.

We called into the approach to Ford's Terror for a quick look. The dogleg entrance was hard to identify at low tide. This spot earned its name from navy crewman who, in 1899 rowed into the fjord at slack water to do some duck hunting. With the turn of the tide the calm water at the entrance became extremely turbulent with rapids, rooster tails and whirlpools. Ford supposedly found himself trapped in the maelstrom for six hours dodging chunks of ice.

We continued 40 miles up Endicott Arm and encountered a lot of ice from Dawes Glacier. The sides of the fjord grew ever steeper until they became sheer rock walls. As we continued, the icepack became denser but still quite manageable. Surprisingly, it opened up as we approached the glacier face which appeared deceptively close even when still three miles away. We could have reached the face itself but discretion caused us to stop short while still several hundred yards from it. It was as well that we did because large slabs of ice were calving from its blue and heavily fissured face. We launched the tender and Louisa and myself climbed aboard armed with cameras. Chris ran Venture back and forth across face of glacier while I took photos and video. On one occasion I heard a sharp boom coming from one end of the glacier and I held the video camera on that area. Small chunks of ice dropped off followed by a large spear which slid down into the sea with a tremendous splash. Some quite large swells resulting from this collapse but they were smooth and rounded and did not create a hazard.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from this spectacle but, after an hour or so, we made our way out through the ice chunks many of which resembled wonderful sculptures. The sheer rock faces on either side of the fjord again carried the scars of the ice that had scraped past them in ancient times.

Our reluctance to leave the glacier had put us slightly behind schedule and we reached Ford's Terror around 6 pm when the out-going tide was beginning to flow but we had no problem passing through the narrow entrance. The guidebooks tend to dwell on the alarmist name and the perils of the rapids rather than what lies inside once past the narrows so the stunning beauty of the wonderland inside came as a complete surprise. We had no idea from the books the extent of this fjord nor of its outstanding beauty.

To our surprise we found Penguin anchored at the head of the northern arm of the fjord together with their friend in a Nordic Tug. Care needs to be taken when anchoring here as depths drop off rapidly and you could find yourself aground at low tide if you have not watched the depth sounder and consulted the tide tables. The only sounds in this exquisitely beautiful spot were those of the nearby waterfall.

The following morning dawned absolutely calm with fragments of cloud lingering part way up the peaks in the still air. A flock of colourful Harlequin Ducks scavenged for morsels in the outfall from the waterfall. We launched the tender and explored the fjord. We passed through some rapids into the eastern arm of Ford's Terror and then back out to the main entrance to the fjord where we passed through the rapids without any problem at low water slack. On the return journey we poked our bows into a narrow cleft in the cliffs through which cascades of waterfalls tumbled over moss-clad rocks into water the colour of jade.

That evening we enjoyed a delightful evening aboard Penguin sharing drinks, conversation and hors d'oeuvres.

In a boat the size of Venture it is safer and easier on the nerves to transit the rapids at high water slack which occurs just twice in every 24 hours. This meant that we had to be underway about 0530 the following morning to reach the Ford's Terror narrows at high water slack. This was too good an opportunity to miss and I decided to go in tender to take video and photos of Venture underway and passing through narrows.

I had a great run all the way down through the spectacular fjord and through the narrows ahead of Venture so that I could film her passing through. A beautiful chunk of floating ice added drama to the scene. Although it was overcast, fortunately there was no rain which would have made photography very difficult. Penguin left at the same time and we both headed for Taku Harbour where there was a single sailboat tied up at the government dock when we arrived just before noon.

A number of boats showed up as the day wore on including an Ocean Alexander 50 Mk 1 where we made friends with the owners. On another boat were a couple of joyous black poodles which ran up and down the dock having fun. Louisa went off to find which boat they were from and finished up being invited back aboard the Ocean 50, by the lady on board who generously offered to drive us around in Juneau to go shopping and get groceries.

When we left the following morning, we saw two humpback whales feeding just outside the entrance to the bay. They were diving below the surface and coming up with their huge mouths agape. Unfortunately they were two far away for decent pictures but it was a memorable sight.

Shortly thereafter we saw many sea lions on the rocks in Slocum Bay before heading up Gastineau Channel leading to Juneau. We arrived at the Intermediate Dock at noon and tied up between two large cruise ships. After several days without communications we could now connect to e-mail and the internet. The kind people from the Ocean 50 phoned and took Louisa and myself out to the St Therese Shrine as well as a short tour of Juneau and also across the bridge to Douglas.

Juneau is the capital of Alaska and, like Ketchikan, the downtown area and harbor are dominated by huge cruise ships which change every day. After a couple of days moored among the behemoths, we relocated to cheaper Aurora harbor further away from the center of town and used the savings to rent a car. We took a ride up the Mount Roberts aerial tramway but the low-clinging clouds obscured the view. The last time we came here in August of 2006 it rained every day for the three weeks except for two. We were told at that time that we needed to visit Juneau before July. This time we are here in June and it is still raining! The locals tell us that this is the coldest and wettest June on record!

From here we will go to Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, reaching almost 60 degrees North before turning our bows south.