An Adventure to Cordova And The Gulf Of Alaska - Part One
I am writing this in Cordova. No. I'm not in Spain but a small town in Alaska - specifically Prince William Sound. Our memorable visit to Alaska in 2012, prompted me to take the next step up the ladder in Pacific Northwest cruising - forsaking the protection of the Inside Passage and venturing out into the Gulf of Alaska.
Venture had spent much of the winter at the Seattle office of Chuck Hovey Yachts, the Fleming dealership on the US West Coast where she had acted as ambassador for the Fleming line. From there we took her to Trawlerfest in Anacortes and thence to Delta Marine Services, the authorized Fleming service center on Vancouver Island, to spruce up the varnish and attend to some minor maintenance issues. Venture is now in her ninth cruising season during which she has covered some 40,000 nautical miles.
On May 30th we headed north through now familiar territory without dawdling because we had a long way to go and had started a little late in the season. When we arrived in Ketchikan we had continuous rain which we figured would probably be the pattern for the rest of the trip but, by the time we had reached Petersburg through Wrangell Narrows, the sun had begun to show its face. It is here that the real Alaska experience begins and just south of where we took our first diversion from our direct route north. Our visit last year to Ford's Terror and Dawes Glacier, at the head of Endicott Arm, had left such a lasting impression we felt we could not pass them by.
Ford's Terror is an inlet off Endicott Arm and, once we had negotiated the tricky entrance, we were rewarded by scenes of towering cliffs and breathtaking waterfalls. We spent two nights anchored in this awesome place and had it entirely to ourselves. We next visited Dawes Glacier which was less active than last year. During two hours of expectant waiting the face of the glacier failed to discharge any significant amounts of ice into the still waters at its base.
We spent a couple of nights in Juneau to re-provision and take on the first fuel since leaving Anacortes. Our fuel consumption over 1,588 nautical miles had averaged 1.25 USG (4.73 liters) per nautical mile. We headed for Icy Strait where we saw numerous whales but none of them close to the boat. Here we forsook the protected waters of the Inside Passage and, rounding Cape Spencer, headed into the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This notorious body of water is the birthplace of much of the weather that affects the northern hemisphere. For example the system which devastated the Fastnet Race in 1979 had is origins here. But, for us, luck was on our side. The weather was not only benign - it was stunning. As we traveled north, on our starboard side a range of snow capped mountains backed the entire coast all the way to Prince William Sound. To port the vast Pacific Ocean stretched uninterrupted all the way to Japan.
I had long been fascinated by beautiful but treacherous Lituya Bay which lies some 70 miles north of Cape Spencer. This is another of those spots where a narrow entrance can be lethal if not negotiated at slack water but, unlike those in more sheltered areas, the outer entrance is aggressively patrolled by an ocean whose temper is frequently ferocious. In June 1786, two French ships - Astrolabe and Boussole - under the command of LaPerouse - entered the bay. He later directed three small boats to charter the hazardous entrance but to keep clear of it until slack water. In the event, two of the boats were overwhelmed when they ventured too close and were swept into the maelstrom where the outgoing tide met the ocean. Twenty-one men and two boats were lost in the tragedy.
Chris had timed our arrival to coincide with slack water but an unexpected lift from a northbound current increased our Speed Over the Ground to 11 kts at a modest 1100 rpm so we arrived early. The entrance appeared relatively calm but Chris, wary of squirly currents in the 50 yard wide channel, wisely decided to play it safe and wait for slack. The entrance lies at an oblique angle to the coast and is defined by range markers on a distant shore, the rear one of which only appeared out of the trees at a point when we were beginning to think it did not exist.
Lituya Bay is about 7 miles long and shaped like a fish lying on its side with its head being at the inlet from the sea. Lituya Glacier occupies the north fluke of the tail, Crillon the south and Cascade the center. All are seriously grubby and more closely resemble rock than the glistening white you might expect from a glacier. A geological fault runs though the flukes and, on the evening of July 9th 1958, an earthquake generated by this fault triggered a landslide which created a gravity wave as high as 1720 ft as it surged over the flanks of the mountain immediately opposite the fall. This reduced to a lesser height of about 150 ft but, with undiminished power, it swept along the length and breadth of the bay over La Chaussee Spit and out to sea. On its way it picked up three small boats anchored in the bay and stripped the shoreline of all vegetation. The line of demarcation between the original forest and the new growth of mostly deciduous trees is clearly visible today - 55 years after the event.
We spent two nights in this beautiful but treacherous spot which had been scene of two tragedies - one entirely natural, triggered by an earthquake, and the other caused by human error in failing to respect natural forces. We made a landing on La Chausee Spit, which divides the bay from the Gulf, with the intention of walking to the inlet to view it in full flood from the safety of the shore but the going was too rough and we had to abandon the attempt. Although we saw no bears, we did see fresh tracks in a rare patch of sand along the shore.
In the center of the bay is an island where a colony of noisy Kittiwakes swooped and fluttered from their nests along the cliffs. Aptly named Cenotaph Island by LaPerouse, its name means Empty Tomb or a monument to persons whose remains are elsewhere. Somewhere on the island, buried in dense undergrowth, are the remains of a monument dedicated to the sailors who perished. It was apparently vandalized by persons unknown. Having visited this place I feel that it would be more appropriate to erect a marker in the form of a obelisk at the Southern tip of La Chaussee Spit near where the tragedy occurred and where it would be plainly visible not only to people entering the bay but also to vessels heading up and down the coast. It would be a more visible memorial to La Perouse himself as well as the men who were lost.
Following this tragedy, LaPerouse sailed from here to Monterey, in present day California, before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Macao in southern China. From there he passed through the Sea of Japan to the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia and thence all the way south to Botany Day, adjacent to present day Sydney in Australia. From here he planned to circumnavigate the Australian continent anticlockwise but he and his ships vanished in what are now the Solomon islands in 1788. Numerous expeditions sent to find out what happened eventually established that both ships had been wrecked in a typhoon on Vanikoro Island.
We awoke on the morning of our departure from Lituya to find ourselves embraced in thick fog. If we delayed our departure we would have to wait many hours for the next high water slack so we cautiously made our way towards the entrance using radar and following our electronic track on the plotter. Fortunately visibility improved sufficiently for us to make visual confirmation of our position and we passed safely through the narrow channel and out into the Gulf.
The good weather followed us to our next stop at Yakutat from where, after an overnight stop at the small marina, we headed towards the Hubbard Glacier. Once again the morning started with dense fog and we were afraid the glacier would remain hidden from our view. Small icefloes showed on the radar as we cautiously felt our way through the white blanket that enveloped us. A hazy sun lightened the sky and slowly the veil began to lift. We were halted by floating ice while still seven miles distant from the face of the glacier which appeared to be much closer. Here we launched the tender and photographed Venture sliding through the sparkling floes in glorious sunshine.
Our next stop was at dramatic Kayak Island - the site of the first landing, on July 19th 1741, by Bering on the coast of what is now Alaska. He too had set out with two ships, the St Peter and the St Paul, but they had become separated during the crossing from Kamchatka and, unknown to Bering, the St Peter, in an incident uncannily similar to that of Lituya, had lost 11 men while going ashore in search of water at the entrance of what is now Lisianski Strait. Thoroughly demoralized the St Peter then returned to Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. Ironically, if they had sailed just another 20 miles further north, until they had reached in Icy Strait, the history of the discovery of the coast might have been entirely different. Bering's expedition had been 10 years in the making but, fearful of being trapped on an alien coast by winter storms and suffering from depression and ill health, he only stayed for 10 hours before starting his return journey back to Kamchatka. Subsequently Bering's ship was wrecked on what is now Bering Island and Bering himself died of scurvy and depression.
By complete coincidence - and completely unknown to him - Captain Cooke's first point of contact on the vast Alaskan coastline in May 1778 was also at Kayak Island 37 years after Bering. Cooke described the rocky promontory at the southern end of the island as being like a ruined medieval castle. It is now called Pinnacle Rock and, in continuing ideal weather, 235 years later, we were able to concur with his apt description!
Anchoring choices are limited in this area and we dropped the hook in Kayak Entrance on the northern western flank of the island. Protected from the ocean swells by a reef revealed at low tide, this seemingly exposed spot proved to be a surprisingly satisfactory anchorage. The following morning we headed directly across the Gulf of Alaska to Hinchinbrook Entrance; the main channel into Prince William Sound. On the approach we encountered a large tanker with its escort of two tugs on its way to from Valdez to Port Angeles. This entrance had been named by Captain Cook on May 12th 1778 and can be extremely rough when the outgoing tide from the huge area of Prince William Sound meets strong southerly winds. Even for us when conditions were good the waters were confused and turbulent. We anchored for the night in Garden Cove off Port Etches where we were entertained by many sea otters floating on their backs on the surface.
The following day, June 24th, we moved another fifty miles and tied up in the small town of Cordova having achieved our goal of reaching Prince William Sound. Like Lituya, the Sound had also been subjected to two disasters - one natural and the other caused by human error in collision with the forces of nature. The first an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.2 in March 27 1964 and the second, 25 years later almost to the day, on March 24 1989, (both dates being Good Friday) the Exon Valdez ran onto a reef due, in part, to diverting from its designated course to avoid ice spewing out from the Columbia glacier.
When we ask the locals which places they recommend to visit within the Sound, we always receive the same answer. "It's all beautiful no matter where you go"! In my next blog I hope to be able to report on what we find as we explore its riches.