An Adventure to Cordova And The Gulf Of Alaska - Part Three
July 22nd Monday. It was time for us to depart from the Prince William Sound area and head south. Charter fishing boats were already leaving the marina in Seward when we arose at 0530. As we headed down Resurrection Bay in glorious weather we were overtaken by a steady stream of boats, each trailing a comet tail of white as they sped through the blue water.
Barwell Island, at the tip of Resurrection Peninsula, displayed dramatic scenery with its towering cliffs wearing a wig of cloud. Along the summit we could just see the remains of WW2 fortifications. Photos on the internet showed that seals had made their way up the cliffs to these incredible heights. One wonders if they made it down in one piece. A skein of mist hung along the coast.
We ran all day through a gently undulating ocean along the southern shore of Montague Island and turned into Patton Bay mid-afternoon. This open anchorage shelved gently so we had to anchor well offshore and keep in mind that we were at high tide with a 14ft drop to anticipate. In this remote area, the verdant hillsides exhibited a depressing vista of rape and pillage of the forests by native corporations with no evidence of replanting.
We decided on an early start the following morning and set the alarm for 0430. We were awoken by a heavy thud followed by a shudder around 0130. Our first thought was that the anchor had dragged and we had touched bottom. Instead we found that a change in the wind had swung the stern round to face the incoming swell causing the waves to hit underside of the swim step. Reassured we returned to our bunks despite a beautiful full moon leaving a shining path of silver across the bay. But, once aroused, further rest proved impossible as the boat kept swinging around, first stern to and then sideways on to the swell, causing it to roll in this open roadstead. We made the decision to get underway right away and raised the anchor at O350. It was a beautiful morning with pink dawn on eastern horizon and moon slowly sinking into the gently undulating sea to the west.
The Gulf of Alaska has the reputation as the birthplace of violent weather but our crossing was smooth and uneventful. The seas gradually increased and reached 3 to 4ft but the wind was from the north and we enjoyed a comfortable ride. We alternated watches with two hours on followed by 6 hours off. It was still light enough to read during my 10 to 12 watch! We were out of sight of land for most of the crossing and saw more oceanic birds around the boat, including an albatross, than on the journey north when we were closer to the shore.
On the second day, with a light wind still from the north, the seas calmed down even more and we ploughed a lonely furrow over a glassy sea. I continue to be amazed at the emptiness of the oceans. Late in the day we closed on the coast but the mountains were hidden in the coastal mist. When we turned into Cross Passage at Cape Spencer, the mist thickened and lay in layers across the water concealing numerous fishing boats - almost all of which lacked AIS. Rain showers further limited visibility and Cape Spencer lighthouse on its rocky headland appeared more dramatic than in the photos I had taken in clear weather on the way north.
In North Inian Passage Cross Sound, just off North Inian Island, the tidal currents were fiercely turbulent with mini whirlpools that tugged our bows first one way and then the other. Amid the roiling water we encountered huge numbers of humpback whales. They were all around us and one, too far away to photograph, put on a show of tail slapping over and over again for several minutes. Another sounded so close to the boat that my camera with telephoto lens was not wide enough to get a decent picture. This was the largest group of whales we have ever encountered. As if this were not enough, numerous herds of Stellar Sealions were hauled out along the rocky shore. The mist dissipated and reformed above the turbulent water. Backlit by the setting sun, it created beautiful, ephemeral effects.
We watched a bald eagle swimming ashore with a fish too big for it to lift out of the water. It appeared not the least distressed by its swim and it scrambled up the rocks without letting go of its prize. Our progress was as slow as 7 knots due to the adverse current and we anchored in Flynn Cove at 2150 having been underway for 42 hours during which we traveled 392.1 nm giving an average speed of 9.3 knots.
Our crossing of the infamous gulf could not have been easier or more relaxed and closed with a marvelous display of natural wonder.
It rained during the night but the clouds broke up while we were underway for Juneau. Largely by chance, but aided by some minor adjustment in scheduling, we managed to time our arrival in Juneau to coincide with that of Mick Shove, from Burr Yacht Sales, and his family who were aboard the cruise ship Disney Wonder with which we had a shared encounter in Tracy Arm in 2012. Mick visited Venture with his three sons and spent the afternoon with us before their ship sailed.
It had been my intention to visit the bear observatories at both Annan and Pack Creek but when I called them to check the reservation status I learned that both were fully booked well ahead of the dates we wanted to visit so I reluctantly had to abandon that idea. It is clearly very necessary to book very well in advance for any chance to reserve one of the limited reservations available during the prime weeks to observe the bears. Chris, Louisa and I visited the fish hatchery where millions of fish were struggling to climb the fish ladder at the top of which they were quickly dispatched as a reward for their strenuous endeavors. We later visited the Mindenhall Glacier where we followed a trail to an impressive waterfall.
Before leaving Juneau we topped up our tanks with enough fuel to get us back to Vancouver Island. This was only our third fueling since Anacortes in May and the first since Whittier. There was not a cloud in the sky when we got underway. We anchored that night in Sandborn Canal at 1820 and cooked halibut for dinner. In Stephen's Passage we passed our last piece of floating ice for this year.
We arose early on another beautiful morning with the intention of reaching Wrangell Narrows with favourable tides. This plan was turned on its head when we encountered hundreds of humpback whales. We stopped the boat in the flat calm sea and switched off the engines. All around us we could hear heavy breathing like enormous bellows. As we resumed our course south we continued to see even more whales. We bypassed Petersburg and navigated Wrangell Narrows without problem. The AIS showed Alaska State ferry behind us. We had been told that the volume of water moved by the propellers of these vessels almost sucked the channel dry so we were relieved to reach the southern end of the channel before he caught up with us. We anchored in Totem Bay where we had stopped on the way north. That night there was a beautiful sunset in perfectly still surroundings.
As on our northbound visit, we awoke the following morning to a mirror calm sea and a cloudless sky. We re-crossed Sumner Strait and went south down Ossipee Channel. In Clarence Strait I saw a big splash off in the distance which, using binoculars, I could see was a humpback whale breeching and lifting one long slender flipper out of the water and slapping it down but he was much too far away to photograph.
We turned into Thorne Bay and tied up at the small marina. We were surprised to find a thriving community of with a population of 600 and good road to Craig on the other side of Prince of Wales Island. It has a well-stocked grocery store and good communications with Ketchikan by float plane. On the dock we met a couple who had been working on their sailboat for 28 years. Although still not quite finished it was beautiful and they were close to completing this marathon project. They invited us on board for drinks and we invited them back on Venture. Somehow this grew into a party and we were soon joined by other boat owners as well as a few locals, including two women who had been fishing that day on an inland lake. One of them had been opportuned by a bear who fancied the five fish she had caught. When she exhibited a disinclination to part with them the bear backed off. She said that had he been a bit more assertive she would have handed them over without question!
We departed for Ketchikan the following day. It was not strictly necessary for us to stop there but we had never seen it when it wasn't raining so we felt we had better take advantage of this rare opportunity! We tied up in Bar Harbor and ate dinner out on the patio of the restaurant of the same name. We had never seen Ketchikan under these conditions and we spent a day in the town and even made use of the flying bridge!
It was now August and the following day we continued south in weather which had completely changed overnight with no advance warning. Low cloud shrouded the peaks but the sea was calm as we headed for Foggy Bay. Along the way we encountered a pod of Orcas which delayed us for a while but we entered the narrow entrance and anchored in Foggy Bay at 1335. There were six GB's rafted together hosted by Northwest Explorations out of Bellingham - just north of Seattle.
The next morning it became increasingly foggy but the waves in the open waters of Dixon Entrance were less than 2 feet and became glassy calm when we reached the lee of Dundas Island. We crossed the Canadian border around 0930 and tied up at Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club at 1325 (clocks went forward one hour here). Customs clearance was straightforward and no one came to the boat. Aft of us on the dock was a catamaran on which a French guy had sailed with his family from New Caledonia. Forward of us was a GB49 which I had designed back in 1979. The alternators on the main engines had again stopped charging and we picked up a replacement regulator flown in from Delta Marine.
The next portion of the journey took us down narrow Granville Channel along which we met the huge cruise ship Zuiderdam creaming north at 19.5 knots in a narrow section no more than 400 yards wide. This was certainly an intimidating and imposing sight. We anchored for the night in Coghlan Anchorage just around the corner from Hartley Bay.
We continued down Grenville Channel in very restricted visibility and we were glad that the conditions had not been like this the previous day when we had encountered the Zuiderdam. But the mist and sun created beautiful effects, leaving skeins of cloud hovering over the water and draped up the sides of the green mountains.
We anchored in Bottleneck where it was hot and sunny. We launched the inflatable kayaks and the big tender and toured the bay which we shared with a 27' sailboat. The sunset that night was a blaze of orange that lit the sky and reflected off the mountains.
Christine baked some muffins to give to the sailboat crew and we gave them some frozen meat. Their plans to re-provision in Klemtu but had been thwarted by a public holiday and they were running short of provisions.
We saw a Fleming 55 in Seaforth Channel just before Bella Bella while we were on our way to Ocean Falls which is something of a modern ghost town with an interesting history. In 1912, a dam was built to supply hydroelectric power to a pulp and paper mill which went on to become the largest in British Columbia. In its heyday, Ocean Falls had been home to around 3900 people, a K-12 school system, its own hospital, one of the province's largest hotels and a swimming pool where several swimming champions trained. The harbour was kept dredged for deep sea ships calling at the mill's paper warehouses and for freighters bringing supplies from Vancouver. Float planes arrived and departed every day.
By the early 1970"s, the mill, on which the town depended for it viability, was deemed uneconomic and the owners decided to close it down. In an attempt to preserve jobs, the provincial government bought the town and mill at a minimal cost and kept the mill operating until 1980 when they too had to admit defeat. Today, much of the town has been demolished, and many of the remaining buildings are in decay but Ocean Falls has survived as a residential community.
The harbour is well protected from most wind directions and there was plenty of dock space for local as well as visiting boaters. We went ashore and wandered around the town reflecting on the fate of what had once been a thriving community. We climbed up to the dam which continues to supply electrical power to the town and also to nearby Bella Coola.
We were now approaching Queen Charlotte Sound which, after Dixon Entrance, is the other section of the Inside Passage open to the Pacific Ocean. We closely monitored the weather forecast and headed for Kisameet Bay to put us within striking distance of open water. The anchorage was tight with a rocky bottom and we had to move to a different location around the corner to find good holding ground.
The forecast called for NW winds increasing during the day so we made an early start to round Cape Caution and we saw more humpbacks in Fitzhugh Sound. We heard a radio call to the Coastguard from a boater concerned about the small sailboat we had met in Bottleneck as they had not heard from them for several days. We were able to reassure them that they were in good shape when we had met them.
We rounded Cape Caution in almost dead calm conditions with just some long and easy ocean swells. We decided to keep going and cross Queen Charlotte Sound to the Vancouver island side because strong NW winds remained in the forecast. We anchored in Port Alexander on Nigel Island. Among the many boats already at anchor Chris spotted a small sailboat with Lunenburg as a hailing port. This was one of the places in Nova Scotia we had visited in Venture in 2008. Chris called them on radio and found out that, although they still live there and had sailed their boat all the way from the East Coast, they now keep the boat at Canoe Cove, adjacent to Delta on Vancouver Island, and cruise the West Coast.
The following morning we were underway early to make our way to Port McNeil Fuel Dock Marina. En route we encountered thick mist which continued the following day as we made our way to Pierre"s at Echo Bay for their famous Pig Roast whose popularity makes it very advisable to have a reservation. This time the theme was "Pirates" and I fashioned a pirate hat from Cheerio cereal boxes, a parrot out of the bug killer racquet and a hook from a potholder and glove. After dinner we went aboard Steel Tiger which was a commercial boat being converted (three years into a six month project) for their paraplegic son. The innovations included an elevator to allow a wheel chair to reach the pilothouse. Tove invited me next year to show one of my DVD"s and give a talk in exchange for free mooring and dinner!
Underway the next day, we spotted a Fleming 50 ahead of us. This turned out to be historic Fleming 50 Hull #001 - now named Sea Trial. We spoke on the radio and I was able to take photos of this venerable boat. By complete coincidence it turned out we were both heading for Port Harvey this evening. They pulled into the small marina just after us and we were able to go meet the owners and go aboard their vessel which appeared in excellent condition. Being aboard brought back many memories of the battle to get the first boat built. I took photos of 50-001 and 65-001 tied up at the same dock.
The owners of this small marina are George and Gail Cambridge. We enjoyed an excellent meal that night at their Red Shoe restaurant. Over time, a wide variety of red shoes of every description have been contributed by visitors and decorate the walls. We earned two free desserts because Louisa and Christine were both wearing red shoes!
George offered the free morning coffee to his guests because it gave him the opportunity to chat with his customers. He told me he had traveled all over the Middle East and Africa in the oil exploration business.
Low clouds and skeins of mist hung over Johnstone Strait and we had the tide against us so, at times, progress was as slow as 5 knots. We turned into Okisollo Channel and then through the upper and lower rapids which, because we had timed our arrival to be at high water slack, were no problem. We saw a Fleming 75 off in the distance but they were not on AIS and we could not determine which boat it was. We passed through the narrow channel past the Octopus Islands Marine Park and anchored in Waiatt Bay at 1530.
We were now in the area of Desolation Sound which is a prime cruising ground at this time of year. This was the busiest anchorage we had seen to date on the entire trip and I counted 21 boats with many more in the Octopus Islands but the anchorage was amazingly quiet considering the number of boats. A large tender came by with the people from the 75. Hull #5, "Dorado".
We awoke to a perfectly still, grey misty morning redolent with the scent of pine. The water was mirror calm creating perfect, upside-down reflections of the surrounding tree-clad mountains until a zephyr ruffled the surface and shattered the illusion. Rings of expanding circles, created by a jumping fish, spread out across the water while images of upside down birds flitted across the surface. A gull skimmed the surface, trailed by its reflection. Every sound carried across the water: the clatter of an anchor chain, a snatch of conversation, the plaintive cry of a loon. A sly mist drew a gauzy curtain across the horizon.
We left the anchorage by a different route, taking care to avoid the hidden rock lying in wait for the unwary. We turned into Hole in the Wall one half hour before slack. The water was still quite squirly which required the boat be hand steered as we were thrust back and forth. We encountered even greater numbers of boats today and radio chatter was non-stop. We had to keep altering course and slowing down for the many sailboats. We saw another Fleming 55 as we approached Prideaux Haven which was even more crowded.
The owner of an adjacent Offshore, who turned out to be a Fleming enthusiast, came over and offered us a chance to try out his Hobie paddle boat. We all had a go on this interesting craft which has a good turn of speed and leaves your hands free for fishing or photography.
A Nordic tug stopped by with the people we had met in Anacortes in May who had given us the book "Rowing to Alaska" about a couple in their sixties who had rowed a dory from Seattle to Ketchikan - a truly amazing feat.
We headed south down Georgia Strait past Bliss Landing where there were many large boats including a Fleming 78. It was overcast today with spots of rain and a wind blowing 20 kts on the nose. I started spaghetti sauce in the morning just to have it available should it be required which turned out to be fortuitous. Shortly after we had anchored in Pender Harbor just outside Garden Bay, we received a phone call from John McCulloch (who had chartered Venture twice before including last year when she filled the role of host boat for the tri yacht club cruise). John and his wife were at the Seattle Yacht Club outstation on a chartered GB 52 when they had seen us arrive and invited us all over to the GB for drinks. With a meal already in the (crock) pot we were able to invite them over to Venture for spaghetti dinner.
We were underway early in order to reach Porlier Pass at slack water. Brian Coverley from Delta Marine called and asked where we would be spending the night as Pam and Mick Bacich in Fleming 55, Mola Mola, were heading in our direction. We anchored in Montague Harbour at midday and I made another pork hot pot in case they should show up. Another good move as Pam and Mick duly arrived and we all had dinner on board Venture. We looked at their photos and I showed them mine. I was very jealous as Pam had some wonderful photos of bears while I had none! We had previously encountered Mola Mola in Wrangell Narrows, Alaska and the Sea of Cortez in 2008 as well as in Newport Beach, California which is their home port.
On August 16th 2013 we made our way to Delta and on this, the last day of our trip - in an area congested with numerous islands plus big ferries and many small boats - we found ourselves in the densest fog we had experienced on the entire journey. Finally, we arrived at Delta at 1155 after covering 3,724 nautical miles during which we had spent 41 nights at anchor and seen many wonderful sights.