2017 Cruise to Prince William Sound - Part Three
We spend six days in Cordova and, 23 days later, we are back and I am sending this - the first of two blogs - from the same place. This pleasant town depends on fishing for its prosperity. We are very fortunate to have made some good friends here and it is due to their generosity that myself and new crew member, David, find ourselves aboard a local bow picker to see how these boats are used for salmon fishing. Robert, the boat's owner, picks us up from Venture's slip at 5 AM on July 10th and we wend a winding course over the shallow flats to the fishing grounds. Although the course is generally well marked, local knowledge is recommended as the channels are unreliable and vary over time. We see numerous otters floating on their backs as we speed at 20 knots over the calm waters. Today's opening is among a group of low-lying islands fringing the Gulf of Alaska. The landward horizon presents an imposing wall of snow-capped mountains.
The 36 hour opening starts at 0700 and the moment the second hand reaches its zenith, the first nets hit the water. Bow pickers are designed to be operated by one person and, according to the rules - because David and myself are not licensed - we are not allowed to help but must remain strictly spectators. As soon as the boats appear on scene, seals and gulls recognize the signs and join the party. Seals especially, are a fisherman's bête noir as they patrol the nets helping themselves to ensnared fish like uninvited guests at a buffet.
The net, about 100 fathoms (600 feet) long, is deployed in a line with a red buoy at each end and a string of yellow and white floats along its length. The net is pulled tight with the boat and towed into a curve to increase its effectiveness. Robert's boat is propelled by a water jet which allows him to drive directly over the net. He uses this feature to harass a persistent seal which nonchalantly dives out of the way before resuming his pillaging.
After about an hour, the net is reeled in and the salmon, trapped by their gills, are disentangled and dropped into a tank of salt water before being slid into a fish hold with ice and chilled water. The day's catch is taken to a larger vessel called a tender which issues a receipt in the form of a fish ticket. The tenders take the fish to the processing plants in Cordova.
The first set is disappointing so Robert moves the boat to a different location which proves more rewarding. While he continues fishing for the full 36 hours, David and myself are picked up directly from the boat by a float plane with Louisa and Rachel already aboard. The pilot flies us inland and we are able to appreciate the immense scope of the Copper River Delta. Flying up river we see where the bridge has been swept away at mile 36 and then, further on, the so-called Million Dollar bridge which had dropped a span in the 1964 earthquake. This was repaired at great expense but, sadly, the work was rendered moot by the subsequent breach at mile 36.
We fly between immense, snow clad mountains and over Childs and Sheriden glaciers before landing on Eyak Lake at the Cordova Air terminal.
The following day we leave Cordova to continue our tour of Prince William Sound. On our way to the Naked Islands we alter course for the Island Princess on her way to Whittier. This is the very same ship Louisa and myself took from LA to Panama last November. Because of their name, I had imagined the Naked Islands be treeless but they turn out to be just as heavily forested as everywhere else.
We are underway at 0910 on a calm, sunny morning. We travel south along the east side of Knight Island to a rocky pinnacle dubbed the Needle which we circle from a distance while I take photos and video of the sea lions. The water is glassy calm although there is some swell from the nearby ocean. We have visited here twice before, in 2013 and 2015, and, today, there are noticeably less animals than previously. At 1607, we anchor in West Arm, Bay of Isles on Knight Island.
We spend two nights in this calm and beautiful anchorage and make good use of both large and small tenders as well as the kayaks to explore the shoreline. We see many salmon waiting for high tide to enter shallow streams, overlooked by bald eagles perched in the trees waiting to pounce.
We are underway at 0922 and travel north up the east coast of Knight Island then through Lower Pass to the west side en route to Barnes Cove where we have arranged to meet Bruce who we had first met in Prince William Sound in 2013. We turn into Drier Bay and then Barnes Cove which we judge to be one of the most beautiful anchorages in the Sound. There millions of small jellyfish in the water and we spot a black bear on the shore.
We spend three nights in this lovely spot. We see two more bears roaming the shoreline mostly browsing on grass and we conclude that at least three bears roam the shores of this bay. We undertake expeditions to various parts of Drier Bay including into Northeast Cove where there are at least four rivers overlooked by tall mountains. Many otters and seals are hauled out on rocks but all are very wary and would not allow us to come within 1/4 mile. It is depressing and a shame that they have learned from experience that humans are such a lethal species.
Bruce and his party arrive in the afternoon - having started this morning from Anchorage which is one hour drive from Whittier. Bruce has a 30' boat which he cruises around 25 knots so he can comfortably reach the more remote areas of the Western Sound in just a few hours.
We decide to stay for a third night to allow Bruce's party to join us on board Venture for a spaghetti dinner.
We are underway at 0805. We pass Flemming Island and down Bainbridge Passage to Bainbridge glacier. This is no longer a tidewater glacier and is separated from the Sound by a ridge covered with vegetation. A fast running stream carries water coming from the glacier to the sea. It looks as though it should be possible to make a landing and walk to the face of the glacier but we receive a VHF call from Bruce to tell us that whales are active at Elrington Island so we move on. At first we see only distant blows but later spot a pair of whales feeding very close to the shore. We also come across a dead whale with a young Bonapart Gull sitting on top of the floating carcass. We anchor in Whale Bay at 1648.
Today we push our way through floating ice to reach Chenega Glacier and spend several hours staring at its face waiting for calving. We turn Venture's stern to the glacier to obtain an unobstructed view of its entire face and to provide some protection from the mizzle floating on the breeze which condenses onto the camera lens. While we wait, David retrieves some clear, 400 year old, glacier ice to cool our cocktails. There are numerous seals hauled out on ice floes. We finally leave at 1420 when encroaching mist obscures the glacier face. We anchor in Masked Bay, Chenega Island, at 1608. Bad weather is forecast and we spend two nights here before tackling the open waters of the Sound.
Under improved conditions we make our way to Whittier. We pass many fishing boats en route - clear evidence of a fish opening. Rain continues to fall all day but clears up in the evening. The wind has dropped. We stop first at the fuel dock and take on 1,415 US gallons. This is the first fuel we have taken on since leaving Juneau 1,016 nautical miles away. There is a long waiting list for the two marinas in Whittier so both of them are packed. We are instructed to tie up alongside a tour boat "Discovery" at 1600. He is leaving dock at 10.30 tomorrow. While at the fuel dock, an Asian guy who runs a local restaurant comes down to the boat. He is a Fleming enthusiast and recognizes the boat. That evening we eat at his restaurant and after the meal he and a younger guy, Cody, come down to the boat and I show them around. They are full of questions, wax enthusiasm and do not leave until 10.15!
The next blog will describe the second half of our time in Prince William Sound - from Whittier back to Cordova.