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Kodiak to Sidney

 

Our arrival in Kodiak coincided with the start of the commercial salmon fishing season. Yet the Harbor was packed with 'seiners', the 42' boats which, in combination with their powerful 20' skiffs, use purse seines to scoop up salmon. A good haul in one of the many inlets around Kodiak and Shelikov Strait to the west might be 20,000 pounds of fish. With hauls this size, clearly a difference of even a few cents per pound can make a big difference to fishermen's incomes. The reason the boats hadn't yet started work is that they were striking against the price offer from the canneries. Apparently this is an annual ritual.

While learning about the salmon fishery we also managed to recuperate from our long trek from NZ. Marty, the Harbormaster, and his wife Marion (amazingly, the gardening correspondent for the local newspaper!) kindly helped with fish, hospitality and the loan of a car to explore a bit. Having been TV-less for 30 years, we launched ourselves into the technology of the new millenium by watching a couple of rented films on DVD on the new computer. With the help of several locals we also tried to make a start on planning our cruise up the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula and into Prince William Sound. We would have liked to spend more time exploring Kodiak. However, the local wisdom - later proved correct - is that you need to be south of Dixon Entrance and into Canada by mid-September. Despite a fairly early arrival, this gave us only three months cruising time in a huge and varied area. Something had to give.

As a result, we stopped only twice on our way to the Kenai. In doing so, we met Ed and Britta, whose life may not be typical of rural Alaskans generally, but is a kind of model for the Alaskan life style. Their house, guest house and a growing number of out-buildings on a promontory overlooking Whale Island, are all built by Ed from timber he has cut and machined himself. They fish, hunt and grow much of their own food. They are neither completely isolated nor completely self-sufficient, but by contemporary standards, instant communication and gratification touch them very little. Ed's 'Internet Site' is a shed at the head of his dock - full of fishing nets.

 

From Seal Bay on the northern shore of Afognak Island, Kodiak's neighbour, we headed for Tonsina Cove on the Kenai. Four years previously we had met fellow OCC members, Bill & Jane McLaren on 'Vagrant of Clyde' in Newport, Rhode Island. We met again at Tonsina in the way of the passing meetings of the cruising global village. We drank in the shortest night of the year with tumblers full of Chateau 'Carton' and drank it out with tumblers of Scotch. Tonsina was Tom's introduction to the pleasures of Alaskan anchoring. Certainly his determination to remain windlassless was heavily challenged. Locals from Seward speak casually of anchoring in 120' of water with shortish lengths of chain and lots of nylon. Using normal scope is out of the question, as the boat would swing a circle about a quarter of a mile in diameter. All this took some getting used to, especially as we had to weather 40-50 knots winds in our third anchorage on the Kenai at Midnight Cove. Fortunately our two-anchor system worked well here and we moved not an inch despite being battered by 50+ knot williwaws. Yes, Alaskan weather, even in summer, is pretty volatile. Much of the time it is gray and murky, but when the winds come light from the north, everything clears magically and you can see snowy peaks 60 - 70 miles away.

Taz Basin on the western side of Granite Island is a natural, cliff-bounded amphitheatre, entered through a kelp-strewn, 30' wide gap. Entering in calm weather is no problem, but is still a bit of a gamble; if westerly swell gets up, your stay could be much longer than planned. Given the 100' depths, it isn't realistic to swing to an anchor, so we put out a stern line, a NZ practice we find ourselves using more and more. We shared anchorages at Tonsina, Midnight and Taz with 'Perspective'. Dave, Karen and their two children, Daniela and Jaden, seemed to us quite a typical Alaskan family. Though they live in the only big city, Anchorage, they get out in the wilds all they can, sailing, kayaking and hiking, much of the time 'bush-bashing' their way along bear tracks. Even in unpleasant conditions the whole family was cheerful and upbeat, always game for new experiences and learning from each one. It was a pleasure to get to know them.

One of the experiences you go to Alaska for is viewing glaciers. Our first such experience was in Northwestern Fiord. Most Alaskan glaciers have receded considerably from their furthest points of advance, where they deposit a terminal moraine, a reef of gravel and rocks. Sometimes these are completely dry with marsh and forest behind. However, for the tidewater glaciers, which are the ones you can sail to, there is usually a lagoon behind the terminal moraine, accessed through a pass of varying depth and width, with no navigational marks and often a very strong tidal flow.

Once your heart-rate has settled a bit after the challenge of the moraine channel, you can start worrying about the ice which becomes steadily thicker as you work toward the glacier. Tidewater glaciers are constantly calving bits of ice, much of it in the form of small avalanches of brash ice. Most of this is no danger even to our varnish work, though a few pieces can be big enough to make a nasty dent. The next size up are growlers, which should definitely not be hit at speed, but which can be pushed very gently and slowly out of the way if necessary. 'Bergy bits' should be avoided and it is best to stay well away from actual bergs, which can be very unstable in summer when they are melting quite quickly. Working through all this ice is a slow process unless you have a very robust metal hull. We had considered fitting a sacrificial bow grace to save the wood and varnish, but on good advice from several locals decided against it. We wouldn't have got any closer to glaciers with one. Usually the ice is either spread out enough to pick your way through or packed so tightly that pushing through would be bound to cause damage. Having gathered our first bucketful of glacier ice for evening rums, we ended up spending the evening in the convivial company of local cruisers at Bulldog Cove, while cruiser children roasted marshmallows over a driftwood fire in the dying sunlight at 2330.

 

 

 

By rural Alaskan standards, Seward (pop. about 2500) is a big place. During the summer it gets even bigger, more than double in fact, because two huge cruise ships add their thousands, changing each day. We were also there for the 4th of July, when Seward stages the Mount Marathon Race. Men, women and juniors run up the steep 3000' mountain and slide most of the way down on the scree-lined slopes. The men's record for this crazy race is 43 minutes. This was a bit less than the time it took us to climb halfway up four days previously. Tom then sensibly chickened out, while Vicky courageously (foolishly?) went on to the top in the company of a veteran. For quite a few Alaskans, the race is a bit of 'fun', which first-timers have to pay up to $900 to enter. Lots of Alaskans are tough. Even the cruising guide we later used for Prince William Sound required interpretation when referring to 'easy' hikes, which turned out to be orienteering nightmares through dense bush and over steep rock faces.

After the excitement of the 4th of July celebrations it was a dramatic change to sail into the peace and isolation of Prince William Sound (PWS). Though most of the local cruisers also head for PWS, you'd never know it. Once through the channels at the western end, there were hardly any sailing yachts in evidence and only very few power boats and commercial fishing craft. Partially this is because even these few boats are so dwarfed by the scenery as to be almost unnoticeable. You might see a small white boat against a green, snow-dappled mountainside some distance away. A quick glance with the binoculars reveals that it is a monstrous P&O cruise ship. Even these leviathans make little impact. At weekends there are a few more boats out fishing, but we rarely had to share our anchorages.

Both the 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill had devastating affects on PWS, its environment and wildlife. For the one-time visitor, there is no obvious evidence of either, but locals say that the wildlife of the Sound particularly has not recovered to its earlier levels. Nevertheless, with the salmon running - and in some streams even climbing over each others' backs - there was plenty of wildlife to watch. There were flocks of bald and golden eagles, sea lions and seals, lots of sea otters, often mothers with pups precariously balanced on their tummies. Though we had seen whales and Orcas on our way to PWS, we saw very few in the Sound itself, though one Humpback whale off Knight Island made up for this with a spectacular display of repeated breaching. We even had two completely unexpected visits from rufous hummingbirds, which are apparently regular summer visitors to the area.

 

 

Though Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska is the usual destination for viewing rivers of ice on the move, in fact PWS has far more and more spectacular glaciers. The whole western rim of the Sound is littered with them, so our three weeks was punctuated by icy intervals. Nellie Juan Glacier hides in a dog-legged valley behind a large berg-filled lagoon, which is too shallow to enter except with a dinghy or kayak. We parked 'Sunstone' in a delightfully intimate anchorage entered through a cleft in the rocks to the east of the lagoon. Having failed twice to walk round the lagoon to the glacier, we took the dinghy in through the pass, dodging the grounded bergs. With an active glacier like Nellie Juan, there is constant calving, with occasional large swells sent out into the lagoon and a brisk down-slope wind off the ice. In our dink we didn't dare get too close, but it was still pretty impressive. About a week later, we visited Barry Glacier further north. It was a calm, though grey, day, so as we drifted slowly through the brash ice about 500-600 yards from the glacier face, we could hear the constant groaning and tension of the ice as it shifted and broke, moving steadily toward the water. From a little further away you get a truer impression of the huge natural forces at work, because you can see the immense snowfield high above the glacially carved valley where the cracked and wrinkled surface of the ice makes its way to the fiord.

Our visits to glaciers alternated with idyllic wooded anchorages, with evocative names, Seven Fathom Hole, Snug Cove and West Twin. In most, we were anchored in the shadow of steep mountains patched with snowy valleys, but in others we tied shore lines to trees on small islands. With the large tidal range in Alaska, we met with reversing tidal falls from lagoons at the head of anchorages like Ewan Bay. Toward low tide there would also be a great gathering of fish-feeding wildlife along the banks of the salmon streams which fed most coves. Each day Vicky would go on 'bear alert', hoping to spot bears catching a meal. Unfortunately the bears refused to cooperate until we reached Long Bay on the north shore of the Sound. Though she paid a heavy price in bug bites, she returned triumphant after a row to the head of the Bay, having watched a young black bear catch his dinner, surrounded by wheeling gulls and bald eagles.

The three towns on PWS are functional places. Valdez is primarily an oil terminal, where supertankers load up from the southern end of the TransAlaska pipeline. Though it has a population of only about 200, Whittier, at the western end is a primary supply port for Anchorage to which it is linked by rail and more recently by road. It was also originally a military base and thus almost the entire population is housed in a single 14 storey tower block, dropped down in the wilderness.

 

 

The third town, Cordova, is different. Though it is also a one-function town, in this case fishing, it is so isolated that it is a much more integrated and lively community. Despite its frontier atmosphere, there is wide-spread devotion to arts and crafts and a very interesting and hardy group of live-aboards who endure the fierce winter in the marina. Through the generosity of one couple we borrowed a car for the drive along the gravel track through the Copper River Delta. As the name indicates the area was heavily mined at one time, but is also an extremely important wetland habitat and one of the richest salmon fishing grounds in the Pacific. Despite the threat of rising flood waters, we made it to the end of the 50 mile road, where 'Million Dollar Bridge' crosses the Copper River. The Bridge was built at high speed in very adverse conditions to carry copper ore back from the mines. In the '64 earthquake one span collapsed and the image of the broken bridge has become something of a symbol for Alaskans. A mile walk from the bridge along the River took us to the bank opposite the Childs Glacier, the face of which rises 300 feet above the water, no more than 200 yards away. Bergs regularly calve into the river below. Virtually no where else in Alaska can you get so close to the face of an active glacier. A sign on the bank near where we stood warned that waves occasionally, but regularly, washed over the bank to a depth of ten or fifteen feet. We didn't stay too long.

PWS was such a fascinating cruising area that we spent longer there than we first intended. As the end of July approached we realised that we would have to press on if we were to get south of Dixon Entrance by early September. Alaskans have two favorite bits of water with which to threaten visitors with doom and destruction. In this case, they are the northern Gulf of Alaska and Dixon Entrance, at the southern end of the SE Alaska Panhandle. Both stretches of water are capable of producing really vile conditions, but in settled, summer weather, they can also be delightful - or even flat calm. The latter was the case for our passage from our last PWS stop, Garden Cove, to Elfin Cove, our first stop in SE. Not only was it calm, but sparklingly clear for much of the time, giving us a wonderful view of the spectacular mountains which plunge from snowy summits at over 15,000 feet, directly into the sea, with huge glaciers in the broad valleys which punctuate the peaks. The down-side of the passage was having to motor all the way. There are good reasons that most of the cruisers in Alaska are in power boats. When there is wind there is usually too much, and the rest of the time there is little or none.

Though it was hardly crowded by the standards of the Chesapeake, in SE we had to get used to more traffic than we had seen for some time. Cruising boats were still fairly rare, but commercial salmon trollers were everywhere, in addition to the occasional 'seiner'. The compensation for this was the friendliness and generosity of the fishermen. The busyness of the sounds and channels was accented by the frequent presence of whales - not shyly giving you a far away spout, but popping up within a few boat lengths and putting on great shows of breaching and tail-lobbing. The huge Stellers Sealion bulls almost looked like whales at times. Harbour seals rolled their huge eyes at us in every anchorage and a huge pod of Orcas ambled by outside Elfin Cove.

On the spur of the moment, we persuaded Tom's sister, Inge, to join us for the thirteen days of our visit to Glacier Bay and cruise to Sitka down the west side of Baranof Island. Alaska's capital, Juneau, where Inge joined us, is saved by the grandeur of its setting from being completely overwhelmed by the huge cruise ships which disgorge thousands of passengers every day. The growth in the 'cruise industry' has made a big difference to Alaska's economy. However, the numbers of visitors threatens to detract from the attractiveness of what they've come to see. When we climbed up Mt. Roberts, which rises above and behind the town, we felt a sense of achievement as we approached the tree line, about two thirds of the way up - until we discovered that since the hiking guide we were using was published, a tramway had been built to take less energetic visitors painlessly to the view. Access to Glacier Bay National Park is carefully controlled, to ensure that its grand but also delicate environment and wildlife are not disrupted by too many visitors. Though we had 'mixed' weather during our five days in the Bay, we were fortunate to have two good days for visiting first Reid and then Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers.

 

 

After showers at Elfin Cove we headed down the offshore coast. Very few cruisers venture beyond the shelter of the Inside Passage. This leaves idylic places like Portlock Harbour to those of us who like a little seclusion, where we can have anchorages to ourselves and watch deer grazing at the waterside. To put a final energetic polish on Inge's Alaskan tour, we took in the sights of Sitka, including its interesting and well set-out Totem Pole Park, and climbed one of the smaller mountains behind the town. The climb was in perfect weather for heights-challenged Tom; by the time we reached the tree-line and 'good' views, the mist had closed in. Sadly, Inge had to fly out from Sitka. On the up-side, we had failed to fulfil our promise of feeding her entirely on tinned food throughout her stay.

18 August saw us heading for the tidal swirls and eddies of Sergius Narrows, the shortcut from Sitka to the Inside Passage and the usual cruiser route south. With only three weeks or so to our target date to get to Prince Rupert, south of Dixon Entrance, we set out to cover some miles. The further south we went the harder the rains came. By the time we reached Ketchikan on 1 September, there had been over a foot of rain in the previous two weeks, but then they do have 160 inches a year! Despite the rain, we did enjoy exploring Petersburg and Wrangell, as well as the pilotage, some of it fairly challenging, through the channels and narrows in between. If sailing is rare on the inner waters of Alaska, then the inner channels of Canada were never intended for sailing at all. Though very scenic, with splendid mountains lining the narrow channels, the route is beset with strong tides and funneling winds or none at all. We puttered south every day. Unfortunately it is essential to hand-steer for all this motoring because of the risk of hitting logs, which are everywhere.

 

 

We had set the trip log of our GPS to zero when we left New Zealand in mid-March. It turned from 9999.9 back to zero as we sailed into Port Hardy exactly six months later. The timing was just right. We were tired, a little 'cruised out' and ready to take things a bit easier. To suit our mood, the weather grew gradually more benign as we moved south. The whirlpools and rapids at Dent and Yuculta turned out to be rather less fierce than threatened. By the time we reached Desolation Sound, a genuine Indian Summer had set in. We realised that once we settled down at Sidney, just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, it was unlikely that we would do much cruising until spring. We decided to take advantage of the pleasant Autumn weather to visit Vancouver first, take a quick swing through the San Juan Islands and down to Port Townsend in Washington State. On 2 October, we sailed into Port Sidney, tied up securely to the dock and temporarily cut the webs from between our toes. 'Sunstone' gave a long sigh of relief.

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