Dutch Harbor to Kodiak




After the long passages the cruising could begin.  We planned to sail NE to Kodiak Island, some 700 miles away, stopping at a number of anchorages along the way, choosing different bays and coves from those in 2011, our last visit to this area.





Dutch Harbor is situated on the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian chain.  It is America's most westerly town, but with a population of only 4,000 residents it has more the feel of a village.  That is before you add a further 4,000 people who work in the fishing industry, based here.  For the past 24 years Dutch (as it is colloquially called) has been the number one fishing port for all of the USA, by catch size.  Last year they landed over 700 million lbs of fish and crab.  This means that fishing is very big business here.  Any one familiar with the popular with TV series 'The Deadliest Catch' will know all about Dutch Harbor and the Bering Sea crabbers that set out from the harbour where we were berthed for one week, after our arrival in Alaska from Nelson via Majuro in the Marshall Islands.








Dutch Harbor is not close to anything but uninhabited islands in the Aleutian chain, the North Pacific and the Bering Sea.  It is frontier territory - raw and remote – a community which exists for fishing.  For us it was a safe harbour for the 3 R's – rest, replenishment and repair.  It is a real joy to have a whole night in our bunks after so many days and nights of 2-3 hour naps.  With so many fishermen and women loading up large ocean-going fishing boats for weeks at a time, the shopping is surprisingly good.  There are two very well-stocked supermarkets and they are only fifteen minutes walk away, or six minutes on the bikes which we used on dry days, from the Small Boat Harbor where we were tied up.  Vicky in particular always finds it rather difficult buying food after so many weeks away from a large shop.  Fresh fruit, vegetables and bread are always first on the list.  The problem is that with so much choice, decisions are hard to make.  After a couple of days it is easier.





On the passage, eating mostly tinned and dried food, we had been dreaming about 'The Brunch'.  On our last visit three years ago, with our Dutch and French cruising friends – our final stop together – we had all been to the Grand Aleutian Hotel.  The 'All You Can Eat' Sunday Brunch was as good as we remembered it, with platefuls of waffles, bacon and eggs followed by even bigger platefuls of crab, salmon, halibut and salads.  And then there were the desserts.  We had both lost weight from all the cold sailing, so we did not hold back!


There were boat jobs to do too, of course.  On one of the bright days we did a little varnishing, there was a forehatch leak to sort out, engine oil to change and a new bottom bearing to replace on the steering.  With big fishing boats around there was no difficulty in finding an engineering workshop to replace the bearing.









There is no town laundrette in Dutch – each of the huge fish processing companies runs a laundry and everyone else has a machine in their house.  We had a very big bag of very dirty clothes.  Our problem did not last long, with locals who go out of their way to assist.  We biked to the Community Centre for a shower.  Talking to Carlos, one of the Managers there, he offered his home machine and drier for our washing;  the next day the laundry bag was smelling much sweeter;  as were we.  Most people never write about showering – it happens daily or more often for so many in the Western world.  That is until you step into the 'basics' of sailing or the great outdoors.  Standing under a hot shower, the first in eight and half weeks, with as much water as we wanted, was a blissful experience.  Afterwards with a body and hair that felt squeaky clean, in fresh-smelling clothes, everything seemed so different!  The tanks were topped up – diesel and water - and after eight days we were good to go.




The Aleutian Chain and the Alaskan Peninsula form an arc stretching NE towards Kodiak Island.  This arc is part of the Ring of Fire, one long chain of active volcanoes.  There are many earthquakes and many volcanic eruptions throughout this part of Alaska.  During June this year there are have been two such notable occurrences.  Pavlof Volcano, 8,200' high, had been smoking and sending an ash cloud into the sky.  Then later in June we heard a tsunami warning on VHF Channel 16.  Having been in Japan in March 2011, we took this pretty seriously.  There had been an 8.2 earthquake, near Amchitka Island, way west in the Aleutians.  We did not enter our nearby anchorage until we heard that the Kodiak area, where we were, had no tsunami advisory.




One snow-capped volcano gives way to a set of snowy peaks, followed by another perfectly rounded cone of snow, contrasting on a clear day against an azure blue sky.  We made this long trip to return to Alaska for this stunning scenery, the huge array of wildlife and the myriad of anchorages.  The State of Alaska is enormous;  it covers 586,000 square miles or 16% of the land area of the USA.  One of the smallest US states is Rhode Island;  425 of them would fit into Alaska.  Everything is large, high, deep and heavy here – distances, mountains, anchorages, bears, bald eagles and whales.  There are some smaller specials too – Dall's porpoises, puffins, rufous hummingbirds and sea otters.  And then there are the salmon.





As attractive as the volcanoes are to look at they do mess up the wind.  Cold air flows down the sides of the mountains accelerating as it falls to sea level.  Time and again we have felt these effects.  The winds increase, head, peak often at 35-45 knots, then die away completely for half an hour before returning, further aft but very strong again.  At times it seemed that the alternatives were  three reefs or the engine. We had seen very little shipping and nothing close-by across the whole of the Pacific.  It came as quite a shock to cross Unimak Pass with a continuous line of enormous container-carrying vessels, some over 100m long.  This is the main shipping route from the American west coast to Asia, taking the great circle route, passing to the north of the Aleutian Chain.  It seems way off course, but is the quickest way.



Agripina Bay on the Alaskan Peninsula was a rugged anchorage.  We were on our own, far away from anyone.  We had one lovely day with our first bear sighting by the river at the head of the bay, followed by a wet, cold, windy day.  The anchor was well dug in so we hunkered below, with the heater on, wearing hats and gloves to keep warm, reading and working on the computers.  As we headed east and the June days passed on, it did start to warm up.


The highlight of this section of cruising was Geographic Bay.  It is a stunning area in Katmai National Park.  It is composed of a series of bays set in a huge amphitheatre with high peaks and craggy escarpments.  Some cliffs were decorated with conifer trees even on almost vertical inclines with no soil.  The tops of other mountains were bare, brown rock faces with the odd dollop of left over winter snow, like a chocolate dessert with ice cream.  All cruisers in Alaska know of this harbour.  If you want to view brown bears this is the place to come.








We were rewarded with some excellent bear viewing.  We anchored in the eastern arm, but used the dinghy to explore other parts on the two sunny, calm days after a wet arrival.  We saw brown bears exploring the foreshore, turning over rocks to claw at limpets, pawing the sand to dig up clams, munching on green sedges and grasses, taking a bath in the sea water near the shore and the cubs frolicking in the undergrowth.  From some angles these animals look lumbering, awkward and heavy.  But then they romp away, clamber over a rocky ledge or gallop along the beach, sure-footed and agile.  They can move very quickly, swim fast and can climb trees.  We were always cautious.  But a well-fed bear is not likely to attack.  Mostly we were in the dinghy watching intently and photographing from some 15m away.





Puffins were with us along the Aleutian chain.  They look 'very smart' in a black and white costume, with a splash of colour, orange-red on their beaks and feet.  They swim with ease but look very ungainly as they try to take off.  The wings flap, the feet seem to run on the water, but not much happens.  Usually they just flop down some metres further on, never having achieved lift off.







The cutest of all the animal life in these waters are the sea otters.  They were nearly hunted to extinction by the Russian fur traders in the 19th century but have now recovered.  They were so prized by the fur traders, because of the warmth and density of their fur – one million hairs per square inch - the densest of any animal.  They really look sweet swimming backstroke in the water, at this time of year often with a small one, a pup, on Mum's chest.  They are one of very few animals that use a tool to get food.  Sea otters collect molluscs, urchins and crabs from the rocks and kelp, then use a small rock to break open the shell.  They are shy marine mammals, watching a boat intently as it comes closer, finally rolling over and diving under water to 'hide'.  They feed, sleep, breed and play wholly in salt water, never coming to land.



After nine anchorages and nineteen days we tied up in St Paul Harbor, in Kodiak.  This town is nearly double the size of Dutch Harbor and feels more 'civilised'.  Fishing is again the primary industry, but tourism is also important.  Kodiak is a cross-roads for cruisers.  Some have come north-east through SE Alaska from other west coast US States or from British Columbia.  Others have arrived in Kodiak after a longer passage from Hawaii.  A few have wintered here;  Kodiak is slightly warmer, or should we say slightly less cold, than the mainland ports.  Yet others, like us, have cruised in from the west.  On board Sunstone we have been cruising for seventeen years, so perhaps it is not surprising, that as well as making new friends, we find the old ones.  We had a social whirl in Kodiak!  We renewed our acquaintance with the now retired Harbor Master.  Marty and his wife Marion were our 'posties'.  We had mail sent to their home address here and Marty delivered it to the boat.  Tom Kelly had his yacht in the Harbor and took our lines as we docked.  We had been to his and Laura’s house for supper in 2011.  And then there were our cruising friends. 


Cruisers are by nature itinerant; they are used to saying good-bye.  When a serendipitous meeting occurs, usually in places thousands of miles from the previous encounter, there is a sense that everything is right in the world.  Over our six-day stay in Kodiak we met with three long-term cruisers.  We had last seen Bannister, with Hendrik and Hanna (Dutch), in Japan and the Aleutians in 2011.  Our last get-together with Nick and Jenny (Canadians) on Bosun Bird had been in the Bay of Islands, NZ, in December 2009.  Sunstone and Seal (with Hamish, UK and Kate, USA) had last shared an anchorage at Oban in Stewart Island, NZ, while we recovered during the Two-Handed Round New Zealand Race, March 2012, having just raced Leg 2 from Mangonui to Half Moon Bay.  As usual it was entertaining and fun to catch up with friends and swap cruising stories  and information to fill in the years since the last meeting.






At Sand Point in the Shumagin Islands, our third stop after Dutch Harbor, we tied up in front of Saliander, a New Zealand yacht flying a Silver Fern.  We had never met Pete and Raewyn from Auckland, but it did not take long, over some beers and supper, to know that we had a number of sailing friends in common.





Our short stay at Sand Point showed us again how local people go out of their way to assist visitors.  Tom was loaded down with two full jerry cans of diesel, tied together with a sail tie across his neck.  We were walking back from the diesel pumps along the road.  A local on his Quad Bike (ATV's here in the US) stopped, told Tom to load the jerry cans on the back, and asked, "Is it the jetty at the Harbor that you want these taken?"




Alaska is full of fishing boats and during the summer months, June to September, salmon is the catch for all these boats be they gill netters or seiners.  Most people, out side of Alaska will just say 'salmon' perhaps distinguishing wild salmon from farmed.  In Alaska there is no farmed salmon, only wild, but there are five different sub-species.  From our first visit back in 2002, we got to know these five types - and know what we liked to eat.


Just to be more confusing each species has two names.  The most prized for size and for the 'real' sports fishermen are chinook or king salmon.  This variety has a high oil content and is valued for smoking.  Next comes sockeye or red, preferred by some to the kings at the table.  Third down the list are coho or silvers.  Pink or humpies are the most numerous salmon and those that are primarily used in the canning industry.  At the bottom come the chum or dog salmon, so called because Native American Indians fed them to their dogs.  We are lucky to have eaten kings, sockeye and cohos – not from our own catches but from the generosity of local fishermen here in Alaska.  Once you have tasted the real thing, supermarket farmed salmon just will not do.





Our stop just before sailing into Kodiak town was in a small cove, Kitoi Bay, on Afognak Island just to the north of Kodiak Island.  Here there is a salmon hatchery.  The Kitoi Hatchery is run as a private, non-profit organisation.  They breed pinks, chum, coho and sockeye salmon to supplement the wild stocks.  Over a season they will incubate and release 230 million salmon!  All salmon have an instinct to return to the last fresh water, before they first swam into salt water.  Around 13 seasonal workers assist the eight full-time staff, every year, in collecting the salmon sperm and eggs for the next fertilization and incubation process.  We were told that 25 million eggs can be collected in five hours here!  For four weeks or so, when the salmon run is on, the staff work every high tide, day and night.


Not all the released salmon will return – many will be eaten by other fish, whales, sea lions, seals and bears, but the expectation is that some 11.5 million pinks will swim back into Kitoi Bay, where seiners will be hard at work taking their catch, to sell to the canneries so we can buy tinned salmon.  And some of it all started here in this hatchery as well as the natural cycle in thousands of other streams and rivers throughout Alaska. One of the essential facts of the Alaskan food chain is that all the salmon which reach fresh water to breed, then die having done so, thus feeding the rest of the food chain.




We treated ourselves in Kodiak – perhaps there was a justification, it was Tom's birthday.  With our friends Hendrik and Hanna we all boarded a floatplane and took a flight across Kodiak Island on a bright, sunny, clear day.  It was magnificent looking down on the mountainous terrain, even flying between the craggy tops and viewing anchorages we had sailed into, from above.  Mark landed the floatplane on Frazer Lake in the south and we walked 1 kilometre to the bear-viewing sight.  We had seen bears before, now we saw more, including a sow and three two-year old cubs.  The three cubs looked like ‘teddies’ from a distance and were certainly getting plenty of attention from Mum, catching salmon in the river leading to the Lake, playing hide and seek, with a short nursing session too.  Kodiak Island boasts the largest sub-species of brown bear and the mother bear here was big.  Contrary to most people's ideas the 'grizzlies’ found in the interior of Alaska are a smaller species of brown bear.








We feel privileged to be in the wilds of Alaska, on board Sunstone, doing what we love to do – sailing in remote places, with scenic mountainous and water views, observing wildlife close-up.  The next stage of our cruising will take us to Seward and Prince William Sound before a passage across the Gulf of Alaska to Juneau and SE Alaska.