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SE ALASKA

 

 

Alaska is by far the largest state in the USA, with around 90% of the land area to the north west of what is referred to as SE Alaska. The Panhandle, commonly just called 'South East', is one small section stretching 500 miles from Skagway in the north, to just south of Ketchikan. It is primarily made up of islands with a thin mainland strip before the land mass becomes Canadian British Columbia. When sailors talk about cruising in Alaska, it is usually this part they are referring to also called The Inside Passage. It is possible to sail, or more likely motor, along channels, sounds and straits without venturing near the open ocean, except to cross the Dixon Entrance and enter Canadian waters.

 

The small towns in SE all have fishing as their mainstay, except for Juneau. Juneau is the State capital, although with a population of only 32,000 it hardly rivals Anchorage at 300,000. We could not help but to make the comparison with Wellington chosen because of its central location to the State/country with all the offices of government and the headquarters of some larger companies.

 

 

 

 

 

Juneau is also a mecca for cruise ships. Throughout the summer it frequently hosts four large 'blocks of flats', disgorging up to 12,000 passengers into the city! The centre of the town is crowded with tourist shops, along narrow, winding streets. The backdrop is hills and there are many opportunities for hiking. When we visited in 2002, we hiked Mount Roberts up behind the city. Vicky had bought a tramping book from a second-hand bookshop, which helped us find the route, commencing from the end of a street in town. The walk was steep and moderately strenuous, through lovely cedar forest. After some 4 kilometres and 60 minutes, we were panting a little from our exertions. We saw two people. They were somewhat overweight wearing sandals. A minute later we saw six more like the first two. We had seen no-one on our climb up. We actually wondered how these people had managed to hike up the trail they did not look very fit. Another 100 metres and our question was answered. Our tramping book was very old; a tramway had been built since it was published! The tramway starts about 50 metres from the cruise ship dock and whisks passengers up the 1,800 feet to Mount Roberts in five minutes. Of course most of those who head up on the tramway busy themselves in the restaurant and gift shop. We took in the wonderful views along Gastineau Channel way below and then walked down, without seeing another soul!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking back on our cruising in South East this year, we experienced many contrasts - weather, channels, scenery and harbours. There was one constant: humpback whales; whales breeching, whales feeding, whales sounding. In Cross Sound to the north we saw whales breeching. This is an amazing sight. Humpback whales, weighing in at 25 to 40 tons, launch themselves out of the water, twisting in the air and slamming down to make a big splash. Scientists speculate on the reason for this display but there are no definitive answers. It could be to dislodge barnacles from their skin, to communicate with other whales or just for play. The latter seems like a reasonable explanation. Humpbacks need to consume nearly half a ton of food daily, mostly tiny krill. They often feed along a shore, gently rolling along, taking in mouthfuls of prey-laden sea water, that is 'sieved' using the baleen strainers in their mouths. As they roll along the surface the whales send up spouts from their two blowholes, their nostrils. After some minutes on the surface things change. The whale arches its back, lifts its flukes high and takes a deep dive it has sounded. It may then stay down for 5 to 10 minutes. The high tail is a lovely sight.

 

 

 

Our first stop after crossing the Gulf of Alaska from Prince William Sound was Elfin Cove. It is a delightful place, busy in the three summer months, but with only 12 permanent residents in the winter. Its very special feature is that the community lives around a boardwalk, on the edges of a few small rocky islands. To walk around the village takes about five minutes, most of it on the circular boardwalk. The dock is busy with fishermen in the salmon season, berthing three of four deep, and the Lodges are busy with recreational fishermen coming for a holiday to catch salmon and halibut that frequently weigh in at 100-250 lbs/60-100 kgs. We chatted to fishermen, took in a beer at the local bar, watched the float planes land and take off bringing new guests and stores for the well-stocked local shop, watched a large halibut being skilfully filleted and made use of the full range of facilities, showers, laundry and slow Internet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little further on we took in more stunning views from Inian Cove and then into Icy Strait where we stopped for three nights at Hoonah, the largest settlement of the Tlingit Native Indian Tribe. Over the past few years the town has prospered from visits by cruise ships, which anchor off and bring the passengers ashore in the lifeboats. We decided on some biking exercise. We teamed up with some Alaskans, for a day out. Don and Kathleen work and live in Juneau and also have a cabin in Hoonah. We loaded our bikes to join theirs, on the 30' motor boat and sped south from Hoonah into the forested 'interior' of Chichagof Island. Don works for the US Forest Service and knows all about the logging roads in the vicinity. He was also a great 'tour guide' and we learnt much about the vegetation and wildlife in the area. He frequently goes on hunting trips - shooting deer, moose and caribou.

 

 

From a small dock deep in Neka Harbor we all set off on our bikes. The old logging road was in good condition, with only a few small inclines. Our destination was amazing. Deep in the forest, near a small river in a clearing, Don knew there was a hot tub! On went our bathers and after the 13km ride we could all soak in the hot springs water. It was so relaxing. Don had even packed a bottle of red wine, just to add to the sybaritic occasion. Of course we had to ride the 13km back again but our muscles were well relaxed by then. Bradley, Don's Labrador, ran all the way there and back, expending way more energy than the bikers. We might have seen brown bear feeding on the salmon in the rivers as the fish struggled upstream. On this occasion we did not, but there was evidence of recent bear activity crushed grasses and scat. We arrived back in Hoonah in late afternoon to show our new friends around Sunstone and then to dine with them at their cabin on moose bolognaise. One moose keeps them in meat for nearly two years.

 

 

 

 

We remember a lot of rain in SE. The first few days were sunny; the next twelve gave us only one dry day. And it was not just showers; it was heavy, continuous rain. All the towns in SE broke records for daily rainfall over second weekend in August! For some of those rainy days we were in Juneau being tourists. This included some beer tasting. Our favourite beer in these parts is Alaskan Amber and we felt it important that we should check out the nine other varieties at the Alaskan Brewing Company brewery. Motor-sailing with a low cloud base, in Sunstone's exposed cockpit, peeling off dripping oilskins late in the afternoon, is not much fun! A large part of cruising in these waters is to marvel at the scenery. There is not much to see with only half a mile visibility a cloud base at 100 metres. As we headed south, the weather cheered up and we ended our time in SE with a long run of sunny days, although we had to contend with thick fog on some mornings.

 

 

 

On our SE Alaskan cruise in 2002, we had ventured more on the outside in the northern part and took the inside channels further south. We did the opposite this year. Some of the inside straits and sounds are wide, some are narrow; they all have majestic scenery with high snow-capped or glacier-speckled mountains nearby, when you can see that high. The cruise ships take the more inside route and it was not uncommon to see two or three every day. In some Alaskan harbours, even when there is no township, there may be a Public Float to which any vessel can tie up for free. Taku Harbor, our first wet stop after Juneau had one, along with an old cannery whose buildings and old pier were slowly returning wood to the soil.

 

 

 

 

 

We felt quite at home where Stephens Passage became Frederick Sound, passing close to islands called The Brothers and Five Fingers! That evening we tied up in Petersburg fishing harbour. There was something fishy outside a pungent smell and many fishing boats landing their catch at one of the four large canneries! Petersburg is known for fishing and for its Norwegian connections. It was founded in 1897 by Peter Buschmann, who persuaded some of his Norwegian friends to follow him to make a living out of fishing in Alaska. A glance at the telephone directory reveals the strong Norwegian heritage. To us it seemed like a prosperous place with a neat and tidy main street sporting Scandinavian flags. Next to the large community building overlooking the harbour is a replica Viking Ship with a memorial statue for all fishermen.

 

 

 

 

 

Leading to or away from Petersburg is the winding, shallow and partly dredged cut, named Wrangell Narrows. It has some 67 navigational aids along its 20-mile way, so it is pretty easy to follow the route. At night it is called 'Christmas Tree Lane' for all its blinking red and green lights! Cruise ships cannot transit this waterway so Petersburg lives without the thousands of daily visitors. Perhaps that is what makes it a 'nicer' feeling town. It was dampish again as we motored south ticking off the markers down the Narrows. Out into Sumner Strait at the bottom, we emerged into a wide calm piece of water and we experienced something we had missed for so many days. We reached for the 'sunnies', the sun had re-appeared.

 

The contrasts continued as we emerged from the Wrangell Narrows, just south of Petersburg into Sumner Strait. Here we separated from the traditional Inside Passage Route to take a more winding route down the west side of the large, highly indented Prince of Wales Island. We were still protected from the Pacific Ocean by a series of smaller islands further west but we were more exposed. The 'fairy tale', our worldwide description for the weather forecast, was beginning to tell a sunnier, calmer story. And as they might say in a fairy tale 'so it came to pass'. The next ten days gave us plenty of sunshine, winds from behind or very light airs. The one addition to sunny days is often early morning fog. And we did have to contend with this for a few hours on a couple of days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop at Point Baker was so nice. It was warm and sunny and we could see all around us! There was one long float but not many people around. Buildings on the float provided a range of facilities small store, PO, laundry, showers, bar and cafe but everything was closed. Even the second half of August is considered late in the season here. A few fishing boats joined us on the float for a quiet night.

 

 

 

 

The shores, hills, mountains and even sheer rock faces throughout this area are covered with conifers. Ashore it is all trees, dense forests everywhere; but sometimes the trees are in the water too as logs, dead heads or just large entangled branches! The latter are easier to see because they float, like a many-masted tall ship with the smaller branches well clear of the surface. In anything but flat calm, floating logs are not easy to pick up visually. However a give-away is seeing gulls 'walking on water'. Dead heads are the most hazardous. These are water-laden logs that float vertically, so only one end is visible if you are lucky, and then no more than half a meter above the surface of the water. Hitting a dead head can cause major damage to even the most strongly built vessels, especially in any seaway and moving at speed. We always hand-steered throughout the waters of SE Alaska and British Columbia, keeping a very good watch ahead at all times.

 

 

 

 

 

Then there are the moving trees log booms with a push-me/pull-me tug at either end. Of course we found one of these at the narrowest section of Wrangell Narrows but there was just room for all the wood and the wooden yacht. Kelp is another floating hazard. We know of one yacht that motored into a large raft of heavy kelp and broke a bearing in the gearbox. A few strands are not too bad but kelp is tough, rubbery and strong. A large patch of floating kelp is often an indicator of an underwater rock, so it pays to keep away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here in the More Outside Passage the hills were somewhat lower than further inland, with more expansive views when in the wider channels. Often we had to work our way slowly into a rock-bound entrance or behind some islands to find the calm anchorage as at Devil Fish Bay, Port Refugio and Mabel Bay. On one occasion Tom had to contend with a starfish that had become wedded to our chain.

 

 

We carefully navigated our way along El Capitan Passage, a narrow rocky gut. As with the Wrangell Narrows there were plenty of markers, some prominent on the rocks others hiding in the trees. In one more open section we saw rafts of sea otters. As we motored by they stood on their tails in the water, eyeing us quizzically. Then at some pre-determined distance, they assumed we were a possible predator and quickly 'disappeared', diving below the surface.

 

We tied up to a Forest Service Dock just after 'otter pass' having read about a walk to El Capitan Cave, reputed to be the deepest cave in the USA. The Guide Book had talked about lots of steps up. There were 365! It was good exercise walking up to look at the entrance to a limestone cave. But since neither of us much like going 'underground' so we just took all the steps back down again.

 

 

 

 

Further on we transited the Tlevak Narrows. We had worked out that the current should be under us. It was a mighty good thing it was. Our speed through the water was 5.8 knots; over the ground we touched 10.8 knots! We would not have made any forward progress had the current been adverse. We read later that is a notorious Narrows, with, as we now knew, a fierce current.

 

Throughout Alaska we might as well have been a motor boat. Sunstone's sails had very little use. The main might go up to steady us and in stronger headwinds we would motor-beat in the wider channels. When the wind was behind at over 10 knots we would unroll the No.2. But day after day we would motor. This is the experience of all yachts in these waters and the reason that the Inside Passage is full of motor vessels.

 

Craig is the largest town on Prince of Wales Island, with just over 1,000 inhabitants. We tied up at the docks with the usual fishing seiners and gill netters and one other unusual vessel another cruising yacht! The next day we joined forces with Lloyd and Corrine from California, hired a car and drove the roads on Prince of Wales Island. At 140 miles long this is the third largest Island in the USA after Kodiak and Hawaii's Big Island. There are some 1,300 miles of paved or maintained gravel roads, the longest road system in SE. We visited a number of the sleepy villages scattered in the southern half. A display of Totem poles featured in two villages from two Native Indian tribes, the Tlingit and Haida. Totems are usually carved from cedar and are attempts by the carver to create a record of each generation's presence and passing. It may be a record of an entire clan's kinship status, rights and achievements; or a memorial totem for specific individuals portraying their crests. Animal representations feature large on all totems.

 

 

 

The main economic activity on Prince of Wales Island is fishing but logging is a major industry too. The earlier mining of marble in the 1900's is no longer operational, but there is talk about the possibility of new mining ventures for rare earth metals

 

Dixon Entrance is a notorious body of water that can be very rough. We set out from Nichols Bay at 0530 in the morning hoping for a quiet sail. It was a pleasant change to emerge from the confines of the channels, straits and passages into more open waters. The mainsail filled with a light breeze, Sunstone lifted to the swells and to the south there was a wide horizon and open ocean views. It was a quiet sail, then motor-sail except for one big bang. We found one of those floating logs. Luckily it was not a dead head but the two thumps on the hull sounded heavy. Tom quickly lifted the floorboards but could not see any water rushing in. We have probably lost some antifouling and there may be a 'bruise', but we hope nothing more serious.

 

 

Twelve hours later we tied up in Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada. This was the end of SE and of Alaska. But we still had 500 miles through BC waters to Victoria on Vancouver Island, our winter berth for Sunstone, with many more channels, straits and intricate narrow passages to negotiate.

 

 

 

 

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