Woo-bloody-hoo, this is Alaska!

“I’m king of the world!” Your scribe enjoys a Leonardo moment at the bow of Osprey in Alaska’s Tracy Arm fjord. Dana Halferty photo.

AHOY FROM OSPREY! Here I am again, sitting in another pleasant public library, my Wi-Fi haven for communicating with the “Outside,” as Alaskans call the Lower 48. In the off-the-grid five days since last I posted, the Osprey crew and I have transitioned from late-spring downpours to an early-summer heat wave, and we’ve made it to the northern terminus of our round-trip voyage: Juneau. Outside my library window I know there’s a lovely mountainous landscape of emerald green dotted with snow at the tiptops, but at the moment I wouldn’t know: All I can see is the side of a humongous cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, moored 50 yards away. The ship carries up to 4,180 guests in 2,090 staterooms. As my fellow shipmate Bill Watson says, “It’s for people who don’t want to leave home without taking a whole city block with them.”

Meanwhile, we’ve had some fabulous adventures in recent days. Here are more end-of-day chicken scratches from my journal:

Tuesday, June 21

I got up to use the toilet at 3:15 a.m. and it was already light outside. Happy solstice in Alaska!

Three good things this day:

(1) Concerned that we needed to be in Petersburg, some 40 miles away, when our next crew member arrived on a 2 p.m. flight, we departed Wrangell at 5:15 a.m. on calm and flat waters. Arrived after a circuitous and misty passage at 11 a.m. and got into a slip at Petersburg’s North Harbor. Low stress, plenty of time for a nap before her arrival.

(2) Met Dana Halferty, a 34-year-old professional photographer from Portland, and a friend of Barbara M.’s. Dana will be our fourth crew member from Petersburg to Sitka, departing by July 2.

(3) After a day of downpours, the rain let up and all of us Osprey-ites, old and new, walked into downtown Petersburg, a town settled by Norwegians and retaining a strong Nordic character, including decorative rosemåling on the front of many shops. We have dinner at Inga’s Café, an outdoor eatery with a covered seating area and propane-fueled bonfires to sit around. Cozy! I have a tasty rockfish salad. Afterward, we stroll around the waterfront, where three fish processors still operate, and a large fishing fleet moors. Misty clouds trundle past the forested hummocks across the channel. It’s quintessential Alaska.

Rosemåling decorates the front of a gift shop in Petersburg, an Alaskan town settled by Norwegians.

Wednesday, June 22

Petersburg to Pybus Bay. Three good things this day:

(1) Another blessed travel day, with 57 miles under the keel, in placid waters. Misty and drizzly much of the way but with wide, wide Alaska panoramas visible beneath the low cloud ceiling – snowy mountains on the horizon to port, little islets here and there, huge intersections of marine channels creating miles-wide expanses of green-gray saltwater where currents and waves could potentially crash like L.A. commuters when a traffic signal fails. But not on this quiet day. At Pybus Bay we found a Grand Banks anchored in Sheldon Cove, the one-boat cozy spot we had set as our destination. We considered arming the photon torpedoes and taking them out, but instead we moved to a just-as-cozy corner of nearby Cannery Cove where we were secure and happy. Outside the cove, a humpback entertained us for a half hour with spoutings and a tail display, and Dana, our new crew member, went crazy with her camera.

Osprey anchored in a cozy corner of Cannery Cove in Pybus Bay, Alaska.

(2) Dana and I went exploring in the dinghy and found sea stars galore amid countless clam shells beneath the clear water at the shallow head of our inlet. Otter feastings, those clams?  Such a treat to see sea stars again after they disappeared from much of the West Coast a few years ago due to a wasting disease.

(3) A delicious dinner of Petersburg-purchased ling cod fried in panko bread crumbs and served atop a mixed-greens salad with toothsome toasted pecans, thanks to Barbara M. We eat well on Osprey!

Thursday, June 23

From Pybus Bay to Tracy Arm, on smooth waters once again. Overcast transformed to wide blue sky with wispy, paintbrush clouds. The weather radio calls for a coming heat wave in Southeast Alaska, with temperatures up into the 80s and possibly 90 in the coming week. The computerized voice warns of not leaving children or pets in cars, and checking frequently on older residents and others unaccustomed to the heat. How often do they hear that here? Dana wondered, “Will I be sunbathing on Osprey’s roof? Will people ask, ‘Where’d you get that tan?’ and I’ll say ‘Alaska!’?” Crazy climate change.

Three good things:

(1) Sea otters are back! After awakening to a mirror-pond setting on Cannery Cove, with sunshine lighting a snowy peak that dishrag clouds obscured the previous evening, we weighed anchor at 6 a.m. As Dana learned to skipper the boat, we passed the San Juan Islands — Alaska’s San Juan Islands (only two of them in these parts, each about the size of Jones Island in our San Juans). A streaming line in the still water caught my eye to port. I grabbed the binoculars. Sure enough! It was an otter – and the extra-fuzzy, large head with the Ewok face told me it was a sea otter, not the more common river otter. He was swimming joyfully, if ever I saw a joyful otter – dipping up and down in the water, bending his body like an undulating roller coaster. “He’s out for his morning exercise!” Barbara M. cried. “It’s swimming like a mermaid,” Bill noted. We immediately saw more otters, and stopped the boat so Dana could snap photos. There were 10 or 12, often in pairs, often “spyhopping” like an orca, craning their necks to get a look at us. Sea otters in the San Juans, what a treat.

Birds line the top of an iceberg in Holkam Bay at the entrance to Alaska’s Tracy Arm fjord, where bergs calve off of two glaciers.

(2) Snowy, snowy mountains! Glaciers! Icebergs! Woo-double-hoo, this is why we came to Alaska! We made it to Tracy Arm’s entry shortly after noon, with me at the helm. Peering into the entry to Holkam Bay at the mouth of Tracy Arm, it didn’t take binoculars to see: “Oh, my god, there’s an iceberg in there!” I announced to the crew. I expected we’d see them in the upper reaches of the 22-mile fjord, but not right out at the entrance. Good grief! Soon a dozen came into sight, some bigger than our boat. And that was only what you could see above the water. “They’re always bigger underwater!” Barbara M. assured us, which wasn’t reassuring. Above us towered the 6,000-foot+ snaggle-toothed peak of Mount Sumdum, with a huge crinkled-ice glacier snuggled between it and a neighboring peak glinting light blue in the sunshine. Barbara M., in a headset at the stern, helped to guide me through the outer reef using range markers because guidebooks cautioned that “icebergs sometimes move the entry buoys” (!). The heavenly perfume of frying bacon heightened the sensory overload as Dana prepared our lunch. Once anchored in cozy No Name Cove just inside the entry pass, we munched BLTs as we sat on Osprey’s top deck, marveling at the snowy mountains all around, swatting the occasional horsefly and watching a big cruise ship, the Carnival Splendor, enter the bay. From the woods around us, ravens croaked and a mysterious forest bird whistled its varying high-pitched, haunting note, like a piercing pennywhistle. At a grassy point, a hundred or more shorebirds – pigeon guillemots, we think – dabbled and dithered in the shallows. “This is why we came to Alaska!” I exclaimed.

Barbara Marrett, left, and Dana Halferty in our dinghy on Tracy Arm.

(3) Steak for dinner. Been a long time since I’d indulged in a thick cut of good American beef, and this was a treat. Bill grilled it to a perfect medium rare. We enjoyed our anchorage and counted 12 boats in the cove by dusk. A neighbor on Standfast, a big motoryacht, told us to watch for a grizzly who often wanders this beach at dusk. (A no-show this night.) We Osprey-ites planned for a 5 a.m. departure up Tracy Arm to see the glaciers before the cruise ships arrive. Dana, by the way, comes from the Seward family, on her mother’s side. Yes, that Seward, of “Seward’s Folly,” the Lincoln-era secretary of state who engineered the purchase of Alaska. William Seward was Dana’s great, great uncle. Not only is there that familial link to this place, but with this trip to Alaska, Dana has now visited all 50 states of the United States, so there’s a sense of celebration to her being here. Adding a welcome dose of youthful vigor, she is a positive addition to Osprey’s crew.

Friday, June 24

          We awakened to low, marine-layer clouds. Departed our anchorage at 5:20 a.m., first out of the cove, with plenty of daylight on these Alaska summer days. By the time we arrived at our first turn up Tracy Arm, the clouds were behind us and sunshine arrived to stay. This was a real fjord. High rock walls glistened with water seeps, dripping like 1,000-foot tears. The fjord’s depth ranged to 600 feet of water, even close to shore. By 9 a.m., we’d arrived 20 miles in, near the end of Tracy Arm, with one other vessel, a classic-looking 100-foot+ tour boat that caught up with us by the time we both chose to stop and launch dinghies to weave through the thickening patch of icebergs for further exploration of South Sawyer Glacier. What a peak-experience day!

At South Sawyer Glacier at the head of Tracy Arm, you can see where the color “ice blue” originated.

Barbara M. piloted Osprey’s dinghy with me and Dana aboard as Bill stayed with Osprey, idling by a waterfall 1.7 nautical miles from the glacier. In the dinghy, we passed scores of harbor seals, many with pups, relaxing on icebergs of every size and shape. Great photo ops! The water was jade green, and the bergs tinted the color of Hall’s Mentholyptus cough drops. Scrub shrubbery and rock-clinging firs greened towering walls of striated granite. One wall streamed with five waterfalls, dropping more than 2,000 feet from peak to pebbles. The scale, huge beyond imagination, was a stunning spectacle. Like Valhalla, drenched in Alaska sunshine.

A seal pup and its mother relax on an iceberg near South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm.

In our dinghy, as bergs stemmed our progress we stopped about three-quarters of a mile from the glacier’s colossal icy face. A dramatic neon-blue stripe marked a cleavage point in the icy ramparts. Cameras clicked and clicked until my battery ran low and Dana’s memory card filled. We joked about taking some ice back to the boat to cool our drinks, then reminded ourselves that the icebergs likely formed from centuries-old snowfall, possibly containing mysterious pathogens from another era. Was that COVID talking?

A neon blue edge marks a recent calving point on South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm.

We returned to the boat after an hour, and Barbara M. and Bill took the dinghy back to the glacier. While they were there, it calved twice! “You heard it first; a booming!” they reported, followed by the splash and a large wave that rocked their dinghy and sent rollers down the fjord to Osprey and beyond.

A sailboat from Friday Harbor, Wash., navigates ice floes near a waterfall in Tracy Arm fjord.

We all agreed, Tracy Arm is superb, and we were glad we rose at 4:30 to be the first in. By 12:45 p.m. we headed back to our anchorage, and never saw a big cruise ship enter Tracy Arm that day. Bill and I speculated that Fridays are switchover days when many cruises start and end, so we might have accidentally chosen our day wisely.

Three good things this day:

(1 ) Tracy Arm with sunshine and without cruise ships.

(2) Fun with icebergs. Each encounter with a big berg can be like a Rorschach Test. I spotted one that looked like Good Dog Carl, complete with bobbed tail. Bill insisted it was a dragon. Another looked to me like Santa’s sleigh, with reindeer. Barbara M. spied one that looked exactly like the Titanic sinking at the stern. A giant snail (in ice) bid us goodbye as we exited Tracy Arm.

A snail-berg at the entrance to Tracy Arm.

We got a great anchor spot back in No Name Cove and enjoyed a perfect-weather, no-bugs happy hour on Osprey’s rooftop, surrounded by snowy peaks, endless saltwater and the Great North Woods. Sizzling vegan bratwurst on buns, grilled asparagus and Barbara M.’s baked strawberry bars ended the perfect day on a perfect note.

Saturday, June 25

From Tracy Arm to Juneau. In downtown Juneau, we were reminded of the outside world when we encountered a rally in support of reproductive rights, across the street from the state capitol building’s massive granite columns. The Juneau Empire newspaper’s front page informed us that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade.

Three good things:

(1) Two whale sightings on the trip from Tracy Arm. Got a nice photo with a spouting whale and an iceberg.

A whale spouts in Stephens Passage, near an iceberg that floated out of Tracy Arm fjord, Alaska.

(2) Made it to Juneau by 3 p.m., our northernmost port of the voyage. Easy mooring in a marina close to downtown, Harris Harbor. We walked into town for a late lunch at Tracy’s Crab Shack, plus grocery shopping at Rainbow Market and Foodland.

(3) Pristine, cloudless days and nights. Summer in Alaska! Who expected this? Tomorrow we celebrate Barbara Marrett’s 69th birthday. Bill is taking us all out to dinner. Then on toward Sitka. Stay tuned for more adventures in Osprey’s voyage of discovery.

2 thoughts on “Woo-bloody-hoo, this is Alaska!

  1. Your Tracy Arm experience describes the Alaska I grew up in: the geography, the grand scale, the wildlife, the richness of a fresh world not so much found Outside anymore. Thank you for the exquisite descriptions and sharing your and Osprey-ites’ days of light and energy.


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