Adventures in ditching the office and making a life on a small island nobody's heard of
Author: Brian J. Cantwell
A former travel and outdoors editor at The Seattle Times, I'm now exploring Washington's San Juan Islands on my classic runabout and trying not to smash my fingers with the hammer while I fix up my island cabin.
AHOY FROM PRINCE RUPERT. Here’s the most recent late-night-if-I-remember-it scrawlings in my “There and Back Again” journal from M.V. Osprey.
Friday, July 15
Departed Ketchikan in steady rain and low clouds. Got soaked while fueling up: $580 for 100 gallons. (Got soaked by the rain, too.)
(1) A safe southbound crossing of Dixon Entrance, one of our two open-to-the-ocean passages along the otherwise “inside” Inside Passage. Got some ocean swells and mixmaster seas with 15 knots+ on our bow, but no biggie after the recent shenanigans of Clarence Strait. Back to Canada!
(2) Found a beautiful, protected cove by a stream outlet in Brundige Inlet on wild Dundas Island, B.C., where a sailing friend has promised us we’ll see (or, at least, hear) wolves. We’ll see; we’ve been told similar stories about a variety of absentee wildlife at several other bays. Delicious dinner of Chicken Adobo, thanks to Barbara M.
(3) I struck the Alaska state flag and raised the red maple leaf courtesy flag on Osprey’s short mast. Canada feels like a happy reunion on our homeward journey. One catch: Listening to the VHF radio weather reports, you never know when the computerized voice will launch into five minutes of rapid French. We dub the digital polyglot “our friend Pierre, le weather homme.”
Saturday, July 16
Three good things:
(1) Awakened to sunshine, our first real rays in a week, on pristine and unsullied Brundige Inlet. The wolves, if they were there, stayed off the beach and kept mum overnight (and this just two days after the full moon). The good thing: We all slept like marathoners after a run. But, as I said to Bill, it’s begun to feel as if aliens have beamed up most of the wildlife on this coast. Except for eagles. The aliens must not like them. We’ve seen enough eagles to populate a planet.
(2) What’s a new way to say “flat” without referring to a pancake? “Flat as a roadkill possum”? “Flat as a North Dakota freeway”? “Flat as the index charting Donald Trump’s rising moral sensibilities”? Whatever. Such non-elevation is what we enjoyed in the way of seas from Brundige Inlet to Prince Rupert. Smooth all the way. Passed Melville Island, whose name raised questions. Had author Herman served on an exploration ship in these parts? Barbara M. asked Siri, as she is wont to do with some alarming frequency, who reminded us that (A) Melville was American (a nationality for whom few British Columbia geographic landmarks were named), and (B) He lived in the mid- to late-19th century, rather than the late 18th century when Captain Vancouver was sailing about seemingly naming every bump, hollow and indentation in this coastal landscape after every cabin boy, able seaman and annoying young lieutenant on his ship. Maybe this island commemorated Melville’s grandfather, Vancouver’s favorite cook, who did a really good soft-boiled egg. We don’t know. Do you?
(3) Dinner at the Breakers Pub, overlooking our marina. After a long day on the water, I down a quart of good Prince Rupert-brewed pale ale and watch the light get all golden on the harbor as crewmate Bill watches the bar’s giant-screen TV with Canadian football (yes, they have it, though hockey is the sport of choice in most Canadian watering holes, we’ve found).
Onward tomorrow to revisit Baker Inlet, one of our favorite northbound stops. We’ll be back with internet in a few days, perhaps. Who knows. I’ve read virtually no news of the outside world in seven weeks, and I’ve been kind of fine with that. In fact, I recommend it. Fair winds.
GOOD GRIEF, IT’S BEEN NINE DAYS since last I posted. All you loyal readers probably thought my crewmates and I drove our 37-foot Nordic Tug off one of those scenic Alaska waterfalls I keep photographing. Or that I finally got that additional bear encounter I’d hoped for but the experience got a little too intimate, so to speak.
But no, Osprey is still upright. Nor have I taken an insider’s tour of a grizzly’s gizzard. It’s just that we really have been out in the wilderness much of the time on our continuing 10-week voyage of the remote waters of Southeast Alaska, where internet is about as common as pay phones in old Dodge City.
But here I sit drinking deep of free WiFi in yet another beautiful Alaskan public library, perhaps the most elegant one yet, perched on a misty Ketchikan hillside. Beyond the book stacks a gas-fueled fireplace blazes cheerfully (we’ve lost our summery weather, and the fire’s warmth feels good). Above the fire hangs an artful native carving of a salmon laying eggs.
Delightfully peaceful, and extremely different from the chaos that was yesterday on Clarence Strait. Brrr.
Lots to catch up on. Let’s dive right in, like a sea otter after a tasty urchin.
Tuesday, July 5
Three good things this day:
(1) Bonus day in Sitka. Went shopping. Found a good buy on sport socks, and got three used DVD movies from the Friends of the Sitka Pubic Library. Woo-hoo, it doesn’t take much to spoil a cruiser.
(2) Met Steph and Judy, longtime Sitka residents and close friends of former Osprey crewmate Carol Hasse, from her fabled “hippie boat” days. They came for a happy hour on the rooftop bar of Osprey, from their home, which it turned out was within view of our marina slip. Steph said this was the best spell of summer weather here in 10 years! He bemoaned the new(ish) cruise-ship dock north of town that puts lots of smelly, old, noisy buses on Halibut Point Road, past their place. The dock is where megaships can moor.
(3) At Steph’s recommendation, we had dinner at Beak Restaurant, in the ground floor of the old waterfront home housing KCAW public radio, called Raven Radio, which Steph helped found. “Beak” has an octopus as its logo – thus the beak – but stresses the BE – AK (“Be Alaska”) aspect of its name. Good food: rockfish tacos! Service needs work (a very long wait for dinner).
Wednesday, July 6
Sitka to Baranof Warm Springs, 82 nautical miles, a new one-day travel record for us.
(1) A whale sighting at the confluence of Salisbury Sound and Peril Strait (one of my favorite Southeast Alaska place names, and, aptly, home to Poison Cove and Deadman’s Reach). A humpback surfaced and then dove about 100 feet off our bow! Then bald eagles circled and fought (or mated? Hot-cha-cha) in midair, while nearby a half dozen big sea lions cavorted, doing what looked like their own version of bubble feeding. The Full Alaskan Monty! After five days of landlubbing and rest, it felt good to be back on the water.
(2) A very long day at sea, but with smooth waters in Peril Strait we chose to push on to Baranof Warm Springs. The final 20 miles or so on Chatham Strait got windy and rough, with 16-17 knots on our nose and two-to-three-foot seas sending spray across our foredeck. We finally made it into beautiful Warm Springs Bay, edged by snowy hills. The public dock was full but after a few looks around and one false start, we settled on a peaceful anchorage by the outflow of a small stream that attracted feeding Arctic Terns. A half-moon reflected in the still waters – so still at first that Barbara M. became convinced we were aground, though we were still in 30 feet of water. Weariness breeds worries.
(3) Ate a good dinner of stir-fried pork with black beans and vegetables, then watched a movie I had bought from the “surplus” rack at Sitka Public Library, “Monsoon Wedding,” set in India. It started out slowly but grew on us. Barbara M. made popcorn and we opened the new bottle of Alaska-made gin (supplemented with tonic and lime). Will sleep well tonight.
Thursday, July 7
A stopover day at Baranof Warm Springs. Three good things:
(1) What started badly ended well. I was first up in the morning. Made my customary coffee and peanut-butter toast. Bill and Barbara had a snooze-in. By 9 a.m. the wind had picked up in our anchorage and shifted, putting Osprey’s stern toward the rocky shoreline. I switched on the depth sounder and checked tide readings. By the sounder, we were in 11 feet of water, but at the stern I could spy the sea bottom about 6 feet down. The tide was ebbing, and Osprey needs four feet to stay afloat. I rapped on Barbara and Bill’s stateroom door, told them we needed to move, and started the engine. (The sudden rumble of the big Cummins diesel and an alert that fears of being aground are about to come true is a surefire way to roust sleepy mariners.) Within 10 minutes the anchor was up and we were motoring toward the dock at the head of the bay. This time we found a spot open, and got lots of docking help from friendly new neighbors. Twenty minutes later we sat in our pilot house sipping tea and coffee and enjoying an eye-popping view of the waterfall that tumbles into the bay from nearby Baranof Lake.
(2) By late morning we were hiking up the amazing maze of boardwalks and trestles that connect the little shore-hugging cabin community of Baranof Warm Springs. Towels in hand, we were headed for the outdoor hot springs. Salmonberries, blue huckleberries and dainty blooms of snowy-white bunchberry dogwood lined the trail. “You couldn’t plan a more beautiful garden!” I told Barbara M., who grinned in agreement.
This time we all wore swimsuits for a communal soak with another pair of visitors who had arrived just before us. There was plenty of room in the big, steaming, rock-lined pools that sat immediately adjacent to the upper reaches of the raging waterfall. What a dramatic place to take a hot bath! Barbara M. even took a polar-bear plunge from the hot water into a side eddy of the snow-melt waterfall, then dipped back into the steaming cauldron. She said it was invigorating and made her all tingly. Bill and I got dressed behind a huckleberry bush and toddled back to Osprey for naps in our respective staterooms. Very civilized, I thought.
(3) Met a dockmate, Jay, a quiet man about my age, off a 22-foot C Dory called Hunky Dory. From Wyoming, he’s been exploring these Alaskan islands from the Inside Passage to the ocean in his little teacup of a boat for more than 20 years. He shared good tips on where to see bears, and how to respond to aggressive ones. (Mostly, it’s the cranky youngsters who’ve recently been kicked out of the nest and haven’t quite learned how to find enough food on their own, he said. If they get grumpy with you, get even louder and grumpier, yelling and waving your arms, he suggested.) For Jay, this was the first year that his wife, afflicted by arthritis, hasn’t accompanied him on his Alaska expedition. In the evening, he set up a folding chair on the dock and just quietly watched the waterfall. Kicked myself later for not inviting him for dinner or a drink. A man with good stories to tell, and a missed opportunity.
Friday, July 8
Baranof Warm Springs to Red Bluff Bay
(1) Awakened with a spell of vertigo caused by an inner-ear problem I’ve experienced before, a common malady with older folks. I avoided taking the helm today. Didn’t want to test my balance at the wheel. The good thing: After a couple sessions of a physical therapy routine I’ve learned, the problem went away. As my brother often says, getting old ain’t for sissies.
(2) We got into Red Bluff Bay by 11:30 a.m. and found a cozy anchorage tucked into a protected cove. We’d been told bears sightings were a sure thing here. We hadn’t spotted any until late afternoon when Captain Chris, the hired skipper on a neighboring superyacht, radioed to alert us to a big grizzly on the shore not far from our boat. I saw him clearly in my binoculars, though he ambled into the woods before I could grab the camera. But I briefly saw my second wild griz, and we later made friends with the Californians from the superyacht. Even people with way too much money can be OK, I guess.
(3) Took the motorized dinghy for a spin and got a nice sighting and photo of a pair of gorgeous red-throated loons, a first sighting for me. Also went up close to the bay’s raging waterfall and got some exciting photos. Peaceful on the bay that night, with a low cloud ceiling hiding the snowy peaks. A quiet hideaway, with three other boats in a spacious anchorage in wild Alaska. Nice.
Saturday, July 9
Red Bluff Bay, Baranof Island, to Goose Bay on Port Camden, Kuiu Island
Three good things today:
(1) Woke to eerie fog in low bands across the bay. We debated whether we’d leave as planned across wide Chatham Strait. Decided visibility was acceptable – at least a mile. And we had both radar and a good chart plotter to take the challenge out of it. Very moody and prehistoric-looking as we exited the deep bay, threading out past numerous misty, fog-shrouded islets. The good news: Glassy waters as we crossed Chatham Strait, where we had expected seas up to three feet, according to the often erroneous weather forecast. Radar, AIS and Navionics chart plotting made it a cinch, even with fog. We watched a big Carnival cruise ship go by on the screen – four miles away — but never actually glimpsed it through the murk. No problem!
(2) Stopped at the Tlingit village of Kake, on Kupreanof Island. While Bill and Barbara M. went in search of the local supermarket, I stayed on board and had a jovial phone chat with my brother Tom, who is housesitting/cat-sitting for me on Center Island. He was happy and doing well, which was great to hear. That’s the good thing. One upsetting bit of news: My island neighbors Dan and Lisa Lewis lost their beloved catamaran-hulled powerboat when a critical component failed and it sank at its Skyline Marina slip in Anacortes. A total loss. It was the boat on which we transported my Barbara to Anacortes the day I kissed her for the last time and gave her to the man from the mortuary. It is hard news for me, and my heart goes out to my island friends.
(3) Made it to Goose Bay, so named because Canada Geese have summered here in past years. Barbara M. let it be known that she hates Canada Geese because they poop all over everything, so I fear she’ll be cranky about my choice. But we arrive to find it goose-free, and the narrow, snaking entrance seems to ensure protection from wind and waves, a good thing since gales are predicted for tomorrow. All is good. We have the cozy cove to ourselves and will hunker down for tomorrow’s winds while we plot our upcoming passage of tricky, and aptly named, Rocky Pass. A challenge can be fun.
Sunday, July 10
Holed up in Goose Bay, Kuiu Island. Sheets of rain blowing sideways. Winds up to 20 knots in the cove. Anchor holding well.
An enforced day of rest, with small-craft and gale warnings for nearby straits and channels. We three Osprey-ites hang out in our bunks until after 9, reading, sipping tea, etc. Our 140-gallon fresh-water tank is down to the half mark on the gauge, and several days might pass before we can refill it, so we implement conservation mode. In mind of the clever system at the boat’s aft corners where hollow stainless-steel handrails also serve as downspouts to drain the cabin top, I dig out our 4-quart mixing bowl and set it beneath one of the spouts. We fill a 5-gallon bucket in less than an hour. I heat the water on the stove so I can shave and wash up. Something to do! The VHF radio says this weather system will hang around into Monday, so we conclude we’re here for the duration. Time to try some new games! “Watch the last half of ‘Lonesome Dove’!” Barbara suggests, referring to a tedious Western we have on DVD. Bill and I play a few rounds of Boggle. This is our first weather-caused delay. Paying off our karma a bit.
4:30 p.m.: Rain is pouring, and Osprey is spinning at anchor as winds funnel through the entrance to our protected cove. Clouds have lowered. We all agree: We’re glad we’re in here, in isolated little Goose Bay, rather than out on one of the straits where 5- and 6-foot seas are predicted. After we fill our 5-gallon bucket with water off the roof, Barbara M. digs out the crab-cooking kettle from beneath the sink, which will easily hold another 3 gallons. We’ll use rainwater to flush the toilet or wash our hair! We feel like real wilderness adventurers.
Monday, July 11
Three good things:
(1) The storm eased. Barbara M. and I took the dinghy to shore, walked the length of the bay, and collected small mussels off the rocks. “It’s not a month with an ‘r,’ but these waters look clean and cool,” she said. Felt good to stretch our legs and breathe the rain-washed, spruce-scented air.
(2) She steamed the mussels in wine and garlic. We all agreed they were the freshest and tenderest we’d ever eaten. A gift from Goose Bay.
(3) After the mussels as an appetizer, I pull a bag of shrimp out of the freezer and make toothsome tacos. We watch more “Lonesome Dove.” After a day of studying cruising guides and charts and making notes and checking tide tables, we decide we’re ready for the morning’s transit of 21-mile Rocky Pass, one of the most challenging waterways in Southeast Alaska. Dividing Kupreanof and Kuiu islands, Rocky Pass is deliciously remote and achingly scenic. It’s also narrow and circuitous, shallow and rock-filled, roiling with currents and plagued by thickets of bull kelp that can hide rocks and wrap props. Local magnetic disturbances play havoc with compasses in a tricky section called Devil’s Elbow. As with most waterways, there are navigation markers to guide the way, unless some are missing in key spots, as online reports tell us is the case with Rocky Pass.
“This will be fun,” says Barbara M., who sometimes displays an odd sense of what constitutes a good time.
Tuesday, July 12
(1) With Bill as our watchman on the bow, me as navigator and Barbara M. at the helm, we safely and uneventfully transited Rocky Pass. We timed the passage for high tide, approaching slack, which seemed key. There were a few missing channel markers, more than mentioned online. Others leaned drunkenly, as if this were a place of wild storms and random rammings, and we dodged enough bull kelp to tie up a herd of Texas beef.
(2) Once through Rocky Pass, finding placid waters on Sumner Strait we choose to push on beyond our planned anchorage at Red Bay on Prince of Wales Island, hoping to shorten the voyage tomorrow to Ketchikan. The forecast has deteriorated, calling for 20-knot winds and 4-foot seas on Clarence Strait by afternoon. Three-foot seas are about our limit with Osprey, we’ve decided. We plan to start the trip at 5 a.m. and hope to be in Ketchikan before the big seas rise.
Scanning the charts and guidebooks, we pick a cozy-looking refuge called Coffman Cove, off Kashevarof Passage, in North Clarence Strait. Despite the guide’s warning that transient dock space is usually crowded with fishing boats, when we arrive at 8 p.m. on a misty evening we find lots of space open. We’re happy to escape growing swells in the strait and tie up in this glassy, protected cove. Josh, the friendly harbormaster, radios us from the bar onshore and welcomes us to Coffman Cove. After registering, we join him at the cozy watering hole where we’re greeted like old friends by a friendly group of locals who seem sent by Central Casting for a sit-com about rustic Alaskans. There’s young, bright-eyed and bearded Hunter, who came from Maine to be a lumberjack in Alaska; long-haired old Bob, the kindhearted, fist-bumping swiller of red wine matched with tequila shots; and Travis, the born-and-bred manager of a modest fishing lodge who tells how his father and heavily pregnant mother took a 17-foot skiff 52 miles from Coffman Cove to Petersburg in an Alaskan November 46 years ago to get help with his birth. We enjoy a jovial Alaskan Amber or two together, and Barbara M., getting over a cold, sips a rum hot toddy, which the young bartender is happy to make once she tells him how.
Wednesday, July 13
Forget the “three good things.” This was just a crummy, rotten, no-good, terrible day on the water. Got up at 4:15 a.m., after being startled in the night by loud, wet, snuffles outside the porthole of my cabin. A whale? Possibly a big sea lion. I shined a spotlight and saw a strange protuberance break the water. Maybe a stray elephant seal?
We left Coffman Cove at 5 a.m. in hopes of beating the afternoon’s forecast rough seas and 20-knot winds as we work our way down Clarence Strait to Ketchikan. But by 8 a.m. we’re slammed, rocked and drenched like we’re taking Osprey through a drive-through car wash, but with saltwater. We consider taking cover at Meyers Chuck, the last good hidey-hole before a four-hour slog down the strait, but seas and winds moderate awhile. We push on. An hour later we’re regretting the choice as Osprey takes 25-knot gusts on the nose, earlier and stronger than forecast. We bash through growing swells that send cascades of seawater over our bow. Some combers look to be 5 feet, maybe bigger, cresting like at the ocean beach, and we labor to keep the bow into the seas. It continues for hours until Bill, at the helm, wrestles the boat into Tongass Narrows, the entrance to Ketchikan. Throughout the rough seas, we grip handrails and bend knees up and down to bounce with the waves. The worst part is answering the call of nature. Using the ship’s toilet amid all this is like trying to evacuate your bowels on a Tilt-A-Whirl ride (which, come to think of it, I might have done once when I was 5).
By 1:30 p.m., we’d made it safely into a marina in Ketchikan, where rain clouds scudded on the sidewalks and bald eagles hunched coldly atop windblown lampposts. It’s not the same sunny town that greeted us a month ago.
On the downhill slide now, heading home. This weather is making the parting less painful. Ready for our own beds and familiar hearths. Repeating some adventures southward, but always on the lookout for new ones – hopefully not weather-related!
WOOPS, HERE WE ARE, still in Sitka. Because Barbara M. was feeling punky yesterday, with a sore throat and mild cold symptoms (do-it-yourself COVID test: negative), we’ve decided to stay a fifth night in Sitka. I’m taking the opportunity to post once more to the blog, shop for more socks (less need for laundromats!) and find a thrift shop with cheap DVDs (we’ve run low on evening entertainment). Back to the wild seas tomorrow, heading south to Baranof Warm Springs, Red Bluff Bay and beyond.
In the marina here we met a friendly Canadian couple off a boat named Tsonokwa, meaning “wild woman of the woods” in West Coast native legends. (Parents with naughty offspring threaten them with Tsonokwa, an ogress who steals children and carries them home in her basket to eat.) The two boaters are both wildlife biologists who live in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. With their two young teen children (who better behave, on that boat), each summer they explore more of Alaska’s waters from their boat, moored in Skagway. They hope to reach Puget Sound someday. This is the second port where we’ve encountered them, one of the serendipitous treats of a cruising summer.
Meanwhile, here’s an update on our holiday.
Monday, July 4
Three good things:
(1) Found a good laundromat and toddled back to the boat with a pillowcase full of the freshly washed and tumble dried. On this Independence Day, what celebrates America more than a tidy little business where you can get $10 worth of quarters from a change machine and improve your lot in life with 10 days worth of freshly laundered underwear and socks?
(2) Along with hundreds of others, I watched Sitka’s Fourth of July parade on Lincoln Street, with the Russian cathedral as a backdrop for the marching Coast Guard men and women (and an exciting Coastie rescue-chopper flyover — two at once! — that threatened to take out the three-beam cross atop the church). Also parading were the local offroad-vehicle club, the Forest Service’s Smoky Bear and Woodsy Owl, the local fire brigade and more. While most parade participants tossed candy to the kids, two local supermarkets gave away bananas. Bananas were everywhere!
(3) Climbed a long, curving flight of steps to Castle Hill, the highest point in downtown Sitka. The hill was at one time an island at high tide before tidelands were filled in. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, this was a Tlingit stronghold, seized by the Russians after an 1804 battle. The Russians built a small castle there for Alexander Baranov, head of the Russian American Company and functional governor of Russian Alaska. This was where the Russians formally ceded ownership of Alaska to the United States for $7 million in 1867, and where the 49-star American flag was first raised when Alaska became a state in 1959. Now empty of structures, Castle Hill on this sunny and warm Fourth of July offered me sweeping views and an intriguing history lesson.
AHOY FROM DELIGHTFUL SITKA, Alaska, the original capital of Russian America before William Seward negotiated the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Lots to tell about. I’ll dive right in.
Thursday, June 30
Three good things this day:
(1) Bubble-feeding whales! At 9:15 a.m., as we were departing Tenakee Inlet and about to head south on Chatham Strait, multiple spouts ahead alerted us. We’d hoped we might see this fascinating phenomenon called bubble-net feeding, in which a handful of humpback whales join in a feeding ritual in which they dive deeply together and then expel bubbles that drive fish and krill to the surface. The whales then open their mouths as they propel themselves upward with baleens raking in all the nutrients they can get. The first tip-off was when I spied big tails, one after another, slapping the surface as they sounded, or dove. We spent almost an hour, idling back and forth in Osprey, enthralled as at least half a dozen humpbacks cast their “net” again and again in waters ranging from 100 to 400 feet deep off South Passage Point. This was crewmate Bill Watson’s birthday, so Barbara M. dubbed this “Bill’s Birthday Bubble Feed.” We saw whale heads thrust out of the water together and giant flukes slapping the surface, and more tail slaps than ever before. Barbara M., Dana and I shot photo after photo and videos galore. “An experience of a lifetime!” crowed Dana, the professional photographer. Commenting on the video she shot: “You can hear me, saying ‘Oh, my god,’ again and again. I was literally crying!”
As the whales concluded their dives, we heard a whale call, like a mooing Jersey cow mated with a bassoon. Chilling. Then, finally, a whale call like a ship’s foghorn echoed off the forested hills. Wow.
(2) We made good time into Hoonah Sound, and researched tomorrow’s passage of challenging Sergius Narrows. Slack water would be at 7:15 a.m., requiring hoisting anchor at 5:15. Found a secure and pleasant anchorage at little Nismeni Cove, where eagles called to us from treetops and a whale came to visit at the mouth of the cove around dinnertime.
(3) For Bill’s birthday, I grilled burgers, and Barbara and Dana baked an orange-flavored cake with icing they creatively colored with juice from frozen blueberries. We also devoured Klondike ice-cream bars procured from the store at Tenakee Springs. I took a little extra insulin. Fun night after an exciting day!
Friday, July 1
Day 35 of our 70-day voyage – halfway through!
I’ll take this moment to briefly reflect on the voyage so far. It has gone remarkably well (knock on wood, scratch a stay, turn three times and spit!). To my own surprise, I’d be fine if it was done now. The adventures have been memorable and fulfilling. Icebergs! Glaciers! Bubble-feeding whales! Charming towns and villages. Waterfalls like no others, and a grizzly in our first week. I’d like to see more bears (from a safe distance) and I’d love to see breaching whales, but now I’m just getting greedy. I’m a little homesick for my island routines, and I miss Galley Cat (who has been chased by foxes in my absence) and my daughter (who had a great adventure in Europe but came home with COVID).
But. We are in Sitka now, staying at the dock for four nights for some shore leave and recharge time. It will help. I won’t gall all of you back in your cityside routines by feeling too sorry for myself.
I do miss my dear wife. I saw this voyage as part of a healing process, but I think that’s flawed thinking. The void in my life is like a wound that will scar over but never fully heal. However, this trip is a lovely distraction, and I’ve made some wonderful new friends, which makes life better.
Three good things this day:
(1) A misty morning gave us calm seas for an easy passage of Sergius Narrows. Arrived Sitka at 11 a.m. and without advanced reservations secured a slip for four nights, keeping us here through the Fourth of July weekend festivities. (A parade on Monday!)
(3) After a tasty dinner of panko-crusted cod, we watched an old movie and paused for the town’s big fireworks show, watched from the roof of our boat. In Alaska, where it stays light late even at lower latitudes, the fireworks weren’t until 11:30 p.m. I didn’t hit the sack until 1 a.m. Slept until 9 the next morning. What luxury!
(2) I explored Sitka on foot, and the clouds cleared to reveal the town’s glorious setting among a giant bowl of snowy peaks, including the nearby Mount Edgecumbe volcano, recently declared “no longer dormant” after a few months of tremors. Forested islets dot the harbor. The beautiful St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral is downtown’s historic centerpiece. Found good Wi-Fi at yet another fine-quality Alaska public library. Hooray for librarians, all.
Saturday, July 2
Three good things:
(1) The lovely Totem Trail in Sitka National Historical Park. We saw totem poles of many designs nestled among pristine forest along a wide, graveled path edging the scenic shoreline.
(2) A fascinating hour at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Alaska’s oldest museum, poring over the comprehensive collection of tools, regalia, and everyday household objects and clothing of native Alaskan tribes, dating back to the early 19th century. Among interesting factoids: Since they did not transfer taste to food as resinous cedar or fir might, alder or birch were the preferred wood for dishes and utensils.
(3) Late in the day, I enjoyed a one-man guided tour with a ranger of the restored Russian Bishop’s House, part of the national park, including the original bishop’s private chapel from when Sitka was the capital of Russian America in the early 19th century.
‘REMEMBER WHEN WE USED TO GET ALL EXCITED about seeing an eagle?” Osprey crewmate Barbara Marrett posed the question the other day.
“Now it’s ‘eagle, schmeagle!’” she concluded.
So many magnificent raptors gliding over vast expanses of wind-rippled saltwater. So ho-hum. After a month of doing this, maybe we’re getting jaded by the wonders of the Last Frontier? Just a bit?
Here are some more scribblings from my daily journal as the Osprey crew has reached the halfway point in our “North to Alaska” voyage. I’m posting this on Day 35 of our 70-day trip.
Sunday, June 26
Three good things this day:
(1) Awakened to another pristine summer morning in Juneau. Not a cloud. Surrounded by snowy peaks. What a beautiful setting for a city.
(2) Got laundry done at a clean, uncrowded laundromat a block away from the marina. These things count when you’re living in close quarters without an endless supply of clean underwear.
(3) We all enjoyed a birthday dinner for Barbara M. (whose birthday is actually June 27). Bill hosted us at a fancy-schmancy downtown restaurant called “Salt,” which boasted of “Modern Alaskan Cuisine.” I had a fat cauliflower steak, nicely seasoned, and roasted Brussels sprouts, with a glass of good Dog Bay sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. This must be modern Alaska. There was no moose haunch or caribou liver to be found.
On our way back to the boat, we walked past the governor’s mansion, with its big white columns, seemingly better suited to Charleston or Montgomery than Juneau, though there was a totem pole at one corner. Several neighbors had posted large signs supporting an opponent of the sitting Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy. We enjoyed the downhill walk that wound through pleasant neighborhoods with beautiful gardens full of blooming peonies.
Monday, June 27
Three good things:
(1) By advance arrangement with our charter company, mechanics with Betts Marine came to the boat at Juneau to change the engine oil and filter after almost 200 hours of run time since our Bellingham departure. Jim Betts and his assistant did a thorough and conscientious job, checking over various essential systems. Always good to know that the big Cummins power plant beneath our feet, our ticket to ride, is well and happy.
(2) Enjoyed an uneventful passage to a pleasant and quiet anchorage behind Horse Island, off northern Stephens Passage, about 33 miles from Juneau. As we left, Juneau’s docks held only one cruise ship, from Norwegian Cruise Lines. But as we exited Gastineau Channel two Holland America ships passed us inbound, and a Celebrity ship came on the VHF radio to announce its imminent arrival in the narrow passage. At Horse Island, we dropped the hook in 30 feet of water, which put us in nine feet in the morning’s -1.3-foot low tide. Shallow, but acceptable. (Lots of tangled seaweed on the chain the next morning!)
(3) Celebrated Barbara M.’s actual birthday by giving her no duties on the chores-and-cooking schedule. At her request we all agreed to a few rounds of the French card game Milles Bornes after dinner. Very complicated at first, but fun once we got the hang of it! Happily, Team Barbara (me and Miss B) won.
Tuesday, June 28
Horse Island to Tenakee Hot Springs, 59 nautical miles.
Three good things:
(1) This is getting to be a good-news, but boy-are-we-in-for-it-someday-soon thing: Once again, we dodged a bullet in terms of weather. A forecast 25-knot blow overnight didn’t materialize. Our night on the hook at Horse Island, with snowy peaks north and south of us, was as smooth and easy as a pony ride in the park. But our karma bill may come due soon. All seamen know the weather gods must be appeased.
(2) The northernmost latitude of our 10-week voyage came and went today at Point Retreat, a wild and windswept spot with a pretty light station at the north end of Admiralty Island. To the northwest: a prime view of sharp and snowy Nun Mountain, elevation 4,415. Our position recorded in the log: N. 58 degrees 25 minutes, W. 134 degrees 57 minutes. As the eagle flies, Osprey has traveled more than 600 miles from her Bellingham base. Our passage this day included a good sighting of at least four humpback whales with several tail displays (two mamas and two calves, Barbara M. and Dana believe), plus a half dozen or so Dall’s porpoises cavorting on our bow wave.
(3) We nabbed the last open slip at Tenakee Springs marina and discovered this charming, very Alaskan little community. We could live here, we all quickly decided. A dock neighbor told us of a good hiking trail, and said not to worry too much about bears because “they’re all in town eating the raspberries!” (The berries were actually salmonberries, many ripened to a deep red and sweeter than any I’ve devoured before.) We walked into what they call town, toured the tiny museum, walked most of the length of the one-lane gravel road skirting the saltwater, and noted visiting hours – different for men and women — for the free hot-spring bathhouse. After I served up an onboard dinner of salmon grilled with slices of orange and lemon, complemented by pesto pasta with chopped walnuts plus steamed broccoli with lemon zest and minced ginger, Barbara M. and Dana returned to the bathhouse for an evening soak. On the walk there, Dana saw rustling in a roadside berry patch. She clapped her hands, and the two watched a grizzly bear scramble away into the woods a few dozen feet ahead of them. Anybody need an adrenalin fix?
Wednesday, June 29
This was a layover day to rest and play.
The Tenakee community is larger than we expected. Scores of small homes hug the shore, along with a single store, a ferry dock, a diesel-fueled power plant, a small public library, and a tiny old café that is now a community gathering spot with public restroom, free WiFi and a shared greenhouse. Homes here run the gamut of size, quality of construction and level of upkeep. Many have gardens of flowers and vegetables. Most have small ATVs and/or old bicycles parked out front.
Three good things this day:
(1) Shipmate Bill and I sampled the hot spring at 7:30 this morning. (Men’s hours include 10 p.m. to 9 a.m.) Rules on the door said “nude bathing only.” We speculated that they wish to prevent contamination from skanky undergarments or mildewed swim togs, but we decided it was also helpful to make the “nude or not?” decision for everybody. And comfort with one’s body in a non-threatening environment isn’t a bad thing. They required a shower beforehand, but provided only a cold-water hose with a spray nozzle. (I settled for a sponge-bath on the boat.)
The changing room was quite nice, and clean, with stained-glass windows depicting eagles and whales. Pushing through a door into the bathhouse itself was a bit of a shock. Green moss and slime stained concrete walls. In the room’s center, sulfury billows of steam rose from a rectangular pool, about 8 feet by 4 feet. “It reminded me of a prison!” Barbara M. had told us at first, after her soak. Or the Black Hole of Calcutta, I thought. But ceiling windows opened to let out steam and let in light. The bath itself had a couple of concrete steps down, then just bare natural rock with a large fissure from which bubbles rose. And the water was hot. Not enough to scald, but hotter than any bath you’d take at home. We edged in slowly, and soaked for 20 minutes, until well parboiled. A cool wash-down felt good, as did stepping back out into the morning air, freshly clothed, on this soft and gray overcast morning. In the end, we all decided that the natural stone of the hot pool, and the lovingly maintained changing room, made the experience interesting and enjoyable.
(2) Barbara M., Dana and I took that recommended hike in the woods, past giant spruces, rocky caves that we assumed were grizzly dens, and boggy areas of skunk cabbage and Alaska-sized devil’s club (extra thorny). We delighted in a long and narrow suspension bridge over the rushing waters of the Indian River. A sign said the Alaska Department of Highways built the bridge in the 1970s, though it was miles from any road.
Enjoyed our lazy layover day getting to know the Tenakee Springs community, including a couple who live aboard a homemade sailing houseboat and who are making a video guide for Small Boat Magazine. Meeting lots of friendly and interesting characters in the backwaters of Alaska.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
(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.
AHOY, AGAIN, FRIENDS. Osprey is back in the world of Wi-Fi, so here I am again to report on our salty sojourn. The big news, which you might have guessed by now: We’re in Alaska!
From our home latitude of 48 degrees north, we’ve made it to 56 degrees, a north latitude shared with Denmark, Sweden, Scotland’s Firth of Forth, the North Sea and a whole lot of Russia. Not only have we moved northward 672 miles from Bellingham as the eagle flies, we’ve also arrived at the longest day of the year. The summer solstice is at 1:13 a.m. tonight, Alaska Daylight Time. On the boat, we’ve sure noticed the longer days. While we’re not far enough north for Alaska’s famous midnight sun, we’re close. There’s plenty of light in the sky until about 11:30 p.m. Tomorrow’s official sunrise time here in Wrangell, where I’m writing, is 3:59 a.m. Yes, the sun comes over the horizon, blazing through our portholes, before 4 in the morning. It makes me yawn just to write about it.
Here are more penned ponderings and footnotes from the journey.
Wednesday, June 15
In Prince Rupert, B.C., we awakened to a gorgeous, calm and sunny morning, a perfect day to transit Dixon Entrance, our second open-to-the-ocean passage. An easy exit from “Rainy Rupert,” as locals usually call it, through winding and narrow Venn Passage. Barbara M. wore a walkie-talkie headset and stood on the transom to help us line up with some range markers and keep me informed at the helm when yet another sport fisher was about to zoom past.
Three good things this day:
(1) We made it to Alaska! At 10:23 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time we crossed the international border, in the middle of the wide-open, lightly rippled waters of Dixon Entrance. Day 19 of our voyage. “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” we all shouted. We reset our clocks to an hour earlier, on Alaska Daylight Time.
(2) I handled the anchor by myself for the first time, as we dropped the hook in 39 feet of water in the cozy inner cove of Foggy Bay. With Hasse no longer with us, we can’t team up on all tasks. Went like clockwork. Foggy Bay is a standard stopover point for cruising boats traveling between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan, at 85 nautical miles too long a trip for one day. However, to make the stop, in American waters again, we had to telephone and get permission from the Ketchikan office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection before leaving Prince Rupert. Surprisingly, only one other boat joined us in Foggy Bay, a sailboat crewed by a pleasant Canadian couple from Vancouver Island.
(3) I barbecued hamburgers and grilled fresh asparagus on Osprey’s propane grill, mounted on the stern railing. We ate in the sunshine up on the boat’s cabin roof, where four (plastic) Adirondack chairs are stored. Absolutely perfect weather, with a light breeze for comfort, in an idyllic little bay ringed by lichen-bearded cedars. To top off the day, a sensational Kodachrome sunset. “Red sunset at night, sailor’s delight.”
Thursday, June 16
Three good things this day:
(1) The weather forecast on the VHF radio called for 25-knot winds overnight, so we had braced for a hectic night at anchor, especially after our barometer had plummeted as precipitously as the stock market in recent days. (Yes, we made the mistake of checking world news.) But for once, the forecast was wrong in a good way. The boat sat like a statue all night long. We awakened to a sunny morning on looking-glass water.
(2) Barbara M. and I went for a kayak paddle – first of the trip. Launching the plastic-molded kayaks, lashed to the roof, by gingerly lowering them by hand line proved a cinch. They were stable and easy to paddle, and we spied a bear on shore. A big black bear was digging for grubs in a patch of grass, pointed out to us by the helpful and friendly neighbor on a Hunter sailboat who regularly took his fuzzy doodle dog (some sort of poodle mix) for walks ashore.
(3) Made it to Ketchikan, which calls itself “Alaska’s first city,” because it’s the first Alaskan town as you head up the Inside Passage. Twenty-knot following winds and a current pushing us northward got us there by 3 p.m. Immediately snagged a first-come, first-served slip at our marina of choice, Thomas Basin, right downtown. After weeks of wetness, we enjoyed a sun-drenched afternoon in this Alaska city that averages up to 160 inches of rain per year. We all enjoyed a tasty dinner at New York Café, which inexplicably is located in Ketchikan, Alaska. I had a roasted root-vegetable salad topped by Alaska cod ($24.) Delicious!
Friday, June 17
A stopover day in Ketchikan, along with the waddling Large Americans off of six cruise ships. Eek! If the ships are running full, which they usually do, that adds at least 18,000 tourists to this town’s usual 14,000 population. Got postcards, wrote some and found a mailbox for them.
Three good things this day:
(1) With Barbara M., I took the city bus to Totem Bight State Park, about 30 minutes north of town. A scenic spot in mossy woods edging Tongass Narrows that showcases faithful replicas of historical totem poles carved by native artisans. The preservation project began with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Today’s collection includes 15 masterful poles of Tlingit and Haida design, plus a stunning Clan House, a roofed structure like those that housed 30 to 50 people of a particular lineage in the early 19th century. The poles include figures of local animals, ranging from eagles to beavers to an octopus, as well as human figures, such as the man wearing a sort of top hat in which the rings represent the number of potlatches he has thrown to show off his wealth. A wonderful outing steeped in native culture.
(2) I got to grill a gorgeous filet of halibut, which Barbara M. had frozen after finding it at a fish market in Port Hardy. Dressed up the fish with garlic butter, lemon and lime slices, and dill. A big hit with the whole crew.
(3) We Osprey-ites spent a rollicking evening drinking Juneau-brewed Alaskan Amber and singing along with the locals on Karaoke Night at the Potlatch, Ketchikan’s supreme dive bar, just across a boardwalk from our Thomas Basin moorage. A real gas. Local heroes, all, ranging from men in plaid lumberjack shirts and knee-high rubber boots to the tragically disillusioned Millennial goth who crooned the only song of the night that was actually written in the current century. In his sailing tale “Passage to Juneau,” author Jonathan Raban described the Potlatch as having “all the noise, violence, and energy of America trapped inside a single room.” This night, both TVs aired live wrestling. Amid all that, we met Shannon and Ed, locals who come every Friday for karaoke. She’s a nurse who delivers babies at the local hospital. He recently retired as a mechanic for Alaska Airlines at the local field, perhaps the only international airport in America that can be reached only by ferry, since it occupies its own separate island. “We’ve got some good singers!” Shannon beamed, willing us (successfully) to have as good a time as she was. Ed was an Amber man; his sweetie drank Alaskan White, with a polar bear on the label (“a little lighter, a little bit hoppier,” Ed explained). The evening’s downside: ear worms. The worst songs buzzed through my head into the next morning, including a twangy, Dolly Parton-style “Jolene,” and Jim Morrison’s melancholy and morbid “People are Strange,” covered that night by a slightly off-kilter, bewhiskered local who seemed to delight in exemplifying his song. My favorite? A barmaid’s huskily-belted, Joplin-esque rendition of “Bobby McGee.” Yeah. Somehow it just shouted Alaska.
Saturday, June 18
Before putting Ketchikan astern, we got out the hose and washed down the boat, then took Osprey for diesel and propane at the Petro Marine fuel dock. We got the “over-100-gallon discount” so the fuel cost “only” $5.30 per gallon (!). Total bill: just over $800. And we’re not halfway through the trip yet. Oof.
Three good things:
(1) Awakened without a hangover, which was a surprise after Karaoke Night at the Potlatch.
(2) Lucked into the last dock space in the cozy harbor at Meyers Chuck, our destination for the night, 33 miles north of Ketchikan. (A “chuck,” locals told me, is an inlet that fills and empties with the tides, though this one didn’t do that. Go figure.)
(3) Fell immediately in love with Meyers Chuck, a tiny off-the-grid community of about 40 residents in the summer and only four in the winter. I found charm at every turn, ranging from the flower pots by the rough-hewn benches on the pier, to daisy-lined footpaths that are the only “streets,” to the sign in a hut next to the float-plane landing: “Meyers Chuck International Air Terminal VIP Lounge, Occupancy 2.” According to a bulletin board at the head of the pier, you can order homemade cinnamon rolls delivered to your boat if you call a local baker the night before. We asked the first person we came across if he knew Lee Greeley, an old friend of Barbara M., and he pointed the way to a house three doors away. We ended up cheerfully hosting a happy hour on our crowded boat full of new and old friends, and got invited to breakfast the next morning.
Sunday, June 19
Three good things:
(1) A hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee at the home of Derral and Becky Fleming, who appropriately live in the former teacher’s cottage at Meyers Chuck, next to the former schoolhouse, which we’re told was designed by the same architect who did the one-room school that I know well from numerous visits to Stuart Island in the San Juans. It’s an appropriate home for the Flemings because (I soon learned) Becky was formerly the assistant superintendent of schools in Vancouver, Washington, where I worked for a decade at The Columbian newspaper.
(2) Besides loving Meyers Chuck, I immediately fell in love with Barbara M.’s old friend Lee Greeley, a mutual chum of our former Osprey crew member Carol Hasse. A sweet Leprechaun of a woman in her 70s with a knowing, gently impish smile, Lee is clearly an old soul. She confided with me that she, too, lost a beloved spouse to cancer, and when she joined us for breakfast this morning and brought a glorious bouquet of her garden’s flowers for our boat, she also brought me a small handful of posies, a kind gift of solace. She and I traded loving hugs as we parted, capping our one-day friendship.
(3) During an uneventful passage across Ernest Sound, I read aloud to my shipmates the whimsical Robert W. Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” an old chestnut my father could recite by heart. I read from a beautifully illustrated copy I’d found in Ketchikan at a Water Street gift shop called, what do you know, Sam McGee’s. Then, after carefully navigating the tricky zigzag narrows of Zimovia Strait, we Osprey-ites ended the day in a marina in Wrangell, feasting on a dinner of stuffed peppers prepared by Barbara M. and watching “The Princess Bride” in Osprey’s salon, with plenty of hot buttered popcorn. Can’t ask for a much better day than that.
Monday, June 20
Got moved first thing to a marina closer to downtown Wrangell, within walking distance of shopping, laundry and the library.
Three good things this day:
(1) Wrangell is a friendly, untouristy Alaska town. We got smiles and hellos from everyone we met on the street as we walked to a hardware store for a new water-hose nozzle. At a corner park, as Barbara M. paused to photograph a totem pole, an older couple greeted us as they walked by. The woman immediately volunteered, “I once found a pair of dentures on the ground right there!” Her husband (presumably) added, “It turned out they belonged to an old gal who we figured had a snootful at the bar and came by here to upchuck in the bushes, losing her teeth in the process!” His better half added, “But they didn’t have any vomit on them. I turned them in to the police station.” We’re not in jaded, overvisited Ketchikan anymore. This is small-town Alaska, mostly untrammeled by the biggest cruise ships.
(2) Wrangell’s lovely, comfortable, well-stocked Irene Ingle Public Library library is open from noon to 5 this Monday. In pouring rain, I tramped across town in my foul-weather jacket, Seattle Sombrero Gore-Tex hat and duck boots to this welcome refuge, named for a former head librarian who held the post for 30 years. Free Wi-Fi! Finally, I can post to my blog again.
(3) Groceries and laundry and showers, oh my! When you’ve been on the water for three weeks, sometimes it’s the little things. Got an online weather forecast, too. Sun is supposed to rejoin us by Thursday, and maybe stay a while. Meanwhile, tally ho and toodle-oo. We push north toward Petersburg on the morning tide.
WHO WAS HE, this prince for whom a remote British Columbian city was named? Prince Rupert of the Rhine was a German-English army officer, admiral, scientist and colonial governor who first came to prominence as a cavalry commander during the English Civil War of 1642–1651.
I’m sure you were on the edge of your seat, wondering.
One thing Rupert’s eponymous city has no shortage of is bald eagles. They’re like Seattle’s crows: everywhere you look. During our brief stay here, the beautiful big raptors have been our constant companions in Cow Bay Marina, especially this sun-drenched evening when the sport fishermen returned from a day of angling and cut up their catches on the sterns of their boats. Eagles swooped over Osprey’s roof again and again in hope of harvesting a fish head or two that might get tossed their way.
And they’re constantly hanging out nearby. Elsewhere in the world, we’re accustomed to eagles roosting in the tippy top of old gray snag firs, but this town’s urban birds prefer to while away the hours atop a stubby communications tower on the roof of the port building. They are the pigeons of Prince Rupert.
Tuesday, June 14
Three good things from this day, before we set out tomorrow for our next perilous ocean crossing, at Dixon Entrance:
(1) Enjoying a strong WiFi signal so I can catch up with my blogging!
(2) Visiting the nearby Museum of Northern British Columbia, with its excellent collection of First Nations artifacts, crafts and regalia, including a pair of 19th-century painted-bark leggings trimmed with a generous fringe of puffin beaks, of all things — dozens of them, enough to rattle and shake as the wearer walked.
Just down the street from the museum, behind the Prince Rupert courthouse, we also enjoyed the colorful sunken garden, a public treasure created in days past by a venerated groundskeeper.
(3) Getting my laundry done at a downtown laundromat, and buying another week’s worth of underpants at Walmart. Cruising life will now be easier.
HARD TO BELIEVE it’s been a week since I’ve updated you, faithful readers, but Osprey’s crew has been busily wending our way northward, encountering only a few lonely First Nations villages among the rain-drenched fjords and mossy inlets of the northern British Columbia coast.
Internet access has been as rare as, well, cell towers in the wilderness.
But all is well. Today, I bid you greetings from Northern B.C.’s “big” city: sunny Prince Rupert. Back to that soon.
In the meantime, it’s been a wet, wet, wet, wet week on this coast. The silver lining: Pouring rain makes for gloriously gushing waterfalls, anywhere there’s a ravine, or a 2,000-foot cliff, or a not-yet-melted snowcapped peak.
Here are my latest journal scribblings, focusing on three good things per day on this 10-week round-trip from Bellingham to Juneau aboard Osprey, our chartered Nordic Tug 37.
Wednesday, June 8
Three good things this day:
(1) The lovely dawn-time reflections of mountains and rocky shoreline on Codville Lagoon as we departed. Something a painter would struggle to copy.
(2) Lucking into an open dock space at Shearwater Marina, which had never responded to our emails or phone messages requesting a reservation. The local Heiltsuk First Nations band purchased the resort a year ago, and their business management style tends toward what you might call relaxed. But we found the gentleman in the harbormaster’s office to be soft-spoken, genial and welcoming.
(3) Shipmate Carol Hasse’s kind hosting of us all to dinner at the marina’s restaurant. It was the perfect end to a day that included welcome showers, espresso drinks at the coffee shop and catching up with messages from home. Bill feasted on a big rib-eye steak, something he’d been lusting after for days.
Thursday, June 9
Departed Shearwater at 7 a.m., bound for Rescue Bay, just off Mathieson Channel. A very rainy day.
Three good things:
(1) After listening to the weather radio, we knew this would be the worst weather day of the week, and we wanted to make some northward progress before expected gale-force winds arrived in the afternoon. With some good advice from a retired Coast Guard friend in Victoria with whom Hasse had been in touch, we made our way to narrow, protected Reid Passage. That let us skirt wide-open Milbanke Sound, swept by wild ocean swells this day. As we motored west from Shearwater on wide Seaforth Channel, rollers were breaking like Waikiki surf on lonely islets and hidden rocks until we turned northward into Reid Passage, about 100 feet wide between rocky and mossy shores. There, danger was past. A nerve-wracking bit of piloting for me, and a relief when it was over.
(2) Rescue Bay didn’t rescue us. Winds were blowing from the northeast, directly opposite what was forecast, bringing waves right into the northward-facing bay. So we pressed on northwestward into a very narrow and rock-strewn channel of Jackson Passage, sheltered by high hills on both sides. We were joking to one another that “wouldn’t it be nice if we could just drop the hook in here?” when we suddenly spied an anchor symbol on our Navionics chart plotter, marking a tiny cove just to starboard. We pulled in and anchored for the night, perfectly protected, as we listened to weather reports of 50-knot gusts at Egg Island in Queen Charlotte Sound, which we had transited two days ago. We dubbed the unnamed cove “Jackson Hole.”
(3) A very pleasant evening of cozy camaraderie on board as the rain poured unrelentingly. A fishing boat joined us in our cove, but not too close for comfort. We played a game of Murder of Crows (Barbara M. won, for the second time in a row) and watched a movie I brought, “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. A fun evening. Up at dawn to weigh anchor by 6 for a long day on the water tomorrow…
Friday, June 10
Three good things this day:
(1) Seeing the beautifully decorated Big House, the First Nations ceremonial meeting house at the Kitasoo/Xaixais village of Klemtu on Swindle Island, and marveling at the layering of landscapes, softened by fog and rain as we motored peacefully up deserted Tolmie Channel, seemingly the only people left on earth.
(2) Exploring the dramatic 5-mile fjord of Khutze Inlet, a wonderland of high hills, thousand-foot waterfalls and deep saltwater.
(3) After our plan to visit the First Nations village of Hartley Bay is quashed by a COVID closure, deciding on the spur of the moment to turn in and stay the night at the dock at Butedale, a long-abandoned cannery site off Princess Royal Channel. We met sailors on two other boats, including the pretty schooner-rigged Wild Gypsy, crewed by a couple of retired school teachers. Arriving shortly after us: two intrepid kayakers who are paddling from Lund, B.C., to Skagway, Alaska. Carol, Barbara M. and I explored the ruins, stepping around a generous pile of bear scat on a boardwalk, and took a dinghy ride to get a close look at the mammoth, rain-fueled waterfall that drains from a lake above the site. Every manmade thing at Butedale is crumbling, as nature takes back its own.
Saturday, June 11
Three good things this day:
(1) I awoke at 6:30 to the singing of loons echoing across the bay at Butedale. Their haunting yodel lent a wondrous delight to the tired old shorefront.
(2) My “baked underwear” scheme was a resounding success! After inadvisedly skipping a laundry opportunity at Shearwater Marina, I paid the price by running out of clean undies and socks yesterday. While rinsing out underpants in soapy water in the head sink worked fine, I knew that they would never dry in this damp, cool weather if hung in the boat cabin or outside on a railing. But I knew from experience that the engine room during a long day of motoring gets positively oven-like. So I wrung out a pair of briefs, spread them atop a battery box and secured them under a strap so no flying underpants would get tangled in moving parts. At day’s end, they were Death Valley dry. So this morning I washed two more pairs and a couple pairs of socks, which went below to bake during our voyage to Lowe Inlet. That’s cruising.
(3) Arriving at Lowe Inlet at 2:30 p.m., we dropped our anchor right in front of beautiful Verney Falls, which empties out of an adjacent lake. The guidebooks tipped us off that the current from the falls would hold us in line without swinging far on our anchor, and it pretty much worked like a charm. We had a lovely view of the falls and the hills all around, including the pretentiously named Duchess of Dufferin Range to the south, and the less-interesting Bare Top Range to the north. But what if the duchess went bare topped, maybe that wouldn’t be so ho-hum, Hasse suggested…
Sunday, June 12
We’ve been at this for over two weeks now and Carol H. is about to leave us. It will be a big change to our dynamic as a crew. She has added so much heart and so many smiles to the voyage. I told her today that I would miss making coffee for her every morning, and we shared a hug.
Three good things:
(1) A pleasant morning with sun breaks! The rain has been a burden this past week. We’ve not been out in our kayaks yet, nor taken any real hikes on shore. Our ongoing quip, “Oh, what a surprise, it’s raining!” has worn as thin as a thrice-darned sock. We were glad for the sunlight on the hillsides and kept watching for rainbows as rain clouds lingered.
(2) I made my almond-flour pancakes again (daughter Lillian’s recipe), on this Sunday morning when we didn’t plan to go far and a 10 a.m. departure (late for us) worked fine. Cooked up some crisp turkey bacon with the flapjacks. Could anything be better in this world than the rapturous aroma of bacon frying on a boat anchored amid the outflow of a rampaging waterfall in the Canadian wilderness?
(3) Spontaneity struck again, in a delightful way. After re-reading the guidebook details of this day’s planned anchorage, Kumealon Inlet, we were feeling lukewarm about it. Previous visitors wrote online about logging onshore, and poor holding ground for anchors. A few miles short of arriving, we saw a navigation marker onshore and checked the chart. It was the entrance to Baker Inlet, which looked intriguing. We quickly read good things about it in Waggoner’s and another favorite guide, with mention of howling wolves by night and wandering bears and deer by day. And the narrow, narrow entry we now saw was barely an opening in the trees! Hard for the adventurous spirit to resist. After a quick poll of crewmates, Hasse and I convinced Bill, at the helm, to turn in. The entry was barely wide enough for two boats. Tree branches hung low and blind-alley curves concealed what lay ahead. I asked Bill if he recalled the scene of Humphrey Bogart hauling his boat through the jungle in the film “The African Queen.” This looked like that, though charts promised safe passage. After a few minutes we emerged to a wide, wonderful lake-like setting surrounded by snowy peaks and ribbon waterfalls. Nary a ripple disturbed the inlet’s nearly landlocked surface. A magical spot to spend the night. We’d listen for howling wolves!
Monday, June 13
Three good things:
(1) No howls overnight, but we were compensated by waking up to a mirrorlike pond surrounding Osprey. The tide was quite low; Hasse’s tide-guide research tipped us off to a 20-foot range overnight. We departed at 6:30 a.m., aiming for a noon arrival at Prince Rupert so Carol would have plenty of time to pack and prepare for her early Tuesday departure as a foot passenger on the B.C. Ferries sailing for Port Hardy, where a friend will meet her with a car. I piloted Osprey out the ultra-narrow passage at the entrance to Baker Inlet. Added to my morning cuppa strong coffee, it was an adrenaline rush. While charts indicated good depths, the low tide narrowed the breadth between rocky shores. I proceeded at dead slow, sticking carefully to mid-channel. Expelled a big sigh when we popped out into Grenville Channel at last. Fun, fun, fun. And memorable.
(2) After a week in the wilds, it was a treat to spend a day back in town. Prince Rupert, with its towering cranes for loading container ships, and long lines of train cars parked along the industrial waterfront, is a big city in this corner of the world. After checking in to Cow Bay Marina, we walked up a hill to reprovision at a big Safeway supermarket, then enjoyed a pub dinner with lots of cold local beer, Wheelhouse Gillnetter pale ale.
(3) Skyped with daughter Lillian. Sitting with my laptop out on the boat’s foredeck in the British Columbian sunshine – finally! – it was a pleasure to see her smiling face for the first time in two weeks, and to catch up on family news. In three days, she and a girlfriend fly to Paris for a European adventure. You just can’t nail us Cantwells down.
Us Osprey-ites, now reduced to three, have a stopover day in Prince Rupert to play tourist. Then, north toward Ketchikan! Alaska. Finally. Can’t wait.