Mystical totems, rollicking dive bars and tourist-packed cruise ships: Alaska, at last

Barbara Marrett kayaks on Foggy Bay, a common first stop back in American waters after many days on the British Columbia coast for boaters heading up the Inside Passage

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.”

An Alaska state flag replaced the Canadian courtesy flag on Osprey’s starboard spreader after we arrived at Ketchikan.

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.

Historical Creek Street on Ketchikan Creek, the city’s one-time red-light district, now home to boutiques, gift shops and galleries.

(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!

Cruise ships of every shape and size prowl Alaskan waters. This is the Disney Wonder on Tongass Narrows.

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.

“Man Wearing a Bear Hat,” a Tlingit (say “Klink-it”) totem at Totem Bight State Park, near Ketchikan.

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.

Barbara Marrett steps out of the Clan House at Totem Bight State Park.

(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.

The Potlatch Bar reeks of Alaskan character, on the boardwalk above Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin marina.

(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 worse 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.)

Along a daisy-lined path, an old shack adorned by fishing floats serves as a sawmill in the remote community of Meyers Chuck, 30 miles north of Ketchikan.

(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.

Barbara Marrett, right, with Meyers Chuck friends Lee Greeley, left, and Becky Fleming during Happy Hour in Osprey’s salon. Bill Watson photo.

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, 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.

Osprey, near the head of the line of boats, on the Meyers Chuck dock at sunset.

(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.

A minus tide exposes the tidal grid adjoining Reliance Float in Wrangell harbor. Osprey is moored at center left.

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.

Me, in rain togs, in Wrangell.

(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.

Voyaging to The Last Frontier in 2022

Osprey is a Nordic Tug 37 that began its life as a mobile clinic serving remote Alaskan villages.

I HAVE A HAPPY NEW OBSESSION, a good distraction, a great adventure for which to prepare over the next 11 months

A year from now, friends and I are taking a 37-foot Nordic Tug called “Osprey” on a 10-week voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska.

For any serious Pacific Northwest boater, the Inside Passage is a temptation, if not a dream. When my dear wife passed away in April and I faced this uncharted future, one of my first “What Do I Do Now?” thoughts was to renovate our old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro, and take her to Alaska. It wouldn’t be the boat’s first time; when we bought the boat in 1989 from a Bainbridge Island plumber, the home port on the stern read Ketchikan. In subsequent years the boat’s been a veteran of the Baja Bash and many San Juan Islands explorations.

But it’s also been an innocent victim of deferred maintenance in recent years when I’ve had other things on my mind, and projects have a way of piling up. Bringing Sogni d’Oro back to ocean-cruising readiness could drive a 100,000-ton freighter through my 401k. While the 1,000-mile saltwater route from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay threads inside islands wherever possible, enjoying significant protection from the open sea most of the way, the voyage is no doddle. You need a stout boat properly equipped. Like me, Sogni d’Oro is getting older, and while not ready for permanent drydock, she’s a little tired.

So when my Friday Harbor friends Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson told me of their ambitions for an Inside Passage voyage in the summer of 2022 and asked if I’d like to sign on as crew on their chartered vessel, I didn’t have to think hard.

I first got to know Barbara Marrett through a book she co-authored about sailing the South Pacific, “Mahina Tiare: Pacific Passages,” which to this day occupies a bookshelf on Sogni d’Oro. Later in my travel writing career, we got acquainted through her job as communications director for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. Her partner, Bill, retired from a tech career and recently completed a term as a San Juan County councilman.

Barbara holds a 100-ton captain’s license, meaning she’s officially qualified to pilot vessels up to that size. While she likes sea voyages, she and Bill don’t especially enjoy organizing trips. As a travel writer, that sort of thing is my forte. I happily took on the task of finding a boat. (Toss the kid the candy-store keys!)

Barbara’s desired parameters: a boat with two staterooms, plus a cozy cabin with big windows for enjoying the scenery full of breaching whales, beach-roving bears and calving glaciers. That ruled out most sailboats, which mostly feature small portholes or narrow windows.

It took only a few days on the internet before I stumbled on a charter boat that ticked almost every box I could think of: reliable big diesel powerplant with 1,000-mile cruising range, modern navigation equipment, forced-air heat, a queen-sized berth as well as twin-sized bunks, a new RIB dinghy with 20-horse outboard easily launched from davits, two kayaks for exploring remote bays, 300 feet of anchor chain…and much more. The boat was Osprey, listed with San Juan Yachting Charters in Bellingham.

Built in 2006, Osprey originally served two doctors who used her as a mobile clinic visiting remote oceanfront communities in Alaska. The current owners, Nick and Anna Davidson, bought Osprey and completely refitted her for charter in 2018. They’ve expressed delight at our plans to return the boat to Alaska waters; they plan the same trip aboard her in 2023.

In a couple weeks, Bill, Barbara and I will meet them aboard Osprey in Friday Harbor and talk about our plans. They’ve asked us for a wish list of improvements they could make to the boat before we set out next May. I like the boat and I like these owners.

I’m already immersing myself in planning and prep, including reading acclaimed British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban’s “Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings,” the story of his sailing trip from Seattle, his adopted home, up the Inside Passage in the 1990s. “Alaska liked to advertise itself as ‘The Last Frontier,’ a slogan tinged with self-canceling whimsy since it appeared on vehicle registration plates, courtesy of the state licensing department,” Raban wrote. “If the phrase could now be held to mean anything at all, it belonged to the sea, not the land; and the sea around Alaska was a real wilderness, as wild and lonely as any territory in the American past.”

Admittedly, his voyage pre-dated the multiplicative inundation by today’s monster cruise ships carrying as many as 5,000 passengers each. But much remains wild in water and on shore once the big ships have passed by.

Can’t wait.