Warming up to Alaska, and paying off our weather debt

A bone-toasting soak next to a raging waterfall: the nirvana of Baranof Warm Springs.

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.

Good things:

(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.

From Osprey’s top deck, toasting our arrival at Warm Springs Bay.

(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.

A gift after a long day: A July moon over Warm Springs Bay

(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.

A rollicking waterfall adds to the scenery enjoyed by the boardwalk community of Baranof Warm Springs.

(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.

Wild huckleberries along the trail to the hot spring.

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.

A runabout at the base of Red Bluff Bay’s waterfall gives scale to the majesty.

(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.

Red-throated Loons on Red Bluff Bay, Baranof Island, Alaska.

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.

Collecting mussels on the beach at Goose Bay.

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.

A bald eagle perches atop Day Marker 43 in Southeast Alaska’s aptly named Rocky Pass.

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.

Magical morning light before the storm, on Kashevarof Passage, in North Clarence Strait.

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!

See you next from Prince Rupert. Stay with us.