‘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.