17 September 2015 | Juneau to Petersburg
I promised a blog update today and while I haven't finished mine, I'm copying, with permission, my friend Wade's "Sitka FishWrapper". Wade has been aboard DE the past two weeks and just posted this. Wade is a retired airline pilot (747s) who we met 11-12 years ago, crewing together on a yacht repositioning from Vancouver BC to Mexico. Since then Wade has crewed with us on DavidEllis every year we have been in SE AK, the run from AK down to Bodega Bay and on the equatorial Pacific crossing aboard MV Shearwater. For several years after retirement Wade captained tour boats in Sitka and began a newsletter to friends he calls the "Sitka FishWrapper". He's continued the FishWrapper whenever underway. Here's his latest.
2015 FishWrapper 2
When Nature's lightshow faded away last night after almost an hour, [note from Dave: this was the evening we saw the spectacular Northern Lights / Aurelia Borealis] we went below and settled in for movie night. There's an extensive DVD library aboard and nightly we've been alternating between a random movie selection and the six films of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Dorothy and David and I are all Tolkien fans and I've never seen the three-movie remake of The Hobbit. I saw the original one-film Hobbit in the theater years ago and not since, so having all six movies aboard to watch in sequence is a real treat. Anyway, after the movie we turned in with the anticipation of leaving Juneau in the morning for points south. Just where and when we'll be going is in large part dictated by the weather, especially this late in the season. Back in Seattle they're celebrating Bumbershoot, the music festival welcoming the return of the rain. Up here we don't celebrate rain so much...
This morning's forecast for the coming days is not encouraging. Although we've had fairly nice weather for the days we've been in Juneau, it's coming to an end. A storm is moving in this evening, and our choices are to stay here in the marina for several more days or get under way and hole up somewhere else tonight. We've had enough of marina living for a while so we left Auke Bay and set off south down Stephens Passage.
There are several places along our route that could offer shelter from the weather if necessary so the plan was to try to make Holkham Bay if we could. We could cruise down to the glacier at the end of Endicott Arm the next day if the weather was too windy to cruise the outside waters of Stephens Passage. However, it didn't turn out that way. As we motored southbound it was becoming apparent that the arrival at Holkham Bay was going to be in the dark and more importantly, in the weather, so we elected to stop short at Taku Harbor. In spite of the "harbor" name, there's nothing there but a deserted pier maintained by the State for the convenience of the fishing fleet in the summer. Taku is a roughly circular bay maybe a mile or two across with a narrow opening into Stephens Passage to the west. At one time it had a thriving cannery, one of literally a thousand dotting the coast and waterways from California to Alaska.
The advent of refrigeration over a century ago spelled the beginning of the end for the canneries. The remains of these enterprises can still be seen when cruising the waterways of BC and Alaska. Further around the bay from the state pier two wooden bunkhouses are tucked into the tree line, their paint long gone along with their structural integrity. Roofs sag, and curtainless windows stare at the empty water where once there had been a boardwalk. The other buildings that housed the working part of the cannery - the company store, the cafeteria, the "slime line" where the fish were processed, all are gone. The stumps of the pilings that supported the walkway and the pier and the other buildings are all that are left, hundreds of rotted teeth protruding from the mud. The scene is typical of the old cannery sites.
Not another sign of human habitation is visible anywhere in the bay. It's a lonely place and totally deserted this time of year, but it offers shelter, and besides, we like the isolation.
There's nothing like being securely at anchor somewhere in Alaska and seeing only nature - no towns, no other boats, no lights at all: total darkness and occasionally the stars overhead. But this night we wouldn't be needing the anchor; that convenient pier meant easy mooring and easy access to the shore for the dogs. Dave and Dorothy wouldn't have to dress in their boots and put Rusty and Rascal into the boat to go ashore on the beach. So, as the light faded and the storm clouds gathered we put into Taku and made ourselves fast to the pier. Dave chose to tie up on the opposite side of the pier from the entrance, under the theory that if wind did blow into the entrance DAVID ELLIS would be held off the pier rather than be pressed into it. It was a seemingly minor decision that had major ramifications later.
At the moment, however, the water was still glassy smooth and as soon as we were snugly alongside David took the dogs down the pier for a romp ashore. Dorothy or I (I don't remember who) started fixing dinner and when Dave returned with the dogs we sat down to a hot meal and another movie. By the time the movie was over it was completely dark and the forecast rain had begun. David and I suited up in our foulies (rain gear, for you non-sailors) and again made the long walk down the pier with the dogs to give them their last run for the night before turning in.
Rain is audibly pelting the boat this morning. It's heavier than last night and the wind has picked up from the southwest, just as forecast. The sky is dark with low clouds. Long streaks of white have appeared on the surface of the bay, kicked up by wind funneling through the entrance. The mountains surrounding Taku Harbor are providing no windbreak as they would if the wind were blowing from any other direction. The boat is still riding easily but the bow and stern lines are stretched tight from the wind pressure on the hull. David remarks he's happy we're not moored on the windward side of the pier. Even with fenders his brand new paint job would be taking a beating.
Taking the dogs ashore for their morning walk is a chore: we must get out of our warm dry bunks, get fully dressed in foul weather gear to go outside, and of course get out of all that wet clothing when going back in. But it's done, and the dogs are happy, if a little damp. Since we aren't going anywhere soon I volunteered to make spam and egg sandwiches for breakfast, something that was almost a staple on SHEARWATER on the Pacific crossing two years ago. I thought it might bring back memories for David, and it did, but Dorothy wasn't much impressed. Spam is Spam, but at least it was a hot meal on this chilly rainy morning. (If you're interested, my Spam sandwiches consist of: two bread slices, mayonnaise on the inside of both pieces; cheese on the bottom slice; two pieces of Spam cut about a quarter-inch thick and fried until brown then placed on the cheese; a fried egg with the yolk broken sits on the Spam; some lettuce next, and the whole sandwich put back in the pan and fried until the bread turns toasty brown on the outside. A little butter in the pan helps too.)
During the course of the day the rain continued and the wind picked up a bit more, none of which was surprising. That's why we were here, to escape the worst of the forecast weather. The previous night's report called for another day of rain, and wind from the southwest at 25 knots with gusts to 30, which was right on, from our observations. We settled down for the day and relaxed with another movie and some reading. It was cozy with the three of us sitting quietly near the orange flame of the diesel heater, David and me reading and Dorothy knitting with her legs folded underneath her in the recliner. Rascal was sleeping under her chair and Rusty was snoring gently on the couch next to me with the top of his head pressed into my thigh. Dinner followed somewhat later, but conditions were changing. There was some motion to the boat now, and a look outside revealed that the waves rolling in the inlet were no longer mere ripples with streaky foam on top but were full fledged breakers. The wind noise was louder too, coming in periodic gusts, as if the whole inlet were breathing. In the momentary lull the boat would drift back towards the float; then another gust would hit and the mooring lines would snap tight. With every gust came a splattering of seawater on the cabin windows. The breakers had grown so large that they hit the pier with enough force to send seawater shooting up and over, catching the wind and hurtling against the side of the boat. The float itself was totally awash. David tried to get an updated forecast but there was no radio reception at all; surrounded by mountains, we were cut off from the world.
The dogs didn't know that, however, or they didn't care. They just knew that it was time for their before-bedtime walk, so David and I dutifully got into our rain gear and heavy boots and took them outside into the pitch black. Walking around the corner of the cabin and stepping into the roar of the wind was a shock - it was a physical force that made it hard to balance. The rain hit like birdshot, stinging my face and hands. This was clearly much more wind than the forecast predicted. Getting the dogs off the boat was a worry; the mooring lines were stretched taut and there was a three-foot gap between the boat and the pier but they both made the jump safely. David and I must have looked like we were drunk walking down the pier towards the beach. Legs spread wide and arms out for balance we looked ridiculous taking small steps trying to stay upright. Another gust hit and David went down, blown sideways and off his feet. He was okay though, and thankfully didn't get pushed off the side of the pier. Keep in mind that all this is taking place in blinding, stinging rain, the only light visible anywhere around were the feeble beams coming from our flashlights. Getting the dogs back aboard was a tense moment. They not only had to leap over the gap between boat and pier, but upward as well, as the hull was several feet higher than the float, for that's what our dock was - a float that rose and fell with the tide. I was worried that a slip would put the dogs in the water between the boat and the float but experienced boat dogs that they are they both made it on the first try.
Back aboard I was getting concerned about those two breast lines, fore and aft, that held us to the pier. David must have been thinking the same thing because he suggested we double up, adding a second bow and stern line. We ran these two new lines all the way across the float and made them fast to the far side, to completely different rails, so all our eggs weren't in one basket, so to speak. I would've liked to get some of the slack out of the mooring lines to stop the sudden jerk when the boat was blown away from the dock but it no longer was safe to loosen them even momentarily. An unfortunate gust could have torn the vessel from our control. Dorothy pitched in, shining a spotlight where we were working, and when the two extra lines were made fast David looked up at me from under his rain gear, water streaming off his beard, smiled and said "Aren't we glad we're not out cruising in this?" I grinned back. We were still having fun, the two of us at least, but this was getting to be a bit much. David and I are sure those gusts must have been well over 50 knots. But the boat was safe and secure, so I dried myself off, went to bed and slept through the night.
Morning - and quiet. There wasn't a sound to be heard when I awoke in my bunk in the forward stateroom. Pale grey light shows faintly behind the porthole on the opposite bulkhead, and just as I'm wondering what time it is and should I get up, the clock strikes six bells: 7am. Doubling up the lines last night did the trick and in spite of the acrobatics the bunk was doing I slept solidly through the night unconcerned about the security of the boat. But this morning there's no motion at all. The storm has finally blown itself out, or at least moved on to torment someone else. We don't yet know for sure, but we're getting underway anyway, hoping for smooth water outside the harbor entrance. That's not yet certain; depending on the direction of the wind Taku could be glassy smooth yet the waters of Stephens Passage could still be roiling.
Whales! - lots of them just outside the entrance. Fortunately the waters of the passage are calm and almost as glassy as the inlet, and spouts and fins of humpbacks are everywhere. The cruise ship Volendam passes slowly a half mile ahead on its way to Juneau, perhaps going slower than usual to give their passengers a chance to do some whale watching. I doubt they had a good day yesterday wherever they were. A port visit would have been very wet and uncomfortable, and if they were under way yesterday from their last stop they would have been at least confined to the interior of the ship, and at worst subject to some motion the cruise lines don't like to talk about. The Volendam is small by cruise ship standards.
Today's plan is to proceed south four hours along Stephens Passage to Holkham Bay, the common entrance to Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, two fjord-like passages into the interior. Tracy Arm wanders generally north east about 30 miles and is flanked by steep, high mountains. Numerous waterfalls cascade down the faces of granite cliffs. The last mile or so of the fjord splits with each fork ending at the face of a glacier, Sawyer to the right and North Saywer to the left. This is the place many cruising vessels in Southeast Alaska come to see glaciers up close. The true scale of the fjord can be visualized when a cruise ship passes down the narrow passage beneath towering mountains, a rowboat at the feet of giants. True, Glacier Bay further north has much larger glaciers, and more of them, but has its own set of problems. It's off the beaten path, requiring an extra day's sailing to get there for both ships and small boats alike, and a reservation is required to enter the park. Reservations can be difficult to come by as daily admissions are limited. Finally, Marjorie Glacier, the one that everyone wants to see, is at the end of a very long passage, one that is frequently choked with floating ice. A seven-knot vessel like DAVID ELLIS would take most of a day just to reach the glacier, necessitating an overnight stay in the park, and anchorages are limited. For these reasons Tracy Arm is a popular alternative. Another option would be to explore Endicott Arm, and that's what we will try tomorrow. Both these fjords can be difficult to enter due to floating ice, but we are hoping the strong southerly winds of the last couple of days will have cleared the icebergs out of Endicott for us. Not that getting to the end of either Endicott or Tracy is easy; floating growlers and icebergs are so common that many days the glacier cannot be approached at all. We will also need a safe place to anchor tonight and tomorrow night. A round trip to the glacier face can take ten hours or so, and there is no anchoring in the fjords. Your boat can be sailing so close to a two-thousand foot high mountain that you could reach out and touch the cliff face yet there will be a thousand feet of water beneath the keel. The one good anchorage near the entrance to the fjords is exposed to the south; we will need a good overnight forecast for northerly winds before using it. There is a mediocre anchorage on the other side of the bay open to the north in case the forecast is for southerlies, but again we will need some confidence in the weather pattern before deciding it's useable.
We used the northern, more secure anchorage last night since the wind wasn't strong enough to be of concern. We swung by the anchorage on the south side first just to have a look and decided it wasn't suitable for a boat the size of DAVID ELLIS. The basin of the small bay was too deep for anchoring until very close to the rocks on the shore, and the bottom came up rapidly. There wasn't enough room for the boat to swing at anchor if we got close enough to the shore for the anchor to have a good hold.
The evening didn't go completely smoothly however. When we were within an easy mile of where the anchor would go down we picked up a piece of rope in the propellor. By the time David worked most of it out from under the boat - it came up it two pieces, meaning the middle section was still entangled - it was full dark. At least it wasn't raining at the moment. The propellor shaft was free to rotate so it was likely DAVID ELLIS could proceed the last mile slowly under its own power, but for safety's sake I followed in the small skiff. We figured the ten horsepower outboard could tow the bigger boat if necessary, but it wasn't. It was, however, interesting to be out in the open of Holkham Bay in the chop and the pitch darkness. I couldn't see anything around me but simply followed the stern light of the Diesel Duck ahead, like a duckling swimming behind Mother. We're pretty sure there's some length of rope still wrapped around the propellor or shaft but further investigation will have to wait for the light of day. In the meantime we enjoyed the serenity of being the only boat in the anchorage, and the solitude, if one doesn't count the icebergs floating around. Tomorrow will be interesting.
Fortunately we have a Prominent Frogman aboard.
Diving was David's profession, or part of it anyway, as a Sonoma County Sheriff with the marine division. The DE is equipped with the necessary gear for diving: wet suits, tanks and regulators, and a separate system called a hookah, consisting of a small electric compressor and a lot of hose connected to a breathing regulator. David decided to use that. Strapping on tanks is a hassle, and using one would mean having to have it refilled.
Dorothy was a big help in getting David into the skin-tight rubber wetsuit, but not so much help when she remarked "Look at the icebergs!"
Neoprene wetsuit or not, the initial immersion had to be a shock, but nothing a Prominent Frogman couldn't handle. Ten minutes later Dave was back aboard with 12 feet of 3/4 inch polypropylene rope in his hand.
While our Frogman was getting a hot shower I brewed up some hot chocolate for all of us. By midday the sun was peeking out between the clouds and I got some beautiful photographs. By the way, the ten minutes spent in the water was the shortest part of the self-rescue operation. Making a plan and collecting and setting up equipment and getting David dressed easily consumed an hour; afterwards getting everything back to normal - including David - took another. We no longer had the time, or the inclination, frankly, to go look at more ice this afternoon. So, change of plans. Another lazy day on the anchor seemed like an excellent idea and we settled in for another movie. It's a good thing the DAVID ELLIS's official motto is "Semper Gumby". Loosely translated (very loosely) it means "Always Flexible".
As we swung gently at anchor reading, watching movies, and knitting, someone looked up to see a bear on the beach 100 yards behind us, the same beach we have been using to give the dogs a run. No one was too surprised; living with bears is a fact of life in Alaska. This was a big fellow, though, with a dark, almost black coat and a lot of fat on him in preparation for the coming lean winter. Despite his color, his prominent hump and his size marked him as a brown bear, the apex predator in Southeast. He wandered around in the grass and on the beach for a while, splashing in the stream flowing from the forest, fishing, probably, before disappearing into the trees.
Hours later, the dogs have to have their pre-dark run, so after dinner David and I loaded the pair into the tender and started for the shore. Rusty is a dainty one, not wanting to get his paws wet, and stands patiently in the bow of the boat frozen like a canine figurehead; Rascal the Younger is impatient, pacing back and forth emitting frustrated doggie noises. Rusty will wait until the boat grates on the gravel before carefully hopping over any puddles to step ashore dry-footed; Rascal coils like a spring and leaps blindly forewarn into the air, more often than not while the boat is still ten feet from the beach. He belly-flops into the water, then swims, hops, and runs up on the beach. His approach is more like an invasion than a landing. Once ashore the pair trot up the beach looking for the "right spot" but this evening something odd happened. They both raised a leg in preparation and then froze, looking at the same place in the woods, ears flattened, head stretched straight out. Rusty's hackles rose and he growled low in his throat. Now, there's no doubt in my mind, or David's, that that bear was there watching us from cover. But at the same time it was hard not to laugh at those ridiculous dogs trying to look fierce all the while with a hind leg cocked.
As a footnote to the bear story - I was awake early this morning and went quietly up into the pilot house to do some reading. Soon our bear wandered out of the woods and I spent an interesting half hour watching him fish. Shortly after he wandered away David woke up and we took the dogs to the beach. No growling or pointing this time, just taking care of business, and after several minutes we motored back to the boat. And there was the bear back again, walking around and smelling where the dogs had been. Clearly he'd been watching us again, and I was happy that David had been taking the shotgun with us on our beach visits. Usually bears avoid people, but the thing about bears is you can't trust 'em. You can't be sure just what they will do every time.
If there's any chance of getting this Wrapper out soon I've got to quickly move along with this tale. After getting the dogs aboard from their morning run and getting the tender hauled aboard we continued further south on Stephens Passage to our next stop, Hobart Bay. There's nothing there this time of the year but the beauty of nature. It does offer several secure anchorages so we decided to explore. Actually, I talked D and D into exploring; Hobart was one of the regular stops in the week-long cruise when I was working on the ALASKAN DREAM for Allen Marine a couple of years ago. It's where we put all the toys out for the passengers to play with for the day. We had kayaks they could use, and small personal outboard boats and four wheel drive all terrain vehicles for them to drive. I had a lot of fun that summer leading "convoys" of passengers around the bay, or up into the hills on old logging trails. If you've been getting these FishWrappers all along you will remember Hobart and will have some photos of the activities from the ALASKAN DREAM summer. We spent a quiet night tucked into a small cove without any sign of bears, and left the next morning for Petersburg. It will be our first contact with civilization (and the Internet) in a week. Petersburg sits at the top end of Wrangell Narrows, and regular readers of the Wrapper will remember that the current running by the piers can reach 5 knots at times. We had hoped to get to Petersburg at peak high tide, when the current would be momentarily slack, to make maneuvering DAVID ELLIS into the crowded slips easier. As the day progressed we kept falling behind schedule so we stopped at Portage Bay, several hours short of Petersburg. It's a snug but unremarkable anchorage from which we would time our departure the next day to catch the slack at Petersburg, and I only mention it at all because it leads into the final day of this FishWrapper.
We are under way to Petersburg on Frederick Sound, having exited the south end of Stephens Passage yesterday afternoon. Extra care was taken to make ready for rough water this morning. The wind had come up during the night and the radio reported 4-foot waves in the sound. That's not much in the normal scheme of things, but DAVID ELLIS is traveling this summer without her mast and stabilizer poles. There's no way to put the stabilizer "fish" in the water to keep rolling under control. Keep in mind that this is David and Dorothy's full time home and there's a lot of "stuff" aboard that would have to be securely stowed for a rough water passage: kitchen countertops would have to be cleared, art objects collected and put away, etc. Dorothy is not too fond of rough weather cruising, and Rusty positively hates it. Time permitting we probably would chose to stay in the safe haven of Portage Bay until the weather improves, but time does not permit. This morning's lumpy conditions are going to get a lot worse in the next 24 hours, according to the forecast. A deep low pressure area in the Gulf of Alaska will be moving our way and persisting for days. Small craft warnings are pending for Southeast Alaska and more weather like we endured in Taku Harbor is expected through the weekend. It's unlikely we will make Wrangell and the conclusion of this summer's odyssey by Sunday, the target date. I'm supposed to fly out of Wrangell on Monday morning, so Semper Gumby is the word of the day. I'll have to go on-line tomorrow and check airline and ferry schedules to devise an alternate plan.
By the way, the ride is not so bad. It's common in Alaska for winds from all points of the compass to become trapped and funneled between the mountains that border the waterways. That means on the water the wind is either coming from ahead or behind, and not from the side. David and I discussed this in our pre-departure planning and decided that rolling was unlikely to be a problem where we were headed, so here we are in the middle of Frederick Sound meeting four-foot waves and 25 knots of wind head on. At seventy thousand pounds DAVID ELLIS hardly notices. The gentle pitching motion does have Rusty burying his head in a pile of rugs in the pilot house, curled into a corner as tight as he can get, but nobody else takes notice; it is as we hoped. At lunchtime I made myself a grilled cheese and ham sandwich.
I'm up early as usual; nobody else is stirring. The rain is drumming on the cabin top but I don't hear any wind yet. The weatherman still says it's coming. Late yesterday afternoon we arrived at Petersburg at slack high tide and glided easily into a vacant slip. The laundromat is still operating this fall so today I'll do my laundry and some packing. I do need to get home soon. It's still unknown at this point whether I'll be joining DAVID ELLIS's sistership SHEARWATER for a trip down the coast to San Diego. That may happen next fall instead. But if it's this year my stay at home will be brief. Semper Gumby.