Cruising SE Alaska – part 5

Juneau Mt. Roberts
Juneau from the Mt. Roberts Tramway
Our attention to all those navigation aids from Glacier Bay, Pelican and Elfin Bay paid off, as we negotiated the narrows of Cross Sound successfully in two easy days to Juneau.

Juneau is such a gem, it should have been named Jewell. Of course it is the capital of Alaska, and with 30,000 people is by far the largest city in Southeast. And there is lots of transient marina space. In Alaska, at least this southeastern portion that we are cruising, public marinas are built with long docks providing side ties for all vessels, which are mostly transient. Twelve miles north of town center is Auke Bay with 6000 lineal feet of dock space, and it is all designated for visiting boats with a ten day maximum stay. That’s enough room for several hundred boats, and with lots of room between docks for turning and maneuvering. In one whirlwind weekend, our old friends Fred and Jo who we met in Tahiti 27 years ago, showed us all the sights.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier and Lake
We dined on fresh King salmon, enjoyed a wonderful dinner in a restaurant, saw bears, the Mendenhall Glacier and lake, and were treated to wondrous views and hikes at the top of the aerial tramway on Mount Roberts, 1800 feet above the city. Lots of fun, but the clock was ticking.

On the final Monday in August we turned south on our way to Holy Grail’s winter destination, Wrangell, some 250 sailing miles away, including side trips. Traveling at night is not an option for us. Even with all our aids to navigation, transiting through tight quarters and unable to see floating dangers in darkness seems too dangerous to risk. So we plan for conservative distances each day, making sure we can reach a safe and reliable anchorage by mid afternoon, with alternates in mind “just in case…” It was an easy 35 mile run to Taku Harbor where we side tied to a big public dock in an otherwise deserted bay. These public floating docks, built in remote bays and coves by cities or the state, are dotted all over Southeast, especially in bays that are too deep for small boats to anchor, or in areas where other convenient and safe anchorages do not exist. they are very strongly constructed of heavy timber, attached to massive pilings designed for the 100 knot winds that occasionally occur here. We were very grateful for this dock, as a storm with heavy rain blew through that night and all the next day with winds reported above 80 in some nearby places. We were snug in the cabin with the diesel heater roaring, the popcorn supply dwindling and the scrabble board well used.

If one, impossibly, had only one day in all of Southeast, and could only visit one of the many wonders, we would unquestionably recommend Holkham Bay as the number one choice. After running the bar with it’s swift and swirling current (a little scary!), we found a calm anchorage in “no name” bay with ice bergs for company.

Tracy Arm Anchorage
“No Name Bay” anchorage in Tracy Arm
This day, the day after the storm, was bright and calm, and the next was even better in full sun. Calculating the tides, we started out in the chill just after dawn. Destination was South Sawyer Glacier at the head of the winding and narrow 22 mile long Tracy Arm fjord, the walls of which rise to more than 5000 feet!
Tracy Arm
Tracy Arm
Some of the walls were bare stone scoured and striated by the glacier, with waterfalls, and some vistas back into deep canyons. But all along the serpentine route the half mile wide fjord felt very narrow compared to the soaring walls above, and especially when a huge cruise ship rounded a corner as we were making our way down.
South Sawyer Glacier
South Sawyer Glacier
After running four hours from our anchorage, we reached the berg choked foot of the glacier and picked our way slowly as close as we dared, about one-third mile from the calving monster. We were alone for a time, the first boat to arrive this morning. The water moved constantly, both in the direction of the current, which by now was carrying the bergs away from the glacier – and up and down as the swells generated by the huge quantities of calving ice hit the water with a boom. It was quiet except for that roar. We anchored again in “no name” bay after the 47 mile round trip up unforgettable Tracy Arm fjord.

to be continued…

Cruising SE Alaska – part 4

After leaving Glacier Bay, we visited the village of Pelican in Lisianski Sound. It is a brave town of 80 people, economically depressed as are many remote places in Southeast Alaska, which has had a long history of short term booms and busts – gold, timber, and fishing. In the steep sided fjord, the town clings to the slopes, partially built on a very narrow steep strip of land, some reclaimed land and on piles driven past the water’s edge, shoehorned in where a village hardly belongs. It is a boardwalk town with no vehicles except for golf carts and ATV’s. All of the industry is gone. Along with the region’s many other canneries, this one has closed, obsolete with the advent of fast refrigerated boats, smaller salmon catches, and strict limits on fishing. With power at 88 cents per kilowatt hour, the cold storage and ice house went bust. No ice, no fishermen. Those power costs are ten times higher than Seattle, and twice as high as at our home in Kona. The economy is depressed, but the place is far from depressing. It is charming, and the people are among its most charming resource. There is one high end fly-in fishing resort with twelve rooms and four modern charter boats, a good bakery cafe, post office, library, liquor store (of course) and a new school with seventeen students.

Pelican Village Building on Stilts
Built on Stilts in Pelican Village
Hard to believe, but there is no grocery or general store. Everyone orders on line for delivery by mail, or takes the once a week ferry, in summer that is (once a month in winter, maybe!), to Juneau, or orders from Juneau Costco which ships the order by ferry or float plane. Oh, and one more thing. There is a fine marina for about 100 boats with water and power, only little used now that the fishing fleet is not here… another marina facility among the many crying out to be utilized.
Pelican Village Lisianski Fjord
Pelican Village from the Water
If we could only move them to Hawaii where waiting lists have been up to 20 years!

Pelican is our western most destination this season. Just around the corner, only 19 miles away to the east is Elfin Cove Village, touted as Southeast Alaska’s most charming boardwalk fishing village. Elfin is squished against the steep mountains that tumble down the north shore of Chichagof Island. It is a tiny, but busy fishing port. The 2010 census counted 20 people as permanent residents, down from 32 in 2000! We crept carefully into the tiny harbor, only to find it bustling and completely full of fishing vessels offloading, provisioning and working – no room at the inn for us here. We reluctantly turned around and continued on toward Juneau, choosing a different anchorage for the night.

Pelican Marina
The Marina in Pelican Village
Remember (from the previous letter) that we had to transit narrows through North Inian Passage from Glacier Bay to Pelican, and were moving at more than 13 knots with the current. Now it’s time to sail east through the South Inian Passage on the way east to Juneau. We flew through that passage with a six knot fair current, again reaching speeds over 13 knots, twice the speed we are used to traveling. We certainly learned our lesson in Glacier Bay by not watching the currents. These last two narrows passages were planned with the maximum currents! The two day trip gave us the opportunity to anchor overnight in two more picturesque, pristine and deserted little cubby holes. The water in Southeast has been mostly flat calm, except for the current which does not normally ruffle the surface much. There has never been enough wind to sail for more than an hour or two, so every day has been a motorboat ride, with hardly a drop of salt water reaching the decks. I guess the trade off is sightseeing for sailing, as the close views of glaciers and icebergs, heavily forested mountains straight up from the water; whales, and otters more than makes up for the lack of wind. And transiting these waterways is always interesting, around islands, through narrows, up and down long narrow inlets, sightseeing while paying close attention to our navigation – a sharp lookout and radar, chart plotter, depth sounder and paper charts.

…To Be Continued