SE Alaska – Season’s End

The days are now numbered, but the adventure seems limitless. Quite by accident we found Sanborn Canal, which is not included in any of the cruising guides. On the southern shore of Port Houghton, it runs in for two and a half miles, looking protected in any winds. It is on the charts but marked “unsurveyed,” so the depths shown are mostly unreliable. We decided that by using the chart plotter, depth sounder and radar all together, we could probably creep in the narrow two and a half mile long inlet and find a suitable anchorage.

Storm Clouds in Frederick Sound
Storm Clouds in Frederick Sound
It was here that the moose and her calf were photographed right behind Holy Grail by Lee and Ellen on SeaRoamer. Lee and Ellen have been cruising and fishing these waters for twenty years and told us that Sanborn Canal is one of their favorite spots. So many anchorages to explore and so little time. We found it hard to resist visiting just a few more before we had to be in Wrangell for our date with the travel lift.
Rainbow in Frederick Sound
Frederick Sound and Sun
This letter has now come full circle, back to where we started writing in Ruth Island Cove, five miles from the entrance to Thomas Bay. If coming in yesterday was thrilling with the swift current over the bar, and accompanied by an Orca, leaving was chilling in a pea soup fog with zero visibility. We were completely on instruments; radar and chart plotter to negotiate all the turns and shallows over the bar out to Frederick Sound and our next stop, Petersburg and the Wrangell Narrows. The chart plotter guided us five miles out to the bar, where radar confirmed the exact location of the buoys marking the shallows and channel. There were two dogleg turns, and suddenly we were in the tidal race, working hard at the helm to stay on course in the active current, and within moments we squirted out safely into the calm of the Sound. THAT was exciting! We would have preferred to wait until the fog lifted, but the state of the tide at our destination required that we leave when we did, or wait another day. A similar situation controlled our next run through the Wrangell Narrows, 20 miles long and as little as a few hundred yards wide. There are lots of buoys, ranges and markers, but still clear weather is best. If you start the transit late on a rising tide, the current will be with you the entire 20 miles, as it switches for you about half way. We had to start at 4:50 a.m. to catch the right tidal current. Fortunately, it was clear, but not for long. The center five miles was in dense fog, but with a little visibility and radar we could pick up each of the markers and work our way from mark to mark. Another exciting day and another ideal anchorage in St. John Harbor just four and a half miles across Sumner Strait from Wrangell Narrows. We anchored early in the day, fortunately, as a storm was coming. By midnight the harbor was full and overflowing with boats seeking shelter in the wind and rain. They were forced to anchor in water too deep for their ground tackle and were in peril. We watched from our safe vantage, and listened to them on the radio, but were powerless to help. They had to fend for themselves, and do the best they could. It was another popcorn, scrabble and heater night for us.

Finally it was Wrangell, known as the friendliest town in Southeast. There are about 2400 residents who take that reputation to heart, including the harbor personnel. There are hundreds of boat slips in two harbors, all with water and power, and a huge boat yard with a 150 ton travel lift, the largest ever used to haul out Holy Grail. For several weeks we made preparations for winter, made a cover, and emptied the water tanks against freezing. Poor old girl, Holy Grail was abandoned for the winter a week before the end of September, waiting for winter to come and go and for us to return in Spring.

Howard and Steph

The Captain and Admiral at Mt. Roberts
The Captain and Admiral at Mt. Roberts

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

Cruising SE Alaska – part 3

Leaving Glacier Bay

Mt. Fairweather
Mt. Fairweather 100 miles away in the “ghost mountains.”
When we awoke at Reid Glacier, before visiting Margerie Glacier, we looked out the pilot house window at an iceberg the size of a small house close to the boat – what an eye opener! It was grounded with the falling tide in the night. It happened again the next morning in a different anchorage as we watched a Volkswagen sized berg float close by on the ebbing tide.

In our first three days in Glacier Bay, we rushed to see the most important sights. We had heard from boats ahead of us that some were unable to see much due to fog and rain. Up here they call this the month of ”Fogust” The day we arrived was the first and only day that dawned with bright sunshine which remained until sunset. It was the only day we were able to wear tee shirts and dine in the cockpit since leaving Hawaii, and the only night we did not run our diesel cabin heater since ten days before arriving in Sitka. Fine weather persisted for the entire week we spent in the Bay. Finally, it was time to move on, time to squeeze in a few more sights before this short season draws to a close. The morning we chose to return to the National Park headquarters at Bartlett Cove coincided with the new moon, but we did not pay much attention to that. It was just a short 17 mile run.

Glacier Bay
A Fine Day in Glacier Bay
There had been no wind for sailing at all since arriving in Sitka, so we knew we would be running the engine. It should take less than three and a half hours. Shortly after getting under way, we noticed that our speed over the ground was becoming less and less- 5 knots, then 4, then 3 and finally we were making good less than one half knot! The current was running at more than six knots against us, and we were encountering tidal bores and swirls that swung the boat sharply one way and then the other. We had failed to pay close attention to the current and were now paying the price. We had broken the golden rule of cruising South East Alaska, “Watch the tides carefully.” It took almost seven hours to reach Bartlett Cove.
Admiral Stephanie watching for icebergs
Icebergs and bergy bits everywhere
That night we poured over the Tide Tables, The Tidal Current Book and the chart to carefully plan the next day’s run, 45 miles through a narrow pass to the village of Pelican in the Lisianski Inlet. We left at first light to take advantage of the ebb, and it paid off. On that passage, we reached speeds of more than 13 knots over the ground through the narrows.

Next the boardwalk village of Pelican, and on to the the capitol city of Juneau before heading south for winter storage in Wrangell.

Aloha from Admiral Steph and Captain Howard

Cruising SE Alaska – part 2

The Glaciers

”The Master Builder chose for a tool, not thunder and lightening to rend and split asunder, not the stormy torrent nor the eroding rain, but the tender snowflake, noiselessly falling through unnumbered generations.” -John Muir

Summertime – mid morning temperature 47°, and luckily very little wind as we move from our anchorage directly in front of Reid Glacier in Glacier Bay north to the grand dame of all the glaciers, Margerie. She sports a 200 foot wall of ice above the waterline and extends 50 to 100 feet below. We reached the head of the inlet and found no other boats, no cruise ships, enjoying the drama of the scene alone.
This is the ”Holy Grail” of cruising destinations in Southeast Alaska. The scenery defies verbal description without using all the over-used words, ”glorious, gorgeous, fantastic, awesome, unbelievable, indescribable,” so we will let the pictures describe what we saw and constrain these words to what we experienced.

Surrounding the whole of Glacier Bay and extending beyond the Canadian border are what we called the ghost mountains, The Fairweather Mountains, always white, towering way in the misty background framing the closer views of snow capped cedar and pine covered peaks. We called them the ghosts.

For miles before reaching the glaciers, water color began turning a lighter green and milky, finally losing much of the green next to the glaciers where the glacial melt was highest. Heading the 12 miles up Glacier Bay to the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers we encountered more and more ice requiring us to slow down and cautiously dodge the larger bergs to avoid damage. The small ”bergy bits” were too numerous to avoid. The inlet was literally choked with ice bergs in some spots. Fortunately the currents and light breeze seemed to open paths for us, and when we reached the ”toe” of the glacier the ebb tide had cleared all the bergs for us. Even so, we remained half a mile off for safety. Glaciers are born high in the mountains where all precipitation is snow. It never melts, but compresses under the added weight of snows year after year, until gravity starts it moving down – a virtual river of ice. From our vantage, movement was not detected until there was a deep thunderous report, and another every few moments, signaling Margerie’s movement of six to eight feet every day.
(to be continued…)

Cruising SE Alaska – part 1


If quality of life is measured by the people you meet, or the beauty of your surroundings, Sitka qualifies as paradise twice. Bounded on three sides by snow capped mountains, and on the fourth side islands and salt water, with intricate water ways leading in all directions, Sitka is a jewel. Large enough to be convenient, small enough to be personal and friendly, Sitka is also steeped in history and culture, from the native Tlingit (pronounced ”clinket”) people, Russian occupation, and finally the modern American era. Waiting for boat parts gave us two opportunities – lots of sleep, and sight seeing. The Admiral of this ship is a tireless sightseer, while the Captain tries to keep up, with varying success. We walked to most of the visitor sites, and walked, and walked… Just two miles from the harbor, the Indian River cuts right through the Sitka National Historical Park, and flows down to Sitka Sound through a pristine rainforest. Standing on a timber foot bridge we witnessed the Pink salmon run – thousands moving up this 30 to 80 foot wide river against a swift flow in just a few feet of water. Most of the fish appeared not to be moving over the ground, just swimming in place fast enough to overcome the current. But inexorably, they moved up stream to spawn and die. The National Historical Park has several miles of improved trails among historic native sites, some doted with Totem poles both old and recent, poles of many different types with various meanings, and from different villages.

The largest collection of native artifacts in Alaska is displayed in the Sheldon Jackson Museum nearby, and is Alaska’s oldest museum, founded by an American missionary of that name in 1895, while he voraciously collected objects for twenty years.

Our Baptism to Southeast Alaska’s straits and narrows occurred right outside Sitka, as we passed through the Olga and Neva Narrows to Peril Strait through the Sergius Narrows, which is said to be one of the four most treacherous narrows in the entire Pacific rim. We were quite nervous and paid close attention to the tide and current tables, checking and rechecking our calculations to make sure no mistake had been made. What happened was not quite a baptism of fire, but more like a walk in the park. It was flat as a pancake. But then, two miles from our intended anchorage for the night, dense fog drifted in at a narrow spot in Peril Strait. The fog is sometimes thick and patchy and seems to occur without warning. Out of the fog came a trawler fairly close showing bright lights. It all happened so quickly, but then we were glued to the radar until the anchor was down. Next morning we had to wait a while until the fog thinned out enough to creep out of the anchorage.
…To Be Continued