September 13, 2012
We arrived in Wrangell on Monday afternoon (September 10th) after an uneventful passage from Petersburg through Wrangell Narrows. It was lovely to see Stephanie and Howard waiting for us on the dock where we tied-up just behind “Holy Grail”. They are preparing their boat to be hauled-out for the winter while they return home to Kona so we were very pleased to have caught-up with them before they left.
We have delayed in Wrangell for a few days while the forecasts have been particularly unpleasant in the straits and sounds further south (up to 60 knot winds). It has rained solidly for the last three days but despite this we have enjoyed visiting the Petroglyph Beach and impressive, new(ish) Wrangell Museum. We plan to leave tomorrow and given the awkward timing of the assisting ebb currents we will probably take three days to get to Ketchikan, the last town before we cross into British Columbia, Canada.
Because I am still catching-up with my blog backlog from the beginning of Roger’s visit, I have temporarily included this posting in the “Hawai‘i to Alaska – 2012” blog to let you know where we are now and to direct you to the new blog section “Southeastern Alaska – 2012”. That new blog starts from when we left Sitka (August 15th) and will include our trip to Glacier Bay as well as the beginning of our current journey south. Remember to re-subscribe from that new blog section if you wish to be notified by email of postings to “Southeastern Alaska – 2012”.
August 15, 2012
Because the two-day shipping that we had paid for actually took six days to get the inverter to us in Alaska, Randall had to spend most of the day before Roger’s arrival in the engine room. Of course, the new inverter was a different size and needed different wiring from the old one, so its installation was a rather more labored project than he had hoped. Luckily for me it was a beautiful sunny day with little wind so between several walks to the Laundromat, supermarket, Murray Pacific and the hardware store, I was able to hang many of our clothes out to air.
The extended nature of the installation caused Randall to miss the opportunity to join Laura, Chuck, and Randall on a visit to the small Baranof Brewery at the far end of town but he did manage to get everything working by the end of the afternoon. Around 5 pm, as I was walking to the Sea Mart supermarket (if you spend more than $75 they pay for a taxi back to the marina for which I was very grateful), fog started to roll into the harbor. I could follow the progress of a departing cruise-ship by the passage of its fog-horn across Sitka Sound.
I did not give this fog much more thought until the next day when someone at the gas station where I was getting a propane tank filled mentioned that the Sitka airport had been closed to early-morning flights. Roger’s flight from Juneau was not due to arrive until around 11 am so we hoped that the fog would have lifted by then. Although it was clear at ground-level as we walked across the O’Connell Bridge to the airport on Japonski Island, and we saw small private planes taking off, the low cloud-ceiling did not look good for passenger aircraft. Since we knew that fogs could hang around for several days, we started to wonder whether Roger might be better-off trying to get a ferry the following day if his flight was cancelled.
The small airport was packed when we arrived with people checking-in for the morning flight to Seattle which had already been late in leaving Juneau. Finally, the Sitka leg of that flight was cancelled and we wondered if anyone expecting to arrive in Sitka had been swept off unexpectedly to Seattle. This created a crush of resigned Seattle passengers in Sitka who had to return to the ticket desks to try to get a later flight or wait until the next day. Since many passengers had large boxes of frozen fish as part of their checked luggage there was some potential for really unpleasant melt-downs. However, it all seemed remarkably calm and well organized with people showing-up to collect the boxes of fish for storage somewhere, and we assumed that flight cancellations were not a very unusual occurrence in Sitka.
Although delayed by a couple of hours, the fog did finally dissipate and Roger’s flight was able to land safely in Sitka rather than diverting him to Ketchikan (from which there would not have been a ferry to Sitka for another six days). It was great to see Roger emerge from the arrivals’ gate and he seemed quite pleased that his journey from London (via Seattle and overnight in Juneau) was over.
Since he was not too exhausted and it had turned into a wonderful sunny day, we had a quick lunch on Tregoning and then set-off to show him a few of the sights of Sitka. This included Castle Hill (where Baranov had built his house and where the Russians formerly handed Alaska over to the United States in 1867), the old-style soda-fountain in the drug-store (for delicious ice-cream sundaes), the Russian Bishop’s House, the Sitka National Historical Park Visitors’ Center and Totem Trail, and several views of the masses of pink (or humpback) salmon in the Indian River.
The Totem Trail probably deserves further mention at this point since we had been there several times but had not really studied the indoor exhibits and the plan of the totem trail before. Most of the poles originally arrived in the Indian River Park in Sitka in 1906 after being shown in national expositions in the Lower 48 in 1904 and 1905. They had been donated to the expositions by Tlingit and Haida villages in Southeast Alaska. Traditionally totem poles were allowed to deteriorate naturally, sometimes they were even given burials, and replacement poles were carved as needed. Many of the poles in the Park were replicas, some of which had been carved (using hand-tools) relatively recently.
Wood carving was a fundamental art form of the Northwest American Indian cultures and the totem poles were particularly significant achievements. Poles often stood outside houses to signify the clan of the occupants and photographs from the early 1900s show villages where totem poles positively crowded the shoreline. Typical types of totem poles were: crest poles which record a family’s ancestry and which might include a village watchman at the top; legend poles depicting folklore or historical events usually with many animal symbols; history poles recounting a clan’s story; and memorial poles, which were usually simpler with a single figure at the top to commemorate an individual clan member. Some of the poles included recognizable human figures that were to be publicly shamed or ridiculed for offence, such as a European trader who cheated or did not pay his debts to a clan.
We finished Roger’s tour with a tasty meal and some Baranof beers at the Larkspur Café and the quizzing of Roger about his recent graduation, up-coming move to work in London, and the activities of his family. After spending a few hot weeks in Greece with college-mates earlier in the summer, Roger was looking forward to seeing Alaska for the first time and enjoying his last three weeks of freedom before starting his career in finance.
The next day we were planning to leave Sitka and head towards Glacier Bay. In early September, we would get Roger to Juneau for his flight home and then Randall and I would start our voyage south aiming to arrive in Olympia, WA by Thanksgiving. Or so were the intended plans for the next leg of our Alaskan adventures.
This is the final section of this blog-trip “Hawaii to Alaska – 2012”. Please follow us to “Southeastern Alaska – 2012” and remember to re-subscribe there if you wish to receive email notifications about new blog posts.
This is the final section of this blog-trip “Hawaii to Alaska – 2012”. Please follow us to “Southeastern Alaska – 2012” and remember to re-subscribe there if you wish to receive email notifications about new blog posts.
August 13, 2012
After a month and a half in Alaska, had we felt any ambivalence about life in Sitka it would have been dispelled one way or the other by the Annual Seafood Festival. As it was, we already liked the town and the varied events of the Festival made us love its people even more.
Perhaps because the first event on Friday evening was a $60 per person seafood banquet, I had expected the whole Festival to be rather gentrified and appealing to wealthy tourists and snooty “foodies”. The coincidence of the festival with the second day of the closing-season for commercial King-salmon fishing, such that most fishing boats were away from town, added to our skepticism that this would be a local-oriented event. A further perusal of the program should have been a clue that this was not the case although we assumed that the “Fish-head toss”, “Bobbing for fish-heads”, and “Tote races” would be sanitized versions of children’s games and of little interest to us. How wrong could we be?
The day started with a marine-life-themed parade which was very modest compared to the one we had seen on July 4th, both in terms of the number of participants and the watching crowds. In fact, if we had arrived at the start just 10 minutes later, we might have missed the whole thing and the showery weather did not help. Interestingly, after being led by a chef who was apparently willing to pretend to boil her small child dressed as a lobster, the music was provided by a bagpipe band with dancers from Juneau. We were never quite sure what the Scottish connection was with the Seafood Festival but the closing activities centered around the 1st Annual Sitka Highland Games so the pipers made sense in that context.
Candy was as much a part of this parade as it had been on July 4th so Randall did not go unrewarded for his applause, especially considering the short parade route and rather sparse crowd. We should not have worried, however, that the event would be under-attended because the locals (who vastly dominated the attendees) knew to wait until the food booths and competitions started before filling the area with quite a substantial crowd. We were not particularly impressed with the local favorite of “Fryed Bread” (a cross-between unsweetened doughnuts and funnel cake) but we need not have worried about good food.
One of the new events was a competition to find a signature dish for Sitka. It had been well advertised and about a dozen competitors had cooked up their entries for evaluation in the Harrigan Centennial Hall. While the judges took their time discussing each entry, there was some uncertainty about whether the competitors were to allow the spectators (us) to sample any extra food that they had produced. Never underestimate the influence of a hungry crowd faced with excellent cooking. It did not take long for the competitors to be persuaded to dispense with their samples and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In retrospect the organizers could have made a few bucks charging people a dollar or two for a plate on which to collect samples, maybe they will think of it next time. As it was, we got to sample and collect recipe-sheets for some delicious items including halibut pizza, seafood pie, salmon bruschetta, and halibut Wellington. Oddly, however, we never did hear whether a winning dish was selected or whether they will try again next year.
The competitions that drew the most laughs and admiration from the crowd were the ones that we had almost dismissed as children’s events. Certainly, kids competed in the fish-head toss and bobbing but similar numbers of adults took the events very seriously. And in Sitka, “fish-head” means cold, recently decapitated, oozing, fish-heads with no sanitized version in sight.
The fish-head toss required partners to hurl halibut heads to each other over increasing distances until only one pair remained who had cleanly caught each toss. Weighing at least a pound (0.5 kg), the slimy heads were not easy to grasp and even with gloves on, most catchers had to clutch the flying head to their torsos to keep a hold of the projectile. Not a good time to realize that you had worn your favorite, hard-to-wash jacket. I cannot remember what the first prize was; maybe it should have been a pair of aprons?
Bobbing for fish heads was even more demanding of the participants. The mouths on a couple of series of salmon-heads (one set for adults and one for children) had been fastened closed with zip-ties and in three heads per series were plastic tokens indicating respective prizes of $25, $50, and $100. The fish-heads were dropped into large tubs of cold water that were on the flat-beds of trucks (so everyone had a good view). Of course, the heads sank and groups of participants had three minutes in which to dip their heads into the (very cold) water and without aid of their hands, grab a fish-head with their teeth and pick it up. Once accomplished (and this was clearly not easy) each person’s fish-head was sealed in a plastic bag and they were only opened to see who had won the prizes after everyone had finished.
It was particularly astonishing to see cute, pre-teen girls, heave their hair back into pony-tails, remove their jewelry, and dunk their heads (and much of their upper bodies) into the tanks of cold water. It was also pretty amazing that no-body barfed although one woman had to sit still for quite a while after she got rid of her fish-head perhaps concentrating on keeping her lunch down. All competitors were encouraged to use plenty of mouth-wash afterwards and we watched in amazement as one small girl celebrated her accomplishment of getting a fish-head while shivering uncontrollably. Luckily, a nearby mother (not her own) hurried the girl to take of her wet shirt and put on a dry jacket, as well as take a second dose of mouth-wash. They produce some tough kids in Alaska.
By comparison to the fish-head activities, the tote-race seems positively demure although we had assumed that it was some sort of sack-race. Instead, the totes were large, blue, cuboid, plastic bins that are used on fishing boats (of course) which had to be paddled across part of the harbor. They are certainly not very hydrodynamic and, apparently, not very stable because one rather wild pair of women quickly tipped their craft over and had to be picked-up by the attending rescue vessel.
And on the subject of rescues, in the open bay, the US Coast Guard gave a demonstration of various rescue methods from a helicopter. A good crowd watched from the shore and applauded when the “victims” (who had just jumped out of the helicopter) were picked-up by the rescuers. The performance was impressive and, for us sailors, reassuring, especially how the helicopter was held in such a static position despite slightly gusty wind conditions (as indicated by a floating flare that they dropped at the beginning of the exercise). The only improvement would have been if a member of the USCG had been on shore to explain to the crowd exactly what was occurring and to answer questions.
The serious tone of the Festival was continued with an interesting lecture about the relationship between Alaska salmon and the coastal geology. An unexpected benefit of attending the lecture was that two of the huge cakes from the “Under-the-ocean”-themed cake-decorating contest were cut and distributed, so (again for free) we were able to sample some more excellent Sitka cooking.
By late afternoon, in light drizzle, we joined a crowd that followed the Scottish bagpipes from the Centennial Hall to the Sheldon Jackson Arts College where the highland games were in progress. The weather did little to dampen the spirits of competitors and spectators although we noticed that we were about the only people with umbrellas (how wimpy) and without the ubiquitous, Alaskan footwear of choice, “XTRATUF” boots. Our Elsie Hulsizer book had several photos and mentions of these the brown, rubber boots which had seemed rather odd to us but after six wet weeks in the state we were starting to understand why people were willing to spend $85 or more on a pair of wellingtons.
At the highland games, young men and women were seriously competing in various tossing-events (cabers, sacks of straw, ball-and-chains, etc., rather than fish-heads) while a dance-band played in the background and people lined up to get locally brewed beer. We watched the sports for a while but finally decided that we were not inclined to wait for beer and spend the whole evening standing on the soggy grass so we went home. It had been an unexpectedly tasty and enjoyable day, and had greatly increased our respect for the down-to-earth exuberance of the residents of Sitka.
The rain continued for the next day and a half during which time I plastered more ice-blanket around our aft cabin and in the backs of various lockers where condensation inside the hull was particularly obnoxious. While I was in the throes of this potentially messy project (annoyingly, I managed to spray glue on one of my new slippers), we were visited by Randall and Laura from two sailboats from Hawai‘i, both of whom we had previously met very briefly. Single-handing Randall on “Murre” had helped Jim (the tsunami-debris- hunting Australian we first met at Ala Wai) cast-off our lines at Nawiliwili Harbor in Kauai when we set-off in strong winds for Hanalei. Laura and Chuck on “Lea lea” remembered Tregoning from having seen us one evening in the Lono Harbor anchorage on the south side of Moloka‘i. We invited the three of them over that evening and it was interesting to hear each other’s plans.
When the rain stopped on Monday morning (August 13th) we took Tregoning over to the fuel-dock to top-up her tank and then went out into Sitka Sound for some more fishing. Determined to focus on salmon not rockfish, Randall was careful to keep his hooks well off the bottom. Even though he had one good bite and we were close to where fishing boats were setting seine-nets, Randall did not catch any fish. However, it turned into a beautiful sunny afternoon with many sea otters around, so we were just happy to be afloat and enjoying the cloud-free landscape.
August 10, 2012
It did not take Randall long to discover that the problem with the inverter was not just corroded wires as he had hoped and after several phone calls it also became apparent that this was not a piece of equipment that even the manufacturer was willing to repair. However, inverter prices had decreased considerably since our original purchase so we ordered a new one and requested expedited shipping. Of course, as in Hawai‘i, 2-day air-service to Alaska is not guaranteed, so 6 days later we got a phone call that our package had arrived at the harbor office.
So instead of exploring further afield before Roger’s arrival, we staying in Eliason Harbor, venturing out only for a little fishing, and we learned a bit more about Sitka. On the morning of Tuesday (August 7th), we bade farewell to Stephanie and Howard on Holy Grail who were heading towards Sergius Narrows on their way to Warm Springs Bay, Hoonah, and Glacier Bay. The next evening I arranged a mystery date that included an excellent dinner at the eclectically decorated Larkspur Café (in the old cable building which now also houses the Raven Radio station) followed by a talk at the library on bear cognition.
The entertaining presentation was made by a British student of animal-behavior who had been working for the summer on an internship at the local “Fortress of the Bear”. A few miles outside Sitka, this park is where two huge concrete tanks have been converted into habitats for orphaned, urbanized brown bear cubs. (The slightly odd name probably derives from “Fortress of the Bears” which is a translation of Kootznoowoo the Tlingit name for the neighboring Admiralty Island which has the densest population of brown bears in the world at about one bear per square mile.)
The student had conducted research on a couple of the (now adult) bears with the first one showing incredible intelligence at working-out how to get a treat out of a see-through box by pulling on one of two chains. Based on a progression of more complex tests, the student was excited to find that this bear appeared smarter than cats, dogs, or two-year-old humans. The second bear was less cerebral and when first presented with the robustly constructed test-box, it simply picked-up the heavy apparatus and peeled the bottom off to get at the treat. This put an end to the tests which was clearly a disappointment to the student but she was very pleased with the first set of results and was keen to return to Britain to try again with European bears there.
The next day was the fifth in a row with almost non-stop rain so our disappointment at not having made it to Chichagof Island and beyond was somewhat ameliorated by knowing that little of the scenery would have been visible. Even though we were hearing reports that it had been the hottest July on record in the contiguous USA, with massive droughts and water restrictions, this was clearly not the problem in Sitka or most of Alaska. This July was the 8th wettest and 18th coldest in Alaska since records began in 1918 and the period of May and June was the 4th wettest on record. In Southeast Alaska, July had various daily records for lowest temperatures and highest precipitation while the northern parts of the state had above-average temperatures.
Despite the rain, we decided to spend the afternoon absorbing some of Sitka’s culture and we soon learned that the area differs from the rest of USA not only in climate but also in its history. We first attended a performance of traditional Tlingit dancing in the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House and then took a tour around the downtown Russian Bishop’s House and Museum which is part of the Sitka National Historical Park, along with the Visitor’s Center and Totem Trail on the town’s eastern outskirts.
Mount Edgecumbe last erupted 8,000 years ago, depositing 20 ft of ash (6 m) around Sitka Sound. As the land recovered from this cataclysm and the Ice Age waned, people moved north following the retreating ice. The warm Japanese ocean current moderated temperatures and kept the natural harbor ice-free making it an attractive place to settle. The Tlingit people (we have heard the name pronounced various ways but mostly like Clin-git with the “CL” sound almost like the Welsh “LL” and it means “People of the Tides”) inhabited this area, with the Haida Indians further south.
Sitka is thought to be a contraction of “Shee-At’iká” (“People on the outside of Shee”) the way that inhabitants described themselves on the coast of Shee, now called Baranof Island. Perhaps originating 10,000 years ago, the culture of the Tlingit was fairly complex as a result of the plentiful supply of furs and food in the form of marine mammals (seals, whales, and sea otters) and fish, including the vast annual harvest of salmon returning to their spawning rivers. The rain-forest trees provided durable, straight-grained wood from which rectangular, pitched-roof, multi-family dwellings could be built and canoes up to 60 ft long (18 m) could be carved from the biggest trunks.
Tlingits were divided into the Eagle and Raven moieties with no marriages allowed between people within the same moiety and membership being passed down through the mother. Clans were the basic social and economic groups which controlled resources and trade routes and were identified with certain animals such as the wolf, bear, frog, killer whale, etc. The abundant food allowed Tlingits time to produce elegant, clan-related decorations on items that included hats, masks, blankets, house and canoe ornamentation, and totem poles.
The Tlingit dancers that we watched in Sitka appeared to be justifiably proud of their heritage. The pounding, rhythmic dances were accompanied by chanting and drums and the Tlingit name of each dance was explained with reference to traditional life-styles or legends. The total Tlingit population in the USA and Canada is estimated to be more than 16,000, with about 300-500 native Tlingit speakers. With no written language prior to European contact, oral stories and carved and painted symbols were very important in preserving history and traditions. Religious beliefs were principally animist with ritual purification before hunting, and shamans were considered important healers, influencers of weather, predictors of the future, and protectors from evil. Sadly, as seen in many parts of the New World, the inability of the shamans to stems the destruction wrought by the introduction of Old World diseases (such as smallpox) not only lead to massive declines in native populations but also primed the way for the adoption of introduced religions.
Alaska was one of the last places in the Americas to be settled by Europeans. The first to arrive were the Russians (called Anooshi by the Tlingits) who were drawn by the thick sea otter pelts that had been collected during the brief visit in 1741 of the Danish-born, Captain in the Russian Navy, Vitus Bering. Along with German naturalist Georg Steller (after whom Steller’s sea-lions, jays, sea-cows, and eagles were named), Bering’s expedition briefly landed on the volcano Mount Saint Elias (the second highest peak in the USA and Canada, on the coast where the SE Alaskan panhandle joins the main bulk of Alaska). On their return voyage to Russia, after discovering Kodiak Island and various Aleutian Islands and suffering through several storms, Bering became ill and died on an uninhabited island. However, 46 members of the crew of 77 eventually returned to Russia and sent the sea otter pelts that they had collected to the Czar. Seeing these valuable furs, free-ranging Russian hunters and fur traders (called promyshlenniki) soon overran the Aleutian Islands and by coercion and barter used the skills of the native Aleuts to harvest sea otters, driving the docile species to local extinctions.
Looking for the Northwest Passage to the North Atlantic, Captain Cook sailed through Alaska as far as the Bering Sea in 1778, providing the first charts of the area and naming Mount Fairweather (a 15,300 ft or 4,663 m peak in Glacier Bay National Park, so named because if it can be seen, one can expect several days of fair weather). Since the Bering Sea was impassable with dense ice, Cook gave up and returned to Hawai‘i where he was killed a few months later. Although some British and Americans traded with the Tlingits in the ensuing decades, Russia was the dominant power in Alaska for 125 years, strengthened by the monopoly granted to the Russian-American Company by Czar Paul I in 1799.
Wanting to expand operations from Kodiak Island, the company’s manager, Alexander Baranov, decided to develop a fortified station on Shee Island. A Tlingit leader ceded some land north of Shee At’iká (Sikta) to the Russian-American Company where 1,100 Russians and Aleuts established Redoubt St. Michael. However, other Tlingits, especially the powerful Kiks.ádi clan of Shee At’iká, despised the presence of the Russians and attacked the settlement in 1802, killing most of its inhabitants. Enraged, Baranov returned in 1804 with more Russians and Aleuts and a Russian warship, Neva.
The Kiks.ádi moved to a nearby fortification at the mouth of the Indian River (where we had watched salmon on the Totem Trail) and were initially successful in repelling the attack of the Russians. However, after days of bombardment of the wooden fort by the Neva, the Kiks.ádi quietly left one night for the other side of the island, having run out of gunpowder and not wishing to be overrun. This battle was one of the last major acts of Tlingit resistance to the Russians.
Baranov made Shee At’iká the headquarters of the Russian-American Company where he had governor-like power. Renaming the town New Archangel (but it was still commonly called Sitka), he established his house on the rocky promontory now called Castle Hill and Sitka was the capital of Russian Alaska. The Russians were never self-sufficient in food, depending upon imports from the southernmost Russian colony at Fort Ross in northern California and fresh food from the local Tlingits (but not Kiks.ádis). Wary of the Tlingits, the Russians made them live outside the town’s stockade and kept cannons aimed in the direction of their community.
By the mid-1800s, Sitka was the major port on the north Pacific coast but as the fur trade dwindled the Russian government became disenchanted with its stake in America. Various factors led Russia to abandon the Alaska colonies and when the United States offered to buy Alaska in 1867, Russia accepted and Sitka became a U.S. territorial capital until 1906 when the seat of government was moved to Juneau. There was much debate in the USA as to whether to purchase Alaska (frequently known as “Seward’s Folly” after the US Secretary of State who encouraged the acquisition for $7.2 million or 2 cents per acre) and again when it was narrowly accepted as the 49th state in 1959. Looking at the map it seems odd that the British did not try to acquire the land to include within Canada but they expressed no interest when in 1859 Russia, perhaps trying to start a bidding war, had offered the sale to both the US and Britain.
Other than many place names, the most enduring legacy of the Russian occupancy of Alaska is the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. When Czar Paul I granted the Russian American Company a monopoly in Alaska he required the Company to support the missionary efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church to bring cultural change to Alaska’s natives. As part of this process, Bishop Innocent arrived in Sitka in 1841 to assume leadership of the huge area of Alaska and Kamchatka (eastern Russia).
Formerly, priest Ioann Veniaminov, the bishop was well experienced with frontier life and was a gifted educator, craftsman, and intellectual with a talent for languages. He had a strong interest in Native cultures and was responsible for developing a written version of the Tlingit language. Bishop Innocent’s skillful and sensitive leadership in Sitka resulted in his eventual appointment as Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, the highest office in the Russian Church. Nearly 100 years after his death in 1879 he was glorified as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Soon after arriving in Sitka, the Russian American Company built a large house for Bishop Innocent, which was completed in 1843 and is now the oldest intact Russian building in the town. The upper floor included his modest private quarters, a spacious public reception area, and an ornate, fully sanctified chapel. The lower floor served as church offices, a school for Native and Creole children (Creoles were the offspring of Russian men and native women), and a seminary where Native priests were trained. A symbol of the strength and viability of the church in Russian America, the bishop described the house as an “ecclesiastical palace”.
Although the Russian Bishop’s House remained in the hands of the Orthodox Church after the sale of Alaska to the United States, by the 1960s maintenance needs of the 125 year-old building became more than the church could support. In 1972, the building was purchased by the National Park Service and after exhaustive restoration was opened for the chapel’s congregation and visitors in 1988. We took the full tour which included not only Russian-period exhibits and demonstrations of how the house was constructed and insulated (using gravel, sand, and sawdust between the tightly-fitting square logs, sealed seams, papered cracks, and raised floors in doorways) but also showed us the upper story rooms which had been fully restored with appropriate furniture and wall-papers.
Filled with sacred icons and other lavish art and treasures, the chapel is still in occasional use but most Orthodox services are conducted in Saint Michael’s Cathedral which dominates the central streets of Sitka. The original cathedral was completed in 1848 but it was totally destroyed by fire in 1966. The existing, rebuilt structure houses many of the icons and religious items that were salvaged from the fire.
The Russian Orthodox Church maintained its congregation in Sitka even after the sale of Alaska to the United States and the establishment of a Presbyterian Church mission in the 1870s. Although the reasons for this are complex, it is probably partly the result of Bishop Innocent’s sympathetic efforts to document and preserve certain aspects of the Native culture while only accepting Natives who wanted to join the church rather than forcing conversion upon them. Subsequent missions from other Christian denominations tended to be more forceful in their religious conversions and about trying to eliminate Native practices and language. Such imperialism may well have done much to strengthen support for the apparently more compassionate Russian Orthodox Church.
After our soggy day of cultural and historical education in Sitka, the next morning (August 10th) was cloudy but dry so it seemed like a good opportunity to go fishing. When we had returned to Sitka on July 26th after our island circumnavigation, our neighbors on the dock had been a commercial fishing boat “Five Girls”. Owners Mary and Dave were very friendly and much to Randall’s delight Dave had explained how all his trolling gear worked and provided all sorts of advice on salmon fishing. His main point was to look for the commercial boats and fish near them as that would be where the fish were. Although this seems like obvious advice, it was interesting that a commercial fisherman was not encouraging a recreational sailing boat to stay well away. Dave had also given Randall a couple of copper lures so it was with high expectations that we motored out into Sitka Sound.
The expedition was generally successful but not quite in the way that Randall had hoped. I was happy to see more sea otters and Randall caught eight fish of which he kept two. However, the only salmon he caught was so small that he had to return it and in hooking the bottom (or kelp) he lost one of Dave’s lures. The rest of the fish were rockfish of various species including the couple of black rockfish that we kept. These are tasty enough, white-fleshed fish and we had excellent breaded fish and oven chips for dinner but Randall was still anxious to catch a salmon that was big enough to keep. His frustration was not aided by the sight of schools of salmon swimming around us and watching handsome fish being hauled aboard some of the trolling boats that we were carefully maneuvering between. Still, with Sitka’s Annual Seafood Festival being held the next day, we were confident that we would sample some salmon very soon.
August 06, 2012
We awoke on Sunday morning (August 5th) to a low ceiling of grey clouds but no actual rain. Our general plan was to go north to Salisbury Sound (repeating the start of our circumnavigation of Baranof Island) then continue north on the outer, west coast of Chichagof Island. Although we would be exposed to the Pacific Ocean for parts of the way, there were various safe bays and several sections of “inside passage” protected by islands. We then intended to go across Cross Sound (which leads into Icy Strait where Glacier Bay is located) and continue up the ocean coastline. If we made good progress, the two sites that sounded particularly intriguing were a huge sea-arch at Boussole Head and Lituya Bay, which is about 40 nm north of Cross Sound. The narrow-mouthed bay is part of Glacier Bay National Park and is where, in 1959, a massive landslide in one branch at the head of the bay created a 1,000 ft high tsunami wave (300 m). At the Hilo Tsunami Museum, we had read an eye-witness account of this extraordinary event by two survivors who were lifted by the wave and deposited inland in their fishing-boat. The height of the water was confirmed by the elevation to which trees were knocked down on the surrounding hillsides. Some might question the sanity of going to such a place but apart from our curiosity about the tsunami, we would see some tidewater glaciers there and on the way.
When we eventually set-off north out of Sitka Harbor, we were startled to see our first “bergy bits” as small chunks of floating glacier ice are known (mini-icebergs). It took us a few moments to realize that what we were seeing was pieces of solid ice that someone had dumped out of a fishing boat. Perhaps it was a good omen of what we were likely to see further north.
Actually, it coincided with me suddenly feeling very chilled. After a fairly busy morning of getting the boat ready for departure and getting fuel, I suppose that I had not noticed that I was getting cold and by the time I could sit-down I was starting to shiver. Even curling up in bed with a hot-water-bottle, it took me quite a while to warm-up enough to fall asleep. I had remained awake long enough and with an all-over achy feeling that I started to wonder if I should tell Randall to turn around and return us to Sitka but after a couple of long naps in the morning and afternoon I eventually felt better.
So I missed most of our passage through Neva Strait but with the low clouds there was little more to see than on our previous trip. After passing Whitestone Narrows comfortably, we met the ferry HSC Fairweather as we approached Wyville Reef from opposite directions. Randall circled a few times in a wider area so that Fairweather could pass through first and the captain seemed to be particularly appreciative.
By the time we got to Salisbury Sound it has started to rain lightly and we decided that rather than start along the outside coast of Chichagof Island we would spend the night at Kalinin Bay on the north end of Kruzof Island (the small island with Mount Edgecumbe at it southern end). As we weaved around islets to the bay’s entrance, we saw numerous charter sport-fishing boats zooming back inside after a day at the mouth of Salisbury Sound and several sea otters floating on their backs looking at all these frantic boats with apparent bemusement.
To reach the head of Kalinin Bay it was necessary to navigate between a rock-reef protruding from the east shore and an uncharted, submerged rock in the middle of the apparently-wide channel. Our two cruising-guides were in agreement about this rock but neither actually gave a latitude and longitude, which would have been useful. It was high tide as we slowly approached and we could see neither reef nor rock but we got through without incident and found ourselves in a wide anchorage with three other boats.
With the low clouds, occasional drizzle, and fresh winds, we could see little of the surrounding mountains and it felt like a good evening to start-up the diesel heater and watch a movie. Before we settled down to that, however, through the binoculars I watched two men descend from the forest and walk out into the meadows surrounding the river flowing into the head of the bay. They were carrying shotguns and with good reason as their approach was heralded by three bears, probably a sow and two cubs, standing up to watch and then moving towards them. For a while the men backed towards the shore and got behind a large rock with their guns laid on top, ready to repel the bears if they became too aggressive. Since the men looked rather trapped, I wondered if they were waiting for a boat to pick them up or if we should consider launching the dinghy to offer help. Eventually the men seemed assured that the bears were more interested in the food around the river than in humans and they started walking around the bay to where I finally saw their small boat anchored near the shore.
After dinner we settled down to watch a DVD only to find that our inverter (which allows us to run A/C equipment such as the DVD player from the D/C boat batteries when we do not have shore power) was completely dead. This was a bit of a shock as it had been functioning perfectly well. However, even though it had a water-guard over the top, it appeared that water had trickled down some cables connected to the inverted and rain or condensation had got inside. We had some debate about what to do as this equipment was not critical for our short trip but we decided that it would be better to deal with it before leaving the Sitka area with Roger. If we had to order new parts or a new inverter, we would need a week or so to get everything organized before setting-off for Glacier Bay. So, not only was our night of movie-watching thwarted but we would have to postpone any plans to visit Boussole Arch or Lituya Bay.
Although the water in the anchorage remained calm, it was quite windy and having become rather unaccustomed to hearing Wendy (the wind turbine) hard at work, it was not the most restful of nights. With a light but steady rain all day we retraced our route back towards Sitka, hoping that the inverter could be fixed by replacing some corroded wires or that we could find a replacement in town and still have a few days spare to go fishing or exploring local anchorages before meeting Roger on August 15th.
August 04, 2012
The last 12 days in Sitka (it rained for 6 of them) have been surprisingly busy; so much so that I have not had a chance to add to the blog since I posted our adventures up to Red Bluff Bay. We have been working on the boat: replacing the propane hose to the stove; fixing and painting the anchor windlass; re-securing the block for the topping-lift at the end of the boom; adding more ice-blanket insulation; and scrubbing the inside walls of the cabins (due to the mildew forming with all the condensation).
We have also enjoyed spending time with Howard and Stephanie on “Holy Grail” (from Kona, HI), a delicious dinner at Ludvig’s Bistro, and several mystery dates. Randall took me to a local production of “Bye-bye Birdie”. I’m not a huge fan of musicals and this one was of very variable quality but it was produced by students at the Sheldon Jackson Fine Arts Camp in just two weeks so that was impressive. He also took me to the library for “A night at the opera” at which we saw the Marx Brothers’ movie after a very interesting talk by a budding soprano opera singer who explained, along with digital samples of famous singers, how operatic voices are classified. She concluded her presentation by beautifully singing a wonderful piece from a German opera. I took us to the Sitka National Historical Park one evening where we joined a guided tour around the Totem Trail with a ranger who focused on the human-landscape interactions. She was aided by, Fred, who had lived in Sitka since just before WW II, and who was a fascinating elder of the native Tlingit People.
The latter mystery date included looking into the Indian River where I had noticed on a bike trip that morning that pink salmon (a.k.a. humpback salmon) were starting to congregate for their final migration upstream to spawn. The density of fish was absolutely staggering, so that the water downstream of the rapids appeared to be a slowly moving black whirlpool. Since they typically peak in mid-August, we hope to see more examples of such salmon spawning runs during the rest of our stay in Alaska.
Tomorrow we plan to refuel and then head north to explore the bays along the west coast of Chichagof Island (north of Baranof Island). We intend to return to Sitka next Sunday (August 12th) so that we can be ready to greet Roger a few days later. We may not have much phone or internet access during our week of cruising but I will certainly try to get caught-up with the blog text and photos so that I can post them when we get back to Sitka…well, that is the plan.
July 25, 2012
Tuesday morning (July 24th) in Still Harbor did not look much different from Monday evening with low clouds continuing to obscure the mountains. Although it was not raining, the forecast predicted 20 knot winds in the afternoon with 6 ft (2 m) seas so by 6:30 am we were underway. As we passed the kelp and rocks at the Harbor entrance we again saw a few seals and about 10 sea otters.
The first two hours (about 10 nm) of our passage to Sitka were in the open sea but the waves were little worse than the previous day. After diligent searching we finally saw some puffins fly past. They flew so fast that it was difficult to get a good view of them but the large, bills were unmistakable. Although we did not see the diagnostic yellow tufts like super-long eyebrows that stream behind their heads, the absence of white on the underside indicated that we had seen tufted puffins rather than the horned puffins (which look much more like the Atlantic puffin). This was particularly satisfying given the disappointment when passing Puffin Cove.
We saw several humpback whales including one that was breaching almost fully clear of the water. One trio that crossed our path (with us stopping to stay well clear of them) made an unusual roaring noise and we then heard their whale-song. I am not sure I had ever heard whale-song so clearly from above the water. It reminded me of all the songs we heard snorkeling with Tom and Rosie in Las Perlas, Panama.
Eventually we turned east to resume an “inside passage” with a series of islands between us and the ocean. Although this route was clearly marked on our route-planning map, we had to study the electronic charts for a while to be sure that we could get through all three “passes” as some of them were shallow as well as narrow. However, the first section, Walker Channel, was wide and calm and we saw more sea otters and seals including some seal pups. We also spotted a couple of Sitka black-tailed deer (native, of course) at the head of one small bay.
Apparently approaching from the reverse direction compared to the local cartographer, we came to Second Narrows before First Narrows. These passes were indeed narrow with kelp-beds and barely submerged rocks making the channel even narrower than the gap from shore to shore. With right angle turns either just before or after the passes, it was necessary to go very slowly and listen for boats coming the other way. We were grateful that our electronic charts seemed to be very accurate in this area.
The third pass, Dorothy Narrows, is not only the narrowest (only about 60 ft is navigable or 18 m) and shallowest but also the longest so it was a bit of a white-knuckle ride for Randall at the helm. Provided that the various rocks were avoided at the edges, at least the clearly visible bottom within Dorothy Narrows is mostly sand, shells, and kelp. We arrived not long after low tide so if we had run aground at least we would not have had to wait long to float off. In retrospect we perhaps should have waited for the tide to come in a bit more because at one point we recorded a water depth of only 6.8 ft (2.1 m) and our draft is 6 ft (1.8 m)…phew! To add to the excitement, we met a pair of kayakers coming the other way as we entered the narrows but by then it was impossible for us to turn around so it was just as well that they were experienced enough to keep out of our way.
Still, the calm inside waters and the attractive scenery made it worthwhile to have to concentrate really hard in the passes. Towards the end of the inside route we passed Goddard Hot Springs which is very popular with the crews of local fishing boats. Apparently there are some wooden tubs in a bathhouse provided by the US Forest Service with hot or very hot water piped in from the natural springs. Although the idea of a hot bath was tempting, by that time we were looking forward to getting into Sitka Harbor so we did not stop.
We unfurled the jib briefly while we were in Sitka Sound but our exposure to the wind did not last for long. By mid-afternoon we were securely docked in Eliason Harbor having finished our splendid circumnavigation of Baranof Island. Looking a bit like the shape of a partly eaten cone of ice-cream (this suggests what I missed over the two weeks), the island is about 90 nm long and 20 nm wide. The coastline of the main island is probably at least 360 nm with all the long bays and fjords but if all the small associated islands were included the total shoreline would be many times longer.
The next day, our top priority boat project (other than laundry) was to get the propane stove functioning again. Having found that we could not effectively clean the long, narrow hose that runs from the propane locker (in the cockpit) through the engine room to the stove, we were very thankful to learn about a contractor in town who would be able to make us a replacement hose with the correct fittings.
As we wandered around the harbor sorting out how to get the new hose, I noticed a familiar aluminum boat, Holy Grail. Howard and Stephanie had arrived from Hawai‘i just three days earlier and due to an engine-overheating problem (a broken exhaust pipe) they had spent several extra days at sea waiting for wind. We had also heard on the Pacific Seafarers’ SSB Network that they had had to delay their departure from Hawaii (due to an auto-pilot problem that caused them to have to wait two weeks for a new part) so we were glad to see that they had finally managed to set-off on their Alaskan adventure. Although I had only once briefly talked to Howard at Honokohau Harbor where they ran a day-sail charter business (having just sold their coffee plantation), he vaguely remembered who we were (especially once we mentioned our common friends, Steve and Cheryl on Gershon II). It was good to compare tales of our crossings from Hawai‘i and they were eager to hear what we had already learned about Sitka.
The non-functional windlass down-switch was another problem that needed to be fixed and I had to install more ice-blanket to insulate the forward cabin so we would not be idle while we were in town. Our hope was that after a week in Sitka we could go exploring for another 10 days or so before returning in mid-August to meet Roger.
July 23, 2012
Aided by lucky timing and good weather, our wonderful visit to Port Alexander made us much more curious about visiting other small Alaskan communities. There did not appear to be a strong native-Alaskan genetic influence in the people that we met in PA so we looked forward to future visits to towns such as Hoonah which is the largest Tlingit settlement in southeast Alaska.
In the meantime, our return to Sitka around the south end of Baranof Island and north along the island’s west coast was not going to take us past any permanent communities at all, at least not human ones. We cast-off from the dock at Port Alexander fairly early on Monday morning (July 23rd) and as we crept out of the narrow entrance we again saw a humpback whale slowly cruising past. The clouds were low but the sea was relatively calm for our passage around Cape Ommaney. As we passed between the Cape and the small, steep-sided Wooden Island, we could see numerous jagged, narrow gullies cutting into the rocky and forested shore of Baranof Island.
On the ocean-side of the Cape we saw colonies of Steller’s sea-lions flopped over the rocks. It looked as though they would have had a difficult climb up over the seaweed to the rock-tops but presumably they had got themselves up there at high tide. One large male was doing his best to show-off but the effect somewhat diminished by the fact that he was surrounded by seagulls rather than a harem of female sea-lions.
In addition to the seagulls, we saw some thick-billed murres but I was a bit disappointed that as we passed Puffin Bay we did not see any Puffins. As well as looking hard for puffins, we had to keep a keen watch for floating logs and we saw one that was at least 10 ft long (3 m). Our observations were made easier by the modest swell but with a 13 knot head-wind small waves were starting to grow.
Some mist descended for a brief period but our visibility remained at least 0.6 nm which was adequate for looking-out for logs and fishing boats. Most pleasure boats cruising in Alaska are motor boats and their crews are not too enthusiastic about passages on the “outside” where they are exposed to the ocean. This is not quite as daunting to ocean-going sailboats but we were still very thankful to have a relatively calm sea and the prospect of a sheltered anchorage…or at least so we assumed from the name of where we were headed, Still Harbor.
There are jagged rocks near the entrance to Still Harbor which might appear pretty alarming in rough conditions but we got to see harbor seals resting on the lee side of the rocks. Below the seals were beds of kelp and tangled amongst these were numerous sea otters. The coves and bays along the ocean coasts of the southeastern Alaskan Islands are some of the best places in the world to find sea otters and Baranof Island does not disappoint.
Since I saw my first sea otters near Big Sur in California when my parents were visiting me in 1988, I have been absolutely charmed by them. They are just sooooo cute! The heaviest of 13 species of otter, there are 3 sub-species of sea otter native to the northern and eastern Pacific. They are among the smallest marine mammals at 30 – 100 lb (14 – 45 kg) and are unusual in this group for not having blubber but depend upon their thick fur to maintain their body temperature. Their fur consists of long, waterproof guard hairs that keep the short, dense under-fur and skin dry. The waterproof hairs must be kept clean to be effective and as a result of their loose skin and flexible skeletons, sea otters are capable of grooming every part of their body. Hairs are replaced continuously so there is no vulnerable molting period.
With almost a million hairs per square inch (150,000 per square cm), sea otters have the densest fur in the animal kingdom which is why they were hunted almost to extinction between 1741 and 1911. World populations fell from estimates of between 150,000 and 300,000 to less than 2,000 but now that the species is protected and being actively reintroduced to certain areas, the global population has recovered to 2/3 of its previous range and is greater than 100,000. While this is clearly a good thing ecologically and as a tourist attraction, especially in bays in California, there remain some potential conflicts where people fear that the sea otters compete for food.
Compared to terrestrial mammals, sea otters have a relatively high metabolic rate requiring them to eat 25% to 38% of their body weight per day, often feeding in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and around midnight. Sea otters primarily eat sea urchins, mollusks, crustaceans, and some species of fish which are captured using their paws rather than their mouths. Most foraging is done during short dives (1 to 4 minutes during which nostrils and ears can be closed) to the sea bed in 50 to 75 ft of water (15 to 23 m) where their long and highly sensitive whiskers and dexterous front paws allow them to find prey even in the dark or in turbid waters. They can tear prey apart using their paws or teeth and can crush small or weak shells between their jaws.
Sea otters are among the few mammals able to use tools, using stones to release large mollusks from their substrate and to break-open particularly hard shells. The latter is accomplished as the otter floats on its back by repeatedly hammering the shell, held in the front paws, against a rock resting on its chest. Food items and rocks are carried to the water surface in a loose pouch of skin under each forearm. The front paws have retractable claws and tough pads with which to grasp slippery prey. The large back paws are webbed with elongated outside digits to increase swimming efficiency. Underwater, the whole back end (including tail and hind paws) is moved up and down to allow swimming at up to 5.6 mph (9 km/h) whereas at the surface the reclining sea otter propels itself by sideways sculling of its hind paws and tail.
To prevent drifting out to sea while asleep, sea otters frequently wrap pieces of kelp around themselves or may hold paws. Although adult sea otters typically forage alone they usually sleep in same-sex groups called “rafts” of 10 to 100 animals. Most males defend territories from other males but have multiple female partners. Breeding peaks in the autumn but implantation can be delayed so even though pregnancy is only 4 months long the delay between mating and birthing (both of which occur in the water) may be up to 12 months. Typically a single pup of 3 to 5 lb (1.4 to 2.3 kg) is born and it may nurse for up to 12 months. Initially unable to dive because of its thick buoyant baby-fur, the pup will be tended on its mother’s chest except when she has to forage, at which time the pup is left floating at the surface, often wrapped in kelp.
After developing adult fur at 13 weeks, pups learn to dive and typically can become independent at 6 to 8 months of age. Females become sexual mature at 3 to 4 while males are typically 5 years old. Only 25% of pups may survive their first year and in the wild life-spans of 10 to 20 year are typical. Captive animals, where worn-out teeth do not have fatal consequences, have lived to 28. Young sea otters are usually dark brown all over but older animals may have blond heads and chests.
I find the inquisitive look of a blond-headed sea otter, slightly raising its head while floating on its back with its hind paws gently sculling and its front paws clutching something to its chest, absolutely irresistible. When they roll over to dive, the sleek curve of their dark body reminds me of the magical fluidity of the young sea lions with which we swam in the Galapagos. While it is a shame that we will not get to swim with sea otters and see their lives underwater, I am sure that nothing could top their endearing appeal at the water’s surface.
Thoroughly enchanted by the sea otters, it came as something of a rude shock when the anchor chain would not pay-out in Still Harbor and I suddenly found myself crouched by the anchor locker, elbow-deep in cold, dirty anchor chain. During our brief rolling around at sea, the pile of chain in the anchor locker had toppled over on itself and could not simply pull itself out by gravity. Since we had not had to deal with this problem for, literally, years we assumed that normally the down-pull of the windlass could overcome such problems and this was the first time since the windlass switch had failed that conditions had been rolly enough to topple the chain pile.
As a result of this mess, it took almost an hour for us to anchor once we had arrived within the inner bay. Still, we were eventually securely anchored in the lee of the island that separates the inner and outer bays and luckily nobody from the boat anchored at the head of the inner bay felt compelled to come over and offer assistance. With the low clouds we did not get to see much of the uninhabited Still Harbor but it was still pleasant to be back in flat-calm water even as the 15 knot winds whistled in the shrouds.
July 22, 2012
Nine days and about half the distance into our circumnavigation of Baranof Island, and having seen spectacular scenery and wildlife at every anchorage, it was difficult to imagine that this good fortune could be sustained all the way back to Sitka. So on an overcast day, as I watched a large brown bear patrolling the low-tide shoreline, we left Red Bluff Bay resigned to spending a few nights staying in places that would by comparison seem rather dull and anti-climactic. How wrong we could be.
Our passage south in Chatham Strait was entirely uneventful and with almost 40 nm to cover we did not even slow down for any mooching. As the Strait widens and the mountains diminish on Kuiu Island to the east and southern Baranof Island to the west, the scenery became less snow-clad and dramatic. The Baranof Island shoreline is punctuated by very long, thin bays but with narrow mouths they are not particularly impressive in passing. Only as we neared our destination, in sight of Cape Ommaney at the southern tip of the Island, did we see a few distant humpback whales.
Our target for the night was the small community of Port Alexander but we were not particularly convinced that this was a must-see harbor and that we would not be better just anchoring in one of the sheltered, uninhabited bays. Our cruising guides either said nothing in particular about the community or, as in the Elsie Hulsizer book, seemed a bit ambivalent about the place. Hulsizer’s description was mostly a personal account of she and her husband meeting a woman in Sitka who was about to fly south but who suggested that they call on her husband, Steve, when they were in Port Alexander. Elsie’s physical description and photos of the community were accurate but her experience with the few people she met, although hospitable seemed rather mundane. Mundane was certainly not what we experienced.
Our subsequent discussion of Hulsizer’s account with the inhabitants of PA (the local name for Port Alexander), suggested that Elsie had simply not met enough of the residents during her overnight visit. It was evident, however, that everyone we met knew exactly who “Steve-the-husband” was. Not so very different from Hulsizer’s, our rationale for visiting PA was largely based on Geoff’s recommendation to look-up his long-time friend, Kevin, who runs a small lodge there along with seaplane-fishing and flightseeing tours. Geoff and Debbie often use Kevin’s seaplane services for their charter-boat clients.
As we rounded the rocks and kelp beds to make our approach to the narrow entrance to Port Alexander from the south, a humpback whale crossed our path causing us to have to wait until it had passed. We finally arrived in the small outer harbor to find a choice of spaces on the floating dock among the mostly local fishing and charter boats. Rather than being at the foot of the busy entry ramp, we selected the space at the far end of the dock, next to the seaplane ramp. As we pulled-up, a young woman, Dena, got off her commercial fishing boat and helped tie-up our dock-lines. After thanks and quick introductions, she invited me to join her later in the evening on a walk with a group of her friends. Feeling much in need of exercise and curious as to where they would go, I accepted and was assured that Dena would find me when they were ready to set-off.
Being late in the afternoon and suspecting that we might only stay one night, Randall and I decided to get out and explore PA as quickly as possible. From the dock, well-spaced houses are visible on both sides of the narrow bay, most of them with a small skiff (motorboat) on the shore or on a mooring nearby. A few families (50-80 people) live in the community year-round but the population is boosted to a couple of hundred by summer residents from elsewhere in Alaska (e.g., Juneau or Anchorage) or from the Lower 48.
On walking ashore from the dock, we passed the cheerful “Kids don’t float” lifejacket-loaner-station, the tiny “Problem Corner Café” (offering coffee, burgers, pizza, etc.) and then found the small public telephone box that houses not a typical pay-phone but a princess-type household telephone). This communication hub was on the corner between the walkway to the dock and “Main Street” which in PA is a sturdy (but surprisingly handrail-free) boardwalk. Instead of building roads in small, isolated Alaskan communities, State funds pay for boardwalks that may be allowed to support golf-carts but nothing else motorized. Based on boating taxes, the State also pays for new floating docks (as we saw in the PA inner harbor) but to qualify for such construction, the community must to show that they can afford to maintain the docks once built.
The State has also provided PA (at least the east side) with a water supply system with collection tanks and pipes leading down from a nearby hill but the water is not treated. There is no communal electricity generation, gas, or garbage pick-up, so homeowners use solar panels, their own gasoline generators (usually in separate sheds), propane tanks, and recycle, burn, or ship-out their garbage. We did not ask about sewage but know that appropriate waste-disposal is an important issue for many small, isolated rural communities.
Walking along the “Main Street” boardwalk we passed houses on both sides and saw the significant communal buildings of PA. A tiny Post Office with its flag-pole was nestled by the shoreline in the trees. A modest building on the inland side of the boardwalk housed the community center, the unlocked library (with internet access), and City Hall (open on Mondays). Next door was the small school which accommodates all grades (often together) of the few children who are resident year-round.
Arriving in PA late on a Saturday, neither of the tiny stores was open but we gathered that one sold clothing and gifts (open 1 – 3 pm on weekdays) and the other had a modest supply of food items, of which sodas and snacks were most popular with the crews of the fishing boats.
Residents order their groceries (usually online) from the supermarkets in Sitka and they are delivered on Sundays and Wednesdays by the mail-boat, Eyak. The boat charges a fee per pound of goods delivered so nothing gets to PA cheaply. There is no ferry service to PA so unless carried on a chartered or private boat, people cannot get there cheaply either. There is a scheduled seaplane service twice a week to Sitka which is subsidized by the US Dept. of Transportation as part of the Essential Air Service Program. Even so, we were told that a one-way ticket was $135 so that a trip to Sitka (which cannot be reached overland) is not undertaken on whimsy, especially as there are only 3 seats available per flight.
At the end of the main boardwalk was the brand-new inner harbor dock. Although there were some good-sized boats on this dock, the narrow entrance to the un-dredged inner harbor is shallow and rock-strewn so entering this area is not recommended without local knowledge. Walking down the dock we noticed a sports-fishing boat that was unloading an impressive catch of fish. Curious to see the 200 lb (90 kg) halibut that the six fishers were talking about so excitedly, we were invited aboard to take photos. We then saw that they had had an extremely productive day having snagged 41 sockeye (red) salmon, caught 6 large yellow-eye rockfish, and landed at least 8 halibut; no wonder they were excited.
We assumed it was a charter-fishing boat and at first could not quite work out who ran the charter, although we met soon Eric who introduced himself as the crew. In fact, it was a private boat owned by Walt, an oilman from Texas, who had taken his partner and two other couples out for a day of sport-fishing. Walt is having a large compound of buildings constructed along the shoreline near the dock and although we had initially assumed that this was a new fishing lodge, it is intended only for when his family and friends visit.
We subsequently gathered from the comments of other residents that Walt’s ambitious project was regarded with some mixed feelings in the community (for example, several people currently had to walk through his muddy construction-site to get to their houses). However, to complete strangers who just happened to be walking past his boat, Walt was incredibly hospitable and generous. As soon as he saw how impressed we were with their catch, he asked us if we would like wait around to receive some fileted fish. Of course, we said yes and we soon found ourselves chatting merrily to one of Walt’s friends who was visiting from Maui.
We also asked if Walt or Eric knew of Geoff’s friend, Kevin. Walt not only pointed across the bay to the lodge but told us that we should go over and visit him this evening because Kevin was flying to Wrangell the next day. In fact, there was Kevin working on the shore-side building and why didn’t we borrow Walt’s skiff “Tubby” to motor over and introduce ourselves? So after taking a few moments to work out how to fire-up the electric-start, four-stroke outboard, we puttered over to the far shore where we beached Tubby and wandered up to a curious Kevin. As soon as we had introduced ourselves as members of Geoff’s extended-family, Kevin was happy to chat with us and explained that, indeed, he was going to Wrangell the next day so he was glad we had come over. We are not sure quite now but subsequently it turned out that everyone we spoke to in PA knew about Kevin’s flight-plan…it is that kind of place.
Concerned not to distract Kevin from the work that his wife, Karen, was continuing and worried that Tubby might be stranded by the ebbing tide, we did not stay to look around their lodge. However, we caught-up with Kevin and Karen later when we joined them for dinner at the Problem Corner Café. Then we learned how Kevin and some of his siblings had moved to Port Alexander in his late-teens in the early 1970s, when the area was homesteaded. This meant that if you claimed a plot of land and lived on it for three of the subsequent five years it was yours to keep for free. Those first winters must have been pretty harsh with only the other homesteaders around and no infrastructure at all but on that property Kevin and Karen have developed their lodge and seaplane charter-business.
After returning Tubby and watching Eric and Walt deftly slice up their rockfish and some of the halibut, Walt gave us very generous portions of these two fish. We then left their team, which now included some college-age off-spring, efficiently vacuum-packing the huge amount of fish that they were going to freeze and take home with them to Anchorage, Texas, and Hawai‘i. I would have baked some brownies for Walt and his guests but without a functioning oven this was not a practical option.
In addition to Kevin’s place, there are at least two other lodges in PA and dinners can be arranged at one of them, the “Laughing Raven Lodge”. But given the late hour, our disheveled state, and my disinterest in immediately cooking some of our wonderful fresh fish, we opted for the casual, outside ambiance of the Problem Corner Café. Particularly popular with the younger residents, this boardwalk café has been run for the last couple of years by Amber who is also in charge of “City Hall”, taking several college courses, and looks after a teenage boy who visits for the summer.
From the café we could see the tiny PA Museum but nobody could tell us when it might be open although they all knew who was supposed to be running it. While we ate and chatted with the grizzled local “character”, George, a few small flying insects were irritating Karen but on the whole Randall and I continued to be amazed by the absence of biting pests. We were amazed because so many guidebooks have warned us about the mosquito and midge problems in Alaska in the summer. Conversely, given the cold, wet summer so far, perhaps the suppressed insect populations should not be too surprising.
Once Amber had finished serving all her customers, Dena appeared with her dog, Rory, and started gathering the young women who were going to join us for our walk. We found Lori and her son setting up a Frisbee-golf course in the small woods just south of the boardwalk where they were hanging floats from the trees as “holes”. Gathering a total of seven of us, we strode at a strenuous pace through the woods, along “Main Street” and the full length of the inner harbor dock. Despite the animated conversations, this was no casual evening stroll but a serious exercise effort and after two laps (almost 1 mile each) I left the others to make one more round. It was already 10 pm and I was finding myself slightly overdressed for the warm evening. Most of these women had been raised in PA and they either lived here year-round like their parents or visited for the summer. Despite the fact that everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing (e.g., Kevin’s flight to Wrangell) these friends still seemed to have plenty to talk about as they stayed in shape. Impressive!
During the evening, Karen and some others had mentioned that the next day there was to be an organized hike to Scott’s Ridge. When I expressed interest, they all suggested that I go along even though none of them were actually planning to participate. Randall was still coughing a little so he decided to enjoy a peaceful day alone on Tregoning while I met with the hikers at the head of the inner harbor dock at 11 am.
I first met summer-resident Jane and her visitor, Sandra, and although they were not in charge, they felt sure that I could join-in. We then walked to the “Laughing Raven Lodge” where we collected Jane’s husband, Mike, and one of the lodge owners, Susan. Finally, we returned to the dock to meet Anita, the 75-year-old lady who was leading the hike. She very kindly allowed me to join the group and we set off across the exposed beach towards the northeast.
Anita explained that there was no formal trail where we going but she would be showing us the best route that she had discovered over a life-time of exploring in the area. This particular hike had become an annual event, organized by Anita’s granddaughter, Trista, and I was incredibly lucky to have shown-up in PA on the right day. We were also miraculously fortunate that it was one of the most gloriously sunny days of the year. Randall reported that it was the first day of our Alaskan visit that was above 70°F and in which the cabin warmed to 76°F…without any heater (21 and 24°C respectively).
Despite the absence of mapped paths, we would not simply be bush-wacking but would be following deer and bear trails. Although this made the walking easier it also illustrated the realities of hiking in brown bear country. In past years, Trista told me, they had made this hike without seeing any bears and only taking the precaution of carrying bear-bells to avoid surprise encounters. This year, however, more bears had been seen around PA than usual, including one that had been poking around Anita’s house for a few days. Consequently, in addition to Trista’s bells we had five dogs with us, and Jack with a shotgun. Dogs are sometimes considered dubious companions in bear country as they may be chased by an aggravated bear right back to their owners but our pack was so energetic and noisy that there were probably no bears hanging around in a wide circumference around us. During our five-hour sortie, we saw a couple of deer and plenty of bear scat but thankfully no bears.
The route was fairly wet and steep at the beginning but this hardly slowed Anita down at all. She was a robust, life-long hiker and being led by her and her adventurous 11 year-old great-granddaughter, Jillian (Trista’s oldest child), the rest of us had no excuses for not keeping up. The path became much easier once we had climbed up to the plateau and the views were absolutely amazing. From open woodland, we gradually rose to an area of scrub with many small tannin-stained ponds. The flora was typical of acidic uplands with various mosses, club-mosses, and carnivorous plants such as sundews and butterworts.
Conversation soon revealed that our party was dominated by teachers. Trista currently teaches first and second grades in Juneau. Jillian had been in Trista’s class and her younger brother, Duncan, was about to enter it. Sandra, Jane, and Mike were all retired teachers; Sandra teaching kindergarten and first grade in California and Jane and Mike had taught mostly in Alaska. In fact, they had a summer home in PA because they had been school teachers there in the past. It was fascinating to hear about teaching multiple grades together and how teachers are assigned to small, remote schools in Alaska.
Once we had all reached the summit (a green knoll with a commanding view over Chatham Strait), we walked to a point further west that allowed us to look over Port Alexander. While we ate our lunch, we watched Kevin and Karen take-off in their seaplane. Predictably, everyone in this group seemed to know that they were flying to Wrangell.
From our vantage point, relatively few of the houses around PA were visible (Walt’s compound being the notable exception) and it was difficult to believe that starting in 1913, Port Alexander had been a major fishing port. In the 1920s it was the “salmon fishing capital of the world” and by the time the town was incorporated in 1938 it had a population of 2,500 people. Anita’s father was a fisherman and her parents moved to PA from Norway in the 1930s. Anita was born there and remembers that it was a colorful town in the 1940s even though the local fishing industry and population started to decline during WW II. She remembered when houses and trails crowded both sides of the bay spreading inland far beyond the current properties on the inner harbor. It was truly a privilege to have been allowed to join this fabulous hike and with such a charming and knowledgeable leader.
By the time we had retraced our steps, the tide had come in so there was no beach to stride across and we had to find the old, wet trail around the head of the inner harbor. After profusely thanking Anita and Trista for their hospitality in letting me tag along, Jane and Mike kindly gave me a ride back to Tregoning in their skiff. They went to get a drink at the Problem Corner Café which seemed to be particularly busy. One of the people there was chap from Michigan who was visiting his daughter who was the cook on the Eyak, the mail-boat which had arrived that afternoon. In addition to delivering the mail, groceries, and other things that the residents had ordered from Sitka, the Eyak receives fish from fishing boats. The fish are taken to the processors in Sitka and this saves the fishing boats from having to go back and forth to Sitka with their fresh fish. Thus, the mail-boat is a critical part of the local economy and is an important life-line for these isolated communities in all but the worse winter storms.
After their lemonades, Jane, Mike, and Sandra joined us on Tregoning for a brief chat and look around before they returned home to their hot-tub. After the hike this sounded like a good idea but given the warm weather, this was one of the few evenings when a hot-tub did not seem quite as appealing. Just after they left, Walt’s sport-fishing boat returned to the bay and briefly stopped at the seaplane dock. While Eric went to see if there was anything for them from the Eyak, Walt stopped by Tregoning and generously gave us a whole, cleaned sockeye salmon. Again, I regretted not having any baked-goods to give him but he did not seem to be concerned.
As it was, cooking all the fish meals with only a single burner presented a bit of a culinary challenge but we managed to enjoy it all, especially the marinaded salmon, panko-breaded halibut, and blackened rockfish. While this let Randall off-the-hook, so to speak, for catching anything for several days, having seen what Walt’s group caught and having had extensive discussions about it with Eric, Randall was still anxious to catch his own salmon and/or small halibut (we could never get a 200 lb fish aboard Tregoning).
During my excursions on the boardwalk, I had heard and then seen a large red squirrel (our first sighting in Alaska) and saw a massive, 4 inch-long slug (10 cm). We had also noticed some foxgloves with odd, huge apical flowers. We assumed that this was an unusual genetic variant of this non-native species (since there were no other symptoms suggesting the effects of a non-lethal-herbicide or plant-growth-regulator). Somehow, these larger-than-usual examples of nature seemed to fit into our slightly larger-than-life image of Port Alexander. Everyone had been so extraordinarily friendly and generous during our brief visit that by the time we left on Monday morning (July 23rd) we felt exceptionally honored and fond of the community. This experience of Alaskan hospitality could not have been any warmer.
July 20, 2012
Even though tying-up at the public dock at Baranof had not worked out as planned, the anchorage, hike, and hot-springs had vastly exceeded our expectations. It was thus with great curiosity that we set-off on Wednesday morning (July 18th) for another popular anchorage about 15 nm further south on eastern Baranof Island at Red Bluff Bay.
A seaplane took off from Baranof just before we nosed out of the southwest arm into Warm Springs Bay and looking back we could see that most of the fishing boats had gone, leaving plenty of space on the public dock. Lesson learned: get there early in the day and be lucky. As we entered Chatham Strait, a tour-boat passed us heading north and we noticed just beyond it a pair of very tall dorsal fins indicating male orcas (killer whales) also swimming north. This was our first sighting of orcas since arriving in Alaska so we were very pleased to see them, albeit briefly. It was a good day for seeing marine mammals because in addition to several sighting of humpback whales (which has been an almost daily occurrence while we move between anchorages), we also saw a fast-moving pod of the diminutive, black-and-white Dall’s porpoises.
Back in Sitka, Valerie and Ken had explained how the ideal speed for trolling for king salmon was 2.2 knots, so once Randall had assembled his gear we pulled out the jib and shut down the engine. Unless heading into a current, we would have to run the engine at very low rpms to stay around 2 knots so sailing seemed like a better option. However, the northeasterly wind was not quite strong enough to push us down the Strait at that speed so we had to gybe back and forth on a broad reach to get enough speed. The other problem was that Valerie and Ken had suggested trolling the bait between 60 and 100 ft (18 – 30 m) which is usually accomplished by using a down-rigger. This is a short rod mounted on the side of the boat from which is dangled a line of appropriate length with a heavy lead weight at the end (maybe 40 lb or 18 kg). Loosely attached to the bottom of this line is the fishing line on which the baited hooks are attached and which are now being towed at the appropriate depth. The fishing line is attached to the rod and reel on the boat and if the bait is taken, the loose connection to the down-rigger line is broken so that the fish can be reeled-in free of the down-rigger. Lacking this piece of equipment, Randall was trolling with a “salmon attractor” (a bait-less lure with spinning and vibrating flashy bits) but it was not very deep…and not very effective.
Once the wind disappeared we furled the jib and drifted sideways down the middle of the Strait while Randall switched to mooching for salmon, jigging the herring bait up and down. Finally, he was excited to feel one hit on the bait but when the herring was eventually reeled-in there were no signs of any bites so he wondered if maybe a large jellyfish had just bumped the line. Since a jellyfish that was mushed onto the anchor rode that morning ended up being the only catch of the day, maybe we need to develop a taste for them.
We saw surprisingly few boats given that it was another dry although more overcast day and the only successful fishers we saw were eight or more bald eagles (including several white-flecked juveniles) snatching at the water surface rather frantically, near the mouth of Red Bluff Bay. As our cruising guides had explained, this bay is named for the mostly naked bluffs of rock just north of the entrance that are rusty red in color and are unusual rock formations for this area.
We weaved between small islands to enter the bay that is about 3 nm long and typically less than 0.5 nm wide. Almost sheer walls line the southern side of the bay down which waterfalls cascade. About half way along there is a passage only 300 ft wide (91 m) separating the outer bay, in which a couple of boats were anchored, from the inner bay, in which we found three anchored boats. After seeing just how quickly the water became very shallow at the edge of the broad green delta at the head of the bay, we anchored between two of these boats where it was 84 ft deep (26 m).
We then could take the time to admire our spectacular surroundings which included several streams and waterfalls into the bay, many waterfalls high up the mountainsides, an impressive, almost cone-shaped and almost cloud-free mountain beyond the meadows, and at least three brown-bears in the meadows, one of which was absolutely enormous. During the evening, as the tide dropped and more and more of the delta was exposed, a couple of the bears walked down to the water’s edge (perhaps looking for shellfish) providing us with an excellent view of them strolling around.
Unlike Elsie Hulsizer who anchored in Red Bluff Bay in fog to wake up to a brilliantly clear day, we went to sleep after a reasonably clear day to wake up to cold wind, rain, and low clouds. This made me a somewhat less diligent bear-watcher than the evening before, and slightly regretful that we did not launch the dinghy and paddle around then but at low tide I was rewarded by seeing at least six bears, two of which were clearly cubs. We wondered whether this size of bear community was typically here or whether they were congregating in preparation for the salmon runs that probably occurred in the two rivers feeding into the delta. As at Deep Bay, the bears currently appeared to be feeding in and on the lush sedges but when they wandered the muddy “beach” at low tide we assumed that dead fish where would be the food of choice.
When in the sedges, the round ears and tops of the lighter-colored bears’ heads made them look a bit like lionesses in the Serengeti (or at least how they have looked in films). When seen from a distance, a large dark bear on all fours with the hump behind its neck can look a bit like a small buffalo. However, as soon as they are seen face-on there is no mistaking the paler snout on the dark teddy-bear face. Even with adult bears, I find myself with the interesting emotional conflict of trying to associate the comforting, cuddly-toy-look with the awesome strength and fearsome claws of the sometimes unpredictable wild creature.
Given the constant rain, we spent Thursday onboard playing games, catching-up with blog-writing, clearing Randall’s workbench, and staying warm by finally getting the diesel heater to work perfectly with just the right amount of fuel and air. Randall had added an extra piece of chimney-pipe since our sooty frustrations at Deep Bay and this seemed to have helped even when the wind was blowing in the morning.
On Friday morning we debated about whether to stay another day or to move on as did two of the other three boats in the bay. The day started with plenty of mist but the cloud-base was above the mountain-tops. After we had decided to stay, the mist gradually dissipated and by mid-morning it was spectacularly sunny. Against the gloriously blue sky the snow-clad mountains were stunning and after all the rain they were streaked by numerous waterfalls.
While Randall finished some chores, I rowed around the bay in the dinghy taking photographs of the breath-taking scenery around us. It was low tide and I hoped to have good views of some of the bears down on the beach. However, by that time of day they were all up in the tall sedges and grasses so my sightings from the low-water shoreline were still rather distant. I did manage to identify the two types of gulls present, Bonaparte’s and mew gulls, and I was pleased to see a common merganser with six small ducklings chirping along behind. Later, in the day we observed a group of small shorebirds, which I think were least sandpipers.
After lunch, I rowed Randall around while he used a spinning reel to try fishing for trout and admired the incredible beauty of the bay. We would have dined well if we had been interested in green seaweed but fish were not forthcoming. Four seals kept us company for much of the voyage so Randall was sure that they had to be eating some sort of fish but perhaps they were too efficient and kept the fish numbers low. After heaving on the oars to get quite close to the bay’s main waterfall and all the associated spray, I rowed us to the mouth of the river on the southern side of the bay’s head. There was one bear in the tall sedges that we could see periodically as it moved upstream so Randall rowed while I tried to take photographs but, of course, at the one brief moment the bear was most openly and closely visible, the camera battery had to be changed because I had sat with it on for so long, waiting to take the perfect shot.
I may not have got my closest bear photograph that day but during my evening’s bear-watching, as the tide was retreating we saw our greatest bear drama so far. Just after I had announced to Randall that I could see the astonishing number of nine bears scattered around the head of the bay, one of them started to wade briskly into some chin-deep water. It moved very purposefully from the far right side to the center of the muddy beach and as soon as it was out of the water it started to chase another large bear that had been approaching the shore from the sedges. The pursued bear, which actually looked larger than its wet pursuer, bounded inland and the chase took them to the edge of the woods and then right until they disappeared from my sight. Whatever the reason for the pursuit, all the other bears I could see were either standing-up to watch or were running away. The latter group included a sow who had been attentively watching the chase and then as it turned her way, she shooed her three cubs ahead of her to get out of the way at a surprisingly fast pace.
Within a few minutes, seven of the nine bears had dispersed so that the ears of only two were still visible sticking up from the sedges. While we assumed that we had witnessed some show of dominance and territoriality between male bears rather than amorous advances, the undeniable lesson learned was that shallow water would do little to deter or slow down an aggressive bear that wanted to reach you.
Just after we went to bed that night, thinking what a fabulous day it had been, another large creature made its presence known. In the quiet of the calm anchorage we suddenly heard a loud whoosh and felt the boat tremble on a series of slight ripples. Randall proclaimed “whales” and I rushed up to the cockpit to see. From the barking of a dog on a neighboring boat, I guessed that Randall was correct because our friends in Panama, Uta and (the sadly, late) Wolfgang had told us how their dog regularly barked at whales. It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the gloom but the sounds were unmistakable and soon I could see the misty blow and then curving back of at least one humpback whale. In the still of the night it was quite haunting. It was passing between us and the shore and then circled around to head back out of the inner bay. Considering that it was 3 nm back to Chatham Strait, it was somewhat surprising, as well as a great honor, to have been visited in Red Bluff Bay by a whale and its late-night appearance made the perfect ending to a splendid day in Alaska.