July 18, 2012
After a leisurely start to the day, we left Ell Cove late on Monday morning (July 16th) and made the short trip south to admire Kasnyku Falls. We did not approach quite as close as a shallow powerboat might but in the deep little cove, it was amazing to get as near to the rushing water as we did. It was yet another dry day with enough sun-breaks (as they say in Seattle) to add some richness to the greens of the trees surrounding the thundering cascades.
Once we dragged ourselves away from the mesmerizing torrent, we only had about 8 nm to go south until we reached our next destination, the promisingly-named Warm Springs Bay. The snow-topped scenery of Baranof Island was much enhanced by the sunlight and patches of blue sky, making it difficult for me to remember that this was July not mid-winter and not the place to be yearning to go downhill skiing.
What were strangely absent from the scene were all the fishing boats from the previous day. While most of these boats must have dispersed to other areas, a few were hidden in the shelter of the various bays that we passed and several were filling the dock at our intended destination, the tiny community of Baranof. At the head of Warm Springs Bay, Baranof consists of maybe two dozen houses and cabins, two boardwalks leading to various trails, a public bathhouse, one private dock, and one public dock with a space for seaplanes as well as boats, all near the mouth of a monstrously roaring waterfall.
In the strong current from the waterfall, we carefully motored alongside the dock to see if there was any room for us. The only option was to raft-up, either against a commercial fishing boat (most of which were already rafted-up or were repositioning) or alongside one of the two sailboats, neither of which looked currently occupied or as long as Tregoning. Since neither of these options seemed very appealing, we admired the falls and then went to explore the recommended anchorage in the narrow southwestern arm off the bay.
This deep arm was beautiful with forested steep sides and at the head there were waterfall streaked cliffs towering over large patches of snow and a small lush meadow. Seeing the low altitude snow, I made the bold declaration that I was going to go ashore in the dinghy to touch it. There were no other boats and as we approached the shallow-end of the arm, Randall noticed a large and dark brown-bear apparently feeding in the sedges by the shore. I watched it intently as we eased a little closer to the anchorage and because we had read that bears are not particularly threatened by things approaching from the water, we hoped not to disturb it. However, a breeze started blowing down the arm and no doubt wafted our scent towards the bear. It looked up briefly and then lumbered slowly into the nearby woods. Disappointingly, we did not see the bear again during our two-night visit but given the narrow area between the water and the woods or head-high shrubs, I changed my mind about going ashore.
The subsequent absence of the bear was more than compensated for by the variety of birds that we saw in this anchorage. I was pretty sure that I saw a saw an American dipper flitting about along the small stream at the head of the bay and Randall was fairly convinced that one large raptor soaring above us was a golden eagle rather than an immature bald eagle. Our more certain observations were: an American robin; a female varied thrush; the Pacific coast subspecies of Swainson’s thrush; a rufous hummingbird (only seen in silhouette as it briefly darted about in the cockpit but only this species of hummingbird occurs this far north); and a red-throated loon in its elegant breeding colors, which include a black-and-white-striped neck with a diagnostic deep red patch on its throat. Our proximity to the stream and both shores made bird-watching particularly easy, even when lazily seated in the throne in the cockpit.
When we had initially lowered the anchor in about 45 feet of water (14 m), the down-arm wind had picked up and on the long rode that Randall had let out, we swung uncomfortably close to the shore (especially unnerving given the presence of the large bear) and into water that might not have been deep enough for us at low tide. We re-dropped the anchor a little further out in about 85 ft of water (26 m). This is much deeper than we usually prefer but the winds were unlikely to be very strong. Also, as Randall pointed out, even if we should drag into shallow water, without any appreciable waves the boat would probably be less damaged than our pride would be in having to ask a fishing boat to pull us out.
Ideally, we should be using a length of anchor rode (which for us is 150 ft or 48 m of chain and the rest rope) that is seven times the water depth and certainly not less than three times. We notice that most people here do not appear to use as much as rode as we do but most of them have only chain so perhaps the extra chain weight makes up in part for the reduced length. We may become a bit less cautious with experience here but until we feel more confident about winds and currents in the anchorages we will still probably be swinging in slightly larger circles than most other boats. The situation is complicated by the current failure of the down-switch on the windlass. Randall plans to fix it when we return to Sitka but until then he has to drop the anchor using a handle to release the windlass manually, which results in the rode rushing out at a less easily measured pace. That afternoon the arm was visited by a couple of men in kayaks and later we were joined by another boat that anchored about mid-way along the north side.
Tuesday had the best weather that we had yet seen in Alaska with plenty of blue sky and (almost) warming sunshine. So we launched the dinghy, attached the outboard, and zipped up to the public dock. Of course, now there was just about enough room for Tregoning because the larger sailing boat had left but we liked our anchorage which was undoubtedly quieter than next to all the fishing boats. We walked along the lower and upper boardwalks admiring the well-windowed, self-sufficient houses (with large expanses of solar panels) and wondered what it would take to rescue the couple of steeply angled cabins that our book suggested had been pushed off their foundations several years ago by exceptionally deep snow. We also peeked into one of the three rooms in the free, public bathhouse where there was a wooden bathtub that could be filled with warm spring-water. With a red-and-white-striped curtain for privacy while undressing, there was an unglazed window which provided the bather with a glorious view over the bay. We decided to explore the trails and natural hot-springs first, planning to return to the bathhouse if by then we were still insufficiently bathed.
You would think that with two cruising guides describing trips to the natural hot-springs and a single boardwalk leading up towards the lake at the head of the falls, we would not be able to get too lost. The well-constructed boardwalk took us through lush forest undergrowth and Randall was alternatively thrilled and frustrated to see Pacific Northwestern plant species that he recognized but for which he could not always remember the names. We thought that the boardwalk took us to the top of the falls and the hot-springs were somewhere beyond, so we kept following the trail upwards, postponing exploration of any side trails until our return.
After the boardwalk ended, the trail divided and we took the downward fork which put us on the shore of the small but beautiful Lake Baranof. Two young men who had just passed us and were standing on the beach were happy to explain how to go back to the springs but when we started back we were distracted by the other fork of the path which led up through more open vegetation to a rocky knoll that had glorious views down Warm Springs Bay, across Baranof Lake, and up the valley to the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
After we had unpeeled some layers of clothing and had sat down for a snack, the same two young men, Jacob and Spencer, briefly joined us before they pushed on to explore further trails. They were crew for the summer on the large crabbing boat at the dock, “Controller Bay”, which Spencer’s brother ran out of Seattle. They told us that the salmon season was not going very well so many of the deck-hands on the fishing boats were getting pretty fed-up as their pay was based on a percentage of the catch. Crabbing, it seemed, however, was going all right.
Once we had thoroughly enjoyed the view and had started to cool-off, I realized that my old instincts to climb any accessible peak had overcome my concerns about hiking in bear country. I had not given the animals a thought. Such thoughtlessness was not entirely good news but given the popularity of these trails and the several people we had met or seen scattered around the near-shore of the lake fly-fishing, it was probably reasonable to assume that this was a fairly safe area. I had brought our can of bear spray with us but in my backpack side-pocket it would have been of limited use in a surprise, aggressive encounter. To be on the safe side, we made rather more noise that socially necessary on the descent back to the boardwalk.
As Jacob had described, we found the appropriate side-trail and by peering hard at one of the posts I saw the faintly scratched direction-arrow simply labeled “Hot”. We followed this short trail through the woods, over a slight rise, and then down towards the roar of the upper falls until a small sign with a smiley-face pointed towards the “Pools”. In the other direction were a couple of benches and a wooden platform in the bushes which we guessed constituted the changing area so we quickly stripped-down to our bathing suits and then tip-toed over the rocks that led across the stream of hot water that was directed down into the pools.
Although the springs are natural, the stones on the lower edges of the two pools have been supported with concrete to create deep and stable places to fully immerse in the crystal-clear, hot water. This is important because the lower pool is right next to the icy-cold torrent of the river as it approaches the lower waterfall and falling out of the hot pool would not only results in a heart-stoppingly sudden change in temperature but a one-way ride down to the bay that is probably not survivable (at least, not without a helmet and serious padding).
As it is, the glassy surfaced pools that gently overflow into the river are absolutely fantastic and until we were leaving, we were lucky enough to have them all to ourselves. We could completely understand why the crews on the fishing boats would love to visit this place at the end of a long day. With a slightly sulfurous smell, it seemed as though the upper pool was a little bit warmer but even the lower pool needed to be entered with care and could cause a bit of light-headedness when leaving after just a few minutes. One of the two men who arrived after we got out, dipped in a small pool of river water between spells in the hot springs but that looked far too masochistic to be enjoyable.
When we got dressed, Randall was bold enough to wear only a tee-shirt on top, a first since our departure from tropical waters. Although we decided not to use the bathhouse, we were very charmed by our visit to Baranof and could see why it was such a popular stop for cruising and charter boats. Slightly surprisingly, there did not appear to be anyone selling coffee or snacks from any of the houses as our book had reported in previous years but it did appear to be possible to get a massage and spa treatments with “The Mermaid”.
On our return dinghy ride we hugged the southern shoreline and found ourselves slowly nosing into a very narrow passage out of which the tide was rushing. It turned out to be deep enough for us to go all the way through and we found ourselves in an unexpected and picturesque circular lagoon which subsequent study of the charts revealed was Salt Pond. Since we knew that it was deep enough for us, exiting with the current through the same narrow passage was rather exhilarating.
That evening we were joined in the southwest arm by a motorboat and a sailboat. A slave to optimism and having finished eating his previous catches, Randall deployed his crab-trap again. He pulled it up the next morning with some excitement only to find that the extra weight was not from crabs but a huge, multi-armed sunflower star (starfish) which was promptly returned to the water. Randall was not to be deterred, however, because part of our plan for the day was to try fishing for salmon in Chatham Strait. He had trolling lures to assemble and mooching strategies to formulate so despite the crabbing disappointment it still promised to be a good day for this enthusiastic sport-fisherman.