“This blog is just family nonsense about the endless love of your kids. As you know, this hardly ever changes even when they’ve just turned thirty, they’re supposedly independent from you and living their own lives in big city places like London thinking they don’t need you around anymore. For me, never is it so good as when we get family visiting from England.” Dave
In June my youngest daughter Louise travelled out to Alaska to join me onboard Sänna whilst Marie stayed back in England for Henry’s final school exams. To meet up with her I sailed Sänna the forty miles or so from Hoonah to Auke Bay just north of Juneau, all the way there worried about docking solo in the absolute chaos that is Auke Bay’s Edward Statten Harbour. Luckily, our good friends Leighton and Lynda onboard their ketch Morning Star were already in the harbour, so I was able to raft up alongside them to tie up relatively safely… it was good to see them again. The shit hole harbour is notoriously difficult because of the fishing fleet based there which is compounded by the obscene numbers of tourists boats that go out chasing whales, they serve the relentless cruise ships that dock in Juneau for the so called ‘Alaskan’ experience.
The harbour is mayhem, it’s hopelessly overcrowded with tour operators that are both hostile and unfriendly to transiting sailboats… and there’s always copious amounts of dog shit littering the pontoons, presumably from the number of boats that keep dogs onboard. The friendly harbourmaster tries his best but it’s first come first serve find your own free space, if there are no spaces then you’re in deep trouble though it’s surely one of the most picturesque harbours in the world with its Mendenhall Glacier backdrop… and it’s conveniently close to the airport.
Whilst I’m in my antisocial tourist mode it’s worth noting that only one mile out from Auke Bay harbour I encountered seventeen whale-watching boats scattered around one single humpback whale. These boats blocked the harbour approach channel giving me no option but to plough straight through the middle of them with their frantic VHF calls warning me that I was ruining their client’s day whilst also approaching too close to the whale. I responded by declaring that only the humpback and myself knew what we were doing or where we were heading… and they in their stupid boats were causing an exceptionally dangerous navigation hazard in the buoyed channel. Nevertheless they didn’t give up on doing what their cruise-ship clients had paid good money for though the large commercial seine fishing boat that followed me through gave them even less shift than I did, almost ramming one of them out of the way. The sheer numbers of tourist boats operating out of Auke Bay chasing whales is a real problem and they surely need to be controlled. Of course, the real problem is the phenomenal growth in the number of monster-sized cruise ships disgorging mindless tourists with seemingly bottomless pockets… anyway, I do these tourists a disservice and I digress.
After meeting up with Lou and then experiencing an exceptionally good evening onboard Morning Star we headed back to more sedate Hoonah and the real Alaska, this time under sail which caused an even more complex problem when we again ran the gauntlet of whale-watching boats. Under maritime law these boats have to give way to any vessel under sail, something which they ignore, are more than likely unaware of and in any event refuse to acknowledge. So with a sweet easterly wind we made our way westwards to a more welcoming Hoonah harbour. Once in Hoonah we in no time at all gathered a largish number of free single fishermen from the trawlers who’d heard about the fresh new English girl in town, we were soon inundated with invitations to party wild-fishermen style and got lots of free fish to boot, our evening onboard Yankee Maid being particularly lively and ‘free spirited’. Great times. Fantastic times. It’s hard to describe how these roughneck fisherman party… me? I was just over the moon that I had my youngest daughter in Alaska with me…
The next morning I talked with Ed down at the Icy Straits Lodge about loaning his four wheel drive. There are no roads on Chichagof Island, just overgrown logging tracks accessible only by rugged all-terrain vehicles. Ed agreed, so Louise and I together with Leighton and Lynda drove off into the wild interior of the island to go bear hunting… though not in the strictest sense, we were armed only with cameras, a feeling of determined adventure and a picnic lunch… we were not even outside the Hoonah boundary line before we encountered our first large male grizzly meandering down the last bit of paved roadway – Chichagof Island has the largest concentration of grizzly bears in the world. We headed out of town towards Freshwater Bay, finding the remote Kennel Creek cabin there which was, of course, the perfect location to consume lunch with our delicious feed of Costco’s version of world cheeses, with home-baked sourdough bread and raw smoked king salmon courtesy of our fishermen friends onboard Yankee Maid. The long relentless drive back to town proved to be a real bonus… we tracked a female brown bear with her two full-grown cubs for over an hour, getting really good close up photos. Louise was in her unbounded elements with her new SLR camera now retrofitted with my own long-range lens that ‘just happened’ to fit.
During the hard-track drive back to Hoonah we all four talked about getting both of our sailboats up through the sea ice of Glacier Bay National Park, to explore the tremendous glaciers set deep in the wilderness fjords there. Morning Star had never ventured that far north but I’d been up there a few times with Marie and Henry in Sänna… in fact only four or five weeks before I’d been up as far as the Marjorie Glacier with my step-brother Gary, but we’d found the weather intensely cold and particularly foul though we’d managed to get ashore beside the Reid Glacier before being beaten back by the winter snow and thick-set ice. The sea then had been surprisingly ice free.
I called the park rangers who said we could have a permit to enter the wilderness in two days time. Leighton also called and arranged a permit for Morning Star; we also learned that Chirpy, a Canadian sailboat we’d gotten to know well through Leighton would also be in the upper reaches of the territory located along the Canadian Yukon border, the four of them onboard would be ashore ice climbing on the extremities of the Reid Glacier. Perfect. We arranged to try to all meet up in the Reid Inlet anchorage right beside the glacier. Louise was excited and keen to get ashore, she’s an intrepid traveller in her own right with her travel job taking her into many wild parts of the world. I was in my element, my youngest daughter and I had always hung out well together and for me this was now real quality time. Is there any better way for a father to spend time with his daughter?
And then more good news… the day before we departed Hoonah harbour to collect our permits from the Bartlett Cove Ranger station located close to the small Tlingit village of Gustavus, Louise received a message from her good friend Sarah from London. Sarah had been travelling around British Columbia in Canada searching for summer work but had now made her way northwards to Alaska. She was in Haines – were we anywhere near Haines? Haines was only around fifty miles or so north of Hoonah though not that far from Gustavus, only around thirty miles in fact with a scheduled seaplane flight to Gustavus the very next day. Why not? So Lou arranged for Sarah to meet up with us at the Bartlett Cove Ranger Base the same evening that we ourselves would arrived there in Sänna, we had a spare cabin onboard which she could have for the week or so we would be up in the Glacier Bay wilderness. It was perfect timing.
So Lou and I left Hoonah having refuelled Sänna and fully provisioned. Of course, we already had an ample stock of ready filleted fish… both king and coho salmon, white halibut, tasty rockfish, magnificently delicious ling cod and also black cod, a rarely found fish in most western fish markets. We also had onboard fresh king crab, dungeness crab and deliciously meaty scallops… all courtesy of the fishermen in Hoonah conveniently wooed by the young English girl from England with her blond hair, a laughing smile and beautiful grey-blue eyes. It was what is called ‘good trade’ by the indigenous Tlingit Hoonah fishermen.
We were blessed by a strong easterly breeze out in the Icy Straits which blew us onwards towards the Sitakaday Narrows, the hazardous current bound entrance leading to the Bartlett Cove Ranger Station. We’d timed our departure from Hoonah to coincide with the strong tidal races we would encounter and could use to take us into Glacier Bay – no less than a six knot tidal current in our favour to be precise… it’s no mean feat taking a sailboat into the wilds of Glacier Bay. The six hour sail was good, we encountered numerous dolphins and humpback whales, this time without the incumbent whale-watching boats now too far away in distant Juneau to bother us. Arriving in Bartlett Cove just before dusk we dropped anchor a couple of cables from shore before launching our dinghy to get to the Ranger lodge where we’d arranged to meet up with Sarah. Needless to say she was there, the two of them excited… being over the moon to see each other in such off-hand circumstances would be an understatement. Sarah had hitched a ride on the seaplane flight to Gustavus and then thumbed another ride out to the ranger station.
Pulling anchor at sunrise early the next morning, we headed north in surprisingly bright sunshine. It’s hard to describe the sheer beauty of this vast area, the towering mountains still snow covered from the fiercest of winters. The seawater hereabouts is usually calm and flat though a hard wind does blow up from time to time, the wind is channeled then chilled by the high mountainous terrain meaning that we all three needed thick winter clothing to keep warm, even with the thin warmth of the sun breaking through the occasional banks of sea-mist that barred our way. There were no other vessels in the vicinity though we knew the National Geographic vessel Sea Lion was somewhere ahead of us, we had them on our radar and AIS. It’s fair to say Sarah was overly impressed, she’d not expected to be experiencing these glacial mountains under the steam of just the three of us making our own way, clearly she was just as independently spirited as Louise. This was now a truly pleasurable experience.
It’s a long way, nearly fifty miles from Bartlett Cove to the Reid Inlet anchorage so it took up most of the glorious day. It’s an indescribable journey, through turquoise seas coloured by dense glacial sediments dumped down by calving ice and fast-flowing glacial rivers outflows. Eventually we approached the shallow bar of Reid Inlet just before the sun dropped behind the high mountain ridges to the west of the inlet though sunset was still a good couple of hours away… we’re a long way north and the summer days are still relatively long. Chirpy was already anchored… they’d been here a few days already but it seemed they were still somewhere ashore rock climbing… as experienced mountaineers they had all the gear onboard – ice axes, climbing ropes, crampons and high-calibre belaying equipment for serious mountaineering. Morning Star should arrive sometime the next day having departed Hoonah some twenty-four hours behind us.
We ourselves sat in Sänna’s cockpit trying to keep warm in the by now rapidly cooling air; there were also plenty of glacial icebergs in the inlet which I needed to keep a keen eye on… we could easily swing against one of these small bergs in the night but there was little we could do about that. We were anchored maybe ten or twelve cables from the face of the glacier which every so often thundered loudly before calving into the sea, causing us to jump involuntarily until we got used to it. Then a loud banging on the hull, it was Paul from Chirpy accompanied by his wife Angeline, her sister April and husband George in their dinghy, we’d earlier spotted their inflatable beached ashore along the northern side of the inlet. It was good to see them again, they were friends of Morning Star and we’d first met up with them in Auke Bay before finding them tied up in Hoonah Harbour. Right now it couldn’t be more perfect, George offered up small chunks of pure glacial ice they’d chipped off the glacier especially for us, so that we could drink early-evening gin & tonics though having no gin onboard we made do with Jack Daniels & Coke tantalisingly cooled by ten-thousand year old glacial ice. We drank rather too many in fact, quickly polishing off the whole bottle between the seven of us.
The next morning we launched our own inflatable to get ashore. We’d go up the south side of the glacier where Gary and I had made our earlier attempt a few weeks before. The deep snow must surely have moderated a little, perhaps enough to allow us to get up onto the glacier itself and explore the upper regions… although the whole glacier was eleven miles long, much too distant without ice axes or crampons but we’d see what we could do. Launching the dinghy wasn’t a problem but battling through the shoreline mud was more difficult, then we had to tie the dinghy above the tide-line rocks to make sure the dinghy was still there when we returned. I was also conscious that this was the same place Henry and I had encountered the female grizzly bear with her two cubs the previous summer when we’d anchored here in Sänna with Marie. Then we’d been unceremoniously stalked and then chased, only making our escape by the skin of our teeth in the dinghy when our outboard engine failed to start. You can read about that encounter here.
This time we got ourselves ashore safely before starting upwards beside the glacier, straightaway encountering the numerous creeks still worryingly in full glacial flow… we needed to cross each one without the benefit of convenient crossing points or any trails (this had proven overly difficult for Gary and myself when the deep snow had been too much), this time it was just as difficult even without the snow-field barrier to negotiate. Sarah and Louise were soon well ahead on account of being much younger and more athletic than myself… I was also aware this was prime grizzly bear and wolf country. I stopped every few hundred yards or so to take a look around warily, Sarah and Lou by this time were a good distance ahead trying to find a route onto the glacier.
I myself first saw the grizzly stalking us along the high ridge line to our left. It stopped when we stopped. Then it gradually made its way downwards as if to cut us off from our only route back. If not careful we’d have nowhere to go, we couldn’t climb higher or easily get onto the glacier. Traversing the ridge line wasn’t an option either but reversing our tracks back towards the dinghy meant meticulously crossing the fast flowing creeks, a time consuming process even when not in full flood… especially when pursued by an agitated grizzly bear which would have no difficulties crossing the flooded creeks at all. I signalled both girls to turnaround and make their way down towards me.
Louise and Sarah couldn’t see the grizzly from their higher position but it was there all right… and we only had bear spray for protection, something the locals laughingly call ‘dinner gong spray’… no doubt with good reason. We also had the rather dubious protection of the cheap taser I’d bought for fifty bucks in the bar when we had first arrived in Hoonah, which hadn’t done much good the previous year with Henry although we’d also bought along our compressed air-horn from the boat, which I didn’t know would be a suitable bear deterrent or not. In any event I had the taser, Sarah the air-horn and Louise the bear spray… so for the second time in a year we were being stalked by a grizzly bear in Reid Inlet. We made our way precariously downwards and whilst crossing the first of the creeks we lost sight of the prowling bear. Then Louise sighted it still on the ridge line meaning it wasn’t that interested in us after all. Nevertheless we didn’t dawdle and got back to our still beached inflatable as quickly as we could. We decided to head over the inlet to the northern side, where we hoped we’d be more safe.
The north side proved to be much easier because within an hour or so we all three were standing on the enormous Reid Glacier. We again bumped into Paul and the crew from Chirpy who’d been climbing the northern ridge to get a glimpse of the huge John Hopkins Glacier over the other side of the mountain. They advised extreme caution if attempting the glacier without crampons, so we hung around the lower slopes exploring the cavelike chasms of blue ice, Louise and Sarah taking huge numbers of photos of this absolutely pristine wilderness. We guessed there’d be almost no one else around for maybe thirty or forty miles or so… but then we saw a small group of intrepid kayakers crossing the mouth of the inlet to setup camp alongside the sandbar in the exact place we’d been charged by the three brown grizzlies the previous year.
After three or four hours or so we made our way back to Sänna swinging serenely on her anchor, that evening Louise cooked up smoked salmon pasta which we washed down with white Canadian wine we’d kept cool by dangling the bottle on a line in the pristine turquoise waters of the inlet. To end the incredible day a pod of dolphins played around Sänna’s bows as the sun once again dropped below the western snow-ridden ridge-line to cast long shadows inside the inlet. Just then, like a white-clad ghost, Morning Star drifted from behind the headland to then turn over the shallow sandbar that barred her way into the anchorage. She nosed around the flat waters for a short while searching for a good depth before dropping her anchor, then pulled to stern to tighten her chain to be safe for the night.
Early the next morning I called Leighton on the VHF radio. Paul from Chirpy joined in the conversation too. I said we’d leave the anchorage to try and get into the John Hopkins Inlet to see if the glacier there was accessible. If not then we’d head up the Tarr Inlet to the huge Marjorie Glacier which was flanked by the even larger Grand Pacific Glacier. There was no possibility of anchoring up there as the depths were just too great, so we’d return to Reid Inlet later in the evening taking advantage of the exceptionally long daylight hours. Paul said they were themselves planning another attempt to climb the mountain ridge leading into John Hopkins Inlet, but from what they’d seen the previous day the inlet was relatively ice free. We could easily get in there with Sänna but there was no safe anchorage. Leighton then said they had a problem with their outboard motor so their own plans to stay and explore Reid Inlet were somewhat curtailed, could they hitch a ride onboard Sänna for the day north? This was a good plan, we’d pull up anchor to raft alongside Morning Star, this meant Leighton and Lynda could simply hop aboard Sänna leaving Morning Star swinging on her own anchor.
So we left Reid Inlet and headed towards the pristine Tarr Inlet to then get into John Hopkins Inlet. It was even more spectacular than we expected, the tallest mountains of the St Elias range falling straight into the flat calm sea. The John Hopkins Glacier twisted and turned through the steep valleys before ending in the sea itself, much of the ice flows that often bar the way through Glacier Bay originate from the John Hopkins Glacier, sometime the icebergs being both huge and dangerous to small vessels such as our own. In the event we got within a few hundred yards of the glacier face, spending an hour or so drifting in the almost calm breeze beset by the outflow current pushing out from beneath the glacier.
The whole place was exceptionally difficult to take in. Is this icy paradise? We then backtracked under engine power to head up the Tarr Inlet to the Marjorie Glacier around fifteen miles northwards. It was now bright warm sunshine, Lynda had brought along the remainder of her cheeses and we chipped in with more salmon, sourdough bread and whatever we had left from the bottom of our fridge. The five of us talking incessantly reminded me of a rabble of rabbits, the dynamics perfectly crossing the twenty or thirty year age barriers between us. Of course, we’d saved the best of all until last, the Marjorie Glacier slowly drifting out of the sea mists rolling off the mountains. But there was now sea ice and lots of it, Lynda volunteered to stand herself on Sänna’s bows to guide us through before we came up upon the huge glacier face not more than a quarter of a mile away. I daren’t close any closer, the towering face was calving almost continuously, sending huge impact waves out into the Sound which could easily have swamped us if we moved in any closer.
On our starboard side drifted the National Geographic vessel Sea Lion. She called up on the VHF to ask our intentions and probable course so that we could both extract ourselves safely from the sea ice that was beginning to compact more closely. It was hard going but an incredibly beautiful experience. I was worried about the rising wind, this was causing the ice to drift swiftly which quickly closed the tenuously open leads through the ice. We needed to be gone and our best course was to follow Sea Lion through the broken ice she’d create with her reinforced steel bows. Sea Lion happily guided us through so that we could make our way southwards back to safely anchor in Reid Inlet for the night. We got back to Reid Inlet easy enough, but the conditions there were now vastly different from the calm conditions we’d left much earlier in the day…
The wind howled over thirty knots, straight off the Reid Glacier which transformed the anchorage into a dangerous maelstrom. Of course, Morning Star and Chirpy were still there anchored, they were being tossed around their anchor chains like toys, we could see Paul and George laying out more chain because they’d anchored much closer to the shoreline than Sänna and Morning Star… they were clearly worried about dragging onto the lee shore, the ground holding in Reid Inlet is notoriously poor with vessels frequently slipping their anchors in poor conditions. But our own immediate problem was much worse…
Leighton was rightly worried about Morning Star. If their anchor dragged without anyone onboard then they were in real trouble. Anchoring Sänna then taking Leighton and Lynda across in our inflatable dinghy was not an option in these conditions, we’d probably capsize or worse and the temperatures of these waters wasn’t conducive to a long and successful survival. The only option we had was the same technique we’d used earlier in the day… we’d need to come alongside Morning Star to raft up allowing Leighton and Lynda to then jump aboard. Leighton glanced at me knowing full well this was now a dangerous and difficult task in this conditions. We discussed the option of sitting the gale out close to Morning Star but Leighton was clearly worried by how much chain he had let out… then he said that Morning Star might already be dragging towards the lee shore. This was a going to be a tricky manoeuvre in these conditions but it quickly needed to be done.
Approaching the wildly swinging Morning Star from the windward side seemed to be the best option. I could stand Sänna off and let the wind drift us down onto Morning Star’s port beam end, we had plenty of fenders and lines out with Lynda, Louise and Sarah all briefed on their task to keep the fenders between our two topsides to prevent an uncontrolled collision. We wouldn’t tie on but would rely upon the thirty knots of wind to keep us alongside whilst Leighton and Lynda then leaped aboard Morning Star, the tricky part was manoeuvring Sänna into position. In the event, all went well. As soon as Sänna touched both Leighton and Linda leaped precariously but did just what they needed to do, in just a few moments they were safely onboard with Sarah and Louise working excellently with the fenders. I rolled Sänna away whilst Leighton pushed off. Within seconds the sea gap between both vessels opened up and the manoeuvre was done. We peeled away to find our own safe anchor spot just a few cables away.
After six days in the mountain wilderness it was time to head south. Our permit only allowed for seven days, we could fudge one or two more but the Rangers had been good enough to give us a vessel permit at short notice so why alienate them. Louise and Sarah had limited time too, Lou needed to be back in London and Sarah was continuing her travels northwards into the Canadian Yukon to find work. But we still had enough time to leave the glacial fiords to make for remote Elfin Cove and Pelican, two boardwalk communities who’s harbours truly are off the beaten track and a bona fide reflection of how the real Alaska still is. These small secluded townships actively discourage cruise ship tourism… there are few communities nowadays that are untouched by these monstrous monstrosity ships of five thousand people that seem to systematically ruin everywhere they visit – there’s not too much of pristine Alaska left that’s not been transformed into Disney style disasters of endless craft shops, overpriced jewellery stores and fake shows of ethnic diversity… the commercial tragedy that is historic Skagway is a prime example of the remorseless progress of tacky cruise ship tourism.
Not so in Elfin Cove or Pelican… no roads or vehicles or anything like that, just crazy screw-head locals and hardcore fishermen who take their independence extremely seriously. I’d been in these harbours before with Sänna and will forever treasure their wild mentality… and with their craving for intrepid offbeat travel both Lou and Sarah would appreciate the jewels these two communities on Chigacoff Island represented, perhaps they’d each understand how these rough diamonds would themselves some day soon morph into quaint little tourist traps for the easy traveller… I was keen for both Louise and Sarah to see the real Alaska before this last great wilderness is finally enveloped by mainstream tourism. In truth, first-contact tourist have already ‘discovered’ the beguiling remoteness of both communities, now it’s surely only a matter of time before the moneymakers move in. It’s already happening in Hoonah, with the enormous cruise ship dock recently being completed to serve the mind bogglingly stupid fish-cannery that’s been renovated in an absolutely false ‘authentic’ style.
But Elfin Cove and Pelican are not easy to get to, especially for a sailboat. The infamous Inian Pass narrows with up to twelve knots currents through dangerous rapids are the single element that protects both communities from the worst of mindless tourism. The narrows can be navigated but only at the fifteen minutes or so of slack tide… my fishermen friends based out of Hoonah had before described how it could be done and I’d been in each of the harbours the previous year with Marie. I’d also ventured out there with my step-brother Gary… by now I considered myself experienced enough to make a third attempt to transit the infamous Narrows… this time with Lou and Sarah. Luckily, everything went well but not so when we made for our return passage in a few days time…
Of course, as luck would have it we couldn’t get into the extremely tight harbour of Elfin Cove. A number of fishing vessels were sheltering there from a pacific storm and then irritatingly, as we approached, two American sailing yachts overtook and then raced ahead of us to make sure they each got the last space alongside the confined dock. I later had a huge bust-up with the skipper of one them, Pantaneus, who tried the same dangerous manoeuvre in Hoonah Harbour with near dire consequences. Instead, we made it to Pelican only fifteen miles further, there was space available there but with the weather showing distinct signs of breaking, the incessant Alaskan rain that was to plague the rest of the summer now descended in torrential torrents.
During the last day or two I’d been relating legendary tales about Pelican’s infamous Rose’s Bar to Louise and Sarah. For many years Rose had plied her trade with her wild drinking palace being a unique haven for roughneck-breed fishermen calling into Pelican to offload their catches of deep sea pacific salmon. The long-liners and the seine netters came to the cannery that years ago had been the original reason for the settlements existence. Sadly the cannery closed in 2012 then fell into ruin, so things are much quieter these days… but Rose’s Bar still rocks most nights with wild dancing standing on the tables to live bluegrass. And occasionally, perhaps during a full moon, there’s still drunken races naked down the boardwalks at midnight but the old grey-haired grizzly bear even now sits in the warmth of the toilet pit watching you take a piss. But the days of money-flush fish-boat skippers blowing a thousand bucks on a round of drinks for everyone by ringing the big copper bell on the bar are sadly gone… there’s really no doubt that more sedate tourism will one day descend on Pelican to fill the money void.
Pelican is a picturesque gem. Nowhere else in the world will you find anything like Pelican. Built entirely upon timber stilts with boardwalks set into the mountainous hillside of Lisianski Inlet, the small township is stunningly remote being accessible more often only by seaplane, perhaps by boat from Juneau or sometimes Sitka. We ourselves pulled into the old style harbour during the late evening with the relentless rainstorm beating down upon us. We somehow dried ourselves out then headed directly for ubiquitous Rose’s Bar, where the drinking inhabitants once again proved themselves exceptionally welcoming by hanging around two young English girls like flies around a jam pot. But, of course, the nuthead locals declared themselves well proud that an English sailboat had sailed all the way to Pelican just to visit them… their genuinely open friendliness was both meaningful and respectful. Sadly though, we only had enough time to stay around a short while, time was now exceptionally tight so we departed the next morning to make yet another attempt to enter Elfin Cove before making our way back to Hoonah.
As luck would again have it we yet again failed to get into Elfin Cove. The two American sailing yachts were still there and so too were the sheltering fishing boats from Sitka. It’s such a small harbour that’s usually taken up by local fishermen or recreational sports RIBs operated by Mormon owned vacation lodges, so I made the decision to once more head for the close-by Inian Pass less than five miles to the north… braving the Narrows a second time would lead directly into the Icy Straits which would then take us back to Hoonah by nightfall.
I calculated that we’d just about make the fifteen minutes or so of low slack tide but the deteriorating weather was beginning to concern me. The wind blew harder now that we were out of the shelter of Lisianski Inlet, we had both the mainsail and foresail full out to take full advantage of the wind though it was soon obvious that we would need to reduce sail. Conditions were beginning to deteriorate. Louise was experienced enough through her previous years onboard Sänna to be a good hand but this was Sarah’s first time on a sailing yacht, I could see that she was uneasy with the rough seaway we now encountered. Nevertheless, she still endeavoured to muck in and together we all three got one reef in each of the sails. But in these conditions things would be extremely difficult in the Narrows and I began to rue not running for the shelter of Elfin Cove, even if delayed there by bad weather then Louise and Sarah could fly out by seaplane back to Juneau. I could then get Sänna back to Hoonah when the weather eased – but right now we had no real choice but to foolishly attempt the infamous rapids.
The weather was foul. We now had torrential rain driven by near gale force winds which against the fast flowing currents of the Straits could make the Narrows untenable, especially if my timing was wrong. Two metre standing waves in eight to ten knots of adverse current are absolutely no joke, I recalled numerous fishermen’s warnings I’d heard about vessels caught in the Inian Pass at the wrong state of tide… timing our passage through at slack tide was vital if we were to stand any chance of safely making Hoonah Harbour by nightfall. Nearing the Straits my heart thumped, it was numbingly cold in the near gale blowing across our stern and I could now see banks of thick fog swirling ominously through the Straits in the high winds. For sure I would need to use our radar to navigate our way through and right now I really wished I had my ever reliable wife Marie onboard with me. I quickly realised that right now I had a seriously deteriorating situation on my hands… I was fearful that I’d made a bad call, even a serious error of judgement because thick fog in the Narrows was another matter entirely.
Then suddenly, as if by some strange event, when I turned to make the approach into the Narrows we were out of the blue joined by a large pod of magnificent orca whales. They began to toy and spin around Sänna inside the waves and fast flowing whirlpool currents before leaping ahead of our bows as if surely offering to lead us safely through. These wonderfully intelligent creatures provided an unbelievable spectacle which in these horrible conditions was a welcome respite – the rain now beat down incessantly with the wind gusting well over thirty knots astern. I was effectively sailing solo because there was little Louise and Sarah could do to help although Louise stood relentlessly by my side, she brewed hot tea and had no problems doing everything I asked regardless of the dangerous conditions we now faced.
So there we were, fast approaching one of the most feared sets of Straits in southeast Alaska… in fierce wind against tide conditions and thick fog reducing visibility to almost nothing… with by now torrential rain hammering down incessantly in near thirty knot winds and a pod of orca whales racing ahead of Sänna’s bows to lead us. My foul weather gear was soaked, it was freezing cold. This was a surreal experience, right now it dawned upon me how much I missed my good wife and truly relished the willing help of my youngest daughter. At this stage I thought it wise that Sarah stayed safely below, this could be a hair raising experience if things went badly wrong, there was little for her to see or do on deck and right now I had to concentrate on everything that Louise and I needed to do. I asked Louise to keep a keen eye on the radar screen because there was every chance of other vessels being in the Straits themselves using slack tide to transit through in both directions. But first I needed to get the sails down, we needed full manoeuvrability in the Straits with the wind swirling then constantly changing direction in the confines of the Narrows buttressed by high mountains either side. And undoubtedly we would quickly need to avoid other approaching vessels, we could only attempt this difficult passage using our engine at maximum power. Worryingly and ominously, I also saw the Yankee sailboat Pentaneus on our AIS screen only a mile or two behind us.
In the pouring rain Louise furled in the sails and we were ready to go. Using our course plotter to position ourselves well away from the rocks of Point Lavinia and to check the accuracy of our electronic charts against radar, we approached the narrow entrance to the Straits. For the last few hundred yards or so I absolutely decided to follow the orca whales that still leaped ahead of our bows, my gut feeling instinct convincing me they were trying to guide us through the horribly dense fog and dangerous visibility. Marie and I had before encountered this exact same phenomena with dolphins, most notably through the infamous reefs of the Red Sea and once on the north coast of Borneo. Then, as we now entered the Straits with the tide still running slightly against us I powered up our Volvo engine to keep us on course, I judged that I’d just about got our passage timing right but the whirlpools around us twisted and turned Sänna like a cork even with our engine at full power, but I pretty much held our track. Then the fog suddenly swirled and then cleared. The wind quickly eased. I cannot tell you how utterly relieved I was – now I could see our heading and saw straightaway that by following the orcas we were dead centre in the rapidly widening channel, though our GPS plotter also confirmed our approximate position – but electronic charts in these parts of Alaska are notoriously inaccurate.
Slowly the rain eased, so both girls felt safe enough to go up onto the bows to watch the orcas which were by now leaping and somersaulting in a fantastic display of delight. One whale in particular swam close beside Sänna, keeping pace with our own speed that now increased considerably as the undeniably strong tide turned to go with us. This particular orca eyed me with that beguiling smile that orcas and dolphins seem to have, that serenity of mind and expression we don’t yet understand. I even now strongly believe that I then received an acknowledgement from the orca that we were now safe, just a brief fraction-of-a-second eye to eye contact between the orca whale and me that confirmed these incredible creatures are highly intelligent. The orca suddenly disappeared to swim under our keel before the whole pod quickly pulled ahead of us to leave us, just as we passed Lemesurier Island that donates the eastern entrance to the Narrows and the forty mile long Icy Straits that would take us all the way back to Hoonah.
Nearing Hoonah Harbour by early evening we were slowly caught by the same two sailing yachts that had raced us into Elfin Cove to claim the last remaining slip space there to tie up. They came fast upon our stern, motoring at what must have been their maximum speed for several hours through the afternoon, one then taking a dangerous short cut inside the Gedney Channel of Hoonah Island to gain as much distance as possible. The other, Pantaneus came right upon our stern as we entered the wide channel that lead to the breakwater entrance to Hoonah Harbour. I suspected that I knew their game… the public dock in Hoonah Harbour was also tight for space, any vessel unable to claim a mooring there had no choice but to anchor outside of the breakwater. They fully intended to tie up together on the public dock with no intention of swinging on their anchors for the night. We ourselves might claim any remaining space… so both vessels were endeavouring to beat us through the exceptionally narrow harbour entrance. Unbeknown to both of them Sänna already had her own designated berth a good way from the public dock… I’d long since paid the twelve month long-term docking fee that now made Hoonah our home port for the duration.
As we entered the buoyed approach channel I slowed down… there was a strictly enforced four knot speed limit in the channel. Obviously, Pantaneus was not aware of this and came close up against our stern… much too close, only four or five metres separated us before they too slowed to avoid a nasty collision. Our VHF crackled as Pantaneus came in over the radio, the voice of the American skipper complaining bitterly that we had slowed too much and asked sarcastically if we were going to stop. I explained there was a four knot speed limit and that he needed to pull back considerably for the safety of both vessels. Approaching the breakwater entrance the clearly displayed speed limit reduced to three knots because of the tight dog-legged entrance…
I knew full what was about to happen. I reduced Sänna’s speed further to around three knots and asked Louise to turn on our GoPro camera mounted permanently upon our spray-hood canopy, I thought it would be a good idea to run our video camera just in case… sure enough Pantaneus suddenly increased speed to what must have easily been over seven or eight knots to overtake us on our starboard side, just as we entered the dog-leg entrance. Then Pantaneus cut to port directly in front of us, cutting across our bows towards the public dock. Luckily I had anticipated Pantaneus’s intentions and slammed Sänna’s engine into reverse to avoid a dangerous collision… and I caught the whole stupid manoeuvre on camera. Unbeknown to me at the time, several fishing boats crews also saw what happened… so had my good friend Ken from the sailing ketch Island Rover. I would deal with this idiosyncratic idiot once we were safely tied up secure. Louise in the meantime voiced her own anger to the seemingly unconcerned skipper of Pantaneus in no uncertain terms… I confess to being a little shocked by her colourful choice of words.
In turned out there was only enough space on the public dock for both of those fifty foot vessels… so we would have missed out again – but Sänna had her own private slip amongst the Hoonah based fishing fleet anyway. We didn’t need to use the public dock. So, we tied up and went for pizza at the Icy Straits Lodge. Sadly, both Louise and Sarah were flying out the very next day.
The weather was truly foul the next morning. The heavy rain once more came down in torrents, this time accompanied by thick mist and yet more fog… I was seriously worried that Louise and Sarah’s six seater flight from Hoonah’s small single-building grass lined airport might not fly to Juneau as scheduled. They’re often cancelled in bad weather and are notoriously unreliable… Louise needed to catch her connection flight to Seattle and Sarah was returning north to Haines to cross the Canadian border into the Yukon. And so it proved, the regular flight was indeed cancelled because of low cloud and almost zero visibility. These single engined propeller-driven aircraft fly by sight with no specialist instruments, relying upon being able to twist and turn between the high mountains and hidden islands of southeast Alaska… but thankfully there was a solution in hand. Alaska Seaplanes were flying a float seaplane instead, these exceptionally intrepid pilots fly low over the water and somehow in the fog follow the sea route to Juneau, through the mist and the rain that I knew full well would be an unforgettably hair-raising experience… I’d already done it myself and still vividly recalled the flight I’d never make again. But there was no other choice.
I cannot describe to you how I felt as I stood on the seaplane dock located outside of the Hoonah breakwater wall. It was, once again, a strangely surreal experience in the thick mist and pouring rain. Whilst Louise and Sarah prepared themselves to board the small flimsy aircraft, three or four enormous sea lions swam between the plane’s supporting floats, ducking and diving playing hide & seek without a care in the world. As my delightful daughter’s luggage was hauled aboard I spoke to the pilot, a rugged indigenous First Nation individual who’s appearance belied his undeniably courageous valour. He told me he’d only narrowly avoided a large humpback whale when he’d come in to land on the sea only fifteen minutes or so before. He saw my buzz-eyed expression and smiled, you know, one of those wickedly mischievous smiles when you wonder whether you’re being told the truth or not.
I then hugged both my crew equally… lingering in those hugs for far too long, my youngest daughter who loves me unconditionally and her young friend Sarah who I’d only known a week. They clumsily climbed onboard, then Lou waved and blew her kisses through the misted window. The pilot revved his engine before weaving his aircraft around the seemingly unconcerned sea lions that still chased each other between the seaplane’s floats. He powered up with a deafening crescendo, then quickly disappeared into the grey sea-mist into god knows where. I distinctly heard the flight climb into the air, realising once and for all that Louise was now irretrievably gone, you know, that horrible empty feeling inside when you yourself then stride away feeling despairingly alone.
It’s a stupid dad thing, you know that, but the pilot’s wry smile stayed firmly in my mind when I walked the long walk, the walk that perhaps all fathers take at some time in their lives. My walk took me all the way to the Icy Straits Lodge bar.
Dave & Marie Ungless are circumnavigating their sailing boat Sänna from the UK and are now in Alaska. Dave is a freelance writer specialising in high latitude sail adventures whilst Marie is a highly qualified sailor in her own right with over forty thousand sea miles under her belt. You can follow their sail adventure so far through their website www.sanna-uk.com and at Sailblogs. Their Facebook page to Like is at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.
Photos: Copyright ©️Louise Ungless
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