Saturday, August 21, 2010

Walking the Docks in Craig, Alaska

Craig Harbor
Monday, August 2

Under rare sunny skies, a leak in the steering created a diversion to Craig … a small town we’d never heard of half way down the west coast of Prince of Wales Island … in search of o-rings.

Who knew? With a population of about 1,200, Craig is the largest town on POW Island, and is shaped like a figure 8, with one road connecting both halves and boat harbors on each side of the intersecting road.

Rick and PETEY
After procuring our o-rings at the General Store and having lunch at Ruth Ann’s Restaurant next door on the waterfront, we spent the later part of the afternoon enjoying one of our favorite activities at new harbors … walking the docks.

We’ve met some of the most interesting, generous, colorful and considerate people  … just by walking up and down the docks of Alaska. And Crag was no exception.

We crossed the street from the South Cove Harbor where we were docked with mostly pleasure boats and visited the North Cove Harbor, which was predominantly filled with fishing boats, usually where you’ll find the most interesting characters. Half way up the docks we heard a loud squawk unlike any native birds we’d heard in Alaska and looked up only to see a huge blue Amazon Parrot in a cage aboard one of the fishing boats from Washington State. As we walked past the boat we heard another loud squawk followed by a throaty “H-E-L-L-L-O!”

Later, walking back down the docks, the parrot was perched down on the back deck and we had the opportunity to meet “Petey,” and his captain, Rick, who jointly owns the bird with his son.  

We learned that Petey has a great vocabulary, and uses his words appropriately (which is more than you can say of most people). He is 7 years old, sleeps on the boat hanging from his perch upside down by one claw, and has a bad habit of climbing up the mast … a dangerous performance with so many eagles around looking for easy prey.

Further down the docks we also happened upon the motor yacht called Siverado, which originally was the largest fiberglass yacht ever built, back in the early 1970s … and still is quite handsome.

Travelling 3 Miles in Puffin Bay … At Anchor!!!

Sunday, August 1

Leaving Sitka, we made the decision to take the west coast passage on the outside of Baranof Island down to Prince of Wales Island … a route most pleasure craft avoid because of its exposure to the Gulf of Alaska.

After our last experience crossing the Gulf, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to take this route. But a large collection of islands serve as a buffer against the Gulf, and our cruising manuals say it’s an extremely scenic passage, so we headed out. Ultimately, our only scenery was the radar!

We had two days of rain mixed with a soupy thick fog. In the meantime, we were  navigating a foggy maze of hundreds of islands, first through the Necker Islands south of Sitka, and the next day through Windy Passage, a collection of reefs, submerged rocks, fishing boats and narrows with depths as low as 12 feet.

The going was slow and tense … we could barely see our bow, and somehow (like a rear view mirror) objects in the water were a lot closer than they seemed on the charts or radar.

We finally were able to pull out of the fog when we headed into a channel on the southwest side of Baranof Island and anchored in a tiny spot called Puffin Bay.
Entrance to Puffin Bay ... tight!

The rain continued all night, and the wind picked up as well. By morning our anchor tracker showed that the boat not only made huge sweeping zigzags around the anchor through the night, including a line that took us right over the shores onto land (guess the GPS is off a bit), but we had travelled 3 miles around the anchor. At least it held!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wedding Congratulations to Alex and James

It's hard to believe we are down to the last month of our cruise in Alaska. As amazing as this adventure has been, it has not been without sacrifice.

We've missed so many important events with our family and friends. My oldest niece Ali's high school graduation in June. My brother's 50th birthday celebration last week in Michigan. And what I'm sure was a beautiful wedding yesterday for Alex and James. I know our dear friends Dave and Mikie were disappointed we couldn't be there. And we were too. We were watching the clock throughout the day ....and thinking about everyone getting ready for the ceremony ... Alex and James taking their vows .... and finally, everyone enjoying the reception. 

Congratulations to all. I'm sure I would have cried!

Slideshow 11: A Whale Feeding Frenzy and Historic Sitka

This collection of photos includes some amazing photos of a pod of whales that took us by surprise in Icy Strait ... spouting, fluke flapping, breaching ... it was a true show of nature. The next day we discovered the probable origin of the name Peril Straits when we witnessed rip tides and a rapid 12-knot ride through Sergius Narrows. And finally, you'll see photos of Sitka, a town that takes great pride in its Russian, American and Native Alaskan culture.


Slideshow 10: An Amazing Glacier Show in Harriman Fjord

Roland and I took hundreds of photos the day we cruised up the Harriman Fjord and witnessed 13 glaciers ... each one as stunning as the next. This slideshow includes an intimate look at Surprise Glacier from our dinghy, as well as our final few days in Prince William Sound ... a rough two-day crossing of the Gulf back to the Southeast ... and our return to old friends in Pelican.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sitka: Russia’s Colonial Capital of Alaska, Now Largest City in the U.S.

Tuesday, July 27

Sitka, with Mt. Edgecombe in background
How’s this for a jolt back to civilization … we saw our first automobile in more than two weeks when we cruised into Sitka.

I had high expectations for this scenic and historic stop. My biggest disappointment … we didn’t allow ourselves more time to explore.

Sitka Harbor
Sitka has it all. An exotic Russian history. A rich Native culture. A beautiful setting among forested islands, with a view overlooking Mt. Edgecombe, a dormant volcano. There’s a dynamic arts community here … spanning Russian, native and American heritage. A great harbor. And LAND … with 4,710 square miles, it's the largest city in the U.S. by area.

It was named capital city of Russia’s colonies in 1808 (specifically because it was the center for fur trade in the region), and as a consequence, is where Alaska’s history as a U.S. territory began. Which leads me to a question I’ve been asking ever since we landed in Alaskan waters … why did Russia ever sell this amazing piece of land called Alaska to the United States back in 1867?  In hindsight, I’m sure they’ve kicked themselves up and down for that transaction as well … especially during the Cold War era.
Holland America's two ships in Sitka harbor

With a population just shy of 9,000, Sitka, like most cities in Alaska, thrives on tourism. But it’s not as obnoxious as Juneau or Ketchikan. For one, the cruise ships have no docks in town. They anchor in the channel and shuttle passengers in, which I suspect cuts down on both the number of cruise ships that come in as well as tourists.

Totem in Sitka National Historical Park
Second, Sitka recognizes the importance of its history and culture, and puts its colonial/native pedigree to good advantage. It boasts more than 20 locations on the National Register of Historic Places, including seven National Historic Landmarks.

We particularly enjoyed the 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park. 100 years old, it’s Alaska’s oldest national park area, and on Thursday afternoon we walked the 2-mile trail that runs through its rain forest along the beach of Sitka Sound and the banks of the Indian River. The trail sits on the site of the 1804 attack by the Russians on the Tlingits (retaliation for the 1802 massacre by the Tlingits of the Russians), and is lined with, 18 beautifully carved totems, each commemorating historical evens, family ancestors, clan stories, or individual clan members.

Russian orthodox church
We also visited the Russian Bishop’s House which is filled with artifacts from Russia’s territorial occupation and fur trading era in Alaska. It is sadly striking to consider how much blood was shed over sea otter pelts.

Poison and Complex Passageways in Peril Strait

Monday, July 26

Lots of current
Peril Strait is a 39-mile waterway that cuts diagonally between Baranof and Chichagof Islands, a route that essentially all boats use to navigate to Sitka from the inside.

Its name is a bit of a misnomer. For one, the waterway is anything but straight. But rather a series of zigzagging passageways that twist and wind around granite islands, mixed with hidden rocks, riptides, markers, narrows, and very strong currents. For a captain like Roland who loves a challenge … it’s a beaut.

Secondly, despite the “perils” of navigating these waters, the true source of the name results from an incident dating back to 1799 when a party of Aleut hunters camped on the beaches in this stretch of water, ate some of the mussels, and over 100 died from what is now known as paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Channel buoy in Sergious Narrows

The Russians named the waterway Pogibshii, meaning deadly, which has since been translated in English … to Peril Strait. The episode is duly noted with other names along the way, such as Poison Cove, the site where the mussels were collected … and Deadman Reach, where the hunters ate their last meal.

Note lower right.... 12.1 knots
But these locations were inconsequential to us. We had our sites set on Sergius Narrows ... a 450-foot wide channel where the tide is known to rush through at speeds topping 9 ½ knots (Engelenbak runs at 7-8 knots in comparison).

As a rule of thumb, you can tell the strength and direction of the current by the tilt of the channel buoys. Normally you try to time your entrance into narrow passageways to coincide with slack tide, either at the top of high tide or bottom of low tide, when there is the least amount of water movement.

Sukoi Inlet
We timed our passage through Sergius Narrows a little more than an hour before slack, hoping to get a slight push behind us. You can see in the photos we had more than enough PUSH … and what a ride! You could feel the water lift us and in seconds Engelenbak was gliding through the narrows at 12.1 knots. Just moments later, we were back down to 6 knots … but what a rush!

And quite a contrast to the serenity of our anchorage that evening in Sukoi Inlet ...

Whale Tales and Tango Lines

Sunday, July 25

Very early on in our cruise, I was in Ketchikan with Sharon browsing through a delightful bookshop on Creek Street that specializes in books on Alaska, when I came across a large book devoted entirely to humpback whales. Thumbing through it, I wondered if there really could be that much information about this slow moving immense mammal to keep 436 pages interesting.

Since then, rarely a day has gone buy when we haven’t passed at least one humpback while cruising. Usually more. And I am filled with questions about the behavior of these grand animals.

Consequently, rarely a day has gone by where I also haven’t kicked myself for not buying that book when I had the chance …out in the middle of Alaskan waters … it’s hard to surf the net for answers like I normally would!

Before leaving Pelican, our friend John from Morning Mist lent us a beautifully produced PBS video about the abundant wildlife in Glacier Bay. People in Alaska seem to be both proud and generous in sharing information with “outsiders,” and I was particularly intrigued to watch the video because it included an entire section on humpback whales and how they fish for food.

For humpbacks, fishing is a team sport! A pod comprised of several whales will fish along the shores where schools of salmon tend to congregate. When they find fish they spread out to surround them and basically stun them into submission … which is when the real fun begins for spectators.

We were fascinated to watch this on the video  … but absolutely astounded the very next day to see it upfront and personal when we came upon a pod of whales in Icy Strait, after we left Pelican on our way to Sitka. So we put the boat in neutral … and in a stretch of about 20 minutes I think Roland and I took more than 400 photos between us (oh the joy of digital photos!).

First thing we saw were whales spouting. One, then another further away, and then enough that we were able to see there were at least six. Next we both heard and saw two whales next to each other pounding their huge flukes up and down in the water … bam, bam, bam, bam ... nonstop noise and spraying water. We were about a half mile away and the crack of those tails was loud, I can’t imagine what it sounded like to the salmon below.

No sooner had the tail flapping stopped that we saw one of the whales breach straight up and out of the water. And then another one breached next to him.
Within a few minutes, the whales had tightened into a line around their prey … the tail flapping began again, simultaneously another whale breached, while others next to him were surfacing and spouting … all in a line.

It was a phenomenal display … and with a smile I couldn’t help but think of those tango lines you see at weddings where everyone does their own dance move. Just a simple act of nature … an experience I will never forget.

About Engelenbak

My photo
Engelenbak is a custom-built 62-foot steel trawler ... designed to cruise anywhere in the world.