Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Inside Waters

Kodiak, where we’re from, is an archipelago, a place where the water surrounds land on all sides. Southeast Alaska, where we’re sailing now, is a country of fjords, a place where water is surrounded by land. It’s a big difference – at home we have open horizons and we sail around things. Here we look up at the mountains above us as we sail through the passages in between. Once again we’re reminded of the diversity of Alaska.

We timed our departure from Graves Harbor to catch slack water going through North Inian Pass, where the ebb tide can build a 9 knot current as all the water of northern Southeast tries to rush out of Cross Sound, meeting its twice-daily appointment with low tide.

It was foggy as we motored along the few miles of open Gulf of Alaska coast that separates Graves Harbor from Cross Sound. Incredibly foggy, so that even our thoughts were still and muffled in gauze. Visibility closed down to 100 feet, then 50. Seabirds in our path loomed out of the mist as big as houses until they shrunk down to their proper size as we motored past. Even with the aid of radar and the GPS everything felt claustrophobic. We decided to pull into Elfin Cove to fuel up and let the fog burn off and thread the pass at a different tide. But then the fog lifted. We got a little glimpse of sky overhead, and then suddenly miles of visibility. You can see the bands of fog lying low over the water in the distance in these pictures.

South Inian Pass is narrower than North Inian Pass, and subject to swifter currents, but it was right in front of us when the fog lifted. It’s the gap right off the bow in the next picture. It was only an hour after slack water, so we decided to brave the South Pass. Even an hour from slack, and making only 6 knots at best with the motor, the GPS showed us making 10 and a half knots over the bottom.

We had a great motor until Pt. Adolphus, where the breeze suddenly came up from behind and gave us a lovely sail under jib alone. Pt. Adolphus is locally famous for the humpback whales that congregate there in the summer, feeding in the tidal currents that swirl around the point. A few miles after the point we heard a sound the I was sure was a shotgun being fired on Pleasant Island, but that turned out to be two whales displaying about a half mile away. One lobtailed over and over, holding itself vertically in the water with its head down and its tail out of the water and slamming its tail into the water with incredible violence. The other was breaching, launching its body almost entirely out of the water and displacing vast sheets of white water when it came crashing back down. Occasionally there was a pause while one or the other would pec slap, smacking the water over and over with white pectoral fins that looked to be fully a third of the animals’ total length. Humpback whales are Megaptera novaeangliae, with the generic epithet meaning “giant wing” and referring to these long pectoral fins. The two animals kept it up, slapping and crashing and booming into the water. Ancient murrelets are cool, but 30- or 40-ton animals carrying on aerial displays is a much grander sort of wonder of nature.

The whale in this picture is not lobtailing, just showing its flukes at the start of a dive.

We spent the night in the Tlingit village of Hoonah, then had two unbelievable days of sailing up Lynn Canal to Haines. Lynn Canal is an incredible fjord, but for some reason fjords aren’t called fjords in Southeast. They’re “canals”, or even “inlets”, nomenclature that is completely insufficient to the majesty of the geography being described.

As we sailed north up Lynn Canal the south wind built past the forecast 20 knots to a steady 25, gusting 30. (Wind directions refer to the direction the wind is coming from, so a south wind is behind you if you’re traveling north. Current directions refer to the direction the current is going to. Go figure.) We came charging up on a group of about a dozen boats that I couldn’t quite figure out – not seiners, not longliners, but obviously some kind of small commercial boat. They turned out to be gillnetters, a possibility that hadn’t occurred to my tired brain because there are not gillnetters in Kodiak. We only realized what they were, and the fact that they had gear in the water, when one of the fishermen drove his boat out of the group, banging into the four foot chop, and yelled to us once he was close enough, “You’ve got five nets in front of you!” He kindly led us through the maze. We spent the night anchored up in William Henry Bay, along with eight tenders and a few gillnetters. The next day saw another 25 knot breeze, and we made our best ever speed for Pelagic, 9.2 knots on the GPS at slack water, sailing wing and wing. Alisa says she shouldn’t have let me know that we were going that fast for fear that I’ll want to try to do it again.

That second day in Lynn Canal brought us to Haines, the end of the first leg of our trip. Haines is at the end of Lynn Canal, as close to the Interior as you can get while still being on saltwater, and it’s an uncommonly spectacular place, infested with majestic peaks and recumbent glaciers. We’ve spent a great month here, visiting our good friends Jen and Clint and Greg and Ann and Jamie and Kelly. Together we’ve set gillnets for salmon and pulled crab pots and generally enjoyed the bounty of Alaska, and we’ve had a great time catching up with these old friends and getting current in their lives for a while. Jamie and Kelly gave us the special treat of seeing them in the midst of building a fantastic timber frame house on the water and off the grid on Mud Bay, just south of town. We also left the boat in Haines while we attended two weddings, catching up with friends and family who in some cases we may not see again for years.

A highlight in Haines was taking our friend Greg sailing. We used to work with Greg and he taught us both a lot about being on the water in Alaska, and it was fun to be able to show him something new.

We’re now ready to leave Haines, having stayed one extra day to install some used solar panels that we bought here to replace two that died on us. The fireweed is mostly gone, the trees and meadows are starting to change color, and people are getting serious about making sure they have enough firewood for the winter. Fall is suddenly everywhere creeping in, and another too-short miracle that is summer in Alaska is coming to an end. Alaskans live by the season more than most people, and all the signs tell Alisa and me that it is almost time for another winter, the long season of skiing and close community, banyas and potlucks and conversation to fill the slow time of the year. But there won’t be a winter for us this year. We’re leaving Alaska, even though I like to think that we love this place just as much as anyone. The month in Haines has been a great curtain call for the years that we have spent in the Great Land, since this time with old friends has reminded us that while the country here may put most any other place to shame, it’s the people that make Alaska incomparable.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


After Hinchinbrook we motor southeast over the shallow continental shelf, across the waters less than 50 fathoms deep that make the area around Wessels Reef so treacherous in a blow. The Coast Pilot, our constant reference and guide, soberly warns that “With a strong S gale and ebb tide… tremendous seas, steep and breaking, are encountered just outside the entrance… During heavy weather, tide rips and confused seas are in the vicinity of Wessels Reef. Many halibut schooners have foundered between Cape St. Elias and Montague Island.”

Happily none of that is going on. We’ve picked our weather and the engine has us making a bit less than six knots as we gain our sea room. We motor by an ancient murrelet and two dependent chicks bobbing on the little waves. Ancient murrelets are members of the genus Synthliboramphus, arguably the most marine of all birds, since the chicks go to sea when they’re only a day or two old, tiny little fuzz balls, and they are fed at sea by adults until they’re big enough to be independent. I’ve never seen ancient murrelet chicks before, and it feels, in a very small way, like one of the natural wonders of the world is slipping by us as we motor past the three little shapes.

All through the afternoon and into the long evening the St. Elias mountains ghost by in the distance, slowly turning salmon-pink in the alpenglow. We take bearings with our hand compass and consult the chart to pick out Mt. St. Elias, the biggest coastal mountain in the world – 18,008 feet tall, and, with recent glacial retreat, ten miles or even less from summit to tidewater, as maintains my spotty memory. Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, Corey Ford’s classic account of Vitus Bering’s voyage of discovery to Alaska from Kamchatka, tells us that Mt. St. Elias was first sighted by Bering’s crew on July 16, 1741. Georg Steller, the expedition’s naturalist who was to gain lasting fame from the contributions to science he made on that voyage (and I do mean lasting; any 21st century Alaskan biologist worth their salt knows who he was) had sighted land the previous day during a break in the fog. But, since he was a mere biologist, the salty crew of the St. Peter ignored him. Some things never change. The St. Peter was 40 days at sea when St. Elias was sighted, and short on water. The crew was overwhelmed with joy at the sight of land and the release from the unknown of the uncharted watery void they had been crossing. Bering, their captain, was sick and unimpressed by the sight. “We know nothing of this coast”, he is meant to have said. “We have no provisions to winter, and a west wind may come up and prevent our return to Kamchatka.” Bering had labored through the prime years of his life in the effort to organize an expedition to Alaska, and when that new land was finally before him, he was already a wrecked man, fated to die before the return trip was complete.

We, living in an entirely different age, think seeing Mt. St. Elias was neat because it reminded us of our junior crew, and because I know someone who climbed it in winter.

The wind came up a bit from the west that afternoon, but nothing like the 15 knots forecast. Concerned about momentum, and not wanting to slat along at two knots, we kept motoring. We put Elias to bed and Alisa and I took turns standing watch through the night, looking out at the mysterious sea as the sun sank behind the mountains to the north of us. It never grew completely dark through the whole crossing, since we were still close to 60° north and solstice wasn’t too far behind. Our autopilot is down, so while we can grab a few minutes away from the wheel for a quick trip below, that’s all the freedom we get while motoring, and when we run back up the companionway we’re likely to find the barky thirty degrees off course, merrily running down the meridian for Hawaii. So for the most part we were tied to the wheel that first night, trusting the faint glow of the compass dial to tell us where to point her and listening to the slap of the waves on the hull. Every four our five hours we would come below, aliens dressed against the ocean chill in X-Tra Tuffs and sweaters and rain gear, turn on the red night light over the port settee, and wake the off watch from the dewy slumber of the sleeping bag to take their turn.

The next day the west wind did come up, and we made sail, wing and wing with the pole out and everything prevented. The beauties of sailing in this situation are three. It’s quieter than running the damn engine. Sailing is really cool. And the wind vane steers us great under sail, so that suddenly we have no need to attend to the boat every minute while on watch. It’s hard to overstate how big a difference that makes. We can read, or make a cup of tea, and the wind vane and the sails work together to make us go where we want to.

With the wind vane working the passage looks like this.

We’re crossing one of the truly wild places on the planet, just one tanker, one cruise ship and two fishing boats on the whole three day crossing to distract us from our reverie. The days take on the rhythm of the sea, as the wind builds and fades and the waves change according to the wind. We watch Leach’s and fork-tailed stormy petrels flitting by, and more and more frequently the grand shapes of black-footed albatrosses wheeling low over the waves. At one point when the wind leaves us and we pull down the sails thirteen albatross gather around us, evidently mistaking us for a longliner about to set gear. Alisa wonders if we can feed them, and remembers the canned clams and mussels that have been on board for three years. She flings the bivalves at the assembled albatross one by one and drizzles the enticing oil on the waves, but gets no takers.

Each night watch lasts just long enough. We are tired, but also alone with our thoughts while the others sleep below, alone in the half light and the ineffable peace of the sea. Alisa asks one morning if we have the voice recorder on board. “My mind just gets going,” she says. “It would be great to get it down.” I get to thinking one night about the value there might be in taking the world as it is, accepting the evidence of our senses and turning our backs on the endless cacophony of spirituality and religion. Being satisfied with the notion that what we can touch, and see, and deduce, is all there is to the world. I even come up with ironclad arguments in support of this perspective. Whatever might lie beyond the reach of our senses, whatever mystery there might reside in the universe, can only be revealed to us through our senses. Everything else is just telling ourselves stories.

Another night I see a sperm whale, about a half mile away in the half light, its blow angling 45 degrees forward the way sperm whale blows do.

The crossing is also a roller coaster of crew morale, just like the roller coaster ride that any traveling presents. One day sunshine, good speed, and the wind vane taking care of all the drudgery, and Alisa and I revel in each other’s presence. Then the long night with each of us standing watch with our solitary thoughts. Then the morning made bitter by short sleep, working together to set the chute and pole it out as the breeze dies, me fuming, Elias below screaming, screaming.

We pass north of the Fairweather Grounds at night, seeing the two fishing boats of the trip as white lights on the horizon, beyond the reach of the radar. We bring up the coast of Southeast in the morning, sullen glaciers and impassable mountains.

We pass the entrance to Lituya Bay. I’ve been there once before, on a work trip, and know it as perhaps the single most impressive spot in coastal Alaska. In the 1950s a giant rockslide created a wave that crested at 1,700 feet above sea level and swept the two fishing boats that were anchored in the little fjord away, one to be lost, the other to find itself floating outside the bay, in the open Gulf of Alaska. Everything below the high water mark was swept clean, so today you can follow the path of the wave as it swept out the bay – everything above its path is spruce forest, everything below is alder, and the line between the two is so sharp that it might have been drawn with a pencil. I’ve been thinking about visiting Lituya every since we decided to travel down the west coast of North America, but now that we’re in sight of it we pass it by. The entrance is dangerous, and tidal, and though we could surely navigate it, our crossing of the Gulf feels like enough, enough for two people new to cruising with an infant on board. Spending a few days rowing and hiking around Lituya feels like a trip for a different crew. Alisa asks me if I mind passing it by, and I honestly don’t. “I feel like I’ve had my visit to Lituya,” I say.

And then, a few hours later, we pass through the granite islands on each side of the entrance to Graves Harbor, just north of Cross Sound, the northernmost entrance point into Southeast Alaska. The granite islands are like a gate. As we pass through we leave the swell of the ocean behind. We motor through the flat bay, our bow cutting a path across the mirror-still water, our wake sending wavelets out in a v, little packets of information traveling to the spruce-clad shore. The bay takes a hard right turn and we anchor far in back, protected from the Gulf. It’s a beautiful spot, and all to ourselves. Paradise. Sun comes out and we dry musty cushions on deck and break out the solar shower. Harbor porpoise breaths break the stillness, common and red-throated loons swim by. The first passage of the trip is over.