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.

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