Friday, June 14, 2013

Sitka to Juneau (One miracle at a time)

Sitka (and Mount Edgcumbe)

We took several days off from cruising and explored Sitka. The highlight for me was a hike with Doug, my former medical partner. He’s a professional photographer ( and has been doing locum work in Sitka for two years, so he knows all the great hikes. We chose the two hour walk up to Green Lake at the south end of the highway and had a blast shooting waterfalls. We wore bear bells and the only sign we saw was a nice steaming mound of bear scat. So heck, we easily missed running into him by an hour.

We met Jane and Michael at the airport, and thus began a week of amazing experiences (we called them miracles), not to mention enough laughter to make my stomach hurt for weeks to come. They had a bucket list. Bears, whales, eagles, sea otters, porpoises, etc. As each day unfolded, something from their bucket list would appear, almost as though orchestrated by unseen forces.

In Sitka, we toured the marvelous totem park and raptor center, ending our land-bound adventure with a luscious dinner at Ludvig’s - the smallest and best restaurant in Sitka. On June 8th, we headed north up narrow Olga and Neva Channels. On the way we saw a tugboat named Waldo on AIS (electronic charting) but had a hard time spotting it with binoculars. Michael proposed a new game: Where’s Waldo?

You see what I mean about laughing?

After transiting Sergius Narrows I suggested we explore Deep Bay - maybe we’ll find a bear, I said.

We did.

We were hoping the skies would clear. Entering Rodman Bay, the clouds departed and we sat on the hook staring at a beautiful mountain while eating chicken barbecued on the grill. We watched Chasing Ice (a frightening documentary on the melting glaciers) and before bed were treated to a lovely sunset (nearly 11pm) washing “our” mountain in reds and purples.
Fog next morning, but the water was calm and the early morning light a photographer’s dream. Heading north of  Chatham Strait we were greeted by a pair of Dall’s porpoises, but the waters seemed empty of whales (and of the large numbers of porpoises we’ve normal seen.) Our second night was spent in Tenakee Warm Springs where we reconnected with Dave and Anka, a couple living entirely off the grid, living on the sail boat/barge Dave designed and built himself. The bakery in Tenakee was bought by Darius who makes the best cinnamon roles we’ve had in a long time, and breakfast was a talkfest. Almost everyone we met that morning had an interesting story to tell, which suited Jane and Michael (professional film makers) just fine. Much of our week together felt like we were on a movie set. FUN!

Rodman Bay

Leaving Rodman, early morning

Stellar Sea Lions - entering Chatham Strait

The fog cleared
Once again we headed up Chatham, still looking for whales. Even the eco cruise boats weren’t finding any. We passed Hoonah and travelled an hour down Port Frederick to remote Neka bay, yet another anchorage with snowy mountains popping up all around us. If it hadn’t been for the no-see-ums biting, we would have spent a sunny evening out on deck. As it was we ate Ivory Salmon and watched another movie.

Dinner on Seaducktress

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Cruise Ship entering Hoonah early am

June 11 (my mom’s birthday) we headed out at 4:30 am determined to find a whale or two. We headed for Point Adolphus, a fairly reliable spot. But I was starting to worry. Where had all the whales gone? Fog descended on us so that, as we rounded the point, visibility became quite limited. But the rising sun created something I’d never seen: a “fogbow.”

"Fogbow" (photo not manipulated)

And then we heard a whale blow. And then another. We had found them! And not just two, but about eight to ten humpbacks. We spent two joyous hours watching them cavort. And then, as if someone had blown a silent whistle, five whales breached simultaneously! And then they headed of in different directions. We were giddy with laughter and excitement. It was just like a fireworks show where the momentum builds, and then a grand finale, and then that that vague disappointment as everyone disperses. Except that as we headed northwest towards Glacier Bay, another whale decided he needed some exercise, breaching a dozen times in a row off in the distance. Wow.

Can you spot the baby?

That night we headed up Dundas Bay, a remote section of Glacier Bay not requiring a permit. In the evening, a very round black bear with lustrous fir appeared on the beach near us. The next morning, the same bear was on the other side of the bay. We were delighted to see such a healthy looking bear, happily munching away on grass. The next morning, as we headed down Dundas Bay towards Cross Sound, we passed our friends on Passages. Jill called on the radio. Would we like some fresh halibut Doug had just caught? Wow. Would we! So we maneuvered the boats close enough to pass the precious package across on a boat pole, sending them some chocolate in return.

That day we covered a lot of territory, heading out into Cross Sound through fog, wind and 3 foot beam seas, towards the Inian Islands, a small group of islands smack in the middle of the wide body of water flowing from the ocean into Icy Straits. I wanted Jane and Michael to be able to film a sea lion rookery where more than a hundred animals reside. The currents were running strong. 3-4 knots strong. They were filming from the aft deck, but I never had a chance to pick up a camera as I danced with the wheel, trying to keep the boat from veering in the narrow passage by the rookery rocks.

And then, without any warning, a huge black object appeared half a boat length off our port bow, heading right for us. Whale! He was attempting the same narrow and turbulent channel as us, only speeding down stream. I threw the boat into neutral, but couldn’t do any more than watch as he spun his body to avoid us. His flukes came out of the water and twisted sideways, parallel to the side of the boat. If I had been standing outside I have no doubt I could have reached out and touched them. Glenda and I braced ourselves, speechless, waiting for the whatever noise happens when you collide with a whale. But nothing. He managed to miss us!

About an hour later my heart slowed down.

We headed over to Elfin Cove, docking and walking the boardwalks of this quaint fishing community (9 people live here during the winter.) But we were anxious to see a few more whales (from a much greater distance,) so decided to head east, with the current this time. And more whales we saw. Michael was finally able to get one of the classic whale money shots — a full frame picture of whale flukes, water dripping off.

I got my shot too.

The winds had kicked up from the west and we ran downwind in 4 ft seas, our trusty boat on autopilot and happy as a clam. Ducking into Flynn Bay, we thought we’d anchor out for the night, but it was too exposed to the seas. The halibut had just come off the grill when we decided to push on to Hoonah, but just before we pulled anchor we spotted a gorgeous brown bear on the beach, well lit in the low evening sun. Like the black bear, he looked almost like a caricature of a teddi bear. We called him our Disney Bear.

The anchorage wasn’t great, but had we not made the effort, we would have missed the bear. Story of our trip. You only regret the things you don’t do. And oh yeah, the fresh halibut was incredible.

As we approached Hoonah, we got phone service. Michael had a message that their ferry was down for repairs! They wouldn’t be able to get to Juneau for their flight. And Bonnie and Matt were flying into Hoonah in a day. The solution was obvious, and it turned out to be extremely fortuitous. We would spend Weds night in Hoonah, and then take Jane and Michael to Juneau the next day. Bonnie and Matt would join us on Saturday without having to fly to Hoonah.

And maybe, just maybe, we’d see whales again.

There was one thing left on Michael and Jane’s bucket list. They really wanted to see bubble feeding, where humpbacks coordinate their efforts, trapping fish with a ring of underwater bubbles, and then popping up, six to eight whales, monstrous mouths agape. It’s a rare phenomenon, and very hard to photograph. But now we had one more chance.

You’re probably guessing what happened. One hour before arriving in Juneau (Auke Bay) we ran into a group of whales. We watched as they did their dance for us—bubble feeding six times in a row!

But the surprises weren’t quite finished. We found a spot at the docks and Michael picked up his rental car. After doing some grocery shopping we decided to head towards Mendenhall Glacier. As we walked from the parking lot to the lookout, there were two familiar faces: Bonnie and Matt. They had arrived by plane that afternoon. So after hugs, we arranged for all six of us to have dinner Friday - tonight.

A fitting end to a miraculous week where all our dreams came true.

And next week, the weather looks promising. Glacier Bay, here we come!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Craig to Sitka - Otters, Rain and...Trapped

We made a beeline from Craig up to Sitka in mixed weather and seas. Rather than return up El Capitan and Rocky Pass, we headed directly west towards the ocean, then turned north up Chatham Sound. We passed through beautiful Sea Otter Sound on the way, with intermittent fog and sun. The water was glass.

Leaving Craig at 5:30 am. Those aren't sailboats. It's a sea of trollers with stabilizer poles.

We had fog part of the morning

Sea Otter Sound

Cosmos Pass

Approaching the Pacific Ocean

Aptly named Cape Decision. Mountains of Baranof Island across south Chatham Strait

Magnificent Baranof Island

Our route included a new anchorage for us, Elena Bay, a quiet spot deep within Tebenkof Bay on Kuiu Island. We made a note to further explore Kuiu which is known for remote anchorages and the possibility of spotting wolves and moose. Coming out of Elena we saw several clusters (colonies?) of sea otters, each numbering twenty or more. I couldn’t help myself, shooting picture after picture, so please bear with me posting pix of these cute little critters. Actually, they’re not that little. The typical sea otter measures 6 feet from head to toe.
It's a happening

"What can I say?"

We headed up Chatham Strait, angling over towards Baranof Island where we found dock space at Baranof Warm Springs, a tiny community deep in a fjord, next to a huge waterfall. The attraction, of course, is the promise of hot natural baths. We felt lazy. It was raining lightly. Rather than hike up the trail, we opted to use the bathhouse at the top of the dock. Hot water is piped down from the springs and fills huge metal tubs that look like watering troughs for cattle. A 2 foot pipe stuck in the drain allows the water to fill the tub, big enough for two (or more.) When you’re done with your bath, just pull out the pipe and the tub drains down to the beach below. Simple. Effective. And the view of the mountains and waterfall from the tub is something to write home about.

Docked at Warm Springs Bay

The waterfall is loud, and the current at the dock is a challenge. The hot spring pools are near the top, up a trail, overlooking the waterfall.

The bathhouse, for folks like us who are feeling lazy

View out the window

This is also where I had my little adventure. Across the channel from the docks is a remote lagoon called Salty Lagoon. You enter through a long, narrow channel. I had read about its beauty and sense of remoteness, and there was something else I had read, but I could quite remember. I set in the kayak. I dressed warmly, had rain gear and brought a walkie talkie to call Glenda—just in case. As I paddled through the channel I realized it was shallow, from inches to perhaps a foot deep, and the tide, which was rising, was flowing into the lagoon at a pretty good clip. The entrance is 75 yards long and it was a pretty thrilling ride, a little like running a rapids. But the instant I was inside I realized my mistake. There was no way I was going to be able to paddle out, at least until the lagoon had filled and the current slackened—which was scheduled to happen in three hours! It was raining and a bit chilly, and boy, did that place feel like the end of the world. After calling Glenda to share my embarrassing predicament, I settled in to explore. After 2 hours and a dicey experience finding a place on the slippery rocky shore to get out and pee, I decided to try to escape my prison early.

No way Jose.

I couldn’t make headway against a current that swished through the cut making a sound like a waterfall, whirlpools threatening to spin and swamp my kayak.

But every experience is an opportunity to learn. My grand lesson (after accepting my dumb mistake) was to relax and enjoy solitude. Gliding through the lagoon, hearing the birdsong, watching fish swim under my boat, the whole situation morphed into a gift, a heady mix of fear and exhilaration, feeling slightly out on the edge, fully alive. A rare opportunity to shed the armor of 21st century life.
My courage grew. Instead of waiting until slack, I decided to give the rapids one more shot. This time, paddling as hard as I could, I was able to make headway. Sweating under my rain jacket, breathing hard, muscles sore, I finally broke into the calmer waters of Warm Springs Bay, a short quarter mile paddle back to the boat.

You know what? I wouldn’t trade the results of this dumb mistake for anything.

The narrow entrance viewed from the dock

Rock weed, low tide in Salty Lagoon

Set against mountains shrouded by cloud

My own little world

We headed down Peril Strait, separating the north end of Baranof Island from the south end of Chichagof Island, spending a rainy night in one of our favorite anchorages, Baby Bear Cove.

Seals lounging near Chatham Strait
Raining evening in Baby Bear Cove

Rain Patterns

Two days later we arrived in Sitka, my favorite town in SE Alaska. We’ll stay for six nights, doing boat chores, cleaning, laundry, shopping for our next guests, and meeting up with friends—new and old. We met David, who single handed his 37ft Nordic Tug up from La Conner. David is 76 years old and doesn’t look or act a day older than sixty. An inspiration! (I resolved to single hand up here when I turn 76.) He joined us on our boat for a delightful evening with Doug, an old friend and my former medical partner, working part time in a Sitka clinic. Bill, another fellow physician from Port Townsend and his wife Karen arrived today, assigned a slip just fifty feet down the dock. Such a small world! We’ve seen so many friends from back home it almost feels as if we haven’t left. But that’s what’s so cool about the Northwest. It’s like one big, long community.

Tomorrow, Jane and Michael fly in. After a day playing in town, checking out the raptor center and experiencing Sitka’s famous Ludvig’s restaurant, we’ll head north, towards Icy Strait and WHALES. If it works out the way I hope, the next blog will contain some fun shots of humpback whales cavorting.
Stay tuned!