El Capitan Cave

I’ve been hearing about El Capitan Passage from various friends in town so I bugged Jim to include it in our plans.  Located on the northwest side of Prince of Wales Island, this passage is a protected short cut for fishing boats and other commercial traffic, ending up in Sea Otter Sound at the southern end.  Near the northern entrance is a large marble mine, still active.  el cap passage map

A segment of the passage at the north end was dredged through rock, well-marked with navigational aids, but narrow and just a little bit exciting to navigate through, particularly at dead low tide.  Why is it that we always seem to be in “interesting” rocky passages at low tide?20150610 6329 el capitan passage dredged channel r20150611 6391 el capitan pass granite dome rWe anchored in one of the little bay-lets between dredged sections called Dry Strait anchorage, and the view was very interesting – there were a lot of granite domes like this one – rather different terrain than on some of the other islands in the Alexander Archipelago that make up Southeast Alaska.

We didn’t realize that there are a lot of karst formations – limestone caves in the area, and that the Forest Service offers tours of the largest one, El Capitan Cave in the summer months.  We called the Forest Service on the sat phone and made arrangements for a tour – what an unexpected bonus!

We launched the dinghy and traveled about 2 miles to the Forest Service dinghy dock where we met up with our excellent guides – a pair of geology undergraduate students.  Everyone was given a helmet and headlamp, and Matt and Anna gave a running narration about the forest and area as we trudged up the 370 steps, climbing 1100 feet in elevation to the entrance to the cave.  The steps themselves were interesting: built from yellow cedar 20 years ago, they have survived extremely well in the thick rainforest with virtually no rot.

20150611 6335 el capitan cave sign rDiscovered in the 1980s, the El Capitan Cave is the largest (so far) cave in Alaska, with over 2 miles of passages that have been mapped.  Animal remains, including black and brown bears have been found in the cave, some dating back to over 11,000 years ago.  I thought it was interesting when one of the geologists pointed out that this cave is karst – limestone dissolved by water; limestone is calcium carbonate.  Marble is quarried nearby and it’s also calcium carbonate, but formed under different temperature and pressure than limestone.  The north end of Prince of Wales Island is dotted with karst formations.

20150611 6338 exploring el capitan cave rThe helmets turned out to be a necessity, as I whacked my head on the ceiling not far into the cave’s entrance.  (I whacked my head in the exact same spot on the way out.)  This is a “wild” cave, in its natural state and not “enhanced” by paved walkways or hand railings.  Part of the main passage was clearly a streambed, but the walls had all manner of flowstone formations, dragon scales, nodules, crystallized seams, and water droplets that seeped down from the muskeg over a long period of time.20150611 6361 el capitan cave flow stone r20150611 6360 jim in cave with flow stone samples r20150611 6337 el capitan flow stone rThis is a cross-section of some flowstone from the cave that was cut and polished to show what it looks like inside.

What’s fascinating about this cave and the numerous others in the area are that they were only just discovered in the last 30 years or less, yet so many of them contain animal bones that are 8,000-12,000 years old, and in some cases the bones are from animals that are no longer found on Prince of Wales Island.

We were expecting rocks, mountains and sea otters, but not caves and paleontology – what a great surprise!20150611 6385 jim at el capitan cave sign r

Summer Cruise – First Stop

After spending a little time with friends in Petersburg and one last ride Out the Road (where we saw a number of porcupines, deer, and a grouse hen with her chicks), we cast off the lines for the summer’s cruising.  Our first stop was the little community of Point Baker, located at the very top of Prince of Wales Island. petersburg to point baker mapDid you know that Prince of Wales Island is the 3rd largest island in the United States?  Do you know what #1 and #2 are?  (#1 is Hawaii’s Big Island, and #2 is Kodiak.)  As large as Prince of Wales (or POW, for short) is, the settlement at Point Baker is tiny – about 25 residents.20150609 6297 point baker inlet rThe community is a scattering of houses perched on the craggy shores of POW and on some islands separated by narrow rocky channels.  We were hoping to see a friend from Petersburg who was fishing in the area, but he did so well fishing the day before that he had left already.  The locals didn’t have much to say to us, though they would answer questions if we asked.  I guess people who want to live in an outpost community aren’t very sociable.

The state dock was mostly full of scruffy boats and borderline derelicts, and there was a tiny store, bar, and cafe on a float right next to it.  The store is open from 12-2 most days, and it primarily stocked beer, soda, and chips, along with a few other necessities.  The bar didn’t seem to be open, and the cafe wasn’t open yet – they said that maybe they would serve some food in the bar at some point.  20150609 6316 point baker dock and community ctr r20150609 6301 point baker fire department rThe red building in the photo is the combination Post Office, Community Center, and Fire House – all in one 100′ long floathouse.  The Community Center had a table and some bookshelves, and in the back corner was the firemen’s gear.  The fire boat is sticking out of the end of the red building.  At low tide it might be impossible to get close to some of the houses if there was a fire.

Despite the lukewarm reception from the humans, Point Baker had fantastic sea life – due to the straight-through passages for the tide to run, and the proximity to the open ocean.  There were lots of sea otters and seals, and the anemones were plentiful and quite large.  I was able to kayak out the western channels at the end of the ebb tide and I found walls of small anemones just waiting for the tide to return, hanging gelatinous blobs kept company by a starfish or two.20150609 6310 starfish and dry anemones vertical rIn the deeper water, where they would remain immersed at any tide level, the plumose anemones were the size of my arms – yowza!  And here and there along the rocky shoreline were my little friends, the mink.20150609 6251 running mink r20150609 6292 point baker seaplane arrival rA seaplane landed with some supplies and a few people, but the postal plane didn’t make a landing while we were there.  The Postmistress was out on the seaplane dock with some mail bags and boxes, and the plane circled twice, but flew on.  Mail comes and goes on it’s own timetable in places like this.

We left Point Baker and cruised a few miles down to neighboring Port Protection, another small outpost community, but again the dock was mostly full of scruffy boats and there wasn’t any room for us.  We decided to keep going and begin our exploration of El Capitan Passage.

Bear With Us

20150621 6970 brown bear 4 rWe have been cruising in very remote areas for a few weeks and have not had any chances to update the Blog, though we have many stories and photos and video to share!  We should have some decent connectivity in a few days, so stay tuned for lots of new posts.

Farragut and Thomas Bays

After a brief stop in town to order some parts, pick up some parts, and make a few small repairs we headed back out to explore some other local spots while we waited for a few more parts to be shipped.  Our first stop was Farragut Bay, and here’s a little map showing Petersburg, Ideal Cove, Farragut Bay, Thomas Bay, and a few of the highlights from our flightseeing trip.petersburg area mapYou can see the huge ice field over the mountains between the Baird and Le Conte Glaciers, and the US/Canada border bisects it.  This ice field runs almost to Juneau, separated from the massive 1500 square mile Juneau ice field by the Taku River.

Our first anchorage was in Farragut Bay, the topmost marker on the map above.  We tucked in next to Read Island and once again had complete solitude, which was magical.  We never saw any bears on the island, but there were quite a few eagles.  This one in the photo below must be about 3-4 years old since that’s when eagles develop their white heads and tails.  Prior to that they are dark brown speckled with white, and you can still see some of that coloring on its forehead.20150527 5977 transitioning bald eagle rThe surprise wildlife in our anchorage were mink – lots of them.  20150526 5884 mink feet eye contact rI was paddling at low tide and noticed one running down the beach.  When he noticed me he turned around and headed back towards the woods, though I looked back over my shoulder a few minutes later and he was back.  Coming around some rocks I spotted one scampering across the top, and then came face to face with this fellow – he stopped to look at me for a brief few moments, then ran off.  As I continued to paddle I saw a few more, and in the last little cove I met Mr. Charming.20150526 5910 mink whole rThis guy was energetically rooting under the green-yellow rock weed looking for food, getting his face very muddy.  I nudged the kayak bow up on shore and just sat still to watch and photograph him for about 20 minutes.  He was not afraid of me, sometimes coming down and stopping just a few feet from the bow to pause and look at me, then dashing off to dive under the weeds, exposed at low tide, occasionally coming up with a mussel or one of these big worms.20150526 5899 muddy mink and worm rHe was a lot of fun to watch, and I loved the opportunity to spend some time watching these little critters in action.  I also saw some shorebirds, though these spotter sandpipers can be hard to catch.  Sometimes called “teeter tails”, they rock back and forth as they hunt among the rocks, often camouflaged by their coloring.  When I got too close to them they stopped moving, and it was hard to spot them without the tell-tale movement.20150526 5886 spotter sandpiper rHigh tide is fun because the 17-20+’ change makes a lot more shoreline accessible for paddling or exploring by dinghy, but low tide is when birds and animals come down to feed.

We explored the farther parts of the Bay by dinghy, finding a colony of seals hauled up on a small rock island, and a few remote cabins in the shallow upper bay.  Some of the cabins were easy to spot from the reflection off their solar panels – such remote retreats are completely off the grid – no power, water, or sewer.

We hated to leave our little mink-haven but we wanted to explore Thomas Bay – a few miles to the southeast.  Thomas is quite large, with the Baird Glacier in the upper arm.  The best anchorage is a good distance from the glacier, but we had plenty of gas for the dinghy to visit it and the view in the anchorage was very pretty.  20150531 6150 adventures in thomas bay r 20150531 6136 black bear down to beach r

The first early morning I watched a black bear come out of the woods and work his way down the rock face to the beach at low tide.  He turned over a few rocks but seemed to be intent on walking somewhere.  He passed within 10′ of some mallard ducks on shore but never gave them a look, and I was surprised that they didn’t fly off – they would never let me get that close.

The shoreline had pretty clusters of lupine wildflowers, and we also saw some up towards the glacier when we loaded cameras and a picnic lunch into the dinghy and headed up the bay.  We knew that the Baird Glacier doesn’t come right to the edge of the water, but friends told us about a channel in the mud flats that might get us closer.  We began our exploration on a rising tide, knowing that the area in front of a glacier can be very shallow with a fine silty mud that you can’t walk on – it’s like quicksand.  We found a channel, but were lucky to see a row of rocks across it that were soon covered by the rising tide.  30 minutes later we might have taken the dinghy farther up the channel and run into those rocks with the prop.  The challenge of exploring near glaciers is that the runoff water is full of that flour-like fine silt which makes the water opaque – so you never know what’s lurking even a millimeter under the surface.  We just tied off to the rocks on a huge rocky bar that showed clear signs of never being submerged – so we knew we would be safe as the tide rose.20150531 6083 jim at baird glacier 2 rThe bar was covered by granite – rocks of all size from boulders to small rocks, all worn smooth and rounded.  Occasionally we’d see some bright orange rocks – ferrous and rusty.  Patches of lupine in bloom decorated the speckled rocks, and you can see part of the glacier in the distance past Jim.  There were a number of water channels – all run-off from the glacier, but we couldn’t see if any of them would allow us to navigate much closer to the ice safely.  20150531 6092 lupine glacier and mtns rWe saw some wolf tracks in a sandy area, and some signs of birds.  The peeping of a little shorebird had us going crazy trying to spot him, and finally we did… though we kept losing sight of him unless he moved.  Can you spot the semi-palmated plover among the rocks?  Without that red circle he’s almost impossible to see.20150531 6109 can you spot the bird rAfter climbing around the rocks and exploring the large bar for a while we took the dinghy to nearby Scenery Cove – a small but very deep pocket just south of the glacier that is very aptly named.20150531 6129 scenery cove thomas bay rThe shape of the cove is the classic U-shape of a glacier carved valley.  The walls are sheer and the water is deep right up to the shore, except for a little meadow at the head with a stream.  It’s probably too deep for us to be comfortable anchored overnight, but it would be a great place to take the big boat for a day to savor the exceptional beauty.

20150531 6156 arctic tern flying closer rReturning to the anchorage we learned about the down-side of warm, dry weather:  black flies and no-see-ums.  Last summer we never saw a single insect – but it was a wetter and cooler summer than usual.  This summer is starting off warm and nice, but the bugs are a pain.  All I wanted is to be outside – knitting, working on little projects, whatever – but the flies were relentless during the day, and the no-see-ums replaced them at dusk.  The only good thing was that arctic terns arrived around dusk every evening – fun to watch.

20150529 6054 farragut twilight silhouette rI tried to photograph ADVENTURES with the full moon in the background, but by the time I paddled ashore with tripod, camera, and bear spray, made sure to tie off the kayak high enough (it was a rising tide and it comes up fast), and set up, a few clouds appeared out of nowhere and promptly covered the moon while I scrambled to don my head net to keep the no-see-ums out of my face.  Hopefully I’ll have better luck another time.  My consolation was the pretty silhouette of the trees against the twilight sky by the time I got back to the boat.

We had a great time exploring these two bays, and have planned further exploration and some hiking the next time we can get back there.  It was time to return to town to pick up the last parts and packages to complete our shake-down repairs before we head out for the rest of the summer.