Exploring Baranof Island’s West Coast

Wiggling around small islands, rocks and reefs, we continued south down the coast of Baranof Island.  Each anchorage had its own charms, but the best part is that we had them all to ourselves.  In the upper section we were just a few hundred yards from the ocean, but protected from the swell and waves by those small islands and reefs.  The minute the anchor was set I headed out in the kayak to explore – like butter on an english muffin… getting into all the nooks and crannies. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife in and among the outside islets – mostly just sea otters and lots of good sized starfish, but the kelp was so much fun to play in.  Choosing places to anchor can be tricky – but the secret is to look along the shoreline and look for “signs of distress”.  By that I mean logs, trees, and debris high and dry – flung there by angry seas.  The approach to an anchorage might have lots of big logs up high, but tucked back behind the rocks the shore is clear meaning that the swell and strong winds don’t reach.    

The last section of islands that offered us some protection from the open ocean had some interesting narrows to transit.  We were a bit daunted about them, but found that the kelp made it easier to spot the rocks on either side.  This is Second Narrows, and the navigable spot is between the two patches of kelp.  It’s actually a little bigger than it looks, but not by much.One of our favorite anchorages also had a narrow rocky entrance, well worth some nerves getting in, and the sunshine made it easy to see the rocks.Once inside, the view was sublime.Working our way so far west meant that we could actually see some sunsets, which we miss in Petersburg because of all the tall mountains.  We trade one beautiful thing for another – it’s why we cruise.

It’s even beautiful on misty morning, though we’ve had far too much gloomy weather this summer…… and we were so happy when the sun came back out and made the landscape colorful again.Escaping the protection of the outer islands, we headed out in the ocean on a glorious day.The seas were kind and we explored several gorgeous little anchorages as we ventured further south along Baranof Island’s coast. 

With no phone or Internet signal for a couple of weeks, we only had NOAA weather on the VHF radio to track conditions, as well as some regional weather imagery that we can get through the sat phone or the weather fax.  Jim is a very good weather guy, and I never second-guess his recommendations to go or stay.  Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and that meant our 10 day stretch of brilliant sunshine, blue skies and calm seas was coming to an end.  We reached Whale Bay hoping to spend some days exploring it, but the conditions were turning ugly and we ducked into Still Harbor at the mouth of the bay.  The harbor is over a mile long, but down at the end the anchorage lives up to its name – it was a mill pond while the ocean grew grumpy just outside.  Of course I had to explore by kayak, finding several deer on the beach, lots of blue herons (which seem incongruous in such a rugged place), oystercatchers, plovers, and sea birds.Seas were getting over 10′, but once again the rock reefs and big kelp patches did a lot to knock down the waves.I got closer to the harbor entrance to gauge the conditions, but it was hard to take photographs or video in the rain and the ocean swell.  It didn’t look nice out there, which matched the forecast, so we hunkered down for five rainy days hoping conditions would improve.  Finally the seas settled down to 7-8′ for a day before the forecast said they were getting bigger again, and would stay that way for a while.  We either had to leave or stay at least another week and hope the weather would ease.  We chose to leave and abandon our plans to see the rest of Baranof’s south coast, instead heading north and back to the protection of the outer reefs and small islands.Between our Naiad stabilizers and the new bulbous bow, we had a lumpy but decent ride in the bigger seas.  It’s not our favorite thing, and one of the pantry cabinets spilled some things on the deck until we could lash it closed, but that was the extent of the excitement.  We ran almost all the way back to Sitka since part of the route had short exposures to the sea – better at 7′ than 11’+.  We took a day to chill out and rest, then headed back to Sitka for a couple of days.

Sunshine, a Volcano, and Hot Springs

We’ve wanted to explore the ocean coasts of the big islands here every season, but ocean travel means sometimes waiting for good sea conditions so if we have any schedule constraints it’s difficult.  We had a perfect window of time so we headed southwest from Sitka to explore new territory.  The area just south of town is a dense collection of islands, with nice houses on some of them.The houses are turned to face away from the ocean, or to face towards another island for protection.  All these places are off the grid – no utilities.  Everyone has to provide for themselves.

This has been an unusually cool and wet summer up here, and through the end of July we only had two days with crystal clear blue skies and warm temps in the low 70s.  (When you’re acclimated to the 50s, 70 is a little warm.)  Locals started referring to it as The Two Days of Summer.  As we left Sitka to meander south the forecast showed over a week of beautiful dry weather – yippee!

We took our time, exploring the nooks and crannies, and enjoying the protection of rock reefs and islands.  The brilliant skies were glorious, and we aired out deck boxes and let the breeze flow through the boat.  In one anchorage a deer and sometimes a fawn hung out in a small grass meadow nearby, munching grass or taking a nap.When the sun shines after such a loooong stretch of wet weather, we did what any self-respecting cruiser would do: work on the boat.  Yes, we were enjoying the wild places, but we also took a few hours every day to catch up on some outside chores that can only be done in dry weather.  I stripped and re-painted a section of caprail……and Jim worked on cleaning rust off some outside lights so they could get some coats of Rustoleum.  “Cruising” means fixing your boat in exotic places.Another bonus with the clear skies was that we got a clear view of Mount Edgecumbe – an extinct volcano.The mountain is normally visible from Sitka, but it was always hidden in clouds on all our many previous trips.  You’ve heard of Plate Tectonics?  Well, Mount Edgecumbe sits only 10 miles from the fault line that separates the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate.  And that helps to explain why there are several natural hot springs in the area.

Goddard Hot Springs is run by the Forest Service (since most of southeast Alaska forms the Tongass National Forest), and it has two shelters with a large steel tub and hot and cold water pipes running from the spring and a nearby stream to keep the tubs full.  We anchored around the corner in a protected spot, and took the kayaks to the rocky beach to give it a try.The photo above shows the view from the upper shelter, and the photo below shows the lower tub and view.The water coming from the spring isn’t hot… it’s SCALDING!  I’ve read reports of temps around 109 degrees.  We had to run the cold water for about 10 minutes to cool the tub down enough to get in.  Jim was a good sport, stirring the water to help circulate the cold.After all that sanding and painting, the hot soak sure felt nice.  While soaking we studied the graffiti carved into the shelter walls.  Fortunately most of the carving and writing was just the names of boats or people.  It seemed to be the thing to do, though we like to leave no trace.  Some of the artwork in the lower shelter was pretty impressive.We continued our meander among the Necker Islands, winding our way through narrow cuts and around rocks and reefs.  We managed to pick up a good sized rock in our anchor one morning……and were glad that was the extent of the excitement.  We spotted some purse seiners working in the channels – silver (also called coho) salmon are the target species around here right now, and we see them jumping all the time.You can see in the photo above, the seiner is hauling his net back in, and the small boat off to the right is his seine skiff.  The skiff helps to set the net by drawing it out across the water, and then bringing it around to encircle the fish.  When the big boat hauls the net in, the skiff pulls on the opposite side of the boat to help the boat pull the net rather than let the net pull the boat.

The seas were building a little and I could feel the swell as I kayaked in between the islands.  I had a ball exploring the kelp forests, with tiny kelp crabs and fish hiding underneath, and iridescent turban-topped snails clinging to the broad leaves.  What’s amazing about the kelp is that a thick forest does a lot to knock down the ocean swell and smooth the waters.The beaches were more often sandy and there were a lot more shells and fat orange or purple starfish right on the ocean here.  Tiny fish fry hid in the crystal clear water, sheltering in placid nooks on the lee side of islands.  Beautiful!A pair of red-throated loons hung around the anchorage, but always just a little to far away.  Sometimes their cries sounded like a baby.  I love the perfect pinstripes on the back of their necks.  The patterns and details in nature never fail to amaze and delight.

Whales and Sitka

We were on our way to Sitka for a few days to catch up on laundry, groceries and errands, and as we approached the entrance to Peril Strait (which is not particularly perilous) we spotted some whale blows.  Of course we headed towards them to investigate.  There were at least several whales, and as we approached the area it got very quiet, until the gaping mouths of about 7-8 whales exploded from the water – they were bubble net feeding!Humpbacks find a school of small fish, dive underneath them and then one of the whales will blow a “net” of bubbles around the school to pack them in tight.  Once the fish are corralled, the whales swim up through the center of the bubble net with mouths agape.  It’s quite a sight to witness.You can see the distended under-jaw of a whale in the photo above, filled with water and fish.  The whale will use his tongue to push the water out, filtering the fish through his baleen – a comb-like structure on the inside of his jaw made of the same type of material as our fingernails (keratin).

We noticed another boat nearby acting as a support vessel for these guys in a RIB.  I wonder what specifically they were studying.We kept a respectful distance from the whales and the researchers, though the whales were moving in the same direction that we were, so we could watch several cycles of diving and feeding.  What a treat!

Entering Peril Strait we waved at the sea lions draped over the buoy, and the pelagic cormorants resting on top.  I don’t think there are many (or any) buoys in the region that aren’t covered in napping sea lions all the time.Sitka is a town of about 8000 people – about three times the size of Petersburg.  Most summer days it’s visited by a cruise ship, and some of the smaller cruise ships use it as a turnaround point since Sitka has direct air service from Seattle.  There are five harbors in town, a thriving fishing fleet of seiners, gillnetters and trollers, and two fish processing plants. The Coast Guard has a helicopter and an ocean-going buoy tender based here, and the channel in front of the harbors also serves as a runway for float planes.  This one waited for us to pass so he could take off.The summer cruising season in southeast Alaska is a special experience, with so much wildlife and fantastic salmon and halibut fishing.  People from all over the world come here to tour and fish, and some big yachts – both private and charter – come up for the summer season.I had to laugh because seeing this line of 100’+ yachts reminded me a little of cruising through Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Florida, though the south Florida yacht population is far greater, and the sizes are too.  I must confess that I hate all the charter boats and big yachts clogging up our quiet anchorages, and it’s nice when summer is over and the tourist boats have headed south again.  A good Alaskan anchorage is one where you’re all alone.

The harbor is always a fascinating place with working boats coming and going at all hours.  There’s an ebb and flow to the harbor as the various fisheries go through openings and closings.  One minute the huge harbor is nearly empty, and the next minute it’s packed and the dock is busy with crews fetching groceries and making repairs.

A sea otter seems to have made the harbor home, which surprised me because they’re normally very shy.  But this one is content and lazy, floating and napping right off the main float pretty often.Despite the very rainy weather, we picked up some groceries, ran a few errands, and even did a little shopping.  We spotted a poster for “Coffee and Quarks” – an informal talk and Q&A with some visiting young physicists at the Science Center.  Over 50 of us jammed the little coffee shop and we could have listened to the panel talk for hours and hours!  Afterwards we spent a little time in the wonderful Totem Park run by the National Park Service.

The totem poles are all replicas of poles by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian natives from around the region, arranged along a meandering trail through the woods and along the shoreline… sublime.We ran into Petersburg friends who happened to be in the harbor, and it was great to share a glass of wine and catch up about our respective summer adventures.  But it was time to move on and for us to explore some new territory to the south, along the ocean coast of Baranof Island.

The Bears are Waiting

The bears are waiting for the salmon to start heading upstream.  The fish are getting closer, they’ve been jumping all over the place, they’re gathering near streams… the time for the bear’s feast is almost at hand.  We anchored near a good salmon stream with a small waterfall on our way to Sitka to check out the action, and I spent three sessions sitting on cold rocks watching for bears.  The action was more sporadic this time – we’ve been here other years when the salmon are running and have watched 9 bears fishing and eating in the stream at the same time.  I think it will be another week or so until the stream will be full of happy bears.Hopeful bears were making frequent visits to the stream to look for fish.  With the unusually cool and very wet summer we’ve been having, the berries are late which means that the bears are even more ready for the fish to arrive – they only have a month or two to fatten up for the long winter.As the tide falls the fish that have moved up stream get stranded in the shallows, making it easier for bears to catch them.  A sow and her two first year cubs came along……and I can see the “tough love” since momma expected the cubs to follow her across the stream, and sometimes the water was a little deep for a little cub.  First year cubs were born in February-March, and they will stay with their mother until just before their third summer when she will kick them out on their own so she can mate again.  We spotted a few of these younger bears (“teenagers”) – they’re not full grown yet, and siblings often stay together as they begin to learn to live on their own.Most of the time the bears didn’t stay around very long.  They surveyed different spots in the stream and meandered back into the woods.  One younger bear appeared and gave us a great show as he was determined to catch a fish, no matter what it took.  He chased after every cagey fish, running and splashing to and fro.  He found a deeper spot and stuck his head underwater to look several times…We could really see his muscles and body in need of fattening as he climbed out of the water, before he shook off like a dog.  Finally he caught a nice big salmon – the only successful bear we saw.A kingfisher managed to catch some small fish, but they move so fast that they’re almost impossible to catch in flight.  I got lucky, though with the low light and high ISO it’s not the best photo.One afternoon Jim was back on ADVENTURES and I had been sitting on the rocks for a few hours.  Just as I was thinking about getting in the kayak to head back to the boat the bear action got lively.  I was watching a pair of “teenager” bears on the beach in one direction when another bear came out of the woods by the stream to eat grass in the other direction.  It was a bit like watching a tennis match, though the grass bear gave up and disappeared back into the forest.  Jim called me on the radio to tell me that a sow and two cubs were around the corner on the beach, heading my way.  As soon as the “teens” saw the sow coming, they bolted into the trees.These are second year cubs, a bit more independent from their mother.  The sow walked along the creek edge, but the cubs were distracted by my kayak.The first cub stopped to give it a sniff, rubbed his head on the seat back and gently “tasted” the plastic boat before he wandered off to catch up with momma.  The second cub came along and did the same – thank goodness I’ve never had any food or fish in the boat.  But that second cub had a look in his eye……it was a devilish look!  Sure enough, he grabbed the seat back and gave it a little shake just to be a brat.  No harm was done, thank goodness.  I had my bear spray in my hand, just in case.  But momma was marching along and he had to scamper to catch up.It was an exciting end to a long afternoon – a reminder that it’s always worthwhile to sit and wait, even on cold rocks, dressed in rain gear and holding a heavy camera.  Patience sometimes pays off.  Sometimes you can wait for hours and nothing happens – don’t ask me how I know that.  But when it does… it’s priceless.

Excursion Inlet and Swanson Harbor

The weather never settled enough for us to explore the outside (ocean) side of Chichagof Island and we didn’t want to sit around and wait any longer so we headed east and turned into Excursion Inlet – a very pretty fjord next to Glacier Bay National Park.  Excursion Inlet is long and narrow, with a cannery that’s quite busy in the summer months.  Often fishing boats will offload their catch to bigger tenders so the fishermen can stay on their fishing grounds while the tenders make the longer runs back to the canneries or fish processing plants.  The tender comes to the dock and the cannery lowers a giant vacuum hose into the fish hold and slurps the salmon out.Unfortunately it’s impossible to get a tour of one of these canneries, but this particular one has been in operation since 1908 and it has a little museum that’s open to the public.  Visitors to this remote spot are few and far between – the public dock is pretty rickety and we wouldn’t tie ADVENTURES to it.  Instead we anchored farther up the fjord in a little side cove that was very quiet and pretty, with eagles, a black bear, and a brown bear for company.  We put the dinghy in the water and zipped down to the public dock to check out the museum and just to stretch our legs after too many rainy days on the boat.The museum was small but it was very nice with a slide show playing on a computer in one corner, next to a tall ship built from crab claws.There were display cases with lots of history about the cannery and the area, as well as samples of the many different labels that were put on Excursion Inlet’s cans over the years.During World War II the US Army built some infrastructure here in case the Japanese invaded more of the Aleutian Islands, and when it was no longer needed they used some German prisoners of war to dismantle the extra buildings.  What remains now are some recreational buildings, a handful of homes, bunkhouses, the cannery buildings, and a company store with a small “hotel”.  The lady in the store knew friends from Petersburg (the fishing community is a pretty small world up here), and she helpfully pointed out the ice cream freezer in the back of the store.  We walked around a little with our treats, in need of some exercise when we came upon some blue flashing lights near the ground and warning signs…We found the famous Excursion Inlet International Airport (a dirt strip and tiny covered waiting area)!The sign reads 9,280,000 salmon, 390 cannery workers, a handful of Pilgrims in the bush, The odd tourist (that’s us), and Nature abounds.  The lower sign lists the many places around the world where the cannery workers come from.  It’s a pretty hopping place in the summer, but then it closes down for the rest of the year with just a caretaker couple to watch over the facilities.We were glad to finally visit the little museum – it has been on our list of places to stop for a couple of years.  After two nights we headed a little farther east to Swanson Harbor, through the rocky approach and into a nice protected harbor.  Swanson connects to its neighbor harbor via a narrow, shallow channel that’s only passable by small boats at mid-tide or greater, and I like to explore it by kayak.  There are some isolated sandbars and rocks that are popular with birds like the oystercatchers……and some godwits – marbled, I think.Gulls and spotted sandpipers rounded out the birds on the bars, and I spotted some dungeness crabs in the shallows.  Speaking of crabs, Swanson is popular with smaller private fishing boats who like to tie up to the two municipal floats.  We were having drinks with friends on another boat when a neighbor pulled a few king crabs out of his cooler to steam.He shared some of the king crab legs with our little party, and pretty much every boat in the harbor was having some kind of seafood festival as they worked to clean the day’s catch of halibut and salmon.

One of my favorite things about Swanson is that it has nice views of the Coastal mountains, and sunsets are pretty when the sky is clear.  We have so many tall mountains around us that we don’t get to see nice sunset light too often.

History, Celebration, and Wilderness

Cruising in southeast Alaska offers such a variety of things to see – you can find something interesting at every turn. 

We returned to Funter Bay on the northern end of Admiralty Island – a place full of history from its time as a mining camp, a cannery, and the temporary home of some Aleutian islanders during World War II.  The story of the islanders is the tragic story, as they were quickly relocated from their villages, watching as the US Army set fire to their homes to eliminate any useful infrastructure in case the Japanese invaded more of the Aleutian Islands.  These islanders were relocated to various places in southeast Alaska – a climate and terrain that’s very different from what they were accustomed to, and they were dumped ashore with little help.  The group left in Funter Bay had to use the abandoned cannery buildings as shelter, lacking heat and ready access to fresh water.  Disease took many of these displaced Alaskans, and the cemetery in the forest in Funter Bay remains as a somber reminder of the hardship these innocent souls had to face.Despite the fact that the families of those buried in this cemetery live very far away, many of the graves are obviously tended.

There is beauty to lighten the heart after thinking about the sad history of Funter Bay with lots of wildflowers in bloom – lupine, fireweed, and wild iris.(As usual the blog lags behind reality…)  We headed to Hoonah to celebrate July 4th since we know the community has a parade and fireworks and other fun things going on.  The weather wasn’t the nicest which dampened the festivities a little bit, but Jim dressed ADVENTURES in proper nautical flags (sequenced as specified in Chapman’s book of Seamanship) for the occasion.There were a handful of street booths and some children’s games throughout the day, and the parade was small but fun…  led by Hoonah Police and a color guard of proud veterans…The paraders were tossing candy into the street, though you had to pick it up pretty quickly so it didn’t get too soggy.  Hoonah is a Tlingit town so of course there were some drummers……and lots of children, some on their decorated bikes with playing cards in the spokes to make noise – a happy memory from my own childhood (which, some would point out, that I have not really outgrown).Small town America, with families gathering together for picnics and BBQs and welcoming friends – old and new.  There were fireworks two nights in a row – quite a long show, which we watched from the pilothouse since it was drizzly and quite late.  It’s not quite as dark as you’d like it for fireworks by 11pm, but that’s about as late as everyone is willing to stay up!

The eagles and ravens were still plentiful in town, though the whale that had been feeding regularly outside of the harbor breakwater had moved on.  We spotted two little scraggly eaglet heads peeking above the edge of the nest a few times – a happy sight.  And I happened to have my camera in hand walking back to the dock one afternoon when I spotted this raven perched on the railing.  He let me get relatively close, and I just loved his expressiveness. We always have a good time in Hoonah but it was time to move on.  We continued to be hopeful that the weather in the ocean would start to settle down so we could have good conditions to explore the outside coast of Chichagof Island.  We headed to Dundas Bay, next to Glacier Bay to sit out a few days of miserable weather and see if things would improve.  Along the way we ran into a sea lion that seemed to be as curious about us as we were about him since he hung around letting us take photos from a pretty short distance.  He gave us a few good looks – I think this was his best side……and an otter had to do his “cute” act to try and convince us that he’s not a voracious predator that decimates everything on the bottom.  “Who, me???”Dundas Bay is a remote place that isn’t often visited – which is our idea of a perfect place.  Even in really rainy crummy weather it’s beautiful – misty and mysterious.  During the one brief lull in the rain in our three day stay I was able to get out on the kayak, hoping to see more of the orcas that we got a brief glimpse of when we were heading into anchor.  I spotted lots of pelagic cormorants, a few more otters, lots of gulls, kittiwakes and arctic terns, but no orcas.  The bigger waterfall was loud, even at a distance……and the mist clung to the trees in layers, hiding the steep mountains all around.It was raining again and I had to paddle against the wind to get back to the boat, but on the way I saw what I thought was a tree in the water… upon closer inspection through the long lens it turned out to be a rock reef that was uncovering in the falling tide and a collection of harbor seals hauled on it.  I wonder where they go when the tide is high?