Bear Harbor & Explorer Basin

Sorry about the long hiatus – it’s been crazy-busy around here.

As we left the town of Craig after a good break hiding out from the weather, we enjoyed all the fresh fruit and veggies we picked up at the grocery store. We’re often away from towns for weeks, sometimes a month or more, and we’ve learned a few tricks about keeping perishable foods for a while. Starting off with produce that arrived by barge from Seattle adds some challenge – our fruits and veggies have had a hard trip just to get here. Produce we buy in Sitka (a bigger town) or Juneau lasts a lot longer than what we buy in Petersburg or any of the smaller towns, but using “green bags” to let the produce breathe and checking it daily to remove anything going bad helps a lot.

Up here a loaf of average store-bought bread costs over $5, not to mention the space to freeze and store it, so we have a bread machine and enjoy that lovely baking aroma when we need more. Fortunately we have an extra freezer and a vacuum packer so if we get to Costco we can stock up with enough meat, cheese, and frozen veggies to last the whole summer. We like to cruise so that we don’t NEED to go to a grocery store, and we learned how to go for months on our own when we used to cruise in the Bahamas.

The chart below shows our winding path from Craig on Prince of Wales Island, through the lovely El Capitan Passage and into Affleck Canal on the south end of Kuiu (pronounced “koo-you”) Island. Friends recommended a visit to Bear Harbor, and since I was running a severe deficit of bear sightings this summer I was ever hopeful!

Even in the nooks and crannies of El Cap Passage we saw whales every day, as well as lots of sea otters. It was late August, and that marks the beginning of the mating season for the otters. We often saw otters in pairs or even threes, sometimes with a distressed female squalling from being bitten on the nose and face by her suitors.

As soon as the anchor was set in Bear Harbor, I was out in the kayak with the big lens in hopes of seeing lots of large black furry things. The day was glorious and the scenery sublime.

Canada geese, mergansers, goldeneyes and chittering kingfishers swam and flew around. I was able to venture into the far back meadows in the shallow creek on the high tide, and some bird movement caught my eye. At a distance I thought it was a young eagle so I quietly paddled closer to shore, trying to stay hidden by the tall grass. It wasn’t an eagle… it was a sandhill crane!!!

In fact, there were five cranes, on the early end of the migration south for the winter. We usually see (and hear!) them for about 2 weeks in September and April as they move through, but they’re often flying high over the mountains. I could have gotten a better photograph if I stood up, but I didn’t want to spook them.

After venturing deep into perfect bear territory in the kayak – shallow water with plenty of salmon, surrounded by tall grass – boy, was I nervous and I made sure to make a little noise so I didn’t surprise anything – no bears. Paddling back towards the boat I spotted one black bear in the distance, and that was it for Bear Harbor… but the sandhill crane sighting made up for the dearth of bears.

August is more commonly known as “Fog-ust” up here, and we started to have murky conditions more often. This is what it looked like as we started to pull the anchor to leave in the morning (with much heavier fog out in the channel)…

…but 15 minutes later much of it lifted. I like the mysterious feel of the foggy fingers laying on the trees.

We cruised south, around Cape Decision (the purple exclamation point on the chart above), and then north up the west coast of Kuiu Island. There were numerous trollers out fishing – we saw as many as 15 at a time. Trollers tow several long lines with many hooks to catch salmon, and the spacing of the hooks and microvoltages on the troll lines help focus on a particular species of salmon. As each fish is brought up, it is immediately dispatched, gutted, bled and packed in ice. Trollers catch the beautiful whole fish that you see in high-end fish markets or fancy restaurants.

We saw lots of whales, and had to contend with a bit of swell and wave action since we were right at the entrance to the ocean. It was a long day’s run, but we ended up in Explorer Basin in Tebenkof Bay (marked on the chart above). Surrounded by the Windfall and Troller Islands, Explorer Basin is a lovely area with views across Chatham Strait to the mountains of Baranof Island. Here’s a little drone footage to show you what it looks like.

If you noticed lots of white dots in the water towards the end of the video – those were jellyfish… hundreds of them! Moon jellies as well as lion’s mane jellies.

The evening was clear and beautiful, and as the days are getting much shorter we had to interrupt dinner to get some photos of the sunset.

Clear nights and short daylight means more chances for stars and other gifts of the night… so stay tuned for more from Tebenkof Bay.

Prince of Wales Island

Pop Quiz: What’s the Fourth-largest island in the U.S.? (Hint: numbers 1, 2 and 3 are: Hawaii, Kodiak and Puerto Rico). 135 miles long by 45 miles wide, located near Ketchikan, Prince of Wales (or “POW” as it’s known locally) is an intriguing place to explore.

The blue line shows a small part of our wiggling route from the small islands and passes of Sea Otter Sound and the lower end of El Capitan Passage to the sister towns of Klawock and Craig. The island has some unique geology including karst (limestone) and caves at the north end. A marble mine is still active today, and gold, silver, and even uranium has been mined on the island in the past. These days it’s known more for timber and fish, though the amount of logging is less than it used to be. Thanks to all the logging there are about 300 miles of roads on the island, though there are only a handful of communities – the population of the entire island only very slightly bigger than Petersburg. About 8 or 9 of the communities have seaplane docks, but there is only one airport – in Klawock, and it only serves small aircraft. If you want a commercial jet you have to hop to Ketchikan or Sitka.

After weeks out in the wild places it’s fun to stop in a town… Stores! Restaurants! Internet! Phone service! Our first stop was Klawock which is a Tlingit town.

Klawock has a very small harbor but the accommodating harbormaster found about 35′ of dock space for our 50′ boat – no problem.

Besides having the only airport on the island, Klawock is known for its totem park. At one point it was a resting place for abandoned poles from all around the area, but those poles deteriorated enough that they had to be retired. New poles were carved and they’re arranged on the hillside overlooking the harbor.

Unfortunately they didn’t have any placards to give information about the various poles – I’d really like to know the story about the orca on the bear’s head, as well as this neat interpretation of a raven wearing a black jacket.

We had a ball looking at all the details on these poles, and were glad to have a day of sunshine to do so. The next day we were so excited about walking to the grocery store, post office and cafe – all located together about 2 miles away – which would be a lovely walk except for the pouring rain. Rain covers for our knapsacks and rain gear for us – no problem, and well worth it for a nice lunch and fresh veggies.

The weather forecast showed some significant winds heading our way so we called the harbormaster in the bigger town of Craig and got a more secure spot to sit out the weather. Besides, Craig has more restaurants! As we headed out of Klawock we saw a ship being filled with logs and other wood products…

…and we passed by the sawmill just to the south of the ship terminal.

Approaching nearby Craig we couldn’t miss this distinctive pink bar, even from more than a mile away.

Craig’s north harbor is protected by a very practical breakwater – a big barge with shipping containers on it that are used to store commercial fishing gear. It works well!

If you look at the map above you can see that Craig is somewhat protected from the open ocean by small islands, but a tsunami is still a risk…

…and this sign in the window of the cannery museum is a reminder of how much world events can come ashore right here at home.

The old cannery on the outer bay has been abandoned…

…but there’s a newer fish processing plant in a more protected spot. These two devices are giant fish vacuums – they slurp the salmon out of the fish holds.

We can never forget that commercial fishing is a dangerous way to make a living and to provide us with food.

We ate lunch out every day, sampling a few different places and spending time in the Library where we could get some Internet. Just in case though, there’s still one of these things in town!

The gale abated, the fishing fleet left, and we topped off groceries and water before heading back out to the quiet places.

Remembering the Bahamas

We spent some very happy times cruising in the Bahamas, and in some of the areas of the Abacos that have been hit so viciously by the hurricane. We’ve already seen the cruising community start to gather supplies and are standing by to use their boats to bring whatever help they can.

Hopetown, Elbow Cay, Abacos
Hopetown Harbour

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bahamians and first responders.

Warren Island and Sea Otter Sound

We finally have some Internet again so I’ll get back to our explorations. After jumping across from Baranof Island (before the seas picked up), we stopped for a day to do some beach combing on remote Warren Island.

It’s exposed to the ocean so the beaches collect an interesting array of flotsam and jetsam, even on the east side (that faces away from the ocean). The swell can wrap around the island and carry things to the lee side. Imagine the force of the waves that can hurl massive logs far up on the beach!

In addition to the logs, there’s a sad amount of plastic trash – particularly fishing gear with Japanese writing on it. On a stop here a few years ago I found a rare glass float, but this time it was just plastic. We took small things back to the boat to recycle, but a lot of it was too big to manage.

Despite the trash, it’s a beautiful island with dark gray sand and craggy rocks.

From Warren we headed into Sea Otter Sound which has, as the name suggests, lots of sea otters. This area, on the NW side of Prince of Wales Island, has seen considerable logging activity. Some is still going on today.

We found a small community at Edna Cove which grew up out of the logging and fishing industries, home to less than 50 people.

If you look at the map up top you’ll see that there are a gazillion little islands with endless nooks and crannies. We looked for anchorages with likely salmon streams in the hopes of seeing bears, but had no joy there. We saw plenty of places with schools of fish wanting to go upstream, but I suspect the drought might be making the streams too shallow for them. In one of the anchorages there were no less than 20 salmon leaping in the air at any given moment! At the mouth of streams the water looks like it’s boiling with the masses of fish.

I had to console myself with some berry picking, and I found lots of places with huckleberries… here’s what’s left for tomorrow’s breakfast. Yum!

Bird watching was very good in Sea Otter Sound and up into the lower part of El Capitan Passage – more rhinocerous auklets, murres, goldeneyes, mergansers, and these red-necked grebes.

The weather was settling down again and we decided to head south and visit some new spots – the towns of Klawock and Craig on Prince of Wales (POW) Island. The path to get there involved lots of wiggling around islands and rocks, narrow passes and through beautiful wild scenery.

The photo above shows the view in one of the bays – notice the vertical clouds coming off the mountains and land. It’s a great visual to show how the land heats up faster than the water during the day, causing that uprising air mass and drawing the wind onshore.

In addition to the natural beauty, we occasionally saw signs of logging activity. It’s not pretty, but on the other hand there are so many trees in the Tongass that we can probably spare some. Sensible, managed logging (and leaving old growth alone) means jobs and materials to build with – so it’s a tradeoff.

Living in Alaska we continue to learn more about the wealth of resources our state has, and about the balance of protecting them while also using them. We don’t like to see things like the bare hillside in the photo above, but we do like to be able to go to the lumber yard and buy 2x4s to build with. It’s not black-and-white. Fishing is much the same, where commercial fishing seasons and species are managed to insure good returns now and well into the future. The key is balance, and protecting the future of all the resources.