What I Did on My Summer Vacation

If you’ve been reading the Blog since mid-May, you should have a pretty good idea of how we spent the summer… and when all was said and done, we cruised 1500 nautical miles this summer. Except for a couple of days in Juneau, two weeks in Sitka and maybe a day here or there, we anchored out most of the time.

Here’s a chart of southeast Alaska (aka “the panhandle”) with this summer’s route.

On one of the last legs we had to stop the boat and steer around this sleeping whale. (That’s not a log… logs don’t breathe!)

We stopped to visit the town of Kake on Kupreanof Island since we had never been there before. Kake is a Tlingit town with a population of about 450 people. If you look at the photo below you’ll see a tall antenna tower, and just to the right of it is a record-setting totem pole. It was 136′ tall when erected in 1971, though a wind storm snapped off the top portion in 2015.

It was pouring down rain, though we dressed for it and took a long walk. Someone from the town agreed to meet us part way to collect payment for dockage, and he very kindly offered to show us around town a bit. It doesn’t take long to see the sights, but with the hills and rain we were very grateful for the impromptu tour. The highlight wasn’t the beautiful totem though, it was the black bear right in town, trying (unsuccessfully) to break into the trash container by the coffee shop.

It’s always bittersweet to see the summer cruising season end – we’ve loved our quiet days at anchor, but we miss our friends back in town too. After topping off the fuel tanks we settled back into our spot in Petersburg, ready to jump into the Rainforest Festival that started the next day.

Botanist Mary hosted a “muskeg walk”, and we love to learn new things about the bog plants that inhabit so much of our area.

Mary helped us spot some tiny sundew – a carnivorous plant that’s about the size of a pea.

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll gave a lecture about fossils in southeast Alaska, which he hunts for with his paleontologist buddy Kirk Johnson, who just happens to be the Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History! His artwork, humor, enthusiasm and deep knowledge made for a terrific evening.

You probably don’t know that there’s a garnet mine on Mitkof Island (and also on nearby Wrangell Island too). The owner of the private mine brought some garnet-bearing rock, mica-schist, for us to gently hammer to extract some garnets. What fun (and mashed fingers)! These garnets are over 100 million years old!

The following weekend Petersburg’s Muskeg Maleriers group – the ladies who do the traditional Norwegian rosemaling painting – hosted a gold-medal-winning teacher from Minnesota to teach some advanced classes.

Rosemaling is prevalent around town (Alaska’s “Little Norway”), decorating storefronts, window shutters, and on nearly every surface of our Sons of Norway hall!

The guest teacher graciously agreed to teach a beginner class where we learned a little about the Os style of rosemaling.

It’s fun to see how a piece evolves from some simple strokes of color. The secret is in all the delicate line and accent work that really makes a piece “pop”. I’ll never be a decent painter or any kind of rosemaler, but I sure had fun!

Now it’s time to start getting the boat ready for winter. The fishermen are returning to the harbor, and the last of the big lion’s mane jellyfish are drifting through…

…they look like big beautiful flowers.

Tebenkof Bay – Beautiful Skies

Named after a Governor of Russian-America in the mid-19th century, Tebenkof Bay has been a home and hunting/gathering area for Tlingit people from Kake and Klawock for hundreds of years. It’s a big bay, with lots of islands and narrow passages, mountain lakes that drain into marshy meadows, and a number of neat places to anchor. The cruise from our anchorage in Explorer Basin to Shelter Cove in the back of the bay took over and hour – it’s a surprisingly big area.

As soon as we got the anchor down I grabbed the drone and flew around the cove to get the lay of the land before I ventured out in the kayak. If you follow around the perimeter of all the nooks and crannies, it’s about 5 miles of paddling. I was particularly hopeful about the shallow streams in the back meadow – good bear territory since there were plenty of salmon in the water, but no joy. Regardless, it always amazes me how rocks-trees-water can be arranged in so many beautiful ways.

Today’s post is primarily about the sky. Dramatic by day…

…but really jaw-dropping by night!

The light at the bottom of the photo is our boat, and I hope you can see the Big Dipper – it stands out a bit more brightly just to the left of center. Our daylight is shrinking fast now, by 5 minutes a day, but the optimist in me likes being able to see the stars without having to stay up half the night!

In the daylight I found a good spot on shore that faced north to practice my star photography, and I used the kayak to get there once it got dark. I had a radio so I could talk with Jim, bear spray, tripod, camera, star tracker and head lamp – quite a load of stuff. As luck would have it, the tide was rising in the evening. I set the tripod high up on the beach and pulled the kayak up as far as I could, but by the time I wrapped things up I was standing in the incoming tide.

I spotted a funny glow on the NE horizon while I was trying to shoot stars, and sure enough… it was an aurora!

You can still see the glow of our boat low in the frame, and the Big Dipper above it. The white band shifted and danced a bit, and reflected in the mirror-smooth water. Yowza!

As it got darker I could see the Milky Way, though that white aurora band crossed the sky and bisected the Milky Way for a while. It’s a great problem to have when your Milky Way shots are spoiled by the aurora. Eventually the white band disappeared and I could get a few images.

I planned to go out the next evening and find a better position to shoot the entire Milky Way across the sky with a wider angle lens. The night was clear and pleasant, I got my gear set up farther up the beach (it didn’t help – the tide still caught up to me), and I was all set for stars when this happened…

It danced, it undulated like a curtain in a breeze, it shot colors into the sky. We had a show for almost two hours! It was so exciting that I completely forgot about the Milky Way. The tide finally chased me off the shrinking beach and we sat up on the boat deck just watching the light show. Magical.

We don’t get to see the aurora down here in Alaska’s “panhandle” as often – sometimes the aurora just isn’t visible this far south, and our frequently overcast weather hides it when it is. As fall turns to winter the aurora tends to show up later (after midnight) and it’s not as much fun waiting in the cold, so these autumn gifts of pleasant evenings and earlier light shows are treasures to savor.

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.