Whales and Glaciers and Bears, Oh My!

When planning our Inside Passage trip we threw out the offer to a few friends to meet us on a leg of our journey. We divided the trip into manageable co-existence chunks with each leg being long enough for a fun experience but short enough for everyone to remain friends, and for each available segment we provided a description of potential sights and activities. Our friends Micah and Amy were the first to take us up on the offer and chose the Petersburg to Juneau leg, which also happened to be the longest, 10 days. For this leg the description in the “Tour Alaska with Wags & Paula” brochure read “Whales and glaciers and bears, oh my!” Promises were made; expectations were set.

Sea lion nap spotWe picked up Micah and Amy at the Petersburg airport, provisioned on the way to the marina, and left that evening. On our way out of the channel, we kicked off the wildlife viewing with the local sea lions that hang out on the channel markers. The next day, after a rough night in a windy anchorage we headed across Frederick Sound in clear, calm conditions. On our crossing we spotted a few whales – one pod of orcas and a few humpbacks. They were a good distance away but we determined that, if needed, they would count toward the first part of our tour promise.

That afternoon we anchored in Cannery Cove, Pybus Bay, in a stunning setting complete with mountains, waterfalls, and no other boats. Micah and Wags explored in the dinghy and saw five brown bears on shore. Amy and I didn’t see them, though, so they didn’t completely fulfill that requirement. The next morning we got an early start. Another calm day in Frederick Sound provided an amazing spectacle of humpback whale activity. On the horizon three whales put on a show, breaching again and again and again, their bodies launching entirely out of the water. Off the point of a nearby island, we spotted another group bubble feeding, a hunting technique in which the whales form a net of bubbles to drive their prey to the surface for an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not to be one-upped, a pod of Dall’s porpoises interrupted our whale watching to frolick in our bow wake. A bit further along, a humpback Whale tailsurfaced a short distance from our bow. We pulled back the power and as we waited for the first whale to resurface his partner surfaced very close on our port side. We were smack in the middle of their feeding area off a nearby point. We shut off the engine and for the next half hour we sat watching them in almost total silence, aside from the clicks of our cameras and the excited “wow!” each time one of the whales treated us to a loud exhale followed by a dive, seemingly waving to us as its tail retreated beneath the water. Whales… check.

On day 3 we were scheduled to visit the Pack Creek Bear Observatory on Admiralty Island. It was fairly early in the season and the salmon weren’t running yet so we weren’t expecting to see many bears. Shortly after arriving, we saw a brown bear on the beach, digging for clams. The ranger said her name is Patches and she is estimated to be 30 years old (that’s very old for a brown bear). We hiked to the observation tower where, in season, Brown bear strollyou can watch bears gorging themselves on salmon. No bears this time, but the hike was pretty and a nice bit of exercise. Back at the beach, we walked around the corner to another viewing area. Nothing. As we started to head back to our dinghy to call it a day, the ranger whispered loudly for us to come back. A beautiful young brown bear had just Version 2emerged  from the woods. We sat quietly, watching him before he finally crossed 50 yards in front of us and walked out to the beach. Then, we waited for him to leave the area so we could get to our dinghy. That evening at anchor, we saw two more brown bears and our guests had an amazing viewing experience from the kayak just off shore. Bears… check.

Next stop, glaciers (we hoped). A rough crossing of Stephens Passage deposited us at the entrance to Tracy Arm, one of two fjords in Holkham Bay that end at tidewater glaciers, the other being Endicott Arm. We had planned to anchor in a cove just inside the entrance and visit Sawyer Glacier at the end of the 25-mile fjord the next day, but two things led to a change of plans: 1) we had arrived at the entrance bar (a shallow bar with a small channel through which to enter) at a full flood current running 4 knots, making it impossible to see the channel markers and dangerous to enter in a low-maneuverability vessel like ours, and 2) we heard on the VHF radio that the cruise ships were reporting that they had made it only 5 miles into the arm before having to turn around because of the amount of ice – if a cruise ship can’t make it, we definitely can’t. Captain and crew all agreed that, rather than try to find an alternate anchorage in the immediate vicinity, which were few, our best option would be to forego Tracy Arm and continue on to our next anchorage, Fords Terror (sounds frightening, doesn’t it?). The timing of the tide was perfect – Fords Terror can only be entered and exited at high water slack – so it was decided. Four hours later, after pausing briefly to scoop up a few hunks of hundred-year-old glacier ice for our cocktails, we anchored in the most amazing place we’ve experienced on this trip (see “Surfing Surprise”), and we stayed there for three nights, culminating in an awesome campfire on the beach with good friends, old and new.

We exited Fords Terror at 0805, precisely at high water slack tide, and headed down Endicott Arm hoping to make it to Dawes Glacier. As we slowly motored along, the ice flow became heavier, requiring all hands on deck to watch for bergie bits and push them away with a boat hook if they got too close. Mother Nature was smiling on us and we were able to cozy up to the glacier. Not in the sailboat, mind you – Gadabout stayed about a half mile away – but we took turns in the dinghy to get a closer look at this incredible frozen slab and, as an added bonus, the countless seals who birth their pups on the icebergs floating in the bay.

While we sat there, the glacier calved, the sound of thunder reaching us as we searched for the crumbling ice sculpture as it fell into the bay and 'Mericasent a swell of water underneath the boat. To cap off the experience, Micah, wearing a USCG-approved bright orange life vest and American flag board shorts, with a cheering section yelling “’Merica,” jumped from the aft rail of Gadabout into the ice-filled water. We had eight more hours of motoring ahead of us that day but I’m pretty sure none of us cared. The thrill of this experience would keep us going much longer than that. Glaciers… check.

After a rough last few hours of the day in sloppy seas, rain and 25-knot winds we were thankful to enter Taku Harbor and find our friends on S/V Arctos standing on the float to catch our lines. The next morning, we left with Arctos and enjoyed a few hours of sailing (or racing) on our way to Juneau. We spent the next couple of days in Juneau exploring the area and relishing the chance to don shorts and t-shirts in the rare (so we’re told) 75° and sunny weather.

As we said goodbye to Micah and Amy we couldn’t help but run the tally: Whales and glaciers and bears (oh my!)… And sea lions and porpoises and seals and surfing and new friends and… Promises were made, expectations were set, and the reality was more spectacular than we imagined.

— PaulaDinghy ride

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