The rest of our trip down the west coast of Vancouver Island was a mix of secluded anchorages, quaint towns and new friends. The Bunsby Islands, Dixie Cove, Young Bay and Barkley Sound provided our last few bits of isolation. Winter Harbor, Walters Cove and Zeballos gave us a chance to stretch our legs, chat with the locals and make some new friends – after meeting the three amigos on M/V Carisma, they were a common sight at several of our anchorages down the coast. Tofino was a great blend of surf town culture with a bit of cosmopolitan thrown in, mainly by way of cuisine and brew. Our last night was spent in Oak Bay at a popular marina in a relaxed suburb on the east side of Victoria, BC. The next day, as we rounded the corner of San Juan Island toward our Customs clearance in Friday Harbor, we felt a good dose of culture shock seeing the sheer number of boats in the area. After a quick check-in we motored through the islands, crossed Rosario Strait, passed under Deception Pass bridge, and grabbed the mooring ball directly in front of our house. We were home… for now.
We found that one of the first questions people ask since we returned is, “What did you learn?” So, here’s what we learned, in a nutshell, in no particular order:
- SE Alaska is amazing and absolutely exceeded our expectations.
- Wags’ interpretation of comfortable wave height was somewhat skewed by 24 years in the Navy and many days at sea on ships much bigger than 48 feet. Ten-foot seas on an aircraft carrier are NOT the same as on Gadabout. His meter has been recalibrated.
- Capes are the real deal (see “Respect the Capes”). We will experience many more in the years to come; now we know what to expect.
- The life expectancy of electric pumps is approx. 8 years (We replaced three on this trip).
- Any docking you walk away from with no new scratches on the boat is a good one.
- Rafting to other boats is NOT a good idea in a strong current, although our de-rafting “challenge” gave us a good excuse to buy a new grill.
- Surfing tidal rapids is one of the coolest things ever (see “Surfing in Alaska”).
- Paula needs a bigger lens.
- Gadabout has a mind of her own when going in reverse. And when swinging at anchor. Our new mantra: “Gaddy gonna do what Gaddy gonna do.”
- We never get tired of seeing whales. Or bears. Or otters. Or pretty much any wildlife. (Horseflies and mosquitos do not count.)
- Our depth finder is schizophrenic. At one point, our 6-ft keel should’ve been 3 feet in the mud according to its reading.
- New experiences are made even better when shared with friends. This is one we already knew but it’s worth repeating. We look forward to sharing more of our sailing adventures with friends along the way.
- We swore we’d never navigate by a cartoon map. This typically applies to tourist maps (i.e., don’t walk toward the big cartoon beaver to find the river). Now we do it on a regular basis – our electronic charts are a significant aid in our navigation. That said, if you unexpectedly see the bottom, STOP.
- We are thrilled with Gadabout’s seaworthiness and level of comfort, and we are ready to take her around the world.
- We can spend at least 89 days together and still be ready to continue the adventure.
We probably learned more lessons but in the interest of not revealing the most embarrassing ones and not boring our readers, we’ll stop here.
Stay tuned… the adventure continues in September when we head south toward Mexico.
Swells lifted Gadabout’s bow and drove it into the next wave, over and over, sending rushes of salt water onto the deck and down the gunnels. We held on for the ride, watching the foredeck intently, hoping the tie-downs on the gas cans and kayaks were secure enough and wishing we had remembered to put an extra tie on the anchor…
Two days earlier our southward crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound was only slightly uncomfortable with a few rolling swells on our beam, quite calm in comparison to our journey north back in May when the ship’s log at the end of the day read, “One crew lost to sea sickness.” Based on these conditions and the most recent weather forecast, we decided to revise our route and return home via the west coast of Vancouver Island. We headed to an anchorage on the north side of the island to set ourselves up for an early morning departure the next day to round Cape Scott. Unlike the east coast of Vancouver Island, which is well protected with comparatively benign conditions, the west coast is more rugged and wild, requiring careful planning and attention to weather, especially when preparing to tackle the two substantial capes, Cape Scott and Cape Cook, and open ocean waters in the northern section. The waters around a cape can be very confused, waves coming from every direction, ocean swells from multiple angles competing with wind and current. Periods of accelerated winds and heavy seas can create treacherous conditions.
We had checked windyty.com, our go-to app for a consolidated wind forecast, a couple of days earlier when we had internet connectivity. The night before and the morning of our start, we listened to the marine weather conditions reported by the Canadian Coast Guard on the VHF radio. We were happy to hear a forecast of 10 kt winds and 3-4 ft seas off Cape Scott.
We weighed anchor at 0600 and headed out. It would take two hours to reach the cape and we wanted to make sure we rounded it in the morning as winds tend to pick up significantly in the afternoon. Aside from a gentle ocean swell it was an easy couple of hours. We were making great time with an ebb current; enough, in fact, to slow down briefly when a humpback whale put on a tail-slapping show less than a hundred yards away. As we continued on and reached Cape Scott, however, the wind and wave heights started to increase steadily and substantially. The water off the cape on this day was the picture of confused. By the time we turned south, we were seeing 20-25 kt winds and 6-9 foot seas, and taking it from every side. It was rough, much rougher than we expected given the forecast. Had we known, we probably would’ve waited a day, but now we were in it to win it and we had another two hours to go before reaching the first possible anchorage. Although we were maintaining a decent speed, we seemed to move forward at no more than a snail’s pace along the distant shore. Fifteen minutes became a half hour, became an hour and, finally, we made our way through the entrance to Sea Otter Cove. After negotiating a very shallow, rocky channel in the wind and, by now, rain and fog, and anchoring in a mere 10 feet (leaving only 4 feet under our keel), we said a little prayer of thanks and collapsed on the settees for a much needed nap.
Two days later, we rounded Cape Cook on Brooks Peninsula. This time, we had the wind at our backs and were able to put up the sails, which helped to settle out our motion a bit by countering the rolling of the seas on our beam. While less severe than off Cape Scott, we did encounter confused seas again and winds of 25-30 kts, making for an uncomfortable ride.
With the two major capes of the west coast behind us and several days of smooth water passages ahead, we reflected on our experience and decided the most disheartening part is that no matter how hard we tried to capture it, the pictures we took didn’t do the experience justice. You’ll just have to take our word for it. Or three words, rather… Respect the Capes. We definitely do.
One of the cool things we discovered while traveling in Southeast Alaska was the uniqueness of the local radio stations. Although I’m not completely clear on the business model, it seems that many of the small towns have only one radio station and it is typically run as a sort of public radio co-op.
Since the tastes of the local populace are quite varied, the stations play an equally reflective variety of music and programs. You may have Reggae in the morning followed by a little Country after lunch and then an episode of “This American Life” for the afternoon set. Mostly, the DJs are volunteers from the local community who get to choose their own programming—some become quite popular and in demand.
In Petersburg a friend even offered to let us come by and spin tunes on the midnight radio hour. We politely declined as we had to be underway early the next day but had we taken him up on it I can assure you that the late night Petersburg crowd would now be intimately familiar with the Replacements.
In Sitka the local station is in a shared building with an excellent coffee shop/restaurant. After dinner one night we went upstairs to see the station and the DJ invited us in and gave us a fun tour. Their discography collection was quite extensive but he did let slip a little secret of the local DJ trade—Pandora.
Community radio – by the people, for the people. Just another piece of the charm of Southeast.
There’s an old cliché about traveling around the world in your sailboat, that it’s actually just fixing your boat in exotic places.
There’s another one that goes, it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” you will have to dismantle and rebuild your toilet on a cruising boat.
Yes and yes.
When you are running your own boat (I like to call it a ship in these instances) you are essentially running a small (very small) city. You have all the infrastructure issues intendant with a city…except maybe roads. There is electrical generation and power grids, fresh water production, garbage, and of course, waste management.
Gadabout has two toilets (“heads” for the nautically inclined). The guest head is a rock star electrically-powered toilet that is controlled by a push button and makes all sorts of cool noises and grinding sounds when it flushes. The head in our stateroom is a traditional mechanical marine toilet where you have to pump a lever and rotate a valve to either fill the bowl or flush the bowl. Every guest on board gets the same lecture: don’t overburden the plumbing, no foreign materials, and flush early and often and everything should work fine, until it doesn’t. Oh, and if you clog it, I will supervise while you fix it.
So when Paula told me in the middle of the night that the toilet stopped working you can imagine my excitement for the next day’s activities – supervising her as she fixed it. Unlike visions of sugarplums dancing through my head, however, my thoughts were somewhat darker as I tossed and turned. I knew who would actually be doing the work. After a morning of pounding through five-foot seas while rounding a cape (I sincerely hoped something would be knocked free), I attacked my challenge head on (pun intended). The good news is that the problem seemed to be on the intake side of the system. This is where seawater is pumped in to fill the bowl so hopefully all I would have to deal with is seawater. Dismantling the valve assembly was surprisingly easy and almost immediately the culprit revealed itself. A three-foot-long piece of seaweed had been sucked into the system and was mucking up the works. After cleaning it all out, bingo bango we were up and running again in about thirty minutes. It was SO much better than the alternatives that had been running through my head all night.
So, having read this you can now sign yourself off as a “qual” on Marine Heads 101. Moral of the story, it’s not “if” it’s “when.”
One of the highlights of this trip has been some of the meals that we have prepared onboard. The stars of these dinners have been ingredients fresh from the ocean. We have eaten Dungeness crab that went straight from the trap to the pot, prawns the size of sausages, and salmon so fresh it has never been refrigerated or frozen. In addition to the proteins above we also made some interesting discoveries. We met an amazing couple (Jo and Ron) in Thorne Bay who graciously shared some of their freshly harvested vegetables from the sea. Jo is a world-class forager and introduced us to sea asparagus and her delicious relish made from pickled bull kelp. (She maintains a fantastic blog that is well worth the visit: www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com) Sea asparagus is not a seaweed but actually a type of plant that grows right at the intertidal zone. It is small, bright green and has a nice crisp crunch with a flavor similar to a raw snap bean and a slightly salty finish. It makes a wonderful side veg when sautéed with olive oil, onion and garlic, but can also be used to compliment a salad or even as a salad on its own.
The relish was made from “bull kelp.” For the flatlanders in the group, bull kelp is long (like up to 20 feet) tubular seaweed (kelp) that has a ball at one end and tapers to a point—it looks kind of like a bull whip. I never knew you could eat this stuff as my only encounters have been when trying to avoid it lest it foul our prop or rudder (it is incredibly strong). But as every kid knows, everything is palatable with ketchup, so I’m not sure why I doubted the edibility of this stuff either. (This definitely does not need ketchup.) The relish is great and has the same texture as the pickled relish we are all used to with a slightly briny front end that balances the sweetness from the pickling nicely. We ate it with some cream cheese and crackers. I also tried it on hot dogs for lunch… so I guess it did have its inevitable meeting with ketchup.
Bottom line, I guess if it looks good then eat it, just avoid the yellow snow and round red berries (“tastes like burning!”). Bon appetite!
Misty Fiords National Monument is a 2.3 million acre area in SE Alaska, almost all of which is designated wilderness. It is close enough to Ketchikan to be a major tourist attraction, with floatplanes and tour boats ferrying passengers daily to take in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rudyerd Bay and Punchbowl Cove. It is a bit out of the way for most pleasure boaters but we had heard that it was well worth the added miles. One friend described it as “Yosemite filled with water.” Having seen so many incredible anchorages already in SE Alaska, we were suspect that this one may not be able to deliver the jaw-dropping beauty that description invoked. Plus, although we’re fairly social people we also like being the only boat in a secluded anchorage and this didn’t sound like it would provide that experience. Still, we needed to see for ourselves, and it was a good way to extend our time in Alaska before heading south into British Columbia.
On the 7-hour journey (we’re in a sailboat, remember), we prepared ourselves for the inevitable crowd of boats and tour operators that would certainly be in the area when we arrived. The landscape along the route was less than spectacular but we remained optimistic. We entered Punchbowl Cove late afternoon. It was just as the description depicted. The sheer, 3000-ft wall bordering the cove immediately brought to mind the powerful vision of Half Dome. We half expected to see a group of climbers bivouacked midway up, preparing to ascend the next pitch. The most amazing part, however, had nothing to do with the land features, but rather the water… We were the only boat in the cove.
The guidebook mentioned a hike to a nearby lake and we were ready to give it a go. As soon as we were comfortable with the anchor grab we hopped in the dinghy and went ashore. After four landings and exploration at various spots along the shoreline with no luck finding the trailhead, we decided to try the one last spot it may be… right beside the big striped sign posted on a tree, the sign with a USFS sticker on it. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Why didn’t we try there first? Well, it was a super rocky section for landing… we thought the sign was a fishing regulation sign (it was similar to others we had seen)… and, well, we’re Wagners. We never do things the easy way.
The hike to Punchbowl Lake was described as a mud and boardwalk trail with areas where scrambling is required. We took the mud part seriously and wore our XtraTuf rubber boots, the only footwear you really need in Alaska. Good thing, too. The boardwalk (more like a series of rough hewn logs covering the deeper sections of mud), while fairly well maintained by the USFS, was mossy and slick, and parts of it had been washed away in recent slides, making it necessary to climb hand over foot on the steeper sections. About halfway up there was a viewpoint with a cascading waterfall roaring over the cliff to the river below leading to the cove. The trail wove its way through temperate rain forest with enough bear scat on the path to concern even Grizzly Adams. Aside from our loud talking and random hand clapping to warn any bears of our presence – “We’ve got spirit, yes we do!” – it was quite a peaceful scene.
The trail ended at a USFS shelter, complete with rowboat and canoe, beside a serene mountain lake. We launched the canoe and spent the next half hour or so paddling in complete stillness and seclusion, gawking at the steep granite cliffs surrounding us, wishing we had more time to explore.
When we returned to the boat it was dusk and a light rain had begun to fall. The next morning, we heard the first floatplane overhead around 0800 and as we weighed anchor and exited the cove we passed the first tour boat. An amazing anchorage, an amazing hike, all to ourselves… we realized how lucky we were to have had the perfect Misty Fiords experience in Punchbowl Cove.
It is no secret that Paula and I love dogs. Anyone who has spent even a few minutes around us knows this to be true. Our hunger for K9 interaction, however, could…. could… sometimes, be interpreted as the equivalent of a creepy guy in a van handing out candy. Each of us typically carries a small milkbone (or two) in our jacket pocket in case we run across a pooch on our explorations. Usually, once folks are over the shock of two strangers enticing their pet with treats, a window for conversation opens. This has led to several new friendships with both dogs and their people alike – Dodger/Tom & Jenny, Winston/Tom & Caroline, Clarence/David, Francy/Deb. Had we not stopped to harass their dog, it is unlikely we would have struck up a conversation, instead preferring to pass silently while mentally critiquing their boat name, foulie choice or some other such nonsense. So, at least until the police are notified or restraining orders are in place, we will continue to walk the docks, milkbones secretly ferreted away somewhere in our clothing, awaiting our next chance to meet a new dog. Oh, and his people.
Below, is Francy. She owns Deb, who gave us a great tour of her classical fish buying scow.
We arrived in Sitka on 28 June and our good friend, Jessie, flew up from Seattle the following day to join us for a 10-day leg to Ketchikan. After meeting some new friends (and dogs) on the dock, checking out the town, touring the raptor center, and tasting some flavors at the Baranof Brewery, it was time to head out. With the exception of a rainy, windy first day, the worst being as we were transiting Sergius Narrows entering Peril Strait, we were blessed with nice weather. After two anchorages and no wildlife sightings, however, we were starting to worry that we may not be able to deliver on the whales and bears we had strongly suggested would be a part of the tour.
We needn’t have worried. After exiting Peril Strait, we anchored for the night in Ell Cove, a splendid little cove with room enough for only one or two boats, entirely secluded and protected from any effects of Chatham Strait outside. And we had it all to ourselves. As soon as we dropped the hook, we spotted a young brown bear on shore. We watched as he walked the entire length of the shoreline before retreating to the forest. After settling in, Jessie and I hopped in the kayaks for a little exploration in the next coves over while Wags took the dinghy in search of salmon. We set out on a low tide, which revealed a wonderfully diverse area with white sand below the surface, rocky outcroppings leading up to the trees, and small coves tucked in behind the rocks. One such cove was quite inviting. It had a very narrow entrance, maybe 20 feet wide, leading to a shallow pool of crystal clear water surrounded by a rocky beach and forest. I paddled into the cove and sat silently, taking in the sounds of the ravens and eagles in the trees. As I slowly scanned the area, I heard Jessie, who was at the outside edge of the entrance canal, say in a calm but strangely nervous tone, “Paula, we need to get out of here.” Instantly, I realized there was very likely a bear in my immediate vicinity. I turned to look and, sure enough, about 40 feet above me, standing on the rocks was a young brown bear. He seemed as surprised at me being there as I was at him being there. He looked at me, then at Jessie, then back at me and sniffed the air. By this time I had turned my kayak in the direction of the exit and slowly started to retreat. I paused briefly to snap a couple of pictures, although I have to admit my increased heart rate prevented a perfect focus of the lens. We paddled out to a safer distance then watched the bear make his rounds searching for clams on the beach as the ravens squawked their disapproval. Birds, starfish, seals and a whole lot of jumping salmon (none of which were interested in Wags’ bait, unfortunately) rounded out our nature viewing that day, but nothing could compare to our close encounter with the bear.
The whales made their appearance, as well, over the next several days. For the most part, winds were calm and the seas glassy – not ideal for sailing but perfect for whale watching. As we glided through the water we spotted both humpbacks and orcas. If we were close, we would shut off the engine and silently drift, listening to the sound of their breathing all around us as they fed near the surface. In Labouchere Bay, on the west side of Prince of Wales Island, we anchored in a beautiful cove a humpback had chosen as his feeding spot. He was leaving the cove as we entered. That evening Jessie and I again explored in the kayaks, delighting in the natural beauty of the area and the antics of the sea otters, and Wags again took the dinghy to fish. As we all made our way back toward the boat a couple of hours later, the whale returned and we had a rare opportunity to watch as he surfaced along the shoreline rocks to feed right in front of us.
We pulled into Ketchikan with six cruise ships lining the docks and the hustle and bustle that goes with being in a tourist town. As we said goodbye to Jessie, we were reminded how much we love sharing our experiences with others. The close encounters from the past 10 days were even better in the company of a good friend.
We had been in Glacier Bay for a few days and already it had more than met our expectations. Upon arrival on a beautiful, sunny day, we had spotted a pod of humpback whales feeding along the shoreline only a few hundred yards from our boat and watched the sea lions and puffins on South Marble Island as we headed to our first overnight anchorage. Day two found us checking out the mountain goats on Gloomy Knob and on day three we explored Reid Glacier with friends. All that would have been enough for us to give Glacier Bay two thumbs up, but our next experience topped it all.
We motored into Blue Mouse Cove in the afternoon and, after testing one spot and carrying the rock we pulled up on our anchor to the other side of the cove, anchored in the northwest corner. The guidebook said this is the most popular anchorage in Glacier Bay so we were pleasantly surprised to have it to ourselves (likely the result of our early season visit).
The next day was 21 June, the summer solstice. After breakfast, Wags spotted two brown bears on the shore nearby. We watched them for several minutes until they disappeared back into the woods. Later in the morning we hopped in the kayaks to explore the next inlet over, a wilderness area open only to non-motorized vessels. No sooner had we rounded the point, the two bears from earlier walked out from among the trees and meandered along the shoreline, stopping to check under the rocks for clams. We sat watching in awe from our kayaks as they went about their activities 200 feet away, paying us no mind other than a cursory glance. At one point, one of the bears stood up to check out something in the distance then continued on. We were treated to an amazing show as they waded into the water, the smaller one taunting his buddy, biting him on the backside to encourage a bit of playtime. As they exited the water the taunting continued until, finally, the larger bear relented and a wrestling match far surpassing any WWF bout ensued.
Once the bears were gone and we were sure the coast was clear, we pulled our kayaks onto shore – the tide was still low so we would need to carry them to the other side of the bar to reach the inlet. We weren’t sure where exactly to cross so we needed to walk up to the top of the bar and figure it out. Our first try landed us in mud so deep and stinky we could barely walk. Our second try was better but as we walked up the bank we were a bit too close for comfort to the tree line where the bears had emerged earlier and, as we were walking I thought I spotted something a fair distance away – a coyote or, maybe, a wolf? We returned to the kayaks. Our third try was successful and we portaged our boats the short distance across the narrowest part of the bar and launched them on the other side.
Hugh Miller Inlet was beautiful. Majestic snow-capped mountains framed the background. Sea otters, porpoises and waterfowl went about their daily activities in a setting so serene and peaceful we didn’t want to disturb it with even a whisper. As we drifted along we suddenly heard a loud splashing. We looked across the bay and saw a large group of… what was it? We paddled closer and looked again through our binoculars, then realized, it was a raft of hundreds of sea otters, mothers on their backs with pups resting on their bellies. The splashing resulted when the entire group synchronized their paddling to move the raft, setting off a cacophony of squealing and mewing from the pups. We wished we could get a closer look but the mothers were very cautious and we definitely didn’t want to scare them or disturb their natural behavior. After snapping a few distant photos we turned around and headed back.
By the time we reached the bar, the tide had risen and we were able to paddle across, although it was not an easy feat against a flood current. I glanced over at the shoreline and noticed movement in the grass at the edge of the trees. I looked closer. “Wags!” I whispered loudly. “There’s a wolf!” It turns out it was a wolf I had seen earlier, and we’re pretty sure that’s exactly what the bear had been checking out, as well. What an incredible opportunity it was to see a wolf in its natural habitat.
He seemed more interested in us than the bears had been, looking at us frequently, though still unconcerned with our presence. As huge dog lovers, we were tempted to give him a milkbone and put a Seahawks t-shirt on him, but we decided he might not appreciate it as much as our other dogs have (although we’re sure he’s a Seahawks fan). He foraged along the edge of the woods for several minutes as we watched with mouths agape before making his way back out of view.
As we paddled back toward the boat, we couldn’t stop gushing about all we had seen in the last few hours… bears, otters, wolf. Wags commented nonchalantly that almost all the bears we’ve seen to date are brown bears. “I hope we’ll see a black bear.” The current was making paddling challenging so we dug in to gain some ground. At that moment, we both looked toward shore at the same time then back at each other and, excitedly pointing, mouthed the words, “Black bear!” As I tried my best to not go into some sort of sensory overload shock, we paddled furiously to reach the head of the cove where our boat was anchored and where a black bear was walking along the shore. Our urgency was unnecessary. The bear was in no hurry, grazing contentedly, occasionally glancing in our direction. After a few minutes we heard a rustling in the woods to our left. The bear heard it, too, and stopped his dining long enough to watch as a second, larger black bear emerged. After determining that the distance between them was not a threat, the first bear continued his feast. For the next half hour, at least, we sat transfixed, watching not one, but two black bears eating grass and foraging for berries on the edge of the shore a short distance off the bows of our kayaks. Hunger finally got the best of us and we turned to head back to Gadabout for lunch.
That evening at anchor in yet another beautiful cove we sorted through the hundreds of photos I had taken that morning. To say this day had been remarkable, even extraordinary, seems an understatement. Before being there, we couldn’t help having high expectations for Glacier Bay, but we wondered if the beauty, the experience, was over-hyped. It wasn’t, as we discovered on this one amazing day.
Our second night in Glacier Bay, we anchored in Reid Inlet. This is a unique anchorage because it is at the base of Reid Glacier, the face of which can be explored on foot. Our friends Mike and Angie on S/V Madrone pulled into the anchorage shortly after us. The afternoon winds were already starting to howl off the glacier and none of us wanted to leave our boats yet so we made plans to explore the next day.
The four of us piled into our dinghy promptly at nine a.m. the following morning and headed to shore. We quickly discovered that the shoreline is composed of glacier mud – Angie and I joked about starting a new beauty trend called Glacial Facials. The mud was deep, thick and slick, an entertaining combination when trying to step out of a dinghy and walk to higher ground. Our rubber boots would definitely need to come off before getting back on the sailboats.
For the next couple of hours we explored the glacier and the surrounding area. We hiked alongside the glacier’s edge, peering into the blue ice caves carved by the melting ice. We walked among the boulder-sized ice formations littering the ground where they had fallen from the face. We felt the cold power of the raging river flowing out from underneath the glacier as we stood nearby. Exploring Reid Glacier would’ve been fun anytime, but sharing it with friends made it even better.