Thursday, October 16, 2008


The day we were to arrive in Alaska began as any other. Up before sunrise, a bit of mist in the air, and not much wind. We motored out of Port Simpson and within half an hour, the wind picked up. The wind was against us, but we decided to do what we could with it, rather than leave the sails down and motor a more direct course. It would be the first day that we would really have to work for our miles. Days like these are character-building, as we wove a zig-zag course up Dixon Entrance, seemingly making little to no head-way after each tack. As the day wore on, we were looking for back-up plans, because we didn't think we would make our destination of Foggy Bay, Alaska before nightfall. It's surprisingly difficult to find a place to anchor for the night. For an anchorage to be practical, the water can't be too deep, which is the main problem on the west coast. Much of the coastline of B.C. drops to depths of 600ft or more within a few feet of the waters edge. Coming up with no alternatives, we resigned ourselves to a nighttime arrival in Foggy Bay, with only a hand-sketch in Charlies Charts to go by.

The moon was on the rise as we approached the entrance to the bay, but it wasn't enough to illuminate the rocks that sat just a few feet above the surface on either side, as the diagram showed. From the bow, away from the engine, I could hear the swells breaking on the reef that offers protection from rolling seas once in the anchorage, but is a hazard when trying to get through it. There was enough salt spray in the air that the beam from the spotlight fell flat within a few feet, so was of no use. We tried to think of other options that would give us a better idea of our actual location. We had a brand new handheld Garmin GPS, which will tell you within 7ft where you are, but without a map or chart of some sort to plot that latitude and longitude, the numbers don't really mean too much. Then we remembered something. NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. provides all the charts for U.S. waters free of charge online, and Brian had downloaded some of the charts he thought we may need the previous week. Luckily, there was enough power left in his laptop to bring up the necessary chart, we plotted our position on the screen, then were able to plot a compass course to follow, and we winded our way past a few more shallow spots and islands and dry reefs before finally dropping the hook at 2230. It can be frustratingly confusing navigating in the dark. Just when you think you know exactly where you are, and identify the silhouettes of the islands and rocks and think you know what's what when making comparisons to the sketches in the guidebooks, you begin to proceed between the two islands only to realize it is one island. Nights like these, we go slow. Its always interesting to see all the obstacles you dodged when departing in daylight the next morning.

The following day was our first 'official' day in Alaska. Ketchikan is the first Port of Entry where you can clear customs when arriving from the south. Effie made sure she would be the first among us to set foot on Alaskan ground, and she took a flying leap off the boat when we were still a fair distance from the dock. Since the arrival of the babies we don't have to worry about her going too far. Speaking of which, Jake is gradually learning why walking forward is the preferred mode of transportation, and isn't falling backwards off the bunk as often. Mary-Anne is my favorite (I tell her all the time). In the beginning, she seemed to have inherited Effie's kittenhood fascination with blinking eyes, and would lay quiet and motionless on my chest in the morning, waiting for my eyes to open with the morning light, before going for the gold.

Ketchikan is a small town that caters largely to cruise ships. We awoke the following morning to no less than 6 cruise liners clogging the entire waterfront. The town is on the island of Revillagigedo, which eventually became Re-Village Gigolo to Brian and I as we struggled to grasp the proper pronounciation. We stayed long enough for Brian to celebrate his birthday in style, if by accident, when we ended up in the company of a lumberjack who'd just stumbled out of the woods, quite literally. He called himself Red, wore a red bandana and... well, what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think 'lumberjack'? Yes, good, 3 foot-beard, that's right... red-and-black plaid jacket, 5-lb axe... or perhaps he left that outside with the ox. He spent the evening ringing the brass bell at the end of the bar, which meant he was buying yet another round for the house. He passed out money for the jukebox and told us to pick 'songs from the soul' and bragged how he lived "totally off the grid, man", which, in his books meant kerosene lamps and candles. Yes, if you've ever wondered what you're missing out on when you hear Brian and Laura are on a boat in Alaska, now you know.

I think Brian and I came to the realization around the same time as one another that it was time to start thinking about turning around and heading home. We had reached our destination, and having set out late in the sailing season, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. Not only was the temperature becoming unbearably cold at night, but the Pacific storms were rolling in, one after another. We decided to circumnavigate Re-Village Gigolo, which would take a few days and take us up into the Misty Fjords National Park. We were 100 years too late if we wanted to see any sea-level glaciers. A glacier that graced our northernmost anchorage in the early 20th century has receded so far up the valley and around the bend that it would take a full day of hiking to reach its edge.

We were blessed with 3 days of sunny weather and decent winds. The Parks people provide moorings to tie off to, so finding a place to anchor wasn't an issue. After tying to a mooring in Punchbowl Cove, we decided to hike up to Punchbowl Lake, on the recommendation of the Visitors Center employee in Ketchikan. Upon canoeing ashore, Brian spotted some fresh bear poop and prints. As eager as I was to see a bear, I was uneasy with the prospects of coming face to face with one in such a remote area. We spent 1/2 an hour tip-toeing around, looking for more evidence, or any rustling in the trees. We made our way toward the waterfall, figuring we'd find a trail up to the lake. As we quietly stepped along the rocky shore, we suddenly heard a deep roar. Stopping in our tracks, we looked at one another, and carefully started taking steps backwards. A moment later I burst out laughing when I realized it was only a jet, high above our heads.

The lake was lifeless and silent. As a previous visitor had noted in the guest book at the shelter, God forgot to put fish in the lake. The shelter was supplied with wood for chopping, a fire-pit, raised wooden platforms for sleeping and paddles for an upturned canoe by the waters edge. Though the water was cold, it was fresh, so I took advantage of it with my soap and shampoo, knowing it might be some time before I'd find a shower again.

Wanting to get to another anchorage 20 miles south before dark, we limited ourselves to about an hour at the lake before hiking back to our canoe and leaving the mooring by early afternoon.

There is a very distinct rock formation mid-channel a few miles out of Punchbowl Cove known as New Eddystone. It's the remnants of the core of a volcano, much like the outcrops on which Edinburgh and Stirling Castle are built, the hard rock core remaining where the softer surroundings have eroded away. Captain Vancouver, who was assigned by Britian to survey the coast from California to Alaska late in the 18th century, reportedly stopped and had lunch on the rock . We passed within 1/2 a mile of the rock without seeing more than a slightly smugged dark patch in the fog bank. If Vancouver was surveying these waters in the typical west coast weather, it's more likely that he ran his ship into the rock, rather than have lunch on it.

We followed the shoreline all the way to our next anchorage, the fog being so thick at times that if we had been mid channel, we would have been unable to see either shore. We picked up a mooring at the mouth of a river where dead salmon were abundant ('tis the season), and a bald eagle watched patiently atop a dead cedar, searching for a suitable dinner. Brian caught dinner this particular evening, the first (and only) fish of any substance of our trip. A flounder with partially migrated eyes, as what happens in some stage of their development. It's not my area of expertise and I'm unable to find a reliable article on the subject, but I believe they are born with their eyes on opposite sides of their head, like a salmon, and they swim 'upright', like a salmon. At some point, one eye migrates to the other side, and the fish begins to swim like a flatfish, like a stingy-ray, along the seafloor, with both eyes on top. If someone knows about this, please feel free to comment. (no funny stuff, Doug)

Before heading back to Canada, it was necessary to re-stock in Ketchikan. The wind was dead calm and the fog left us with less than a boatlength of visibility. It's bad enough navigating in the fog when you have a radar and charts, but we had neither, and we were entering a narrow and busy channel with significant currents, frequented this time of year by as many as half a dozen cruise ships per day, along with any number of tour boats and tugs and barges. We estimated our position then set a compass course and noted the time, and calculated when Forgot-the-Name Island would appear from the fog. Quite some time passed and there was no sign of the land. I was on the bow, looking for shallow areas, still unable to see more than 30ft ahead. The fog can play tricks with your vision. You think you see land, then the shape evaporates. Eventually we found land, but as we followed along, we realized we were at least 2 miles from where we had hoped. We began 'bumping' our way up the channel, overshooting our desired points over and over, once arriving at a rockpile marked at its low peak by a small green lighthouse. It was very difficult to do anything else but motor along slowly, and look at the compass, and hope to recognize bits of shoreline that we'd seen a week earlier when we had entered Ketchikan the first time. A pilot boat, sent ahead of a cruise ship, spotted us and called us on the radio to inform us of the 300ft ship to follow. The cruise ship eventually called us too, able to see us on their radar. We were unable to see him until, miraculously, the fog lifted long enough to see we were well clear of each other, then closed in once again. Ketchikan is a high-traffic area for float planes as well, and we could hear them overhead, but never did see the ones coming in for a landing this particular day. We heard a random yokel on the VHF, muttering quickly and to no one in particular, "Dat plane up thaar, is'it okay? She's goin' round and round and round in circles". Float plane pilot is an occupation that has really stirred my interest in recent weeks, but in those conditions, I feel safer in a boat. Even Brian's boat.

In the hopes of quelling any boredom of retracing our steps down the coast, we had high hopes of cruising a portion of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Things have not gone as planned, but a second visit to Prince Rupert brought an unexpected meeting with a couple of very interesting people. As always, you cannot anticipate what is going to bring you the most fulfillment or enchantment in a journey such as this.