|Jim as a sea otter.|
“You might want to make a note for the blog,” said Jim as we left Craig, Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island, bound for another spell in the wilderness. “Five fishermen have warned us about Skookumchuck Narrows—but maybe you should wait to see if we survive it.”
“Roger dodger, my codger.”
Actually, our biggest fear was not tidal currents but uncharted rocks. The charts aren’t always accurate, especially about depth, and the cruising guide says surprises exist and to watch out.
|Raven anchored at Port Refugio, a good harbor.|
Also known as Tlevak Narrows and nicknamed Skookumchuck by fishermen, this passage is easy enough if you go through on slack tide, so we did. But the critter action! Oh my. It was so distracting we could hardly steer straight. You try keeping your boat on course in some narrow channel when a whale surfaces 50 feet off your starboard bow, while nearby another whale is bubble-feeding on schools of herring hippity-hopping out of the water like showers of little silvery arrows, as eleven eagles (Jim counted) sit on a branch of a big overhanging tree watching you watch the whales stirring up the herring. It felt like a Friday night in junior high school at the McDonald’s parking lot.
We are mighty glad the whales and eagles were finding enough to eat, because the fishing wasn’t that good for us humans. We had no luck catching salmon, shrimp or crabs, but did catch a couple of rockfish. Even commercial fishermen were having a hard time; everyone said the salmon run was late, that because of the hot dry weather they were waiting for rain to swell the streams they needed to swim up in order to spawn. Who knew salmon did that?
Trolling back and forth in the Strait, we caught nothing. “We’re throwing everything we’ve got into this effort,” said Jim, “I have a diver, a flasher, and a hootchie down there.”
“How about a kootchie? What fish is going to want a hootchie without some kootchie, too?” (And was I right? Huh? We caught nada.)
|Um, Sweetie, we've gotta get the milk thing under control since we turned the fridge down to nuclear winter.|
To make conversation (as if we need a prompt, nyuk nyuk) Jim pointed and said, “We’re passing the Petrel Islets.”
“In the anti-universe they’d be the Petrel Isn’t-lets.”
We anchored in a couple of nice coves going down the strait, including Breezy Bay, where Jim paddled the kayak and I rowed the dinghy up a tidal stream past a couple of sandhill cranes standing on a sandbar. They watched us warily.
|Nice to see sandhill cranes here! Port Refugio.|
The good news about rowing is it’s fun and feels good. The bad news about rowing is that you go forward while facing backward, which renders you unable to see what’s ahead. From his kayak Jim said, “There’s a bear right in front of you.” The best news about a rowboat is that you have brakes. We held a silent staring contest with the bear, which it would have surely won had we been ashore.
|Karen spun around. "Did you say 'bear in front of me'?"|
We decided to try a remote tiny anchorage further down the strait that has a difficult rock-studded entrance, called Ham Cove.
|Otters in their kelp spa outside Ham Cove (some are splashing)|
We have no idea how it got that name. Just outside the entrance, not far from a bunch of otters lounging in kelp, another whale, a small humpback, surfaced; honestly, it’s either been like the cetacean welcoming committee has been working overtime this summer, or whales just love cove entrances; regardless, we are loving every minute of it. Easing between the whale and the (charted) rocks into Ham Cove proper, which doesn’t show any rocks on the chart, we nosed into the little side anchorage that’s just big enough for one boat. Several species of birds were busy diving for something in the water. As we glided forward toward the middle, a seagull landed on the water right in front of us and was obviously not going to move. That’s odd, I thought, and turned slightly to go around it. Suddenly Jim, who was at the bow, turned back toward me pointing straight downward, with a shocked worried expression. “ROCK!” he said. I looked down, and we were right on top of it. Our worst nightmare came true, but there were no scraping sounds or bumps yet, so I threw the engine into reverse and looked down at the rock, which had appeared from nowhere and resembled granite with its little bits of gray and white, slightly stripey, which caused me to identify the rock as a very fine specimen of gneiss (weird things run through your head when you’re on a rock.). And then, like something biblical, the rock parted. It flowed around the boat. It was not lava from some underground volcano, no, it was, as the song goes, a genuine shoal of herring, or maybe baby salmon, so thick and all lined up that it resembled a solid mass of rock, and it scared the living bejesus out of us. We anchored in 30 rockless feet of water in Ham Cove’s center.
|The best anchorage (if you can stand the terror) is the blue cove to the right of the island.|
|Sunset, Ham Cove|
Whew. Let’s try to relax. “I’m going to put the pot out,” said Jim, “and see if I can catch a ham.”
We explored a large shallow lagoon with two waterfalls.
|This is good bearbitat. Back lagoon, Ham Cove.|
The next morning there was one small, very happy rock crab in our trap, which we could almost hear giggling as it slipped out through the bars and plopped into the water. But our ham steaks that night were delicious, so who cared, and the ham-lentil soup later still makes our mouths water. We confess, though, that a nice crab dinner would have been great in Ham Cove.
One rather unpleasant incident—as we motored south along the east coast of Dall Island, a speeding boat appeared on the horizon, probably coming back from fishing off Cape Muzon, which juts into the North Pacific. It seemed to be heading straight toward us at a very high rate of speed, so we made a 45 degree turn to starboard to let its captain know our intentions to pass port to port. But as it drew near it turned toward us, and now we could see it was moving at around 40 or 50 knots. Since we had no sea-room on our starboard side and wanted to make our intentions crystal-clear, we did a 135-degree turn to port while the speeding boat was still a mile away, which put Raven, doing her full 6 knots, at a 90 degree angle to their course and heading away from them. With the speed they were going there’d be no room for error in a close pass, so we wanted to make our intentions clear that we were giving them right-of-way regardless of the law. Our wish to avoid them was obvious.
But again they turned toward us, and now we knew it was deliberate. They were making their intentions known that they would pass very close to us at a high rate of speed. It’s very intimidating, so we got out the binoculars and barely managed to read the large lettered name and see an image of an anchor on the side of the 30 or 35-foot aluminum hull as they roared past at close to 50 knots with a boatload of waving passengers, some of whose blurred faces appeared to be laughing. A boat that size going that fast, with passengers aboard to boot, has no business intimidating a smaller, slower boat.
“Norma J, Norma J, Norma J, this is the motor vessel Raven.”
No answer. I tried radioing them again. Nothing. Now it’s a given that charter fishing vessel captains usually keep their VHF radios on, so since they weren’t answering and since we were somewhat steamed by their behavior, I put out what’s pronounced as a Pawn-pawn radio warning call but is spelled Pan-pan. “Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan, this is the motor vessel Raven, southbound in Tlevak Strait off Reef Point. The charter fishing vessel Norma J just forced us to take emergency evasive action and behaved recklessly, passing too close to us at around 40 or 50 knots. We advise any vessels north of here to be on the lookout and to avoid this vessel.”
Not long after that, the Coast Guard called us, asked for a description of the boat and details of the incident, and said they’d investigate it. We later got a garbled phone message from them, but we’ve been mostly offline and unable to re-connect. It’s not a good feeling to have some fast boat bearing recklessly down on you while you’re doing everything you can to avoid a collision, but there is something you can do about it; the Coast Guard can help, because anyone who takes out passengers for hire must have a Coast Guard captain’s license, and the agency takes safety very seriously. Even if it’s a private boat presenting a threat to life and safety, if you can get its name or registration numbers to report you have an avenue of redress.
The windswept archipelago called the Barrier Islands are a wild place we’d been looking forward to visiting, because they’re in an official wilderness area west of Cape Chacon, right at the edge of Dixon Entrance and the open sea. They didn’t disappoint, and just outside them we caught the exact type of fish that a fisherman in Craig had recommended for his recipe to make “poor man’s lobster.”
|A twelve-pound red snapper! Also known as a yellow-eyed rockfish, these fish can be legally caught in Alaska but not in Canada.|
Both New Englanders originally, he and I had lamented how
long it had been since a real Maine lobster had graced either of our plates, so
here’s the recipe: Take a red snapper, which has firm flesh in wide flakes, and
boil lobster tail-sized chunks in straight seawater with a lot of sugar mixed
in, enough to give the broth a simultaneous salt-sweet flavor. The taste and
texture will be something like a good old Homaris
americanus, he said, especially if you dip it in melted butter. And it was!
Totally delicious and a fun pretend, but nothing can replace real lobster. Except maybe a nice fat
Dungeness crab. Boiled in salt water, crack the shell, pick out those gleaming
chunks, dip ‘em in butter or Jim’s favorite sauce of horseradish mixed with
ketchup, and oh man, am I making myself hungry or what.
|Poor man's lobster. (in the bowl, not on the chair.)|
With all the kelp in these islands it was hard to get the anchor to hold, even by carefully backing it slowly in, plus most anchorages in the Barriers were exposed to at least one wind direction, requiring you to move if the wind shifts. But we found a spot in an unnamed cove that was shallow enough where we didn’t have to put out miles of anchor rode, and thought, oh good, this is perfect. Jumping into the dinghy, we circumnavigated rocky, bird-rich Middle Island, 7 miles in all, but found on returning to Raven that the wind had shifted. Now there was the possibility of being put on a lee shore with a large fetch in a kelpy holding area, so it was time to move.
As we weighed anchor to find a safer spot for the night, a massive wad of bull kelp wrapped itself around the prop. The engine gave a shudder as the prop tore through it, but kept going. I mean, it’s a big 3-bladed prop and that was just kelp, right? Then we noticed a 15 to 20 percent reduction in speed and power, and a vibration that hadn’t been there before. Uh-oh. What just happened? Was there an old crab pot line down there? Worriedly, we went at reduced speed, 5 miles to another anchorage, found the kelp too thick for anchoring there, too, and finally succeeded at a third one.
The thing about some of these wilder northern anchorages is that the charts might say it’s 50 feet deep, which is reasonable for anchoring a small boat, but then you get there and it’s 85 feet, which is a bit deep because by the time you let out enough rode for that depth you’re at risk of swinging into the rocks that line the cove. When there’s that much kelp covering the bottom it’s hard to get the anchor to bite unless you’re on a much larger boat with a very heavy anchor on all chain. This is why so many fishing boats carry heavy, navy-style anchors; their weight sinks through all that kelp and in calm weather they can sit atop that pile of chain on the bottom. In smaller pleasure boats, the design of an anchor comes much more into play than does weight.
|Check out the optical effects of fog! It's just off the ground so you can see trees, but is reflected in the water, where it meets.|
Normally we drop, slowly back down, let the anchor settle in at low RPMs, and then very slowly increase the RPMs to between 1200 and 1500, depending on how much wind is forecast and how well we want to sleep. It takes a bit more time to anchor like this, but it gives us a good idea of the bottom characteristics and the grip our anchor has. We do have 4 anchors and a thousand feet of anchor rode aboard, one being a big Herreshoff-style monster weighing 60 pounds, but unless there’s a storm threatening, it’s a lot of work to deploy and retrieve. Other options might be sending a 25-lb kellet down the rode to increase the “scope,” or holding power, and we have a nice kellet aboard. Other options would include deploying a second anchor on a separate rode, or attaching a second anchor to the primary rode, but our rule is if we can’t get the primary anchor to bite and there are other anchorage options, we move on, and use these other devices only if we run out of anchorages. Because if you can’t get one anchor to bite, what good are two if it really starts to blow?
|Two hitchhikers. They were so big we thought hummingbirds were landing on the boat.|
So, while a navigational chart up here will have a number like 50 representing an entire depth contour, the 50 foot part is meant to show the shallowest depth in that entire contour, which is usually right up next to the rocks. It’s not a bad practice to add at least 20 feet to charted depths when choosing an anchorage up here, and then another 15 or so for high tide because depths on charts are for mean (average) low water. On Raven’s bower anchor we carry 60 feet of chain attached to 300 feet of rope, which is adequate for most places.
Jim was in the water next morning at 7:15, something that for those of you who know about his absolute love for and insistence on hibernatory late sleeping, would agree that under normal circumstances I should’ve been dialing the doctor, but we had miles to go and Jim had a new wetsuit bought expressly for an eventuality like this. So in he went, carrying a special rescue knife given to us by our friend Alex, (Yay! Thanks Alex!) and he found a few strands of shredded kelp but not as much as you’d have thought might be there to make a vibration. Perhaps the rest of it had fallen off in the night.
|The sharpest knife in the drawer!|
Just as Jim is a night owl content to snooze away a perfectly good morning, I am a lark who usually goes to bed fairly early. One evening Jim said, “You have decanted to bed.”
“Decanted. You have poured yourself in there.”
Relieved to find the engine working normally again, we threaded through the maze of islands to get around Cape Chacon, which has a bad reputation. With a good weather forecast to get past Dixon Entrance, you don’t tarry, or you could get stuck for a couple of weeks. To limit our exposure to sideways swells coming in from the Gulf of Alaska, (remember this is a powerboat without steadying sails) we decided to try the rocky shortcut called Minnie Cutoff, which was highly recommended by our fishermen friends.
|The very narrow Minnie Cutoff, gateway to the sea from the Barrier Islands.|
Now, normally one might look at it on the chart and go, nuh-uh, not there, but several had recommended it, so off we went. Until the very last part, which caused us to consider turning around, it was scenic and easy if you paid attention. But hoo boy, the narrow rocky “gate” at the far end was choked with thick kelp, which we now had good reason to fear given recent experience and the fact that we were in one of the more remote parts of Southeast Alaska. But we held our breaths and went for it, on the far right side where the kelp is thinner, right next to the rocks. Whew!
|Nervously navigating through the kelp at Minnie Cutoff.|
The reward on the other side was a whale surfacing right next to us with its mouth open. Yippee! A couple minutes later it turned on its back and waved its flippers! Holy kippered herring, Batman!
|Cape Chacon; the fog parted for a moment to give us this glimpse.|
Rounding Cape Chacon was easy though a bit foggy, and after passing Stone Rock (REALLY? They couldn’t have thought of a better name?) which guarded, wait for it… Stone Rock Bay, we anchored in Gardner Bay near the south tip of Prince of Wales Island with what seemed like the entire fishing fleet and four buy-boats.
|Gardner bay fishing fleet worked most of the night.|
Watching the seiners, trawlers and gillnetters line up to offload their fish until all hours of the night, we appreciated how hard these men and women work.
Some of the thickest fog we’d seen so far greeted us in the early morning, but fog sometimes makes for flat water, and with light winds in the forecast and the radar spinning we chugged east along the north side of Dixon Entrance to our final Alaskan cove, in Nakat Harbor. At the 3/10 mile wide channel just before our anchorage, four gillnetters had set their nets, blocking its entire width except for a tiny 50-foot channel next to the rocks, through which we slipped, wondering if it’s legal to block a channel like that.
|Gill net across an entire channel except for a small opening.|
|Forecast: Pretty darned foggy.|
Later on we would be sitting on a porch in Canada laughing and drinking homemade wine with a couple of gillnetters who’d explain this type of fishing to us. Bill raised his glass and said, “I wouldn’t’a let you through at all!” Des, a sailor as well as a fisherman, once had an engineless sailboat and described how he’d sail right over the tops of the nets. “They’d go nuts, of course, but there was nothing to tangle on them, and there was no other way through.” We decided that if there’s a fishing opener in Johnstone Strait when we’re trying to traverse it, we’ll just go anchor somewhere and wait for them to finish, because if you’ve ever been in Johnstone Strait during a fishing opener with a hundred gillnetters, you’ll know what we mean.
|Fog sweeps in, Nakat Harbor.|
After anchoring at Nakat Harbor, Jim said, “Well, we have rounded the three Great Capes.”
Decision, Chacon and Fox.”
“I thought they were Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin. Like, capes of continents.”
“Well yeah, there’s those…”
|Getting tired of fog shots yet?|
The fog was even thicker in the morning, you could barely see 30 feet, but with radar, electronic navigation aids, two sets of eyes and a slow speed (along with a clearing in late morning) we arrived at Prince Rupert in the afternoon and made a beeline to the Breakers Pub.
|Willya look at that fireboat-style welcome! Prince Rupert rocks!|
On our last night in Prince Rupert a couple days later we extended the World’s Longest Pub Crawl to include a place up the hill called Cargo, an excellent spot.
|Here's another reason Prince Rupert really rocks.|
Prince Rupert was a good stop as always, but we missed seeing our friends Marty and Mae, because they’d sailed south to buy a new boat down on Vancouver Island. They bought a gorgeous big schooner, and Wild Abandon, their C&C sloop, is for sale. We will catch up with them further south. However, it seems that everyone in Prince Rupert is a friend of theirs, so they managed to take care of us despite not being there, because all we had to say to practically anyone was, “Hi! We’re friends of Marty and Mae,” and next thing we’d know we’d be on somebody’s porch drinking homemade wine. We visited with a whole bunch of friends of theirs at Dodge Cove near Prince Rupert.
|Dodge Cove, a nifty place.|
These included Marna, who lovingly maintains a forested trail, Des and Bill, the humorous gillnetters, Jeremiah, a logger who operates the sawmill and showed us his amazing floating and fixed homes and gardens, Gordon and Linda, who gave us more fishing advice, and a lady who offered us water to wash down the berries we ate on our hike. What a fabulous little community.
|One never knows what one may find on the trails at Dodge Cove.|
Stopping in Newcombe Harbor and then Monckton Inlet, we found a sheltered aquamarine cove and had it to ourselves until another friend of Marty and Mae hove into sight! We’d arranged to meet up with Alfy and Devlin on his C&C sloop named Moonshine, and both there and at Campania Island further south we all enjoyed each others’ company, including at a beach bonfire.
And they confirmed that those Clydesdale-sized horseflies can bite right through blue jeans and fleece—crikey! Plus, there were wolf tracks all over the place, including right on our bonfire beach.
|Wolf tracks right next to our beach bonfire.|
When he’s not working at his regular job, Alfy runs the YouTube Channel LifeIsLikeSailing.com, and if you like the idea of cruising the northern Canadian coast you’ll enjoy its practical tips as well as video travelogues.
|What a pleasant surprise to see the Pacific grace from Victoria at anchor!|
We kept noticing an increasing burning rubber smell, and it worried us, so after we came to anchor at Monckton we opened the engine compartment and checked everything. Nothing was hot. We went over every wire in the boat, all cool and fine. We sat there wondering, why is it that we smell burning rubber and can’t find the source? Then a strong whiff hit me and I followed my nose… to my boots. “Oh god, you won’t believe this. I bought these boots in 2001, they’re all oxidized and they stink like burning rubber when the sun hits them. They didn’t do this last year. You’d think they’d last a little longer than that.”
As we cruised south, Jim said, “How many nights is it since Rupert, six?”
“I don’t even know what day it is.”
“Six nights outta Rupert,” he said, “what a great song title. Hey! We should write a song!”
“What’ll it be about?”
So I (K) began singing:
“I don’t know what this song’s about,
But we’re six nights outta Rupert,
The rain and wind makes us scream and shout,
And we’re six nights outta Rupert.
The searchers all say they’d have made Alston Bay
If they weren’t just five nights outta Rupert…”
Not her best musical composition, but good for a giggle.
|Fog awaits us in the main channel. "Hope you like mashed potatoes!"|
More salmon fishing, this time in Laredo Inlet, surrounded by Princess Royal Island where the white spirit bears live, which are a genetic variant of black bears.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Jim said. “And meanwhile, I put on a new hootchie, the one with flashing lights on it!”
“I believe we may have reached fishing hootchie-kootchiedom.”
“And,” he said, “I’ve smeared some lunker lotion on it!”
Lunker lotion. Gotta love it. “Maybe we should smear some on you, too, Sweetie?”
“Then you couldn’t resist me.”
“As if I already can. But you wanted me to flop onto a halibut, so maybe some extra lunker lotion might change our luck.”
Two hours of trolling later: No luck. “Okay, I said, “this is serious. I’m going for the nuclear option.”
“I’m getting the hamburger out to defrost.”
We were anchored in Alston Inlet off Laredo Inlet. Jim went out in the dinghy to troll for salmon, which were jumping out of the water as if to say, Neener neener.
Meanwhile, the hamburger’s defrosting. Tick tock…
As Jim was out fishing, the crew of the sailboat White Raven II dinghied over to visit Raven (great name confluence, eh?) when suddenly the radio crackled into life. “I got a 27 inch salmon!” said Jim, and we all cheered. And when he returned, the poor dinghy looked like the Battle of Thermopylae had been fought in it; there was hand-to-fin combat blood and slime everywhere, including all over Jim’s best Carhartts. And seldom have I seen a man so blissed out. “That was amazing,” he said.
|Jim's lunker lotion special, a nice Coho.|
Yep. Lunker lotion. The gift that keeps on giving. We got our Coho mojo on and we’ll never get the blood out of his Carhartts, but he actually likes it that way. I put the hamburger back in the freezer. We hit the salmon motherlode, and had dinner aboard Doug and Bonnie’s White Raven II (salmon, of course) and played music into the evening with them. In fact, the scene was repeated next day at Alston Inlet six miles away, with more music, and on the way out next day, another salmon! We are stylin'!
|Playing music aboard White Raven II with Bonnie and Doug.|
|Coho fillet. Jim puts food on his family.|
|A salmon is a beautiful fish.|
Narrow rock-strewn passages, large channels between islands and swirling fog characterized the next part of the voyage, which we enjoyed, and we arrived in Shearwater, across the harbor from Bella Bella, yesterday (August 7.)
|Underway in Mathieson Channel, early morning.|
|Annnnd, here comes the fog!|
Because the water supply to boats is shut off (probably because it’s been hot and dry here and they need to conserve) we had to dinghy back and forth with jerrycans; the marina will allow 20 gallons at a time, but that almost filled our tanks. We had to dinghy ashore because the very nice modern marina is full of giant fiberglass castles that say they’ll only use the water for drinking, and then they wash their boats with it, which doesn't set well with the harbormaster. Many of the small boats have to tie to a rickety log breakwater with barges on the other side of the dock.
|Believe it or not, we prefer this location to being crammed in the marina--nice breeze and lots to see, also privacy. But do watch your step.|
Besides preferring it out herebecause it’s quieter, we also have a raven visiting Raven!
|Our neighbor, talking atop the barge next door. We thought it said, "Nevermore!"|
From here we’ll continue the wilderness wanderings. Which brings us to:
Unspoken Law of the Sea #12: When you come out of the wilderness and the big news story is about some zoo being accused of painting a donkey and passing it off as a zebra, it’s time to head back in.