Saturday, June 20, 2009

#23 - Prince of Wales Island: Sarkar Cove to El Capitan Cave to Dry Pass Anchorage

After stowing the empty shellfish traps, we left Sarkar Cove to anchor near the entrance to El Capitan Cave. We have a noon appointment with the US Forest Service Ranger for a tour of the Cave. It's a short 1-hour motor up El Capitan Passage to the cave, where we set a prawn trap, anchored the boat and launched the tender to ride ashore.

El Capitan Passage Resembles an Inland River

Pat declined the cave tour in favor of manning an anchor watch. So Bill, Karen and Alex donned warm clothes, flashlights, and mud boots then headed for El Cap Cave. We had visited the cave on our cruise last year, but missed the tour, as we lacked reservations. After a short walk up to the ranger's hut, we immediately located our guides: two college students interning with the US Forest Service for the summer. They offered us hard hats with cool LED headlamps. Our group then proceeded to walk up the 372 stair steps, about 20 stories, to the Cave's entrance, with many convenient breaks to admire the flora (and catch our breath). At last we reached the entrance.

Looks like we're in the vicinity of El Cap Cave

El Cap Cave was recently discovered in the 1980's but the Forest Service kept the discovery under wraps for years until they could safely manage it. It's a huge underground labyrinth with many parts not yet fully explored. One room, named the Alaska Room, is three football fields long!

The El Cap Cave Map: Our tour included just a portion of the yellow section in upper left hand side.

We entered the cave and followed its low ceiling into the first main room. Soon we came to the steel gated entrance. Our guides unlocked the gate, then locked it again after we entered. Sure hope they don't lose the key! Our guides assured us that if the office doesn't hear from them within several hours, a search and rescue party will be dispatched. Oh how reassuring!

Our Well-informed Cave Tour Guides

Well-Equipped Cave Travelers

The Cave's 40 degree temperature has preserved several finds: a 9,500 year old bear skeleton and human artifacts confirming native migration routes. It's a cold and damp inside, and the occasional ice water droplet down one's neck insures the tourers, and guides, stay awake.

Mineral Rich Ice Water Droplets Decorate the Cave's Ceiling

A single persistent water drop lasting many centuries carves a cup holder in the limestone cave wall.

After an hour inside the cave we came to the Pool Room where a pool of water blocks our path onward. About 80% of the cave lies beyond it, including the huge Alaska Room. You need to get wet to continue, so this is where the guided tour ends. Even our guides haven't been beyond it yet, but have been promised by the Service that they will get to see further inside later this summer.

The Pool Room is the End of the Line for Guided Tours

We exited the Cave, locked the steel door, descended the 372 stair steps, thanked our guides and returned to the warm comfort aboard the Wild Blue. Pat had been cooking while watching the anchor. We lunched, pulled the anchor and another empty prawn basket, then headed a few miles further up El Capitan Passage to Dry Pass Anchorage for the night.

A Spectacular View From El Capitan Passage

The tide was beginning to fall, and with a destination named “Dry Pass”, we hustled to make use of the remaining water, dropping anchor in 18 feet in the Pass. The pleasure yacht Coastal Messenger, a converted fishing boat, was already at anchor so we had neighbors, only the second in many days. Once again we set our crab traps in hopes of dining on crustaceans and explored the adjacent salty lagoon in the tender, where no bears were sighted. We spent a calm night in Dry Pass.

Eastern Entrance to Dry Pass Anchorage at Half-Tide


  1. All the pictures shared in thsi post are truly amazing...It can be called the true beauty of nature.
    alaska cruise

  2. Hi Alex,

    I am currently researching an article about El Capitan Cave for Alaska magazine and would love to include one of your fine images (the one of the Pool Room) as an illustration. I was wondering if you would kindly grant me permission to use it and provide a high-resolution file (at least 300 dpi). I'd naturally credit you as the photographer and would get you a free copy of the magazine when it is published. I was also wondering where the map of the cave came from and if you have a bigger image of that.

    I'd appreciate your help with this project. You can contact me at:

    Michael Engelhard
    (in Fairbanks, Alaska)