Saturday, August 8, 2015

2015-16 Juneau to Petersburg: Calving Glacier, Big Halibut, Elusive Bears and Waving Humpbacks

Wednesday, August 5th:  Juneau to Tracy Arm Cove

Unless you're on a cruise ship, it's such a pain to see the glaciers in Glacier Bay.  First you need to get a permit, usually reserving months in advance.  You pay a fee and are required to get educated before you can enter.  Upon entering, your boat speed and course are closely monitored by the National Park Service.  After you do get in, it's a two-day motor just to get up to view a glacier.  You really do have to put in a great deal of time and effort to see the Glacier Bay glaciers.

On the other hand, between Tracy and Endicott Arms, there are three easily accessible glaciers, without reservations, fees, education and procedures.  And by scanning various VHF channels, especially VHF 19, you can hear other boats exchanging information on which glaciers are currently the most accessible.

On Wednesday we departed Juneau for Tracy Arm Cove, a small anchorage nearby three glaciers.  Stephens Passage had flat water and a light breeze.  After a 7-hour motor we set the hook in Tracy Arm Cove.
Cruise ship heads into Juneau as the Wild Blue heads out.
A smaller 20 passenger cruise boat anchored in Tracy Arm Cove.

Thursday, August 6th: Tracy Arm Cove, Calving North Sawyer Glacier, then Sand Bay Halibut

We needed an early start to catch the current up Tracy Arm so at 5:30 the anchor was stowed and we were off .  Yesterday from the VHF radio we learned that North Sawyer has just a little ice, but South Sawyer is filled in.   There's not enough room in front of North Sawyer for a cruise ship to turn around, so the big ships are forced into South Arm.

After 5 1/2 hours we turn left into the North Arm dodging the ice flowing mostly from the South Arm.  Almost before we can see the North Sawyer Glacier face, we are off the charts into "Unsurveyed Water".  Soon after we get our first glimpse of the face, the chart shows we are "on top of the glacier".  Obviously, the charts haven't been updated for this area in years, despite all the boat traffic.  After reviewing the boat's GPS position, we estimate the glacier face has receded about one mile from when the chart's last update.

North Sawyer Glacier has receded almost 1 mile since the chart's last update.

We hold Wild Blue just about 1/2 mile off the face in case there is any big calving action.  A big chunk of glacier falling into the water generates a wave that then washes up, back and across the Arm.  It's just a big washing machine, with chunks of giant ice cubes.  And we're chickens!

We hear the cracking and groaning of the glacier.  Then a piece calves off the face with boom and a wave!  

Lucky for us we are away from the glacier face and ice chunks, aka "bergie bits", and with the bow pointed at the wave we get some moderate pitching action. As the ice flow gets close we fill the cooler with bergie bits.  Time for an outstanding Alaskan refreshment..... 15 over 15,000.

There's some vivid rock colors on the west side of the North Arm.  These
look like iron deposits, or is it maybe gold?
When the ice flows get close, crew Bill uses
his fish netting skills to capture numerous pieces
of floating glacier.  He's polishing his netting
talents in hopes of landing a big fish.

This week's crew are Bill and Karen Almas of San Luis Obispo.  Both are Wild Blue veterans having braved some nasty Alaskan sea conditions, only to come back for more.  We thought it would be fun to get a video of them under the waterfall in the background above.  See how we did below:

A super clear piece of glacier ice.
Bill collected a bunch of ice expecting many 15 over 15,000 year drinks!
15 year scotch and vodka over 15,000 year old glacier ice.  Yes!
After our midday celebration, it was time to ride the current back down Tracy Arm and find an anchorage. While idling in North Arm, the South Arm was filling with ice and the current was creating a large ice field in Tracy Arm.  By slowing the boat to less than 1 knot and pushing the small pieces away, we are able find an exit.  See our 2011 Blog Post for some good video examples. The radar shows the field.

The radar only shows the bergs.  The are numerous bergie bits
 floating in between.  Don't get near those orange targets!

A glacier carved valley on Tracy Arm.

The Douglass Guidebook lists Tracy Arm Cove as the best anchorage in the area.  We need to get closer to tomorrow's Pack Bay destination.  Looking at the chart we notice Sand Bay on the east side of Stephens Passage.  It's looks good although a bit exposed, but should be OK since the wind is supposed to stay calm overnight.

We arrived at Sand Bay after 3PM, set two crab traps among the many in the area, set the anchor, then baited Bill's halibut rod, dropping the gear to the bottom.  Years ago when Bill moved jobs, he received this deep sea fishing rig as a gift.  It sat in his garage for years then he left it aboard about 5 years ago.  Since then the rig has become popular among other crew as it seems to always land a halibut.  It is unique because the rod is equipped with fishing line has a different color every 25 feet.  For whatever reason Bill hasn't caught a fish on his rod yet.

We set the "clicker" and retire to the salon for more 15 over 15,000.  The rod is forgotten as we admire our beautiful surroundings.  After an hour of snacks and refreshments, a loud zinging sound alerts Bill to his rod. Before he can get to it, the force turns the rod holder requiring Bill to exit onto the swim step to retrieve it.  Too many 15 over 15,000s!

The rod holder is tweaked but Bill gets to it before the rod goes swimming!
The fish goes towards the bow.  Worried that it will wrap the anchor chain, Alex operates the thrusters turning the boat.  After 15 minutes of so, the fish begins to surface.  It seems like a halibut, but something is different.  Just as we think it should be visible, the line reels out straight off the stern.  In half a minute, a large sea lion surfaces 80 feet off the stern, and it looked like he was hooked!

Now the sea lion is not the fisherman's best friend.  These animals typically surface just before you land your fish and bite off the back half.  However, we couldn't just cut the long line as the lion would wrap the line around his neck and eventually drown.  So, Bill continued reeling while Alex readied the line cutters.

As the line came in we noticed the lion coming closer.  We could now see he wasn't hooked!  Alex quickly grabbed a couple herring tossing them off the side and distracting the lion while Bill reeled a 70 pound halibut up next to the boat.  Alex harpooned the fish but this halibut was all tired out.  We quickly netted the fish and pulled it aboard before the sea lion could react!  Wow!

Bill lands the first fish on his rod after many years!
Bill and Karen work into the night cleaning this big halibut.  Surprisingly,
this halibut had three medium sized crabs in its stomach.

Friday, August 7th: Pack Bay Bears, then Mole Harbor 

Today we head to Pack Creek up Seymour Canal to see the brown bears.  We're up early, retrieve the traps, saving the large male crabs, then on our way across Stephens Passage by 7AM.

Karen commemorates yesterdays big catch with a halibut looking pancake! 
Our southwest heading takes us around Point Hugh to the Seymour Canal entrance.  On the way up, we stop at Mole Harbor, tonight's anchorage, and set our crab traps among about 300 others.  By noon we anchor across from Pack Creek off the southern end of Swan Island.  The tender is launched and we zip ashore to meet the Forest Service and State Park Rangers.  We have paid reservations to view the bears and are welcomed by the young Rangers.

See our July 2011 Blog Post for the bears we saw back then.  We hope to be as fortunate today.  After a 1-mile trek up the creek to the elevated bear viewing station, we settle in for some bear activity.  The bears must be snoozing but a river otter comes out to say hello.

The elevated bear viewing tower works here as brown bears are not adept
at climbing, and there aren't any black bears around Pack Creek. Whew!

With no bears inland, we moved back to the Creek's delta.  That beach viewing location yielded a few views but apparently the bears have been gorging on salmon for many weeks and aren't too hunger. Best for them to sleep.

I'm fat. I'm happy.  So don't bug me!

We hung out until 5PM then retrieved the tender and zoomed back to the boat.  Wild Blue then took us back down the Canal to Mole Bay for the night.

Saturday, August 8th:  Whale Flippers, then Petersburg

It's 9 hours down to Peterburg and we have to haul the crab traps.  It is bright in summer Alaska at 6AM when we stowed the hook and headed out.  A simple route down the Canal, then Stephens Passage, bearing to port at Cape Fanshaw into Frederick Sound and Petersburg.  The crew sleeps in after several very busy and long days.

About 10AM as we approach Akusha Island a whale waves at the Wild Blue.  We slowed and zoomed on for a close up video.

Peterburg shows up at 4PM.  Nice to be back with civilization in this busy fishing town.

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