Saturday, June 27, 2009

#28 – Baby Bear Bay to Sitka

By first morning light, 3:20AM, there was just a slight ripple on the water. The Bay had protected us from the big winds, and while the crew rallied, a relieved and sleepy Alex slept in. We got underway at 8AM with +5 feet of falling tide as a depth cushion while exiting the Bay. Once free we set our course for Sergius Narrows, just 3 miles south, with slack tide just after 9AM.

Note the Sergius Narrows chart descriptions: tide ripes, whirlpools, strong currents, swirls, rapids. We get the point!

The boat accelerates as we approach the Narrows going south. We have 2 to 3 knots of current in our favor and hit 11+ knots over the ground, with still 30 minutes to go before slack tide! The channel has been dredged to 24 feet for ship travel, but this still doesn't let enough water pass, and the tidal waters build up on one side of the narrows creating the fast water and rapids. Lucky for us there is no oncoming traffic and we cruise, rocking and rolling, through the tide ripes, whirlpools, strong currents, swirls, and rapids. Just as we clear, the VHF Radio comes to life as a northbound Alaska Ferry warns oncoming traffic of her intentions to transit the Narrows in 15 minutes. Other vessels will standby while the ship navigates this “no passing” zone.

Sergius Narrows is well-marked but one-way only when a ship transits.

This Alaskan Ferry runs from Sitka northbound via the Narrows. Lookout!

Today's route to Sitka

At last we can relax and enjoy the beautiful Alaskan scenery as we make our way to Sitka. We note many fishing boats going our way and overhear them on the VHF grumbling about the lack of fish. Apparently June's 20+ days of sun and little rain has kept the salmon away from amassing at river mouths, as the rivers are too low for the salmon to make it upstream to their spawning habitat.

Just before noon, we pull into Sitka Harbor's Western Anchorage and call the Harbormaster on VHF. Turns out the fishing fleet is in and there's no dock space. We are told to anchor in the bay. An hour or so later the Harbormaster calls back via cell phone and gives us a slip assignment. We take a break and fill up with diesel, just about 800 gallons worth.

Entering Sitka from the north

We end up with prime dock space just in front of the dock office with an easy walk to the grocery and liquor store. We plan on staying until July 5th, and by then we're sure to be bored with Sitka.

Sitka must be OK: It already has an Olga and a Pat!

Friday, June 26, 2009

#27 – Kake to Baby Bear Bay

Our crew, Commodore Dick and Harriet Squire, arrived yesterday afternoon, June 25th, from LA-Juneau via Tree Top Airlines aka Wings of Alaska. The weather was just OK yesterday so we hung out last night in Kake. Pat created some wonderful crab cakes from the volumes prepared and pulled by Karen and Bill.

This morning we departed at 9AM for Baranof Island, hopefully making an anchorage in Peril Strait before a big storm hits tonight. Originally we were to visit Red Bluff Bay and Warm Springs Bay on the east side of Baranof, but those anchorages were not that protected from the expected big Southeast winds. We entered Frederick Sound then South Chatham Channel going north. We also watched yacht Yachette on our AIS pull into Warm Springs Bay, one of our original destinations. Later we met and chatted with owner Mike in Sitka and he told us he had quite a bit of wind in that evening.

Our route from Kake to Baby Bear Bay in Peril Strait

Chatham Channel was pretty tame, but instead of fishing, the fishing boats we saw seemed to be hurrying to a secure anchorage. Just before we were about to make our left turn into Peril Strait, a giant humpback surfaced just next to the boat. He wasn't very good at posing for a photo, so we began our search for an anchorage in Peril Strait Our first candidate was Appleton Cove, a popular anchorage, which was confirmed when we cruised in at 3PM and found 7 boats already there. We then decided to give Baby Bear Bay a try as it is located just 3 miles before Sergius Narrows. The Narrows are really fast rapids (as much as 8 knots today) at all times except near slack. At Baby Bear we could hang out to just before slack tide and brave the Narrows with peace of mind.

The entrance to Baby Bear Bay would be mighty scary at low tide!

We arrived at the entrance to Baby Bear Bay at 5PM after a full 8-hour day of motoring. The entrance is a bit tricky with a U-turn around a reef and a skinny channel with shoals. We had +12 feet of tide, so although it looked scary on the chart, we made the Bay without issues. Four other boats were already anchored, and we managed to squeeze into a spot between them and the shore, putting out a bit more scope than usual. The weather forecast calls for 25-35 knot winds from the SE, with 40+ gusts. We set the GPS to sound an alarm if the anchor begins to drag. Alex will sleep in the salon, with one eye open.

Bowl-shaped Baby Bear Bay affords excellent all-weather protection.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

#26 – Big John Bay to Kake

After a quiet night on Big John Bay, we looked forward to hauling our traps. Eureka! At last we hit the crab jackpot as eight huge male crabs visited our two underwater, chicken-leg dinner houses. The prawn trap also yields a few, but we have a difficult time hauling the trap in the swift Keku current. While maneuvering the boat around the trap, we back over a kelp patch and suck kelp into the generator seawater intake, causing a steam plume to be ejected from its exhaust. Alex immediately shuts down the generator, which will be repaired later in Kake.

Our route from Big John to Kake

Just after 11AM we are on are way to Kake, a Tlingit Indian town on Kupreanof Island. Bill and Karen prep the crabs and prawns, and begin cooking them. The girls plan a crustacean based menu for tonight's dinner.

Crabs and Prawns from Big John Bay and Keku Strait

It's another Wild Blue crab feast

By 1PM we've arrived in Kake at the fuel dock to add diesel and top off our tender's gasoline supplies. We then moved to the marina in Portage Bay on the southern end of town. The marina has a new breakwater, some newer and some older docks, fresh water, but no power for transient moorage. It's filled mainly with local and visiting fishing boats, and just a small number of pleasure craft. Kake's population is about 700 who earn a living fishing and working in the local hatchery and fish cannery. However, the cannery wasn't operating and the town had some financial issues. It took two days of inquiring to locate a person to accept our slip fees. This only happened because our taxi driver turned out to also be the city bookkeeper, or so he said, and accepted our fees.

Kake has a 128-foot totem pole, the world's tallest, carved in 1967 for the Alaska Purchase Centennial.

From almost anywhere in Kake you get an awesome view of the mountains of Baranof Island

The Kake marina is a busy place for work boats. A large seiner was repairing and arranging his net; the local pilot boat was always coming and going with pilots for cruise ships entering-exiting Frederick Sound; and at low tide, welders worked on a fish boat hauled out on a tidal grid. We spent three days in Kake, seeing the sights, provisioning and exchanging crew.

At extreme low tide, it was tough getting from the float to the pier, and vice versa.

Low tide allows this welder access below the waterline of this fish boat. He needs to finish his work before the tide returns.

On Wednesday, we rallied early for a tour of the Kake fish hatchery. This private non-profit, funded by salmon and crab fishing associations, captures spawning salmon coming up Gunnuk Creek. As the fish start upriver, they are diverted to a slew and large vats inside the hatchery. During a the salmon run, a large crew of workers mans the hatchery, capturing the fish, removing the row, and saving the fish carcass. The row is then fertilized, incubated, hatched, uniquely marked, and later released up river to complete their development. This process insures a high hatch yield and great increase in the survival rate of the salmon. The salmon carcasses are ground up for bait and sold to the crab association. The unique marking on the fish allow researchers to track the salmon throughout the North Pacific. Mature salmon from the Kake hatchery have been caught off Siberia and Japan.

During the salmon run, as many as 50 bears fish the creek just outside and below the hatchery. According to the caretaker, several times a bear has become a bit impatient fishing the river, and walks inside the open garage door of the hatchery, right over to the vats, and pulls out a fish in front of startled workers! They've found it best not to interfere, and let these few occurrences happen, the bear typically running off with his fish. He says it gets a bit scary when the bear turns towards the workers and consumes the live salmon while they watch!

Gunnuk Creek dam is closed, diverting spawning salmon to hatchery vats

Salmon eggs are incubated in these

These hatched babies are raised then later released to the wild

Wednesday afternoon Bill and Karen, our crew since the 15th leave for Juneau. Thursday, Dick and Harriet Squire arrive from Malibu to crew with us to Sitka. You probably remember them aboard Seagate, their Offshore 54, which they cruised alongside us last year to Alaska and the Queen Charlotte Islands. See the 2008 Alaska Blog for the full-story.

Wild Blue's guest stateroom has to be specially prepped for Commodore Squire and First Lady Harriet.

Sunset on Kake's Portage Bay Marina

Monday, June 22, 2009

#25 - Hole-in-the-Wall #2 thru Keku Strait to Big John Bay

Our anchorage today is near the northern end of Keku Strait. Once again we need to exit Hole-in-the-Wall #2 on a rising tide and continue into Keku Strait while the rise continues.

We ran the tender over and collected our crab traps, one was empty, the other lost. Apparently the trap set just outside the anchorage entrance was swept away by the high tide and ocean swell. No crabs and now, no trap. Hopefully this crabbing will get better.

Today's Route through Keku Strait

The tide dictates a 10:30AM exit with +3 feet, just enough to clear the 8-foot minimum depth with breathing room, and we're able to safely navigate our departure. Outside, the ocean swell has diminished and many commercial fishing boats ply the waters near Point Baker in their quest for salmon.

We motor north at 9 knots crossing big patches of kelp. Since the boat is equipped with kelp deflectors in front of the stabilizer fins, we're not worried about snagging the larger bull kelp. Suddenly we are startled to hear the boom, shudder, and bounce of a hard object down the hull's starboard side. Apparently a submerged log was tangled in the kelp and scraped our side. All bilge pump lights stayed off, so we continued towards Keku Strait. Later this day, far into the shallow water of the Strait, we discovered the Interphase forward looking sonar no longer displayed objects on our right side. The submerged object has obviously damaged the underwater sonar sensor.

Kelp entangled log similar to the one that gave Wild Blue a “black sensor eye”

In Exploring Southeast Alaska, Douglass describes Keku Strait as follows: “Rocky Pass is an explorer's dream and a marginal navigator's nightmare. We do not recommend it for boats larger than 30-feet. The channel is shallow with numerous mud flats on all sides, strong currents, and thick kelp patches.” Luckily Pat and our guests have not read Douglass.

As we approach the south entrance to Keku, just ahead we note Yachette and Shearwater entering the Strait. Then we enter the Strait single-file. Soon the lead boat slows for another just ahead. Welcome to the Keku Strait boat parade! It's Me Too, a Nordhavn 40, Shearwater, a Legacy 65, and Yachette, a Delta 71 models followed by Wild Blue, a Selene 53. The parade continues for awhile until a wide spot allows safe passing.

Yachette has just passed Me Too.

Wild Blue waits for a wide spot to pass Me Too, the slow one.

Our slow progress up the Strait gives us the opportunity scan the small islets and islands. Biologist Karen spies a moose on a small island watching our boat parade. The moose, a cow, is statuesque just like a mannequin. If we didn't know we were in remote Alaska, a Disneyland wilderness ride comes to mind. No camera was ready to capture the moment. Perhaps moose replica pancakes for breakfast?

Small Islands can be home to moose too

At last we approach our anchorage for the evening, and drop a prawn trap, baited with Friskies Salmon Dinner cat food, in the deepest hole we can find, 158 feet. Big John Bay is a large, flat and shallow anchorage just off the east side of the Strait. It is filled with crab pots, maybe as many as 200 or so. We slowly run the slalom course, dodging traps to the head of the Bay, and drop anchor in 18 feet. With so many traps, how can a single crab elude capture? We drop two traps, baited with chicken legs, just off our stern. We'll let the traps soak overnight.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, various commerical crab boats haul, bait, and reset their traps. They even boat some big crabs, and return the undersized crabs and the females. (Girls are always being favored.) Perhaps there is hope for us and crabs yet? At least let us capture the small ones and the females, cast off the commercial crab boats. We won't know until morning.

St Jo, a commercial crabber, hauls a crab-filled trap.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

#24 - Prince of Wales Island: Dry Pass Anchorage to Hole-in-the-Wall #2

Our anchorage today is another Hole-in-the-Wall, which we call #2 for clarification. #2 has a shallow entrance so we need to arrive near high slack tide. But also we need enough water depth to exit Dry Pass and El Capitan Passage without touching bottom, a small dilemma solved by compromise. At 10:30AM the rising tide will be +4 feet, just enough to exit, and still rising in case we ground the boat.

El Capitan Passage: Dry Pass to Shakan Strait

After traps and anchor are pulled, we slowly enter the shallow western exit channel from Dry Pass, concentrating to keep center channel with red markers on our right side. “Securite Securite Securite, this is the 60-foot motor vessel Wild Blue westbound exiting Dry Pass for El Capitan Entrance”. This message is hailed over the VHF radio to alert oncoming traffic. We listen for a response, and receive a call back from Yachette, but he is further east, behind us. As no other call is received, we continue. The chart notes “6 FEET APR 2005” which is scary until you realize the tide is now +5 feet and rising. The rising tide brings with it the tidal current, which works against our forward progress. We 're doing turns for 6 knots, but the GPS says says we're making just 3.5 across the bottom. It's slow going.

Dry Pass Western Exit: “Red Right Returning” applies here, even though we are not.

Our Forward Looking Sonar: This device helps keep the boat in center channel

The relatively low tide exposes a small beach along the sides of the channel, making it skinnier looking. There is only room for one-way traffic, no passing, or U-turning. This is where a Securite call on the VHF Radio quite useful. We always send a Securite call in these situations, but some don't. Later we heard radio traffic between Coastal Messenger and Yachette as both met somewhere, mid-channel. One had to stop, reverse engine, and back out, which could have been avoided if either had made a Securite call prior to entering the channel.

We're almost free of El Capitan Passage, the western entrance/exit is just beyond the small island in the middle of the picture.

We reach Shakan Strait and heat it up to 9 knots. We need to make Hole-in-the-Wall #2 while the tide is still rising. When Wild Blue motors at 9 knots, it generates a huge wake, rolling anything as it passes. Birds, seals, logs and kelp all get rustled by our wake. As we approach and pass a sleeping sea otter, he continues snoring and dreaming and is undisturbed by our wake.

Sea Otter sleeps his way through Wild Blue's wake

We eventually arrived at Hole-in-the-Wall #2 on Prince of Wales Island's northwest shore. The entrance is narrow, shallow, has three well-marked rocks, and is about ½ mile long. The tide was high so the depth was suffient and we easily made it through the narrows to a wonderful bay. We set a trap just outside the entrance and one near a freshwater creek, each baited with fresh chicken legs, in hopes of interesting a few crabs.

Entrance to Hole-in-the-Wall #2: Note rock just left of bow.

Inside the bay is round like a bowl

Later in the day, we take a dinghy tour and land onshore. The Wild Blue exploration team, including a biologist and a forestry expert, hike the shoreline and coastal forest. Bones from recent deer kills and bear tracks are discovered and the flora is examined. The team deems the area healthy wilderness, without need of intervention.

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

Friday, June 19, 2009

#22 - Prince of Wales Island: Craig to Sarkar Cove in El Capitan Passage

Today we left Craig at noon to get the tidal current behind us as we entered El Capitan Passage's southern entrance. We want the tide to be rising, so just in case we hit bottom, (softly that is) we can just sit tight while the tide lifts us off, and we continue on our merry way. Don't laugh. It happens.

Our Route to from Craig to Sarkar Cove

It been raining lightly but the seas are quite flat in these protected islands on the west side of POW Island Just prior to our departure, we saw two 70 foot yachts leave going our way: Yachette and Shearwater. We followed them northbound and later they evaporated into one of the numerous anchorages in the area. They will surface later. We continued into El Capitan Passage noticing hundreds of sea otters at Tonowek Narrows. Our navigation was good and not once did we touch bottom. At around 5PM we turned northeast from El Capitan Island, set our prawn trap just outside, motored into Sarkar Cove for the night.

There was a small trawler already at anchor in the Cove and we set ours nearby. Bait fish were jumping on the surface and as soon as our crab traps were down, the fishing poles were baited and dropped. Even with all the bait fish jumping, we didn't get a bite and reeled in at 9PM. Hopefully our shell fish traps will produce. The morning will tell.

Sarkar Cove, and Sarkar Lake that feeds it, have an abundance of salmon. Early the next morning we noticed three fisherman in waders fishing where the lake enters the ocean, the freshwater-saltwater zone. The surface was busy with bait fish and occasionally a larger fish would attempt to fly, becoming completely airborne. But the fisherman in waders, as hard as they might try, were not landing any salmon.

River from Sarkar Lake enters the Cove filled with fish.

Then, out of the blue, a small skiff with four persons on board comes motoring up the Cove directly in front of the wading fisherman. In just a few minutes the boat crew deploys a large fishing net by hand. Within 10 minutes the net is being pulled next to the skiff with hundreds of large salmon. The contrast is remarkable: 3 fisherman in waders fishing for sport, casting back and forth for an hour without fish; 4 fisherman throwing and filling a net, and landing hundreds within 20 minutes! The net fisherman were obviously playing by a different set of rules, most likely native people's rules.

Native Peoples gather hundreds of Salmon in Minutes

In this cove fishing paradise, we dreamed of traps filled with large, male crabs and fat prawns. We found out otherwise, as our pots yielded nothing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

#21 - Prince of Wales Island: Hole-in-the-Wall to Craig, AK.

We slept late. It was a short 2-hour motor to Craig, Alaska, and no need to leave our calm anchorage too early. Finally around 11AM we reluctantly exited paradise and rode the current up to Craig, a small Alaskan fishing town.

Our Route to Craig

Both commercial and sports fishing dominate the economy here. The area surrounding Craig contain numerous sports fishing “lodges”. The lodges consist a number of small well-equipped boats, fishing guides, food and beverage service, and sleeping accommodations. People travel from the far corners of the world to experience great Alaskan fishing offered around Craig. Monster halibut and giant salmon attract them, and superior lodging amenities keep them coming back.

About an hour before arriving, we called the Harbormaster who assigned us the same moorage location as last year, right next to Baron Hilton's yacht Silverado. Maybe they read our Blog about the dock party we had for Paris (Hilton) last year? Who knows. Anyway, we tied up next to Silverado which was being detail-prepped for important visitors.

The 120-foot Silverado is Baron Hilton's private yacht.

We cleaned up a little better than usual, then headed for dinner at Shelter Cove fishing lodge. We never tire of the wonderful fresh Alaskan seafood, and the lodge chef knows his fish. After a great dinner the checf came around to chat us up, and we learned how the soft economic times has impacted the fish lodging industry. A few lodges have shutdown for lack of bookings. This coincides with our seeing fewer cruising boats this year, compared to last.

This eagle is patiently waiting for a fisherman to finish cleaning his fish, and toss the carcass overboard, so he can enjoy his dinner.