July 11, 2005

We have been the very fortunate benefactors, on this trip, for receiving our very few days of nice weather in some of its most scenic locales. Today dramatically underscored that trend. After several rainy days we had a fair weather forecast and, while it wasn’t a blue sky-hot sun type of day, the rains did leave us, and the clouds thinned enough to give us occasional glimpses of blue sky and sunshine. It was more than enough to highlight the many stunning beauties of Tracy Arm.

We weighed anchor around 8:30 am, shortly after Burnt Sand left the anchorage, and also shortly after a very large cruise ship entered the arm. We listened as the cruise ship talked to Burnt Sand on the radio, coordinating their passing of her. They both disappeared around the big bend corner, 5 miles to the north, as we made our turn up the arm. Clouds created dramatic and whimsical forms across the slopes, giving tantalizing glimpses of the ice bound summits. As we made the big bend turn, the clouds lifted even more, but while the sky was improving, conditions on the water were deteriorating. We began encountering an ever increasing frequency of ice bergs of all shapes and sizes. In the early stages of our passage they were easily avoided without having to slow the boat. This gave us good opportunities to enjoy the unfolding scenery, with soaring rock faces, huge domes, bowls and valleys on a gigantic scale, and everywhere waterfalls – water cascading down from the heights – gushing torrents as well as delicate, thin traces.

The arm extends back into the mountains about 22 miles, and makes a sharp bend every couple of miles once you’re past the big bend. On our way in we had a down valley breeze and a flood tide. These conditions combined to do strange and difficult things with the bergs at every one of the points in the arm. Swirling wind and current would concentrate the bergs at the points, making progress up the arm toward the glacial source very difficult. Often we would slow to idle speed, with frequent shifts into neutral, with speed down to 1 knot in a neutral glide, with just enough way for steerage, with center board and both rudders down. We passed Burnt Sand as she headed out, and I called her on the radio. Jim said he’d made it to within 6 miles of the glacier before turning back. He scraped some ice, but thought a boat like ours could go further.

Each point drew us further on, with relatively good water after clearing the points. As we neared the last bend, we were confronted with a continuous line of ice, probably caused by a current line. We could see clear water beyond this line and decided to nose our way through. I picked a spot where the bergie bits were smallest and pushed the bow into them while in neutral, with very little way. They gently slid aside and we crossed through them. A little further, the bergs were flowing at right angles to our direction of travel. I had to anticipate an opening upstream from our course line and push into it.

As we neared the final turn, we spotted Rain Shadow rounding a bend behind us and working her way into the ice maze. As we proceeded, we were amply rewarded with a stunning view of the South Sawyer Glacier, 5 miles to the south. It is so massive that it only looked a mile or so distant. We were able to see the face of the glacier where it meets the see. Our immediate goal was the North Sawyer Glacier, which was teasingly tucked around the bend of a rocky canyon, with a dense collection of bergie bits standing guard. We weaved our way into the maze, picking a path toward the glacier. We felt a gentle but compelling swell from some unseen icefall into the water. Slowly, North Sawyer began to reveal itself. We finally stopped near the edge of the ice berg field, with a full view of the glacier’s face. I climbed into the dinghy to get pictures of Chinook from the water. Sandy shut the motor off, and the sounds of waterfalls dominated. Periodically, sharp booms, like cannon fire, rocked the canyon, reminding us that this glacier was very active. I rowed closer in the dinghy to gain a better view and while doing so spotted a mountain goat who had come down to water’s edge. He quickly scrambled up the slopes to safer ground. I rowed back to the boat, and as I drew near, Sandy said “Oh look”. I turned to see a huge section of ice crash into the water. I quickly tied the dinghy up and climbed aboard, prepared to fend off bergs jostling about in the coming swell.

Our friends on Rainshadow had stopped a hundred yards short of our final position, and as a big cruise ship punched her way past us both toward the glacier, I maneuvered back to Rainshadow. We rafted up and swapped stories of the day. I fixed up bloody marys and we toasted the North Sawyer Glacier. It was a wonderful impromptu party, floating freely among the bergs. When time came to depart, they offered to lead the way, and we fell in behind. Amazingly, the passage out was quite easy, no doubt due to a down canyon breeze for most of the day, plus an ebb tide while we made our exit. Sandy fixed chili on the way out, since it was about 6 pm when we finally headed out. We ate on the run, and it was a most welcome meal. I spotted a black bear on the hillside above us, and we once again enjoyed the marvelous shaps of the bergs and the spectacular waterfalls as we worked our way down the arm. We set anchor again in Tracy Arm Cove around 9:30 pm. It had taken us 6 hours to get up, and 4 hours to return. A most memorable day.

Distance for the day: 45 nm; total for the trip: 1197 nm

Water temperature near the head of Tracy Inlet: 35.4 degrees

July 12, 2005

After the long, eventful day yesterday, neither Sandy nor I were too eager to get up this morning. We slept in till 8:30 am, a record for the trip. We made a disk of photos picturing Rainshadow maneuvering throught the ice, and I rowed it over to give to them before we left. Dot and Brian were very appreciative.

We finally got underway just before noon, and decided to head north. I did have a brief concern when I tried starting the motor. The battery acted like it was low, and it was. She started, but with little room to spare. I sure would like to know why that battery was low.

It was calm at first, and with thin overcast. I couldn’t spot any whales in the area. We motored up Stephens Passage, eventually picking up enough wind to do a little motor sailing. Ahead, the overcast thickened. What looked like rain squalls ended up being a thick fog. We stayed close to the shoreline and followed the GPS. As we emerged from the fog, we started seeing numerous gill netters out setting and retrieving their gear. I kept the binoculars handy, watching where their floats and nets were located. If you’re not careful, you can run right into a gill net set, which would be a major disaster, both for the fisherman and for us. I figured I was doing a good job when I heard a call on the radio: “Sailboat off the mouth of Limestone Inlet, turn hard starbard now! You’re headed right for my gear.” I swung quickly to starbard and grabbed the radio to answer and ask where the gear was and how I could avoid it. He kept telling me to turn to starbard. I was practically on shore, and couldn’t see any fishing floats or bouys anywhere. Finally, another sailboat captain, from a boat behind us and further out, whom I hadn’t seen, radioed that he had the gear spotted and would be turning. The fisherman was talking to the wrong sailboat. I was glad I hadn’t been the offending party.

From there it was a short distance to Taku Harbor, our destination for the day. It’s a pretty little harbor, with two new state floats, which provided a handy place to tie up. A power boat captain across the float from us gave me a couple hunks of salmon for crab bait and told me where to try, but cautioned that the commercial crabbers had pretty well cleaned the area out. I put the motor on the dinghy and set the trap out anyway. On my way back in, I noticed a sailboat entering the harbor (not the one who tangled with the fisherman). As the boat made its turn toward our float, I realized it was Rainshadow. They tied up at the float and we had a nice visit. They had us over for drinks and we got better acquainted. We made plans to meet somewhere in Glacier Bay and watch a movie together. Wouldn’t that be great.

A late dinner is on the stove. Afterwards, if it isn’t raining, I may have enough gumption to go out and check the crab trap and look for bears on the shore. Tomorrow it’s on to Juneau, a major destination for our cruise.

Distance for the day: 25 nm; total for the trip: 1222 nm

Sunset officially 10:50 pm. We’re at 58 degrees north latitude. Only one degree north left to go.

PS: Checked the trap – just one undersized dungeness. I guess the commercial crabbers have cleaned this place out. Did see a nice black bear out on the grassy meadow.

July 13, 2005

Awakened in the wee hours to the sounds of gill netters warming up their diesels and heading out of the harbor for one more day of fishing. We got up around 7 am and, after breakfast, went out in the dinghy to retrieve the crab pot and explore the abandoned and deteriorated cannery on shore. The trap only held 3 female dungeness. The cannery buildings are in a fascinating state of decay, with collapsed wooden structures on the edge of the woods, rusting machinery on old pilings, old boat hulks on the tidal flats, and trash strewn about in the brush. Some of the structures have been salvaged as cabins by the locals. The floats here are connected to new concrete pilings which rise 40 feet into the air, testamony to the extreme tidal range in these waters.

We were the last boat to leave Taku Harbor, around 10:30 am. Juneau was just over 20 miles away, so we were in no hurry. Another overcast day, but at least it wasn’t raining. We motored out into Stephens Passage, and found a nice 15 knot breeze out of the southwest, just perfect for sailing. I raised both main and jib, and we ran nicely at round 5 knots. I wanted to work across to the west side of Stephens, however, a huge Princess Lines cruise ship was coming up on our stern, so we held to the east shore until she had passed. We then angled across, just ahead of the Alaska State Ferry, also northbound up Stephens Passage. On the west side the wind strengthened, and I had to keep moving the jib from one side to another, to keep it filled and avoid backwinding from the main. Our speed max’d out at 6.4 knots, which is as fast as this little boat has ever sailed. Downwind sailing sure keeps you on your toes.

As we approached the entrance to Gastineau Channel the wind began to drop, and so I lowered sails and we proceeded on to Juneau under power. We had a little difficulty locating the fuel dock (the fuel dock described in Charlie’s Charts was removed this spring, and the one we ended up using was on the opposite side of the channel. We got a slip assignment from the harbormaster, but getting into it was a real challenge. The fairways in the marina are really tight, and the slips small and narrow. Then there was that 12 knot breeze. MacGregors maneuver in windy marinas about like a dry leaf on a windy pond. I managed to get her tucked in, with more than a little bit of luck. I walked up to the harbormaster’s office to register, and was frustrated to learn that no shore power was available where they had assigned us. We could have power on the other side. Last thing I wanted to do was change slips, but change we did, with a friendly local gill netter lending a helpful hand with the bow line.

We walked up into town, to pick up some steaks and fixings for dinner. Nice barbque back at the slip, followed by phone calls to both boys. Things sound fine with their families, and it was really fun talking with grandson Cameron, telling him about cruising our boat among the icebergs. It’s spitting rain outside, and the wind is gusty. Perfect night to be tied up in a marina, with unlimited electrical power, and the stove heater making things as warm as we wish. We will be hanging out here in Juneau for several days, and possibly taking the ferry up to Skagway for some touristy sightseeing.

Distance for the day: 21 nm; total for the trip: 1243

4 mpg since Petersburg, which was excellent – only 22 gallons to go 167 miles – we had 17 gallons of gas on board after arriving here.

July 14, 2005

Layover day in Juneau. Was strange going to sleep last night with sounds of highway traffic and jet airplanes in the air. We’ve grown accustomed to the croak of ravens and the chittering of eagles. It rained most of the night, but eased off in the morning. We set out to explore Juneau on foot. First stop was the State Museum, which houses a fine collection of cultural and natural history exhibits. By the time we exited it was getting on toward lunch, and we headed toward the historical downtown district, which adjoins the cruise ship docks, with their hordes of tourists. The historical district is quite attractive and interesting, apparently the only southeast downtown that never burned to the ground. Thus, many of the buildings date to the turn of the 20th century. The cruise ships tied up at their massive mooring docks at the foot of the downtown area seem grossly incongruous, like massive ultra modern elongated high rises, which completely wall off any view of the water. There is more variety in the shops than in Ketchikan, but still a high percentage of jewelry shops. By the time they leave Juneau, these cruise ship passengers must be simply bedecked with jewelry, in order to adequately support all the jewelry shops which dominate every cruise ship port of call.

We decided to lunch at the Twisted Fish, a restaurant adjoining the cruise ship dock. It turned out to be a big mistake. The announced 20 minute wait turned into 30, followed by riciculuously slow service. It took over 2 hours for a simple lunch. We finally got out of there, and wandered back through the downtown area. Sandy checked out some shops while I worked on reservations to take the fast ferry up to Skagway on Saturday. We want to visit there, but don’t want to run our boat all the way up Lynn Canal and back. It’s a long cruise, and on big water with a nasty reputation for roughness. It was a challenge, but I finally got the threads to all fit. We will take an early morning fast ferry to Haines on Saturday, check in to a bed and breakfast there, and on Sunday morning take an early ferry over to Skagway. We’ll ride the excursion train up to White Pass and back in the morning, and then catch the fast ferry back to Juneau in the afternoon. It will be more of a whirlwind trip than I prefer, but it is the best we can manage.

I stopped at the Coast Guard Station to try and get info on crossing the Mendenhall Bar, which is a shallow water shortcut to Auke Bay marina, where we catch the ferry to Haines. They really discouraged us trying, because of the risk of running aground. I’ve gotten mixed stories from the locals I’ve talked to, so guess we’ll take the long way around Douglas Island. It will add about 15 miles to the trip, but if water conditions will allow, I’ll run at high speed and get there in about the same amount of time.

Dinner more than made up for the frustrating lunch. We ate at a Mexican restaurant in the downtown district. Not a single Hispanic on the staff that we could see, but the food was excellent, and the service was great. From there, back to the boat, for popcorn and a movie on the laptop.

July 15, 2005

Rained steadily all night, but stopped by the time we got up. And then a funny thing happened. The clouds thinned out, the sun started burning through, and we began to enjoy our sunniest day since Ketchikan. Hurray! I walked up town and got some stove fuel. Our friend with the gill netter, Oracle, Dave Grim, stopped by with a jar of freshly canned sockeye salmon. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know him.

We headed for the post office around 11 am, to post some cd’s with pictures and notes, and to mail back some of the books we’ve already read, along with some souveniers picked up along the way. We can use the extra storage space. After that we grabbed sandwiches at the IGA deli and hoofed it down to the tram terminal. We wanted to take advantage of the lovely weather by exploring the upper slopes of Mt. Roberts. The tram provides a dramatic view of Juneau, Gastineau Inlet, and the surrounding mountains. We had our lunch at a platform next to the tram landing, and then took off up the trail. It is a very well constructed trail, which gets lots of use. We hiked about 2 miles up the mountain, and enjoyed wonderful views of the surrounding area. Lots of wildflowers, as well as a deer and several marmots along the way. After that, we made one more stop at the grocery and then returned to the boat. A guy was selling very large dungeness crab down on the dock and I couldn’t resist. $5 per crab, so I bought two.

We had to make the run over to Auke Bay, in order to catch the ferry tomorrow to Haines. Choices were to run the Mendenhall Bar or go the long way around Douglas Island. I decided not to chance the shallow, twisty bar and went around. We ran at full throttle, making between 9 and 11 knots with the dinghy trailing behind. The scenery was stunning, with almost cloudless skies and a brilliant late afternoon sun. As we made the final turn around Douglas Island and began pointing toward Auke Bay, we were treated with a spectacular view of the Mendenhall Glacier and adjoining peaks. As we neared the marina I began worrying about whether we would be able to find a slip. The harbormaster goes off duty at 5 pm, so we were on our own in finding a place to tie up. We went down the first inlet of slips, and they were jammed full. We went around to the next row, and were nearly to the end before we found a spot. It just happened to be right across from our friends Dot and Brian on Rainshadow. It was fun seeing them again. We’re looking forward to running into them in Glacier Bay in a few days.

We walked up to the harbormaster’s office, to see about getting out to the ferry landing. Only option is a taxi, so I called and scheduled one for 6 am. Short night, since it is now midnight.

Distance for the day: 32 nm; total for the trip: 1275 nm

July 16, 2005

Rose at 5 am, and ready to catch our cab in front of the harbormaster’s office at 6. Cab was there and waiting. Beautiful sunny day, perfect for a ferry trip up Lynn Canal. The passenger load for the trip was light, and we had no problem getting front row seats, and what a view we had. Three valley glaciers pouring out of the Juneau Icefield, numerous hanging glaciers and waterfalls, even a couple of humpback whales. The Forest Service interpreter accompanying the boat was most informative, and provided excellent information on the features and scenery as we passed by. The ferry was the Fairweather, one of the Alaska Marine Highway’s new class of high speed ferries. She cruises at 35 knots, which cuts the length of the trip from Juneau to Haines down to a couple of hours. Quite a contrast to our usual 6 knots.

We arrived at the Haines ferry terminal on time, and were met by Jane Hall, owner of the B & B we were staying at. She held a sign with our name on it, and we easily spotted her as we disembarked. She is a delightful lady, and she put us at ease right away. Her inn is newly constructed, with a lovely view of the canal, and the rooms are beautifully appointed, and very comfortable. After we settled in, she took us out for a sightseeing tour of Haines and the nearby vicinity. She dropped us off in town, with plans to pick us up again at 3 pm. We wandered around, taking in the town museum and the bald eagle center, which has a great collection of mounted wildlife specimens in diorama settings. Very well done. The local museum volunteers were putting on a luncheon fund raiser on the lawn outside the museum, so that’s where we ate. For $10 a plate we had a choice of fresh dungeness crab or barbqued sockeye, also very fresh. Extremely generous portions, and great potluck salads and side dishes to go along. Our hostess at the inn offered to prepare dinner, so after getting picked up we were treated to a true home cooked dinner. She fixed barbqued spare ribs, and they were outstanding. Afterwards, she took us on a drive out to the state park in search of bears. No luck, but it was a very scenic drive. We felt very well cared for by Jane at her inn, and would highly recommend a stay at the Inn on the Beach in Haines.

July 17, 2005

Another early start, with a busy day ahead. Jane had breakfast waiting for us at 6 am, and by 6:45 we were on our way down to the Haines boat harbor, for our fast ferry commute around to Skagway. We said our goodbyes and boarded the boat. Very windy out, with big swells and whitecaps. Small group of passengers. The trip to Skagway only takes a half hour, and the early morning run got us there in plenty of time for our 8:15 ride on the White Pass train. This train ride should be a highlight of anyone visiting Southeast Alaska. The railroad was constructed in 1899, during the height of the Klondike gold rush, and is today classed as one of the outstanding engineering feats of modern time. The train we rode was pulled by a1950 vintage diesel locomotive, but they do run a longer trip powered by a steam locomotive. The cars are copies of old parlor cars. The views from the train are dramatic, with glaciers above and deep gorges and rushing rivers below. You pass by the Skagway cemetery where infamous Soapy Smith is buried, and can see in places the thread of the old White Pass trail, where stampeders trudged up to White Pass. We spotted a mountain goat across the canyon on the way up, and on the way down were treated with a rare view of 4 wolves, standing on a large boulder, about 300 yards away. We were really glad we were able to take this train trip.

Back in Skagway, we had time to play tourist for a couple of hours. We had lunch at the Red Onion Saloon, which was a historic bar and brothel. The waitresses are all dressed appropriately as “working girls”, and they offer 15 minutes upstairs for $5, same price as during the gold rush. However, their services stop at providing a tour of the brothel upstairs. Lots of fun, including a honky tonk style piano, with a skilled player pounding away on the keys. After lunch, we wandered the streets, taking in the city museum, located in part of the city hall building, a huge granite block structure which has undergone a recent renovation. Very nicely done. We also went through a couple of National Park Service buildings, with nice exhibits and a good film. By the end of the film it was time to board the Fairweather for the return run down Lynn Canal. Not as beautiful as the day we came up, but still a beautiful trip. Spotted another two whales on the way back.

At the terminal we were met by Ron and Sue Marvin, friends who used to live in Leavenworth, but now reside in Juneau. They both work for the Forest Service, and I had been able to locate their phone number while in Haines. I had worked closely with Ron on an interpretive trail project back when I was with the City. He was excited about getting together, so after meeting us at the terminal, we went out to dinner. It was a great time to renew friendships. They brought us back to the marina following dinner. Ron has offered to take some time off work tomorrow and take us up to the Mendenhall Glacier. That should be a lot of fun, particularly since he is in charge of the visitor center there. We should get a very special tour.

July 18, 2005

Another gray morning, with rain last night, but the drops had stopped by the time we rose. We met up with Ron at the harbormaster’s office at 8 am for our personal guided tour of the Mendenhall Glacier. We first toured the visitor center, a very attractive building which Ron said was the first such center built by the forest service specifically for interpretive purposes. The building dates back to the fifties, and is still in fine shape and well suited to its purpose. It sits on ground which was covered by the glacier as recently as the 1930’s. The Mendenhall has been receding at a rate of 90 feet per year in recent years, but last year, with extremely high temperatures most of the summer, it retreated over 600 feet. It’s still a majestic mass of ice, but one gets the sense that the current increasing rate of melt will radically alter the scene here before very long.

Ron then drove us out to Gold Creek and the site of the first gold strike in Juneau. There is a mining museum there, located inside one of the few remaining buildings from the underground mining complex. Inside the building is a huge air compressor unit, which was driven by a massive electric motor, powered back in the mining days by a hydro plant at the mine. It was reputed to be the world’s largest air compressor when first installed.

Ron dropped us off at the marina around noon. We said goodbyes and thanked him for his generous hospitality. The balance of the day was devoted to chores in preparation for tomorrow’s departure. Sandy did laundry while I tended to boat needs. I called the National Park Service to confirm our arrival at Glacier Bay in a couple of days. They asked if we wanted to begin our visit a day earlier than scheduled, which works very well for us. I agreed to the change, and so tomorrow we will cruise about 18 miles to Swanson Harbor. This will position us well for the cruise in to Glacier Bay on Wednesday. This change will allow us to enter on the same day as Rainshadow, which will make rendezvous much easier.

For dinner I cracked and picked the two crabs we had bought off the crab boat in Juneau a few days earlier. They made for a fine meal, with enough leftovers for a crab quiche tomorrow night. Sandy had a nice visit with Brenna, who had done the interpretive work on board Fairweather on the way to Haines. She lives aboard her sailboat which happens to be moored across the dock from us. She’s a very nice lady who has lived an interesting life. She’s a geologist who has done geologic mapping all over the western states plus Alaska.

July 19, 2005

Up at 6 am for a planned 7 am start, which slipped to 7:45 with last minute chores. First stop – the fuel dock to fill tanks following our high speed run around Douglas Island the other day. 14.1 gallons to go 32 miles, only 2.3 mpg, worst mileage of the trip. Not surprising though, for a full throttle run while trailing the dinghy. Could only turn 4500 rpm with that load.

Sun was showing signs of breaking through as we left Auke Bay. We were treated to a wildlife spectacular throughout the morning. The dog salmon were doing their peculiar porpoising jumps, flopped onto their sides, sometimes 5 and 6 jumps in a row as we crossed Fritz Cove. As we ran past Barlow Island I spotted some whale spouts in the distance, a pair of humpbacks. A little closer to Retreat Point, more spouts, this time a cow and calf orca, the first orcas we’ve seen on the trip. A big excursion boat was jockeying for viewing position, so we enjoyed a couple of looks as we idled along. Another humpback spouted ahead of us and I slowed as we approached the area where the whale was heading. We were startled to see it surface 50 yards off our port beam. Too quick for a picture, but a wonderous sight.

After rounding Retreat Point we entered the main part of Lynn Canal, whose surface was nearly like glass. Mostly sunny, and the sunlight was illuminating the big valley glaciers of the Juneau Icefield, many miles behind us. Pink salmon were leaping out of the water all around us, sometimes jumping 4 and 5 feet out of the water. A couple of boats were trolling along the shoreline, so I got out the downrigger and did the same. While putting along at 2 knots I saw numerous spouts in the distance. We idled along, and the spouts kept getting closer. At least 8 whales in this group. They swam right past us, arching to the surface and audibly spouting. After 3 or 4 blows they would dive, with flukes lifting out of the water and then sliding below the surface. I shot slides and Sandy recorded them with video clips. She got some great movies. After they passed us, they displayed two feeding patterns, with their huge heads rising out of the water.

Fishing was a bust, so after a brief attempt at sailing we motored up and headed for our evening tie up. Destination was Swanson Harbor, a sheltered anchorage which also features a public float. The recommended approach is from the south, around the far end of a 2 mile long island. However, there is a shallow draft short cut on the north end. We were arriving an hour after high tide, a result of our poking along fishing, sailing, and whale watching, but it looked like we should be ok. With Sandy standing lookout on the bow, we approached the narrow, rock studded bar which guards the northern entrance to Swanson Harbor. The passage shoaled to 6 feet, and we started seeing large submerged boulders. I slowed to idle speed and tipped the outboard up as much as possible. We were clearing the boulders by only a few feet at best. The tense part extended for 50 yards or so, and then the bottom started dropping off. Big relief to safely get through this skinny passage and securely tie up to the float.

The bay is a lovely, sheltered place, with sloping, cobble beaches backed by a narrow band of tall grasses. Thimbleberry thickets extend from the grasses to the start of the evergreen forest. We have a panaramic view of the Juneau icefield peaks. We walked the beach for a mile or so, admiring the beach rocks, which are colored and banded in patterns unfamiliar to us. While we were out walking, a fishing boat came in and tied up near us. The boat is the Stonehorse out of Guemes and operated by a husband/wife team. We got our lawn chairs out and had a nice visit with them, learning a good bit about long line halibut fishing. Several other boats pulled into the bay in the evening, some tieing up to the float and some anchoring out. Before turning in, I attached our little orca wind sock to the burgee halliard, announcing to all who care that we finally spotted some orcas.

We will try for a fairly early start in the morning, in hopes of calm conditions for our run to Glacier Bay.

Distance for the day: 26 nm; total for the trip: 1301 nm.

July 20, 2005

What a great day to be alive. Clear skies and sunshine greated me when I slid open the cockpit hatch at 6 am. I’d intended on being underway by then, but the sleep was too good. I wasn’t the only one. The two halibut longliners were still at the dock. One guy fired up his diesel and said “Time to go to work”. The other captain replied “I should have been out there 3 hours ago”. Within 15 minutes both boats were on their way out, followed by the big power cruiser who had also tied up to our float. We were off in 20, headed down the channel, around Sharp Ledge (aptly named) and out into Icy Strait. It was a little rough at first, but soon settled down to a smooth sea. I kept watch for whales, since the humpbacks are very attracted to this area, and after seeing several groups of fishing boats, I put a line down, for some shallow trolling. We had intended on taking the inside route, through Icy Passage, but with the water so calm, we went outside Pleasant Island and headed straight toward Gustavus Point and the entrance to Glacier Bay.

As we passed the northwest end of Pleasant Island, a huge white splash at great distance caught my eye. It must be a humpback breaching. I kept watch on the spot and soon another breach. This time I saw the whale itself. I scanned the area with binoculars and got a great look at a breach with 7.5 power magnification. The whales were playing just north of the entrance to Glacier Bay, so we speed up to 7 knots and worked our way closer. They kept breaching as we approached. We never got close enough to try photographing the action, but were entertained by more than a dozen spectacular breaches, several with the whales lauching themselves completely in the air. At a distance, it almost looked like they were leaping in slow motion, it took so long for their enormous bodies to rise from the water and then fall back again.

Nearing Gustavus Point, Sandy eyed a little round shape bobbing in the water, off the port bow. She thought it might be a sea otter, and binoculars confirmed her suspicions. He was bobbing near a small patch of seaweed, poking head and shoulders out of the water, watching us. We passed another who was floating on his back, swimming lazily backwards, propelled by hind feet and tail. We were passing over the 70 foot bar off Gustavus Point, and we could see several dozen otters in the immediate vicinity.

By the time we reached the entrance to Glacier Bay the action had ceased. I radioed the park headquarters and announced our intention of entering the bay, as our permit had instructed. We were advised that we were in whale waters (as if we didn’t already know), we must keep speed under 13 knots (no problem there), stay in the center of the channel and come in to Bartlett Cove to sign in and receive orientation. We followed instructions and at 1:30 pm tied up to the temporary moorage at Bartlett Cove.

After viewing the orientation film and receiving information on park rules and recommendations, we walked over to the lodge, where the information center is located. We enjoyed the visits, particularly the mounted animal and plant specimens, then took the mile long forest loop walk through the rainforest. The full sun filtered down through the dense canopy, and the air temperature, while perfectly comfortable, made our skin tingle, and it felt wonderful to breathe. Dense moss blankets covered the ground and draped over tree limbs. We saw a hornet’s nest, quite active, hanging from a branch about 15 feet off the trail.

After our walk we returned to the boat, filled the water tank and motored over to the fuel dock. We took on 10.4 gallons for the run from Auke Bay, a distance of 65 miles, which gave us 6.2 mpg. An afternoon breeze was blowing into Bartlett Cove, which was raising a short chop. We bounced out to the entrance to the cove, and then turned north, into Glacier Bay proper. We set a jib to steady the boat and add some speed. I could see ahead that the water was smooth to our north, so we sailed while we could, but after a couple of miles, had to furl the sail and proceed by motor alone. Our speed dropped significantly, since we were fighting an ebb current. The tidal range here in Glacier Bay can be as much as 25 feet with some tides, and the currents run strong. We will have to be careful to time our travels here to take advantage of this flow, if we are to have enough fuel to properly explore the area.

We headed toward North Finger Bay, the first suitable anchorage north of Bartlett. We stayed a mile offshore, as rules require, and could see numerous whales spouting near the shore, as we passed. The plumes were backlighted and quite distinct. Sometimes 3 or 4 spouts at a time could be seen. They looked like 4th of July fountain fireworks as they erupted from the water surface. When we reached the mouth of North Finger Bay we had to turn toward shore. The bay entrance was guarded by a pair of humpbacks, and we had no choice but to head toward them. I slowed our speed to idle and we moved in. Near the entrance, sound and shape on our port side swung attention to the back and dorsal of a humpback as he arched clear of the water surface, not more than 50 feet away. We could then appreciate the true magnitude of their size.

Once inside, we saw Rainshadow riding at anchor at the head of the bay. We anchored as far away from her as possible. While taking of chores on deck, Brian rowed over to greet us and compare notes. We will likely be following similar courses, and will be able to visit at anchor, which will be fun. Since we got in late, around 8 pm, we were really hungry, and the Dinty Moore stew and wheat bagels with honey tasted particularly good.

After dinner I went out in the dinghy with fishing rod to try and hook one of the hundreds of small salmon which were leaping all around us. While casting I heard some loud splashing off to my right. I looked over and saw that I wasn’t the only fisherman out there. A seal was tearing up the water surface as he pursued salmon, with a lot more success than I. Then I heard a loud raspy sound, which at first I took to be Sandy sliding the cockpit hatch cover open. That wasn’t the cause, and I couldn’t place the sound. I heard it a couple of times more before discovering its source. A whale had crossed the bar and entered our cove. He was slowly rising and blowing, about 300 yards away. I started rowing in his direction. The air was completely still, and the sound of his spout was remarkable. It had a hollow character, like it came from the end of a long hollow tube. And loud, with a deep, strong quality. The sound continued well after the whale slipped back under, echoing off the surrounding hills. It was totally entrancing, and I couldn’t help myself as I slowly rowed toward its source. As if sensing my presence, he gently moved off to my right, so I stopped rowing and just sat there, silently. I heard another sound, soft and gentle. A small group of harbor porpoise were cruising around me. Their breathing was in stark contrast to the deep, powerful blows of the whale. You could hear the distinct sound of their little exhalation puff, quickly followed by an inhalation. Puff – puff. I finally decided I needed to head back, and started to row. The whale circled around toward the entrance of the cove and I thought he would head out into the main bay. Instead he turned and started down the shoreline into the cove. I stopped rowing and watched ahead for the next spout. I was startled by the sound of a spout behind me. I swung around in time to see the whale descending, 100 feet away.

The smallest of creatures ended my entrancement with one of the world’s largest. No see ems were nipping me with vengeance just below my hair line. With reluctance I rowed back, periodicly letting go of the oars to swat at the pests. I climbed back on board at 11 pm. What an amazing place.

Distance for the day: 54 nm; total for the trip: 1355 nm