Well – here we are in Alaska!! It was not our destination when we left Hawaii but plans changed en route. We felt that we were passing so close to Alaska that it would be crazy not to go there as we may not get such a chance again. Every single person we met had said that the scenery and wildlife and fishing in Alaska “defined a new fantastic” – so it seemed a shame to miss it!
The passage from Hawaii took nineteen days and went really well. It took a day or two to settle into the motion of the boat and to adjust our appetites and sleep patterns to a new normal. We had some fantastic sailing over the first four days, making good speed and covering 145-160NM each day. Distant Drummer was totally in her element. For seven days as we crossed the big fat high which lies between Hawaii and PNW we were enveloped in fog. We could see ships around us on the AIS vessel tracking system but we couldn’t see them even those less than a mile away. I felt very isolated.
In the middle of the high the wind dropped and for three days we were transported northwardsby a current through a wonderfully calm sea– it was like being on the voyage of the Dawntreader (C.S. Lewis, the bit at the end!) When the current dropped we had to put the engine on for a day or two to reach the north westerly winds on the north side of the high. As we sailed north eastwards it got colder and colder, and the piles of night-watch clothing got bigger and higher. I think the dampness of the fog made the cold even deeper and more penetrating. With a 20kt wind the boat was flying along at 7+kts but we were absolutely frozen! Porridge was on the menu and thick duvets on the bunks.
On June 24th we reached Sitka in SE Alaska and tied up at the transient dock in Eliason Harbour. As always after a passage it was wonderful to get off the boat and walk into a new town in a new country and sit down for a glass of wine and a good meal. Sitka is an interesting place. It was the centre of the Russian Empire in Alaska, due mainly to trade in the pelts of the sea otters which were, and are now once again are becoming prolific in the area. The Russians had all but wiped them out and abandoned Sitka when Alaska was sold the Americans in 1867 and now the town is dominated by a vibrant fishing industry.
A beautiful Russian Orthodox church stands in the middle of the main street and, as further testament to their history, all the islands and passes have long Russian names. In Sitka we visited a National Park where a walk through the forest followed a trail of totem poles, which had been collected from the southern part of Baranof Island by an earlier settler. I was impressed with the beautiful carvings and symbolism! I also visited the Raptor Centre where wounded birds of prey from all over the country are brought to be repaired and recuperate. There were many bald eagles and several types of owl including a snowy owl – very cute! We were lucky to have a pair of bald eagles that favoured the trees behind the marina for spying for fish – it was a great chance to get some photographs.
After ten days in Sitka it was time to get moving again. In SE Alaska there is a fractured network of islands just like a broken pane of glass, and there are passes and passages between them and hundreds of bays and coves to anchor in. It is cruising heaven but the currents can be strong and the anchorages deep. So far the anchorages we have found have been tranquil and breathtaking spots. Steep sided, fir covered slopes step back from the shore, range after range getting higher and snowier. The water is dark and clear and glassy calm, reflecting the trees and peaks. The air is crisp and fresh and the place just smells so clean!
We motored northwards from Sitka through the islands and narrows on the west of Baranof Island and entered Peril Strait from Salisbury Sound. Peril Strait is a narrow jagged fissure that separates Baranof Island from its northern sister Chichagof Island like a crack in an egg. We anchored overnight in a bay that was like a millpond, before we entered the really narrow part. Sergius Narrows is about 500m long and less than 100m wide. We went through just before high water slack and the current was still flowing strongly against us. There were standing waves and eddies, it was quite good fun but not a patch on French Pass in New Zealand!
The next night we anchored with some friends that we had crossed from Hawaii to Alaska with. We first met Sharon and Randy when we were anchored in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, right outside their house. The next time we saw them was in the marina in Sitka. We arrived about 36 hours after Uhane Kai (their boat) but we had been checking in with them every night during the passage, as they were part of our radio net. In fact two other boats from Hawaii radio net arrived the following week so we had a great Pot Luck together in Alaska!
Tenakee Springs is an old settlement on Chichagof Island founded on a hot spring. In the town (100 residents) the main road is dirt and ATVs are the vehicle of choice. The springs are housed in a concrete structure opposite the general store which is very handy as you can get your emails in while you’re in the baths! The baths were hot and smelly and very invigorating and warming – lovely! The village is lovely and we enjoyed picking the wild raspberries and blue berries as we walked along the main street.
We spent a couple of days in the wilderness heading towards snowy peaks and then celebrated my birthday in Hoonah with Janneke and Vietze, some other friends we had crossed from Hawaii with! Hoonah is a Tlingit (local native American) village on the north coast of Chichagof Island which is well known for its wood carving. The local artists had been consigned to carve the totem poles and house poles and enormous screen walls for a tribal meeting house being built in Glacier Bay. We were lucky enough to be in town just before they were packed for transportation and construction. We met the carvers and we learnt a lot about the carving methods and about the meaning of the various symbols.
Now we are in Auke Bay which is the closest anchorage to Juneau, the state capital of Alaska. This afternoon we rode the bus/bikes up to the Mendenhall Glacier which is at the head of the bay in which we are anchored. Despite the throngs of tourists (Juneau must be number one on the Alaska cruise ship itinerary) it was a good walk with a glacier and a waterfall and icebergs – not your average Sunday afternoon stroll!
As you can see we are having a great time in Alaska, each day is amazing because I am so surprised to be here! I am still getting used to wearing a layer of thermals below long pants and a light sweater, and two pairs of socks, just to keep warm inside the boat – it is a bit of a climate change from a bikini. . . . and this is summer! Even so we have had a couple of afternoons when the sun was strong enough to peel off the layers and top up the tan!
As we were coming in to Auke Bay we were lucky enough to see a mother and calf humback whale pair. They were breaching about 500m from the boat and got a lot closer before we decided it was too close and backed away! Even in Hawaii we had never been so close to whales breaching – it was beautiful and impressive and amazing. I’m very pleased with some of my photos so will finish with three of the best . . . I hope you like them.
More from the frozen north soon!