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North to Alaska

by Ernest and Jane Guenther

This is the second part of a description of our voyage from Bellingham, WA to Juneau, AK and return. In Part One I described our voyage from Bellingham to Nanaimo, across the Strait of Georgia, through Cordero Channel, Port Hardy and across Queen Charlotte Strait and up to 53 Deg. N. Latitude. We resume from this point.

We depart Aaltanhash Inlet on the morning of our 10th day out of Bellingham. Entering Frasier Reach we pass the deserted town of Butedale. This former fish cannery and cold storage facility is deteriorating but appears to have one resident living there. It being private property we did not explore.

Just north of Wright Sound, Hartly Bay is about 5 miles off course. They have fuel but we decide to pass and use up some of this fuel that I have been tankering. We then enter Grennville Channel. Called "the big ditch" because it is very straight, narrow (1 to 2 nm), and about 40 miles long. A little over halfway through we decide to quit for the day and throw out the hook in East Inlet. This is another beautiful cove and we have a pleasant evening.

In the morning, after our instant oatmeal breakfast, we are under way under clear blue skies. In about an hour I see this white "wall" up ahead and soon we are enveloped in dense fog. I can see only 20 feet in front of the bow. To try to find a cove would be more dangerous than pressing on, I felt. So I reset the waypoints in the GPS to move to the right side of the channel and reduced power so I could hear another vessel´s fog horn. I had a radar reflector installed on the backstay so hopefully they could see me but I could not see them (other traffic). We "flew blind" like this for 3 hours, then the fog lifted, again to clear blue skies.

Some feel that radar is necessary for a voyage like this but I disagree. Yes, it´s nice to have for seeing other vessels. GPS is better for navigating. Rocks just below the surface, flotsam and small icebergs are the real dangers and they do not show up on radar.

We now cross 54 north and proceed into Prince Rupert at 1 pm. "Rainy Rupert" it is called, but we had bright sunshine and a warm day. Our slip at the Prince Rupert Yacht Club was convenient to all facilities. We did our chores: get food, water and fuel, take a shower, do laundry, etc. We looked around town and went to the mall. At dinner (fresh Halibut) that evening we met a couple with backgrounds similar to ours. They were going to Ketchikan on the ferry and gave us their phone number.

Departing Prince Rupert, the last major town in British Columbia, we proceed through Venn Passage, which is a shortcut to Chatham Sound. It is rather complicated to get through but with the proper charts is no problem.

A word about charts. To buy all the paper charts one should have for this trip would cost about $800. To store all those charts would be next to impossible in this small boat. Also a large paper chart in the wind and rain on an open cockpit is not viable. I got the Map Tech CD´s for the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska and NDI CD´s for British Columbia (which are compatible to Map Tech software) and printed all the charts along my route. I inserted these 8 X 11 pages in plastic page protectors and put all this in four 3-ring binders. For additional information I used Marine Atlas Vol. I & II, Charlie's Charts, Northwest Boat Travel, and Waggoner´s Cruising Guide.

We motor sailed north up Chatham Sound and passed Dundas Island. Just ahead lay the Dixon Entrance. This is big water, exposed to the ocean, and can get very mean. Halfway across is the border that puts us back in the United States. We change our clocks and up ahead caught our first glimpse of Alaska. Weather conditions made it look rather dark and foreboding. With the wind and seas quartering off the stern it was difficult steering but the full Genoa gave us good speed. At days end we anchored in Moth Bay.

In the morning mist we had a short hop to Ketchikan. U.S. Customs was taken care of with a simple call on the cell phone. We tied up at the city floats and after our chores, called our newfound friends. They were visiting old friends here. With a borrowed car they toured us all over the town, including Saxman Indian Village, famous for its totem poles and Indian dancing. He was the ex-Mayor of Ketchikan and knew everyone, it seemed. After the tour, we had a few cool ones at the Moose Club on the waterfront and then dinner at the Country Club. Pretty high living compared to our previous week in "the wilderness." There were two large cruise ships in port, greatly increasing the population of this small town. The arrival and departure of the cruise ships determine the open hours of the shops.

Departing Ketchikan and still in Tongass Narrows, we passed two deer swimming across the channel. At the time Jane was on the phone talking to our grandchildren. Later we saw whales and porpoises (dolphins). These we saw almost every day. Continuing north we are now in Clarence Strait, a very large body of water. The weather was very changeable today but conditions allowed us to make 89 miles, the most for one day on this trip. We set the hook in St. Johns Harbor in two fathoms.

We slept late in the morning because we had to time the tidal currents to get through Wrangell Narrows (not to be confused with the town of Wrangell 40 miles away). This narrow, winding passage is 20 miles long and requires large scale charts. We motored through and arrived in Petersburg in early afternoon on the 4th of July.

This little fishing and logging town was celebrating so all stores and restaurants were closed. Fortunately the laundry was not. We watched the local festivities and were amazed how the locals seemed not to even notice the rain and cold. Later the logrolling contest began. The contestants were strapping young men, either fishermen or loggers, some of which had obviously spent a good bit of time in a pub. Out of about 24 contestants only one did not wind up in the water (53 deg. F). It was hilarious.

Out of Petersburg we entered Frederick Sound. To the west in the mountains are glaciers but only one, Le Conte glacier, comes down to the sea. From here on we must watch for "bergie bits" (small icebergs). They are hard to see but can cut your bottom or ruin your prop. We cross 57 North (one more degree to go) and then enter Stephens Passage, also big water. It was windy and rough and we motor sailed most of the way to Holkum Bay. We followed the range lights to get across a sand bar and were then in Tracy Arm. We anchored in an un-named cove.

In the morning we proceeded up Tracy Arm for about 20 nm to Sawyer Glacier. Here we reached our goal - icebergs and glaciers. One must proceed slowly thru the ice field to avoid damage from the bergie bits. We took pictures of the bergs and glacier and watched it calve a couple times. This is an awesome sight. We congratulated each other on reaching our goal. After looking around awhile we motored out of Tracy Arm and continued north to Taku Harbor where we tied to a government float for the night.

Wind and waves woke us at 3 am so we departed at 4 am. When we reached open water the heavy seas hit us and in 5 minutes it was obvious we did not belong here. I did a 180 turn back to Taku Harbor and set the anchor. The tidal current was in opposition to the seas so we had to wait until 9 am for the tide to change.

We departed again at 9:30 am and while the seas were still heavy, it was tolerable. Gastineau Channel led us under the bridge and then we moored in a slip in Juneau Harbor. Bellingham to Juneau in 18 days! We are at 58 degrees, 18° North Lat. and have traveled 934 nm (1074 statute miles). We felt that we deserve a break so we decide to stay a few days and play tourist. We wear our foulies as we walk to our hotel because it´s raining.

Alaska is a land of extremes and this is especially true of the weather. To cope with the weather requires mental and physical preparation. Mental preparation means forget about sunshine. Don´t hope for it: just deal with the conditions. Prepare physically by dressing for conditions. Keep putting on clothes until you are comfortable. We wore thermal underwear almost the entire trip. Deal with these conditions and one can be comfortable while viewing Mother Nature at her most powerful.

Since we could easily walk to the boat and to downtown we did not rent a car. We took a guided bus tour of the city, which included Mildenhall Glacier. A tram ride up the mountain gave us access to some good hiking trails in the mountains. It did not rain on us: we even saw the sun. In the Red Dog Saloon (don´t miss this place) we spent a couple hours listening to Phineaus Spoon on his honky tonk piano belt out some sea shantys and other bawdy ballads. It was the funniest performance I ever saw - and free. Museum, gift shops, K-Mart - we did it all. At one time there were five cruise ships in the harbor. We had a great time and also enjoyed the warm and roomy hotel room, with hot water! Three days ashore is enough, however, we don´t want to spoil the crew. Besides, I am lonely for my pickup truck about 1000 miles south of here (I hope it is still there). So, we re-provision for the trip south.

We got up very early because I wanted to catch the ebb tide out of Gastineau Channel. We walked to the boat in full foulies because, guess what - it is raining. After bidding adieu to Juneau, we head south to Hobart Bay. Along the way we saw sea lions and lots of Humpback whales. They were all heading north. Throughout the trip we had almost daily sightings of Harbor seals and porpoises. These Dall´s Porpoise look like small Orcas (killer whales).

On the trip south we took generally the same route but took more side trips and slowed the pace a bit. Seeing everything from the opposite direction was still interesting but I will condense this narrative of the return trip.

One deviation from the trip up was to visit Wrangell, which we had by-passed. This routed us through Zimovia Strait which was very scenic. Again, the secret to making good time is to enter a strait or channel at flood, be at the point where the tides meet at high slack, and then ride the ebb out. But this is easier said than done.

Further south we ran into commercial fishing boats. Running into their nets is a no-no. After cutting your prop out of the net you will find that you are financially responsible for damage to that fisherman's property. So it is best to avoid them. The trollers, long liners and crabbers are no real problem, as they do not deploy nets, just floats. The seiners put out a net in a big loop and can be identified by the skiff either hanging on the stern or drifting nearby. Usually one can see the floats marking the net. The gill-netters are the most difficult to get around. They deploy a net up to 1000 feet behind their boat and then just sit there. The net markers are hard to see especially in waves and may not be off the stern as the boat is drifting. They should be given a very wide berth until the net is spotted.

Back in British Columbia, we went through customs in Prince Rupert - again the easy way, using the cell phone. We had a pleasant visit to Lowe Inlet where we anchored in front of Verny Falls. We took the dinghy to a leftover avalanche and were exploring until we came upon some very fresh bear droppings. We made a hasty retreat to the dinghy and found another spot to explore. There we learned that it is impossible to hike in a rain forest, i.e. jungle. It is literally impassable. We had this beautiful spot all to ourselves until evening when a couple multi-million dollar yachts steam in and anchor. I did not mind until around midnight when I heard the wind pick up.

Dragging anchor and drifting into shallows or even a rock I can survive. But bumping into one of those expensive babies might cause unhappiness. So, for the first and only time on this trip, I stood anchor watch for about 3 hours.

Another night we anchored in Carter Bay beside the rusting bow of the Ohio. The Ohio hit a rock in 1909 and sunk here. I rowed the dinghy over to the wreck to listen for ghosts.

Another side trip was to the Fjordlands Recreation Area. In Kynock Inlet the sheer rock walls of the fjord rise from the sea almost straight up to the top of 3000 ft. mountains. An awesome sight made possible by clear blue skies.

From here to Vancouver City we encountered high winds and heavy seas. Three times we had to take refuge in some cove and wait it out. Crossing Queen Charlotte Strait was quite rough and again due to low clouds could see nothing. We sat in Port Hardy for an entire day waiting for the winds to subside.

We had an enjoyable and uneventful trip through Johnstone Strait, Cordero Channel and even Yaculta Rapids. I have learned a lot about tides and currents since I first passed through here.

We spent a couple very enjoyable days in Vancouver City. The weather was perfect and we played tourist. Then we went through U.S. customs at Point Roberts (by phone) and on to Bellingham and my long lost pickup truck and trailer.

The entire trip took 42 days and all nights were spent on the boat except the 3 nights in Juneau. The GPS says that we traveled 1,902 nautical miles over the bottom (2,188 statute miles). The weather was lousy, unusually so according to local folks, but we were prepared and did not let that bother us. We had no mishaps or malfunctions: everything went according to plan.

Being a novice boater, I very much enjoyed the voyage and consider it a real adventure. My First Mate enjoyed it also. Now I have to convince her to accompany me on our next adventure.

Let´s see, just 70 miles west of Key West lie the Dry Tortugas. Its warm there.....and dry....

Email: Ernest & Jane Guenther
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