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Wintering over in Sitka

We spent much of the winter of 2016/17 travelling in the southern hemisphere, but we still had four or five months in Sitka, the old capital of Russian Alaska, before the worst storms were over and the new sailing season beckoned.

Sitka is built along a narrow strip of land at the foot of high, snow-capped mountains on Baranof Island: there is no road access and the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway are quite infrequent.  But it’s a surprisingly vibrant community of some 9000 persons, centered on its well-protected fishing harbours.  While we were travelling in warmer climes we hauled Bosun Bird out and let her stand propped up on the hard at the yard at Halibut Point, but for the rest of our stay we were virtually downtown, in the water at Thomsen Harbour. Five minutes’ walk away were the main supermarket (owned by the Alaska Commercial Company – ACC - that had been established by the legendary Russian Governor, Baranof), the liquor store and the gun shop: all you need to be a real Alaskan.

There were no less than four performing arts venues in town: a remarkable legacy from Alaska’s oil boom years.  These halls were often busy, with shows by the homegrown New Archangel dancers, a Tlingit (native) dance group, a monthly “grind” (local talent show) and occasional visiting performers, such as Moscow Nights. There was also a beautiful new public library, with views overlooking Sitka Sound and the surrounding mountains: With free internet on offer plus a wide range of books and magazines, we quickly became part of a group of library “regulars.”  This was a colourful collection of eccentrics, a few of whom clearly favoured the library as a congenial and warm place to sleep, and who would have periodically to be woken up by the timorous library staff when their snoring became disruptive. Another favored hangout was the University of Southeast Alaska, where regular talks were held on matters as diverse as edible seaweeds and the marbled murrelet, and where we sat in on the televised debates leading up to the 2016 presidential elections Although Alaska is, overall, solidly Republican, Sitka usually votes Democrat – “Don’t worry, she’s a shoo-in” our friends assured us (in reference to Hilary) just before we left on our travels.  

There were also various historical sights to be seen: the old Russian Bishop’s house on the waterfront, the Russian blockhouse (rebuilt) that withstood a siege by the Tlingits, a collection (in the woods) of totems from the region, and the beautiful onion-domed St Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral.  2017 was the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska by the United States (“Seward’s Folly”), so there were many events and talks in commemoration.  There was frank acknowledgement that, although the Russians had scarcely been kind to the true “owners” of this land (the native Tlingits), nor had successive administrations in Washington and Juneau.  We sensed a lingering but scarcely voiced bitterness; the Tlingit seemed noticeably less vocal (and organised?) than their Haida cousins just across the border in Canada.

When the weather permitted we made the most of a network of trails that climbed up and around the backdrop of peaks behind town: a 500m climb took you to the treeline and views over the Sound, and we had some heart-pumping treks before winter set in and the days shortened. As everywhere in Alaska and much of British Columbia, you need to make a noise when walking in the bush, to warn bears of your approach. Every week there were bear sightings in and around town, and it was strictly forbidden to leave tempting morsels out in your garbage.  One day the lead story in the Sitka Sentinel was of a black bear who had gone after the pizza delivery boy, presumably without offering to pay (!).

Local people were exceptionally hospitable to us and we spent many happy evenings on board, in the glow of our kerosene lantern, or at their (warm!) homes, very often discussing politics. At the risk of smugness – for by no means have we got everything right at home, including with regard to the plight of Canadian native groups – we were consoled to find on returning from our travels that a very large number of people seemed to be as horrified by the US election results as we were; but the number plates (“NRA 4ME”) and Pence/Trump bumper stickers at the harbour parking lot told another story.  It’s become a truism, but America seemed to us to be divided right down the middle, with a gulf of incomprehension between the two halves. There was also the grumbling at the vagaries of the electoral system that occurs every four years: Alaska has only one vote in the electoral college, which means that those who have, over the years, voted Democrat, have not once been taken into account in the Presidential elections (even when the Democrats won nationally).

Meanwhile, there were, of course, miscellaneous boat jobs to be done. We took advantage of the presence of the US postal service to order charts and other items in and replaced our ancient wind generator with a new (working) model. We had been vexed for some time at not having a functional wind—direction indicator (“Windex”) on top of the mast, but it was premature to think of fixing this.  It was a bald eagle that had wrecked our last Windex, by sitting on it way back in Kodiak; a quick glance around Thomsen Harbour in Sitka would on an average day reveal ten or twelve eagles sitting on similar high points (including, many days, our own mast again).



Down the outside

There are two sea approaches to Sitka: from the inner channels of Southeast Alaska via the tortuous Peril Strait and Sergius Narrows, or from the open ocean, under the shadow of the spectacular cone of Mt Edgecumbe. Most cruisers favour the inner route, for coming and going: it is virtually weather proof, and subject only to chop, even when a gale is blowing “outside”. But you can’t often sail in these channels: they are narrow, the wind goes along them (never crossways) and the currents are strong.  The “outside” is open to the fury of the Gulf of Alaska, but there is usually wind, and there are dozens of sheltered bays tucked behind the forbidding west-facing cliffs of Baranof Island. This was the route we chose to continue southwards towards Canada, as May arrived, the days lengthened and the nights no longer dipped below freezing.  

Winter had been unusually cold, even here in the “banana belt” of Alaska (on account of the Japan current, Sitka is the warmest town in Alaska): when we had returned to Bosun Bird in March there was still a meter of snow on the ground. So as we pulled away one sunny morning and motored under the suspension bridge that joins Sitka to Japonski Island, it was against a dazzling backdrop of snowy peaks, the ocean a brilliant blue, the ubiquitous humpback whales puffing steam as we passed.

As well as the relevant nautical charts, we had for reference the very detailed Exploring Southeast Alaska, by Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway-Douglass, as well as the venerable but sketchier Charlie’s Charts North to Alaska, kindly presented to us many years ago by Charles Wood’s widow Margo.  For weather information, the US Coastguard’s continuous broadcasts on the VHF were invaluable, if a little on the pessimistic side.  Since the previous season the broadcasts had been completely automated, with a computer evidently “reading” the written text; most noticeably, the frequently-repeated phrase “ocean entrances” was read as a transitive verb, rather than a geographical description of the points at which internal channels come out to the open sea!

First stop was a mere ten miles out: Samsing Cove, with interesting beaches to explore at low tide and a Forest Service cabin tucked away in the woods.  The crew had been earlier enthused by the idea of collecting edible seaweed; she tried some here but the experiment was sadly not to be repeated. 

With the sun still shining and the Fuji-like snow-capped peak of Edgecumbe dominating the scene, we then wove our way through a maze of small islands and zigged past some lurking rocks into Kluchevoi Bay, one of dozens in the region named after the first Russian explorers.  From here, a short boardwalk led to the Goddard Hot Springs, a favourite winter destination of Sitka-ites with runabouts, and long known to the native Tlingit. There are two wooden cabins with open picture windows looking out onto the ocean, each with a large stainless tub into which extremely hot water bubbles endlessly; the trick is to discover exactly how much cold you need to add so as to make the temperature tolerable. Unlike in Japan, the convention is to remain at least partly clothed in American springs: just as well that we knew this, because just as we were getting out after a two-hour soak, a clutch of energetic young male “Coasties” from the large Coastguard base in Sitka arrived, bent on a weekend’s revelling.  The springs are named after one Dr Goddard, who made his fortune in the early twentieth century at the legendary Treadwell gold mine near Juneau, and decided to develop a resort here; the ruins of the old brick hotel can still be seen half-engulfed in the woods; Prohibition apparently put paid to his plans.

From here on in, we saw nobody for weeks, just one or two fishing boats on the horizon, out at sea. We threaded Dorothy Narrows, had a brisk sail under genoa and wended our way into a perfectly-protected lake-like anchorage, named by the Douglasses after their own vessel: Baidarka (Cove). With gales still scudding up every couple of days, we waited here for the next weather window – but almost did not get away when our anchor became snagged; it took 90 minutes of maneuvering the boat in all directions, with varying tension on the line, until we suddenly broke free, none the wiser as to what had caught it.

From Baidarka it was a short run on the open ocean swells to the uninspiringly-named but tranquil Scow Bay.  Like many of these “outside” anchorages, swells and foam piled up in the entrance in an intimidating manner, but inside all was mirror still; there has been no logging on these outer shores, so there is no evidence whatsoever of human existence, the beaches pristine.  A down side of the situation is that the coastguard’s VHF transmissions fail to reach many locations here, so we found ourselves relying on our Iridium satellite phone in order to obtain the texts of the updates. By now, we were gaining a sense of the “hot spots” on the coast; the winds at Cape Spencer, where we had last season entered Southeast’s archipelago of channels, were often in the 40 to 50 knot range, as was Cape Decision, further to our south, but locations only a few miles distant from either of these promontories might be reporting calm conditions.

Via Sandy Bay, we made our way to Puffin Bay, just short of Cape Ommaney, the southernmost point of Baranof Island. Setting off to round the Cape at dawn, with a forecast of favourable winds of 20 to 25 knots, we hit exceedingly turbulent seas and tide rips off Ommaney and neighbouring Wooden Island (which is named after Isaac Wooden, an unfortunate member of George Vancouver’s crew, who drowned here after falling overboard in August 1794).  But then we reached in slowly diminishing seas, across the southern entrance to Chatham Strait, around the ominous Cape Decision, and into the sheltered waters of Affleck Channel. Capes Ommaney and Decision are featured in the aptly-named Bad Water, a colourful set of short stories by Tom Hunt; we also carried two books of true stories by Alaska fisherman Joe Upton; both books could make for depressing reading, focussing as they do on maritime mishaps and hardship.

Back inside

As the wind died in the late afternoon we had a slow but pleasant sail to the haven of Kell Bay.  This sail was marred only by an hour or so of tension when, as it occasionally does, the engine indicated that we were suffering from an oil pressure problem; this phenomenon has given us some heartache over the years and we have yet to get to the bottom of it, but these constricted, tidal waters are not a good place to be deprived of an engine.  On this occasion, as previously, the problem disappeared after a number of failed starts and some gloomy discussion as to whether it might be possible to tow Bosun Bird to a safe anchorage, using only oar-power.

Kell Bay, like so many locations on this now all-but-deserted coast, was not always so quiet.  In the dark woods behind a shingle beach, we came across a moss-encrusted painted sign reading “Kell Bay Cannery, 1902”.  And once we started to look carefully on the beach and forest floor, we found fragments of ceramic, of old bottles, bricks and, on the beach, squared-off timbers that once supported a wharf.

Canneries in these remote bays would often support a seasonal crew of fifty to a hundred, with separate Chinese, Japanese, native and white contingents each housed in their respective quarters, with their own responsibilities. The canneries began to consolidate and centralise in the post WW-2 years, just as on-board refrigeration was coming in.  Now there are very few left in Alaska, none at all in BC, such plants as still exist confining themselves to freezing and packing whole salmon, often for further processing in distant locations such as China. 

Alaska has meanwhile firmly rejected the environmentally-dubious concept of salmon farms, marketing its produce explicitly as premium “wild” salmon; in BC there have been no such scruples, indeed Atlantic salmon is now farmed in hundreds of pens in bays all the way south from Prince Rupert to Vancouver; the Atlantic variety is favoured because it reaches maturity in only one year, but with what long-term environmental consequences, we wonder? (Full disclosure: the existence of salmon farms in many nooks along the BC coast also detracts significantly from the “wilderness” experience for layabout cruisers such as ourselves…).  

More waiting in Kell Bay, as the next gale blew through. Cape Decision, which we had rounded in only a few knots of wind, was now back in the 30s and 40s; but, more encouragingly, the automated Coastguard voice was now forecasting “not so cool.”  When things calmed down, we had a good reach in drizzly weather across Sumner Strait and into the extremely narrow waters of El Capitan Passage, on the northwestern shore of Prince of Wales (PoW) island (the third largest island in the USA, after Hawaii and Kodiak). Parts of El Capitan are so narrow you almost brush the trees; two stretches have been dredged, so that you sometimes feel you are motoring along an artificial canal. In the middle of this remote country we came across a float tied to the shore and, through the binoculars, made out a sign in the characteristic colours of the US National Parks Service.  Some 500m up the hill from this dock is the entrance to El Capitan cave, discovered in the 1990s and now one of the most extensive known cave systems in the USA.

After anchorages at Dry Pass and Sarheen Cove – where a dozen or more bald eagles bleated for much of the night – we came back to relative civilisation at Sarkar Cove: here there is a luxury fishing resort; although it is on PoW’s main north-south road, it is served mainly by float plane. Here, our chart indicated that on the north shore of the cove were the ruins of Deweyville, and old logging/mining/fishing settlement; it’s all gone now, just one ramshackle shed left, and the rusting remnants of steel cables on the beach.

At the broad, open Kaguk Bay we found many signs of bears on the drying flats at its head, but nary a sighting: the hard winter meant that there were still no berries to be had, and the first salmon were still a month or two away, so it was lean pickings. At Tanowek Narrows, again guided by the chart, we had a tantalising glimpse, to our right (west) of two small grey mortuary poles and an old wooden burial box as we glided past this traditional burial site: an eerie place. Late that afternoon, with yet another southeasterly gale forecast, we scuttled for shelter deep into Nossuk Bay; for two days, Cape Decision (well behind us now) was reporting 45 knots, but we swung comfortably as the rain poured down heavily for two solid days and we caught up, on the laptop, with half a dozen episodes of Breaking Bad.

From Nossuk it was 25 miles of motoring southwards, in a glassy calm and mist. Breaking the surface in a number of places were large rafts (yes, that is the correct term…) of sea otters: it is encouraging to sea how well the once nearly-extinct sea otters are doing, but they remain comparatively rare in BC.

Next stop was Craig, a small fishing settlement, but the largest place on PoW. We inched our way along a channel in the southernmost of the two harbours to a spot at the wharf, so confined that the only way out was to manhandle the boat around by hand at high tide; the harbourmaster told us we were the first visiting yacht of the year but “sorry, there’s no prize.” Craig allowed us to splash on a meal out, at Papa’s Pizza, and the crew was able to buy a new set of the locally famous Alaskan Extra Tuf boots, having made holes in two cheaper sets over the past few weeks.

We had our usual laundromat and internet (at the library) fixes, and went for a long walk (8km each way) to the nearby fishing village of Klawock: there is a magnificent display of totem poles here, but we were disappointed not to find the only other advertised eatery in this large region of SE Alaska, Wes’s Café.   Back at Craig, the news was all of the biggest thing to happen here in years: three fishing boats had burned to the water level (fortunately for us, in the northern, not the southern harbour); the police were investigating, but the cause was thought to be a faulty inverter on one of the boats, that was allowed to overheat.   

Few yachts cruise these western waters: the vast majority prefer the “highway” of Clarence Strait, to the east.  This is partly because, if you are entering Alaska from Canada, you must check in first at Ketchikan, which means it is a long detour to the outer shores of PoW.  So we inched our way ever more to the south, still seeing almost nobody: the exception was two kayakers bravely paddling their way north through Tlevak narrows, against the 5 knot current that we were riding south.  It’s as important to read the currents as the winds here: you can easily waste hours battling currents of two to four knots and going nowhere, even with favourable winds.

We made one final detour to civilisation: the small fishing village of Hydaburg, which lies at the southern extremity of PoW’s only road.  Notwithstanding the spelling, this community (of 250 or so) is the largest community of Haida in the US; their ancestors travelled here from the homeland of Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), 100 miles to the south and inside Canada, about 200 years ago. It is a quiet but friendly place, with a large under-used harbour, one small shop and another excellent collection of totems.  One of the locals drew up in his pick-up for a chat; he was just back from his marijuana patch (now legal in Alaska) and allowed us to sniff some of his samples.  But when we asked if he kept in touch with his forbears in Canada, he lamented: “No: I was busted on the border a few years back with some of this, so I guess I’m not too welcome any more…”.

For our part, we were also frustrated: although on a good day you can see Haida Gwaii from the extremities of Southeast Alaska, you have to make a major detour all the way to Prince Rupert and check into Canada Customs before heading back to the islands.  There used to be a seasonal post at Masset, but this was long ago removed.  It’s even more of a pity, because “checking in” actually means making a toll-free call to a number somewhere in eastern Canada, writing down a number, and then returning to your boat.

Next stop was the intriguing but mystifying Eek inlet – who could resist anchoring here? – then the more prosaic Mabel Bay, and at last we were at tiny Nina Cove, on Long Island, with the open expanse of Dixon Entrance now close by.

Coming Home to Canada

Dixon Entrance is a large rectangular sound, some 100 miles from east to west and sixty miles from north to south, that constitutes a large indentation into the otherwise protected waterways of the Inside Passage and that is also the border between the US and Canada. Bad weather tends to funnel into the gap and conditions can be exacerbated by its shallow depths and strong currents: as such it must be approached and crossed with some care.  Dixon Entrance is also a gathering point for large amounts of driftwood and other debris that wash down the Skeena River in the spring and early summer and/or that have broken loose from log booms being towed south.  Sometimes you can see entire trees, a hundred feet or more in length, complete with their root structure: not something you want to bump into at night in rough seas.

It would be about 90 miles from Nina to Prince Rupert, and the regulations are such that you are not supposed to pause in Canadian waters before checking in at Rupert; accordingly we needed a good window (at least 24 hours) of fair winds (anything between north and west). All the written authorities assured us that such winds are “prevalent” in June, July and August (it was now early June), but all the locals had meanwhile been assuring us that summer was very late this year.  Indeed it was ten days before a wave of southeasterly gales briefly relented and gave us 36 hours of quasi-favourable conditions.

We passed the time watching low, wet clouds scud fast over our heads, one day lifting a few meters, the next down to the treetops again.  We’d chosen our location well: the still black waters of this tiny bay scarcely stirred however frantically the treetops seemed to be waving. When it wasn’t raining, we went ashore.  One day we found on the beach an orange life-ring from a boat registered in Majuro (Marshall Islands); we hoped this was not a recent arrival.  Most days we were visited by a humpback whale, who would spend an hour or two huffing and puffing his way around the bay, usually less than 100m from us, before heading out into more open waters again. There was no VHF radio reception here, so now we resorted to another automated broadcast on the Short Wave, this one out of Kodiak and for all of Alaska: it was good at least to know that we were not likely to get the “freezing fog” and “severe icing conditions” forecast for the Bering and Beaufort.  Again, the US Coastguard had not fully ironed out some kinks in the technology: the oft-repeated word “wind” was invariably processed as a verb, as in what you do to your (old-fashioned) watch.

When it looked as though a break in the weather was here, with winds of 20 to 25 knots forecast from the NW, we hauled up the extra 20kg weight (a “sentinel”) that we had run down our anchor line to restrict our swinging, cranked up the anchor itself with the windlass and ventured once more into the open.  You could tell immediately we were close to Canada: in came the VHF weather again, loud and clear (a woman’s voice this time), in both French and English.

The wind was erratic and the currents even more so, but we were able to sail much of the way, in the night passing south of Celestial Reef as we headed for the red and green buoys that mark Brown Passage, the initial gateway to Prince Rupert.  Fortunately the moon was full: this made for extra-large tides but gave us a better chance of dodging the logs that lay in our path as we closed the eastern shore. 

To starboard in the morning was the windswept white blockhouse of Triple Island.  Although all the lighthouses in Alaska have been automated now, in Canada a few remain manned, and this is one of them. The wind was up now.  It was a little intimidating searching for the narrow entrance – ahead, on a lee shore – into the winding Venn Passage that would save us having to make a much longer approach to Rupert from the south, like the big ships. But once we were inside, the wind died almost to calm: we motored for two hours through bucolic, low-lying land, leaving the native village of Metlakatla to port, then coming out into the great natural harbour of Prince Rupert, the grain elevators of Ridley Island to our right, large freighters resting tranquilly at anchor, the main town and the fishing harbours to our left.  All the way along the waterfront was strung a 200-freight car Canadian National train, a reminder that – for the first time in three years – Bosun Bird was now in a location with land links to the outside world.

With light rain setting in we tied up to a vacant stretch of dock at the wobbly docks of the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club.  We were excited to find we could now listen to local radio again: they were carrying a re-run of the day’s earlier live coverage of the all-Canadian logging championships, with much technical discussion of angles of cut and of blade sharpness. Perhaps it would have been more compelling on TV.    

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