When the Evendens (longtime sailors) took delivery of their Krogen 48’ AE, named “Kohea”, in July 2014, they set out to reacquaint with the waters of the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Last May, Bill departed north from Seattle to Haines, Alaska with his son and grandson as crew. Karen’s summer cruising began at the end of June when she flew into Sitka to join them.
On the morning of July 23, 2015, I woke to an all too familiar sight and sound—ever-changing circles of water covering the clear hatches that are located above our warm and very comfortable queen-size bed, and the pitter-patter of rain. It would be another rain-soaked day—rain was our constant companion as we cruised through the nature-rich waters of southeast Alaska.
Thankfully, we enjoyed two bright and sunny days in Juneau on July Fourth and Fifth. It was the perfect weather for watching the Independence Day parade! At the time, we were confident that this would be a warm and sunny Alaskan summer. After all, the “natives” were enthusiastic about the rainless months of May and June, and we shared their optimism that the unusual summer weather would continue.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. And sadly, none of our guests had the chance to experience the sunlit beauty of snow-capped mountains. But never fear, all the rain did not stop us from enjoying the spectacular waterways. Carved by thousands of years of glacial activity, the southeast Alaskan coastline is perhaps nature’s most gorgeous jigsaw puzzle. It is a rugged mainland hugged by equally rugged islands—some large, some small, and some just a scattering of rocks that are totally hidden when the tide is high. It is not unusual to have an exchange of 15 feet or more between high and low tide, which creates a powerful flow that can seriously impact the ability of small vessels to travel.
Navigating these waters requires constant vigilance by captain and crew when the boat is underway. In today’s world we are fortunate to have a seemingly endless array of instruments, including: depth sounders, electronic charts, radar, AIS, and wind indicators. All these instruments are tied together by a very sophisticated GPS system. VHF radio delivers weather forecasts and makes communication possible with other boats, Harbor Masters and the Coast Guard. In fact, we spent one morning listening to a boat of similar size to ours talk to the Coast Guard because it was taking on water and was in danger of sinking. It is comforting to know that the Coast Guard is there if needed. Aboard Kohea we also carry some old-fashioned paper charts. After all, electronic guidance could fail!
By this point, we had seen some of the very best that Mother Nature has to offer. We saw soaring snowcapped mountains, steep green-sided fiords, towering waterfalls, the bright pink flowers of Alaskan fireweed, huge glaciers, pods of humpback whales, rocks covered with sea lions (the aroma is as memorable as the sight), sea otters lounging on their backs and dining in the open waters, and porpoises swimming in the distance and then rushing to our side to play in our bow wave.
Anan Creek, an ancient Tlingit fishing site located on the Alaskan mainland, is accessible only by boat or seaplane and may be the largest run of pink salmon in the region. It attracts a significant number of black and brown bears, all coming to feast on the fish during the months of July and August.
To let people witness this annual event, the U.S. Forest Service built an observatory. Visitors are led by guncarrying guides into an area where the creek narrows and the water cascades into small, turbulent waterfalls. It is this rushing water that attracts the salmon back to their original spawning grounds, which in turn, attracts the bears who come in search of the easy-to-catch salmon. I will always be amazed at the strength of the salmon to swim upstream against the extremely strong current—a fact made even more amazing as these fish are just about at the end of their lives.
Bill described the observatory as a reverse zoo, where humans are caged and the bears roam free in their natural habitat! An enclosed and partially covered deck area provided a 360-degree view and the opportunity to watch the bears close up. Bill managed to capture several photos of red-lipped bears, complete with what I imagine to be lip-smacking grins to display their pleasure. As the bears had their fill of salmon, the remaining bits were immediately snatched up by the bald eagles that had been standing by patiently awaiting the scraps. Cruising Anan Creek was an amazing observation of one of nature’s most remarkable cycles of life.
In Ketchikan, tied to a dock, we enjoyed an excellent Internet connection! Throughout our travels in Alaska, we were surprised by the scarcity of the Internet—only available in the small towns we visited, and even then, the service was weak and marginal at best.
What was not marginal, and I said before, was the precipitation. We continued to have rain and heavy cloud cover and the forecast was not promising, so we altered our plans and continued our trek south (not slowing to visit any out of the way fiords, passages, inlets or channels) in hopes of finding a bit of sunshine in British Columbia.
At this point, Bill was blue that his Alaskan adventure was drawing to a close, though we saw and experienced just about everything that we had hoped. Nearby Prince of Wales Island and Misty Fiords were the only two areas that we had wanted to wander, but somehow, a trip to Misty Fiords just did not excite me. Mist had been our companion for days and to seek it out, well, give me a break!
As mentioned, we have seen whales, lots of whales. Without question, the experience we had with our family on board will forever remain my favorite whale memory. “Bubble net feeding” happens when a group of humpbacks swim in a shrinking circle and blow bubbles below a school of fish. This shrinking column of bubbles surrounds the school of fish and forces them upward. The whales then swim upward through this bubble net with their mouths wide open and in the process, catch thousands of fish in one gulp. It is breathtaking to see those huge mammals working in harmony in the open sea.
Still following our new direct route south, we were making good progress and were way ahead of Bill’s original schedule.
One particular morning, as we poured over charts and cruising guidebooks, the day slipped away and we crept closer to the time when the tide would soon turn against us. So, we stayed put for the day. Within minutes of our decision, the sun began to burn through the clouds and we experienced a rare sensation, the sun actually caressed our faces. Jackets came off, smiles turned on and the day suddenly felt magical. Bill lowered the dinghy into the water and we were off to explore our surroundings. We circled the cove and checked out what is said to be an ancient fish weir and then landed the dinghy on a beachlike area.
With our high rubber boots, we were able to get out of the dinghy while it was still afloat in a foot or so of water and secure it with the painter by tying it to barnacle encrusted rocks. We walked the low-tide shoreline, now covered with kelp, baby mussels, clams, mud and sand, and hiked in the direction of a stream flowing out of the woods. This is bear territory and with the salmon running, we watched carefully and stayed out of the woods. We were happy that we did not encounter a bear while on shore, but were disappointed that we did not see a bear from the safety of Kohea.
Back on the boat, we took advantage of the sun. We wiped down the brightwork and stainless steel, washed the salt off the windows, read and relaxed and enjoyed the frequent sightings of seals, eagles and a wide range of water birds. It was a perfect day and we ended it with a celebratory glass of wine with new friends Helen and Bert, owners of a Nordic Tug named Salty Dawg.
Whale of a Tale! Whale sightings were sporadic as we traveled the waterways that were sometimes very narrow and like a giant maze. We could not find our way without the guidance of charts, red lights and green lights, lighthouses and hundreds of buoys. And I suspect the whales might feel the same way, preferring open waterways where the fish run in giant schools and meals are easy to find. It was in one of these narrow waterways that we had our closest whale encounter. I was at the helm, steering with what is usually a more than adequate perspective of the surrounding waters. I could clearly see in front and to the sides of the boat, but what I could not see was directly in front. That is, the 10 – 20 feet in front of the bow. Bill was standing by my side and suddenly reached across and put the boat in neutral. There was a whale RIGHT THERE. It had surfaced in front of us. We do not think that we actually hit the animal, but the turbulence of the water was STRONG. It turns out that there were two whales—we saw them surface again about 100 yards behind the Kohea. It was a very long time before our hearts recovered!
Another favorite destination was Simoom Sound, a narrow inlet that looks and feels like a small fiord. We marveled at the various shades of green in the trees, the soaring height of the evergreens, and the dense coverage of the steep hillsides. And, we could not help but wonder why just a few trees played host to a long and fragile-looking moss, known as “witch’s hair”, that clung to some branches and swayed in the breeze.
As we moseyed up this inlet, we checked out a couple of possible anchorages along the way, but we eliminated two suggested locations. They just felt too small for Kohea. We continued and found the perfect place—just the right amount of room between us and the rocks, flat and calm water, and glorious views of the bright blue sky. That was a lazy afternoon of reading, exploring and watching our surroundings change as the tide fell. The rocks that were on the chart but hidden below the water when we arrived, became small islets at low tide. It did not take long for four harbor seals to decide to lounge on those smooth stones and bask in the setting sun.
This day of sunshine was our third day in the central British Columbia coastal region known as the Broughtons. It is attractive to boaters because of her many protected anchorages and her welcoming and tradition-rich marinas. Based on the number of boats we saw each day, it was obvious that we were no longer cruising in remote, difficult-to-reach waters. However, crossing Queen Charlotte Sound (just north) into northern British Columbia, is a trek that many boaters choose not to take. The weather can be nasty and the seas are rough.
Our longtime friends, the Morthlands, have been cruising these waterways for more than 12 years and their personal experiences are not only fun to listen to, but also practical and informative for newcomers like us! We met up with them at Turnbull Cove anchorage and then followed them to the marina in Sullivan Bay. The setting for this small, summertimeonly residential community is beautiful and the traditions among its boaters are strongly embedded.
All the buildings in Sullivan Bay float, including the homes, the store/marina office, the laundry and shower building, and the restaurant. The floats are either the old-fashioned cedar log variety or the newer floating concrete models. These floating communities have been a longtime tradition in the Pacific Northwest as they provided the only practical way to create housing for the loggers, fishermen/ cannery workers and traders who settled in these heavily forested lands in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the tradition continues. It is still the best approach for aquaculture (fish farms) instillations, fishing camps and recreational housing.
I mentioned the “tradition-rich” marinas. Let me explain. You might think that in this marine environment, the traditions may focus on nautical clothing or boating etiquette. Nope. Their traditions are 100 percent food-focused. Starting with happy hour gatherings at a designated spot, on a designated dock, at a designated time. Drinks flow and food emerges! And apparently, a lot of food emerges and happy hour becomes dinner hour. To minimize confusion, some marinas skip the idea of happy hour all together, and simply call it a potluck!
With all of these experiences, there is no doubt in either of our minds that we are incredibly blessed.