“There’s gold up there and it’s haunting and haunting. It’s luring me on as of old. Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting so much as finding the gold. It’s the great tall mountains way up yonder and it’s the magnificent forests where silence has lease. It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder or maybe it’s the stillness that fills me with peace.” Robert W Service – Prospector. Alaska – 1849
Alaska & British Columbia Three Years On…
So we’ve decided to stay another winter up in Alaska. We’re now back in Hoonah preparing Sänna to withstand the freezing temperatures and deep snows – which is no mean feat believe you me. The people here are incredibly friendly and there’s not so much of the glamour-wealth we found down south in mainland Washington State. There’s the hardcore commercial fishermen here with their immensely tough boats and there’s the local Tlingit people who are always keen to help us whenever they can. So we can safely leave Sänna here in good hands whilst we travel back to England to see our families and old friends. Things have been happening back home and we desperately need to catchup.
The year began auspiciously down in Anacortes, south of Vancouver and over the US border in Washington State. We’d left Sänna there hauled out for the winter in the hands of North Harbor Diesel to install a new propeller shaft and gearbox transmission both of which were just plain worn out after nearly fifty-six thousand miles of circumnavigate sailing. Of course, we’d say only around fifteen percent of this sea mileage has been under engine power, probably less – we are a sailing boat and our engine is only auxiliary propulsion… we rely on the wind. Both of us were anxious to finally fix our ongoing Volvo engine issues which meant it being re-timed and thoroughly checked over by Volvo mechanics. We’d already had the turbo unit, fuel pump and injectors rebuilt whilst in Juneau last year. We had great hopes this time.
More Engine Problems
But, sadly, I’m afraid it was not to be. In late May we experienced problems as soon as we launched back into the water which was extremely disappointing, the details of which we’ve described in our Latest News section and in our blog site. You can read about our trials and tribulations here. We got things fixed in the end and encouragingly, a Stanodyne fuel additive compound really sorted our excessive exhaust smoking issues. Whilst resting in the warm sun of early summer in Anacortes we thought long and hard about where to head next, southwards to Mexico and the hot tropics of Central America or north again to Alaska where both our hearts are inevitably drawn to the wild wilderness and the frontier mentality of the Alaskans. These people really are something apart from mainland Americans and we sensed it straightaway when we first arrived in Alaska nearly two years ago now. Alaska seems to draw the more intrepid types and is a world apart from west coast America which we rarely find appealing. We can only take so much melted cheese! Continual questions relating to our social standing seems to be important to many Americans and a British sailing yacht turning up in the midst of a monied boating community unsettles them… are we homeless vagabonds or intrepid round-the-world sailors to be admired? Furthermore, if we returned to Alaska we’d be well positioned for our possible Northwest Passage attempt next year if we can finally convince ourselves our Volvo Penta is up to the job.
In early June we left Anacortes for Port Townsend to join our friends Leighton & Lynda onboard their wooden ketch Morning Star who implored us to be there to experience the start of the incredible Race to Alaska, a near seven hundred and fifty mile race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan through British Columbia and Alaska. You can read about this amazing sailing race at davidungless.com. If you’re a racing enthusiast you will be enthralled.
Leighton & Lynda have become dear friends whom we’ll forever treasure. We also got to know Tom & Donna back in Anacortes and their friendship and continuous help became exceptionally meaningful to both of us. So our horrible problem of leaving close friendships behind once again prevailed and we were deeply saddened to move on. In the middle of June we finally decided to return to Alaska, initially by the outside Pacific Ocean route, which is infamously stormy and, well, you guessed it, straightaway we encountered a vicious northerly storm and we were driven inside the shelter of Vancouver Island. We therefore decided to take the much more passive rout north through the Inside Passage, first through the San Juan Islands, then the Canadian Gulf Islands to Desolation Sound, through the Broughtons Wilderness region and eventually into the Hecate Strait. The weather was warm and glorious. Then we cut outside the islands through the Dixon Entrance into the now more benign seas of the Pacific shoreline, along the west coasts of Prince of Wales Island and Baranoff Island to Sitka in Alaska. The whole passage took a little over three weeks but we were dogged by maintenance issues all the way, fixing in succession our anchor windlass, navigation lights and finally, replacing all of our dying service batteries up in Port Hardy.
More importantly we had a long standing commitment for a media project arranged back in England to film and record grizzly bears in Alaska. This was of course an important consideration in our decision to return northwards and guaranteed an exciting adventure. In July Henry arranged to join us in Sitka now that his school holidays in England were up and away, his exciting days of education onboard Sänna are over and his all important school exams are now underway both this year and next which he must take back in the UK. He then stays with his dad but, of course, he relishes the opportunity to drop back into things and filming grizzlies in the wild for nearly two months easily tempted him back. Who wouldn’t? We got the project off the ground quite quickly, the locals telling us of bears just north of the old Russian settlement of Sitka – a wonderfully historic legacy to the days when Alaska was dominated by Russian fur traders.
Following amazing photographic and film footage of both brown grizzly bears and black bears in the forests of Baranoff Island we headed east through the infamous Peril Strait to the small Tlingit settlement of Angoon, with a really difficult entrance in tidal rips, and then north to Tenekee Springs to sample the hot sulphur baths there, a natural phenomenon which reminded us that much of Alaska is volcanic and volatile. ‘Naked bathing only’ we were reminded by the indignant locals when we tried to sneak in wearing our swimwear. Anchored in Tenekee Springs we came across New Zealanders Martin & Marion in their sixty foot sloop Avant Guard, who’d sailed across the Pacific from Japan, through the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak then through Prince William Sound – real tough nuts as New Zealand sailors generally are. From Tenekee we made for Hoonah with our engine alternator suddenly giving way – Volvo strikes once again! We were having strange luck this year… things were going wrong but we could usually fix the problems almost straightaway, except that our spare alternator this time failed to work so we’d have to order a new replacement once we reached Hoonah.
All our old friends from Hoonah were still around and we met up with Tom & Juanita from Island Rover once again. And a real bonus for us in that the fishing boat Icy Queen followed us into Hoonah just a few days afterwards and it was simply fantastic to meet up again with Scott and his son Bradon with their little Scottie dog Henry… their Henry and our Henry got along just too fine. Also in town were the infamous Brown family, the so called stars of Discovery Channel’s reality TV show Alaskan Bush People. Their rather ramshackle vessel Integrity is moored close by and we again got talking to them just like last year when we were hauled out alongside them in Hoonah boatyard. A wacky family and a strange TV show but they’re friendly enough. We get on with them ok… we think Henry has a soft spot for Raine and Snowbird!
Waiting around for a replacement alternator from dismally infuriating Balmar proved too much and in mid-August we decided to head north into Glacier Bay to pursue our grizzly bear project. We’d have to go without the alternator and hopefully it would finally arrive in Hoonah whilst we were gone… we’d rely on our generator and the clear sunshine skies to power our solar panels. Of course, we also have our wind generator but winds can sometimes be a bit elusive in this part of the world. But thirty knot winds drove us west along the Icy Straits, through the fierce currents of the Sitakaday Narrows to Bartlett Cove where we needed to validate our Glacier Bay permit with the Park Ranger Station located there. The Icy Straits and Glacier Bay are an incredibly scenic part of the world, surrounded by tall mountains which are snow capped all year round with very few signs of civilisation and the abundant wildlife is incredible.
After anchoring in Bartlett Cove for the night we headed north to Reid Inlet to anchor beside the magnificent Reid Glacier. We took ourselves ashore to climb the glacier and then, of course, our now infamous encounter with the female grizzly and her two full grown cubs. For those of you who are genuinely interested in this enthralling encounter, which is soon to be a feature published by one of the UK’s sailing magazines, you can read about it here. Needless to say it was a nerve racking experience even if we did get incredible photographs and footage – aggressive bears are not to be trifled with.
From the Reid Glacier we made our way north to the John Hopkins Glacier and then to the huge Marjorie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. There was not so much ice in the water compared to the last time we came twelve months ago but, even so, we needed to take great care navigating between the enormous ice flows calving from the John Hopkins and Marjorie Glaciers. Then we made our way southwards to find the huge sea lion colony on South Marble Island, conscious of the Park Rangers’ instructions not to get any closer than fifty metres. This empty region of Alaska is rigorously controlled to protect both the environment and the wildlife, only limited numbers of visitors are allowed and, believe you me, it would be tourist hell if the big cruise ships had their way. The system of authorised permits is well managed and only so many are issued each day for a period of seven days with a maximum of only fourteen vessels in this huge wilderness area at any one time… and to ensure that large tour companies do not book them months in advance the majority of permits are granted only a few days prior entry. This works well for bad planners like ourselves, who more than likely make things up as we roll along. Anyway, we got good photo images although it’s not easy to film from a rocking boat. Returning to the Ranger Station to anchor in Bartlett Cove to time our exit through the tide-rip narrows the next day, we came across the small cruise vessel Wilderness Explorer tied to the dock. It was unsettling to learn that their two wilderness guides had been ferociously attacked by a female grizzly the previous day whilst escorting a group of tourists on a trek from Chigacoff Mining Camp. Both were severely injured and had to be airlifted out. Later, we were advised by the Ranger in Hoonah to abandon our bear filming project because the bears this year were slowly starving due to a lack of salmon heading up the creeks. Global warming again! The number of aggressive encounters were increasing, he said, which was born out by our own experience beside the Reid Glacier.
We returned to Hoonah in late August and then decided to get off the boat for a few days. Conscious of the fact that despite being in Alaska for two years now we’ve seen very little of the northern interior. So we took the ferry from Hoonah to Juneau and then an Alaskan Airways flight to Fairbanks way up north. From there we headed into the Denali National Park to get close to North America’s highest mountain at 22,000 feet which was incredibly spectacular. We were also treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis – the northern lights – a sure sign that winter will soon be upon us. Out trip north also gave us an opportunity to explore Anchorage which will more than likely be our destination next year when we return to Alaska after the coming winter has receded. This will give us the opportunity to head out to Kodiak and the Aleutian Island before making our way more northwards to Nome and Barrow. Perhaps we can then make our way into the ice-pack to take a look at the Northwest Passage to see if we can sail our way home…
Marie – Hoonah, Alaska, September 2016.