Captain’s Log – August 6, 2010- Juneau to Ketchikan
Today we are in Ketchikan, the last port city in Alaska on our way south. Ketchikan is sort of the gateway to the north, and place were all the cruise ships stop both coming and going up and down the Alaskan coast. Today there were four of them in here, and each one carries about 2,000 passengers plus 700 crew. Ketchikan has a population of 9,000, so cruise ships add a lot of people to the area during the summer. Both Juneau and Ketchikan are big cruise ship ports, and they have a definite souvenir shop quality and accompanying high prices, which I would prefer to avoid. For example, we lunched at the dock yesterday. A Coke was $2.39 (I mentioned to the owner that I could buy it for less in NYC!): fish and chips were over $17.
We began this part of our trip in Juneau. As you may recall, we broke our thruster on the way in, and spent the better part of a week figuring out the problem and getting parts. The diver we hired told us that he couldn’t install a new blade from underwater because his arms were too short and he couldn’t reach into the thruster tunnel to replace the blade. We talked to a lot of people and came up with a possible fix, which involved hauling our beautiful boat out of the water using a circa 1950 Manitowoc crane. We went over and talked with the boatyard/crane owner to find out about his insurance coverage and procedures, but when he looked across the harbor at our boat, he said he wasn’t comfortable doing it and I must say I was a little relieved and felt even better when his young assistant told me he was a diver and could probably fix it. Three days later he was under our boat and fixed it in twenty minutes. In the meantime we drove around Juneau in our Rent-a-Wreck, shopped for supplies, and explored the only road that transverses the area its 40-mile length. It was a beautiful drive. Back in Juneau we toured the state capital: there were four people on the tour including us. Believe it or not but the other couple was from Ann Arbor. Alaskan government is sort of interesting: they have 20 senators and 40 house members. Their chambers are very small, they meet 90 days per year, produce a balanced budget, have no income tax, and gave back to citizens of the state $1,500 each in oil revenue shares last year (family of four got $6,000). Most cities have a summer sales tax, which is waved for senior citizens who file a waiver form.
One evening around 9 o’clock as we were watching a movie we heard a knock on the side of our boat. It was the Gomez family, the people on Summer Wind that we rescued. As they were crossing the bridge their daughter saw our boat and they decided to stop by and thank us. We had never met each other, but it was like old home week. We had a great visit and joined them for dinner later in the week. Brian is a child therapist and **** now works with children who have found their way into the court system either because of abuse or other reasons. They have two lovely children and we enjoyed their company very much.
On another day I was casually looking out the window and spotted the charter boat Susan Dawn coming into the harbor. That was the boat I chartered last year with my brother and my nephews. Buddy and Kathleen Dore were the captain and crew, and they showed us a great time. Together they raised a family and fished professionally for a living. Buddy grew up in Juneau. Rebecca and I jumped in the car and drove over to the next marina and found them working on the boat. The next evening they came over for dinner. Buddy gave me some wonderful pointers on places to stop on the way back, and our evening together was just delightful. We are looking forward to sailing with them in the near future.
The next day my childhood friend Debby Reaza and her husband Richard joined us for a four-day trip to Petersburg. After they got settled, we pushed off for a six-hour trip to Taku Harbor. It was raining as usual, but by the time we reached the end of Gastineau Channel the sun was peaking through the clouds and the weather for the rest of our trip was beautiful. The scenery was spectacular, with high snow-capped mountains lining the banks of the channels as we passed. Taku Harbor is a beautiful little inlet off the main channel. We moored at a floating dock next to a 47 ft Nordhavn. The owner, Larry, was seated on a plastic chair on the dock, smoking a cigar and clearly enjoying his 9-year-old grandson. Larry was retired, bought the boat last year and was cruising as far as possible. Larry explained later that his son and daughter-in-law abandoned the little boy, and Larry and his wife Pat had taken the boy from a foster home. They clearly loved him and the feeling seemed mutual. All the time we talked, the little guy was catching fish off the dock and offering them to us. Later that evening, Richard and I took the tender and the crab trap out for some serious fishing. The next day we had a beautiful Dungeness crab for our trouble!
The following day we took off down bound in Stephens Passage for Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glacier. It was an all day cruise to see one of the most beautiful places on earth, and to get within a few hundred yards of a tidal glacier. Last year I went up Endicott Arm to see Dawes Glacier with Buddy and Kathleen. Tracy Arm was different in that it was a very narrow channel with granite walls thousands of feet high on both sides. It was a spellbinding sight. As we reached the glacier, calves or small icebergs began floating by and became denser as we went north. Within a mile of the glacier we had to slow to a crawl and pick our way through the ice. Eventually we got within a few hundred yards of the glacier. It was a tremendous sight particularly as it calved huge pieces of ice into the sea. After an hour or so of gazing at this incredible sight, we turned around and headed back. It took about four hours to reach the mouth of Tracy Arm and Noname Bay. We anchored and cooked a wonderful dinner of salmon.
The next morning we weighed anchor after breakfast and made our way to Frederic Sound. By this time I thought I had seem everything, but Frederic Sound was stunning. It is a huge body of water surrounded by snow-capped mountains the likes of which rivaled Glacier Bay. As we were entering the sound, we noticed whales spouting, and counted over twenty of them. I pointed Odyssey toward the middle of the pod and turned off the engines. For over an hour we were entertained by breaching whales, tail pounding and diving whales near and under our ship. It was fantastic. Eventually they drifted off and we turned our stem toward Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night. It was a nice anchorage, several miles long and nice and wide and surrounded by mountains in the distance. The entry was tricky, as it was narrow and shallow and swept by difficult currents. But we made it anyway, although I was a little nervous.
The next morning we fished for a while to no avail and then headed for Petersburg. Petersburg is the third biggest fishing town in Alaska and a jewel. Cruise ships do not stop here so it is a real town with limited tourist stuff. We really enjoyed our time here. When we pulled in we found out that our thruster wasn’t working in one direction: the one I needed of course. It was frightening bringing Odyssey into the slip: the wind was blowing hard from the north (clear weather) and the current was pushing from the south. Sounds easy enough, but it was nasty. It seemed ugly to me, but we made it despite our thruster problems. Debby and Richard left us at this port and headed north to Juneau and then home to southern California. We had a wonderful visit with them and a great trip. As soon as we docked I called James Leishman at Nordhavn. He diagnosed the problem and the next morning I called the thruster manufacturer. As Frank and Karen Gordon were leaving Ann Arbor to visit us two days later, we arranged to have the part sent to their hotel in Seattle and for them to bring it to Alaska with them. Within a half hour of their arrival, it was installed and working great. Frank actually put it in, as he is about half my size and fit beautifully into the tight working space were the part was located. After a tour of the town and a crab lunch, we took off for our three-day trip to Ketchikan.
Our first stop was the port of Wrangell. This is another non-cruise ship port. It is also a fishing village, but not as big as Petersburg or Sitka. Actually it looked like it had fallen on hard times by comparison to the other ports that we visited. Aside from seeing the little town, we wanted to go to the Anan Bear Reserve. If you have ever seen a movie of a bear catching a salmon in its mouth at a waterfall, this is the place. We hired a tour guide as only about 30 people a day are allowed into the reserve. The park service gives most of the tickets to tour operators, and for good reason. Anan is about 30 miles south of Wrangell and requires passage through a tricky narrows. The jet boat ride is about an hour and a half, then a hike for about a half hour through the woods to Anan, were there is an observation platform. The bears are accustomed to this arrangement and don’t seem to pay any attention to the few people who are on the platform. The guides are armed and for good reason: the place is thick with bears, both black and brown. At the time of our visit, the river was clogged with Pink Salmon. Normally you can see the bottom of the river, which is golden colored sand. When the salmon are running you can’t see the bottom and the river is black with the backs of the salmon. The river was black and choked with salmon waiting to migrate up the river, pool by pool until they reach the falls and then launch themselves up the white water current. It is unbelievable to see. Watching them gives you a feeling of respect for their strength and persistency, but then you realize that they are acting out the last moments of their lives: whatever they do they will soon be dead. And many of them are clearly beginning to deteriorate as they make their final death march. The bears, on the other hand, are having a field day. The black bears fish from the sidelines by looking for a potential victim and trying to catch it with their paws. The brown bears walk into the river and put their heads under the water to look for a fish. Brown bears only want the female fish and will throw back most of the males they catch. Browns eat the fish right in the water. The browns grab the fish, bite the brain out of its head, rip open the egg sack and devour the row, then throw the fish away. The blacks behave similarly, but they only eat the fish out of the water, often taking it far into the woods. Blacks don’t seem to care so much about the sex of the fish. They eat the skin, row, brain, and some of the meat. The black bears are afraid of the brown bears and scatter for the woods when a brown gets too close. Apparently brown bears will gladly eat a black bear. Along with bears there are a host of other scavengers, such as Bald Eagles, wolves, mink and others who clean up after the bears. From what I could see, the bears didn’t even make a dent in the fish population. One thing that was interesting was that despite the density of fish, whenever the fish saw a bear they high-tailed it away from that area, even though the river was wall-to-wall salmon.
Back in Wrangell, we had grilled lamb complete with fine wine and good cigars. The next day we took off on a 50-mile cruise down to Meyers Chuck, a beautiful little anchorage near Ketchikan. It is a tiny little spot with access through a very narrow pass in the rocky cliffs surrounding the harbor. It has a post office that is open Tuesday from 10 AM to 2 PM, and Wednesday for an hour. The postmaster came by our boat in her dingy about 6:30 AM to see if we had any mail. Wow! That’s service. The following morning we fished and caught some rockfish, and then we cruised on to Ketchikan were their son Christopher joined us for a night. That afternoon Frank struck up a conversation with the owner, Bud, of a seiner–fishing trawler, the Lake Bay. They invited us aboard and we got a full tour and an explanation of the fishing profession. The boat was a 45-year-old Delta, originally manufactured in Seattle. Delta is still in business today. Bud told me that the fishing stocks and industry in Alaska are in great shape and getting better. Fishermen buy a permit to fish particular species such as herring or pink salmon. Fishermen can own more than one license, but they have to be onboard the trawler when the license is being used, effectively making it impossible to build up a multi-boat company. The license might cost $70,000 or more per specie and the boat could be anywhere from $100,000 or more, depending on its condition and capability; many fisherman own licenses for more than one type of fish. Each crew person gets a share of the catch net of expenses; the size of the share depends on their experience and capability. The owner can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and some of the young crewmen I talked with earn to me they will earn between $16,000 and $20,000 during the summer season. One young man, Dominic, told me that they work an average of nearly 100 hours per week. It seemed like hard work to me.
I started this tomb in Ketchikan, but now we are in Price Rupert, B.C. Tomorrow we will be heading farther down the coast on our way south.