BC & SE ALASKA - 4: NORTHBOUND WRANGELL & PETERSBURG
Wednesday, June 22 and Thursday, June 23 – Wrangell
Rain showers greeted us when the alarm went off at 0530 hours and a light drizzle stay with us for several hours. Laurie called it, “your typical Alaskan morning.” Tribute pulled away from the dock 0630 hours to match the timing of the tide to clear Thorne Bay at the narrowest point, and the current and the wind to push Tribute up the channel toward Wrangell.
After clearing Thorne Bay, Clarence Strait was smooth and tame and the 7 mile crossing was a breeze. The drizzle stopped and by 0800 hours, Ernest Sound started and we enjoyed a bit of a current and nearly clear skies. At 1100 hours came the junction of two routes to Wrangell, the eastern route was longer and had steep mountains on each side. The route that Laurie had chosen was commonly used by cruisers and used Zimbobia Strait and its accompanying narrows. The cruise ships use a westerly route that is wide and appropriate for their size and speed.
The predictions for the current were completely wrong for no apparent reason and the data was checked with two different sources. So, none of the benefit of going with the predicted current, ever materialized. The closer to Wrangell that Tribute was, the more humanity was seen. In the water, scores of crab and prawn floats were seen. On the shore, cabins and custom-built houses sprung up in the woods.
At Nemo Point, dozens of fishing boats were working, some dragging long lines of hooks and more had stretched out nets that hung by small white floats. We did not see the floats until a fishing boat roared toward us with the captain waving his arms and indicating to follow him. Only then, did we see the 300-yard long net in the channel. The point learned was to head for the fishing boat because the boat typically anchors one end of the net.
A call to the Wrangell Harbormaster told us that the downtown marina was full of fishing boats but the Heritage Harbor Marina had ample room on its transient docks. We docked on a long transient dock that was nearly empty for now. Later, the fishing boats would return and most of the space would be gone.
Tribute arrived at 2:45 PM and traveled 60 miles. The harbormaster came by to unlock the power box and said that stopping at the office at the downtown marina tomorrow was perfectly fine. We enjoyed a lazy afternoon by walking the docks and having an early dock-tails in Tribute’s cockpit with Ken and Pauline.
The next day we got up late because we stayed up late watching a movie on Tribute’s entertainment system. After a maintenance project on the shower sump pump, the folding bikes took us into town under clear blue skies and warming temperatures that would top out in the high 70’s.
Wrangell is home to about 2,400 and is a healthy working community that is not centered around cruise ships or tourism. Rather, commercial fishing, maritime related businesses and tourism support the community. The marinas probably had 200 fishing boats either in port and coming and going. Some fisherman are residents but most seem to be here for the summer season.
Like all the Alaskan towns seen thus far, land use planning and code enforcement are non-existent and probably anyone wanting that work would be run out of town. At 1000 hours, the downtown shops were open but the streets were quiet. A lumber store was found that also sells camping gear, marine equipment and even appliances.
Garnets are a stone that is mined in Wrangell but the all women leadership deeded the land to the Boy Scouts of America to benefit the children of Wrangell. Today, children sell the stones when the state ferry and the cruise ships arrive. A new sidewalk project has garnets in the concrete.
July 4th is the biggest holiday of the year and preparations had already started with food booths being built and posters advocating candidates for Queen were everywhere. After shopping for a couple of items, the Wrangell museum was enjoyed for a couple of hours. A nice but simple lunch was found at Zake’s Café.
Wrangell was a frontier town for over a 100 years. A place that Wyatt Erp would only work as the Town Marshall for 10 days because it was so bad. People came to find their fortune in furs, mining, logging or fishing and during that quest a healthy and complex Alaskan Native culture was nearly eradicated. Different races came to Wrangell to fuel the economic engine and most of the whites horribly treated each one, whether it be the Russians, the English or the Americans. That side of the history can be tough but the people were resilient, fiercely independent and self-reliant but who cared for their neighbors when the fires nearly burned down the town and the economy busted.
The bikes took us all over the shore, the marinas and the adjacent areas. Wrangell has a good vibe about it. The harbormaster’s office was found which is a test of honesty as you go them, over a ½ mile away to pay. The moorage was the lowest on record for all of our travels: $.40 a foot. Back at Tribute, minor projects were done until it was time for dock-tails with Shipperly and Ron and Barbara who have a 50’ Grand Banks. One of Ron’s engines started making an annoying popping sound and made some guesses on what the issue might be.
Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25 – Petersburg, AK (See the map above) The preferred the currents were later in the day so the morning was laid back with blueberry pancakes, making homemade chili, writing and talking and waiting the travel window to open. The morning was overcast, with a fresh breeze that would fade away as the day warmed to a balmy 65 degrees. We walked the docks and talked about the two floating houses and how that life was different from living aboard.
We said our farewells to Ron and Barbara as they were staying at least through Sunday when a mechanic was going to look at his engine and headed out at 1PM. The destination was Petersburg and the route was the Wrangell Narrows with its 66 pairs of navigation buoys to keep the mariner off the rocks or the shoals.
Timing with the predicted current was essential as the velocity can be up to 5 knots and the current switches half-way on the 20 mile long passage that separates Mitof Island from Kupreanof Island. The dock advice matched what the guidebooks said, enter the narrows 90 minutes before the predicted flood at the halfway point. Then, the travel time to cover the 21 miles from Wrangell to the Narrows was factored in. The analysis was checked three times and in the end turned out to be perfect.
At departure time and continuing westward to Stikine Strait, the wind was calm, the water flat and blue sky was breaking through. Exposure to the strait brought the predicted 15 knot winds and a 2-foot wind chop for about 45 minutes and then the water was flat with a slight opposing current to the narrows.
Entering the Wrangell Narrows, the flooding current added nearly 2 knots to Tribute’s speed so we slowed the RPM’s to save fuel. The AIS showed the 6 larger vessels that were coming onto Tribute. The other dozen were smaller, faster and more agile. Throughout the passage, running between the buoys was easy and with both hand steering and autopilot on the longer stretches. The second or northern half of the Wrangell Narrows brought more development with long docks, fishing lodges and houses spread out on the shoreline. The flooding current and switched to an ebbing northbound current that gave Tribute a 2/10 knot boast but that was better than fighting an opposing current and we rode that all the way to Petersburg arriving at 6 PM.
Petersburg’s harbor of fishing boats was huge and probably was 5 times larger than Wrangell’s. The harbormaster put us in the south harbor and the neighbors were a few cruising boats and a lot of fishing boats. Tribute had traveled 40 miles. With four hours of daylight ahead, the harbormaster’s office was found in the north harbor and payment can happen just before departure. During my daily end-of-day engine check, a thin layer of back dust was on the engine near the alternator. A check of the inside of the belt guard found more dust. A billboard went off in my head saying that the serpentine belt needed checking and possible replacement.
After dock-tails on Shipperly, Laurie served her homemade chili for dinner and the evening was closed with reading and listening to the iPod.
The next day, the morning was cloudy with occasional drizzle and this would remain all day. After breakfast and with the town coming to life, we spent the morning walking the downtown, doing some minor shopping, talking to store clerks and visiting Petersburg’s museum.
The museum, Laurie’s readings, the conversations and the observations created an impression of a community and discovering a community adds to the adventure of travel. Petersburg is a multi-generational fishing community and that means many people are related to each other that can create a deep sense of community and family roots. Norwegian origins are dominant but there are also Japanese and Filipino history and ancestry. There are two cultures that are co-existing; first, the fishing related industry that includes the boats and the canneries and, second, everyone else such as the schools, businesses, hospital and government. Half of the children leave Petersburg when they grow up but many return after their travels.
Summer is the high fishing season where boats will come throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to fish but fishing and the canneries operate all year. Tourism is something that is tolerated and passively accepted. There are almost no cruise ships that come to Petersburg. The tourists are sport-fisherman that come to fishing lodge or a charter or cruisers, like us, that are passing through. Locals were sweatshirts in the drizzle. Fisherman can be identified by their rubber boots. They are rarely overweight and are often lean and muscular. In town, the streets are not paved 3 blocks from the shore. All of that said, every local said they love it here.
In the afternoon, Laurie continued her exploration of the town while the serpentine belt was removed and replaced. Also, the Hurricane Hydronic was serviced by removing and cleaning the nozzle to address the occasional flame-outs. A short planning meeting for the next day’s trip was discussed. Juneau is the destination and will take three days to get there. The currents, tide, winds and the options of anchorage were all discussed.
Sunday, June 26 – to Tracy Arm & A Humpback Whale Morning (Map Note: Tracy Arm is the second inlet above Hobart Bay)
The overnight drizzle had stopped leaving a ceiling of clouds about 500 feet above the water, 58 degrees, calm wind and flat water. The massive marina of fishing boats was left at 0700 hours and Petersburg was only slightly stirring. At the nearby junction with Frederick Sound, sea lions were competing for the limited space on the entrance buoy and there was a slight opposing current when Tribute turned toward Juneau.
The opposing current evaporated as the flooding current took over and for the rest of the day, Tribute would “Go with God” and cruise between 8.5 and 9.3 knots. Our first glacier, Paterson Glacier, revealed itself in the east when the clouds lifted. Southeast Alaska is the summer residence for about 2,500 humpback whales as they are attracted to the huge food supply. We had seen an occasional solo whale but today would quite different. About two hours after leaving Petersburg, excitement burst through Tribute’s pilothouse, as about 6 whales were spouting and diving off of Farragut Bay. Following the shoreline, they came at us from the west and continued their feeding after passing Tribute. Then, off to the port side, more spouts and dorsal fins were spotted. We watched all of these whales for about two hours before we turned northward onto Stephens Passage.
Immediately after Storm Island, 5 to 8 whales where seen on the starboard side about two miles away at Steamboat Bay. They were surfacing, spouting and diving in unison. Groups of spouts, dorsal fins and flukes indicated that they were likely herding their prey and feeding as a team. The five fingers island lighthouse is the site of a research project of listening to the whales. As Tribute passed by, at least two whales were sighted. We were awed, wide-eyed and grateful to witness this “Humpback Morning.”
While a lunch of small tuna sandwiches and cups of chili were served, a small group of Pacific White Side Dolphins were seen a mile off. They have some similarities to the Dall’s Porpoise but are distinctive and they tend to stay away from boats. Laurie, the resident naturalist, was certain of the identification.
About five minutes later, a violent stirring of water about 200 yards on the port side caught our eye. Then, five dorsal fins belonging to the Dall’s Porpoise were rocketing toward Tribute. In seconds, they were jumping and turning in the bow wake, going from one side of the boat to the other. For 20 minutes, the crew was thoroughly entertained. After that group left and about 10 minutes later, another stirring of water was seen on the starboard side about 500 yards away and this pod of dolphins “attacked” Tribute and their show was thoroughly enjoyed.
As the entrance to Tracy Arm and Endicott was approached, Laurie spotted a the huge carcass of a humpback whale on the shoreline. It was about 25 to 30 feet long and was fairly recent as the body was 90% intact. We had been following a 100 foot long vessel on AIS as it was very close to shore and discovered it was a crabber dropping a large number of pots.
The entrance to Tracy Arm revealed our first iceberg that was the size of a house. Then, looking northward up Stephens Passage, smaller bergs were seen in the distance. The icebergs hid the entrance markers of the red and green buoys. The chart plotter showed where the buoys should be and also a range marker, or a designated route on the chart that was confirmed by a land-mounted marker. This was not scary or was unsafe, however, we were on full alert as the car-sized and house-sized icebergs moved with the wind and the current. A first for us: boating with bergs.
The destination was No Name Cove that is immediately adjacent to the entrance on the north side. The deep cove is relatively shallow for Alaska and Tribute was anchored in 35 feet in the back of the cove at 4PM. Tribute had traveled 73 miles. The guidebooks said that the larger bergs will run a-ground and therefore Tribute will be protected. One other 60-foot yacht was anchored and later three other similar sized boats stayed the night. Shipperly rafted onto Tribute’s portside and we enjoyed dock-tails before dinner and later watched the movie, “Finding Nemo.”
Monday, June 27, 2016 – Tracy Arm and Taku Harbor The morning was cool at 53 degrees and seemed appropriate as Tribute was in iceberg country. The wind was calm and the skies were only partly cloudy, holding the promise of clear skies. By 8AM, only one boat was left in the anchorage with Tribute. We boarded Shipperly who would take us up the 25 mile long Tracy Arm as far possible. The tour boat captains were overheard on the radio saying that the ice was very heavy at about 20 miles.
For 2-1/2 hours, the experience was eye-popping as Ken piloted his Cutwater 28 between the car-sized bergs and avoiding the smaller, chair-sized bergie-bits. The bergs came off the glacier at the head of the fjord and wind, current and other pieces propelled everything downstream. Tracy Arm has several turns and the bergs are typically on the outside edges of the turns. The fjord is bounded on each side by mountains that slope back to their 3,000 foot plus peaks. The glacier and continuing erosion had left behind streams, waterfalls, and broad valleys.
The bergs were all shape and sizes. Some were artistically sculpted and the called for an interpretation. Others were plain and flat. Some were bright white and other were blue-white and a few were almost clear. The morning glare on the water made seeing the smaller bergie-bits hard to see and all eyes were watching forward.
For several miles, Shipperly followed a 60-foot yacht that behaved like a charter with an experienced captain. Two tour boats from Juneau packed with tourists, jet by us at 20 plus knots, their metal hulls oblivious to the ice. At the S-turns, the concentration of icebergs was too much for safe travel. Shipperly turned around at mile 18 and a whole new set of views was taken in. At this new angle, the glare was gone making the piloting easy. Shipperly arrived back at Tribute at 1:30 PM having successful piloted “Iceberg Alley.”
Tribute’s anchor was raised and Millie ran for the bed to hide under the blanket for the next part of the cruise. Shortly after entering Stephen’s Passage, the icebergs were gone and Tribute enjoyed an easy ride with calm wind and slack water for the next 25 miles. Taku Harbor has anchorage and two free docks that are owned and maintained by the state. The north part of the bay was littered with about 100 crab pots and a crabber was at the dock with a passage-making sailboat. Tribute tied up at 4:45PM.
The crabber was friendly and talkative and shared the crabbing was very poor this year. He lamented that the sea otters who were introduced after being trapped out decades earlier had decimated the crab population along with the clams and all the filter feeders. The state wants to manage the sea otter population but the federal government will not permit it. He said the fisheries around Ketchikan and only for sport fishing and most of those operators are not Alaskans, they just come up to take the resource and the money. He complained that the biologists who make the decisions were trained in colleges where they are too conservative in their estimates of the populations. He was very concerned about what his young child is going to inherit that will be result of decisions made today.
We walked the dock to a trail and met the sailors who have the passage-making sailboat. The boat is new to them and is made of ½ inch and 5/8 inch plate aluminum and was built to go around the world. Simply, it is built like a battleship. They left Sequim, WA in early May and are headed to Petersburg to go home for a while. Laurie made tacos and the evening was closed with editing today’s photos and listening to the iPod because the satellite radio’s reception is broken up due to the latitude and the mountains.
Tomorrow is on to Juneau, a milestone on this trip.
Just For Fun
Yard art in Wrangell.
The designers and leaders of his project had some fun by using some history of Petersburg.
Petersburg uses its windows on main street to communicate messages. Some announce weddings, others announce the birth of children. Then, there is the message like this.
A subject that was not taught in navigation school or was covered by the salesman in the orientation to the boat. One of those subjects that you have to figure out as you go along.
Interesting name to attach to a real estate company. Is it a statement about what living in Juneau?
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