Monday, November 4, 2013

With the emotional Hawaii send-off astern, we resolutely beat north against 25 knots of NE trades. Aunt Abby's tropical bouquet, still lashed to the bow, met green water regularly for three days and the flowers gradually eroded away to a few desultory nubs.

Sunrise at sea
As we neared the edge of the tropics, the North Pacific weather situation remained unfavorable. The semi-permanent high-pressure area responsible for the prevalent NW wind in California was unusually and stubbornly camped way out on the dateline, leaving Orca with a poor choice between headwinds and calms. On the fifth night, as expected, we coasted into a brick wall: 600 nautical miles without a breath of wind. Orca floated perfectly still surrounded by the absolute silence of outer space; the stars, planets, milky way, and moon indistinguishably reflected by the ocean's invisible surface. Sweeping raindrops occasionally brought reprieve by disturbing the microorganisms at the water's surface to lead a pulsing wave of phosphorescence over the ocean.
The ocean became mirror calm, without even the ubiquitous long-period swell. The horizon disappeared into the sky and even standing became difficult, balance tricky.
Drifting with a now-familiar cluster of plastic flotsam, we baked in the day's heat and reveled in the night's magnificence for a week. Finally, a fitful breeze riffled the water's surface from the NW. The sails filled, barely, and we crept forward shadowed by curious Minke whales. Passing Oregon's latitude at 1,100 miles offshore and free from coastal upwelling, we stood night watch in shorts, and then a tee-shirt. Crossing 50N, the temperature plunged and the air became cold, hard, as clear and brittle as crystal. If anything, the stars blazed brighter. Closing the Alaskan coast, an undulating curtain of eerie green light rose in the north until dawn revealed the towering glaciated mountains, volcanoes, and endless tree-lined fjords of Baranof Island. We puttered into Sitka Sound in a dead calm, appropriate to a 27 day passage in light winds and calms.

If South Africa was the wildest place we've been from a socioeconomic standpoint, Alaska has been the wildest in the true sense of the word. Sitka, little more than an outpost of 8,000 people clinging the edge of an island 70 miles off the mainland coast, is the ex-capital of the state and the fourth largest 'city' in the Nation's largest state. One can walk across it in 15 minutes.
This isolation results in a rare breed of people, reminiscent of the New Zealander. In the village south of Sitka, seven houses were broken into by grizzly bears in a single night last week. We asked why people didn't board up their windows and the response was "its easier to replace the window than the whole wall." Last month, the start of deer season was no secret. Headless carcasses hung from the rigging of boats in the harbor, dripping and swaying as they were efficiently disassembled. With such a low population density, the hunting rules are generous to the point of being ludicrous: in some areas, ten wolves per day--unless in self defense. Californians will have trouble imagining a scenario in which its necessary or even possible to survive an attack by more than ten wolves, but it's something Alaskan law takes in stride.

Getting Cold
Salmon in the river
The season is changing rapidly. The last salmon carcasses have rotted to skeletons and the bald eagles are restless. Every ten days another hour of daylight is lost and the nights grow cold. The rain has turned to sleet and hail as the snow creeps ever further down the mountains. This morning there was a thin layer of ice on the water around Orca and at high noon, the puddles stayed frozen. People are buttoning up and the town is pulling together for mutual support through winter's cold and darkness. Every night, it seems, a new community event debuts featuring scalding coffee, brightly defiant lights, thick hearty stew, a roaring cedar fire, banjos, bagpipes, Tlingit drums, knitting for the old and dancing for the young. And through it all, at a much deeper psychological level, Kara and I are still wondering just what, exactly, we've gotten ourselves into.

Snowy Gavan Hill View