Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Alaskan Boatyard

Hello Friends,

Spring came abruptly to Alaska. Seemingly overnight, the understory erupted in the fresh, verdant green of deciduous foliage. A sleep-muddled bear fell through the roof of a Juneau house into a child's birthday party and, in Sitka, a grumpy grizzly wandered the streets preying on dogs while taking generous gunfire from the locals.

Leaving Sitka was a bittersweet occasion, but the weather was fair and the endless wilderness beckoned. Several consecutive going-away celebrations left us a little groggy, but the brisk spring air pushed the boat slowly north. Kara's brother, Nathaniel had joined us for a brief sojourn, a rather inexplicable occurrence given that his last visit had consisted primarily of large, wicked seas and a terrifying collision with a humpback whale in the southern Indian Ocean. Not knowing any better, he considered the sea conditions in the Gulf of Alaska just fine, if a little chilly, as we worked out way up the outside of Chichigof Island.

Chichigof Island, incidentally, is renown for having the highest population density of grizzly bears on Earth. Kara, of course, wanted to hike daily and so I'd borrowed a 12-gauge shotgun. I was under no illusion about stopping a charging bear—or even my ability to locate the gun's trigger under such circumstances—but I hoped it would make loud, presumably bear-scaring noises. This theory proved fantastically incorrect; the bears we encountered were decidedly unperturbed by gunfire and I started to worry that, just maybe, the more curious were coming to investigate the unfamiliar noises. Their reactions to our presence ranged from imperious disinterest to nervous retreat, and after several peaceable encounters I stopped worrying.

As the last grocery store faded astern, Kara's role as provision-shopper began to evolve. In the course of her endless quest for fresh food, wild mushrooms, greens, and berries gradually supplanted their storebought predecessors. She perfected her salmon-trolling technique, and there were several halibut dramas; the largest catches were tremendously muscular and impossibly difficult to subdue, even after being hoisted aboard. The ensuing cockpit battles all culminated in an abrupt, deadly silence, the clank of a gore-spattered anchor dropping from Kara's shaking hand, tears leaking through beads of sweat as she grappled with the harsh realities of wresting food from the wilderness.

In July, we entered the inside passage through Icy Straight. In the late 1700's, the first European explorers reported the area unnavigable, choked with ice, and named it accordingly. Other, recent sailing publications advised caution around large bergs. We sailed through with a sharp lookout, but the ice had vanished. We kept Orca pointed east—deeper into ice country—and finally the first bergs appeared. The sea became deceptively peaceful as we spiraled further inland; the waterways tightened, cliffs soaring. Four times daily, the twenty-foot tides struggled to squeeze through narrow passages and in places the currents ran at 15 knots with large standing waves and tumbling, house-sized ice cubes.
Ford's Terror
Orca was feeling sluggish and the swirling tidal currents had us at their mercy. Her bottom was dirty, but the frigid glacial waters left Kara disinclined to dive the hull to scrape the vigorous Alaskan growth—with twenty hour days, the marine ecosystem was booming. We gave ourselves a crash-course the use of the Alaskan boatyard; I drove Orca aground at high tide. In an hour, she was high, dry, and ready for paint.

With a clean bottom, we sliced decisively through the currents. Orca pushed even deeper into the fjords than should have been possible; our nautical charts, last updated in 2009, told us we were buried beneath five-hundred vertical feet of ancient tidewater glacier. Finally, miles further inland, we sighted the Dawes glacier. Cracking ice echoed louder than thunder, and hundreds of tons of ice cascaded from the face. The slabs rained into the sea, explosions of spray rocketed hundreds of feet up, and the entire waterway sloshed endlessly. Floating bergs scraped, crashed, collided, broke, rolled, and groaned.

Powerboat at Dawe's Glacier
But even floating in this raw, roiling granite basin surrounded by the awesome power of the ice, it was obvious that something even bigger, even more tremendous, was conquering the glacier's hold on this land. The ice-scars on the valley's smooth walls, like high water marks, were thousands of feet up. Plants—even lichen—had yet to colonize the fresh rocks and scree adjacent to the glacier, and meltwater roared from a hundred waterfalls. This glacier was in full retreat.

We turned south, pushing through a slurry of shattered ice and into Canada. The salmon vanished at the border, unable to spawn with their home streams choked by the muddy runoff hemorrhaging from from clear-cut logging operations. Signs of civilization began to appear; boarded-up sportfishing resorts, networks of logging roads, and industrial salmon farms where desultory attendants shoveled pink food pellets laced with antibiotics into vast pens of imported Atlantic salmon (without a steady diet of artificial dye, farmed salmon fillets would be grey and unmarketable).

Three hundred miles into Canada, the first vacation homes appeared—at first just tiny cabins. As our latitude decreased, their size and density exploded until, finally, we re-entered the U.S. at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island where the water's edge is an impenetrable wall of five-story condominiums. The adjacent tiers of mansions had swelled to include every conceivable inch of waterfront space, and 'no trespassing' signs were ubiquitous. Somehow, throughout the San Juan Islands, it is common practice to market exclusive access to the tidelands, resulting in a beautiful coastline of forested beaches almost entirely owned—and fiercely defended—by private development interests. They made it abundantly clear that little Coconut was not welcome ashore, and our excitement about exploring the islands withered.
Missing Glacier?
With the notion of finding a berth and a job for the winter, Kara called each of the fifty marinas in Seattle. Confronted with lengthy waiting lists, large insurance minimums, and a general distaste for live-aboards, Orca, seemingly of her own volition, turned west, out into the Pacific and was swallowed by a dense fog. She emerged fifty miles off San Francisco Bay, where her course began to angle east and we soon found ourselves on a course for Thanksgiving with our families in Monterey.

Thanks to everyone who bought a copy of the book, and especially those twenty-seven friends and strangers who contributed to the 4.8 star average on

Fair winds,
John & Kara

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