Alaska Roundup

It is over, an odd and melancholy feeling pervades. After three weeks out the boat begins to feel like home, leaving it a sad thing. But we are also ready to go back to our regular lives, which are not really all that bad in Hawai’i. Looking forward to seeing friends and getting back into the swirl of the life we have built on the island. I return to the observatory, with a major project coming to a peak with the delivery of the K1 laser. Deb has gotten a call from the school, they want her back for the next school year.

Nordic Star in Ford's Terror
The Nordic Star anchored in Ford’s Terror while we explore
It is just the trip in between which promises to be a real pain, too much luggage and a very long layover in Seattle await. We are still in the hotel in Juneau, checked out of the room, but with hours to kill before the flight. At least I still have WiFi connectivity to do a little blogging from a conference room just off the lobby.

Three weeks on the water. Three weeks of beautiful weather, whales, halibut, icebergs and fantastic scenery. Hard to think of how the trip could have gone better, maybe a few more fish caught?

Week one was spent mostly touring with just enough fishing to eat and a little for some friends to take home. We headed south from Juneau to the fjord of Tracy Arm to dodge icebergs for a day. From there it was further south around the end of Admiralty Island. As we passed the Brothers Islands there were whales, both humpback and orca everywhere, also sea lions and porpoise. Up Chatham Straight we stopped at Barnof Hot Springs and one of my favorite places, Tenakee Springs.

Continue reading “Alaska Roundup”

Back On Line

Three weeks without a connection! Over now, a WiFi fix available from the hotel in Juneau. I have deleted the couple dozen spam comments that leaked through the filters and loosened the comment rules again.

Be a bit before regular posting resumes, have a couple days of travel in front of me yet. I think there are a few more scheduled posts to tide the blog over.

Now on to the 645 emails stacked up…

Postcard from Alaska – Salmon Run 2

Standing in the rain watching the fish. If you do not move for a few moments the salmon seem to ignore you and begin crowding the shore in an attempt to get up the creek. The mass of fish fills the mouth of the stream as each attempts to take the barrier of the first cascade under the highway bridge.

Those that have already spawned, or for whom the effort proved too much litter the gravel bar beyond where we stand, dead fish at the end of their life cycle become the nourishment that will enable other life to flourish. The nutrients of the deep ocean delivered to a gravel bar in Alaska to feed ravens, eagles, bears and more.

Salmon Run
Deb watching a salmon run at Sheep Creek south of Juneau, Alaska

Postcard from Alaska – Salmon Run

In a scene lifted from innumerable nature films, a small creek jammed with fish. So many salmon fill the stream that it seems there is more fish than water. Large fish, some up to three feet long, scales and fins turning a dull green as they lose the silvery sheen of life. To see this spectacle in person lends an immediacy and an awe of nature that strikes deep in one’s thoughts. Here life completes the cycle, salmon coming to spawn after years at sea. Returning to the same stream that gave them birth.

Evolution is a powerful force, driven by the irresistible instinct to spawn the next generation, to reproduce so that the species might survive, Even if it means dying in the process. The species goes on in the eggs and sperm deposited in the stream bed.

Salmon Run
A heavy salmon run jams at the mouth of Sheep Creek south of Juneau, Alaska

Postcard from Alaska – Wreck

There is a way to leave Sitka without entering the open ocean, a sheltered waterway that leads to Juneau and the rest of Alaska. The passage from Sitka to the open waters of Chatham Straight is in places very narrow, a series of passes and straights that lead inland, the last section found on the charts as Peril Straight. The passage is plied by dozens of vessels daily including the Alaskan State Ferry.

In a narrow passage just north of Sitka, a place called Neva Straight lies the wreck of a tugboat, a vessel that failed to make the journey. A rusted reminder to be careful in navigating these waters.

The wreck of a tugboat in Neva Strait north of Sitka, Alaska

Postcard from Alaska – Tracy Arm

Tracy Arm is one of the must see places near Juneau. If you are not traveling in your own boat you can jump on one of the fast excursion boats that make the run from Juneau each day. A classic fjord with walls that tower thousands of feet above, waterfalls everywhere, and icebergs to make navigation interesting as you make your way up the glacially carved canyon. The terrain beneath the water is just as dramatic, not unusual to be a few hundred feet from shore with a thousand feet of water below the keel. In some places the depth finder can not find bottom, over 1,200 ft or more down.

At the top there is Sawyer Glacier, a tidewater glacier that drops those icebergs into the water as you watch. There are actually two glaciers, in twin arms of the fjord that separate near the end of the trip. Sit among the ice flows watching the seals and ice crashing from the cliff-like face. If you can time your arrival for high tide it is far more likely to see a really big calving, with hundreds or thousands of tons of ices breaking free from the face to crash into the water and create waves that rock the boat.

It is customary to scoop up some of that glacial ice floating around to fill your coolers. Crystal clear and very dense, the ice from the bottom of the glacier is interesting stuff. We break it up and make cocktails out of it to enjoy as we cruise back down the fjord.

Tracy Arm
Looking up Tracy Arm, a classic fjord in southeast Alaska


If we are anywhere near on schedule I should be in Tenakee Springs today. Tenakee is one of those places in the world that is just special. The town is quite simple, a single line of homes and a few businesses along the shore for about one mile. The center of town is found at the seaplane dock and the general store. At the far eastern end, half a mile down the shoreline, are the state docks where anyone can tie up a boat for a small nightly fee.

View Larger Map
Google Map of Tenakee Springs
The town has one main road, unpaved, where almost all the traffic is on foot. A few ATV’s, wheelbarrows and pushcarts haul groceries and other cargo. There are a couple trucks in town, one is a large pickup with a water tank that serves as the local firetruck. A daily float-plane run connects the town with the rest of the world. The only other way to get to Tenakee is by boat, taking most of a day to get from Juneau.

There really are springs at Tenakee, wonderful hot springs that supply water just right for bathing. The springs are the reason why the town is located here, endless hot water available to douse the cold of an Alaskan winter. To take advantage of this water there is a public bathhouse constructed over the main spring. Male and female bathing is handled by alternating hours of access. Sitting in the bath and enjoying the water one evening I was talking to one of the local guys, he made the comment of having “seen half the town naked, the wrong half!”

Tenakee Springs is a place where man lives, but nature rules. Stray very far out of town and you quickly enter wilderness. This remains the only place I have had a close encounter with a grizzly bear, way too close, just a 100yards from the state marina while on the beach. There is a great story there, one I will save for another time.

The general store is a place that would not have been out of place in most towns of the American west back in the 1930′ or 1940’s. A clapboard building found right in the center of town on the waterfront, right next to the float plane dock and the helipad. A single large room with a small selection of all the necessities. One wall serves as a gift shop and gallery for local artists, selling watercolors and other artwork to those of us who are just visiting.

Looking forward to returning here, taking a bath in the hot spring, and generally enjoying a bit of rural Alaska.

Tenakee Springs
The town of Tenakee Springs, Alaska, 1 July 2004

Postcard from Alaska – Grey Day

The weather can be glorious, grey and cold, or simply miserable. I have experienced trips with nothing but sunny days and temperatures allowing shorts and sandals. Other times have brought rains that equaled anything I have seen, when it seemed the sea was both above and below. Sailing through narrow, rocky passages with nothing but radar to see the shore a few hundred feet away, shrouded in fog.

You take what you get on a trip, no way to reschedule now. Rain or shine, fog or mist, each can be beautiful in their own way to an traveler willing to enjoy the experience, whatever life brings.

Grey Day
A grey view out the wheelhouse window of the Chrisara on Chatham Straight, 3 July 2004

Postcard from Alaska – Bridge

The bridge of the Nordic Star, home for the next three weeks. I will be spending many hours at the wheel as we explore. There are two marine radios above along with a stereo system with CD player. (Note to self, put together a few CD’s of my playlists). On the dash are three flat panel displays that can be configured to display the GPS, marine charts, radar and depth finder display. The view is the best in the boat, aside from climbing to the upper deck. Also visible is the usual clutter of charts, binoculars, camera gear, radios, drinks and munchies.

The spacious bridge of the Nordic Star, a 52′ Nordic Tug

Postcard from Alaska – Nordic Tug

Nordic Tugs is a company based in Burlington, Washington on the Puget Sound. They make a line of boats intended for cruising the coastal waters of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. Comfortable, roomy, well appointed and very seaworthy. One of these boats will be our home for the next few weeks as we explore the inland passages of southeast Alaska. An ideal way to experience the spectacular scenery of the region.

Nordic Tugs Charters of Juneau operates and rents a fleet of tugs. It is these vessels we have used in our family expeditions each year. From the smaller 32′, to the larger 42′ Chrisara and the largest 54′ Nordic Star. It is this larger vessel we will be renting again this year. Three staterooms, plenty of freezer space, a full galley, and a large bridge that does not seem crowded even when the entire crew comes topside to view a whale.

I expect to get a fair amount of handling practice with the boat this year as I will be staying the entire three weeks to assist my father with boat handling, a combination first mate and deckhand.

Nordic Tug
The 42′ Nordic Tug, Chrisara, anchored in Blue Mouse Cove, Glacier Bay, Alaska, 28 June 2004