Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chatham Chop

The weather outside is frightful.  After enjoying a wonderful July, with lots of sunshine and little wind, August is trying to even things out.  We left Juneau with good intentions to head back south and see some of the sights in southern Alaska before seriously looking for a place to settle in for the winter.  After rounding the northern end of Admiralty Island we headed down Chatham Strait with a leisurely but interesting itinerary in mind.  Two weeks later we had made forward progress about equal to three good days of travel and knew we had to reassess our plans.  The weather has been one low pressure system after another marching across the area, and each of them brings with it southerly winds and rain.  Southerly winds, especially strong southerly winds, are not the forecast you want to hear when your plans include several weeks of travel south, and rain is expected here but never really welcomed.  Chatham Strait is a fairly big body of water running roughly north-south, and its southern end is open to the Gulf Of Alaska, so it manages to funnel winds in off the ocean, and when these winds oppose the tidal currents you get what is locally referred to as the Chatham Chop.  Chatham Chop is composed of steep waves spaced closely together, four to five foot waves (or larger depending on the wind speed) about ten feet apart. Trying to move against these conditions is truly an exercise in frustration.  Luckily there are also several hot springs in this area, so there are some good places to hide out and wait for the weather to change.  So far the forecasts don't hold much hope for the weather changing for the better, so we choose the least bad days and try to make small trips to the next protected bay, a strategy that keeps us from being out in the really nasty stuff but also slows our progress to a dismal pace.  At this point, we're tempted to turn back around and head north again, not only because that gets us better aligned with the weather but also because that brings us back past the hot springs again.  In the mean time the heater is keeping us warm in the absence of sunshine, and we have plenty of books to read when we are not busy enjoying the scenery, so life is not all bad.  If we could just find a convenient ice cream shop....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Out of Touch

No, I'm not referring to my lack of keeping up on current events, although that has certainly been the case this summer.  We are heading off again tomorrow and will be out of touch, probably for a couple of weeks.  It's been a strange experience, spending the better part of the past couple weeks in town.  Nothing like riding buses, listening to sirens, and regular ice cream (I'm enjoying a mix of chocolate and banana as I write this) to sever that spiritual relationship with the sea that we have built over the past several months.  I do enjoy the socializing that seems to happen when we tie to a dock, but the fact that we seem to hemorrhage money every time we get close to civilization means our bank account will be happier once we leave the city behind.  It also means the blog posts will probably be sparse for a while, but I will continue writing and I'll post when we get the chance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Visiting with Family in Juneau (Kind Of)

My family came to visit us in Juneau, but it turned out to be a pretty strange trip.  My mom and my brother flew out from Minnesota, meeting my aunt Linda from Philadelphia when they got to Seattle, and continuing on to Alaska from there.  Several hours before they were supposed to leave, they got a phone call that my 96 year old grandmother had been brought to the hospital with complications from a fall earlier in the week.  They were told she was in stable condition, and decided to continue with the trip.  By the time they arrived in Juneau they got another call saying grandmother had taken a turn for the worse and wasn't expected to make it through the night.  My mom and aunt immediately booked tickets to return to MN, while my brother decided to stay in Alaska and wait to see how things progressed.  So, my mom and aunt got to stay just long enough to have an early dinner before getting back on a plane.  We found a nearby restaurant that served seafood so we could get fresh fish and chips, so at least we could find a little humor in the situation by saying that my mom and aunt flew all the way to Juneau Alaska, just for the halibut.  My mom and aunt arrived back in MN in time to visit briefly with their mother before her condition worsened and she passed away during the night on Friday.  The photo above is of my grandmother at our wedding in Moab, just about to get in my truck for a trail ride down the mountain from our ceremony site.  Most of the other participants took the paved road back into town, but even in her 90's my grandmother wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to drive back down the steep, narrow shelf road we use when we are doing the serious off road trails. She was a real inspiration to anyone that thought they might be too old for anything, and her passing leaves another serious empty spot in my life.

Nicole and I tried to make the best of things and show my brother around the basic touristy sights of Juneau.  We went to the hatchery to see the chum salmon very near their peak run with thousands of fish in the ladder.  We also went to the state museum (a good local native american exhibit), the mining museum (probably not worth the long walk from town, although it may have been more fun if we would have tried panning for gold while we were there), the Mendenhall glacier (cool to be that close to a glacier, plus we got to see spawning sockeye salmon, a mountain goat, and almost got run over by a black bear on the walk back to the bus stop), did some touristy shopping around town, and rounded things out with a trip out on the boat to see some whales.  My brother decided to cut the trip short so he could be back in MN in time for the funeral, so we will just have to save the rest of the items on their to-do list until they can arrange to return to Alaska another time.  Nicole and I will take advantage of being in a relatively big town to restock on some of our food stores, and then head out for more exploring around southeast Alaska.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Whale of a Tail

Since we arrived in Alaska, we have been seeing more than our fair share of whales. On our last trip to Alaska, we saw a lot of whales in Fredrick Sound, and looked forward to getting there again in hopes of a repeat performance. After passing through Petersburg and entering Fredrick Sound this year, we were not dissapointed. As we made our way north, we were seeing up to several dozen whales each day, making whale watching pretty exciting, and navigation equally exciting when they would surface close to the boat or gather into groups making it challenging to get past. We have continued to see large numbers of whales in Stephens Passage, Lynn Cannal, Chatham Channel, and Icy Strait. It got to the point where my log entry for August 1 read: Left Hoonah Harbor, had to avoid a whale just outside the breakwater. Soon after, had to avoid a whale at the entrance to Port Frederick. Had to avoid additional whales, one breeching, in Icy Strait near The Sisters Islands. Used the channel inside Rocky Island to avoid whales just outside Swanson Harbor. Steep waves from southerly winds make it hard to see the whales while crossing Chatham Channel. Had to detour around southern part of Funter Bay before anchoring to avoid large group of whales inside bay.
That was just one fairly short afternoon trip.

Most of the whales we see are humpback whales, although we do see gray whales and orcas on occasion as well. Just the misty cloud from a whale breathing is a treat to see, but we have been lucky enough to see the full range of acrobatics. Tail slapping, fin waving, spy hopping, breeching and bubble-net feeding are all parts of the activities we have witnessed.
A few weeks ago we were talking to some other sailors and found out that a sailboat had just been sunk by a whale outside Hoonah. One of the customers from my business lives in Hoonah, and because there are not many sailboats in the small communities here I was concerned it might have been him they were talking about. He didn't answer his phone, so for the next several weeks we continued to wonder until we got a chance to visit Hoonah. Thankfully it turned out that it wasn't his boat, they had been in Europe for the past several weeks, but he did know the people that had lost their boat. Nobody is quite sure what happened, but the owners think the whale may have hit the keel hard enough to shear it off or severely bend it, and the boat filled with water and sunk so quickly they didn't even have time to put on survival suits. They were lucky enough to have another local boat close by to pull them from the water, but the boat was a total loss. The incident has definitely made us much more cautious around whales. Just to keep things in perspective, the name of the boat that sunk was "Ishmael".