Friday, September 30, 2011

Wether to Weather the Weather

Rumor has it if you are sailing in Southeast Alaska on or around the autumnal equinox, you should expect some bad weather.  Our bad weather started a little early, you can see the beginnings of my sniveling in my earlier post about Chatham.  Just to make sure we were aware that what we had experienced really wasn't that bad, things started to fall apart weather-wise soon after we left Chatham Strait.  We considered continuing with our plans to head further south for another few weeks of cruising when we left Kake, but the tides were not cooperating for Rocky Pass and Wrangell Narrows seemed a long way out of the way, so about the time we decided to give up on our southerly wanderings the weather forecasts started calling for a serious storm heading our way.  We checked the charts and picked what we thought would be a good hide-out.  We had been in Cannery Cove before and remembered that it was shallow with good holding and lots of swing room, we didn't remember that it was pretty open and that the winds curved around and into the bay, but it turned out to be a decent place to sit out the storm.  The winds lasted for two days, staying pretty steady in the mid to high 20 mph range with a couple gusts over 50 in the cove, with much worse out in the passages.  The stay was made much better when we were joined by some folks we had met earlier in the summer, good company always helps pass the time. Our new friends sail a home-built sailing barge, a very cool and unique vessel, and we got to share a few meals and get to know them better over the few days we were there.
Once the storm passed we had a forecast for a few nice days so we made a quick trip over to Petersburg to fuel up the boat and grab burgers and beers in town.  By the time we had our errands done and were heading out of town, the forecasts were already starting in on the next round of storms.  We decided to make a run for the warm springs, if we were going to get stuck somewhere, it seemed like a good idea to be at a free dock so we could easily get off the boat for some exercise, and the hot springs nearby sealed the deal on our decision.  My weather notes for that time read: Sunday winds Northeast 30 knots, changing to Southwest overnight, Monday Southeast 20 increasing to 40 by afternoon, and 55 knots overnight, Tuesday Southeast 50 knots decreasing to 30 overnight and shifting to South 35 on Wednesday.  The positive side to this weather is that what they were getting further south, where we were trying to go, was much worse, and one evening I turned on the weather to listen to the hourly observations and the conditions further south were 76 mph gusting 106, well above hurricane force winds.
After this round of gales, there was a one day lull in the winds, forecasts for only 20 knots, so most of the boats that had gathered at the dock with us decided to make a run for it.  We were in no hurry and with more winds forecast the day after we stuck around for a few more days soaking in the tubs, and then with a two day window over the weekend we made our break for Sitka.  We got one calm day, then the temperatures plummeted overnight to just above freezing, which meant we woke up to fog so thick the shore had disappeared.  By noon the fog lifted and we made a half-day run to get us closer to Sitka.  With gales forecast for the next six days we decided to make the best of the Northerly gale to push us south before the winds shifted to the south and trapped us again, and made a quick run into Sitka.
Sitting here at the dock in Sitka it has been raining and blowing hard all day, interspersed with bouts of sleet and hail along with thunder and lightning.  We are still not sure if we will be staying here for the winter, but we do know that with this weather expected to last a few more day we won't be moving anytime soon.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What would (your name here) Do?

You've probably seen the bumper stickers: "What would Jesus Do?", "What would Gandhi do?" or my personal favorite as a MN boy, "What would Wellstone Do?".
One of the hardest aspects of long term traveling by sailboat, or "cruising" as we call it, is the number of choices that have to be made every day.  With a more structured lifestyle many of our choices are made for us, but when you go cruising most of that structure is gone, and you have to make all the decisions related to each action every day.  Some of these are win-win decisions: Do we stay in a beautiful anchorage for another day and relax, or move on to the next exiting and new destination.  Some of them are lose-lose situations: do we stay in a crappy anchorage during bad weather where we don't feel safe, or do we venture out into the bad weather to get beat up and exhausted with the hope but no guarantee of the next harbor being better.  Some decisions are less clear cut: do we transit a somewhat dangerous passage in order to get to a harbor that we know will be better than the last, or take a longer but safer route instead.
With both of us being fairly poor at decision making, the daily decisions can make for some exhausting times, and that is not taking into account the harder, life-encompassing decisions.  Thus we have decided to call on the help of our readers (I'm hoping there are still people reading our blog).  We have been exposed to several unexpected opportunities this year, from a fully outfitted commercial fishing boat to an off-the-grid house in a secluded cove outside Glacier Bay to caretaking a wilderness lodge, to mention a few.  All of these would take some sort of serious commitment, either time, financial, or a combination of both, but most of them are intriguing in some way.  We have heard from quite a few people that they envy us our current choices of lifestyle, so although the choice to drop all the modern conveniences for a life of sailing and sloth is still entirely up to you, at least you can give us input according to your ideas and experience.  This is your chance to say "quit being stupid, of course you should do...".
With the weather in Alaska starting to take on a nasty winter-like temperament, we are starting to make plans to hunker down somewhere until next spring when the sailing is a bit less rugged, and this will eventually lead us to start making plans for our next adventure and the entirety of our future beyond that.
Our original plan was to take our time getting to Southeast Alaska this summer, spend the remainder of the summer in this area, find somewhere to stay on the boat for the winter where one or both of us can get work to replenish our drastically reduced savings, then head further north next spring to explore in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak and Kenai areas and possibly out to the Aleutians if time and weather permit.  These new areas are more remote, the navigation more demanding and the weather more formidable, but the surroundings are stunning and relatively untouched compared to much of Southeast.
Another option is to stay in Southeast for another season, there are still a lot of new to us places we would like to see.  We are already here so we would have the extra several months normally spent traveling north to spend in the area, we have a better grasp of the resources here and how to use them, and we have the potential of sailing friends joining us here for at least part of the summer.
A third option would be to stay in Southeast and work here in the fishing industry.  This has been an exceptional year for commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska and with some new options there is a lot of potential for making money.  It would keep us in the area and keep us on the water, but put us in a positive cash flow situation for the summer instead of our normal negative cash flow.
Another option is to move away from the oceanic lifestyle all together.  We have talked about eventually getting property in the mountains and settling in to a more terrestrial life and maybe this is a good time to do exactly that before our savings are completely gone and we are trying to make something from nothing.
We are also open to other options, those that know us have an idea of our likes and dislikes and may have a great idea that we haven't yet considered.  Feel free to post your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below, or if you would feel better about a less public option please send us an E mail.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

For the Birds

One of the joys that Nicole and I have found in the cruising life is bird watching and bird identification.  It's an activity that fits well with the lifestyle, having ample free time for observing, and traveling to different areas for exposure to varying species.  I thought I would have a leg up on this having worked as an ornithologist in the past, but it turns out Nicole is quick and efficient with the identification guides, and the species I don't know off the top of my head are quickly found by her paging through the books we keep on board.  For some reason it didn't occur to us for a long time to keep a list, that anyone else would be interested in what we are seeing, but we started this year and wanted to share our findings so far.  As an interesting side note, even though we are travelling through the same areas that we did two years ago, we are seeing different species, and different concentrations on this years trip.  In 2009 we saw puffins, but haven't seen any on this trip.  Neither of us can remember seeing many loons on our earlier trip, but we see them all the time this year.  Our biggest mystery comes with hummingbirds. We saw hummingbirds two years ago, but not nearly as many as we have seen this year.  We are also seeing them in unusual places, sometimes when we are very far from land.  The most likely explanation is an attraction to color, our boat is bright red, the inflatable boat we tow behind us is red, the rain gear we wear is red or yellow, so there is a lot there to attract their attention.  One of the constants we have noticed from both trips are the eagles, and especially in Alaska.  There are eagles in almost every bay we go into, in all of the towns we visit, and sometimes they are so numerous that they are hard to count. As I mentioned above, this list is just a partial list, but it gives you an idea of the variety we are seeing and some of the more unusual finds.  You will notice a definite lack of gulls on the list.  This is not from a lack of seeing them, but more from the frustration of trying to get a positive identification.  If you enjoy bird watching and have a guide book close at hand, open to the section on gulls and spend a few minutes trying to decipher the differences and you will understand what we mean.

Bald Eagle
Golden Eagle
Turkey Vulture
Surf Scoter
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Harlequin Duck
Pigeon Guillemot
Rufous Hummingbird
Western Grebe
Canada Goose
Common Loon
Pacific Loon
Black Oystercatcher
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Slate Colored Junco
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Common Goldeneye
Yellow-Rumped Warbler
European Starling
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow
Belted Kingfisher
Rhinoceros Auklet
Marbled Murrlet
Common Murre
Sandhill Crane
Red-Necked Phalarope
Black Legged Kittiwake
Arctic Tern
Red-Throated Loon
Hermit Thrush
Spotted Sandpiper
Red Legged Kittiwake

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kake and Ice Cream

We were still trying to get south, and the weather wasn't looking good for rounding Cape Decision, so we thought we might try to sneak through Rocky Pass and get into Sumner Strait.  We were also low on water and decided we would stop in to the village of Kake to get some fuel and refill our water tanks.  The communities in Southeast Alaska seem to belong to one of three categories: Towns, with a population in the thousands and most modern amenities; villages, with smaller populations, in many cases predominantly native people, and limited facilities; and what I would call outposts, places with a dock, but not necessarily having community power, treated water, or food and/or fuel for sale.  Kake falls into the village category, having a ferry terminal and airport but very limited supplies and a mostly native population.  When we stopped, most of the town was shut down for a funeral, but luckily there was still someone at the fuel dock so our detour was not wasted.  We reassessed our fuel plan when we were told the price, more than $6 per gallon, the highest we had seen this year, and just bought enough to get us to the next stop.  After thinking through our options for the night, we decided to stay at the marina to give us a chance to look around town and when the store reopened the next day we could get some cooking supplies we needed.  The cell phone reception was frustratingly spotty in the marina, but we did manage to get in a couple calls to check in with family, and we found internet access at high tide so we could check email.  The next day we walked in to the store in the early afternoon and found the prices for food were comparable to fuel, very high, and bought only a few items.  Strangely, their price on Ben and Jerry's pints was the best we had found in Alaska, so at least I was going to get ice cream for my trouble.  On our way back to the marina, a couple stopped and offered us a ride, and after finding out we were visiting by boat they gave us a quick driving tour of the town.  Our observations and their explanations confirmed that this is a very poor community, with almost no local industry, and most of the population survives only through government help.  Nicole and I both found that the people seemed friendly and nice, but the overall feel was pretty bleak and depressing.  With many of the other communities in the area having at least something positive to offer visitors, I don't have any reason to recommend others to stop in Kake.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Bear-y Good Time

I was going to title this post "Da Bears", but if there is anything Packers fans and Vikings fans can agree on, it's that nobody wants to talk about Chicago.  Anyway, I thought I would try a post with less of those word-things and more pretty pictures, so here it is.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Things That go Bump in the Night

I rarely sleep through the night when we are on the boat.  Every few hours I wake up and check to make sure the boat hasn't filled with water, or washed up on the shore, or started on fire, etc.  Most nights I wake up on my own, check things to make sure everything is OK, and go back to sleep.  Some nights something happens to wake me, the most common event is that the wind picks up and makes enough noise to disturb me.  The past few nights the things that are waking me have taken a turn to the bizarre.  Our first night in this new anchorage both Nicole and I woke up at the same time, but we couldn't identify what woke us.  As I got up to do my normal checks I saw that our GPS position hadn't changed since we anchored, but the depth sounder showed only about half the depth of water under the boat that I expected.  I turned on the other sounder we have and it agreed that we were quickly running out of water.  With nothing to do short of pulling the anchor in the middle of the night and trying to re-anchor, I set my mental alarm clock to wake me in an hour and went back to bed.  An hour later, the depth was still dropping, and according to our tide charts we would run out of water well before low tide.  None of this made sense, we had checked the depths when we anchored and had more than enough water, and we hadn't moved since then so there shouldn't have been any change.  I continued to monitor the situation, low tide should have occurred about dawn so there would be some light to see what was happening.  When I checked the depth next, it was just starting to get light outside, and everything was back to normal and we had plenty of water under the boat.  The next night we stayed in the same place again, and shortly after we went to bed we were both awakened again, this time from something hitting the hull of the boat.  I got up and went out on deck to check, but didn't see anything on the boat or in the water around us.  When I got back into bed, we heard a fish jump just outside the boat, and then another, and then something hit the anchor chain.  This happened several more times through the night, and confirmed what I had suspected the night before.  The bay we were in was full of pink salmon, coming to spawn in the stream at the head of the bay.  During the day we had seen large schools all over the bay, numbering in the thousands, and at night they had been drawn to our boat by the anchor light.  There were so many that it was causing the depth sounder to read them and not the bottom of the bay.  The second night we had seen seals and a sea lion close to the boat just before dark, and that was the noises we were hearing, the panicking salmon trying to escape the seals and running into the boat or the anchor chain.  The other option is a giant squid sleeping under our boat, and every once in a while reaching out and shaking the anchor chain.  I didn't see any tentacle prints on the hull the next morning, so I'm sticking with the salmon story.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Red Bluff Bay

Most times when a particular place is described in the cruising guides, sounding too good to be true, it turns out to be exactly that, too good to be true.  This is one of the exceptions, a place even better than advertised.  After waiting many days for the weather to clear up, we finally gave in and headed out on a not so horrible forecast.  Chatham Strait turned out to be reasonable, some chop and some big ocean rollers but nothing too uncomfortable, and only occasional bouts of light rain to keep things damp and misty.
The "truth in advertising" starts right away as you approach the area, the high, rocky red bluffs being visible from quite a ways off.  To enter you thread your way among several islands before emerging into the outer portion of the bay.  From here you can see the red bluffs from the back side, as well as an impressive, high, wispy waterfall on the opposite cliffs, and the remains of an old cannery on the shore.  At about the half way point the bay narrows between the cliffs and then opens out again to the second part of the bay.  This is surrounded by high mountains, some with year-round snow fields, and a large meadow split by a good sized stream at the head of the bay.  Also in this second bay is a spectacular waterfall tumbling off the cliffs.  We saw quite a few brown bear, in the meadow, fishing in the stream, and along the shores near our anchoring site.  We also counted as many as seventeen bald eagles at one time feeding on the fish that were spawning in the stream.  The pink salmon were thick in places, we saws schools with hundreds of fish in many places in the bay.  There is a small cove at the head of the bay that provides good shelter for anchoring without obstructing the views of the stream and the mountains.  Overall one of the most impressive locations we have visited so far.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Livin' Like a Gangsta'

We finally made it back to Warm Springs Bay.  For those of you that followed our blog in 2009 you will remember this is the point at which we lost our "G" rating and slipped down towards "PG-13" because of a certain picture I included.
Warm Springs Bay has several things going for it, including stunning scenery, a free dock to tie to, friendly residents, and of course the warm springs.  Near the dock, the residents have built a bath house, consisting of three private rooms each with a large bathtub, to which is piped unlimited hot spring water.  You open the tap and the tub is filled with perfect soaking temperature water, when you are done you pull the plug to drain it and then replug it so it fills for the next person.  It also doesn't hurt that these bath house rooms each have a big window that looks out over the huge waterfall that empties into the bay.  The water for the tubs is piped from a natural hot spring located up the hill from the dock, and the spring has been dammed with rocks to create several natural soaking pools affectionately know to the locals as "The Grotto".  The nickname is of course in reference to the pool at the playboy mansion, and my overactive imagination has no problem conjuring up the image of me juggling a martini in one hand and a cigar in the other while taking off my silk robe to slip into the water.  This image wouldn't be complete without a gaggle of "bunnies" to share the pool, although Nicole thinks it doesn't sound very Hef-like to say something like "In the pool, bitches", and would probably more likely come from someone like Snoop or Tupac.  That's OK, sometimes it's good to be a gansta.

For those of you that didn't see the mentioned blog post, the pic can be found here.