Monday, July 29, 2013

El Capitan Passage

When Nicole and I were still in the planning stages of this trip, we talked a little bit about where we would go, but not a lot.  We were really leaving it up to how well Madeline did aboard before we got locked into too many ideas.  One of the places we did mention was the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, or POW to the locals.  We had never been to the town of Craig, and the trip there involved a route called El Capitan Passage that sounded interesting.  Maybe interesting isn't the right word, more like exciting, possibly not in a good way, but not yet exactly terrifying.  The passage is choked with rocks and small islands, with a section in the middle that shows Alaskan determination by dredging a long narrow channel through a drying flat to connect either end.  The entrance to the upper end is somewhat exposed to the Gulf of Alaska, as is a section of the lower end before you get to the town of Craig, so weather conditions can play a part as well.
We have been through Wrangell Narrows several times, through Rocky Pass, taken short cuts not talked about in the guides, and poked our noses into quite a few anchorages that many boaters wouldn't risk.  That was all before putting the boat on the rocks in 2011.

Seems both Nicole and I are a bit gun-shy now, and the description and charts of El Capitan Passage was not sitting well with me.
After leaving Point Baker and Port Protection we had an uneventful trip around the corner of POW, a bit of wind and swell but nothing too bad, and then we were tucked into the narrow channels and out of the weather.  Our planned stop at Marble Creek Cove turned out to be a good example of me not reading the guide books we came around the corner and into sight of the anchorage, the huge marble mine was all we could see.  Heavy machinery, a huge looming pier with barge tied alongside, buildings and roads and lots of stuff that didn't add much to our wilderness experience.  Luckily just past the mine and around the next corner is Calder Bay, out of sight and out of mind.  The low clouds that had been with us all day continued and all we could see was the bottom hundred feet of the hills around us.  The next day started out foggy, and we decided to just stay put.  The fog lifted but the low clouds remained, and we unsuccessfully tried our hand at crabbing.  The past few days of travel included many sightings of sea otters, which tend to eat all the crab in an area, so we were not very surprised to get skunked.  The next day dawned foggy as well, but the fog lifted and the sun started burning through the clouds, so by the time we had the anchor up and were on our way we finally got a view of the high peaks and beautiful surroundings.
The route itself turned out to be no big deal.  The channels were narrow and shallow, but they were well marked with no hidden dangers and we made it through without an issue.  Within El Capitan Passage there is a hidden gem, El Capitan Cave.  Discovered in the mid 1990's, this cave system is possibly the deepest cave in the U.S. at around 600 ft.  More than 2 miles of tunnels have been mapped already and exploration is on-going.  Unfotunately they don't allow children in the cave so we had to pass by without stopping.  Maybe next time.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Backwoods Entrepreneurs

There are small communities scattered all over Southeast Alaska.  Sitka, where we have lived for the past several years, would be considered small to many folks, with a population of less than ten thousand.  Wrangell is even smaller with about 2500 people.  Contrast this with places like Point Baker with about 20 people, or Meyers Chuck with a year-round population of 6, and Sitka looks huge by comparison.  The somewhat odd thing about these tiny communities is that they each have a post office.  If anyone wondered why the postal service can't seem to operate within budget, think of these places.  A 50 pound bag of dog food ordered from probably costs Amazon $20 in shipping.  From their warehouse it is put in a truck, shipped to Seattle, put on an Alaska Airlines plane, flown to Alaska, then transferred to a float plane and flown out to the small community, all paid for by the postal service.  Float planes charge the post office by the pound, and float plane is the only mail service most of the communities receive.  It is amazing to me that postal service can be offered in these places, but the community would not exist without it.  When we visited Point Baker on our way from Wrangell to Craig, I had a talk with one of the locals there and he was telling me about the 20 propane tanks he had just received from Amazon.  They were clearance priced and eligible for free shipping, so he bought all they had in stock.  He didn't need any, but the best price he had seen for these at the chain stores in Juneau was about $50 each, and he got them delivered to the middle of no where for $18 a piece, so he couldn't pass up the deal.   It was just a couple days after they had arrived and he had already sold several to his neighbors.  Entrepreneurship is alive and well in the backwoods of Alaska.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cloudy, Complete with Silver Lining

Sometimes it's tough to leave the dock.  We had planned to stay in Wrangell a couple days around the 4th of July and then move on.  Then we needed another day for phone calls and internet stuff.  Then we decided to leave but found out the fuel dock wasn't open, so we ended up waiting another day.  When we finally left, the weather turned crappy.  So far this trip we have been experiencing incredible weather.  I have got a sunburn several times, and we are rarely using the heater in the boat, even at night.  Our trip out of Wrangell was the exception, with winds slowly building and heavy rain.  We decided to push on anyway, but didn't get too far before we heard a call on the marine radio from a boat that had lost power and was drifting with the wind.  His radio was weak and he couldn't communicate with the Coast Guard, but we could hear him fine.  When he finally gave his position I found out why, he had passed us just a short time before and was within sight behind our boat.  I turned around, got a tow line between the boats, and informed the Coast Guard that we would tow him to the nearest harbor.  Not only was this a good deed, but also gave us the excuse to stay in the harbor for the night and wait for better weather.  By the time we got him towed into protected water, a friend of his from town came by and took over so we were free to anchor and relax, warm and out of the rain.  It's always nice when unexpected events turn out to have a silver lining.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

4th of July

Nicole and I didn't have much of a plan when we left Sitka, and Madeline and the cat are still not old enough to be voting members on the boat, so we both agreed we would like to spend another 4th of July in Wrangell.  We had stopped in Wrangell for the 4th in 2009 and really enjoyed ourselves.  Another stop in 2011, not on a holiday, reinforced our liking of this small town.  The town of about 2500 people seems to us to be very family oriented, and now that we are part of the "family folk" we wanted to head back for a visit.  As with most of the towns that we visit, one of our first stops was the library, both for free internet access and to swap out our growing pile of already-read paperbacks.  On our earlier visits we noticed they have a summer reading program at the library for local kids, and again this year we got to look through the prizes available to the more studious kids.  As the kids read books they get to put their name in jars for a specific prize drawing, and there are a lot of prizes to choose from.  Nicole took a picture of one stack of the jars with a bunch of the prizes piled behind, and that is just a portion of what's scattered around the library.
Also along the lines of family friendly, there are lots of 4th of July activites specifically for kids, from a fishing derby and a floating junk "crazy craft" race to ball crawl races for the real little ones.  Unfortunately Madeline was ready for a nap during the race times for her age group so she didn't get a chance to compete, but it was still a lot of fun to watch.
The parade is another highlight of the activities.  I'm not sure if it is the same for parades everywhere these days, but there was so much candy thrown to the kids that they started getting choosy about what they picked up by the end of the parade.  Some of the parade highlights included the native dancers, the local roller derby girls, and a group of river guides doing their own version of a "river dance".
Of course the 4th of July celebration in Wrangell would not be complete without the logging competition.  They embrace their logging heritage and the traditional activities are a lot of fun to watch.  It rained on and off throughout the activities, but I noticed that most people just stuck it out and enjoyed the show.  In Alaska nothing would ever get done if you quit every time it started raining.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


I'm pretty sure I'm making up a word with this title, but I bet many of our sailing friends already know what I'm talking about.  I don't remember now what book it is but somebody wrote in a cruising book that some boats have so much crap on the stern of the boat it is reminiscent of the car that ma and pa Clampett were driving on The Beverly Hillbillies.  Cruising boats tend to accumulate stuff, and sooner or later we run out of storage room and stuff just stays out on deck.  When we left Seattle several years ago we had boxes and bags of crap inside and outside the boat, the side effect of selling two vehicles and emptying a storage unit days before leaving on an open-ended trip.  We did a decent job of sorting through stuff, getting rid of things, finding hiding places for some of it, and dumping some stuff with friends silly enough to visit us before we disappeared.  We spent the summer of 2011 making our way to Alaska with a big Rubbermaid container taking up a bunch of space in the cockpit.  It wasn't even all that noticeable, with the outboard motor, life ring, two fishing poles, solar panels, wind generator, and various buckets and bins on the stern deck as well.  Every few days I would swear I was going to get to sorting through that container so we could clear up some room on the seat, but when we tied up in Sitka for the winter it was still there.  Over the next year and a half we got jobs, got knocked-up (Nicole anyways), got comfortable living at the dock, had a baby, bought or borrowed five different vehicles, all the while accumulating more stuff.  When we decided we would take off and travel again this summer, we had to get rid of a bunch of stuff, and as I looked around for things to sell, give away or throw out, I noticed the Rubbermaid container still sat in the cockpit.  It is still surrounded by other stuff, some the same as when we left, some different but just as annoying.
Our galley sink is nice and big and now doubles as a bath tub for Madeline, but bathing doesn't work with a sink full of dishes.  A simple solution might be to do the dishes, but it also works to load all the dirty dishes into a bucket and put them in the cockpit.  As we made our way from Sitka to Wrangell for the 4th of July I found my limit.  We still had the Rubbermaid container on the seat, the outboard motor on the stern rail, the life ring, the fishing rods, the solar panels.....but I refused to pull up to the dock in Wrangell until we had hidden the bucket full of dirty dishes that was sitting in the cockpit.  Everyone has standards.

Friday, July 5, 2013


I really wanted to believe that our cruising life wouldn't change with the addition of a daughter, but I'm also smart enough to know that it would, regardless of what I wanted.  So far the changes have been very minor, and very major, no middle ground to be seen.  The major one I've already written about, our decision to put the boat up for sale.  I don't see us being without a boat for very long, but the cruising we have done so far is probably pretty indicative of what we will continue to do for the near future, and there are a lot of other boats better suited for this type of travel.
One of the minor changes we have experienced is coming up with a workable day-to-day routine.  So far it is going well and we will cross our fingers it continues.  Madeline has gotten on an 8 to 8 sleeping schedule, and we both fell into line pretty easily.  It gives us a few hours with each other in the evening after she falls asleep, and nobody is in a hurry to get up in the morning.  With an 8 am wake-up, we have a leisurely breakfast and get moving about ten, which also works well with Madeline falling asleep for a morning nap about the time we need to both be on deck pulling the anchor and getting under way. Putting her in her car seat either in the cockpit or down below means she is safe and out of the way for those short periods.
So far we are limiting ourselves to shorter days so we are done traveling by mid-afternoon and have time together each afternoon before dinner.  There will be days as we travel that we need to get up early, either to catch the tides and currents right, to avoid deteriorating afternoon weather, or if we need to put in a longer day to get to a better stopping place, but for the most part we should be able to keep the trip enjoyable with the current schedule.  Luckily we are not in a hurry to get anywhere, so we always have the option of just hanging out for another day or two if things don't work out with the schedule.