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Day 25
August 11, 1999
Inside Passage

Our alarm buzzes loudly at 3:30 A.M. because the Columbia is due to thread the Wrangell Narrows this morning, and Jan will join me in the forward observation deck for the passage. Because of the very shallow water, narrow channel and fierce currents, the Wrangell Narrows is a unique maritime experience. I have twice skippered a small sloop through this cut, and have traversed it twice before by ferry, but it never ceases to be a thrill. At night it is called "Christmas Tree Lane" for the over seventy lighted navigational aids maintained by the US Coast Guard.

A twenty-one mile long channel that splits Kupreanof and Mitkof Islands, the Wrangell Narrows affords safe passage for vessels travelling between the small towns of Petersburg and Wrangell. The navigable channel is less than three hundred feet wide in places (the Columbia has a beam of 85 feet, so this is indeed close quarters,) with a controlling depth of only twenty feet at low water. In addition, as the tide changes, currents surge through the Narrows at up to nine knots. It is no place for an inexperienced skipper. Five years ago, while docked in the small boat harbor in Petersburg at the north end of the Narrows, I watched in amazement as our knot meter (a boat's speed indicator) reached five knots. We were tied to the dock, so the water was moving past us at six miles per hour. Never before or since have I experienced such currents in navigable water.

At 418 feet, the M/V Columbia is the largest ship that traverses the Narrows, and does so only because going to Wrangell by circumnavigating Kupreanof Island adds twelve hours to the voyage; wasting both fuel and wages in addition to the lost time. The channel is too dangerous for cruise ships and other large vessels that ply these waters.

So it's 3:30 A.M. as we sit front and center on the observation deck. In the early light we just make out the outlines of mountains on both sides of the channel. Ahead, at least ten navigational markers, both red and green, are visible as the Columbia moves forward at one-fourth her normal speed; perhaps five knots. We have no depth perception in the darkness, and the navigation lights appear impossibly close together. To keep from running aground or hitting rocks, the ship must pass between the red and green navigation markers.

(Note: very simply, maritime navigation rules require that a vessel passes between the red and green markers, and when returning home from the sea keeps red markers and lights on the starboard side of the ship. By default, green lights and markers will be on the port (or left-hand) side. Those rules give rise to the boater's adage: "right on red returning.")

In the present case, though, returning to Petersburg is going north up the channel. So, while we transit the channel south-bound, red markers will be on the port side of the vessel. As the Columbia passes between the navigational markers, she must always make sure to keep the red lights on her port side. If a red light passes to starboard, the boat will either strike a rock, or be grounded in the mud, neither a good result for the passengers' safety or the captain's job security.

For the next ninety minutes the ship turns left then right in quick succession as she makes over 45 course corrections in twenty miles. At times it appears certain she will hit a marker, then turns at the last moment and silently glides by a rock that surely must only be thirty or forty feet away. In mid-passage she seems to turn a full ninety degrees to starboard in what appears to be not much more than the length of the ship. I watch in amazement as this large ship is piloted so precisely. Captain Brekken has earned his pay this morning.

If all this seems pretty tame to you non-boaters, think of a high school that's all on one floor, with normal corridor widths. Now picture the floor covered in ice, but the kids are in class to make it easy on you. Threading the Wrangell Narrows in a four hundred foot ship is like driving through the halls of that high school in a compact car at twenty miles an hour without ever touching a wall.

Eric and Julia pass on the excitement of the Wrangell Narrows, and I head back to bed for the rest of the night's sleep, but at 6 A.M. Jan disembarks to visit Wrangell.

Other than its lovely setting, on the shores of Sumner Strait with views of the Coastal Range to the north and east, Wrangell is a working-class, no-frills town of perhaps two thousand people employed mostly in the fishing and logging industries. It has a bank, a grocery store, schools and marine repair facility. It has a police department as well, although the jail will probably never hold anyone more dangerous than a rowdy drunk. Just the bare necessities of life are found in Wrangell. I've visited here many times in the past thirty years, and I can guarantee that it has not changed one iota in that time. That is part of the charm in these fishing villages on the Inside Passage.

We awaken to sunshine and blue skies as we steam south down first Stikine, then Clarence Straits, bound for Ketchikan, Alaska's First City. The channel is perhaps five miles wide here, separating Prince of Wales and Etolin Islands, and provides a spectacular view of the beauty of Southeast Alaska. The Inside Passage doesn't overwhelm you like the Grand Canyon on your first visit, or the Rocky Mountain peaks in Glacier National Park. Instead, it envelops you. You are not looking at it as much as you are a part of it. In the foreground, in all directions, placid waters reflect the sky and in the right lighting, the higher mountain peaks. At close range you make out islands covered with magnificent Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir, but these trees quickly lose their individuality at perhaps a half mile. Only an occasional scraggly top sticks out above the collective forest. Soon, rocky outcroppings, islands and peninsulas quickly meld together. As the distance increases, only points, heads, ridges and peaks, those most prominent landfalls, are clearly visible. In the background, individual detail is completely lost except for the highest peaks and widest channels, as the components have become just scenery; fitting views for the prettiest postcards.

Like most of Alaska and the Yukon, this land is virtually uninhabited. Other than a rare fishing boat that passes by, we have the water to ourselves. Every two or three hours, with the aid of binoculars, we spot a small settlement on shore. Perhaps a house with a dock and a boat or two; residences for those people for whom Wrangell is just too crowded. I don't wish to join them, at least on a permanent basis, but I sure respect their self-sufficiency. Once or twice a day we spot a small logging community of maybe thirty or forty people.

It's late morning when I spot Ratz Harbor, on the west side of Prince of Wales Island, across the starboard rail. Richard and I tried to anchor our sloop there eight years ago at the end of a long day's sailing, but the northwesterly wind pushed waves through the small, poorly protected inlet, and we pulled both our anchor and crab pots before heading south to Thorne Bay's calmer waters. Through my binoculars I notice that Ratz Harbor is rough again today. The Coast Guard's Coastal Pilot says it is a poor anchorage, and I believe they must be right.

Before noon the communications tower of Meyers Chuck is abeam, visible across the port rail. Closer observation with binoculars reveals the red navigation marker at the harbor entrance, but a hill on Meyers Island blocks my view into the small community of perhaps fifty people. During my last visit five years ago, the settlement consisted of a post office (open Tuesdays and Fridays from noon to 2 P.M.,) an elementary school, a run-down, beat-up hotel with less than ten rooms that never sees a guest other than during the three months of fishing and hunting seasons, a general store out of virtually everything, and maybe twenty or thirty houses. It also sports a modern public dock and marina, as does virtually every town and village in Southeast Alaska, as boats and floatplanes are the only means of transportation.

Meyers Chuck is blessed with pure natural beauty. It is built on the western side of the remote Cleveland Peninsula about thirty-five miles north of Ketchikan. The fronts of most of the some two dozen houses and cabins are supported by pilings, built out over the water around a somewhat circular, rock-strewn harbor, perhaps a mile in diameter. The sea's salty odor, accented by wood smoke even in summer, permeates the air. Heavily-forested mountains begin their rise to 2,500 feet just a few yards from shore and form the arc of a circle that defines the north and east sides of the harbor. Meyers Island and several smaller islands to the west form the rest of the circle, keeping Clarence Strait and its rougher water from encroaching. As you enter this natural harbor carefully from the south, make sure you miss the reef in the middle of the channel. It is awash at low tide, and perfectly situated to hole your boat or bend your prop.

The few local residents I have met during my two visits to Meyers Chuck are pleasant, if a bit reserved, self-reliant, and are living life on their own terms at a pace somewhat south of slow. Most are self-employed fishermen, their boats moored on private docks, just feet from their front doors. Some are artists and artisans creating goods for both the cruise ship industry that has rapidly developed in nearby Ketchikan, and for the occasional tourist who wanders into the village. A few are summer residents who appear to live on income earned in other parts of the US where they spend the balance of their year. A dirt and wood footpath that meanders from building to building, alternately along the shoreline and then through the dense forest, connects most of the houses in the settlement. There are no roads here, and so no cars. Other than the footpath, boats are the only means of transportation in Meyers Chuck and occasionally the high-pitched whine of a two-stroke outboard motor splits the silence as a skiff skims the surface of the harbor. There is no rush hour, and no stress from gridlock here.

For all practical purposes, the local grocery store is in Ketchikan, a six to eight hour trip in each direction for the average fishing boat, a bit quicker for a fast skiff, so residents keep the larder well-stocked. However, deer are abundant, and a banquet of halibut, crab and shrimp is available from the sea, virtually at their front door.

Spending a month in Meyers Chuck one future summer is on my list of "Fifty things to do before I die."

By 2 P.M. the sun is high overhead and brilliant against the deep blue sky. With temperatures in the mid-70s the Columbia steams down Tongass Narrows towards Ketchikan, our last port of call until we arrive in Bellingham in two more days.

The weather is unusually beautiful today in this part of Southeastern Alaska, as Ketchikan averages 150 inches of precipitation a year. Yes, you read it correctly over twelve feet of rain annually. Seattle, by contrast, in spite of its undeserved reputation as the rainiest spot in the Lower 48 states, only receives about 38 inches of precipitation annually, one-fourth of what falls on Ketchikan. Real wet cities like New Orleans and Miami receive only half Ketchikan's annual rainfall. I lived here for a year in 1970, and I can tell you that the rain is constant virtually every day from September through May, and very frequently during the summer. Three thousand foot Deer Mountain, rising just behind town is the butt of the following weather joke. According to one local wag, "if you can't see Deer Mountain, it's raining; if you can see it, it's going to rain. Of course, he is correct; both in fact and in jest. But during my last several stops here it has been bright and beautiful. So it is again today.

In spite of the abundant liquid sunshine, Ketchikan probably surpasses Homer as my favorite small town in Alaska. At roughly 13,000 people it bills itself as Alaska's 4th largest city. In most states it would be inconsequential, not much more than a village, but in Southeast Alaska it is an important commercial center, the primary trading center for the small towns, villages and logging camps that dot the southern Panhandle. Anything broken on your fishing boat can be repaired in Ketchikan. You can buy a new chainsaw and hob-nail boots to match your flannel shirt. Rain gear is available in all sizes. With only a plane change in Seattle you can fly to Mazatlan, Mexico. Even a Big Mac is now available. In short, Ketchikan's a big deal around here.

Julia and Eric decide to walk into town, despite my protests that the ferry terminal is two miles north of the city center, and just getting back and forth will use all of the two hours we have available. Jan and I board a double-decker tourist bus, converted to shuttle duty today because of the short ferry stay.

Ketchikan, Alaska

In spite of McDonalds, the many cruise ships and a new Safeway grocery store, Ketchikan is little changed since I lived here in 1970. The town is five miles long and less than six blocks deep as its natural topography determines and limits its development. On one side of Tongass Avenue, the main road through town, houses and businesses are built on pilings out over the tidelands of Tongass Narrows. Across the street, with barely room for a single row of buildings, the mountain forces the residential section up the steep hillside; narrow streets and wooden boardwalks the only access.

For thirty minutes, Jan buys gifts to support the local economy while I walk the downtown streets. I sniff the air for the pungent smell of fresh cut lumber, but the Spruce Mill is closed now; it's dock re-built and enlarged to accommodate the many cruise ships that ply these waters each summer. Its odor used to permeate the air, but even in its absence the smell of wood is still apparent in Ketchikan. After all, we are in the middle of one of the largest National Forests in the country. I walk through Tongass Trading Company, once the largest retailer in Ketchikan, and wonder how different my life would have been had I accepted their job offer as credit manager.

Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska

Jan has joined me now, and we walk past Thomas Basin small boat harbor on our way to Creek Street. On prior trips, Richard and I spent two days in this shallow marina, with its excellent location just a block from downtown, and its familiarity brings a smile to my face. We are running out of time, but I must visit Creek Street, a collection of buildings built on pilings right over Fish Creek. In its heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, it was the red-light district; the center of all things evil and forbidden in this little town, I'm told. By the 1970s Creek Street had fallen into disrepair, with only a few buildings still habitable. But from my perspective of each succeeding visit over the years, Creek Street has slowly been rehabilitated, and now houses residences and offices as well as restaurants and gift shops. It is a wonderful two-block stroll back in time; to the 1930s in quaintness, and to the 1970s in my memory.

Tom, Jan, Julia & Eric, Ketchikan, Alaska

As with Sitka, we are running out of time, and so hurry for our bus and the ride back to the ferry. We run into Eric and Julia before boarding and snap a few pictures. With time running down, they gave up the walk for a shared taxi, and enjoyed their brief visit to Ketchikan.

As the Columbia heads south past Pennock Island, I lean on the stern rail and watch as Ketchikan slowly fades from view. I am sad that I'm again leaving this lovely little town, and wonder why my visits are so infrequent. I mention to Jan that one of our salons might work up here, but she reminds me that its six hundred miles from Seattle and it rains a half inch a day on average. Her position, of course, has its logic. Still, I mentally add it to my list of places to spend more time.

I am also sad to be leaving Alaska, as Ketchikan is just two hours north of Dixon Entrance, a fifty mile crossing of unprotected water that's open to waves pounding in from the north Pacific to the west. Dixon Entrance also contains the imaginary line that defines the international boundary separating the United States and Canada, and so we will eat dinner in British Columbia tonight. After almost three weeks of traveling, we will leave Alaska.

Upon discussion with Eric and Julia, we all agree to skip the ship's dinner buffet tonight and instead opt for vegetarian lasagna and fish and chips in the snack bar. Both are very good. In a snack bar. On a ship. What are the odds of that? The four of us continue to discuss the Central American trip, as the weather, the correct bikes, time off from work, and money all have to be considered. Julia is more interested in flying in and meeting us at pre-selected points than in subjecting herself to 6,500 on a motorcycle. Who can blame her? That will be a long trip.

I detect some grumbling from my companions about the lengthy ferry ride, and when I mention that another three or four days would be just about right for me, I receive stares of disbelief. We move to the lounge for two hard-fought games of Hearts. Eric smokes us in game one, but his futile attempts to shoot-the-moon backfire in the second game, and Jan comes out ahead.

As the lights of Prince Rupert, British Columbia come into view we retire to our cabin. With the gentle rocking of the ship I sleep like a baby.