Monday, May 7, 2018

Back At It

2017 - Another season done, cut short by misadventure, bureaucracy, crew withdrawals, and just plain bad luck. Abd I had wworked hard back home to gather the funds for this season, which evaporated so quickly.
However though I did not make it to Russia or Japan, and covered barely half the distance I had intended, I did get to explore some interesting parts of the central Alaskan Peninsula with Carol who joined me at the last minute when crew pulled out, a short visit from Michael for the Kodiak section, and then last leg out west past Sand Point to Pavlov Bay, Cold Bay and False Pass singlehanded.
My most memorable experiences last year?
A solo high country skiing trip out of Haines, landed on a snowfield by Paul of Mountain Air in his Beaver skiplane, skinned up and skied off several high points, then in mid afternoon started making my way out the route I had selected on the flight in, only to find I hadn't crossed over the critical ridge and ended up in the wrong drainage, bluffed by a waterfall system, and ended overnighting in a steep defile hopefully avoided by the wildlife, making a moss bed on the ice in the lee of a big slab to protect me from the falling rocks, and just ( down to the last match scenario) managing to get a fire going to keep me from freezing until dawn thankfully came. After several committing moves climbing out of the canyon on fractured rock I had an easy line out to the valley 2500' below, then a full day slog thru wet country, dense devils club, moose, and the occasional overpass by Paul in his Beaver checking I was getting out ok. The story could go on, about the "Deliverance hillbilly encounter" but too much to tell now.
Glacier Bay National Park with Carol, nudging up to all the tidewater glaciers, going ashore to explore a retreating terminal face, mixing our cocktails with ages old glacial ice, meeting up with Graham and Lindsay from Haines  "Fairweather Ski Works" who were doing some backcountry skiing based from their salmon fishing boat. And then visiting Elfin Cove, a funky little fishing village to refuel before spending a day soaking in White Sulphur Springs before crossing the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak
Kodiak, Afognak, and Geographic Harbor were all memorable for many reasons - (refer recent blog) but unfortunately finding a sharp rock outcrop at extreme low tide not only stopped my progress, but almost sunk the boat. It happened while the "Blessing of the Fleet" was underway, the local Russian Orthodox Priest leading proceedings. When my Mayday call went out, six boats immediately answered the call, ferrying a pump from Kodiak Harbor, and one flown to my location by the Coast Guard (oh, it just happens that Kodiak is the home of the largest USCoast Guard station) so Whakaari made it in to port. Misha, who briefly came to crew for me, stood his watches not as he expected, but instead refuelled and monitored the pump keeping the boat afloat until the morning high tide when she could be hauled at the shipyard. 
Six weeks passed in a flash, fibreglassing, removing the Achilles Heel I had exposed (the hull at the bilge area was only 5-6mm thick, the rock tearing her open like a tin can) and replacing the bilge systems and wiring that ripped out. Of course the main effort over all that time was spent attempting to fix the salt water damage to Whakaari's electrical systems
Sand Point became my preferred harbor to winter over. It gave me a chance to get back on the horse and do some single handed exploration out along the Alaska peninsula and redeem some of my 2017 ambitions, and to take stock and faec preparing the boat for another go in 2018. I found this aspect the most challenging -to re-commit to the project, to pour scarce funds into repairs which requires many long hours over the winter months while already feeling exhausted by the 2017 effort, facing the same difficulties in finding experience willing crew for high latitudes sailing, resolving the bureacratic puzzle of actually getting into Russia.
I had brilliant weather for sailing, made it almost to False Pass before it was time to start laying up the boat.
On my second attempt to leave Kodiak ( another story, turned back by the Coast Guard as the Commercial Spaceport out on the south coast was about to test the military's intercontinental ballistic missile defence system - attempting to intercept a mock attack delivered by US submarines near Guam - ah yes, thats close to Korea), a strong easterly made for a fast trip surfing at 12 knots til exhausted I anchored close in the lee of the most southern point of Kodiak where bears, deer and a fox came down to the shore to watch me. I visited Old Harbor, Chignik, several small islands en route to Sand Point ( all having Bear sign), then after calling in at Sand Point to reconnoiter the facilities, I continued on to Pavlov Bay, King Cove, Cold Bay and the approaches to False Pass before turning round to face the week long task of winterising the boat and leaving before the first gales arrived.

2018 - The northern winter was spent partly in the Gulf Islands, BC working at the Gabriola Cider Orchard, and Aspen, Colorado for skiing (mainly uphilling to get fit), searching for crew and boat parts, navigating the protocols for entering into Russia by private yacht, doing a major bathroom remodel and new flooring ( a fundraising opportunity saved up for me by my good friend Jackie, in return for supporting my sailing project.)
Some good things happened, thanks to good contacts, a Russian speaking waiter, Jackie's assistance, and some good luck.
I now have a great crew _ Roberto, a Phuket (Thailand) sailing instructor, John Bisson, retired airline pilot with a sailing background, and Eric Altenberndt, an experienced Atlantic sailor building his own 42 trimaran.
I arrived early April in Sand Point, along with Jackie toting bags full of present for Whakaari, and spent the next four weeks on boat prep and upgrades/repairs & maintenance. Roberto arrived soon after me to help with the long list of repairs and maintenance.

Of course there is always a social aspect to moving into a remote settlement, and of course we are not the norm for such a place, focused on a huge cod, halibut, crab and salmon industry, most of the population involved with the Trident processing plant here. Sailors are uncommon, and for the last year counted on one hand missing a few fingers.So we were made to feel very welcome, invited to various happenings, told about how to get things done and where to find stuff - even bought meal tickets for dinner at the Trident mess hall, went to two "Jam Sessions" at The Shed -a local rock band called One Shot Left, joined the Flying Dentist team for a walk to Sand Dollar Beach, played Right Center Left Dice a hilarious pub game, shared rounds of beers with the local fishermen, played pool of course, went to a Cinco de Mayo event at the Tavern where Jeremy, a harbor employee was DJ, avoided the real mans way to drink Suicide Shots with three raucous fishermen, decided against a follow up round of "Liquid Marijuana" cocktails, invited to a bbq at a local bear hunting guides place and instead helped unload the supplies for his Canoe Bay Outfitters operation as the freight boat was late into Sand Point, learned about Boules Law and Dr Diesel from the best welder in town, John from Ireland, and were often given free fish, caught that day, or smoked, even Octopus Jerky. The advice from these hardened seamen was generous and sincere, but at times very daunting - grizzlies at 2 per sq mile, some 11' monsters, currents and local winds that will take you where you don't want to go, gusts that lay your boat over and pin you down for iPad Navionics charts for the Aleutians are now peppered with pins I've added, noting good and dangerous anchorages, places to catch or shoot virtually every kind of animal that lives out here, including seabird nesting colonies for egg gathering, clam digging, and edible wild plants used by the Inuet for centuries that will help us survive if we are shipwrecked!

Passage Plan - Roberto and I have had a shakedown sail out to Nagai Island ( part of the Shumgens )and had to come back to repair a blown HP hose, sort out some software issues, and deal with a fe wother things found to be not quite right
Now we jhave the rest of May to explore the area between here and Dutch Harbor before we pick up the other two guys and head along the Aleutians, looking for opportunities to climb several volcanoes, across the Bering Sea to Kamchatka, Russia then south to Japan and beyond back into the tropics. Easy to say!

Apparently this takes you to PredictWinds Web Tracker for my sailboat, and providing the IridiumGO! unit is on, you will see where I am, even how fast I'm (not) going

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cruising Queen Charlottes aka Haida Gwaii

Queen Charlotte Islands July-August 2016

We are in Prince Rupert for laundry, packing, preparing for Iain Sara & Jackson to leave the boat on their return journey to New Zealand. Carol arrives for the next leg. We explore Prince Rupert and take in the museum then provision. After bidding adieu to Iain and Sara we try to fuel up but docks were too busy. Overnight at Pillsbury Cove. We catch 4 massive Dungeness crab and toast our good fortune. Sweet white flesh compartmentalized like cloves of garlic sheathed in cartilage instead of a papery skin. We feast with abandon licking lips and throwing shells overboard.

Fuel dock fiasco….. Made Graham Island after 10 hours sail at 10 pm in time for an amazing sunset and a rainbow over Tow Hill. We are now in the Queen Charlotte Islands the historic lands of the Haida people.

0930 anchor up to Massett under foggy conditions. Landed at the public dock the 3 Native fellows sitting on the high public dock. They wave as we pull alongside in huge currents. They then offer us fresh picked berries for sale although theirs, in plastic bags after all day, do not rival the fresh berries everywhere . We walked around town then to Old Massett and Sarah's art gallery. We find a new pole underway and discover an old pole in a storage shed adapted for rail transport. We walk the beach exploring old boats and hitch hike back catching a ride with Sarah. Set sail at 7pm and anchor at Strial Islands inside the outer bar.

At first light we sail around Rose Spit, see rafts of sealions outside of Graham Island then have our work cut out to make Skidegate tacking against a strong wind and current to anchor in the lee, inside Jewel Island at dark. A restless night is passed with the watch commander alarm set every 90 min to check anchor. We are joined by another sailboat with two French couples, with similar plans to ours.

 This park Gwaii Haanas is unique in Canada and it is celebrating 20 years of joint stewardship between Parks Canada and the Haida people. The Watchman program is also unique and places Haida at the historic sites of Tanu, Windy Bay, Skedans and SGang Gwaay to welcome visitors, provide interpretation and ensure the security of these sacred sites. we try to take part in 2 planned tours but somehow miss both.

 We eat salmon berries and walk to "town" for coffee and weather wifi. We walk the beach to old Skidegate looking for Balancing Rock, then hike the trail at Spirit Lake. Carol finds a white eagle feather after asking brother eagle for just such a gift.

The magnificent poles and architecture of the
Haida Gwaii Heritage Center reveal themselves at dawn and we row ashore for our exploration and interpretive tour.

 Back to the Heritage Center at 9am for our Gwaii Haanas orientation. We are told the park is full till 20th which will not work for our sail plan. There are caps on the number of daily visitors as well as per site to manage traffic. We are given special permission and are able to purchase our passes allowing us to make plans to start the following day.  We set sail to Queen Charlotte for a wx update and supplies, leaving at 4pm making way towards Louise Island. 5kn winds and a broad reach is what was expected but winds 25 gusting to 35 and close hauled is what was experienced -we were not organized so things broke including Craig's waterproof camera. The destination changes to a sheltered bay in the lee of this unexpected blow, something Hecate Strait is famous for, and enjoy a restful night.

We leave Sheldon Bay and sail to McCoy Cove where we row ashore for a beach fire/picnic. We attempt to walk thru to the other lake but the forest is so thick we retreat back to the shore there are still no bears but a gorgeous forest setting and afternoon in the sun. We tramp around and deer greet us along the beach. Here we see heaps of the plastic detritus from the tsunami in Japan gathered and awaiting removal.

Up early we make our way to Skedans and and are again greeted by deer on the beach. We walk among the totems and are joined by Nick a young Haida Watchman. Nick is 20 something and intensely proud of the fact that his family heritage is tied to the site. He sometimes struggles with the script of dates and names but beams with pride when he puts it together. Skedans was an intensely occupied site and there are numerous poles still standing although many were taken from this site to museums like Royal BC Museum in Victoria. This is the family village of artist & carver Bill Reid who is here, marked by a simple but beautiful wood plank with his Haida name. Many poles here were righted in the 1980s but now will be allowed to fall and return to the earth.  Nick tells us that in Haida culture a mortuary pole stands in memory of a chief until it falls and releases the spirit into the seven levels of the afterlife. We see poles commemorating chiefs who have hosted as many as 13 potlatch. We collect mussels by the cliff painted by Emily Carr and return to spend a lovely afternoon drifting, fishing and watching a pod of killer whales off in the distance. We make way towards Tanu and stern anchor out at 1130pm spending the night rocking and rolling.

Across to Tanu we meet Walter who has been a Watchman since 2009 and has spent 6 years at this site. He lives here with his wife Mary and their young daughter Raven. Walter is very keen to take us thru the house sites of this ancient village. It is obvious he enjoys sharing the site, interpreting and making connections. Mary invites us to the cabin to have fresh fry bread while young Raven, 3 years old, insists on being called her Haida name. This is the first time we see crowding by groups as several private boats come ashore along with 2 tour operators at essentially the same time. This is why they have a cap on the number of visitors each day in the park and a maximum of 12 at each site at one time. We leave and make way to Windy Bay home of the Legacy Pole (carved and erected to commemorate the stand off between Haida natives and Canadian loggers, resulting in protection of Gwaii Hannas and joint management by Parks Canada and The Haida tribes)
We meet Vince who is soft spoken, eloquent, has a twinkle in his eye and a somewhat mischievous grin. During our time together, Vince reveals bit by bit, story by story, his background. He is both an international ambassador for Haida culture and an elder involved in the repatriation of his ancestors remains. He shows us the ancient forest as he leads us on a forester’s holiday to “the big tree” an 800-900 year old Sitka spruce. There is a group of young people on a week long Haida program based here. The students are staying in the traditional longhouse named Blinking Eye House after the entryway. We bid adieu and after 2 hours, make way from Middlesbrough to Burnaby Narrows to await the low tide on anchor for the night.

One of the richest intertidal areas in the world we are keen to explore in the morning. With low tide at 530am we row in and viewing is good but the light is flat. Highlights include sole, kelp crabs, massive mussels and huge urchins. Huge egg-like jellyfish stream by in their thousands. Craig catches a red rock crab with his bare hands. We collect sea asparagus, crabs, clams & mussels. Sadly the videos shot underwater didn't record so we decide to stay to next low tide. Craig paddleboards as Carol rows but with a higher tide the experience is completely different. We hike discovering huts, eagle bones then follow deer thru grassy meadows. We run the narrows aligning the markers and make way to Ikeda Bay 8km on in flaky winds.

Ikeda is a beautiful bay ringed in pristine forest. Still no bears but it would be postcard perfect if there were. We set sail with 2 reefs in the main but both are shaken out in short time. We sail thru Rose Inlet enroute to Anthony Island and the SGang Gwaay site. There is a small anchorage in the north bay and we try twice to get a bite. We dingy in and are met by Harold another young Watchman from Skidegate. His family is tied to this site. Harold points out the double finned killer whale crest which belongs to his family. He is related to both Mary and Nick of the other sites. Harold is critical of Parks Canada but seems supportive of joint management. We walk the rich, dark humus paths to an open bay and the village site. The site is moss covered and lush with small diameter trees with many- strewn across the forest floor. We do not see seabirds although 40,000 nesting pairs are meant to call this home. There is a Bald Eagle swimming, a very rare site and we are in an enchanted forest of moss and fungi. The poles are massive and numerous, especially funerary poles. Smallpox was brought to the village and killed most. Their bodies lie buried over a large area of the site, where we are asked not to walk. (Smallpox decimated the Haida, reducing their population of around 10,000 to a few hundred!)

Departing for Woodruff Bay we hit an uncharted rock but all seems well. The miles pass quickly but we are sometimes enveloped in thick fog.  Luckily it lifts as we round the southernmost tip of Gwaii Haanas and we are able to take in the raucous Stellar sea lion colony at Cape St James as well as flocks of puffins, auklets and cormorants. There is much life here at the edge of Gwaii Haanas and all this coupled with the setting sun mark this end of land as special and special is something commonplace in Haida Gwaii. We anchor off a pristine white sand beach in Woodruff Bay, and settle in for our last night in the Queen Charlottes with a full moon rising.

Up early, the light of the moon is obscured by the fog which has settled around us. We can hear sounds coming from the beach- dogs? bears? but cannot see the short distance to shore. We make a 160 km push to Port Hardy and the majority is sailed in limited visibility, the spinnaker filling softly, the waters eerily calm for this notorious piece of water. We pass an uneventful night and have winds in the morning for a few hours but then it drops below 4kn and the diesel roars to life after 24 hours or more of silent sailing. The Queen Charlotte Strait is glassy calm as Vancouver Island come into view. We anchor out at Port Hardy just off the municipal docks where 2 tall ships are tied. We row in for provisions then tuck in for the night.

Up early we check out the ships Pacific Grace and Pacific Swift 2 SALTS training vessels here for provisions and to take on their trainees. We make way to Kwatsi Bay stopping off the beautiful Lacy Falls for a sundowner and dinner. The bay is small but beautiful and as the full moon comes up we settle in. By early morning the fog has engulfed us and we cannot even see the boats in the small marina across the bay. As the sun gains strength it burns off the fog and we spend a long lovely day traversing inlets & narrows looking for bears which remain elusive. We do see majestic forests scarred by logging and pass 2 pods of dolphins as well as fur seals and of course eagles. We make Brown’s Bay at 11pm and tie up to the fuel dock in the strong current.. The morning light reveals we were tied beside a sign that says “Absolutely NO Mooring on Fuel Dock” which we did not see in the dark last night.

We leave before 7am with the moon still large as the sun comes up. Underwhelmed by Seymour Narrows crossing and then industrial areas too visible on Vancouver Island we put up the sail at Campbell River and continue down to Quadra Island where we explore the beach then head to Ballenas Island for our last evening onboard. Up early, and having been given the OK to pass through a missile testing area in the Georgia Straits we make way direct to Gabriola and anchor again off of Lily Island just in time for Carol to get to work.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Experiencing Haida Gwaii and its unique culture was a highlight of the 2016 sailing season.


I am writing this in Kodiak, Alaska - home to the worlds largest bears, the largest fishery, and an island of pure Sitka Spruce forests. It is turning green with the arrival of summer, and is locally called the Emerald Isle. The locals have just put on their biggest event of the year - CrabFest - and the Salmon season has just opened, fishing boats pouring out of the harbour daily. Halibut has been pouring in for a few weeks now. Soon the Kodiak bears will be down at the river mouths for their much awaited feast.

On my return to Haines in early April I found Whakaari had weathered the long winter quite well, in huge part thanks to Scott's care and oversight. Preparations had their delays and hiccups, waiting for an overdue shipment of my new Hydrovane (wind steering set-up) and for tides to get on and off the grid to clean the hull.
Carol arrived by ferry from Juneau as I had done 10 days before, and  after a shakedown sail to check my preparation, finally we slipped the lines for Glacier Bay, with a provisioning stop in Juneau en route. It was a false start, having engine overheating problems only a few miles out -back to Haines in case it was major, but it turned out to be a sticking thermostat and inadequately bled air in the freshwater cooling system after recomissioning the engine.

With the later start we only had time for three days in Glacier Bay but those days were pure magic. The weather was, for the most part, sunny, warm and settled, bringing out the best in this majestic setting. We sailed or motored up to several tidewater glaciers, drifted and lunched among the bergy bits, anchored in some of the most stunning coves I have ever experienced, and once went ashore to a retreating glacier - Evans - making the most of the long twilight, saw fresh bear sign and fossicked among age-old glacier ice.

Before crossing the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak we refuelled at Elfin Cove, a quaint old fishing village of abandoned vessels, boardwalks and float houses, setting off early to White Sulphur Springs, a much loved destination of several cruisers we had talked to many months before. It did not disappoint, tho the way in to Mirror Harbor (the only secure anchorage near to the springs) was challenging with a big sea running and very little room to manouvre.
A scenic dinghy trip, 15 minute walk on old boardwalks (hand hewn yellow cedar trunks really) through fairy forest of rich moss, bogs and twisted cedar, punctuated by obvious bear presence (in the form of fresh scat, rotting wood torn apart, and skunk cabbage chewed away) and soon we were smelling the sulphur as we came out on a rugged shore. The springs consist of a natural open pond above the high water mark, a beautifully crafted enclosed pool like an onsen, and a US Forest Service cabin set back in the forest(A couple in residence celebrating their 8th anniversary of being married here). Once in the enclosed pool we knew we would be settling in for the entire day. Large boulders formed the hotpool, and the building had been hand crafted, using local cedar an recycled boards from earlier shelters which had been intensely carved by visitors over the years. The almost boiling water flowed into the larger pool through a mixing well with a cold water valve to regulate temperature. The wall to the ocean is open-framed with sliding screens, with a wide sill on which we set out our snacks and drinks. Sublime!
At one point a grizzly bear appeared on the shore - he slouched down by some skunk cabbage and grazed supine - great wildlife viewing from the picture window of our onsen.
Later he moved towards us, veered into the trees and suddenly emerged at the open pool -where, it so happened, the woman from the cabin was bathing. Carol mouthed and jesticulated to her that a bear was very close to her but she didn't pick up on the warning, until he was right at the pools edge -but he was interested in an old decaying deer carcass we had seen earlier, and dragged it away into the forest, leaving her just a little alarmed.
There is more to that visit, but space is limited. We negotiated the narrow channel back out to sea safely and set a course for Kodiak, some 510 nautical miles to the wast, across the infamous Gulf of Alaska. Having watched the forecasts closely while exploring Glacier Bay we knew a weather window had arrived, bringing favourable winds for the next four days. I had downloaded the latest grib files while at Mirror Harbour, and the trend was good.

Before leaving NZ to return to my sailing project this crossing had loomed large. Now it seemed very manageable even tho we were only two. We set a 3hr on-3 off watch, enjoyed consistent 15-18 knot winds from the S-SE and reached comfortably for two days, making an average 7-9 knots and our only issue was water in the fuel (another wintering over hazard) discovered during a brief period of light winds when motor-sailing. The moon was full, the Pacific swells about 7 foot and of long period, and the only encounters were a lone humpback, a couple of distant fishing boats at night, and a convoy of 5 Coast Guard vessels heading north. On the last 24 hour stretch the winds moved to the north, then started to build from the west but not enough to cause concern, and we were almost there. In 3 days and 12 hours, we made landfall in Mill Bay, Kodiak after a very enjoyable crossing.

Tying up to the shiny new transient float next day, we found ourselves amongst some classic Kodiak fishing boats, crew preparing for their first outings for halibut. Ziggy and his crew were well into the beers and regaled us with stories, dire warnings about local weather, and advice on where to see the famous Kodiak bears.  Stepping ashore we got tied up in a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the new dock , then the Mayor gave us lift to the laundromat, as well as a quick town tour. Michael, who had crewed for me before out of San Fransisco, arrived the same day, as did a big flash vessel “Scorpius” complete with helicopter tying up at our stern, with an all NZ crew.

Tempting as it was to enjoy the camaraderie we were keen to go off in search of bears, so the next day we headed to Afognak Island, the northern part of Kodiak, happily accepting octopus bait from Ziggy so we could have a go at catching our own Halibut. The coves we anchored in were beautiful, only the occasional cabin or salmon farm. Logging again scarred the hillsides, but it had been many years earlier and regrowth was well underway.
The dinghy came back into service, and armed with foghorn and bear spray we explored the coastal fringes, the crab trap went out every day and night, and hooks were baited, but alas no wildlife to be seen or fresh fish for our dinner.

Having read about Geographic Harbor in Katmai National Park as a must see destination with high concentrations of grizzlies we decided to cross Shelikof Strait to the mainland and have a look. The Northeast was blowing 25-30 knots but it was a downwind run for us, making the crossing at speed with a reefed main. Several islets protect the entry to the harbor and we were soon in glassy calm waters motoring slowly through a narrow channel. Suddenly it was if we had come through a time warp. A primordial scene opened before us, dramatic mountain sides scoured with lahar flows or old eruptions that shattered the craters, small scrubby alders in bud near the waters edge but otherwise just tussock vegetation, no other trees, and heavy clouds sat brooding overhead, obscuring the volcanic peaks so as to give them even greater imagined heights.
The next morning we headed out gunk-holing in the dinghy, and observed bears for at least six hours. Firstly a group of four grizzlies worked their way along the shore grazing on seaweed and algae, then headed uphill thru the brush and into the tussocks. We saw them emerge on the skyline high among rocky outcrops and remnant snow - fast and agile.
After that we encountered individuals in every cove of the harbor, all taking on passing interest in us and in intent on grazing the littoral zone. We saw 10 bears in all, each quite different in coloring and size. On an outwash from a fast flowing river we beached the dinghy to stretch our legs. But the evidence of bear sign, and a well worn trail along the river, sent us back out to the water before having to test our bear encounter skills.
A news item on the radio just now - a 16 year old runner competing in a mountain run near Anchorage, chased, mauled and killed by a Black Bear!