|Our route, minus squiggly bits|
Is it not better to applaud
and embrace the ever-changing seas,
not a longing dream stranded
on an eroding shore?
For the relentless tides shape
the coastlines: changing the world,
leaving their imperfect marks on time.
-- from The Perfect Myth by kategorical_poet
Subjectivividy: Row / Sail Around Chichagof
Circumnavigation was incidental.
We were aiming for the outer coast. Outer Chich, as it is locally known... the (west) side of Chichagof Island exposed to the Gulf of Alaska. Big water. A half a million square miles big. One and a half million square kilometers. Wind and wave each have plenty of room to develop power.
So we Inside Passagemakers plan to head outside in a small vessel. And not just small, but new to us, and encumbered with every oddball idea we've collected over an oddball career.
We got more than the usual cargo of advice. Yagottas and Yacants and Yashouldnts and Yamusts. We're gonna love it. We're gonna die. There's no shelter. There's shelter everywhere. It's all foul bottom. It's good holding anywhere you'll want to be.The usual, in other words, but this time at full volume.
A general rule of thumb is to prefer those experienced mariners who report positively.
Nay-sayers - even those with experience - are typically reporting the negative experiences consequent to poor choices. Careless anchoring, poor choice of shelter, machoing out the blows... these all lead to a pessimistic view. Those who have good experiences are typically applying both knowledge and prudence. If these can ride out the storm, it ain't braggin'. If they find holding, it's there. If they find shelter, it's there. If they read advanced notice of trouble, it's there to read.
Still, we approached the trip with caution and not a little trepidation
Passage from Tenakee to Kalinen Bay, jump off point to the outer coast, involved a lot of rowing.
But our third day, in Peril Straits, a forecast of 'light winds' turned suddenly nasty. Five foot chop and gusts to 30kts of wind caught us mid-strait. This was our first stiff wind and way more than we'd bargained on! But MUSTELID took it well. With her whipstaff (vertical tiller) fixed a smidge to port, we could steer to s'brd by sheeting the main and raced across to shelter under a patch of sail.
Away in the distance, a humpback whale - longer than our hull and maybe 20x the mass - was coursing more or less toward us. But so long as we both maintained course and speed, it would pass easily behind us.
A few, absorbing gusts later and I looked again to find it now on a collision course! Not much time, and no room to maneuver on the face of the waves, I stomped the hull and called to Anke, below, to make noise.
That whale surged close, breathing slow and easy all the while, before it suddenly realized we were there, gulped air and emergency dived. I could have touched it with an oar. Anke saw its back, point blank, eclipse the sky. It's quick action saved us from being t-boned!
It would prove to be the closest call of the whole trip!
From Kalinen, we faced a NW passage along 14nm of foul bottom shoreline, girded by breakers over jagged rock teeth. Wind was predicted S15 with 7ft seas, which would allow us to adjust distance off as needed, despite the rock 'n' roll. The concern was SW wind (prevailing direction along there)... we weren't sure we could close reach in the slosh of sea... if not, that coast would be a gradual lee shore.
As it happened, following a wild start the wind dropped to nothing. We rowed. And rowed. And rowed. All the time rising and falling to W seas from the Gulf and watching them burst against the shoreward rocks, close at hand.
Finally, we found the S wind, blowing hard, and made for Peele's Passage.
Peele was a paragon of the many Prohibition era smugglers supplying hootch to hundreds of outer coast miners. He knew this rock strewn passage well, and ditched pursuing law enforcement in its narrow, weed-wracked confines.
Our first look at it, we come screaming in under dark of a squall. We close-hugged a windward rock, ensuring we could make the sharp turn in. As we rounded, we were alarmed by the roar of several sharp, black fangs of rock that seemed to surge toward us!
Quickly became clear... those were no rocks. Sea lions, startled as we were!
|Crazed and Crazy|
Once through Peele's we entered an island wonderland.
I don't love the word 'awesome' (overused), but it's hard to think of a better. 'Terrific', maybe, in it's archaic sense of ability to inspire fear and respect? In any case, words fail.
Stretching from Slocum Arm in the south (Peehle's snakes along it) to Lisianski Strait in the north, outer Chich packs thousands of miles of coastline into a raven's flight of 30nm.
Approaching from the sea, solitaries and spray lines of rock must first be negotiated. Then fans of myriad tiny islands surrounding larger anchor islands. Then the perforated main body of Chichigof itself. All separated and connected by a labyrinth of weedy, bereefed passages. Shoals and deeps. Mountain, cliff and moor. Sheer rock and climax forest. And populated by fish, fowl, land and sea mammals running the local gamut.
Pretty much all of Southeast Alaska in a nutshell!
We drifted. We rowed. We sailed. We poked and prodded and scrabbled and scrooged. Feasted on its bounties, nourishing body and soul. And tucked away like the gem it is, White Sulfur Hotsprings let us look out on the open Gulf from the luxury of hot water! OMFG!! (Can I say that??)
We moved about in a daze - sometimes a literal daze of fog - overwhelmed by the beauties of the place.
But autumn was approaching, and with it equinoctial gales and storms rolling off the Gulf. On the first day of September, we rounded Three Knob Rock and turned toward inland waters.
|Sunset over Icy Strait|
Icy Strait looks simple. Should be simple. Ain't simple.
Forecast winds blow mostly E or W. Water rushes in and out the E end... that's a fact. After that, it's complicated. Deep troughs are separated by relatively shallow ridges... water rises, turns and rushes. Waters collide in rips and ridges. Eddies back and fill. Point Adolphus puts a kink in the whole works, throwing water from one side of the strait to t'other.
Over the years, we've figured out jigsaw pieces of the puzzle. Maybe put a corner together.
Going E from Adolphus, for instance, if you follow the S shore (where all the good shelter is), you soon run into a W setting current. A strong one. Always. Goes like this:
- Outgoing tide, headed W to the sea, is on the nose.
- Incoming tide, headed E from the sea, is on the nose.
Best bet is to push E at low slack, hoping to forge across the eastbound river of water, into the eye before the back-eddy sets up full throttle.
And that's just one challenge!
But the vistas! Wide waters aligned with sunrise and sunset. Towering, glaciated mountains and Glacier Bay to the NW, with lesser but no less beautiful mountains lining the shores. Deep sounds, inlets and estuaries to either hand.
With all this open water view we realize that we're surrounded by whales in flight, breaching for reasons they have never shared with us.
They say when pigs can fly, meaning never. But whales do fly. Go figure.
So we pull into Swanson Harbor at the cross-roads of Icy, Lynn and Chatham Straits. It's now late September and well past time to return to Tenakee before winter comes down hard.
But. But. But. But.
But we're having such a great time! The temps are milder than usual for the season, and we're feeling in command of our vessel. Having family up there in Haines gives us a pretext. If we're there for a birthday on the 1st of October, we can take the next window S.Now Lynn Canal is a full on fjiord let into mainland, North America. The wind comes down, as a friend says, with his Long Boots on! We've sailed it often, but even in bigger vessels, we prefer to keep our time there to the summer months. It would be... y'know... ill advised to head into the Lion's jaws this late in the year.
So rather than turn our bow south for home, we head north.
It's a humbling run at any time of year. The Chilkat and Chilkoot mountain ranges ramp up and up as we sail north, their peaks shredding the clouds. But as October approached, snow fell high and beautiful, clothing the naked rock with a mantle of white.
Birch turned autumn golds and reds are at first now and then. Soon they crowd the alluvial fans spreading at the outflows of valleys yet buried in ice. Flats along the way are limned with grasses turned sere and electric. Birds are flocking and on the wing, heading for winter grounds.
We had more wind in six days of actual transit, coming and going, than we had all the rest of the trip combined! Water heaping up with 'well marked streaks' between bouts of scud blowing off the cresting waves.
Sailing in such felt much more under control, however, knowing our boat and having advanced our small craft sailing skills considerably over the summer. A little cotton mouth here, shaky legs there, and speedy runs up and back.
At one point, we were running south with a fair wind and last end of tide. Wind and sea had both been picking up, but a large lee lay close ahead. But then three short, steep, tall waves overtook us, one after the other. If they arose with a fair tide, we'd better get out of that before it turned foul! We had at hand a cove with a tricky tidal entrance, but low slack is the perfect time. So we rounded into a sudden, flat calm and rowed, easy as you please, with the new incoming tide into one of the best harbors in the world.
Slept like babes.
Back in Swanson in mid-October, it was only a matter of waiting for a window to head for home. It's still the cross-roads of three cranky stretches of water, and Swanson itself is a geographical wonder... wind might be 15 gusting to 25kts higher than the surrounding areas at any given time.
But in due time, a window came. After all this, the homeward leg was uneventful, to our great relief. We rowed and sailed in lighter winds for the very most part.
Turning that last corner into Tenakee inlet aroused mixed feelings.
We felt the pull of that next horizon strong within us. Despite generous helpings of friends and family along the way, we'd mostly been just the two of us, delighting in our duetude. We had faced much together. Leaned on one another with an intensity not called from us since our early days on the water. To immerse ourselves in a community, even for a season, is to trade something we value for something invaluable.
To me, this closeness to one another throughout the trip was the most vivid aspect of our whole, luminous venture.