by J.D. Roth
My neighbor across the street owns a boat. John is a 74-year-old shop teacher who is always on the move. During our dreary Oregon winters, he’s in New Zealand (where it’s summer), doing volunteer work on a series of farms. During the summer, he motors around southeast Alaska on his 38-foot boat. (He’s here for a couple of weeks in April, and then again for three months in the fall, but otherwise he’s on the move.)
John’s a generous guy, and for several years he’s been bugging me and Kris to spend a couple of weeks on his boat. This sort of thing just doesn’t interest Kris, but I like the idea of puttering around Alaska. I’ve been waiting for the free time to do so, and I finally found it. Last week, Mac and I ditched Real Life to spend ten days with John on Prime Time.
Day One: Friday, May 14th — Petersburg
Though I did most of my packing on Wednesday and Thursday, I have so much to do before I leave that I get up at 3 a.m. There are many chores — both at home and for the blogs — that are left unfinished, but really there’s nothing else I can do. When Mac arrives to pick me up, I even notice that I forgot to mow a patch of lawn. sigh
Our flight is uneventful. We fly from Portland to Seattle, from Seattle to Juneau (during which Mac sits next to a chatty 11-year-old girl), from Juneau to Petersburg. When we arrive at the Petersburg airport (which is about the size of a DMV office), we wait for our luggage, but the cooler of groceries never appears. “It’s probably in Anchorage by now,” I tell the ticket agent.
“There’s no way it could get to Anchorage,” she says. “None of your planes ended up in Anchorage.” She does a bit of work on her computer and then says, “That’s odd. It is in Anchorage.” She arranges for it to be delivered in the morning. Because John had told us that it was too far to walk, Mac and I take a taxi from the airport to the harbor. It costs us eight bucks for a one kilometer ride.
Later, we eat dinner at the Elks Lodge: It’s the Emblem Club Smorgasbord, which the flyer describes thusly: “Come and enjoy an amazing spread of Norwegian and Alaskan dinner delights!”
“I’ll pay,” I say as we enter the Elks Club. But it costs $20 per person! I wasn’t expecting that. The food is, well, not my kind of food. For my twenty bucks, I can choose from:
I eat the meatballs in brown gravy. John raves about the smorgasbord, and asks me why I’m not having anything other than meatballs. “I don’t like creamy shit,” I say, and I try to explain how I’m not a fan of the texture and taste of things like sour cream and cream cheese and even yogurt. He thinks this is hilarious, and for the next ten days, several times a day, he laughs about “creamy shit”.
While young girls in Norwegian costumes clear the table, John chats with everybody around us. He’s a friendly fellow.
Day Two: Saturday, May 15th — Hobart Bay
Mac and I have a hold at the rear of the boat. It’s a comfy little nesting spot with two beds, a counter, and a cupboard of books. Throughout the trip, I sleep surprisingly well.
Saturday morning is cool and drizzly. Mac and I walk to the hardware store to buy our fishing licenses. There’s a 5k race going on, and the faster runners are just crossing the finish line. Since we have time to kill before picking up our cooler at the airport, we walk the long way around the outside edge of the island. We say howdy to the people racing the other way. (Everyone in Petersburg is friendly.)
We’re a little puzzled by the distance we travel, since the course markers are in miles not kilometers and it feels like we’re walking miles not kilometers. Eventually, however, we end up at the airport, where the cooler is waiting for us. The ticket agent gives us a voucher for a $25 credit to compensate us for our troubles. (John won’t think this is enough, and will repeatedly mention that he thinks we should get more for our trouble.) Mac and I carry the cooler down the hill into town.
At about 11 a.m., we finally set off on our Alaskan adventure.
But there’s not much adventure on the first day. We motor north to Entrance Island on Hobart Bay, where we anchor for the night.
Day Three: Sunday, May 16th — Tracy Arm
In the morning, we set off for Tracy Arm, a fjord located just southeast of Juneau. First, though, we putter around Hobart Bay. We stop to say howdy to some folks who have been bear hunting. Soon after, we see a group of bald eagles feasting on an unknown carcass. (My guess is that it’s the carcass from one of the bears the group killed; they probably skinned it and saved the best pieces of meat, and then left the rest on the rocks for the birds.)
Around noon, we enter Tracy Arm, a spectacular fjord with towering mountains on both sides of a deep, narrow channel. The arm is filled with icebergs, big and small. We weave our way upstream, admiring the view. I’m particularly drawn to the handful of deep green valleys along the south side of the fjord. The day is beautiful, so we spend most of the time outside on the upper deck. When we can go no further, we turn around. John puts me and Mac to work, fishing chunks of ice from the water. We put the ice into a large cooler to serve as a source of fresh water over the next few days.
In the late afternoon, we anchor in a cove at the mouth of Tracy Arm. Mac and I row the dinghy to shore and take a stroll among the rocks. There are lots of birds around, and tons of empty mussel shells. As we row back to Prime Time, we’re followed by a seal, who seems very curious. Once back aboard, we spy a black bear eating grass on the shore.
Day Four: Monday, May 17th — Cannery Cove
Every morning at 6:30, John gets on the ham radio and chats with his boating buddies on the Great Northern Boaters Net. John (who is KA7MRM) updates folks on what we did the day before and what we plan to today. Though annoying at first, this comes to be one of our favorite parts of the trip. Mac and I are always in bed when the net begins checking in, so we wake up listening to the comings and goings of various vessels.
In the morning, we set off from Tracy Arm. As we start down Stephens Passage, we see three cruise ships, including the Zuiderdam from Holland America. (The Zuiderdam heads up the Tracy Arm, which would be fun with all of the ice.) As we head south, we see a couple of whales, which dive as we near them.
In the afternoon, we reach Cannery Cove (on the southeast part of Admiralty Island), which may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Words cannot convey the beauty, and I’m afraid photos won’t do it justice either. The cove is a U-shaped bite out of a mountain valley. The snowy peaks soar on all sides, falling to the water in steep slopes of firs and pines. Simply stunning.
There are six vessels already in the harbor, including three or four Nordhavns, which John tells us are expensive (million-dollar-plus) boats. One of them is here from Australia. We chat with some of the folks, and they tell us they’ve all set crab pots, but have only been able to catch one of the bastards. We set ours anyhow, then head out to the bay. There we set our lines for halibut and drift. John reads his Ken Follett book. I do Crossfit exercises while Mac times me.
After about half an hour, a speedboat comes by. It’s an English guy and an Australian guy (the owner of the Nordhaven). They’ve been out trolling for halibut with no luck. “We put down shrimp pots in the 480-foot hole,” the English guy tells us, “but we didn’t catch a thing. Another one of our group caught three prawns, but there are four of us. That’s not enough to go around!”
John asks after the Australian boat. “We shipped that over here,” the Australian guy tells us. “It costs $66,000 to do it. We call it SKIE, which is an acronym for Spending the Kids Inheritance Early. If we didn’t spend the money to do this, they’d spend it on the same thing. We figure we might as well enjoy it.”
We catch no halibut, so we head back to Cannery Cove. We pull the crab pots, which contain a single small rock crab (which we toss back), and a poor unfortunate flounder, which John filets and we eat as an appetizer (ha!).
In the evening, we all read our books and listen to classic jazz. (One of John’s sons has loaned him a Sirius satellite radio, and John loves it. He listens to BBC, NPR, the easy listening channel, and “The Coffeehouse”, which has acoustic versions of modern rock songs that he’s never heard before.)
Day Five: Tuesday, May 18th — Red Bluff Bay
In the morning, we check our crab pots, but they’re empty again. Well, they’re not empty, but they only contain a single crab, which falls through the cracks as we lift the pot from the water.
We boat south from Cannery Cove to Red Bluff Bay. Along the way, at the south tip of Admiralty Island, we come upon several pods of whales. We slow the boat to admire them. Over the course of the next half hour, we see dozens of whales spouting and sounding (diving). Twice we’re able to get within 100 feet of the whales, and once we’re able to get within about 50 feet. It’s awesome.
As we travel south, John makes fun of us (especially me) for how attached we are to our technology. (We resist pointing out that he’s just as attached to his technology.) We pass by Kake, which has a cell phone tower, allowing us about a 30-minute window to check e-mail, post Facebook updates, and so on. And although he makes fun of us, John checks his e-mail too.
In the afternoon, we reach Red Bluff Bay, which is aptly named for the red buffs at the bay’s entrance. John thinks it’s spectacular, but I’m unimpressed. We drop our crab pots and shrimp pots, then head out to the entrance to troll for salmon. Mac and I chat while we fish. He catches a smallish rockfish, but otherwise we come up empty. When it starts to rain, we head back to the harbor, where we tie up with the Abyssinia, one of the vessels in the Great Northern Boaters Net.
Abyssinia is a charter boat that transports kayakers all around southeast Alaska. John is friends with the owners, Kim and Eric, so they spend some time chatting. There are three women on board for a week of kayaking: Karen (U.S. Attorney for state of Alaska), Audrey (Karen’s “lackey”, who does child exploitation cases), and Pam (who does research and development for BP).
Pam caught an 80-pound halibut earlier in the day, so we’re invited on board to join them for dinner. Which is nice, because we only have the small rockfish that Mac caught, plus a bunch of chicken sausages I’ve brought from home. We have a wonderful meal, including rice and quinoa. And, best of all, for dessert I have about 1/4 cup of chocolate ice cream and two Oreo cookies — my first such treat all month.
Day Six: Wednesday, May 19th — Baranof Warm Springs
Before we leave Red Bluff Bay, we retrieve our crab pots and our shrimp pots. But one of our crab pots is missing. When we put it down yesterday, I had said I didn’t think it had enough rope, but John pooh-poohed the notion. Now he thinks the float is underwater at high tide. The two crab pots we recover yield a single crab. The two shrimp pots, however, hold a couple of hundred shrimp, which we dump into a bucket for later. (Mac texts Pam that we’ve caught 200 shrimp for dinner. She replies: “Fucker.” Pam loves shrimp.)
The morning is cold and wet and windy, and it’s not very fun getting the pots in. Mac cuts up his hands on the rope. After we’re finished, we steer out for Chatham Strait, which is filled with three-foot swells that toss and buffet the boat. At about noon, we pull into Warm Springs Bay (aka Baranof Bay), where John sees a number of old friends. While he repairs some damaged boat stuff, Mac and I prep the shrimp, twisting them in half and then boiling them.
When the work is finished, we hike up above the roaring waterfall first to a scenic vista, then to the natural hot springs. The bathing pools sit right next to the roaring waterfall, yielding an amazing experience: The pools are maybe 43c (110 degrees fahrenheit) while the waterfall is maybe 5c (40 degrees fahrenheit). John tells us that people used to hike over from Sitka (about 20-25 miles away on the other side of Baranof Island) to visit the hot springs. I can believe it.
After soaking, we head back into the strait, where the seas have calmed. We boat north to Peril Strait, and then pull into an unnamed cove to spend the night. We eat crab and shrimp. After dinner, we sit around reading, which is what we seem to do every night.
Day Seven: Thursday, May 20th — Deep Bay
We leave our cove in the morning and continue up Peril Strait. At about noon, we stop for a bit of fishing. In just a few minutes (ten?), I catch four rockfish. John decides that the conditions aren’t good, though, so we head into Deep Bay, where we set four crab pots.
We spend a lazy afternoon just sitting on the calm waters of Baby Bear Bay. We eat. We read. We nap. At about four, John decides that he wants to make it to Kalinin Bay today, even though it’s a few hours away. We go to pull the crab pots, but we only have one keeper. So, John curses and decides to stay the night in this area. We drop the pots again and head out to fish.
In about half an hour, Mac and I catch our limit of rockfish. We have so many fish stuffed in the cooler I brought from home that they keep kicking the lid open.
We head back to Baby Bear Bay, where John makes us supper. Rockfish, of course.
Day Eight: Friday, May 21st — Kalinin Bay
It rains overnight in Baby Bear Bay, and we wake to a cold, grey world. We boat over to Deep Bay to check our crab pots, and find we have three keepers. We head back out to Peril Strait, and I get to pilot us toward Kalinin Bay. At one point, John gets cranky because I’m not following the course he wants me to follow, even though he never told me to follow it. Now we’re in rough water.
“If you’re confused, you need to say something,” he says.
“But I wasn’t confused,” I say. “I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing.”
We stop just short of Kalinin Bay to fish off Sinitsin Island. We troll for salmon for three hours, and we have three strikes, but we’re not able to land anything.
In the afternoon, we come into Kalinin Bay. John works on the anchor winch while Mac and I row to land. We hike along the rocky shore, then up to a lake. We’ve been told to hike through to the sandy beach, but I’m scared of bears (and I mean really scared of bears, and we’ve already seen four piles of bear scat on the trail. I’m not willing to go further. Plus, we’re both a little concerned about the incoming tide. (It’s a long, flat beach, and we’re afraid of getting cut off from the boat.)
In the evening, we read — as always.
Day Nine: Saturday, May 22nd — Kalinin Bay
It’s cool and grey again as we wake in Kalinin Bay. We eat a quick breakfast, then set out to fish for salmon. Mac catches one at the edge of the bay — a 25 pounder. We head out into Salisbury Sound and motor west. We both catch a rockfish at the same time. After about an hour, Mac catches another salmon (it’s smaller than the first, but gives more fight). After another hour, I catch one myself. At 11 a.m. — three hours of fishing — we head back to the bay. We spend an hour or so cleaning fish, eat lunch, and then settle into reading again.
Vagrant (a sailboat) and Abyssinia — both good friends of John — come into Kalinin for the day. John gives some of our salmon to Vagrant, while the kayakers on Abyssinia head out to hike to the lake.
In the afternoon, we venture out into the sound for more fishing. The seas are swelly, but the real problem is the cold wind. We stay out for a couple of hours, but don’t catch anything except one small rockfish. Back in the bay, Mac rows ashore to cut some fresh alder. I clean my small rockfish (the first fish I’ve ever cleaned!) while John preps to barbecue salmon.
In the evening, we read.
Day Ten: Sunday, May 23rd — Sitka
Kind of a grey nothing day. John wants to do more fishing, so we head out to the mouth of the bay. In 30 minutes, I catch two more salmon. “That’s enough,” John says. We follow Vagrant and Abyssinia south toward Sitka. Everyone is in good spirits. Mac and I have fun getting intermittent e-mail/texts as we start to get cell service again.
Once we dock, Mac puts on his shoes and goes for a run. I meander into town, looking at all of the stores, and walking down all of the side streets. I buy a couple of books (In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and a volume of Emereson’s essays) and a bottle of diet soda. In the bookstore, I chat with the women we’d dined with aboard Abyssinia.
Back at the boat, one of the next guests (Jack?) has arrived. Mac and I convince John to let us take the group to dinner at a the Mexican restaurant in town.
Day Eleven: Monday, May 24th — Portland
We spend the morning cleaning the boat and packing our fish for the return flight home. John runs errands as he prepares to leave in the afternoon with his next guests (Jack has a friend joining him). Unfortunately, the folks in Sitka can’t take care of John’s starter motor to his satisfaction; he wants to ship it back to Portland where it can be fixed at a shop he knows. He bundles it in a towel and ties it up with rope and ships it with Mac as a carry-on.
We have a long wait at the airport, during which John chats with everyone he can find. He tries to get the woman at the ticket counter to give us more than a $25 voucher due to the cooler the airline had shipped to Anchorage at the start of the trip. He talks with a guy from a charter company about fish limits, and he chats with with another fellow about his rifle.
When Mac and I pass through security, TSA rejects the starter motor. They don’t like the fact that there’s still petroleum residue on it, and so refuse to let it come on the plane (even as checked luggage) — it’s too flammable. Mac and the TSA guy go out to tell John, who becomes agitated and berates the TSA guy. In the end, though, the motor can’t come through. Mac and I board the plane without it.
The flight home is uneventful. Back at Rosings Park, we divide the fish and say our farewells. It was a great trip, but it’s good to be home.
Our trip to Alaska was long, but relaxing. It was fantastic to see it from a different perspective than a cruise ship. I was impressed with the people I met, both in the towns and on the different vessels. And, as I was in 2004, I was blown away by the stunning scenery and the vast empty spaces. (Mac relayed a piece of trivia: If Manhattan Island were as sparsely populated as Alaska, just 24 people would live there instead of 1.6 million.)
This was a great trip.
Updated: 25 May 2010