Words by Les and Kel Rohlf Photos by Kel Rohlf (unless otherwise indicated)
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
Wood Spit to Ford’s Terror
Distance: 39 Miles
Ever since reading of Jay and Jolee Byers’ earlier visits to Ford’s Terror, it’s been on my list of “must-see” locations, if I had the opportunity to create my own Alaska itinerary. In many cases our expectations have exceeded the experiences. Ford’s Terror didn’t disappoint.
Ford’s Terror was named by Lieutenant Commander H. B. Mansfield (USN), for H. L. Ford, a member of his 1889 surveying party. Apparently, Ford rowed a skiff passed the narrows during slack tide and then spent a harrowing 6 hours unable to leave the inlet due to the dangerous waves, currents, and blocking ice until the next slack allowed exit.
Since we didn’t have far to go today, and since high slack at Ford’s Terror was in the neighborhood of 1:40pm, we weren’t in a hurry, but we got tired of waiting around, we left at 8:15, thinking we’d go up the Endicott Arm toward the Dawes Glacier before turning around to get to Ford’s Terror on time. We didn’t plan very well and didn’t leave ourselves quite enough time to get in view of the glacier. We had to slow to avoid the small clear bergies that sit low in the water and are difficult to spot, so we couldn’t just blast our way up there. We turned around 8 or 9 miles beyond the Ford’s Terror entrance. While we didn’t see the glacier itself, we saw seals hauled out on the ice and the magnificent canyon walls and waterfalls farther up the arm.
Based on AIS data and radio chatter, there would be at least 3 other boats bound for Ford’s Terror tonight. Another cruiser apparently bailed and returned from the Ford’s Terror entrance after arriving and seeing two other boats waiting south of the rapids. In the end, we and four boats waited for high slack to enter. I’ve heard or read of a couple estimates for calculating slack time at Ford’s Terror: 45 minutes after Juneau and 35 minutes after Wood Spit. These times end up being within about 10 minutes of each other and resulted in an estimate today for about 1:40pm. Based on radio chatter among those waiting when we arrived, nobody seemed certain of an estimate, though the loudest voice was using 1:05 (roughly slack at Wood Spit). They waited until the rapids seemed to subside at about 1:00pm, then invited a smaller fishing boat with excess power to go first. After all three of the larger (43-, 57-, and 64-foot boats) got through without carnage, we went through at about 1:10pm. We had plenty of power and directional control during this latter stage of the flood tide, but there was enough flow and churn that it didn’t quite feel like slack.
The favored anchoring spot in Ford’s Terror seems to be the western bank of western arm. All the other banks are extremely steep to, as the depth drops from 0 to over 100 feet in a very short distance. It’s all complicated by the western bank having a mud flat that exposes, as the tide drops and is difficult to discern – if you’re not careful you can ground on that mud flat, as the tide goes out. The three large cruisers were concerned there wouldn’t be room for everyone, so had already made plans to raft together before arriving. Once they rafted together along the middle section of the western shore, there was plenty of room for the two smaller boats in the northwest and southwest corners. Our anchor landed in about 60 feet of water, and once we paid out 200 feet of rode and set the anchor, our back end was just short of where the depth near the mud flat goes from 30 feet to less than 10 feet at high tide (18 to less than zero during tonight’s -1 foot low tide).
The most complete reference for Ford’s Terror navigation (IMO) is on the Slowboat.com blog (https://slowboat.com/2016/09/feature-article-fords-terror/), which also includes a link to the video from one of Jay and Jolee’s earlier adventures.
Thursday, July 8, 2021
Ford’s Terror to Taku Harbor
Distance: 53 Miles
It was special to wake up in Ford’s Terror this morning on my 60th birthday. This is really an amazing place, with shear towers rising on all sides. It had an other-worldly feel this morning, with low clouds and mist obscuring the surrounding peaks.
We pulled down the dinghy and spent an hour exploring the anchorage areas of Ford’s Terror. We almost had our own misadventure after crossing into the east side midway through the flood tide. I noted a pretty fast current and some whirlpools as we transited the narrow channel, so we didn’t spend long there. Returning through the channel required full power to make 1 mph headway into the swirling current. Our Torqeedo electric motor will push our 10-foot dinghy at 5 mph at full power in flat water, so I didn’t leave myself much margin. Looking at the east channel at near low tide, I can understand why most don’t recommend anchoring there. The picture below was from near low tide – the entrance is awfully narrow, and rocks intrude into the passageway. You’d need to be confident of your line and transit only at high slack.
We pulled anchor and started out shortly before 1:00pm. High slack at the Wood Spit was 1:45pm. The other four boats pulled out before us, so we followed. The outbound passage was complicated by bergs in the narrows and skiffs from the Wilderness Adventure cruise ship (anchored below the narrows) shuttling back and forth. We were the last of the 5 outbound boats to leave and went through the rapids at 1:54pm; and there were still significant standing waves and flooding current at the turn. Just after the rapids and before the final turn at the narrows, we were met by a large center console fishing boat in the middle of the channel, who had apparently not been listening to the four securite radio calls announcing the boats transiting from the north, and had not chosen to stay out of the path of the three larger boats that preceded us.
We met Akeeva (Sam Landsman) approaching from the south just as we finished our southbound passage. We continued back the Endicott Arm, exited Holkham Bay, and sloshed northbound to Taku Harbor for the night. The waves in Stephens Passage weren’t as bad as forecast (3 feet), but resulted in a busy ride. Things seemed calm when we anchored in Taku Harbor with about 6 other boats. An additional 8 were tied to the two floats in the harbor. Swells from the southeast wind must have made it into the harbor, as we experienced kind of a “rolly” night.
Friday, July 9, 2021
Taku Harbor to Juneau
Distance: 24 Miles
We departed Taku Harbor shortly after 6:00 am and headed toward Juneau. The following waves were mostly on the stern, so were not really uncomfortable. They settled as we moved further up the Gastineau Channel. We filled up with gas on the way into town and were assigned to the transient dock at Harris Harbor, the closest basin to downtown. I’ve arranged to have our motor oil changed at Auke Bay on Tuesday, so we’ll leave the harbor and run around Douglas Island to Auke Bay on Monday.
After doing some cleaning on the boat and laundry, we walked to the IGA for groceries and later to the Red Dog Saloon for dinner. The Red Dog Saloon seems geared toward tourists, though has a little different feel now without the cruise ship crowd.
Celebrating with Les undergirds this expedition. He reminded me before the trip that his goal was to explore the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska before he turned sixty. Mission accomplished, he has now explored parts of the passage before sixty, and the rest of the journey will be during his sixtieth year of life. It has been quite the accomplishment living on our Intuition these past weeks, and unbelievably the journey isn’t even half over. We still hope to make it to Haines, Skagway and Sitka for sure, and then retrace some of our steps at the end of the summer to return to Everett, Washington via the route whence we came.
I get a little sentimental at times. I assign significance to birthdays, holidays and milestones that I think without me may get overlooked by my practical partner. So I baked him a cake. And we enjoyed that very much. And I will use his birthdate to continue our celebrations far into this trip. I am very thankful for Les, and our journey of faith, not only on the boat, but also heading into our 35th year of being together. Boating is fun and being here is amazing, but it also takes a lot of work to make it work. Not unlike a marriage based on mutual admiration and dynamic partnership. We make it work. Some days are spectacular, and others ordinary.
After three days on the water, just before we headed into Ford’s Terror, I was getting antsy. I thought I was alone in my feelings, so I kept them to myself. We are in a lovely tiny boat, living our tiny lifestyle, but horseflies and gnats show up, and it feels really tiny. Sitting out on the deck is not soothing if you have to swat away bugs. Les valiantly grilled twice for us with bugs swarming him. I stayed in my perch inside on the port side of the boat messing with my collage art or reading a magazine article. At night, I’d climb into bed just for a different perspective, even if I wasn’t tired. I restarted reading Moby Dick. (I’ve never finished it, and have been reading it off and on for at least twenty years now.) I resolved to finish it this trip, and actually am finding the section on cetology more interesting this time. So when Les admitted that he was getting “cabin fever” a little bit, too, I didn’t feel so abnormal.
We were heading into the much acclaimed and looked forward to adventure on this trip: Ford’s Terror. Before the trip, I would have Les tell the story of how long ago Ford paddled in and couldn’t get back out of the passage for six hours because of the tide change. We would joke about its name and wondered how terrifying it would really be. I imagined us being there as a solitary boat in a remote destination. So when we arrived at the entrance, I was a little disappointed that others had the same idea. (So far we’ve been able to get into most places on our own, and we kind of like that vibe.) But in retrospect it was good to have neighbors. It was like sitting on the stoop on a hot summer day in the city, except we were listening in on the conversations held on Channel 69 on our VHF radio. The boats ahead of us debated about the best way to enter the narrows. I’m pretty sure not one of the boaters, including us had ever been in Ford’s Terror before, so we were learning together. Les and I listened, and shared our information. Thankfully, we showed up last, so in essence that gave us an advantage to watch the others go through first. And as it would happen, we also would be the last ones out the next day. Again having the benefit of watching others swish and swash through the rapidly changing tide and dodging little icebergs while keeping up with the rush of the current around a sharp corner. Just exhilarating, especially when you know the captain of your boat can handle the maneuvers. Another birthday blessing, as Les successfully navigated in and out of Ford’s Terror without any carnage.
Speaking of carnage, after we exited the “terror”, and exchanged our relieved, so longs and farewells and safe voyages to the other boaters, I had the pleasure of netting us another bergie. We weaved through the ice field, as Les pulled up to various bergie candidates. I couldn’t break off a piece from a bigger one, and the smaller ones slipped under the bow before we could get to them. Finally, I caught a nice sized one that once I had it on the deck, I realized a couple things. One, this was a beautiful bergie, shapely formed with open holes that had melted just right to give the piece character. Two, this one, was a little too big to just drop into our cooler. So I got out the ice pick, and with childlike glee broke the beauty into pieces. After placing the ice chunks into the cooler, I threw a smaller piece back into the sea. Now the cooler was once again stocked with ice, and the deck was covered in bergie bits, which eventually melted.
After five spectacular days on the water, I was relieved when the evening seas weren’t as choppy as predicted. As we cruised north on the Stephens Passage toward Taku Harbor, I sighed. I watched the horizon blend into a monotone palette of gray greens, dark mountains shrouded in clouds and the drab olive waves peaking and receding. The scene was a welcome coda to our latest adventure. I asked Les how he was doing after such a full week, he replied, “Good.” And then asked me, “How about you?” I replied, “I’m enjoying the monotony.” A strange release came over me, as we said farewell to the grandeur, and the glory of witnessing such immensity.
Highlights of Ford’s Terror and the Endicott Arm:
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
I can’t take it all in! (Psalm 139:2-6 The Message)