Words by Les and Kel Rohlf Photos by Kel Rohlf (unless indicated otherwise)
I thought I’d share my thoughts first this time, just to change it up a little bit. We really appreciate all the wonderful encouragement and feedback from folks as we spend this summer in Southeast Alaska. Your comments here, on Facebook and the C-Brats forum gives us a sense of camaraderie in the midst of our solitary living. While each of us have a penchant for solitude, Les more than I, we both appreciate community and knowing that we might be bringing a sense of awe or joy into someone else’s life.
I often take the book Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh with me on beach vacations, and even though we are living on the ocean, I didn’t think to pack it. (My main reading goal for this trip has been to finish Moby Dick, which I am happy to report I hit the halfway point, according to my Kindle reader.) Lindbergh’s book opened my heart to the idea that it is okay to want, need, or desire solitude. I’ve read it at different seasons of my life and our marriage, and each time it opens up in me a fresh perspective on the dignity of each individual and their need to pause and take a break from the regular routine of life. And obviously this trip, which we are on right now, is a huge break from the usual way we live.
Yet we are still the same two people who met and started a life together many moons ago. And yet, we are different. We’ve grown. We’ve discovered different needs and desires that were latent in our younger years. We’ve adapted to our changing selves, and most likely in some fashion the Intuition strengthened our partnership, companionship and love for one another. (I know this is a blog entry about boating, but it’s also about relationship.) As we passed the buoy that marks the entrance to Peril Strait, I noticed it was numbered 35. I jokingly said we’re entering the peril of our married years now, since we will celebrate 35 years in October. Coincidence, harbinger or just a buoy marking a channel? Before getting to Sitka, we looked through the Visitor’s Guide magazine to see which attractions caught our fancy. I noticed that Sitka celebrates the Alaska Day Festival in October. They commemorate the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States; the signing took place here in Sitka on October 18, 1867. We were married on October 18, 1986. Coincidence or just something to connect us even more to Alaska?
When we left Hoonah, I felt we were leaving a familiar place, we had stayed in slip D-11 each time we came into port. We were moored between boats named Crystal Sea and Stormy Sea. This time in Alaska, we have not been on any stormy seas; mostly calm waters and a few snotty days. Just like life sometimes it’s all sunshine and merriment, and other times it’s treacherous and disappointing.
I was excited to try something new in Tenakee Springs (the bath house fed by warm springs), and was looking forward to some local homemade bakery goods. But instead, it just felt too hot and sticky to enjoy the bath house and the bakery was closed and the horseflies were chasing us back into the refuge of our boat. (We do have a fan, so that and a breeze kept us cool.) I walked on the beach to pick up treasures, I found a few things for my recycled art projects, but the horseflies soon got the better of me.
So to be honest, I went to bed disappointed that the town seemed zipped up, and we couldn’t get outside because of flies. The next morning was cool and calm, and we were going to anchor out, so no need to interact with people or worry about dashed expectations. I settled in by baking cinnamon rolls in our stovetop baker, and brewed our morning coffees.
As we were munching down our rolls, and sipping coffee Les noticed the spouts ahead. We puttered towards them, and then after a bit he surprised me by going a little faster, and I asked if he thought I should get the camera out. Yep, he replied. To our great delight, and to the benefit of my “work” as one of the main trip photographers, we indeed got lots of photos. We had been close to a single whale once or twice, and knew that they spouted then surfaced, and then dove, which was my cue to get ready to catch a tail with the camera. We knew they breached, but weren’t expecting it. We figured once they dove, they’d swim a quarter mile away and our watching would be over. Instead, just as I rested my camera, one lunged out of the water and went kersplash. I did catch the splash.
We kept following the spouts, and the circling gulls which indicate whales are below. To our surprise the whales just kept surfacing, diving and occasionally breaching. And one very adamantly kept slapping its tail. After all that ruckus, my arms ached from holding the camera steady while the boat bobbed. Then Les said, look at the bubbles, that means they’re bubble-net feeding. I had never heard of it. Apparently humpback whales make a circle and blow bubbles to “capture” the fish. One of them signals the group and they all come up with mouths open to feed. We watched them once, and then the next time I just kept the camera clicking to catch them in action.
Life surprises us like that, one minute I’m adjusting my expectations and the next I’m wowed beyond my expectations. I am thankful for the ebb and flow, the natural rhythm of highs and lows, because to stay in one state longer than another is not emotionally sustainable. We were designed for ups and downs, joys and griefs, to celebrate and to mourn, to wonder and to doubt.
I like how Anne Morrow Lindbergh introduces her narrative essays, “I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work and human relationships…but as I went on writing…I found my point of view was not unique.” She goes on to explain that she thought she was alone in her need to grapple with life balance, and she envied those who had “smoothly ticking days.” And then she realizes that she is not alone in her need for a contemplative life. She concludes, “Even those whose lives had appeared to be ticking imperturbably under their smiling clock faces were often trying, like me, to evolve another rhythm with more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to their individual needs, and new and more alive relationships to themselves as well as others.” While Lindbergh discovered these insights from the leisure of time alone at the beach, I have found that we can create our own solitary retreats even when we’re not on a trip of a lifetime.
In the visitor’s guide for Sitka, it first welcomes the traveler and then states: “Travel is many things to many people.” And follows up with some rhetorical questions. We could substitute the word travel with contemplation or solitude or quality of life. I was talking on the phone with my mom when we arrived in Sitka. She mentioned she was working on eating better, moving more and staying creative, not so much to live longer, but to enjoy a greater quality of life. Her thoughts dovetailed into my musings. That’s what I am seeking when I travel or seek solitude, I’m searching for a quality of life, not necessarily something better or different.
I agree with Lindbergh, “…since I think best with a pencil in my hand, I started naturally to write.” Writing helps me process life. Questions prompt me to think. I think I’ll go grab my pen (I prefer pens over pencils) and contemplate the questions in the visitor’s guide. Here they are in case you like to think while writing. Feel free to change the word travel to whatever fits your situation. Maybe you are vicariously traveling with someone. Who knows, right?
“Do you travel to explore new cultures? To open yourself to new ideas or ways of living? To smell, taste and touch the unimaginable? Do you travel to share the world with a special someone or your children? Or do you travel to find yourself?” (Questions from the welcome page in the 2021-22 Sitka Official Visitors’ Guide)
Thursday, July 29
Berg Bay to Hoonah
Took our time heading south out of Glacier Bay to take advantage of the ebb tide. We transited the park boundary just after 8:00am, which is when the National Park Service begins monitoring radio traffic for boats entering and departing Bartlett Cove and the park itself. It was a free-for-all for about 15 minutes while everyone reported their entry/exit/movement.
We had an uneventful run back to Hoonah, arriving to a traffic jam at the fuel dock. Rather than waiting for 3 much larger boats to fill up (seems there’s only room for one boat at a time here), we tied up to the public dock outside the marina. It’s close to the grocery store, so Kel made the grocery run while Les coordinated for a slip for the evening. The afternoon and evening consisted of stocking up, cleaning, and rearranging everything for the 3- to 4-day trip to Sitka. The evening was focused on finishing and posting to blogs.
Friday, July 30, 2021
Hoonah to Tenakee Springs
Left Hoonah by 6:30am and worked to upload a few more photos as we exited the harbor and the cell signal faded. We made breakfast after turning east into Icy Straits and heading toward Chatham Strait. Winds weren’t strong, but coming out of the north created low waves on the beam. We fought the rising waves and ebb tide until turning south into Chatham Strait. There we got the benefit of the ebb tide southward in Chatham Strait. We accelerated to 15 mph in the relatively calm water. The further south we went, the more the waves built. While it wasn’t a terribly uncomfortable ride, the partly port-side following waves made for a busy driving experience.
I was glad to make the turn into Tenakee Inlet, where everything calmed with protection from the northerly waves. We pulled into and docked at the Tenakee Harbor just before noon. Tenakee Springs is a cute town of houses built along each side of a single gravel road that parallels the water. The harbor sits about a half mile east of the central part of town. Guides indicated there was a general store and bakery/café in town, so we made that our first order of business. We grabbed a couple items from the small store (hours are 10-1); unfortunately, the Blue Moon Café and Bakery was not open due to pandemic concerns.
The town pipes water from the hot springs into a bath house downtown. The bath house is open at separate times for men and women. We decided we didn’t want to make separate treks to the bathhouse, especially since it’s sunny and (dare I say) hot this afternoon. The horse flies apparently love this weather, as they were out in force.
Saturday, July 31, 2021
Tenakee Springs to Appleton Cove
We cleared the breakwater at Tenakee Springs by 6:00 am, intent on completing our 20-mile run south on Chatham Strait as quickly as possible and before the seas rose to 3 feet as forecast. Our plan was slightly derailed by a group of whales. We could see their spouts backlit against the rising sun from at least 6 miles away as they loitered near the entrance to Tenakee Inlet. By the time we were near them, they were feeding along the south bank of Tenakee Inlet just off Chatham Strait.
We stopped and watched them for nearly an hour – this was our first time seeing a group of whales this large (8-10 whales). At some point they became “exuberant”, with one whale continuously tail slapping, while two others breached repeatedly. After a couple minutes of this activity, they moved into the mouth of the inlet, at which point a second group of whales arrived. Both groups began bubble-net feeding, each group exploding out of the water 2 or 3 times before they moved on. It was an amazing spectacle to witness this full range of activity.
Chatham Strait was fairly cooperative, with some sections of choppy beam waves. We slowed down upon making the turn into Peril Strait, where the water became calm. We’re anchored in 40 feet of water (low tide of 3 feet) in Appleton Cove. The entry includes a couple narrow turns and opens into a wide area with lots of room. I marvel at how easy it is to precisely navigate using today’s electronic charts and navigation tools. Staying in deep water through several turns (which aren’t obvious given the terrain) would be far more challenging otherwise.
We’re sharing the anchorage with a bunch of Bonaparte’s Gulls (and plenty of horse flies). It’s entertaining to watch the gulls dive into the water after small fish. They’re a smaller gull, and not nearly as vocal as the east-coast and gulf-coast gulls I’ve seen previously. Like yesterday, it’s clear with temperatures in the 70s.
Sunday, August 1
Appleton Cove to Sitka
The critical timing for today’s plan involved arriving at Sergius Narrows no later than the 12:06 pm slack. Since that was only 28 miles from us, we ate an unhurried breakfast before leaving Appleton Cove shortly after 7:00 am. We had a relaxed trip the remainder of the way up Peril Strait. A Nat Geo cruise ship passed us in the opposite direction while at anchor and another just after leaving Appleton Cove, so we wouldn’t have to contend with them at the narrows.
We arrived at Sergius Narrows about 45 minutes before slack. Looking into the narrows, the water appeared fairly flat, with little or no deflection of the three red buoys marking the channel, so we went ahead. There was still current in the narrows, but not swirling or turbulence. We had some rips as we made the turn south just after the narrows, but none were too threatening. I actually had more turbulence though a couple turns at the end of Peril Strait between Adams Channel and Arthur Point.
Shortly after passing through Sergius Narrows, the route opens into Salisbury Sound, which is open to the Pacific. The sea was benign through that section with only low swells. Two narrow channels of approximately 5 miles follow: Neva Strait and Olga Strait. Our challenge through those sections was navigating the wakes from numerous fishing boats who passed us on their way back to Sitka.
Arriving in Sitka before 3:00 pm, we called the Sitka harbormaster to request a slip. He indicated he didn’t have any slips for a 25-foot boat and to look for a spot on either the north or south outer wall of Eliason/Thomsen Harbors. We saw what looked like an available spot on the south outer wall, so continued a little farther to Petro Marine to refuel before swinging back. The spot turned out to be right next to a 30-amp pedestal, so will work well for us. Being on the outer wall leaves us open to wakes from the constant parade of marine traffic, but most boats have been good about honoring the no wake zone.
At every time and in every place— from the moment the sun rises to the moment the sun sets— may the name of the Eternal be high in the hearts of His people. (Psalm 113:3 Voice translation)