Words by Les and Kel Rohlf Photos by Kel Rohlf unless otherwise indicated
Monday – Wednesday, August 2-4
On Monday, we walked downtown to see what may be available for later days. There’s a small (700 pax) cruise ship in port today, so the downtown wasn’t too busy. There’s a larger ship scheduled for Wednesday, so that will be the day to avoid. We had a nice breakfast at the Mean Queen restaurant downtown.
On Tuesday, I got an appointment for a haircut with Malcolm at the Old Tyme Barber Shop to remove nearly 3 months of growth. We had a delicious lunch at BEAK, which is in the historic Cable House that now also includes KCAW, the local community radio station.
I hiked past Crescent Harbor marina and visited Sitka National Historic Park. The historic park had a very extensive collection of original and reproduction totems from southeast Alaska as well as a nice history of the local Tlingit clans and photo collections of E. W. Merrill. The fascinating photo collection from the late 19th and early 20th centuries is available to view on the park’s web site (https://www.nps.gov/sitk/learn/historyculture/e-w-merrill-photograph-collection.htm).
On the way back toward downtown, I stopped at the Sitka Sound Science Center and Sheldon Jackson Hatchery and took the hatchery tour, as the Pink Salmon were returning to spawn. This is the oldest operating salmon hatchery in southeast Alaska, raising and releasing Pink, Chum, and Coho salmon (https://sitkascience.org/hatchery/).
On Wednesday we prepared for the next phase of our trip to explore bays off Chatham Strait. I was hoping to get water in Angoon or (worst case) Kake during the next week, as that’s the commodity we’ll likely use most quickly. Unfortunately, nobody I called at either town seemed to know whether fresh water was available at their harbors, and the harbormaster didn’t answer their lines. I bought a collapsible 5-gallon water container and filled it in Sitka to carry as reserve.
Thursday, August 5, 2021
Sitka to Baby Bear Bay
We took a last shower in Sitka and had a relaxed breakfast before departing. Slack at Sergius Narrows (30 miles from Sitka) was at 3:54 pm, so there wasn’t any reason to start early. We left shortly after 9:00 am and made a circuit south to Sitka Sound and then around Japonski Island to pick up the route north. Japonski Island includes the Sitka airport, hospital, and Coast Guard station. Its location creates a protected channel along which the Sitka Harbors are located. Along with numerous other smaller islands, it provides a protective barrier for Sitka from the Pacific Ocean. Today was the first clear and sunny day we’ve had in Sitka, allowing unobstructed views of Mount Edgecumbe.
The water was smooth all day, and we arrived at Sergius Narrows 90 minutes prior to low slack. The section immediately below the narrows where we’d seen some turbulence on Sunday was fairly calm, and I didn’t see any large waves or rapids when I looked into the narrows through the binoculars. I had just watched a larger cruiser motor up through the narrows, so I decided to go for it. Probably not the most prudent choice. I throttled up to max power, which normally gives me 18 mph with my fully loaded boat. I saw 14 mph speed over ground on the GPS as we entered, which didn’t surprise me as I expected up to a 4 kt current. The section of the narrows I couldn’t see from the lower end included a faster current that clearly deflected the buoys, along with a section of sizeable (2-foot) standing waves. Through this section I saw my speed on the GPS decrease to 10 mph. We had good directional control through the worst 200 yards or so of the narrows, but this would have been a very bad idea in a slower boat.
We continued just a few miles farther and entered Baby Bear Bay to anchor for the night. After slowly circling the bay to the end and allowing a group of kayakers from the parked small cruise ship to exit, we dropped the anchor near the head of the bay in about 40 feet. The end of the small bay is a 90-degree turn off the main bay and ends after another few hundred feet. Our anchor spot was conservative and would conceivably allow another boat to anchor between us and the end of the bay.
Just after I finished tying everything off and re-entering the cabin, a 60-foot Selene entered the bay. Without any attempt at communication, he passed within 50 feet of us and into the head of the bay. I initiated a radio call to him to let him know there was probably room, that he was over the top of my anchor at that moment, and that we were currently at the eastern-most end of our anchor swing. I didn’t mind that he wanted to anchor beyond us, but was slightly annoyed that he went closely around us to anchor without acknowledging. Perhaps he’s far more familiar with this bay than I am and was comfortable with the situation. In any case, it took a couple tries before he was able to place the anchor where he wanted it, given the limited space.
Friday, August 6, 2021
Baby Bear Bay to Hanus Bay (Portage Arm)
We left Baby Bear Bay at 8:00am, shortly after low tide. We motored slowly through the couple miles of turns toward Peril Strait, getting a nice boost from the incoming tide. Once in the main east-west section of Peril Strait, the incoming tide switched, forcing us to work against it after that.
I wanted to arrive at today’s destination at high tide to verify sufficient depth, since we’ll be leaving at or near low tide tomorrow. The guide shows two entrances to Portage Arm of Hanus Bay: entering from the west forces you through shallow water; entering from the east requires you dodge submerged pilings. I chose the former. On the line I selected, I saw at least 19 feet, so shouldn’t see less than 6 feet early tomorrow.
There was a large bear on the Catherine Island side of the portage when we arrived, but he didn’t stick around after I started to circle and survey the anchorage. The anchorage is described in one of the guides as “shallow”. From my perspective it was ideal, with about 25-foot depths at a 12-foot tide. This marked one of the few times I was able to anchor comfortably without having to put out nearly 200 feet (or more) of rode.
The weather forecast from this morning wasn’t quite as rosy as before we left Sitka, and it seems to be going in the wrong direction as of this evening. There are a couple different systems that could dump 3-7 inches of rain on the region through the end of next week. Of greater concern are the winds and resulting sea state, which may make it difficult to get back to Auke Bay late next week if we continue south in Chatham Strait. On Monday, we confirmed with the shop in Auke Bay to service our motor one more time on August 17th. We plan to leave Auke Bay after that to start our return trip south. We don’t want to risk missing that appointment, and getting 130 miles back to Auke Bay may be challenging if the weather stays as forecast through the end of next week. Tomorrow looks favorable for travel, but the conditions will deteriorate rapidly on Sunday.
Saturday, August 7, 2021
Hanus Bay to Auke Bay
The latest weather forecast as of early this morning confirmed our tentative plan from last night to at least start back north toward Juneau today. Today looked good for travel on Chatham Strait and Southern Lynn Canal, but the winds and waves are forecast to gust to 35 knots and 5 feet beginning Sunday.
At 6:30 am we carefully made our way through the shallow westerly exit from Portage Arm of Hanus Bay and turned toward Chatham Strait. We ran at 4200 rpm, which kept me at 14.5-16 mph all day long. It was a cloudy, sort of foggy day as we ran north up Chatham Strait. I crossed to the east side of the strait early on to the get some relief from the southeast waves on the beam. The shelter of Admiralty Island helped smooth the ride, which was fairly comfortable for the remainder of today’s trip. There were a large number of seining boats working the bays on the eastern shore.
It was a nice Saturday, so there were lots of fishing boats to pick our way through after passing Funter Bay. We arrived at Auke Bay by 2:00pm and were fortunate to find a spot in the marina close to one of the electric distribution boxes on D-dock. It seemed less busy than our last time here in mid-July, though the marina did fill up by evening.
For now, our plan is to hang out here until the motor is serviced on 8/17. We stocked up in Sitka assuming we’d be out for a week, so there’s no hurry to get groceries. The forecast as of Sunday morning continues to look ugly all week, so thankful we made the decision to get here sooner than later.
A couple notes: when I post the “hours” from Les’ notes, it is referring to the number of hours we used the motor, not necessarily how many hours it took us to travel in a given day. Second, the following musings were undergirded by a new concept/word that a friend shared with me recently. Sonder is word coined by John Koenig, which he defines as “n.– the realization that each random passerby is a living life as vivid and complex a your own.” Here’s a link to a video excerpt from his book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, coming out in September 2021.
A lot can change within a week of boating. We arrived in Sitka on a Sunday afternoon, and now this Sunday afternoon, we are writing from Auke Bay. When we left Sitka on Thursday, August 5th, we were planning a ten day excursion to explore bays we hadn’t seen yet.
Our last day in Sitka we did laundry, ordered breakfast via the McDonald’s app (only their drive-thru was open) and stocked up on groceries. Thursday morning we took hot showers at the marina with no incident. We took a nice leisurely route out of town around the bay to look at the open ocean and see the town from the water. I caught up on the phone with our youngest son as we left Sitka; cell coverage on the water is very sparse. We were ready for lazy days ahead, reading books, enjoying nature and shorter cruises on the boat, plus one cove included a warm springs, which we hoped to soak in one afternoon.
Before all those preparations, we did find some fun things to do in Sitka. We watched the boats come in and out of the dock area, and float planes land across the channel from us. The Sitka airport was on the island across the way, and so we could hear the Alaska Airlines arrive and depart. We had a front row seat to all the movements of people coming and going in Sitka.
On Monday, we walked into downtown. Most marinas in Southeast Alaska are about a mile from the main tourist areas, so walking is our main mode of transportation while in port. Les maps out our routes on land and sea. While we walked past the fishery, lodges and Scotty’s place (more later), I asked why we didn’t walk through uptown. He replied this is the shorter route. I replied, oh, as we swatted “no-see-ums” or gnats that were congregating near the fishery. Once in town, we noticed how quiet and empty it seemed. We found the chocolate store, the thrift store and the souvenir stores, which were just opening or didn’t open until like 10am or later. We had breakfast at the Mean Queen, and our server was very friendly and the food delicious. We watched as one of the bigger cruise ships arrived, and planned to be out of downtown before the tourists arrived. We spent the rest of the day relaxing.
Tuesday, Les scheduled a haircut, and I met him there walking via the fishery road, because it was shorter. (We had walked back through uptown the day before, and indeed it was longer and steeper.) The “no-see-ums” seemed to have gone elsewhere. On my way to the barber, I met Chas. He was walking ahead of me, and paused at an intersection just as I was coming up to Scotty’s place. Scotty’s place is a mish-mash of marine objects and ladders and container-like buildings that reminded me of a sculpture. I paused to snap a photo, and Chas started up a conversation with me, and we chatted as we both walked toward town.
Back to Scotty’s place. Les found out from the barber, Malcolm, more about the place. Scotty had dreams of opening a fish and chips shop, but the city wouldn’t grant him a permit. So Scotty just lives there, and for some reason no one has asked him to move.
Chas was originally from Anchorage and had recently retired. He told me the secret of his 51 year marriage was that he came to Sitka for a month at a time to live on his boat, while his wife travelled to visit the grandkids. He complimented me on my earrings, and we shared pictures of our boats with each other. It was nice having some company on my walk to meet Les at the barber shop. After Les’ haircut, we strolled around Sitka. We stopped in at the Visitor’s center to pick up brochures and a map. The volunteer was chatty, and shared how she and her husband recently retired and traded in their 22 foot sloop for a bigger cruiser. They had to buy it in the Seattle area and then bring it up here via the British Columbia waters and the Inside Passage. It was fun to swap stories with her, as we told her of our adventures on the Intuition.
We headed to a bike store and a craft store before ending up at the BEAK for lunch. It was drizzling, and thankfully their outdoor seating was under a porch. We had fish tacos and reindeer sausage mac and cheese. After lunch Les and I parted ways. He was off to check out the local museum, and I was going shopping. Both of us enjoyed our separate adventures. I ended up at the local bookstore, and hoped to enjoy a coffee in their café. I found two books pertinent to our journey, Names on the Chart, describing how various waterways came by their names in Southeast Alaska and John Muir’s Book of Animals, an illustrated volume with a compilation of musings by John Muir of the local wildlife.
The café was crowded, so I stopped at the chocolate store for a latte. And a homemade white chocolate bar with vanilla wafer bits, malted chocolate bits and colorful sprinkles. Les met me back at the boat, and shared his stories of finding a salmon hatchery and totem pole park, rather than going to the museum. That evening I went for a run through uptown and then back through downtown. The evening seemed a little livelier, especially at the saloon, Sitka Hotel restaurant, and a local bar. As I cooled down from my run, I walked past Scotty’s and a gentleman was standing near an abandoned clapboard house. He was reading the Sitka Sentinel. As I walked by, he reported to me that tomorrow the town would be receiving 2,104 cruise boat tourists. I thanked him for the news, and commiserated a little bit with the invasion of his quietude.
While we didn’t go to some of the usual haunts of Sitka, once again we enjoyed the discoveries we made on our own. Highlights for me were meeting people, buying a pair of jeans at the thrift store, shopping at Ace Hardware store (they had cool stickers), ordering delivery for pizza and a halibut wrap, watching the sunset on the channel, and “living” like a local except for the souvenirs that I bought.
We left Sitka ready for the next phase of our journey, some extended time living on our boat and dropping the anchor wherever we fancied. The first night we stayed in Baby Bear Bay. My expectation was that most of these bays were remote, and we’d be alone. Right after we anchored, another boat buzzed into the bay right past us, and anchored in front of our view. So much for solitude.
The next day we left early to get to Hanus Bay. When we arrived, we noticed a bear grazing along the shore. We were busy dropping the anchor, so no photos. We settled in, and waited to see if anyone else would join us in the bay. Nope. Now, I was lonely for some company. It turned into a gray, rainy afternoon. Les was listening to weather, and checking tide charts. The forecast was for calm waters on Saturday, and then winds and rain were predicted for the entire coming week. We prefer the waves to be 2 feet or less while traveling from bay to bay. We talked it over and thought about running south to the Warm Springs on Saturday, then hope for decent weather on Sunday to get halfway back to Auke Bay harbor, then go the rest of the way Monday. But the more we listened to the weather, the more it became evident that it would be better to trek the 93 miles to Auke Bay all in one day. We were disappointed, but also knew we could possibly stop in these southern points on our way back down to Ketchikan.
We are now happily moored at Auke Bay harbor on the 10 Day Transient docks with shore power, and amenities like shower, laundry and food within walking distance, plus access to the bus system. Auke Bay is part of the metro Juneau area. If we want we can take the bus to the suburban shopping centers or back to the downtown area that we explored a couple weeks ago. We will stay here through next Tuesday, August 17th, as we have hit the point of 100 hours on the motor, meaning its due for the routine oil change. The other mile marker we hit on this trip, as we pulled back into Auke Bay; we have travelled over 2000 miles on the waterways from Everett, Washington and all the various stops here along the Inside Passage.
As we have this respite from cruising the waterways, my heart knows that this is the beginning of the end. Summer is waning, the flowers are starting to droop, the birds seem quieter, and familiarity rather than heightened curiosity seeps into our days. I will still be on the alert for discoveries and surprises, but I also will be savoring the gifts of Alaska, while silently say good-bye little by little as we cruise back south in a week or so.
“life is a pilgrimage in which you put aside your plans to set out on a journey, allowing yourself to be guided, accompanied, open to surprises.” (Excerpt from Walking with Ignatius)
“And how blessed all those in whom you live, whose lives become roads you travel; They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks, discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain! God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!” (Psalm 84:5 The Message)