Words and Photos by Les and Kel Rohlf as indicated
Sunday, August 22, 2021
Kake to Salmon Bay
We weren’t able to make contact with anyone from the Harbormaster’s office at Kake. The only number is for the village, and nobody was there to answer on Saturday or Sunday. They were happy to take my payment information when I got in touch with them on Tuesday.
The plan for today was to transit Rocky Pass southbound and spend the night at Point Baker. Rocky Pass represents the middle section of Keku Strait, which connects Frederick Sound to Sumner Strait. The pass is a narrow often-shallow passage that winds its way through a patchwork of rocky islands between Kuiu and Kupreanof Islands. It’s an absolutely beautiful and remote area. Aside from a boat we met going through the pass, we saw no one else.
At one time the shallowest sections of Rocky Pass had been dredged to a minimum of 5 feet, but recent reports are that it is much shallower. The best practice is to transit the trickiest sections (The Summit and Devil’s Elbow) at high slack tide. The tides from the north and south meet roughly between the two. High slack tide for today at The Summit was forecast for 2:26 pm. My plan was to arrive at the north entrance to The Summit no later than 2:00, so that we could be at Devil’s Elbow by 2:30. With last night’s being a full moon, there was a lot of water being exchanged with the tides, so getting the timing close would be critical.
We left the Kake floats at Portage Harbor shortly after 10:00 am and meandered between the islands that separate Portage Passage from Keku Strait. Since it was a clear and sunny day, we could look across and see the snow-capped peaks of Baranof Island beyond Kuiu Island. All of Keku Strait was picturesque, especially today with light winds and clear skies. Heading south during the peak of the flood tide, we got a noticeable boost in speed through some sections. We arrived at the north entrance to The Summit at 1:50 pm. There was still just a little current at our stern, but no issues with steerage. The Summit has a couple very shallow turns, and its challenge lies in maintaining a course through the very narrow channel. With a 15-foot high tide, we saw slightly less than 18 feet a few times. I made a Securite call entering The Summit; another cruiser coming the opposite direction waited for us at the south end, as there’s really not much room for two boats to pass in this section.
We arrived at Devil’s Elbow at 2:30pm and perceived no current through that area. Having now been through that section once, the tricky aspect is that you can’t see (at high slack) the two near-ninety degree turns that are required within about 100 yards of each other. The water shallows dramatically outside the channel. Today’s electronic charting makes the process far easier, especially since one of the channel marker (Green 13) was missing. I spent too much time looking for the missing green marker and slightly overshot both turns. At high slack I had a little more room for error and no pesky current trying to push me into a rock or mudbank.
We crossed Sumner Strait and went to Point Baker. Point Baker is a small community (35 or so) in a well-protected cove on the northeast side of Prince of Wales Island. There was room on the public dock, but everything was shuttered. In better times there has been a restaurant, store, and bar there. Rather than spend the night, we decided to put in a few more miles to shorten the day tomorrow. We stopped in Salmon Bay, an inlet just south of Sumner Strait in Clarence Strait. It’s fairly narrow and also shallow.
Monday, August 23, 2021
Salmon Bay to Ketchikan
We headed east out of Salmon Bay toward Snow Passage at 7:00am. It was another clear, beautiful day with light winds. We saw some whales from a couple miles away near the north end of Snow Passage, but they were gone by the time we got there. Even though we arrived at close to low slack, there were some pretty strong currents running through this narrow area. During the last section of the passage, several Dall’s Porpoises popped up around the boat and flitted back and forth in front of us.
We took our time heading south through Clarence Strait, as I didn’t want to arrive at the entrance to Thorne Bay during the fastest of the flood tide. Thorne Bay reminds me of both Red Bluff Bay and Rocky Pass, with a few narrow and shallow sections connecting to longer, deeper bays. These narrow passages carry faster currents except at slack. We arrived at the town of Thorne Bay about 1:30 pm and tied off to their marina’s outer floating breakwall, which serves as the transient dock. Thorne Bay is a cute small town (450-ish) in a beautiful setting. There used to be a huge logging operation and pulp mill here. A lady we talked to later in Ketchikan had lived there for seven years during the logging days and said that at that time Thorne Bay was essentially a company town.
We stopped by the café (closed this week), then went to the market to grab a few impulse items. The shower at the marina was locked, and we couldn’t find anyone to open it. We decided to move on and make the 40-mile run for Ketchikan tonight, rather than stay in Thorne Bay. The weather looks spicy for the next couple days, so we determined a late-day run was no worse than waiting until tomorrow.
The day continued clear when we pushed away from Thorne Bay at 3:00pm, but the waves built as we crossed Clarence Strait toward Caamano Point and the entrance to Tongass Narrows on the other side of Behm Canal. The waves were mostly on our bow and weren’t dangerous, but 7 mph was as fast as we could go without having all our possessions end up in the middle of the cabin. A mild jab to the ribs from the dinette table when a wave hit us as I got up to fill my water bottle reminded me that moving around much in these conditions is not without risk. We joined a line of fishing boats returning to Ketchikan and entered the smoother waters of Tongass Narrows while avoiding two barge tows going the opposite way.
The sun is setting earlier now (8:30 pm), so we knew we’d be running out of daylight as we approached Ketchikan. What concerned me more was the fog bank I could see farther down the narrows. I wasn’t comfortable speeding up as the light faded, since I wouldn’t be able to see or avoid logs in the water, so we pressed on in hopes we’d get to Bar Harbor before the fog. We didn’t. It was good and dark by the time we passed the airport and ferry terminals a couple miles from the marina, and the visibility dropped to less than ¼ mile after that. Thankfully, with good charts and a little familiarity from our time here two months ago, we navigated safely into the narrow south breakwall entrance at 9:00 pm. We snagged the same spot on Float 4 that we used in June and tied up for the night.
Being back in Ketchikan marks the next phase of our summer adventure. Two months ago, we were wide-eyed and everything was new and interesting. Working our way back to Ketchikan, Les chose unexplored vistas, and Rocky Pass was the highlight of our passage from Kake to Ketchikan. I marvel at the flexibility that we’ve honed as we go from place to place. A couple times we made some last minute decisions on where to stop each day. Thankfully, we were both in agreement. Our planned moorages included Point Baker and Thorne Bay. When we arrived at each place, it was apparent that these small communities we’re tucked in, almost as if it was off-season, but most likely locked down due to a rise in Covid cases. We chose the first night to go a little further and anchor at Salmon Bay. We woke to a beautiful sunny day and glided across the channel. We made our way to Snow Pass, whales spouting along the shore and evading my camera. I got some photos of common murres. After that some Dalls porpoises ran alongside the bow for awhile. We made it to Thorne Bay by early afternoon. As Les mentioned not much was happening there, and so we decided to head to Ketchikan.
One funny thing that happened in Thorne Bay. We were walking around town to see what was open, and two young boys were selling something from a cooler. I found out they were selling popsicles, which sounded great on the sunny, warm August afternoon. However, we were too late. They were finishing off the last two popsicles themselves, while they waited for their adult supervisor to pick them up. We gave them a donation anyways, and I got a popsicle at the grocery store.
As we left Thorne Bay the winds picked up and opposed the tide making for a rollicking ride. I was feeling the sway in my stomach, and tried to ease it, but even lying down didn’t help. Finally, I offered to drive the boat, which usually helps. It gives me something else to focus on. I jokingly told Les that I handled the helm during the “most treacherous” part of the trip. He said he would call it uncomfortable, not treacherous. I conceded. My contribution to the navigation of this trip pales in comparison with his steady hand at the helm. I gained a greater appreciation for the amount of energy and concentration it takes to pass through the waters on “uncomfortable” days.
Our return to Ketchikan via the Tongass Narrows to the marina was sporty. As Les said the darkness fell quickly and the fog engulfed us. This time familiarity was our friend. Having entered this way before, even though I was poking my head out the window to see how close we were to the rock breakwall, I felt comfortable with the turn Les making because it was familiar. However, we met a fishing boat coming out of the darkness as we entered. We saw each other in time to maneuver and avoid each other. It was a great relief to be back at the same slip we stayed at previously. We walked to McDonald’s for a late dinner, the trip across wasn’t conducive to cooking dinner on the boat.
While back in Ketchikan, I catch myself recalling our arrival. We went to Pilot House Coffee, and I remembered our first “date” there using the wifi. And I pointed out places we found during our first visit. “Remember how steep we thought the ramp was at low tide. (It’s still steep.) That’s were we bought my tall boots.” These little things I would mention, as Les and I walked into town the last couple times.
This time we ate lunch at Burger Queen because of its popularity. The food was okay. But we preferred the New York Cafe and 108 Taproom. We went back to Creek Street, so I could check out the yarn store. Very good selection, but I knew I could go to the Salvation Army and get a bunch of yarn for the price of one skein there. The attendant at Salvation Army is very generous. She only charged me $5.00 for an armful of yarn.
We found some art supplies at the Tongass Business Center, an office supply store extraordinaire! I splurged on a few goodies. And Les got a dry erase pen to write notes on the helm window. We stopped at a local haunt, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the locals. Very welcoming and friendly folks here in Ketchikan. We ate dinner on the boat.
Our last day in Ketchikan was errand day, and the sunshine gave way to one of their chilly, rainy days. We bundled up to go get a Covid test, required to stop at ports and get off the boat in Canada. Les found a location a half mile from the marina to get free tests. It was in the parking lot of the Ferry terminal. We stood in line with the cars and a few other pedestrians. The test wasn’t as bad as I imagined it might be, up to now neither of us had needed a Covid test. The hardest part was waiting in the rain. While we waited, we met a couple who had sailed from Europe, and were spending part of their round the world trip here in Alaska. We exchanged contact info, and will most likely cross paths again as we all tested negative, and are able to start our journey through Canadian waters back to the Seattle, Washington area.
After our exciting morning, we spent the rest of the day doing laundry, getting groceries and filling the water tank on the boat. Les spent most of the day following the weather reports, as we have the long Dixon Entrance crossing to accomplish to get to Prince Rupert, our port of entry into Canada. It’s roughly 80 nautical miles. We hope to take two days, as there is a protected bay part way. The weather looks “spicy” and “uncomfortable,” but not treacherous. We won’t leave Ketchikan if it’s that “snotty.” The adventure continues, even as we say our farewells to Alaska.
“God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand. 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 139:1-6 The Message)