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Journey to Juneau
A classic trawler wends its way through southeast Alaska
By: Chris Haden
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Guests on Ursa Major enjoy close encounters with wildlife, breathtaking vistas, and fresh-caught evening meals.
When we first spotted Ursa Major in Sitka's New Thomsen Harbor, we knew we were in for a special week. At 65ft in length and 20ft in beam, the trawler gave the impression of a small ship. She looked like she could girdle the globe on a whim. All we wanted of her was to carry us gently through the maze of waterways typical of southeast Alaska and wind up in Juneau at week's end. Good food, good companionship, and unequaled scenery were on our list of expectations. Ursa delivered on all counts.
We were doubly excited to be on this trip because not only was it our first time in Alaska, it was also our first crewed yacht charter. Although we had bareboated through the San Juan Islands and had lived aboard our own Grand Banks 48 for a number of years, we had never heard of crewed yacht charters in Alaska. We thought the only way to see Alaska by water was from a cruise ship and that didn't particularly interest us.
We arrived in Sitka the day before departure and the crew were still busy cleaning up from the past week and bringing aboard provisions for the next. We decided to stay out of their way, so we dumped our gear in our cabin and headed out to see the sights of Sitka.
After our self-guided walking tour of Sitka and a pleasant dinner, we returned to the boat and met our host. Joyce Gauthier is a Seattle physician and owner of Ursa Major. We settled into the comfortable main saloon and discussed the upcoming trip. We learned that Eric Stromme would be the only other guest aboard. Eric is the president of Baidarka Boats, a Sitka kayak outfitter, and an avid fisherman. He would board in the morning. We slept well in anticipation of departure.
It wasn't yet 8:00 am when we cast off. The day was new and clean. Mt. Edgecumbe sat in perfect conical symmetry to the west. It had been 9,000 years since the volcano erupted, but Eric told us a tale of one Sitka resident who had spent the winter hauling old tires up to the crater of the volcano. On the first of April, he set fire to the pile, giving the impression to those in Sitka that the volcano was erupting. Everyone thought it was a great April fool joke. We concluded that some people in Sitka seemed to have a lot of time on their hands in the winter.
We made our way through a very placid Olga Strait, passing the occasional whale, sea otter, or porpoise. The big Caterpillar D353 diesel that drives Ursa Major just clicks over at a leisurely 800 rpm at her intended cruise speed of 8.5 knots. Vibration and noise were at a minimum.
We loafed in the pilothouse, pestering Captain Ron Miller about the boat and the scenery and the name of this or that mountain or cove or passage. No doubt Captain Ron was thinking of putting us in the skiff and towing us astern when the most delicious aromas rising from below overcame us. Chef Patrick Brown was hard at work in his tiny galley and he was making magic. We followed our noses down below to see what was up.
Lunch consisted of exquisite halibut cakes and German potato salad. Then First Mate Cami Cash, Joyce's sister, held us down and forced us to eat snickerdoodles for dessert. Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but however it happened, we ate our fair share. The sugar cookies brought back childhood memories of campfires and cookouts and friends now lost in the mists of time.
In early afternoon, we lowered a set of shrimp traps over the side in 45 fathoms of water. We then eased around a nearby headland and into Ficke Cove, our anchorage for the night. Once Captain Ron was satisfied we were firmly attached to the bottom via our anchor, the skiff went over the side, and crab traps were set. Now we had only to wait for Mother Nature to fill our shopping baskets.
It was downright hot once we stopped moving. Eric put his kayak in the water for some fishing and Joyce joined him in the skiff. The rest of us found some shade and relaxed, hoping for a glimpse of a bear along the shoreline. The tide was out and a great deal of the sea bottom was exposed. This meant the table was set for hungry bears, but none appeared. The consensus was that it was just too hot for them.
The sun eased behind the surrounding hills, bringing relief from the heat and it was time for dinner. Chef Patrick served up lingcod, penne pasta drenched in garlic butter, broccoli, French wine and, finally, key lime pie. We began to suspect this man had no mercy. If this kind of abuse continued, we would need assistance to get off the boat by the end of the cruise.
The next morning we pulled our traps and they were full. Chef Patrick was grinning in anticipation. The man was a fiend!
That morning we passed through Peril Strait. This name has nothing to do with any nautical dangers in the area but rather commemorates an incident that took place here in 1799. A party of hunters feasted on mussels and suffered paralytic shellfish poisoning. Some accounts say as many as a hundred of them died.
Next stop was Warm Springs Cove at the tiny community of Baranof. Actually, tiny may be too grandiose a word to describe Baranof. A handful of cabins cling to the hillside next to a spectacular waterfall that empties into the cove. There's a store there, but when we went up to the door, it was locked. The sign said something to the effect that "Sometimes we're open and the rest of the time we're not."
We hiked the trail up the hill to Baranof Lake, about a mile away. Fly fishermen were working the outflow with good success. Along the way, we stopped to inspect a couple of the hot springs that bubble up next to the creek. The hot springs give the cove its name and also provide the visitor with an opportunity to "take the waters" with a distinctly Alaskan flair.
Hot springs water is piped down the hill to two shelters built overlooking the cove. These shelters essentially have no back. Inside sits a galvanized soaking tub (some might refer to it as a horse trough) that can be filled with the hot springs water for your enjoyment. As you soak, you get a great view of the cove and the boats tied at the dock. Since the view goes both ways, those who feel a bit shy can pull a curtain across the opening and soak in private.
The morning catch of crabs and shrimp showed up for dinner that evening, along with French bread, drawn butter, salad, and wine. Then we were forced to eat ice cream with an assortment of toppings for dessert. Joyce treated us to some of her fine videos of Alaska after dinner, but with all the culinary abuse, we were a difficult audience and retired early. We were lulled to sleep by the sound of the nearby waterfall.
Next day in Frederick Sound, Captain Ron spotted humpback whales bubble feeding in the distance. The whales, about five of them in this case, swim around a school of fish in ever decreasing circles blowing bubbles. When the fish are packed tightly together, the whales rush up through the middle of the school, huge mouths agape, and capture their meal in an explosion of white water and confusion at the surface. Unfortunately, they finished their meal before we got close enough for photos, but the sight is indelibly etched in the album of my mind.
A short time later, we stopped to fish. Before long, everyone was catching halibut. Everyone but me, that is. I got two heavy strikes but over horsed them both and lost them. Halibut have tender mouths. Cathy's touch was much better for this job. She landed a 17-pounder, the biggest fish she had ever caught.
We anchored at a small group of islands called The Brothers. Nearby is a haulout point for Steller sea lions. These are big animals. Males can be over 10 feet long and are larger than any Alaskan bear. We took the skiff out to visit them from a discreet distance.
As we approached the rookery, what we thought was a large engine of some kind turned out to be the incessant roaring of the sea lions squabbling over patches of dry real estate on the tiny islet. More than a hundred of them crowded together here. They were bobbing and weaving like prizefighters, seizing whatever momentary advantage they could in a world that shows little patience with the weak.
Upon our return, we found Chef Patrick had been busy in our absence. "Halibut," he informed us, "is the tofu of the sea. The flesh is so mild that it takes on the flavors of whatever it's prepared with." He then produced probably the best meal yet. Fresh halibut in Newburg sauce with fresh crab on top, Yukon gold potatoes with butter, buttered green beans, a salad, and focaccia graced our plates. Bananas Foster provided the perfect finish.
The next morning we awoke to fog and a light drizzle. No worry. Ursa Major is equipped with all the modern navigation tools necessary to deal with such problems. By mid-morning the rain diminished and the fog broke up.
We passed Sumdum Glacier, the world's largest icefall and entered Tracy Arm. The water turned green. Captain Ron explained that the color was due to the amount of fresh water and glacial silt in the Arm. We would see soon enough why the air had turned cooler.
Tracy Arm overwhelmed us with its size and the incomprehensible forces that created it. It is essentially a very deep valley, carved by the glaciers and now largely filled with water. The depths here can run over 600 feet. The river of ice that carved this valley was monumental. As it passed, it left side canyons "hanging" far above the new floor of the valley. Waterfalls from the hanging valleys decorated our passage like lace curtains. Huge cliffs soared over our heads. Improbably blue icebergs carved into fantastic shapes by wave and wind paid us no heed as we slid past them.
Two glaciers empty into Tracy Arm, North Sawyer and South Sawyer. A near-solid layer of bergie bits usually blocks the approach to South Sawyer Glacier. Although these little icebergs don't look very threatening, Ron explained that because glacial ice is so compressed by its passage through the mountains, it is extremely heavy. Collision with even a relatively small berg can have serious consequences for a boat.
North Sawyer was more inviting. Relatively few bergie bits floated in the approach and we moved in for a close look. Joyce and I launched the skiff while Eric took to his kayak. From the skiff, Ursa looked small against the mass of the glacier. If Ursa looked small, you can imagine how we felt in the skiff. From time to time chunks of ice fell from the glacier sending cannon-like booms ricocheting off the cliffs.
Back aboard Ursa, First Mate Cami got out the landing net and went ice fishing. She soon scooped up enough glacier chunks to restock our ice chests. After that, we turned and retraced our steps back down the Arm. The cruise ship Norwegian Wind passed us, headed up toward the glaciers. I wondered just how close it would get. There isn't much room at the glacier face for a ship that large.
We found No Name Bay, at the mouth of the Arm, and anchored in the pleasant little cove. This was our last night on the boat. Tomorrow we would reach Juneau and begin the trek back to our homes.
As I sat on the deck, enjoying a 12-year-old scotch with bits of 12,000 year-old ice in it, a solitary bear wandered out of the woods. The bruin picked up a dead fish from the shore and carried it back into the forest. He had paid us no attention at all. Alaska would carry on without us when we were gone.
As I sipped my drink, something looking like the Manhattan night skyline hurried past in the dark. It was the Norwegian Wind heading for its next port. I thought of the passengers and reflected on how different their Alaskan experience was from ours. As the cruise ship disappeared, a small pod of orcas glided past the cove. I sucked at the ice in my drink, knowing Alaska had changed me forever.
Information: Ursa Major can be chartered for 4–6 guests at a rate of $16–18,000 per week. It is occasionally booked on a per cabin basis. Contact: Ursa Major Charters, 206-310-2309 firstname.lastname@example.org
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