Living the Dream
Alaska: from armchair to captain’s chair
By Dennis and Patricia Dorratcague
Living in the Pacific Northwest, with the gorgeous waters of the Salish Sea around us, we always wanted to get out and enjoy the area’s waters. We wanted to see them all, all the way to Alaska.
Fifteen years ago we began taking USPS boating courses and later bought our dream cruising boat, Peter D, a 2006 34-foot American Tug moored in LaConner near the San Juan Islands. Since buying the boat, we logged more than 400 cruising days in the San Juan and Gulf islands.
However, we had never been farther north than Desolation Sound when we were invited to join a group of boats traveling to Alaska in summer 2012. Sail Alaska 2012 would be led by Jim Rard, who had cruised to Alaska 15 times. A mechanic by trade, Jim owns the company where we bought our tug. Although the cruise would be a big step up on our boating learning curve, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take our dream trip with such a skilled and knowledgeable leader.
We prepared Peter D by servicing all the boat’s systems, making sure we had a good spare parts inventory, studying several cruising guides and provisioning. Stocking up with food proved to be a challenge, since we had to pay attention to the regulations for crossing two borders: first into Canada and then back into the U.S. in Alaska.
We had a general itinerary for the trip with extra days sprinkled in for weather delays. The fleet would travel to Ketchikan, Alaska, around Southeast Alaska and back to Ketchikan. The individual boats would be on their own for the return trip. The goal was to get to Alaska as fast as possible traveling up the inside passage.
The fleet consisted of four to 10 boats, some joining and others leaving as we traveled north. The main members consisted of five powerboats, two 34-foot and two 41-foot American Tugs, a Silverton, and two Jeanneau sailboats.
Cruising at 7 to 8 knots, we left Bedwell Harbor in the Canadian Gulf Islands on 24 June and arrived in Ketchikan on 5 July, covering the 660 nautical miles to Ketchikan in 11 days. The weather cooperated beautifully, allowing us to comfortably cross the four open-water passages—the Strait of Georgia, Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance—without delays.
We made 20 stops after leaving Ketchikan. Seventeen were in anchorages where ours were the only boats. The other three were in boat harbors.
We stopped at several natural hot springs in Alaska and along the inside passage of British Columbia. The typical hot spring comes out of the ground and travels downhill, where it is dammed with rocks to form a pool. Bishop Bay hot springs in British Columbia also has a cover and multiple pools. The hot springs above Bailey Bay, north of Ketchikan, required a pretty arduous two-mile walk 600 feet up, but the views from the pool were astounding. The springs at Warm Springs Bay on Baranof Island were next to a waterfall. Hearty souls jumped into the 36-degree water after getting out of the hot springs pool.
Anan Creek Bear Observatory
The US Forest Service provides recreational opportunities and oversees most of the land in Southeast Alaska. On the Cleveland Peninsula about 50 nautical miles north of Ketchikan, Anan Creek has Alaska’s largest pink salmon run, which draws Native Americans, black and brown bears, ravens, crows and eagles. The US Forest Service constructed a half-mile trail and a viewing deck at the falls on Anan Creek. The Anan Creek Bear Observatory charges a $10 fee and limits the number of visitors each day. On the deck surrounded by a 3-foot-high railing, observers come within a few yards of the bears.
Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glaciers
Visiting Tracy Arm, a fjord about 35 miles south of Juneau, and the North and South Sawyer Glaciers at its head was the highlight of our trip. We anchored in a bay at the entrance to Tracy Arm, the closest anchorage. The next day, we traveled 25 nautical miles to the glacier. Fortunately, the weather cleared and the ice floes allowed us to get within a half mile. We enjoyed fantastic views in Tracy Arm, and the memory of being so close to the glacier will last forever.
We had good fishing almost everywhere we went. As soon as the anchors went down, we were out in the dinghy setting crab pots and prawn traps or fishing for halibut and salmon. If anyone caught more than they needed, they would share it with the rest of the group. More than once, a tender pulled up to our swim step with halibut filets for dinner. At Port San Antonio on Baker Island we ran into a migrating school of Coho salmon while fishing for halibut. We caught 12 Coho in about 15 minutes. We made filets with half the fish and distributed them to each boat. We built an improvised smoker on the beach and smoked the other half. While the fish were smoking, five of us picked a gallon of huckleberries in the rainforest. That night we enjoyed a group feast of smoked salmon, potluck dishes and three huckleberry pies, one gluten-free.
El Capitan Caves
The north end of Prince of Wales Island has an extensive system of limestone caves. The US Forest Service built a trail and stairs up to the entrance to El Capitan Caves. While passing through El Capitan Passage, we anchored and dinghied to shore. The Forest Service personnel graciously agreed to give us a tour even though we had not reserved spaces during their normal tour hours.
After paying the $10 fee, we donned helmets with lights and hiked up to the entrance. We walked more than a quarter of a mile into the cave as a guide explained the different formations. Limestone dissolves slowly in water, and over hundreds of years, the area’s heavy rainfall dissolved the rock, creating the caves. Still being formed, the relatively young caves contain fascinating formations.
Docks and villages
In the 30 days we traveled in Southeast Alaska, we mainly anchored in bays and inlets. However, we stopped at boat basins in three towns—Wrangell, Petersburg and Craig—before returning to Ketchikan. Fishing is the main industry in these towns, and the marinas are for commercial fishing boats. Pleasure craft can occupy the slips when the boats are out fishing, often in the summer when the salmon are running. To accommodate the fishing industry, the shore-side facilities typically include a laundry, restaurant, bar and shower facilities at the head of the dock, sometimes all in the same establishment.
Upon reaching port, we would refuel, do laundry, fill the freshwater tanks, buy groceries and read email at the library. The State of Alaska provides libraries in all the villages, and all have Internet access. Although intermittent, cell phone service was available in the villages and in some areas on the water. We made calls whenever we could.
Cruising with our group had many advantages. First, it was rather stress-free. We had a veteran Alaskan cruiser as our leader, but we could all participate in the daily planning based on the general itinerary. With a vast local knowledge of these remote areas, Jim and his crew chose anchorages where we enjoyed gathering wild onions, oysters and huckleberries as well as fishing, crabbing and prawning. They also knew the best places to stop for provisioning, refueling and fresh water.
Collectively, we had an amazing amount of backup equipment, skills, expertise and knowledge available when we needed it. Our group ranged from boaters new to cruising to those who had cruised globally.
Socially the group was supportive, enriching and fun. The stories shared at gatherings were inspiring and hilarious. The group shared everything from just the right size nut and bolt to baking soda, emergency satellite communications, and our talents and expertise.
While cruising, we simultaneously monitored VHF channels 16 and 68. We often kept 68 on for group communications when anchored. Everyone listened in because no one wanted to miss the announcement of “anchors up time” once the cruise planners had considered latest weather, tides, slack current, route and destination for the next day.
Folks generously shared their photography during the cruise, and at the end, photos were compiled, edited and put on discs, so we could keep those great memories. We have seen the vibrant greens of the Southeast Alaskan rainforests and the brilliant blues of the glacial ice flows. We have breathed the moist, pure crisp air while trying to net tiny icebergs for the group’s evening cocktails and potluck on one of the boats.
Together we shared and met the challenges, marveled at the beauty, and enjoyed the discovery on our Alaskan journey. We lived the dream!
P/C Dennis Dorratcague, SN, and Patricia Dorratcague, S, of Bellevue Sail & Power Squadron have known each other for almost 50 years. The couple loves cruising. And while they may have been able to cruise to Alaska by themselves once they had more experience, they are glad they went with a group because of the friendship and camaraderie.
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