2016 Alaska Voyage
We continue to cruise TAMARA as actively as we possibly can each season. In the years that we have been back from our extensive time cruising from the Labrador Sea to Patagonia and Antarctica, then finally home to Alaska, about half of each year has been devoted to preparing, provisioning, maintaining and cruising the boat which has so faithfully served us for so many years and miles.
One benefit of being back in the cold waters of Alaska is that TAMARA requires much less frequent haul-outs for routine bottom cleaning and painting. However the flip side of that benefit is the greater difficulty in doing such work in a place where the weather can often be less than cooperative. Our maintenance schedule would require that a part of this season’s time would have to be devoted to this effort. But first there would be time for yet one more late winter cruise in one of the most spectacular maritime regions, where mountains and glaciers meet the sea, and where winter is usually a time of particularly great beauty and unique adventure aboard a cruising sailboat.
Mark devoted a good portion of the fall and early winter at home in Port Townsend to ordering, re-packing and arranging shipment aboard a friend’s fishing boat of all of the maintenance items, new gear and so on that would be required to conduct the quadrennial haul-out project. In addition, we planned a remote wilderness canoe trip in Canada’s Yukon Territory that we intended to undertake in September as we made our way homeward. This required some new camping equipment to supplement gear that we’d owned and used for decades. In part this was to assure greater comfort for an extended trip, and was easily accomplished as a canoe can readily accommodate a very substantial amount of equipment. Included in the preparations was arranging to purchase an excellent used voyaging canoe from one of the commercial outfitters in Whitehorse at the close of their normal season, and figuring out how to get everything to the right place at the right time
In late February Mark left Port Townsend in our Subaru Forester loaded with as little gear as possible for the 2250 mile Alaska Highway drive to Valdez to meet the ferry to Cordova. Of course “as little gear as possible” meant a very substantial amount of equipment for the remote drive, such as Arctic winter clothing, footwear, sleeping bag, camp stove, tire chains, axe, shovel etc., as well as all of the parts, equipment and doodads that had been acquired in addition to the great bulk of stuff had been loaded aboard Stewart Deal’s seine boat DEFIANCE. Without such help almost every season we would have a very difficult time getting all of the things that such adventuring requires, and for this we are grateful for the friends that we have that are still active in Alaskan fisheries.
Recent years have undergone a very rapid and steady decline in what once were normal winter conditions, both on the drive north, as well as in Prince William Sound. On Mark’s 2012 solo winter cruise, record snowfall had made the Sound a winter wonderland, and required the assistance of the military to keep Cordova functioning. But in each of the years since, winter had become shorter and shorter, with snowfall diminishing progressively over time. Generally on the drive north, extremely low temperatures render even snow-packed roads safer as the hard-pack takes on an almost concrete-like quality. No thin layer of water develops on top to create the very slippery conditions common on more temperate highways. But in recent years there had been either no snow pack at all, or the dreaded warmer temperatures that result in the more treacherous driving conditions
The oil dependent Alaska state budget situation further complicated this season’s trip. Following the opening of a highway tunnel from the western Prince William Sound port of Whittier, most full-time Cordovans utilize the ferry to get to the city of Anchorage via that shorter route, rather than landing in Valdez and making the longer drive. To adjust to budget cuts, the ferry system has therefore made the Valdez/Cordova run a lower priority. As a consequence the boat to and from Cordova and Valdez now generally takes a very long triangular route by way of Whittier, turning what used to be a seven-hour trip into fourteen! Fortunately the scenery is spectacular, the ferry warm and comfortable, and there usually is someone aboard whom we know to talk with.
Generally it takes ten days or so to commission, fuel and provision TAMARA for her winter cruise. This includes removing the special shrink wrap material that serves as a winter covering, bending on the sails, refitting the anchor that had been removed to accommodate the harbor snow removal crews, getting engine, generator and other mechanical systems functional, and laying in fuel, provisions and water, which requires some effort in the winter. However this season the exceptionally mild winter, and historically low snow-pack made most of these chores relatively easy.
The cruise itself was much less satisfying than it would have been with a more normal winter. After all it is winter itself that is the objective of a “winter cruise”, and this year there was not only no snow at all below 1,500 feet elevation but the ground itself was not even frozen! No skiing, snowshoeing or any other winter activity was possible, and even hiking ashore was not facilitated by firm ground. With luck this coming winter will bring more normal conditions.
Perhaps the most challenging episode of the winter cruise occurred early on when a strong winter gale resulted in TAMARA dislodging her anchor while waiting for better conditions at Naked Island. This required some tricky work for Mark as a single-hander. His reflections on seamanship, techniques, equipment, and training and experience resulted in a piece to be published as a two-part installment featured in Cruising World magazine this coming spring.
Following the “winter” cruise, Mark returned to Cordova to undergo the annual SERVS oil spill response training, and then re-provisioned TAMARA in preparation for Nancy’s arrival in early May. The weather was exceptionally fine, and the harbor exceptionally busy, in part due to an ill-timed road construction project at the busiest time of year for the salmon fleet. So we simply decided to forgo the necessary maintenance haul-out until the end of the season, and got away from the bustle as quickly as we could.
As we would have to do the maintenance work, we had not planned to range far a-field, remaining in the Sound instead of venturing westward for the eastern Aleutian Island area. So to make the cruise more interesting, and a little more challenging, we tried to visit as many places in the Sound that we had not been before as we could. However even in the 7,500 square miles of cruising afforded within Prince William Sound there are becoming fewer and fewer anchorages that we have not used at one time or another.
The fine weather however allowed us to more easily paddle, row or hike, so we were able to thoroughly enjoy even the less challenging cruising. At times we sought out the company of other, usually foreign flagged, cruising boats, while sometimes we ventured to where we knew there would likely not be any other boats at all. Part of this search took us to very secluded anchorages in which it would be possible to secure the yacht with lines ashore, possibly even in winter. This effort continues to give us very detailed information, with our notes containing soundings, water sources, mooring plans and so on in order that we can safely secure TAMARA for an extended period. This is essential, particularly on the winter cruises in order to be able to leave the boat for any period of time.
Our cruise took us to the foot of a few of the Sound’s spectacular glaciers, to secluded anchorages from which we could roam ashore, lagoons completely sheltered from even the generally quiet waters of the Sound, and to locations where much of Cordova’s fishing fleet were concentrated for salmon season. In all this cruise was quite relaxing - although at times we missed a few of the challenges of our more ambitious western voyages. As we had ample time available, and had never done so during the busy summer tourist season, we decided to visit the small port of Whittier. Originally constructed to be only a temporary WWII supply terminal, Whittier has become a major cruise ship point of embarkation, with tourists traveling into Alaska's interior by bus and train.
An annual summer festival called Salmon Jam takes place in July in Cordova, but we’d never been in town at that time of year, as cruising had kept us far from town. This year, with our less extensive cruise and our need to return to port for the maintenance haul-out we made it a point to fully partake of both days of the festival. Great food, music and of course good beer made for a fine time up on Cordova’s ski hill. Nancy served as a volunteer for the event, while Mark got to see old friends that generally do not arrive in town until after our usual departure.
Work on the haul-out progressed pretty smoothly. The town’s new lift and excellent harbor staff greatly facilitate such a project, and the excellent skilled tradesmen and commercial chandleries make a fishing port like Cordova the ideal place for boat maintenance work. In all, we applied three coats of anti-foulant paint, replaced sacrificial zinc anodes, replaced the mechanical propeller shaft seal, installed a new depth sounder transducer, and performed some welding work. All routine but essential work.
Just before completion of the yard project, Nancy flew south to embark on yet another section of her Pacific Crest Trail hike. She has now completed about two thirds of the entire distance. See link to her hiking blog. When she had completed this season’s PCT hike she returned to Cordova, and we loaded up the Subaru with all of the gear for the canoe trip!
On our road trip two years ago to the Arctic Ocean via Canada’s Dempster Highway and the Mackenzie River Valley, we crossed and re-crossed a number of important historic canoe routes that had been used both by pre-European First Nations peoples, and later by the Voyageurs of the fur trade. This gave Mark the idea to once again return to canoeing as a way to enjoy wilderness travel. He too had done a great many miles as a hiker, but severe back injuries have ended that means of travel. Even though he has some difficulty walking, paddling would allow us to get deep into the wild. In addition, a good canoe can carry a tremendous load of equipment and provisions, making for quite comfortable camp living.
Mark had arranged to buy a used Old Town Discovery canoe from one of the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory commercial outfitters. He'd had extensive canoeing experience growing up, had taught in a summer camp, had done some paddling in western Alaska 40 years ago, but had not been in a canoe since. Nancy paddles her kayak in every one of our summer anchorages, but had no canoeing experience. Mark would have to teach her a few essential strokes and techniques, but was confident that she would quickly master working the boat on the river. Coupled with both of us having many years of wilderness travel experience, Mark’s experience in canoes and good woodcraft, we felt ready for a remote river trip.
The fourteen hour ferry trip from Cordova to Valdez got us ashore just before dark. So we drove directly to a public campground a few miles from town, set up our camp, and put off shopping for fuel and provisions until the next morning. Then we set out for Whitehorse, about 650 miles to the southeast.
In Whitehorse we made a very short stop at Kanoe People, an outfitter business very well run by a First Nations family, loaded our boat with the help of the daughter of the proprietor, and headed directly to the enormous supermarket in town to provision. Three days later, after sorting through the equipment and provisions, working out a packing scheme, and driving 125 miles on the very primitive Canol Road to where a WWII Bailey Bridge crosses the Rose River, we unloaded the canoe and mountain of gear. The road had been built specifically to construct a small pipeline to supply military needs at Whitehorse during WWII, and has been changed very little since. Some of the original equipment, abandoned at completion, remains today. Our plan was to take the Rose to the Nisutlin River which flows all of the way south to Teslin Lake, near the town of Teslin on the Alaska Highway.
However we had no way to get the Subaru back south to our end point, then return to the Rose River Bridge to start paddling. Our error in planning was that only a few days earlier it was both Labour Day in Canada, and the opening of the moose-hunting season. Had we initiated our trip then, it would have been easy to drive the car down to Teslin, then hitch-hike back up the Canol Road with one of the hunters. But a few days later, hunters were all southbound, and no traffic was bound for the Rose.
We decided to cast fate to wind, unloaded the canoe, and gear, and parked the Subaru at the Rose River bridge, hoping that all would work out and that we could retrieve the car without chartering a helicopter!
A few days down the river we camped at the only place along the route that the river came anywhere near the road. There we met another paddler, Rick Flewelling, a very intrepid 73 year-old who spends about five months every season solo paddling in the North. He was southbound, but offered to give Mark a ride the two hours back north on the muddy road where he could retrieve the car. After the four hour round trip we shared a dinner together with Rick who regaled us with tales of his 50 year career delivering sailing vessels throughout the world. Our common experiences as mariners, sailors and paddlers made for a very entertaining evening, even though it was raining heavily.
Fortunate to have been able to retrieve the car, and armed with the knowledge of how to solve the transport logistics by embarking a few days earlier, we decided to load up the canoe and make our way slowly home, camping and paddling on some of the many lakes and traditional canoe routes in British Columbia along the way. This included an extended camp on Stuart Lake, site of the Fort St. James National Historic site. But we plan to return to the Rose River Bridge next Labour Day and try again. If Rick can do it at 73, we can do it five years his junior!
Early in the 1800’s the critically important fur trade in Canada had been pushed far to the west. This trade was controlled by two rival companies, the iconic Hudson Bay Company, and the North West Company. Searching for new sources of trade, both sent explorers deep into the wilderness to scout new transportation routes, make contact with native peoples, and establish trading posts. In 1805 Simon Fraser led an expedition over the Rocky Mountains to investigate the fur trade potential of the Pacific slope. After spending the winter at McLeod Lake, Frasier and his subordinate James MacDougal established a post on Sturgeon Lake, later re-named for company clerk John Stuart. It would become the most important British Columbia post, serving essentially as the capitol of New Caledonia for many years. The two rival firms merged in 1821, and the post thereafter would operate under the auspices of the Hudson Bay Company - a firm that traces its linage to 1670 and continues in business throughout Canada to this day.
Mark has studied, written and lectured on the Pacific Northwest Maritime Fur Trade, including at our Mystic Seaport Museum shows a few years ago that detailed our voyages in the wake of those entrepreneurial sailors. He was most impressed by the knowledge and presentation of the young woman who served as our interpretive docent on our tour of the post. The two of them continued to talk well after the end of the tour! In contrast to an earlier visit 20 years ago, the present staff are now truly experts.
By the end of September we were once again home, feeling much like the Canada geese we’d seen all along the way making the same migration that we do each season. Soon late February will come once again, and the cycle will be renewed.