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The Inside Passage: Sitka to Baby Bear Bay

August 22, 2012

The casual observer of a Sitka-area satellite image might believe the town to be situated on the lower third of a long, dagger-shaped island–tip down, its serrated edge facing the sea–whose in-land coasts are bordered by the broad blue waterways of Cross Cape and Icy Strait to the north and Chatham Strait to the east. But a closer look shows these waterways actually surround several islands, of which the largest are hulking Chichagof sitting atop finely pointed Baranof on which Sitka rests near the top.

What keeps these islands apart is a series of small channels running between the Pacific and Chatham Strait that connect Sitka with a watery highway known as the Inside Passage. With rare (and notable) exceptions one can cruise all the way from Skagway to Seattle, some 900 miles of southing, without ever seeing so much as an ocean swell. High pressure along Alaska’s panhandle in summer also keeps at sea much of the Gulf’s frigid wind, if not its cloud and rain.

And it’s this Inside Passage that will shape our course over the coming weeks. Unlike the vast, anonymous ocean, here every feature, every inch of surface is charted and named such that the names themselves define the way. From Sitka Murre and I will climb up and over Baranof via Stergis Narrows and Peril Strait into Chatham Strait, then drop down and around Admiralty Island and through Fredrick Sound to Petersburg; down the Wrangell Narrows to Wrangell; down Zimovia Strait to Ernest Sound to Clarence Strait and Tongass Narrows to Ketchican. On and on until we reach Seattle or jump to the outside, having tired of an endless fir-lined coast.

**

Delayed a day, as usual. The evening before departure from Sitka I test the running lights and the forward two are out. Somewhere between the switch in the galley and the bulbs at the bow the forty year old wire has failed. I spend the morning pulling down wiring trays and testing, cutting and testing, and I never find the break.

Alaska’s summer may provide twenty hours of daylight in these parts, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever very bright, which is why the trollers tend to leave their running lights constantly lit. “I turn mine on at the beginning of the salmon season, and I turn them off at the end,” says one fisherman.

Mine must be fixed and my last resort is to run new wire from the galley to the head, some 30 feet through bulkheads and around tight corners, which fixes the problem, but by then it’s late afternoon. The day is blown. I’m discouraged until Randall from yacht Tregonig walks by. He and Alicia were to have departed for Glacier Bay that morning. “Pulled away from the slip. Turned on the radio and chart plotter. Got nothing. Pulled right back into the slip,” he says. We have a beer and celebrate cruising in old boats.

**

Early next day I am hustling to be underway. Always there are more chores to be done than can ever be done, and finally one must cast off the lines in despair. I have the engine running when George hollers from the next finger, “You want a Salmon?” George and wife live and fish each summer aboard their beamy troller the Norma Rae; next to them docks his brother Gene who solo fishes on a boat named Byng. They all winter in Washington State.

“Let the man be,” yells Gene, “Can’t you see he’s trying to make a tide?”

This is true, but I haven’t had any fresh salmon yet. “I’ll bring over a six pack,” I yell. “But hurry.”

George graduated from university with a degree in engineering. He worked for NASA on the first Shuttle’s heat shield. “Can you believe it? Our prototype was water bags. Thought they’d just boil away on re-entry.” He didn’t like the work. He’d already been bit by the fishing bug. George is 75 now, loves a good conversation, and will do anything to get it.

Aboard Norma Rae, George climbs into the hold. “Have I shown you where we ice and store the fish? Come on down.”

“No time, George,” I say.

“Oh, right. Man with a plan. Well, we had a good week’s run out at the Cape. Nine, ten Kings a day. Not great, but good. And the price is about $3.50 a pound now, also not great, but good…”

“The fish, George! Get the fish,” says his wife, standing in the cabin door. She is George’s age, thin, looks strained. She is used to her husband’s ways, he doing most of the talking and she doing most of the work. She is used to this, but not resigned.

“Oh, right.”

George brings up a big silvery King in one hand that is equally as beautiful as the big rock fish under his arm is ugly.

“Not that one, George,” says his wife, “That’s our best King.”

George ignores her and quickly cuts off half a side. “There’s $50 in a grocery,” he says handing it to me with a smile, “but I’ll trade you for an IPA.” He then cuts off a chunk of rock fish. “And this is free. Grill it meat side down until it browns, then flip it over. When done the meat should just flake off the skin. Great for sandwiches. Also a good BBQ fish. I remember last summer at this spot we caught…”

“George!” yell his wife and brother in unison.

“Oh, right.”

**

I am at the fuel dock by ten o’clock and into Sitka Sound by ten thirty. Murre rolls slowly on the Pacific swell leftovers as we head northeast. Mt. Edgecumbe towers to the left. The sky is lead. There is no wind. The autopilot whirs reassuringly.

We pass a spray of small islands, then the Alaska Ferry terminal, and suddenly we are inside Olga Strait, a narrow shoot between Krestof and Halleck Islands, its high, wooded sides reminding of a purpose-built canal. We have two knots of tide with us. We shoot out the other side into Krestof Sound and are sucked immediately into tiny Neva Strait. On our right is Baranof, and on our left a curiosity called Partofshikov Island–curious in that it is not part of Shikov; there is no Shikov.

Here the quarters are so tight that boats line up single file like cars on a road. I am passed by speed boat after speed boat, charters headed back to Sitka from a day of tourist fishing. The guests look down; the drivers look ahead. No one waves. All the trollers in their slow, heavy boats wave as they pass. I think again how much I like the troller guys. Fishing to them is not a business, it’s a livelihood; there’s a difference, and they know it.

Neva dumps me into Salisbury Sound where the tide begins its stand. This pleases me; tide is crucial for the next leg through Sergius Narrows where the whole of the Pacific must suck in its belly to wriggle around a hair pin curve into Peril Strait. At its peak water boils through this pass at eight knots, which is tricky enough without the right angle turn.

I pass Kakul Point, bend right, and hit a three knot tide square on the nose. It’s still ebbing. I’m too early. I check the current tables and find it is indeed thirty minutes to slack water. Nothing for it but to continue chugging.

Drizzle. Other, faster boats, pass me and my two knots over the ground. The current pushes Murre like a toy. The autopilot can’t adjust. I take over the wheel.

Finally we’re into the short section between Rapids Island and Chichagof. This is the squeeze box, and still the tide is ebbing strongly. Murre is nearly abeam of the first red buoy when the radio crackles. “Boat in the narrows, this is Mist Cove. Port to Port good for you?” Rounding the bend ahead is a small cruise ship. Docked in Sitka where I saw her last she seemed a show room piece, a plank on plank hull of 150 feet, superb joinery in her cabins, all varnish and neat, white paint. Now she is tall and gray and churning up the water, bearing down with all the amiability of a hungry shark. What luck to be the only boat to meet another in the Sergius Channel.

I can’t leave the wheel so hug the red buoys by way of a response to Mist Cove’s question. She passes quickly, her captain waving a long arm out the bridge window.

It is evening by the time we reach Bear Island and the tide is finally at its low stand. A fog is descending. At dead slow I turn right past a set of rocks sharp as diamonds, weave around heads of kelp, squeeze through a tiny pass, and rattle out the chain in the hook of Baby Bear Bay. Room for one boat. Surrounded by trees. Land locked and utterly still. All night Murre does not move over her anchor.

end

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