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Baby Bear to Warm Springs Bay, Baranof Island

August 24, 2012

We are underway next morning before eight o’clock. Back in Sergius Narrows the tide is at full flood and launches Murre like a beach ball. We fly at ten knots through the final tight turn before being laid gently into wide Peril Strait. Wind is calm; the sky low and drizzly. It’s 55 degrees. I had expected to make fifteen knots through Sergius and so am disappointed.

At the transition of narrows to strait, bright white whale spouts–a pod of six humbacks sounding against a cliff that is sheer into the water. One whale breeches, a splash like a freight train. Then all are gone only to surface on the opposite shore bubbling and gaping a school of herring into utter frenzy.

Peril Strait’s approach to Chatham Straits is long and featureless. Now there is a light wind at our back. I pop the jib, but it hangs lifeless and I roll it back up. A haze on the horizon resolves to be the catamaran Fairweather, an Alaska State Ferry of 200 feet and making 36 knots. She is the size of large hotel and is making 36 knots! Murre is the size of a phone booth and does well to maintain five. My radio announces, “Fairweather approaching Sergius Narrows. ETA twenty minutes. All concerned traffic please advise.” Which is polite talk for “I’m coming; get out of my way.”

We don’t pass into Chatham until mid afternoon. Wind has evaporated. Except for the occasional log and frequent rafts of kelp, the water is like a mirror. The morning’s low cloud has pulled back revealing blue sky and Baranof’s spine of snow capped mountains. “So much taller, snowy than anything on Admiralty Island,” I write in the log. Even from Peril Strait I could see the mountains of Admiralty, and was impressed. But they are low and round compared to Baranof where some peaks are like iron towers, others jagged and saw toothed, and all carry serious snow-pack. In the saddles snow is glacial, cracking thickly, revealing an icy-blue centers. Like the Rocky Mountains jutting right up from the sea, I think.

It’s 57 miles form Baby Bear to Warm Springs where we anchor at seven in the evening. Below the several cabins along the north of the bay and downstream from a pounding waterfall is a small pier, but it’s full of other boats. One is a large, sleek charter yacht named Caledonia, and another I recognize from Sitka. “I thought you were headed to Glacier Bay?” I yell to Randall of Tregonig, who is eating greedily in the cockpit. “We are; this is on the way,” he lies. “Hey, you got dancing shoes? We’ve all been invited over to that palace, Caledonia, this evening. I’m sure there will be ball room dancing, and if not that at least they’ll have central heating!”

Anchored on the other side of the bay is a pretty troller named Coronation and a fat ketch, Kotik. I drop the hook in 40 feet near the south wall. Murre eases in under the break of trees and I immediately lower the dinghy.

In 1962 Wayne Short published a book called CHEECHAKOES (Chinook for *greenhorn*), which describes his experiences as a young man in southeast Alaska. Wayne’s father was a jack-of-all and a wanderer, and after he’d “pretty much wore out the western states, Pa decided we should have a go at the Final Frontier.” So he moved his family of five, a wife and three sons, to uninhabited Murder Cove at the southern tip of Admiralty Island (just an hour east by boat from Warm Springs) where they lived the life of pioneers.

This life required they build their own cabin from scratch, hunt and fish for their food, and defend their stake from bears. The family’s misadventures are superb tinder for crackling-good stories, and Short misses no opportunities. As a kid living in Sitka, I found it irresistible reading. From it I learned what I took to be key life lessons; for example, if during your walk in the woods a bear “gets the drop on you”, don’t run, don’t move, not even an eye lash, or, if you fall into the icy water, when you climb back ashore, wring the water from your wool clothes (of course, you wear nothing but wool) and go on about your business.

Murder Cove was a terrible place to settle. It was open to winter storms and its stream lacked the power to generate hydroelectricity. So as an adult, Wayne Short moved *his* family to protected Warm Springs, where he raised five boys and encountered enough adventure for two more books. My coming here is a bit of a pilgrimage.

I row around the tiny bay. Near Murre is a bubbling stream that looks to be falling from a lake just barely above the high tide mark. Over near the cabins, the main fall thunders, and I take Coot into the current that swings me easily to the docks where Randall is waiting.

“You call those dancing shoes?” he says, pointing at my rubber boots. “Better than yours,” I say. Both he and Alicia are wearing leather moccasins, and Roger, her nephew visiting from London, is in socks. Alicia carries a tray of freshly baked, savory shortbreads. Roger hands me a beer.

“I can’t go,” I protest. “I’m not showered and have been wearing the same clothes for a week.”

“Excellent,” says Randall. “You’ll make us look good.”

Caledonia is 100 feet long and has two decks of cabins. Aft on the third deck is a sun room with wicker chairs and popular magazines in wicker baskets. Just forward is a full bar, then a dining room above which is a huge, flat screen TV. There is no ball room, but pervading all, as Randall has predicted, is an even, delicious warmth.

We are greeted by Penni and Bill, Caledonia’s owners. She wears a tennis visor, a light, jaunty wind breaker and shorts; he is in jeans and a polo shirt. Quite obviously both have recently showered. Alicia introduces her husband as “Randall1” and me as “Randall2”. “Oh,” says Penni with surprise, “Are you two related?”

Randall is well over six feet tall and in his sixties. He is stocky but with a delicate face; his remaining hair is gray; he is clean shaven.

“Brothers,” says Randall

“Twins,” I add.

I like Randall.

Alicia quickly explains, “Actually he’s just some cruiser we met in Kauai; he’s been following us around.” This is close enough to true and seem to suffice.

Two other couples, local cruisers, are at the party. It is slow going, at least for me. I’m tired from the day of travel and excuse myself after an hour.

Next day I hike to Baranof Lake, lunch on a boulder, and attempt, unsuccessfully, to build fire from moss and pitch in the afternoon. I’m using a “fire stick” (think high-tech flint) which throws sparks. After ten minutes of trying I’ve gotten flame twice, but it won’t catch. I need more practice.

The lake appears to be at great altitude–ringed by mountains, water green as emerald–but in fact is less than five hundred feet above sea level. I hike until evening and see no one.

Back at the bay both Tregonig and Caledonia have departed. In their place is another large, charter yacht whose guests are just returning from a kayak of the small lake near Murre. I’ve learned it’s called Salt Lake because it fills and is accessible by boat from the bay at high tide, which now is in. I row over and up through the pass that was a small water fall the day before. A seal, who also knows the secret, follows. Inside the lake-water is glassy calm; sun warm on my face. I doze briefly in the dinghy and wake to find the tide falling and the pass back to the bay is now a rapids. We shoot through, but I misjudge one turn. The Coot heals sharply, throwing me to one side. The rail dips and we start to fill with water. I lunge to the other rail. Suddenly we are righted and through into the main bay. I am relieved until discovering one oar has remained behind, twirling upstream behind a large rock. I struggle back to the rapids with the other oar, but can’t make any progress against the flow. With the falling tide the contour of the rapids slowly changes and finally the oar comes to meet us.

I am just ship-shape when a skiff carrying a man and two women, all in life jackets, motors quickly over. My exploit has been performed in full view of the visiting yachts, so I prepare for a tongue lashing. “Have you been to Red Bluff yet?” yells the man as the skiff zooms by. “We counted 36 bears there last night. Quite a show.”

“Tomorrow,” I yell back.

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