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Warm Springs to Red Bluff Bay, Baranof Island

August 27, 2012

Murre and I departed Warm Springs in the early morning for the short, fifteen mile hop south to our next destination. I had just finished a Wayne Short story about the mail boat Yakobi that ran a 500 mile delivery circuit out of Juneau to this part of southeast in the 40s and 50s. She made weekly calls year round to out of the way places like Petersburg, Kake, Port Alexander, Warm Springs, and Murder Cove. Winter storms were frequently so fierce that when she arrived at her next port of call, ice covered her decks and house, and she was in danger of foundering. Those who met her at the dock had to chop into the encoffined bridge so that Martin, the captain, could get out.

Murre and I were transiting the same waters as Yakobi. But for us it was pure summer. I sat on the bow marveling how bright a day can be absent of cloud and how glassy a sea without wind. The red bluffs announcing Red Bluff Bay were just coming into view when the radio sounded. It was the sailboat Espa just exiting.

“You been to Red Bluff before?” asked a male voice from Espa.

“First time,” I said.

“Two hints then. One, the best anchorage is up in the right corner in a cove behind a small, hooking island, and two, the Pinks are running in the creek and they’re still good eating.”

“A guy in Warm Springs told me he saw thirty six bears in the meadow two days ago. That sound right?”

“Well, I don’t know about that. We only counted nine. ”

“Nine!”

“Actually eleven if you included the mother and cub. She and the kid were pounding the water in our anchorage all night. Not a problem except it’s so tight there you’re only a few feet from the rocks when you swing. Kind of unnerving to have a big mama bear playing in your end of the pool.”

“Where you headed?” I asked.

“Seattle,” said Espa. “We came up from Hawaii and down through the Aleutians, Kodiak. I’m done with this. I want to get somewhere where I can stay awhile and warm up. Here the sun is like a tease. Sure, today is nice, but you wait. We’re headed out Chatham now…Seattle next stop.”

I thanked Espa and signed off.

***

Two small islands tucked just inside the entrance to Red Bluff Bay effectively close off the fjord from Chatham Strait. Murre zigzags her way around, and it is like a door shutting. There is no more world outside. A mile on the fjord constricts and becomes so narrow that finding another boat there could be trouble. Here dark cliffs climb straight from the water on either side and might easily be mistaken by a fanciful mind as the gateway to an ancient fortress. Arrows whizzing past would not have been a surprise, nor a “Who goes there!?” Then the cliffs pull away revealing high, snowy mountains on all sides. Around the next bend, a thundering, muscular water fall whose bottom is so deep I ease Murre’s bowsprit up to the spray without running aground. About four miles in the head of the fjord is created by a vast meadow, known informally as Bear Park, and to the right a tiny, hooking island near the shore that cordons off a tiny cove.

And here we anchored at noon.

I sat on the stern for some time pondering whether we even had room to swing. The protective island appeared to be a boulder stack from which grew enough fir trees to create a forest in miniature. A small, grassy swale, submerged at high tide, separated the island from the rest of Baranof proper, which bent around as a rocky beach from which poured a bubbling stream. Schools of salmon lolled in the shade. Bear Park lay but a mile off, and above it hung the mountains. It was as serene and picturesque a scene as one could imagine–the ultimate in seclusion. And from the anchoring perspective, it was tight as hell.

Murre obliged by not moving on her chain, and I soon forgot my worry.

I had resolved to go for a walk, had loaded myself and kit into the dinghy and was rowing over to the small island when a large brown she-bear and one cub wandered down from it, across the swale and up into the forest proper.

Change of plans, I thought. I’ll stay in the dinghy.

So I spent the afternoon fishing among a most uncooperative collection of ornery salmon. I trolled the cove and then cast the cove using every lure I had, dropping my enticements in on the meandering schools or tossing them over and then dragging them back. The fish either ignored the lures, or worse, swatted them away with annoyance as if to say “dude, you are so off trend.” I suspect the three pounder I landed by day’s end was in this category, a swatter unlucky enough to get her gill caught in the hook as I yanked the pole skyward. Her belly was full of roe and her flesh was only lightly pink. She tasted good grilled with bell peppers and zucchini.

In the evening I pulled over to the wide meadow for the bear show. Bears snatching salmon from the rapids in the stream. Bears wading out into the bay to lunge at passing fish, grab a bite, then sit on their haunches to nosh. Lazy bears pulling at spawned and putrid salmon on the beach. Bears huffing and chasing each other. Small bears on the periphery standing on their haunches, sniffing the air and then running away when a larger bear but glanced in their direction. Bears wandering the meadow haphazardly as if looking for their lost keys. Bears standing in the meadow staring off into the distance for long periods of time before resuming the search for lost keys. Bears wandering off into the woods, then reappearing moments later to chase a nearby bear, give up, wade into the bay and lunge for salmon and then sit to eat looking for all the world like a happy gorilla.

The current from the stream circled back to the beach, pushing the dinghy in toward shore. Every so often I’d softly row out a bit, noting that the water was only two feet deep and if a bear wanted he could still charge me. Of the nine big brown bears I counted, not one even looked my way.

It was dark by the time I returned to Murre. I went right to bed. It was a quiet night.

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