It’s May, 1965 on the docks of Fishermen’s Terminal, Seattle (though the same dynamic applies today) and the Alaska fishing and support fleet is painting up, gearing up, building nets, and getting ready to go. There’s a big freshwater lake in the middle of downtown Seattle, connected to the salt water of Puget Sound by a set of locks. As the fisheries resource of Alaska is much larger than its resident fleet can handle, much of the Alaska fleet winters in Lake Union and Salmon Bay, where there is no tide, the fresh water kills any growth that their hulls accumulated up north and there is easy access to machine shops, electronic technicians, and all the rest of support that they need. The thickest concentration of boats is Fishermen’s Terminal, with row after row of workboats in a 10 acre U-shaped basin with support facilities on three sides.
And up and down those docks march The Hopeful. Young men and a few gals drawn to the excitement and promise of an Alaska fishing season: adventure, camaraderie, and the chance of a big paycheck at the end. Ever since the first canneries set up shop in Alaska, long before the Klondike Gold Rush put it on the map, the Lure of The North has been strong. And from the 1870’s when the first canneries were built, up to the present day, boats left from Seattle, and often picked their crews or at least some of them, from the young folks on the dock that came by.
Here’s how it works (though today some crewmen and women get their jobs from the internet): you walked the docks, trying to get the attention of a busy skipper or a sympathetic crewmen, to ask if they needed a hand for the season. For most of the time it was a thankless and discouraging task: skippers were under the gun to get their boats ready and get out of town and headed north. Most boats were already crewed up, with hands returning from previous seasons, who had been already working for weeks, painting up and building nets. Plus most of the guys walking the docks were newbies, greenhorns with no Alaska or commercial fishing, or even boating experience.
But all the same guys got sick, hurt, failed to show, and I knew that many of the crewmen and more than a few skippers had started just like we had: walking up and down the docks. Plus I thought that I had at least a leg up – I’d spent the previous year fishing tuna and anchovy on rough steel boats of the bleak desert coast of North Chile; I was experienced.
For myself, after the grit and dirt of the docks of North Chile, the rough, company owned steel boats, the smell of fish meal and dead whales, Fishermen’s Terminal was like something out of a dream. Gorgeous wooden boats, carefully maintained and painted by their owners, lined the docks; pride of ownership was everywhere.
But it was bittersweet as well – ten days passed chasing leads that never seemed to work out, while seeing other guys, less able than me, I thought, get on good boats just by happening to be in the right place at the right time. Day after day I walked the docks with many other eager young men and gals, chasing every lead, but not getting a job. Sometimes after a discouraging morning I’d hang out in Seattle Ship Supply or Nordby’s – the marine supply stores at Fishermen’s Terminal that smelled of tar, oakum, and paint, and where the customers talked in so thick a Norwegian accent that I could barely understand a word as I tried to eavesdrop on conversations, hoping to glean a clue to a job lead.
The boat that I had come up from Chile on, the Nick C II, and where I was living as I looked for a job, was tied up at the edge of a busy waterway where fishing boats would pass on their way to the locks to begin their trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska and the fishing season ahead. Each evening as I sat outside on deck eating my modest supper, the boats would pass, crews standing on deck, beers in hand, and I could hear snatches of their excited conversations about all the fun they were going to have ‘Up North.’ It was torture to hear them, and at the same time know that I was just one tip or conversation away from a job like theirs.
The Sidney was a handsome 80 footer, a fish-buying boat or tender, loading boxes of freight into her hold. I called up to the man operating the winch controls: “I heard you’re looking for an engineer.”
He looked me up and down and finally said, “Aren’t you a little young?
“I’ve been second engineer on a tuna boat……”
“How about gas engines…? Most of the native boats that fish for us have big Chrysler Royal gas engines… Are you familiar with them?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, more confidently than I felt, “no problem.”
“OK,” he said after a moment, “You got some kind of reference?”
I gave him the name of Steve Trutich who owned the Nick C II.
I couldn’t sleep that night I was so excited. In the morning I hustled over to the Sidney. A truck was alongside with another load of freight. The skipper was at the winch controls again, waved me aboard.
“OK, kid, you’re hired. How about a thousand a month?”
“Great,” I stammered, and in an instant a whole new life opened up.
Just then a big Caddy pulled up and some guy waved to my new skipper. “Here, take over,“ my boss said, and waved up at the rigging over me, “and don’t two-block anything.” And jumped into the Caddy and took off.
“Yo, kid,” It was the driver of the truck. “Hustle up.. we’re burning daylight here..”
I suddenly realized he was expecting me to run the winches. I looked down at the array of the six winch levers and froze.
Just then a kindly looking older man emerged from the hold below and climbed up the ladder to where I stood, muttering loudly enough for me to hear: “Ain’t that like Lloyd, hiring a green engineer to save a few bucks…”
He presented a big claw of a hand: “Hello, young fellow, I’m Mickey Hansen.”
Just by chance I had stumbled into an epic Alaska fishing job: the shady skipper, the grumpy cook, the green deckhand, and the old Alaska salt as mate. Mick turned out to be a wonderful friend and a true mentor. Born in Norway, like many of the older men in the Alaska fisheries, he’d immigrated as a child and gone to Alaska on his dad’s boat at 12. He’d spent 50 years working the coast in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of boats. We took a shine to each other right away, and he taught me many of the skills that I needed to be an Alaska fisherman.
We spent another two days loading freight at the West Wall of Fishermen’s Terminal, and I got a glimpse into the enormous logistical undertaking that was the Alaska salmon business. Ahead and behind us at the quarter mile-long wharf, were big boats like ours, absorbing truckload after truckload of food and supplies for ourselves and the smaller boats that depended on us, as well as freight for the remote canneries that we worked for. We’d work until dark, almost 10 at that time of year, and in the morning find the deck littered with packages dropped off after we’d hit the sack.
Behind us at the wharf that first evening were three 58’ Alaska salmon seiners, tied together, bedecked with flags, a boozy party in progress on their decks. Taped on the flying bridge of one was “HAPPY ARE WE WHO FISH ON THE SEA.” I was too, very much so.
In the morning they were gone, through the locks and down into the salt water of Puget Sound beyond to start their journey on the winding way north: the Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska.
My first drone was this little 100$ job I bought at the Ben Franklin store in Juneau.. A baby quadcopter, it sort of looked like a big green Preying Mantis… But… hard to fly! If I could keep that thing in the air for 30 seconds inside the house, I was doing great. And the only time that I tried it outside not a minute passed and it was in the trees, luckily within ladder reach.
As I learned later, this was before the kind of powerful micro GPS/enabled electronics that were being rapidly developed in China. So the main problem with the early drones was simply that they wouldn’t hover easily – you had to always keep flying them. Ideally you could adust all the controls to neutral so that it would hover without control input, however try as I might, I could never get there. Finally, after shredding many propellors, at least got the hang of the way the controls worked.
“Get a cheap drone first and learn to fly it.” was the advice I had gotten from more experienced drone fliers… Yet I never could keep that first drone in the air without whacking something, so I wasn’t dying to step up to a 1100$ unit with sophisticated video and still camera.
But, I really wanted to be able to take a drone to some of the places I had seen in Alaska and up and down the Inside Passage. So I kept watching the reviews and realized that basically a revolution was taking place with drones: GPS, sophisticated algorithms, and proximity sensors allowed the development of drones that would hover perfectly still when you let go of the controls. And a computer controlled camera on gimbals created essentially a rock steady platform for shooting videos and stills.
Sooo.. I dug deep and bought a DJI Phantom 4 drone with extra batteries, propellors, and a nifty hardshell backpack to carry it all in, plus a new smaller Ipad (my old one was too large to fit the brackett on the controller): totally cool! The whole package came to around 1900$, but who was counting?
Step 1: read the instructions, and there were a lot of them and a lot of sad videos on Youtube of folks who didn’t and crashed their expensive Phantom on the first outing. Next… out to the local baseball field to try it out. According to the instructions, it had a “Return to Home” (RTH) feature that you could activate manually or would activate itself if radio communication with the controller failed or if its battery was running critically low ( It warns you first…)
Soo.. for my first flight I thought I would test to see how accurate the “RTH” feature was. I placed the Phantom squarely on top of the second base bag, and hit the “takeoff” button. WOW: with this angry buzzing it jumped up into the air and hovered directly over the second base bag, maybe 4’ up, and just stayed there, perfectly still without any control input from me: totally cool! Next was simply getting used to the controls and its really slick feature called collision avoidance. It had some sensors facing forward, so that it would basically stop about 4’ away from any object in front of it ( you could still collide into stuff traveling sideways and backwards..) Pretty easy to fly really: an instrument readout on the Ipad monitor displayed its relative position to you and the direction it was pointed, as well as height and distance from you and what the camera was seeing. So… zoomed around getting the feel for things, and then a test: sent it up to max altitude, (around 400’ – set to comply with FAA regulations, its ‘service ceiling’ is about 20,000’) and about a half mile away and hit the RTH. At first I couldn’t even see it until it appeared about 90’ overhead and started descending until it landed with ONE FOOT ON THE SECOND BASE BAG! No more than 6” from the exact spot it had taken off from: I was blown away: how did it do that?
Then on another baseball field flight, I clipped a branch near the top of an 80’ spruce tree – the non-dense outer needles/foliage in trees confuses it apparently – and had a real “Oh Shit” moment as it fell sideways toward the ground. But then, halfway down it righted itself and went back into a hover again!!
So.. I was ready for an expedition – with Dan Kowalski, experienced filmmaker/photographer – up to Desolation Sound in lower British Columbia
The first night of our trip was the most dramatic – we rolled for two hours across the inland sea that is Georgia Strait on a blustery rainy late afternoon. Our destination was Roscoe Bay, only accessible at half tide and higher – at low tide the entrance is blocked by a gravel bar – and it wasn’t clear if we’d have enough water to get in… So cautiously at dead slow, the light failing…. fathometer down to 2 feet under the keel.. in we went over the bar and into this exquisite bay, more like a lake in the woods… Got down the anchor and got out the Glenmorangie – that exquisite feeling of the satisfaction of finding a secure anchorage after a challenging day filling us up: yahoo!
We were so excited: there we were with our new drone in one of the most spectacular spots on the B.C.Coast! But when we fired our new puppy up the next morning, the Ipad/monitor flashed ”Aircraft needs firmware update!” Sh*t.. for that we needed internet and Wi-Fi, and where the hell were we going to find that on a remote part of the BC coast?????
But there was a guidebook aboard our chartered cruiser and we discovered that about three hours away up this winding channel was “Toba Inlet Wilderness Marina” which supposedly had wi-if .. So off we went to a gorgeous spot – of course we were the only ones there.. And… YES! Indeed they did have Wi-Fi and so with updated firmware we were ready for a short test flight: up a couple of hundred feet, and hit RTH. All looking mighty good, but then at the last minute realized that instead of landing on the middle of the dock, the Phantom was instead about to land about 4’ over, in the WATER! By the time I realized this it was about 6’ off the water and dropping fast so I hit the cancel button and tried to throttle up: no go… Then I looked at the monitor and saw a flashing message: “Are you sure you want to do this”.. YES, Godammit!!!! By then the drone was about A FOOT off the water and dropping fast so I hit up and it shot up so quickly that the prop wash splashed the water high enough to hit the blades.. Waaaaaaay toooo close.
Landed it safely on the dock; breathe in, breathe out… Then to add to the stimulation of the day, we found a Hillary Donald debate on a live feed and watched it with some fine old single malt, all around. Way too much stimulation for one day… Then in the middle of the night the wind came up and I went to check on the lines and the front had come through bringing NW’ly flow and clear skies…
The next evening we were at a place called Big Bay on Stuart Island, overlooking a place I nicknamed “The Gauntlet” where several channels converge creating dangerous tide rips that have claimed the lives of careless mariners. It’s also the place where many mariners feel “The North“ begins, where the rapids mark the transition from the sunnier climate, protected waters, and populated shores of the South Coast to the lonlier, wetter, wilder, North Coast. Safe passage through the rapids is only possible at slack water – the top or bottom of the tide when the current briefly pauses. All vessels, big or small, bound up the Inside Passage have to wait for slack water. It’s almost as if nature wanted to give travelers pause, as if to tell them to be careful.
Dan is a very experienced filmmaker and photographer. I am also a photographer, having produced numerous color books on Alaska and the Northwest coast. At the end of the evening’s flying, we landed the drone, took the thumbnail-sized micro SD card out of the drone and into the side of my laptop, and literally gasped at what played out on the screen before us: a crisp, rock steady video with perfect color: we were truly stunned at the clarity and colors from the drone’s camera, which was little bigger than a cigarette pack.
And so the next few days went: exploring the narrow and winding wilderness passages north of Yucula Rapids. At the end of each day, we’d review the footage, amazed yet again at the new vistas that the Phantom allowed us to see. And pushing the envelope and learning a little more on each flight. The most fun was one morning steaming down Cordero Channel to catch slack water at Yuculta Rapids. It was windless and still when we launched but when the controller started flashing “low battery” the wind had freshened, setting up a short chop, and making a normal landing on a piece of plywood on the back deck dicey. So I told Dan I’d fly the drone in close and he’d have to grab it. No sweat.. though in reviewing the footage Dan did look a little anxious as the whirling blades got closer and closer.
And Desolation Sound saved the best for last. We’d ended up our week in this exquisite anchorage called Laura Cove, with just one other boat (In August it would have been jam packed). The sky was cloudless, the water still.
“Dan,” I said when the anchor was down, “you gotta try the kayak, it’s so gorgeous. I’ll launch from the shore and follow you around.”
And so we did – I set up on shore, and when Dan started paddling, launched, and followed him about 50’ behind and maybe 30’ up. The water was so clear I could clearly see the bottom under the kayak, the ripples from his paddles. Then as he slowly paddled around a corner in the narrow channel, I slowly took the drone up to 400’ until I was looking down at a canyon in the tall firs, at the bottom of which was Dan, still paddling. Then, slowly tilting the camera back up to horizontal, I panned slowly around, taking the dramatic vistas: mountains behind; channel and islands ahead: WOW!
That perfect day and those wonderful takes pretty much creamed the weather too: the next afternoon found us rolling across the strait once again in wind and rain, but immensely glad that we’d got that good weather window at all so late in the season and thrilled and excited that the drone had performed so well. Now we were ready for Alaska in the spring!
Joe Upton spent twenty years traveling up and down the Northwest coast as a commercial fisherman and journalist, taking pictures, making maps, catching fish, and collecting stories. Since 1995 his books and illustrated maps have been an invaluable resource for Alaska travelers. The key to the popularity of his books is that in addition to being fully informational guides, they are filled with Joe’s wonderful and insightful Alaska stories.
In 2011, Upton began collaborating with filmmaker Dan Kowalksi, also a photographer and commercial fisherman. Each year they would spend time in some of Alaska’s hidden places, creating short film mini-documentaries about the fascinating history and stories of each place. In his most recent illustrated map of Alaska, Upton placed numbered icons on the map, allowing users to go to www.joeupton.com to view the videos.
As the number of travelers to Alaska increased dramatically, Upton and Kowalski began to see that while visitors were able to appreciate the natural wonders of Alaska, there were fewer opportunities for them to be exposed to the kind of stories and people that made Alaska such a special place. So they created this website to share with travelers as much of the drama and adventures that they had seen and participated in over the years as they were able to. Their goal is simple: to provide a richer travel experience for Alaska visitors.
Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
It was February, 1971, and what would turn out to be the biggest commercial fishing boom in recent American history was just starting to get rolling on the remote, cold, and windy waters of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, and along the waterfront in Seattle. I was 24, with just a year of commercial fishing under my belt, and had just been hired for the king crab season on a brand new steel boat, and felt so lucky. Already, stories had begun to filter down from Alaska to the Seattle waterfront about the big money to be had by king crab fishermen in the remote Bering Sea.
Feb. 21 -Goodbyes last night and on this blustery mean morning, we slid through the locks alone and down into the salt water for our run up the coast to Dutch Harbor, 2400 miles away in the remote Aleutian Islands. There are five of aboard our 104’ state of the art steel king crab boat.
Feb 23 – This afternoon found us running in heavy snow before before a southerly gale in lonely 30-mile wide Hecate Strait, British Columbia. At around 3 p.m., alone on watch, I noticed an odd, blotchy-looking target on our radar, where no land was supposed to be. I fiddled with the radar controls, and again studied the chart carefully. Ahead was only open wate,r yet the radar was showing something and I began to feel very uneasy, and finally pulled the engine throttle controls to half speed.
Skipper George Fulton was out of his cabin in an instant, quickly scanning the radar display and the chart, pulling the throttle back to an idle and speaking into the intercom, all in a long instant, “Johnny, flood both crab tanks… quick as you can.” We had been traveling with our two big holds or crab tanks, empty, to give us a bit more speed. Filling them would make us travel a bit slower, but more importantly, it lowered our center of gravity, making us more stable, in heavy seas, an important factor considering the heavy load of crab pots we were carrying on deck.
Sensing something was happening, the rest of the crew filed up into the pilothouse, peering forward into the early and snowy dusk. When the tanks were full, George throttled up, and we moved toward whatever was out there.
For a long while there were just big grey-bearded seas marching past in the thickly falling snow. Then the gloom ahead seemed to get lighter, and we all peered forward intently, pressing our faces into the thick glass, trying to get some glimpse of what the radar was seeing, now less than a half mile ahead of us. Then, just for the briefest moment we saw it—glimpsed quickly through the gloom and as quickly gone—the backs of great seas, breaking, the spume from their crests thrown back like the manes of wild horses, covering a wide area ahead of us.
George quickly turned the boat around, as a sea caught us on the beam, rolling us violently enough that we all had to grab something for support, in that boat that had seemed so invincible… back at the dock in Seattle.
What was happening was that the seas created by the southerly gale were meeting the tidal current flooding in from the north, producing breaking seas all the way across the relatively shallow shelf: 100’ deep at the north end of the strait, seas that we’d be foolish to risk, even in our very rugged and new 104 footer. Somewhere there was a narrow gully of much deeper water, where we thought the seas wouldn’t be breaking. But if it were there, we couldn’t find it, jogging back and forth in that windy wasteland of angry churning water and hissing snow. Finally, the wind came on stronger still, and it began to get dark. The seas grew larger as the tidal current increased. It was rapidly becoming a bad place to be, so we reluctantly headed east, to try and find a way through a maze of islands and breaking reefs to the sheltered waters of the Inside Passage. But we had no detailed chart and today’s GPS plotters were still decades away; we only had George’s hazy memory of a passage through, several decades earlier.
The daylight fled away to the west and the windy, snowy, black swallowed us up. The flying snow and spray were so thick that our radar could barely penetrate it. Three times George said, “That way…” and we proceeded cautiously into a narrow channel bounded by rock and snow blasted trees. And leading to three dead ends: our crab lights high on the mast turning the night into snow thick day and revealing only the sea beating violently on rocky cul-de-sacs. One was so narrow there was not even room to turn around and we had to back out ever so cautiously, and no one spoke.
And something unexpected, unspoken, but there all the same: the taste of fear, even in the pilothouse of the finest and most rugged boat that the best shipyard in the whole Northwest could put out.
But finally the fourth channel opened into another, and another after that, and the sea died away, and the water stayed deep, and sometime after midnight, we found our way into the sheltered and calm waters of the Inside Passage. It was still snowing hard and inky dark, but we were back on our charts. But my confidence in our powerful boat and experienced skipper and mate had been shaken, something I hadn’t expected on just the third day of our trip, and I slept uneasily.
Feb 24: 20 miles north of Yakutat, one of the few good harbors along that coast, a wind came up. After five minutes it was blowing seventy. The temperature was fifteen degrees. The first spray over the bow froze instantly on the wheelhouse windows; we turned around with hardly a discussion. Our vessel was the best that the finest Northwest shipyard could produce, built for winter in the North Pacific, but turn around we did, for we knew that in these waters, freezing spray could quickly accumulate enough weight on our double stacked load of big king crab pots to capsize us.
We tied with frozen lines to a silent cannery wharf, and I walked up to the village with two of my shipmates in the blowing, drifting snow. In the whole settlement we saw only two lighted windows, and nowhere a footprint or car track. We trudged back to the boat through the knee-deep snow with the trees only dark shapes on our left, and the cove on our right lit up by our brilliant crab lights. Our boat, with the bark of her diesel generator filling the night, seemed almost like a visitor from another planet.
A blizzard swept in from the Canadian Yukon to the east after midnight. At the head of the harbor, in the lee of the great mountains, we lay sheltered from its force, but morning showed a grey and eerie world. Outside the windows of the pilothouse, a steady plume of snow settled down on us, drifting down from the wharf above. By noon, what little free deck we had was drifted rail to rail, almost waist deep with snow. It was as if barely 1200 miles north of Seattle, we’d come to the edge of the world as we knew it. And we still had some 1000 miles more to go. That night, sometimes even over the reassuring hum of the diesel generator in the engine room below us, we could hear the wind, screeching through the trees and cannery buildings above us. But at four a.m., when we got up to sniff the air, to see if it was ‘a chance,’ as mariners sometimes call a window of good weather, the storm had blown out to sea so we drew in our frozen lines, and headed out the still bay, into the Gulf of Alaska again.
All day we steamed northwest, a few miles off the beach. The wind was offshore and light, our ride easy, but there was something about the day and place that made us all somber. The land to the north and east was a strip of beach, rising to ice fields and mountains as far as the eye could see, range after range of cold, white peaks. The coast was broken here and there by little bays, all ice-choked and shallow, offering only limited shelter to small vessels.
Last night sometime after midnight I awoke suddenly. The engine was only rumbling along at an idle, but it was something else that had woken me—the boat’s motion—she took a roll, slow and loggy, seeming to hesitate at the end. I stumbled up into the pilothouse and instantly saw the problem: the wind had come up suddenly at Cape St. Elias and we’d iced up badly. Outside the window was a terrible sight—the two inch thick pipe rails around the foredeck were swollen into foot-thick bloated sausages, and in a few places they had already grown together into a solid wall of ice. The anchor winch was an unrecognizable white mound. I took a quick look out the back windows, and just as quickly looked away. What had been a neat stack of big crab pots, was now a lumpy hill of white ice, broken here and there by the black steel edges of the pots.
It was easy to see how vessels died— after just a couple of hours, we’d accumulated enough ice to make the boat dangerously top-heavy—and we were only carrying 50 pots in two layers on deck. Some larger vessels traveled north with their pots stacked three or four high.
Without a word, Russell and I suited up with oilskins—heavy raingear—over insulated coveralls, grabbed a baseball bat and a hammer and edged cautiously out onto the foredeck, while Johnny and Bob did the same on the back deck. Clipping short safety lines around the rails, we knocked the ice off as we went. The ice popped off easily, but it was awkward work—the boat rolling and pitching with that ominous slow motion, the footing treacherous, the bitter wind turning the spray to slush on our oilskins. Once a “queer one,” a sea larger than the others, loomed suddenly out of the night, came right up over the bow—solid, black water. It tugged at our knees for a moment and was gone. But it was a terrible feeling—the bow sinking, the water swirling around us, clutching at our legs. There was a white and strained face in the window, my hands fastened to the rail, but then the bow rose sluggishly and the water cleared. When we’d cleared off the tons of ice from the bow, we worked aft, knocking the ice off the rails as we went. An hour’s work, just to clear the bow and boat deck area, but our little ship seemed to ride a little higher, roll a little quicker, feel a little safer.
“It’s the Copper River wind, boy,” Russell told me in the galley when we were done and warming up. “It just sucks down off the flats and ice after a little sou’west breeze. All that ocean air just gets frozen up there, and all of a sudden decides to roll back to the sea. And I told that guy down in Seattle to put the pots into the hold when we loaded them. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘We won’t have to do that…’ Those guys down there don’t even know what ice is except when they see it in their drinks… they think these new super boats can take anything.”
Even at less than a quarter throttle, we iced up again badly before we found a few acres of sheltered water behind a tiny dot of an island off the abandoned copper boom town of Katalla. We hoisted the boom up, lifted, and set aside the heavy hatch covers, loaded as many of the heavily iced pots into the holds as would fit, laid the rest flat on the deck, lowered the boom, and chained it to the stern rail. The icy wind still clawed at us, but there was no sea. When we were finally done I looked around: the scene of frozen islands, frozen shore, and frozen mountains, now hidden, now revealed, by moon and racing clouds, was unspeakably bleak.
Feb 27. – Seward (usually an ice-free port) – The ice was so thick we had to use the boat like a battering ram to get in close enough to the dock to tie up, and even then had to walk across the ice to actually step onto the floats, humped up here and there by the pressure of the frozen harbor. We were met at the head of the dock by a friend of George in his Cadillac, whose heater struggled without any noticeable success against the heavy frost on the windows.
Deep in the night we stumbled out of the bar, numbed by alcohol to what lay ahead of us. Yet at the float, that future was all too clear. We had hoped for a quiet night tied to the dock before heading out in the morning, with at least the thin high latitude daylight of March to start the next phase of our journey in. It was not to be: in just the few hours that we’d been in the Harbor Bar, the sea water had frozen, out past our boat, to the very edge of the breakwater, perhaps 50 yards away. Frozen hard, with little snow devils whirling around it, clearly visible in the harsh glare of the dock security lights. Already it looked solid as an ice rink; if we waited until morning we would surely be trapped, we could see that even then getting out would be an iffy proposition. Instantly sobered by our situation, we clambered aboard, took in the frozen dock lines, and went up into the pilothouse to see if George and the 1200 horsepower of our GM diesel could break us free from the grasp of the ice.
He moved the joystick that controlled the rudder fully to the right, and throttled up to a quarter, normally more than enough power to kick our stern away from the dock. The engine throbbed, and the boat shuddered slightly, but the stern stayed fast in the ice. Half throttle gave the same result. Only when George pushed the throttle to three quarters speed did we start to shudder forward, finally giving us enough room to swing slowly around and crunch our way toward open water. The upended pieces of ice beside us were almost two inches thick—and that in just six hours. We’d heard the weather in the bar—wind and bitter cold for as far ahead as the forecaster could see—if we’d stayed another few hours we’d have been trapped, perhaps for weeks.
March 3 – Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island. Crept in here last night iced up so bad it took us 45 minutes to break the ice off the anchor winch, and drop the hook behind a low spit, which protected us from the seas, but not the wind.
As we ate in the galley that night, now and again our conversation would stop as a particularly violent gust slammed into the boat, heeled us over at anchor, and moaned and whined through our steel pipe rigging that supported the mast, clearly audible through the steel walls and the hum of the diesel generator below us.
Then deep in the night, I woke suddenly, leaning up, bumping the bottom of the bunk above me. Something had hit our boat, like an insistent knocking of angry hammer blows against our hull, and outside I could hear the wild screech of the wind, angrier even and wilder than it had been at supper. Heard someone on the stairs and quickly followed them up into the pilothouse. Everyone was there, looking out at the stark and wild scene etched in the harsh light of our big crab lights high on the mast. Perhaps an eighth of a mile ahead of us was the sand and gravel spit that protected us from the violent seas flung by the churning strait against its opposite side. Beyond the spit was a violent maelstrom of wind and water where no boat could possibly live. The water around us was covered with low white caps, but when I looked astern, I could see that they rapidly grew larger behind us. Another big angry gust slammed us, and nervously I looked at the anemometer: 85, 90, 93 miles an hour before sagging back into just the hurricane range—50-60 knots.
Then it came again: the angry rattle of someone hammering against our hull.
“It’s rocks and gravel, boys,” declared George, breaking our suspense, “picked up off the beach by the wind and carried all the way out to us, and we’re 800’ off the beach! I’ve heard of boats that anchored too close to the beach here and had the paint sandblasted completely off their bows by flying gravel. It’s our little welcome to Shelikof Straits.”
March 6 – Dutch Harbor – Finally the seas lay down and we slid cautiously down the coast, through the dreaded waters of Unimak Pass, oddly still, to tie to the wharf, Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The next weather system arrived just as we tied up, howling through the rigging with blinding snow.
Just as we were ready to turn in, there was the sound of a big engine outside, and then the nudge of another boat coming alongside. We jumped up, pulled on our parkas, boots, and gloves, and stepped outside to take their tie up lines. The sight that awaited us was sobering. A schooner style halibut boat had come alongside, totally sheathed in ice. This style of boat, mostly built before 1920, was specifically designed to fish for halibut in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean in all kinds of weather, year round. They were legendary for their seaworthiness, but it was obvious this one had just had a close call with the storm that was now battering the buildings around the harbor. The wire stays that held up the foremast were half a foot thick and what must have been an anchor winch was nothing more than a mound of white. On the front of the small wooden pilothouse, the windows were all iced over except for a small circle of dark clear glass. Then I saw the stern. The so called ‘bait shack,’ a small structure set to one side of the stern used to give the crew a bit of shelter while they baited up–halibut are caught on longlines—miles of line set along the bottom with thousands of baited hooks—had been half smashed off the boat, splintered wood and bent steel protruding from the ice in places.
A grim faced man with what looked like a bloody bandage around his forehead pushed a stiff and frozen line at me, while behind him another was using a heavy hammer to beat the ice off a bow cleat so that he could make the line fast. I took the line, passed it through one of the oval openings in our steel bulwarks and tried to tie it around the big cleat welded to the deck in the stern. But the line was so stiff with ice that I had to work it back and forth a few times before I could get it to bend enough to tie up.
Another shape appeared into the circle of light given off by the big lights on the crab plant dock, and we stared across the frozen shape of the deck gear on the halibut schooner at it. It was another halibut boat, a Canadian by the look of it. It was what we fishermen called a sardine seiner style boat. About 80’ long, its deckhouse was forward and much bigger—two decks with the skipper’s small stateroom and wheelhouse on the top deck—than that of the schooner, whose galley and accommodations were below and forward in the foc’s’le . This style of boat had two bridge wings—open deck extensions that extended out from both sides of the wheelhouse, allowing the skipper to step out and get an unobstructed view of where the fishing gear was being worked, whether it was a sardine seine, which it was built to use, or halibut longline gear, which it had been converted to. The sardiner was also totally iced up, even the sides of her hull were so coated with ice that we could neither see her name, nor the color of her paint beneath the ice.
But what caught our attention most was the bridge wing, or rather what was left of it, on her port side, as she approached to tie up beside the iced up schooner. It looked as if a huge hand had smashed into it—half the structure was completely gone, with the steel stanchions that had supported it bent and twisted. What was left looked like some strange modern art sculpture, thickly iced over to give it an eerie, ghostly look. As she got closer we could see that beneath the ice on the front of her wheelhouse there was plywood where two of the windows had been.
Finished with the tie up lines on our side, the men on the schooner crossed her deck to take the lines of the iced over sardiner, as obviously they had been traveling together. They struggled with the iced up lines just as we had.
I wanted to talk to someone aboard, to ask them what it had been like out there, although it was obvious that they had been in a life and death struggle with the bitter wind and the seas that froze instantly whenever they touched the boat or its rigging, be it wood or steel. My opportunity never came. When the crews finished tying up, four of them crossed our decks, with hardly a glance in our direction or a word as we stood, still a bit awed at the sight of their boats. They climbed up the ladder and quickly disappeared into the dark and the storm, headed, I assumed, to the Elbow Room, the only bar, or place that even had any lights on.
We went inside and up into our pilothouse, to be out of the weather and to look again at the sobering condition of the boats beside us. We hadn’t been there but a few minutes when the men returned from wherever they had gone, carrying bags of something. As we watched, they climbed over the icy decks of the halibut schooner and onto the other boat. A light went on in the galley, and the way the boats were laying, we could look right into the window. On the side of the boat, and protected by the overhang of what was left of the bridge wing, it was only partially iced up and there was enough of a clear area for us to see inside. The men sat down and pulled bottles out of the bags—whiskey and vodka from the look of it. There were eight men and eight bottles. Each man took a bottle and unscrewed the cap. They raised and touched them all together in some sort of toast and immediately started drinking. It didn’t look as if they needed ice, or glasses, or mixers. Or the caps again.
Welcome to the Bering Sea….
Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
August 11 – Aboard the Un-Cruises ship Wilderness Adventurer, Punchbowl Cove, Misty Fjords National Monument, Southeast Alaska:
Wow.. not sure I have enough adjectives to describe this day. The silver 737 with the winding channels and thousands of islands of the Inside Passage passing below, Ketchikan on a rare t-shirt blue-sky day, and our little 160’ ship with just 21 of us passengers and a 15 person crew just laying at the dock, cleaned, fueled, and ready for us.
Aug 12 – Wilderness Adventurer, Short Bay, Upper Behm Canal… Whew, boy do these guys fill the days! Woke up at Punchbowl Cove with the tops of the cliffs lost in the clouds, cruised an hour to another small bay for all hands into the kayaks. The day cloudless, salmon flipping, and us spooking a constant stream of eagles young and old from the trees, as we paddled along these almost vertical walls: spectacular!
Two groups in PM: hikers and paddlers, my wife Mary Lou (ML) in the former, me in the latter. When I got back, it was so amazingly warm and I was sweaty from paddling so JUMPED IN FOR A SWIM – IN ALASKA – and we’re not talking your polar bear dip: breathless in and out, this was paddling around.
Then got the report from ML – the trail was muddy, muddy, muddy, with a lot of ups and downs, but when they got to the lake, it was so warm that they all went in swimming too!
Aug 13 – Canoe Pass, Etolin Island – Another wicked busy one yesterday – started off with yoga on the back deck just as the sun was coming over the mountain on another cloudless gem. Then it was eat up and into the thick wetsuits for a bit of snorkeling among salmon, kelp, and sea anemones. But the salmon! Commercial fishermen all over the state were having a bang-up year and all the creeks were full as the fish prepared to spawn. Paddled up a creek so full I was getting spashed when the fish would panic and make a rush for deeper water.
When our guide saw how many fish there were around me, he buzzed back to the mother ship, grabbed two couples who were hanging out in the hot tub, gave them snorkles and fins and they jumped into the creek with the thousands of fish!
Aug 14 – Off Cascades Creek, Thomas Bay – another stunning cloudless morning: wow oh wow, pinch me, pinch me! Such a day yesterday – woke off Anan Creek, yoga, breakfast and then off to meet with guides on shore and hike the boardwalk around Anan Creek Lagoon, passing at least one black bear on the way, having a nice salmon breakfast..
The viewing platform over the stream full of fish was quiet at first, just one bear, but as the morning progressed, we saw more and more – bears crawling under the deck, bears climbing the trees, Momma and cub fishing together… no one went away disappointed…
Back aboard to run just a hour to the south end of Canoe Pass to launch the kayaks for just the most pleasant 2 1/2 hour paddle – the kayaks all spread apart, the water crystal clear – just wicked fun.
Aug 15 – Headed for Scenery Cove, looks like another great day.. But wow – what a stunner yesterday – up at 5 just as we were going through the lower end of Wrangell Narrows, really nice light, we stopped to look at sea lions on a big buoy off the north end, then out into Frederick Sound with two bunches of humpbacks on just the most spectacular morning… and into many armed Thomas Bay.. hook down, morning yoga and into the inflatible for a hike up to a glacial lake to kayak. Long paddle up a river and up to the remote glacier; nowhere, except our bright kayaks, a sign of man’s existence. Back to massages all around, and tales from the hikers who did the Cascade Lake Trail: not for the faint of heart with log bridges over roaring frigid rapids. None for me, thanks…
Aug 17 – on the silver bird south, but whew.. lotta catching up to do… Not much laptop time on the Wilderness Adventurer…
As soon as the hook was down in Scenery Cove, it was launch the inflatibles and head for the shore near Baird Glacier. And what a hike: Baird is receding so we had to pick our way over cobble shore, then a desert-like moonscape to the 70’ high terminal moraine, then finally picking our way around patches of boot-sucking mud, past these weird deep holes in the ice, pools of water and finally onto the ice itself – and apparently it was the first time any of the guides or passengers had actually made it to the top of the glacier, as previously a meltwater lake had totally blocked their way! But what a totally great feeling to be on top! Met by hot toddies on the back deck and then it was anchor up and out of shallow Thomas Bay for some very good whale watching in Frederick Sound including one that did a breach right in front of the ship!
Dawn on the 16th found us just crossing the Wood Spit shallows into Endicott Arm with the first bits of ice here and there. Another couple of hours took us a half mile from the dramatic face of Dawes Glacier. Before we launched the kayaks it was safety talk time: use the kayak skirts, stay together and be careful not to get too close to the bergs….. And we all launched into the head of Endicott Arm near Dawes Glacier.
And OMG – what a totally exhilarating experience – picking our way through the ice with the little chunks tinkling against the hulls of our kayaks! Then over to the other side where we passed close to this large waterfall, and just hung out for a bit about a quarter mile from the glacier – about as far as we dared go… And two or three times heard the impressive thunder as it calved, and there even was a landslide as well: what raw country, Plus ML and I were in this double kayak so that we could share all that we were seeing! And the day was hardly over: Hot toddies waiting again when we got back to the boat, and into the hot tub as it was kayaks aboard and down the line to another anchorage, while ML and I chilled out in the hot tub – it did get a bit chilly out there…!
And Un-Cruise keeps the activity level going: kayaks launched again with ML and I and a handful of the hardy to paddle around the shore of a sweet little Wood Spit anchorage.. with a party barge complete with White Russians etc..Do these guys know how to have a good time or what..?
Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.