The Advantage of Bikes When Border Crossing

We are currently in the middle of our few weeks at home in Anacortes. This morning we hopped back on the ferry to visit our friends on Orcas Island for the weekend. Reboarding the ferry reminded me how we realized what a fantastic advantage our folding Dahon Mariner bicycles are.

Our bikes tied to the car deck on our journey back from Sidney.

When we were delivering Miss Miranda to Sidney BC last week we took the bikes to use as transport around Sidney and back home from the ferry in Anacortes. Little did we realize they would greatly expedite our re-entry into the US from Canada by allowing us to exit the ferry car deck first and go through the bikes only Customs lane. We were off on the road home in 5 minutes instead of the hour long wait that foot passengers, and probably cars as well, have to endure.

Looking out to land from the car deck. The other couple were the only other cyclists.

They also allow us to explore towns in a much greater range than walking. I plan to get some carrier bags so I can use them for provisioning, as I don’t really like cycling with a heavy backpack weighing me down.

Picture from the Dahon website of the bike folded up.

When we aren’t using them, the bikes compact into rectangular shapes about 2 by 3 feet each and we store them in the lazarette or in the cockpit bungeed down with a cover. They are sturdy but easy to lift. We’ve had them for 7 years and they show no sign of rust, even though we haven’t done routine maintenance with any kind of regularity.

Their only downside is the single set of 7 gears. They really don’t work well for significant hill climbing, so maybe won’t be my choice for getting around San Francisco when we stop there!

Fogust

Now that we are well into August, the fog that is typical of Alaska and northern British Columbia has become a usual morning and sometimes all day, occurence for us. The locals call this time of year “Fogust”.

Looking out from Blunden Harbor. Fog banks roll in and out with regularity now.
Departing Blunden Harbor in the early morning. Heavy fog in the anchorage.

We use radar and lots of peering into the mist to navigate. Sometimes we have to call up other boats on the radio to clarify intentions to avoid collisions, but for the most part its not been a problem. It can be quite stunning to see whisps of fog lying over islands with sun shining above.

Fog was prominant for our crossing of Cape Caution. We had a long foggy but calm day, and ended with an overnight stay in Blunden Harbor. ONce we entered the bay, the sun came out and the fog remained outside.

Blunder Harbor is the site of a former First Nations summer village and we can still see signs of the long house and the shell midden on the beach. The First Nations group still uses the site but doesn’t live there any longer.

The beach at Blunden Harbor. There are remains of a long house in the grass above.
More remains of the longhouse.

It was too windy for kayaking but we did a dingy trip up the long inlet to see if we could cross into the hidden lagoon, but found the entrance too shallow and some overfalls which would have made for an exciting ride. It was beautiful in the sunshine though after a day of fog!

Can’t really see the overfalls here but the narrow entrance has a very shallow bar that we decided not to brave.

Sleeping Whales

We spend a lot time underway watching out for and avoiding logs. Especially during this last week as we have been making long runs and the tides are high, sweeping driftwood and logs off the beaches and back into the waterways. But those are not the only things that can be lurking under the water.

I am used to looking for blows from whales and seeing them in the distance is always a happy occasion. But after an up close and personal experience the other day, I really don’t want to see them up close!

My preferred viewing of whales – I need to use my maximum telephoto lens and crop the photo to get a good one!

I was piloting while Larry and Miranda were down in the salon reading and hanging out. The sun was slanted across the water from my left, making it a bit difficult to tell exactly what was coming up in the water. There were spurts of many logs at times, and other times seaweed – which I feel silly avoiding but do it a lot out of concern for a lurking log. I had relaxed as we had entered a log free zone for a while, and was sitting back in the helm chair rather than perched on the edge of my seat or standing up. I saw a slight difference in the wave ripples ahead but nothing breaking the surface. I wondered what it was and decided to turn slightly to port to avoid it “just in case”, but I really didn’t think it was anything significant.

As I started the slight leftward turn, a whale dorsal fin appeared in front of me, just off our bow pulpit. A large humpback headed for our starboard side. I freaked out and yelled, pulled back on the throttle and then put it in neutral. The whale turned tail up and dove just off our starboard bow. There was no contact, and he must have taken a big breath in without breathing out, because there never was any blow that I saw.

We sat in neutral for a while as I regained my composure. I was so very glad not to have hit the whale. After that I have been hyperalert for sleeping whales. We saw one two days ago in Queen Charlotte Sound, but this one was sitting on the surface with a visible dorsal fin. It clearly was asleeep – not moving, not blowing. We had good clearance from it on our port side.

I did a little research and found this article on how whales sleep from Scientific American. Apparently they sleep with half their brains and alternate eye at a time. This must be how the whale I encountered woke up enough to avoid us as much as I avoided him. I can see how they don’t have time to avoid boats traveling at high rates of speed. The speed restrictions that were in place in Glacier Bay in the whale feeding zones make complete sense to me.

Breaching whales in the distance from the bubble feeding pod we were observing. This is a very cropped photo – I honestly was so focused on what was happening closer to me I didn’t notice the breaching whales as first.

Anan Bear Observatory

This was a highly anticipated stop for us.  The Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory is one of the few places where you can see both black and brown (grizzly) bears feeding on returning salmon in their natural environment.  Only 60 visitors are allowed a day during the high season of July and August. You can’t leave your boat unattended in Anan Bay so we took a high-speed tour boat to get there. The boat trip was led by two experienced guides who provided lots of wildlife knowledge and regional history and also protection (they were both armed with guns and bear spray) and guidance walking up the 1/2 mile path and boardwalk to the observation deck and blind.

The path we walked to get to the observatory is shared with the bears.
The bears are totally accustomed to the observatory. They walk up to, around and under it.

This is the time of year that salmon are returning to spawn in huge numbers. The bears get first pick, eating only the brains and the roe – the high fat content areas. Then eagles and other wildlife get the remains. We did notice it was getting a bit stinky from the accumulating remains. The guides said we were lucky to be there now and not in a few more weeks when it would really reek.

The dark mass of salmon waiting to push upstream.
Baby followed mom very closely.

When we first arrived there were at least 4 to 5 black bears feeding in the stream and walking around the observatory. Later we were very lucky that a brown bear, who the guides had named Scuba Sue for her atypical behavior of diving fully into the stream to catch fish, walked up the stream bed. The black bears scurried away in a hurry when they saw her – a good lesson in how fast bears can run uphill! They seemed to feel safe enough on the opposite bank of the stream, but clearly kept a close eye on her. She was incredibly efficient at catching fish, we watched her catch and eat at least a half dozen compared to the black bears who took much longer to catch one.

Scuba Sue preparing to dive into the water
Enjoying one of her many catches.
Waiting for his turn at the salmon.

The guides said no one had ever had to discharge a firearm against a bear in the history of Anan, which I think is a testament to the experience and the thought that goes into how visitors are brought into the area. They actually have more problems with people falling on the trail and boardwalk than anything else.

Pensive bear, after a good back scratch on the tree.

A wonderful way to spend one of our last days in Alaska.

Petersburg Part 2 and Wrangell Narrows

We kept to our original itinerary plan which was to spend a couple of days in Petersburg (recall we had unplanned days there early in the trip due to mechanical issue).  On our return we found a somewhat different level of activity at the dock and much different weather. 

Fishing was now in full force in the rain, with the cannery next to the North Harbor dock working hard 24/7 with boats unloading fish and flushing their holds into the harbor.  This led to a pronounced fish smell over the marina for most of the time we were there.  I had a bit of a hard time with that.  It is the smell of money for the area, but a bit difficult on my nose and stomach. 

I spent a few hours at the local laundromat which is well run by a friendly couple.  They were impressed that I knew the secret of using vinegar for fabric softening and odor removal and we compared notes about buying bulk laundry supplies at Costco – which they have to go to Juneau to do.  I listened in on lots of conversation between fisherman doing their laundry – it is a terrible season for them, which is sad to hear. Year over year declining fish returns continue.  This is what we’ve heard all over, along with the severe budgetary woes in the state.  Alaska is facing some significant challenges. 

Beachcomber Lodge and restaurant, on the banks of Wrangell Narrows. A former cannery, it operates seasonally.

A new discovery was a lovely place for dinner out of town a few miles looking over Wrangell Narrows in an old cannery called the Beachcomber Lodge.   We had a terrific dinner the night before departing.  We ran into folks we had met at my friend Tom’s in Point Baker at the table next to us, so it felt like we were a bit of the local scene for a moment.   

The next day we headed south down Wrangell Narrows, which is a narrow channel providing a main north-south direct transit, but not accessible for cruise ships.  It has 60 aids to navigation along the way marking very narrow areas and has some sharp turns.  Eagles seem to love to perch on them.

It wasn’t more difficult than our passage through Rocky Pass, but we did have a close encounter with a tug and barge coming the opposite direction in the narrowest part of the channel. 

The tightest point of navigation. We passed between red markers on the port side and green on the starboard. In the distance you can see the tug and barge that will pass us within this channel – they move fast.
Passing on our port side, we pulled as far to the right (starboard) as we could.

Fortunately while it was raining, it wasn’t foggy, which would have made it a nerve-wracking trip. 

Crazy tour group that jet skiis their way around Alaska. We ran into them almost 2 months ago in Nanaimo as they headed for Ketchikan. They caught us by surprise in the Narrows.

Larry was excited about trying some fishing in a good spot before we were to pull into Wrangell.  He uses downriggers which are mounted on the back of the boat, which help get the lines down to where the fish are supposed to be.  I drive the boat when he is fishing using the wing engine to troll very slowly.  We arrived at the prime location, noticed it had a bunch of crab pots laid out but thought we could maneuver around them.  No luck for the first hour and drifted toward an area with no fish on the fish finder so I turned around to head back to the better area.  Driving between crab pots which seemed well spaced out, warned Larry about it but he thought it was ok, when suddenly the port downrigger completely popped off and was flying off the boat – 15 pound ball, large piece of equipment and the rod. 

Downrigger setup. Usually also has a 15 pound metal ball at end of it. Rod goes in the middle black holder.

He rescued the rod but the rest was gone to the bottom in seconds.  Our friend Ted then had a similar experience and found that there were submerged crab pot floats and they were all connected on a line across the bay.  We felt lucky not to have gotten lines in our props or anyone hurt with heavy equipment flying around, so we called it a day and headed for Wrangell.  Stiff cocktails were in order. 

Warm Springs Cove

After Takatz Bay we headed to Warm Springs Cove to check out the hot springs and the waterfall. There is a small public dock that is very popular so we weren’t that optimistic we would get a dock space. We arrived mid-morning hoping we would be lucky though, and we were!

Wonderful fellow boaters on the dock, including a very nice family who were giving away halibut fillets because they had caught a 60 pounder but had no way to keep it all. Larry made the best halibut bits we have ever had that night for halibut tacos, and we have 3 more pounds in the freezer. Yum.

Miranda enjoying a brief dip in the super hot water! Gorgeous view of the falls.

We followed the boardwalk and a hairy path to the hot springs overlooking the waterfall and had a sulfury hot soak in the evening, after the crowds that had come in from transient super yachts came and went. The benefit for us is the rain had let up and the sun poked out.

The Warm Springs community has built boardwalks and some beautiful cottages on the waterline, and also built a bath house that pipes in the hot springs to 3 individual bathing rooms. Very nicely done and a great bath opportunity – we were happy to put some dollars in the kitty to support it.

The next day was very rainy and foggy. We headed out to Portage Bay, a convenient stop on the way toward Petersburg and Wrangell Narrows as we start heading back south.

Another spectacle of whales bubble feeding in Frederick Sound- we saw one pod close to us and another in the distance. It is amazing to me that the whole effort is so quiet – they make almost no noise that we heard when they come up.

There must have been well over 10 whales in this group.

Portage Bay was huge but lined with lots of commercial crab pots. It was storming hard as we anchored so we just stayed cozy and warm in the boat that evening, but I did get some good photos during a few sun breaks – here it can be sunny and raining at the same time.

A brief moment of sun in torrential downpours.
A family of loons enjoying the rain.
Peaceful moment before bed. Sunset is late here – photo taken around 10pm.

Sitka

We finished 3 days in Sitka on Friday. Sitka is definitely our favorite town so far in Alaska. It is the most picturesque of all the towns we’ve stayed at with multiple mist shrouded islands off the mainland and beautiful vistas, a number of excellent museums and wildlife facilities and terrific hiking trails to explore.

A scene on the walk next to the harbor downtown.

The Sitka National Historical Park has a lovely trail with 18 totems collected over the years from around Alaska. The main focus is the history of the area, first with the Tlingit settlements and then the Russians. The pole below is about the battle in the early 1800s between the Tlingit and the Russians, which the Tlingit lost.

At the presumed site of the Tlingit fort.

The Raptor Center for rehabilitation of eagles and other raptors was fascinating. They have a flight training center for the birds large enough for them to live in full time with realistic landscape, openings to the weather and a running stream to mask human sounds so they have as little exposure to humans as possible. They put out lots of dead fish for food so the birds don’t fight with each other. Birds were there recuperating from multiple types of injuries, including one hurt in a bear attack! They also house raptors that are permanently unable to fend for themselves in the wild. I loved the owls.

There is a fish hatchery at the science museum in the downtown area. We got a tour and then saw all the pink salmon leaping in the harbor – apparently the heavy rains has them thinking it’s time to spawn so they are coming in. The hatchery had to close the waterway so the fish don’t come in early.

We also toured the Sheldon Jackson museum with innumerable artifacts and exhibits collected and preserved from all the native groups in Alaska in the late 1800s by this Presbyterian minister. I was impressed with level of detail and artistry in the implements used in daily life for sewing, cooking etc. I was somewhat horrified by the idea of wearing clothes made from fish skin, even if they were waterproof. The most surprising item for me was this complete suit made from oogruk (bearded seal) that was waterproof and somewhat bouyant. It was worn for whale butchering since the whale was left in the water while being harvested. A precursor to our modern dive wear.