Only the equator and the tropics get to have the sun perpendicularly directly overhead. Whereas near the Arctic Circle, the suns rays are glancing lower over the horizon, and making the sunrise and sunset go sideways. But man, does it go on and on, like watching a slow moving cloud reflected off the curved hood of your 56 Chevy. (I remember this, but I digress about my idle youth.)
Civil twilight with the sideways sunrise and sunset means Alaska actually gets 40 minutes more average annual daylight than the lower 48. And that’s even after considering the long dark of winter. So you can imagine how long the days of summer are here. This summer solstice on June 21, Petersburg will have a slow coffee sunrise at 3:59 am and a long dinner sunset at 9:48pm, and twilight adds an extra hour to both ends; 20 hours daylight, amazing, wish you were here.
Laysan had a cold winter layup and even showed a little ice damage to a paravane pole that had accumulated water. Not a problem we’re familiar with in Hawaii. But after a couple weeks of provisioning, maintenance, system checks, and 500 gallons of fuel, we were ready to cruise. Not bad for two seniors who like to take an afternoon nap.
Friends Kurt and Marcia with our sister ship, Alpenglow, made the long run up from Washington through Canada’s COVID embargo and visited with us in Petersburg. Dry foot/dry foot, US to US; these are strange times indeed. At least we’re all vaxxed, healthy, and raring to go this summer.
Crabs and prawns, but no halibut yet. Eagles and whales, but haven’t seen a bear so far. All is well with Laysan and crew. Take care, my friends.
After sadly sending our kids back to their productive endeavors “Outside”,(which is what Alaskans call the rest of the world), Kathleen and I resume our slow cruise in the wilderness. Appropriately provisioned, and satisfyingly stocked with spares, we shove off from Juneau heading out Icy Strait towards the purportedly isolated village of Elfin Cove.
Our Seahorse friends, Dave and Dorothy, have assumed temporary identities as Harbormaster and Postal Mistress there in Elfin Cove for 18 long months. Elfin has a population of 200, but last winter it shrank to two, Dave and Dorothy, living on their boat. Like I said, long months. So we had masked drinks and pupus on the dock, and told stories of our adventures at sea. Very nice.
Weather in the Gulf of Alaska began to turn against our plans to venture out into the open ocean for a run to Sitka, (seas 7’, maybe we’re getting soft), so we reversed and went to Dundas Bay, a remote part of the National Park. For 5 days we roamed the back bays and never saw anyone or any boat. Eerie and beautiful, and it was our 36th wedding anniversary!
Notably theses bays have a history of glacial outbursts, a sudden flood of ice and water that sounds rather disturbing. These summertime geological events occur when a melt basin up in the glacier, full of icebergs, suddenly breaks loose and rushes down the glacial valley taking trees and no doubt a few surprised mammals with it. Would not want to be there that day.
Keeping a mariner’s eye to the weather, we see a deepening storm force low developing in the Gulf with a gale front arrival in a few days. Choosing a safe harbor for a gale requires wind and especially wave protection, so we select Pavlof for its surroundings, mud bottom for anchor holding, and shoreline barrier to the south, the forecast wind direction. Plus, there’s a waterfall with jumping salmon and lots of bears.
Snugly anchored in 40’ of water, with 275’ of chain rode down, the wind began to build throughout the day to a steady 35 knots with gusts to 47. This lasted all afternoon (I much prefer daytime gales), and still kept us awake that night gusting to 35. We held fast, but another boat in the anchorage dragged and had to reanchor five times during the storm. Unfortunately he was upwind of us, which added to our anxiety.
The next day, storm had passed, but the outside channels were still churning up steep 4’ waves, so we just stayed and watched the bears. Grizzlies are amazing animals that lope around the waterfall grabbing salmon like a snack, while I fish for days and never catch anything. Oh well.
So that’s the news from Laysan in the upper Southeast Alaska. Not sure that we will ever leave, but Kathleen has heard that winter’s coming, and that is when many Alaskans go “Outside.”
Our family of five had not all experienced the joys (and confines) of Laysan since July of 2012, eight years ago…we were smaller people then. The plan to convene in Alaska was envisioned well before the covid disaster raised its head; so the go/no go decision became more complicated than the usual logistics of organizing arrivals from Hawaii, Illinois, and Texas. To give Alaska credit, the 14 day quarantine was lifted if a negative covid test was provided or a free test upon arrival proved negative. Each of the kids braved the covid gauntlet and despite various airplane SNAFU’s (I’m talking to you American Airlines), all crew, a functioning Laysan, and a well provisioned freezer converged in Juneau, for the start of a two week trip into the isolated, wilds of Alaska.
Our destination, Glacier Bay, a 3.3 million acre national park, accessible only by boat and limited to 25 permitted boats a day; a remote wilderness with no internet or cellular connection…perfect. From Juneau, we travel two days north and west, taking boat watch turns, scanning the waters for humpback whales that loved to lounge and roll in the tidal currents, and kids re-learning the basics of anchoring, dinghy launch, and kayak retrieval.
The weather has been unusually rainy and cold this year, rarely getting above 56 degrees; even the locals complain that summer has passed them by. Yet, despite the ever present mist and clouds, at every anchorage, we launch the boat flotilla and make our way to shore to explore the shoreline. In the past, John and I have been leery of entering into the woods; a foreboding wall of thick trees, crammed with imaginary (and not so imaginary) grizzly bears waiting behind every Sitka spruce for our arrival. However, this year with a botanist and marine scientist in tow, we are forced to confront our fears and journey into the deep, moss covered undergrowth . Where, not surprisingly, we uncover bear skulls, bear fingers, bear poop, and bear hot tracks, it is very beary in there.
After we return from shore excursions, afternoon fishing proves a popular past time. Living off the land, at least in summer, seems entirely possible; even we, as neophytes, are successful at wild berry collection, halibut acquisition, and crab trapping.
The pinnacles of the park are the glaciers….Reid, Lamplugh, Margerie; massive ice rivers that flow from the 12,000 foot mountains down to the sea. As the glaciers meet the ocean, the giant ice faces sheer off into the water with thunderous, explosive cracks. Watching the glacier is totally mesmerizing, the anticipation palpable; waiting, waiting for the next groaning, grinding water crash. In fine weather, it is possible to anchor within a mile of Margerie Glacier and we are lucky this year. Anchoring for two days off the glacier, we marvel at our good fortune of sunny days, well distanced ice bergs, and a remote landscape that frees us from the worries of the world.
After much consternation, and not a small amount of guilt about traveling in a pandemic world, we rationalized that our other home, Laysan, needed us as much much as we needed her. (Rationalization is a self reinforcing behavior). And so, we fled from one state with the lowest case count, to another state with the lowest case count, Hawai’i and Alaska, two places with lots of fresh air and very few people.
Getting there is not always the best part, however, especially these days because airplanes and airports are not very easy places to socially distance. After pre-testing by a space suited nurse armed with a 4” nasal probe, we were cleared to fly.
Masked and coated with antiseptics, with our flights on time through empty airports like an apocalypse movie, we arrived in Petersburg, Laysan’s new home in Southeast Alaska. Whew! Let’s not do that again for awhile.
Petersburg has its Covid19 game on, with masks in the stores at 50%, (could be better), and plenty of public health messaging signs in the windows. With only 3000 people and 3 cases so far, their isolation and methods seem to be working.
Laysan is looking good and we start to work down the list of the mechanical wake up after a long cold winter. Actually, it still feels like winter to us tropical types, with highs in the 50’s and lows in the 40’s. And as it happens, the main mechanical problem turns out to be the diesel heater, a critical comfort item. Four days of bilge-crawling hose replacement, a new circulation pump and fuel nozzle later, and we had central heat again. Kathleen was smiling.
Once Laysan is revved up and cleaned out, we head around the island for a shakedown cruise and add one more broken item to the “must have” systems, a depth sounder. This wonderful device pings the bottom with a 600 watt 200 kHz sonar that shows us the rocks and the fish, of which the first is really important. Unfortunately, ours has given up and must be replaced, requiring a haul out and through hull work. Not to mention another day of body twisting cable pulling up to the pilot house. Voila! Rocks and fish back on the screen!
So after 2 weeks of preparation and provisioning, we and Laysan are ready to go deep into empty Alaska. With the Canadian border closed to northbound US cruisers, and the cruise ship industry on indefinite no sailing orders, Alaska may be a very quiet place this year.
Kathleen enjoying our evening beer. This was a roadside hotel with a very active motorcycle cafe racer scene. Lots of tight leathers and great bikes. Exciting!
A nice dinner for the trekkers!
After a restful night in a private “chambre” at the Hotel du Col de la Forclaz, another delicious breakfast of coffee and toast, we step across the street through the accumulating crowd of fellow trekkers awaiting their bus out of here. But not for us. Not this day! Well, read on…
The Bisse du Trient makes for a wonderful stroll as it was a perfectly graded aqueduct and tramway built to bring water and ice from the Glacier du Trient all the way to town in the late 18th century. Glacial cocktails were quite the rage in old Paris!
Crossing the outflow of Glacier du Trient
Beginning the morning climb.
Once we reach the glacier however, the climb begins. This is a”Variante” from the official TMB, and offers altitude, views, and adventure on the path less traveled.
The red arrow shows the Variante route from Col de la Forclaz to le Tour
Mainly we took the Variante because it avoided a 500 meter descent/ascent to cross the Trient valley and it was called the les Grands shortcut. Sounds good to me. Little did we know that a shortcut in Swiss means vertical rock.
Trail on cliff! This was not in the brochure.
Does anyone see the trail?
Clambering like Gollum over rocky outcrops and along narrow paths with bushes beginning to turn fall colors, we saw only 5 people all day. It was fabulous. The Refuge at les Grands was already closed for the season, which meant no mid morning cappuccino, and perhaps more importantly, no water either. Oops, plenty of little waterfalls though.
Not a trekker tombstone, this is the border of Switzerland with the Chamonix valley beyond. Almost there!
937 meters up and 6 hours later, we stood at the Col de Balme, the pass marking the border of Switzerland and France. There we could see down the valley to Chamonix, where we had started almost two weeks ago. Catching our breath and drinking the last of our water, we felt good, even though Kathleen had been nursing a cold all day. Amazingly she had soldiered on right to the top. I love this woman. I’m not sure that I would not have completely crumpled on this hike without her.
As we gazed at the panorama, a familiar contraption appeared to be in motion nearby, a ski lift! What? Without a word, we nodded and almost ran to the download gate. After muttering my broken French, the liftee granted us access, (20€ senior rate!), and suddenly we were magically gliding over the slopes down to le Tour. It was surreal. We could not stop smiling.
A trekker’s dream, download!
A short bus ride to the center of Chamonix, and we checked into our Airbnb for a few days of recuperation. Only one virus, no injuries, knees and ankles intact; altogether pretty good for a couple of 64 year olds after 100 miles.
The Tour du Mont Blanc was an excellent adventure, and we did almost all of it. The official route also includes a western section with the notorious 100’ steel ladders to La Flegere bolted into the cliffs. Imagine climbing those ladders with a backpack amongst other trekkers. Maybe another time, I say. No thanks, says Kathleen.
Google Earth view of our track as recorded by my phone.
Altitude profile of our track, recreated with Google Earth (Thanks Steven!).
Our cumulative gps statistics are here:
TMB days: 12, 1 lay day in Courmayeur
TMB distance: 99.32 miles (160 km), (ok almost a hundred), average 9 miles per day
Total ascent 29271 feet (8870 m)
Average 2665 feet (806m) ascent per day
Total descent 27690 feet (8391 meters)
Average 2517 feet (762 m) descent per day
(And if you’re being particular, subtract 700 meters upload day one and 700 meters download day 12.)
Maximum positive gradient trail climb 39%
Maximum negative gradient trail descent 35%
Now we’re traveling about visiting family and friends in Europe and the USA on our way home to Hawaii for the holidays. All the best to you and thanks for reading along.
On day 9 of our Tour du Mont Blanc, I look forward to our next couple of days, called “the Bovine Route”. I picture bucolic pastures, frolicking cows, and a Heidi-esque stroll through the Swiss Alps. Alas, it is not to be.
The day holds 7 hours of hiking over 9.5 miles. Initially, we head down, to the tune of 2,178’…passing through forests, by glacial streams, between perfect Swiss houses with impeccably stacked firewood.
Swiss wood stacking extrordinaire.
Yard gnomes rooting us on.
It is a slow day for me, I have caught a cold from one of my fellow hikers, too much sharing of communal yogurt bowls. So, when the afternoon draws on and I am faced with a climb up of 1,732’, I start to flag. Trudging upwards to Champex Lac, all I can think about is being there.
Cresting the final ridge, the cute Swiss town, Champex, comes into view, but I do not appreciate its cuteness. As I walk by the crystal clear lake with happy Swiss tourists eating glacé, lounging in the sun, I am not charmed. I ignore JP’s attempts at humor, pretending to fall into the lake with his backpack to cool off. I am steadfast in my resolve TO BE THERE! All I want is a hot shower and a quiet bed…and maybe a cold beer. The day finally ends at Pensione en Pleine Aire, providing a refugio respite. Tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll find the elusive, promised Bovine Route.
On day 10, my cold persists but the morning portion of the hike is good and how can you go wrong with a trail that cows’ walk?
Ultimately, I’d like to see the cow that walked the Bovine Way; another day of serious hiking, 7 hours and about 8 1/2 miles.
By the end of our day at Col de la Forclaz, we have climbed over 3,300’ with slightly less down. Apparently, the bovines in Switzerland are a heartier bunch than the Hawaii cows….mooooo!
Refugio Bonatti, Gite de Alpage de la Peule, La Fouly
16 km & 8 km
Ascent/Descent: 988/945m & 32/507m
Climbs rewarded with views are the best.
The wonderful Refugio Bonatti behind us, with visions of the great alpinist himself still dancing in Kathleens mind, we stride purposefully ahead with every intention to hold our altitude of 2000 meters before beginning the ascent to the Grand Col Ferret. This was unfortunately not to be. Because, on the TMB, you must go down to go up, and the Val Ferret pulled us to 1700 meters. Along the way, we crossed a beautiful waterfall and bridge occupied by a cadre of campers who had decided to set up camp and wash all their clothes. Unfortunately for them, a high altitude goat farmer lived below and he was hopping mad charging toward them with his dogs. Yikes.
Campers in Italy are only allowed to stay above 2500 meters or the Italian Carabiniere will fine them on the spot. Some sort of anti gypsy thing I think, but the militaristic Carabiniere are not to be trifled with. Glad we have reservations at the Refugios ahead.
We can see the pass up ahead, the Grand Col Ferret, marking the border of Italy and Switzerland.
And then the long climb to Grand Col Ferret began. 800 vertical meters later, most of which was glacial scree above the tree line with washed out runoff diversions, we are both gasping for air. (And I don’t mean air conditioning, I mean just air.) We turn around and can see all the way back through the Val Ferret and up the Val Veny to the other border of Italy, the Col de Signe, which we had crossed in a snowstorm a week ago. High fives for walking in and out of Italy! Wow. Never done that before.
Kathleen at the pass with Italy to the left and Switzerland to the right.
Looking back to Col de Signe, which we crossed a week ago in a snowstorm
After a silent rest, a gentle descent into Switzerland took a couple of hours and the dairy farm Gite de Alpage de la Peule came into view. Actually the sounds of the cowbells were heard first and then the amazing shepherd dog was in full force, moving the herd to the milking shed.
Approaching the Swiss farm stay for the night.
With all this milk, dinner was, you guessed it, cheese! Swiss Croute on toast with ham, it was also a pig farm, was enjoyed with another interesting group of trekkers, Pete the retired Scottish psychiatrist and Lee the Australian engineer.
Waking up at a dairy farm, Gite de Alpage de la Peule
At 16 km(10 miles), that was our longest day, so after breakfast we gave ourselves a short route to La Fouly of only 8 km(5 miles), and had time to wash clothes and “re-create” ourselves, as my cousin Gisela used to say. A lovely Swiss town, everything is neat and tidy with flowers, and carefully stacked firewood for the winter to come.
Relaxing afternoon on a short day.
Another great dinner at the Refugio with a group of Danish medical students and we clambered into our bunks. The TMB is a great experience.
The bus option is always alluring, yet ultimately the desire to complete a through hike prevails and we hike on.
However, not before we spend two nights and a day lounging around the Villa NoveCentro Romantic Hotel in Courmayeur, Italy. The wine and charcuterie…delicious! The roasted lamb shank and grilled red deer…sublime! The breakfast buffet of cherry tarts, honey comb, apricot croissants, cappuccino…redolent! Instead of spending the day touring the town, we lie abed; napping, inter-netting, talking about how we should really get up.
Speaks for itself.
But the miles have gotten the best of us and we are slugs for the day. By evening, we roust ourselves and hit up the best pizzeria we can find and it does not disappoint. Ciao!
After our two night sojourn in Courmayeur, we hit the trail with a vengeance. Today, straight out of the hotel is up…and up… and up. The climb is 1,145 meters or 3,745’; and at elevation, breathing with our sea level lungs continues to be a challenge. However, we are fortunate to have another stunning sun day and the snowy passes of a few days ago are forgotten except in stories with our fellow hikers.
Tonight we stay at the Refugio Bonatti, reputed to be the best refugio on the TMB. Assigned to our dormitory bunk, in a long connecting line, we flop for a few well deserved minutes then head for the showers.
All the toilets and showers are unisex, a situation about which no one seems concerned, rather the interest is in,”is the water hot?” asks the dusty American, “where do I put the coin?”, asks the naked Japanese man, “can I get another coin?”, asks the British woman who was lost for a day. And so it goes.
This refugio is named after Walter Bonatti, a famous Italian alpinista who summited Mont Blanc in the 1940’s and 50’s. In his later years he traveled the world…Patagonia, Atacama, Himalayas, Alaska, Bolivia, a traveler extrordinaire; our hero, except for the climbing up rock faces part.
Kathleen Douglas, hugging a rock…
Tomorrow, our last day in Italy, we hike up and over the Grand Col Ferret, elevation 8,500’, into Switzerland, a Julie Andrew’s moment.
15 km (9.3 miles), Total ascent 570 meters(1881 feet), total descent 1315 meters (4340 feet)
Dawn revealed a clear sky, cool with frost on the ground, and we departed the Refuge after morning coffee and toast, the usual offering. This day was going to be great, with views of the Alps continuously on our left as the TMB continues rounding Mont Blanc.
Our luxurious 4 bunk room that we shared with a British fireman and Chinese tour guide.
Kathleen with Mont Blanc
After a nice climb up 400 meters, we ambled for hours above the Val Veny, gawking at Mont Blanc and his brethren peaks and glaciers in all their glory. Ready with our picnic provisions, we enjoyed a long lazy lunch, opining on great ideas and wonderful memories.
“What a place!”
Lunch on the rocks.
Surprisingly, no guided tour groups encountered us, and only a few other trekkers chatted about many having taken the “bus option” to avoid the doomsday descent into Dolonne. What? We would soon understand their logic.
Seems that the off season ski lift downloads that usually relieve trekkers of the last steep descent into Courmayeur stopped running last week. Uh oh. So onwards we go, like lemmings to the edge , wondering “how bad could it be anyway?” Then we peer over to Dolonne and Courmayeur 1000 meters below the quiet ski lift and begin the myriad switchbacks.
Yes, we have no downloads today.
Relentless descent, but still smiling, Kathleen is amazing!
After descending on a negative gradient of 35%, two hours later, only a little bloody (me) “man down!”and very dusty, we stumble into this delightful tourist town for two nights of R&R.
Streets of Dolonne
Having made it 53 miles, halfway around Mont Blanc on the TMB, I must say that the tunnel conveniently located here in Courmayeur beckons us as a shortcut back to the start at Chamonix. Do we too now consider the “bus option?”
Departing Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, after a “restful” night’s sleep with 30 other snoring hikers followed by a breakfast of porridge and bread, we head out for our day.
The hike is unremarkable on an adventure level, although at one point we hear hunters firing guns at …. wildlife? So far, the only living things we have seen is one squirrel, some evening sparrows and a squashed frog. I think the Europeans dispatched their mega fauna some time ago.
The evening refugio, des Mottets, works out well. The refuge lost our reservation, a disaster when the next refugio is another 13 km over the pass into Italy, but fortunately they upgrade us from a dormitory bed to a private room with shower…score! Hot water, no snoring strangers, electricity! Dinner is fun sitting at a long table, eating beef bourguignon (again), meeting people from all over the world…Houston, Phoenix, Pennsylvania!
In the morning, we are assigned our same table as dinner, so it is like breakfast with old friends. Everyone wishes au revoir and it is off to another day of hiking.
Last to leave…as usual.
This day’s ascent is challenging, and yes, a bit of an adventure. We start after pretty much everyone since our next refugio is only 14 km (8.6 miles), although up 2,349’ then down 2,049’. Stepping out, sleet is falling and looking up we see snow on the mountains. Good thing I brought my wooly hat!
We climb up the steep, rocky path, the snow falls harder, the path becomes more obscured. I count off 75 steps then stop for breaths, lots of breaths. Then 75 steps again, breathe, then 75 steps again. Slowly, we make our way up the mountain to the border between France and Italy, the Col de la Signe, elevation 8,302′. Our rusty memory thinks perhaps Hannibal and his elephants were turned back at these alpine passes… but maybe that was the Pyrenees? No cellular to check our history! ￼
The inauspicious border between France and Italy.
No good pictures at the top of the col, the pass into Italy, the views are supposed to be magnificent; but for us, a virtual whiteout with whipping wind, so we start our descent after puzzling where exactly the trail has gone. Occasionally, hikers appear out of the snow exchanging a bonjour, a hello, a ciao. As we descend, the Italian weather grants us a reprieve and glaciers and the sharp ridges, aiguille, rise out of the snow clouds. As we roll into our next refugio, Caban du Cabal, we look forward to our first Italian dinner and some glasses of vino bianco and the promise of better weather tomorrow.
It all started as a wonderful walk in the park along a tumbling stream. Then a 2000 year old Roman road began climbing alongside the waterfalls and we were amazed at the rock formations carved by the eons of time. All very beautiful and easy walking side by side with Kathleen, our 7 kilogram packs feeling quite manageable. We even indulged in a stop for cafe au lait around 11.
The Romans were here!
Civilized alpine refreshments along the TMB
Then it all turned into Sam and Frodo scrambling up to Mordor.
Up, up, up we go!
As we climbed above the tree line, the clouds came down around us and a cold sleet began. Groping cairn to cairn in the fog, tromping across permanent snow patches, we took shelter in, well, a shelter with a jovial Frenchman who might have been older than me, and seemed unfazed by it all.
The warming hut at Col du Bonhomme
Slightly refreshed we crossed the Col du Bonhomme (2329 m), and lost the trail in the angled ribs of rock. At one point we were crawling on all fours yelling to one another “try clambering up this crevasse!”
Subtle stripes and rock cairn made way finding a bit tricky
And then a familiar red and white trail blaze on a rock would appear. Finally in the mist a shadowy building and we were there, the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, filled with 105 chatty trekkers all comparing their stories of the day.
Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme
Beer therapy before darkness in the Refuge.
Built as an isolated refuge for the TMB, it had only solar power, which in the clouds that day was ineffective, so no power or hot water. But regardless a wonderful meal of beef Bourguignon with polenta by candlelight appeared from a kitchen staffed by enthusiastic young people with headlights. Bedtime in the dormitory (30 bunks!) was early, and when we awoke it was snowing. Now for the descent. Yikes.
The contrast between the small Norwegian town of Petersburg , Alaska and Chamonix, France…well, it is not as great as you might imagine. We have landed in the French alps and glaciers hang high in the valleys, a lot like Alaska, although the Alaskan glaciers are sea level tidal.
After becoming enamored with through hiking on the 500 mile Camino de Santiago, John and I are starting the Tour du Mont Blanc, or as the French millennials call it, the TMB. The TMB is a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 15,771 feet, part of a mountain range with more than 40 glaciers and 400 summits. The trail around Mont Blanc is 105 miles; the average hiker completes the trail in 10 to 14 days, although a recent trail runner finished in a remarkable 20 hours!
John and I plan a leisure course, given the elevation gain and loss of 32,800 feet, we will need to take it slow!
Tonight, we are drinking wine and eating amazing cheese in a French chalet after our first day. We clocked 13 km (~8 miles) today, that did not include a ride up part of the mountain by tram…have to save our knees for later!
Tonight is a private room in a chalet, tomorrow is our first refugio on a high
mountain pass. They say only cold showers if the sun is not out to heat the solar panels…let’s hope for sun!
And so, the Inside Passage to Alaska is complete, and Laysan rests quietly in Petersburg waiting for next year. Our trip was very successful, covering almost 2000 miles in 4 months, with no significant delays or issues after the usual kinks in the beginning.
1896 miles total for Inside Passage and cruising Alaska
3-1/2 months or 105 days aboard Laysan
23 nights at marinas enroute, 11 nights setting up in Olympia, 7 nights shutting down in Petersburg
74 nights at anchor, or 70%
307 engine hours
45 genset hours
368 Webasto diesel heater hours
800 gallons total diesel fuel used
(566 gallons were for main engine)
That calculates out to <2 gph, >3 mpg, and >6mph, pretty good for four months of cruising almost two thousand miles.
Our new marina, South Harbor, Petersburg Alaska
We love Alaska and really look forward to starting up again next spring. The locals in Petersburg tell us to try cruising in January with freezing freshwater ice sheets in the bays, but we may need some nice warm Hawaii time through the winter.
Petersburg is a great little town with 3000 people and 1400 registered boats, a real Norwegian fisherman’s heritage place. Many of the boats are crewed by multiple generations and everyone seems to know one another. When the salmon are running, the action is nonstop at the cannery and all are happy in town. It should be a good place to stay for awhile.
Sons of Norway hall has bingo on Friday.
Laysan is ready for the long nights of winter.
Now the scenery changes for us as we board a series of planes and cross another ocean and multiple time zones. More news on that front is forthcoming, so stay tuned. All the best,
Some say that the symmetry in totems originated from the reflections along the shoreline.
The wildlife in Alaska is amazing, the mega fauna appear to be doing just fine in the far reaches of the north. Grizzly bears on the beach are the norm, we can watch them with binoculars from almost every anchorage. Cruising days are almost guaranteed to pass by humpback whales taking slow dives for feeding. Pacific white sided dolphins surf our bow wave and the shy harbor dolphins quietly swim past hoping we don’t see them. Rafts of otters float by, and anything that looks like a stick in the water is usually a sea otter on its back watching the boat. The bald headed eagles are constant entertainment, each pair usually has at least one clumsy, ugly adolescent in tow who seems embarrassed to be hanging out with the folks.
The salmon are here in abundance but so far elusive; totally unresponsive to any fishing equipment we put in the water; next year’s project is to figure out how to catch one. Bottom feeding fish are easier prey and make excellent bait for those extremely catchable crustaceans…crab! Large dungeness crab, not near as wily as those salmon, provide an almost daily supply for our hot crab dip, crunchy crab cakes, spicy crab curry…the options limited only by our culinary imagination. Prawns are also here, lurking in the depths; not as fun to catch since our prawn pulling equipment is powered by hand, ie. John pulling up 400+ feet of heavy line and trap off the back of the boat.
Rounding out the wildlife show are the noisy ravens, rowdy flocks of gulls, somewhat rare puffins, curious swallows, immensely large, noisy stellar sea lions, prickly porcupines, serene sea blubber jellyfish, and pokeable sea anemones. We appreciate and understand our fortunate life.
Addendum: On the last night, of our last anchorage, on my 64th birthday, we caught our first salmon, a pink! Not the king of salmon, but delicious and exciting…we can get better at this! Oh, yes!
Texans and Hawaiians trying to figure out, how close is too close to photograph a grizzly?
A grizzly cruising the shoreline of our anchorage.
John wears a size 12 boot…so does this grizzly!
Play this video with the sound on, the breathing is the best part!
A porcupine outside of a Tlingit tribal house.
Terns on bergie bits outside of Margerie Glacier.
A curious flock of swallows kept flying into the pilot house.
A blubber jellyfish, best seen from afar.
The Pacific white sided dolphins seemed to enjoy racing the boat.
Pulling up 400+ feet of lead line and trap is hard work, in hopes of payoff…
The crabs polished off this particular bait selection.
A bucket of deliciousness!
Crabbing is my favorite form of fishing; they are not selective, they like my various bait selections, and they taste fantastic!
The Tlingit tribes had occupied a verdant valley here for centuries, possibly even thousands of years since the migrations across the Bering land bridge from Eurasia. Then in the mid 1700’s, the giant Grand Pacific Glacier began moving down on them, “at the speed of a running dog”, as their oral history recounted. Within a few years this grinding, crunching, groaning giant snout of an ice bulldozer carved out their valley with a sheet of ice thousands of feet deep, forcing them to relocate to Hoonah.
Without any written records, the only clue to corroborate their experience was a description of a “year with two winters”. Interestingly, dendrochronology showed tree rings with no growth dated to 1754, and this was also the year of two major volcanic eruptions in Philippines and Iceland. The Tlingit were climate change refugees inside of one generation.
When the familiar Captain Vancouver arrived in 1794, he described a small bay choked with ice, backed by a glacier whose ice extended as “far as the eye could see”, probably a hundred miles. Only a century later, John Muir arrived in the 1880’s to document the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world, “a mile per year”, and to romanticize the fearsome beauty of nature at work. Now the bay extends 65 miles northward between towering peaks, and is the Glacier Bay National Park, a sublime place.
Luckily, we have been cruising around this awesomeness for almost two weeks, and still have seen only half of the inlets and glaciers. This is as far North as ever for Laysan, 59 degrees N, especially high latitudes for Hawaiians. But the weather has been great, seeming more like two summers this year, and Laysan has performed admirably. Now is the time to turn around, so we will head to Petersburg, Alaska to put Laysan away in her new slip for the winter.
Hope all is well with everyone, and thanks for reading along with us.
Margerie Glacier with bergs on the beach
Kathleen is ready to fend off the bergs from Dingers the icebreaker
Laysan motoring up to Reid Glacier, taken by Christian Lloyd our cruising friend from the Pacific that showed up here with his brother and friend in a canoe.
Lamplugh Glacier is grounded, but is calving constantly into a lake of melting icebergs.
In 1792 on the voyage of HMS Discovery, Captain George Vancouver spied the Coastal Tribes in their canoes, and was fascinated by their seemingly aimless navigation style. Aimless, at least in the eyes of a rigid (and successful) Western navigator and cartographer whose linear and purposeful style was absolutely mystified by the meanderings of the magnificent cedar canoes. Even a century later, after the inevitable occupation was complete, the Western passengers on hired canoes told stories of interminable journeys punctuated by frequent stops where stories were told by the elders about the waters, the rocks, the fish, etc., and the youth would listen attentively until the story was finished and then paddle again furiously. This was “in situ” education in a culture without a written language. And no doubt, the valuable lessons learned were the result of centuries of experience and oral histories.
And so, we too have been meandering the infinite coastline of Southeast Alaska, trying to learn as we go, with the benefit of charts, guide books, GPS, radar, cruising friends, and most importantly, each other: “Watch out for that rock!” Laysan is warm and comfortable as the temperatures drop into the 40’s at night, and now we see the occasional iceberg in the channels, portending of the glaciers calving constantly.
As Vancouver inched his way North, investigating every inlet, ever hopeful for a sign of the Northwest Passage, he always kept the mainland on his starboard quarters, although most geographers even then already thought that possibility was remote. Arriving in Juneau today, we also have kept the mainland to starboard until now, and will push a bit further north before beginning our turn. All good on Laysan.
Chart for the entrance to Tracy Arm
Kathleen navigating up Tracy Arm
North Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm
Dense blue iceberg from the base of the glacier
Dingers the Sea Pony getting us up close to the icebergs.
The other day I met a man who said he had been here 10000 years, and I answered that I was just passing through. So are we all, his friend added.
The Totems appear regularly in our travels up here. Sometimes seen at abandoned villages with thousand year old shell middens, and sometimes at long house museums, they are a graceful reminder of the People, first and still here. The totems were never worshiped, as the missionaries claimed, but were instead artful statues to commemorate families, respected individuals, and occasionally to ridicule a dishonorable cur. Perhaps we will get to erect one of those in DC someday…
After cruising 6 weeks and 900 miles from Olympia, Laysan arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska in fine condition, good weather, and with a happy crew. After many nights alone at anchor, the busy harbor with four cruise ships, myriad sport fishers, and a swarm of seaplanes, gave us sensory overload as we took a slip at Bar Harbor South.
Number one is getting ready for docking next to the cruise ships.
Captain raises the Alaska flag.
Ketchikan refers to itself as the “First City” of Alaska because of it being the usual port of entry for northbound travelers over the last hundred years. Population 13,000 is more than doubled on a summer day with cruise ships that disgorge up to 4000 passengers each onto the docks and into the tiny streets. A million visitors in a hundred days. The locals are still quite honestly friendly, although there certainly is some tourism fatigue. While saying “more is better”, they prepare to build their 5th cruise ship dock. Based on my experience in Hawaii, that’s not necessarily a good thing, and I think the 10000 year old man would agree.
Ketchikan has some great boardwalks and hikes behind town.
Nothing says Alaskan July 4th like a lumberjack competition.
Situated in a rainforest with 150” rain per year, the intensity of the SE Alaska green forests is amazing. Steven and Carolyn flew in and joined us for a very nice week cruising around Revillagigedo Island, exploring the Misty Fiords National Monument. Spurred by a local grass roots campaign of environmental lumberjacks to save virgin forests and amazing scenery, this park was created in 1980 by President Carter. The glacier carved cirques and sheer granite cliffs hung over our quiet anchorages where the bears out numbered the boats. Because the water was almost as deep as the mountains were high in the fiords, anchoring would have been difficult, but we luckily tied up to the forest service mooring balls and had peaceful nights and pleasant day hikes.
Old boardwalk ascending from Punchbowl Cove.
Grizzlies met us at the shore, after our hike.
Laysan resting in Punchbowl Cove.
And did I mention the crabs? At Fitzgibbon Cove, Kathleen pulled up nine in one pot! The feast lasted for days. But, alas, no prawns or salmon are finding their way aboard except from the market. I think we need to slow down and fish more than 30 minutes.
Kathleen is a happy fisherman.
Laysan and crew enjoying the calm weather and beautiful scenery of Alaska.
Alaska really is big, and I’m from Texas, so that means a lot. Onward, the further north we go, the more I think we will stay. All the best.
Our first stop after rounding Cape Caution is a lovely anchorage at Pruth Bay. One of the best parts about the stop is the availability of several hiking trails developed by the BC Parks. Supposedly, Calvert Island does not have salmon streams, therefore the risk of running into a bear is less, another positive for the hiking experience.
John and I dinghied to shore and started walking through thick coastal, second growth rain forest to West Beach, a huge sand beach rivaling anything in Hawaii…except of course the temperature of the water. Continuing on, we followed the path for several miles to 1st beach, 2nd beach, and 3rd beach, never seeing another soul.
As we dropped down the ledge onto 4th beach, huge flapping wings startled us as 2 or 3 birds flew up off the sand…then 3 more large birds flew past us towards the trees…eagles! Lots and lots of bald headed eagles! We stopped moving and sat on a washed up log watching as more eagles flew up to the trees where they perched liked vultures. Knowing a cool opportunity when we saw one, we also perched on our log and munched our lunch counting…counting over 30 eagles! The group did not seem too fussed by our presence so when we finished our lunch, we opted for a closer look.
Walking onto the exposed sand of the low tide, the first thing we spied were large animal tracks heading to the dark, grove of trees on the right; we did not follow them. Cautiously, working our way down the beach, we started seeing more and more tracks in the wet sand, running in various directions; then more and more tracks…hundreds of tracks surrounding large dug out holes. Peering closer, nudging with our feet, we discovered sand covered meat at the bottom of each pit! A crime scene, but who were the culprits besides the eagles?
Hundreds of tracks surrounding the victim.
Just below the tide line, we saw a double-man size, unidentifiable mound. Edging closer, we could tell from the smell that here lie the victim on the beach…but what was it?
Looking up toward the foreboding wall of trees filled with eagles, we finally had the thought…maybe we shouldn’t be here? Hastily gathering our photographic evidence, hearts beating rapidly, we hurried from the gruesome scene. Hiking back to the security of Laysan, we pondered the remarkable discovery and hypothesized on its meaning. Can you solve the mystery?
Before the fun started, there was the haulout in April 2019. A necessary maintenance ritual for Laysan every few years is to arrange a TraveLift capable of lifting Laysan’s dainty 35 tons, and standing her in a yard for inspection, repairs, and a new coat of bottom paint. As expected, there were some unexpected items.
First on the list of tests is a tug on the propeller for lateral play in the shaft log. More than a 1/8” movement reveals wear on the cutless bearing, and this justifies a shaft inspection, which requires rudder and prop removal. No small task this, removing a 2” diameter 8 foot long stainless drive shaft, but Hans at Osprey Boatworks did it nicely. Despite stainless steel’s impervious reputation, if it becomes starved of oxygen, e.g under an o-ring, then pit corrosion develops. So now we have a shiny new AQ 22 shaft, and the old one can be someone’s most expensive tether ball pole ever.
(Haulout: 10 $BU (Boat Units))
Next came a new set of batteries. Absorbed glass mat AGM batteries can be rotated in any position, require no maintenance, and are generally resilient for a thousand discharges to 75% before failing to hold a charge. This represents about a thousand nights at anchor on Laysan, which after our nine years of part time cruising is actually about right. (Pretty good ,eh?). Sometimes the metrics of life become visible. These four 8D batteries weigh about 150 pounds apiece, and have to be lugged from the dock down into the engine room, and back out again with the old ones. Austin and his brother from Rognlin Marine did the lifting, and even they wished for a crane. We are looking forward to another thousand nights at anchor.
Thank you, batteries!
Laysan splashed back into the water with a new coat of bottom paint and was looking almost ready to cruise. Until the GPS rollover problem. In April, all the GPS satellites reset their clocks because they had run out of weeks in their 4 bit counters. Evidently when the GPS satellites were launched in the 90’s, their computer technology used counters that ran out of combinations after 1023 weeks, or about 20 years, and they all had to reset in April 2019. “Good luck GPS receivers down on earth”, which was about all the technology manufacturers would say about their products surviving the rollover. Well, two of the four GPS devices on Laysan were “confused”, i.e. one thought it was 2099, one thought it was 1963. Unfortunately the tides and currents in 1963 are of only marginal interest in this part of the world where tides range 20’ and currents run up to 10 knots. Fortunately, genius software people solve these kinds of problems with firmware updates that can be delivered magically through the tubes of the internet directly into the devices on Laysan. It just took a week.
(Firmware update: 0 $BU)
Laysan needs her compass, and we have many: a fluxgate and a solid state gyro, which read in degrees Magnetic, which is not so stable for the autopilot. The liquid compass is notoriously difficult to compensate on a steel boat. But the best one is a double GPS unit that reads in degrees True, and it failed from water intrusion into the case and cable. Come on, it’s a boat! When we rented a car and drove to Vancouver factory with the unit to try for a repair, they also said “It’s too old!” Oh well, now we have a nice new GPS Comnav G1 antenna and all the headings are in degrees True again. Thanks to Jerry and Ryan of San Juan Electronics for helping to drag 90’ of cable through all the tiny spaces enroute to the pilot house.
(Antenna: 2 $BU)
Now if only my liquid compass would read something other than 190 M, which coincidentally is the heading home to Hawaii. Maybe Laysan is trying to tell us something. However, I say: “Not yet, Laysan, not yet.”
Question: “How many captains does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “One, but he has to climb the mast twice.”
Halfway up, and both the mast and the captain are panting.
Our anchor light is at the top of the 45’ mast, which has nice ladder steps, but it always seems like a long way down to the deck. And I have learned that tools and parts dropped from that height invariably do not pass the “will it float?” game. Kathleen dutifully tailed the halyard winch on my harness as I wove my way through the rigging to the top, and failing to fix it, (a broken ground wire), I came down and went up again with a new one a few days later. Thanks Amazon for sending an exact replacement LED fixture to a marina of my choosing.
So that’s the tech review of how we got here, and it is all settling down nicely. Laysan is running well at 7 knots on her new smooth bottom, and we are seriously heading north, despite what the liquid compass says. Six hundred miles along the Inside Passage to Alaska are behind us now from Olympia, and four hundred are ahead. We should be there by July. Thanks for reading along with us. All the best.
Four weeks into our cruise and we have rounded Cape Caution, British Columbia; a new milestone and the halfway point to Alaska. Even though Laysan has crossed oceans, the warnings about Cape Caution gave us pause. This is the section of the passage north without protection from Vancouver Island and 40 miles of full exposure to the Pacific Ocean swells. Various go- no go lists identified a confluence of factors including tides (flood is preferred), moon phase (pick neap, not spring), wind (less than 15 knots), waves (West Sea Otter Buoy less than 1 meter), Slingsby Channel (slack water, don’t pass on an ebb), and lighthouse reports from Egg Island (wind and wave conditions).
We spent a prepatory day at Port McNeill, a funny old town, light on tourists and heavy on character. Using WiFi (we’re not going to see that again for awhile), we confirmed that most factors, not all, seemed favorable, and opted to move up to Allison Harbour for our 0600 am departure the next morning. Allison is a remote, gorgeous anchorage that we shared with three other long distance cruising boats, also waiting to round the Cape. We set out our paravanes, not used since the Pacific crossing in 2015 with Sarah and Naomi, and lashed down the dinghy, bimini, fenders, crab traps, chairs, and stowed the outside shoes. To celebrate our pre-departure, we “rugged up” as the Aussies say, and ventured outside in the 50 degree evening with pupus and wine. Harbour seals popped up their bowling ball heads to watch us and loons sounded their eerie cries, and the half moon rose over the trees, auspicious signs for tomorrow.
In the morning, two buddy boats departed in tandem, beating us out with a cool 0500 departure. When the third boat departed, my “it’s not a race” mentality went out the window and we pulled up the anchor at 0545. As soon as we cleared the channel opening, we could feel the ocean swells, easily meeting their predicted 3 feet. Laysan made a very respectable 7.3 knots for most of the five hour crossing. When we turned to head toward the refuge of Fitz Hugh Sound, the waves on the side brought back memories of other ocean crossings that lasted not hours but weeks. Inside the Sound, the wind and waves subsided and we were immediately rewarded with a sea otter, calmly drifting by on his back inspecting our progress. In the distance, two humpback whales slapped their huge pectoral fins, sending up sprays of water. This was going to be fun!