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Inside Passage Narrative

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Inside Passage Narrative

Postby Once and Future » Thu Dec 20, 2012 3:26 pm

This is a narrative of an inside passage trip that took place on my newly purchased used boat in 2009.

In 1979 or so, I had been a 19 year old deckhand on a power troller out of Sitka for one season. Though I had a strong attraction to trolling, I had guilty responsibility feelings that I should be back in the lower 48. My dad had already passed on, and I felt I should be helping my widowed mother on the farm. So I report back there for duty. Thirty years go by as I stay distracted with life. By 2009 my kids were pretty well raised, and I had grown weary of the commitments I had been fulfilling on the farm for 30 years. I followed through on a long standing threat to buy my own boat, and begin transitioning to Alaska.

Serendipitously, my oldest daughter Allison was just graduating from college that May. She would thus be available to accompany me on the voyage from Vancouver Island to Wrangell. I made a Canadian friend, Don, over the winter who had a sister boat to mine. He had been getting me familiarized with my new boat, as the previous owner was unavailable due to serious illness. (In fact, in one of those cosmic karma things, the previous owner died just a couple days before we would spirit his boat away from its Canadian home.) Don had agreed to travel with us to the north tip of Vancouver island, where he would hop off to catch a bus back to Nanaimo.

Primarily, I wanted Don to guide us through Seymour Narrows. Allison had graduated with an engineering degree. After learning from Don and on-board references about the narrows, the demise of Ripple Rock, and the properly orchestrated timing to find favorable currents during daylight hours for successful passage, she declared to me in an earnest, hushed tone: “I like this VERY much.”

I was pleased her engineering mind could appreciate the intricacies those without college degrees had been mastering for centuries.

Also, while many young women (or men) would find traveling 600 or 700 miles in 100 hours boring, Allison is loathe to take a nap because she “doesn’t want to miss anything”.

Now, realize we did cast off from French Creek Marina in Parksville on a certain day, with Don as our guide. Seymour narrows did get our attention, but we survived the snarly whirlpools and the excitement. In a couple days we arrived in Port Hardy, where Don would leave us. At this point, the adventure of Allison and I alone begins.

We had a bit of a shaky departure from Port Hardy after Don left us. Should have kicked Don out of his bunk and onto the dock at 4:30 like he advised the night before, but that seemed too mean. So we waited til 6 or so. I backed out of the stall stupidly (boat still new to me) and then I didn’t study the chart closely enough as I motored out of the harbor, so I wasn’t in the main channel. But we didn’t strike anything that we know of. Further, we missed an opportunity to put the poles down before the crossing of Queen Charlotte Strait while the water was flat. (I didn’t want to waste time while the going was good. Dummy.)

An couple hours later, we approached the island that you round to enter the strait. Now I could see we would want the poles down, as stabilizers would be in order. The breeze was up a bit and I tried to hide behind the island while we worked, but all those doggone taglines and stays and whatnot kept getting tangled. (How did those goofy Canadians manage these HEAVY main poles with those horizontal “pogo sticks” jutting forward and eight stays per pole instead of aluminum pipe braces?) And we’d get them mostly lowered, and then see some part of the rigging with waaay too much stain on it, and have to heave them up again to sort it out. So that was a fight. And I started getting nervous because I noticed waves washing over rocks closer than I expected. When I couldn’t stand it any more, I would dash down from the pilot house roof and steer us away from the rocks a ways.

One of these times, I heard Allison start stamping on the roof. Knowing this must mean some kind of emergency, I charged back out to see “What?!” She yelled “Hurry!” I answered in modulated tones that: “YES. I KNOW I AM TO HURRY. BUT YOUR STAMPING ON THE ROOF HAS THE OPPOSITE EFFECT WHEN I HAVE TO COME OUT TO SEE WHAT YOU WANT.”

Finally the poles were down OK, and we rounded the island for open water with the stabilizers in. The only other positive from that episode was that we had seen our first humpbacks from our own boat in the midst of the struggle.

Things didn’t go too bad for the first half hour of the Queen Charlotte Strait crossing, so I was regretting the loss of speed from pitching the stabilizers in. Finally couldn’t stand it any more and hauled them back out. Now the boys in Wrangell remind me you can’t be underway when you pull the stabilizers. But I didn’t remember that. And I sure as hell couldn’t stop in the strait to do that, so we horsed them in underway at an idle. And I mean horsed. It took about all the muscles I had to do that. The only way we could get it was by Allison taking up the slack by wrapping a loop of chain around her waist and twisting. So I had to be sure not to drop - no, no, I’m just kidding. But it still wasn’t safe.

Of course we motored that way for 45 minutes and decided the stabilizers had to go back in once we started getting beam seas that were knocking junk off the walls. Had to slow down to 4-1/2 knots to make things reasonable even then – and hoped it didn’t pick up any because we had all we wanted. Plus stabilizers on this setup hung back a lot further than I expected. I think they attach further up the poles than I was used to, to clear the tag lines coming off the pogo sticks when in use.

Wind blew the stove out and smoked up the cabin, so we just shut it off. (At the time I incorrectly diagnosed carb troubles due to the rolling. So one night I tore it apart and put it back together. Later, I would install a new carb before learning what the real problem was.)

As it would turn out, this crossing was the biggest ordeal of the trip. I did my best to hurry us along by keeping Nobletech scrolled right up to the stern of the boat. It was evening before we got back into some semblance of protected waters. What is it – Safety Cove? I had been promising myself the first safe harbor, but Allison isn’t as scared as she should be and wants to go further. (I wouldn’t let her take a nap in the bunk while it was rough but she had dozed sitting up in the co-pilot’s chair for a while.)

Charlie’s Charts book paid for itself this day. It stated Safety Cove was a windy anchorage and there was one much cozier a few miles across the channel. So we motored over there and it ended up being the highlight of the trip after the trial of crossing QCS. Took Charlie’s advice and brought the boat through an awfully narrow passage. Not sure if Don would have let us go if he had been along. But were rewarded with a beautiful cozy green anchorage all to ourselves. And the funny thing is there is an older version of Charlie’s book at the cabin and it doesn’t include directions to this anchorage. All these hint books talk about where smaller and larger boats can or can’t go, but they never define what their sizes mean. Only concern as we went to sleep was whether falling tide would set us on bottom.

It didn’t and we head out at dawn. Flat water now. Dodged a ferry rounding a point headed for Bella Bella thanks to announcements on the marine traffic channel. Wanted to get some fuel at BB just to be sure, but not available on weekend. Allison saved my neck leaving BB because ferry snuck up while I was negotiating narrows. Don’t know how we missed that one on the traffic channel. Stared a long time at the confusing markers north of BB that Don warned us about, Allison finally pulled up the better chart once we had it made. First porpoises joined us after that and Allison was a bit shocked when I sent her out with the camera because she didn’t realize they’d be RIGHT there.

Maybe it was the porpoises giving me a false sense of security – this is where I almost made a huge mistake. The swell from the ocean near Milbanke Sound was sooo big and slow that I was soooo tempted to head for open water to save a little time. Quite concerned as we left at least a day too late and I was afraid we weren’t going to make it to Wrangell in time for Allison’s flight. But I wasn’t real confident I was using stabilizers correctly. So I reluctantly followed Don’s advice and headed for Grenville Channel past Klemtu. Felt a little chicken the whole time I was turning my back on the ocean route, though.

Took on some fuel in Klemtu. Asked a native woman how far we would have to walk to the store, and she answered “the whole way”. Used a pay phone to call home since no cell service for a while. Wife reports she wasn’t worried anyway. (Ignorance = bliss. She doesn’t comprehend the magnitude of a husband who promoted himself from a deckhand with a few months of experience thirty years ago to captain of an unfamiliar vessel, simultaneously risking the life of her oldest daughter making open ocean crossings.) Forgot to tell Jean to send Don an email with an update. As opposed to Jean, Don fully comprehends risks of us at sea.

As I untie from dock at Klemtu, I’m not getting help from my deckhand, even though I have previously explained landing and casting off are team efforts. Where is she? I find her in the cabin reading a book. What the hell? No adequate explanation is offered and I steam off shaking my head.

Spent a good night in Cougar Bay even though the guide books didn’t hardly mention it and it was about 3 hours before we wanted to stop – but couldn’t find a better choice. Charlies’ book too confusing in this area. Stared at that damn thing over an hour while underway in a narrow channel and Allison crabbing at me because I wouldn’t let her zoom Nobletech out while I was using it.

So the next day was spent mostly in Grenville Channel, I recall. Grenville channel is just – FUN. Lots of waterfalls, close shores, no close calls. One of my favorite sights was the building ruins I don’t recall the name of. Man on beach of island there doing something. Allison had binocs on him - says he waved and asked me if that was some type of signal. (She has been reading her marine reference cards.) I say yes. That particular signal indicates “Hello”. I grant her permission to signal back. She does. Guy on beach wonders if morons on boat are in some kind of time warp that is delaying these vital communications.

As we near the north end of Grenville Channel, we are surprised by the sound of my cell phone ringing. I had forgotten it was on. Lucky we got the call, because it was Don calling for about the third time. Could tell by the relief in his voice that he was waaay more concerned than wifey. He had been very uneasy as it seemed to him the wind was picking up ominously while he awaited the bus at Port Hardy. He would have liked the chance to advise us to wait for a better day to cross the strait. And he doesn’t even like me that much. Maybe he was worried about Allison.

That night we stop, again too early, to be sure of anchorage. Don’t remember name of bay but just at end of Grenville Channel. But it means Prince Rupert on schedule for morning, then Dixon Entrance. Tiny icebergs of snow float past us in another shallow anchorage, where the tide might abandon us if I miscalculated.

This has been another 16 hour day for me as I don’t feel safe to nap with the Queen of Daydreams at the wheel. Craving an apple. Go to get one and find only 2 apples left out of 20 we started with and I don’t remember Don eating more than 2. Call out shipmate for possible apple filching. Shipmate hangs head.

I have sunk my weary bones into the settee and decide to have cold cereal for supper as apples are now a dear commodity. Loving daughter is doing dishes and I ask her if she can step on the back deck to get me the milk since I don’t want to squeeze past her hind end. Plus I am tired and still pissed over the apples. She bucks. This is beneath her dignity. She is doing dishes and shouldn’t be interrupted. She gets roared at. She steps out to get milk, but of course, I am not going to drink any damn milk now and order her to return it to the cooler. She indicates that’s silly but does it anyway. I choke down my cereal dry to prove my point. Which, uh, doesn’t seem to make sense now. But obviously it was the right thing to do at the time.

After the Queen of Apples bunks down I spend a full hour bending my tired mind to the task of deciphering how far we have to go – and it suddenly seems we will get in early.

I cry myself to sleep craving apple. Teeth feel a little loose.

Dawn again after another night alone in the anchorage. Charging past Rupert, decide to cut across bay out of main shipping channel in bid to hit Dixon Entrance in early part of day. Just after we pass last picturesque lighthouse near Dundas Island, I see what appears to be a huge mechanical insect in the sky. As I refocus, I realize it is a full size airplane buzzing us so close we instinctively duck and wait for the sound of it hitting our poles. We see it says “Canada” on the side, and deduce it is recording our border crossing, while also sending an intimidating message.

Not being too bright, I decide to cross Dixon with poles up to save time. What do you know, it works out.

Guide books say once in Alaska waters call Customs from Foggy Bay for instructions. Have to put medium seas quartering on stern to enter that bay, and boat does not respond well. (Don’t like this at all, as unfamiliar boat is behaving inexplicably. Have I taken on water?) As I head up into bay considering anchoring, a motorized inflatable labeled “State Trooper Enforcement” overtakes us. Craft approaches us with crewmen in bullet-proof vests climbing forward to their bow. One has big video camera. I send Allison out to see if they are going to toss a line. She is wearing her red and black plaid shirt, my oversize clip-on shades on her small eyeglasses, a scarf on her head, and on top of the scarf, one of my ball caps. Trooper asks me twice if I have been sport fishing. I answer twice that no, we just did come from Canada. He looks towards our stern and sees Allison. He acts apologetic and they leave. I think he didn’t want to upset my apparently retarded daughter by shaking us down any further.

Never did figure out why boat had kind of wallowed. But putting poles down seem to cure it.

That night we go for the gusto and strive to reach Ketchikan harbor before dark so we can check in with customs and be on our way in morning. Just make it. Find a berth in the harbor which I’ve been worrying about for 3 hours. Very picturesque dock in the late evening. Tiny buildings on the boardwalk dedicated to fishing fleet
service. Customs guy comes down to find us at 22:00 and we have our 3rd government contact for the day. He lets us back into America.

Next morning we untie bright and early, then get stalled at the harbor entrance because the Coast Guard announces it is escorting a cruise ship past us in Tongass Narrows. Before that passes, another cruise ship is announced. We sneak out behind the first and indeed see two Coast Guard inflatables with tripod-mounted machine guns escorting it. Once that one is docked, CG buzzes past us to bring the next one in. We can’t time our escape right and have to find a hole to hide in while they go by.

After Meyers Chuck, we didn’t see another boat for about 4 hours of beautiful scenic country with some decent fishing spots (I find out later.) This day we will arrive in Wrangell about 6pm, to a harbor stall with our name on it. I back into the stall beautifully the first time. I have not made as good a landing in the three years since.

At the harbor, I take the unusual step (for me) of seeking out a stranger to take a picture of me and Allison in front of the harbor and the boat. And she asks us the name of our boat and I tell her. And she asks our names and I tell her. And she takes our picture with the boat. And then I read her cap which says “Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game”. I am an idiot.

Footnote: Ever since Allison was about four, she resisted hugs. I am sadly familiar with this trait as it seems to be a dominant gene from my mother’s side of the family. So I never push it. But here I thought: we just had this big adventure, we succeeded, there is a wave of relief washing over me, and I think we should look like we know each other in this documenting picture. So I put my arm around her and she puts hers around me and the picture records us looking as awkward as if we were Indian wrestling. Maybe I’ll post it sometime. At least we didn’t get a fine.

For days after this, when I wake up at night to use the facilities, I can’t tell if I am still on the boat or on land, even when I look outside. (Boat could have run aground, you know.) But I always manage to find a porcelain bowl about knee high regardless. Loss of sleep and stress took an even bigger toll on me than I realized.
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Re: Inside Passage Narrative

Postby Abundance » Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:08 pm

That was awesome! How funny and true. Now I think that I get your handle of "Once and Future". As a lifetime Alaskan, I have never taken the Canadian Inside Passage. I think that I have missed something by that. I love these origin stories.
Garrett Hagen, F/V Abundance
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Re: Inside Passage Narrative

Postby akfisher1978 » Thu Dec 20, 2012 7:32 pm

Awesome story I did that run myself the first week of April last year with my 12 year old! It was probably the most memorable time I have ever had with him. It was awesome we started in Sechelt B.C. to Campbell River, Port Hardy, then got a spanking crossing Queen Charllotte to Bella Bella, Hartley Bay, Prince Rupert, Ketch, Petersburg, Juneau! The deserted town you mentioned I believe was called Butedale. We lucked out on the second ocean crossing cant remember the name of the body of water, the Dixon Entrance was as nice as it can be. Probably the coolest trip I have ever been on, though stressfull!
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Re: Inside Passage Narrative

Postby akfisher1978 » Thu Dec 20, 2012 7:45 pm

I made that trip last year with my 12 year old! It was the most memorable experience I have ever had with him! Sechelt B.C, Campbell River, Port Hardy, then took a spanking on our first ocean crossing, Bella Bella, Hartley Bay, Prince Rupert, Ketch, Petersburg, Juneau! It was an awesome but stressfull trip! I will never forget it! Crossing Milbanke Sound and Dixon were not too bad!
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Re: Inside Passage Narrative

Postby Salty » Thu Dec 20, 2012 9:39 pm

Great story, I just read it straight through. Please post the picture.
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