Exiting Cordova on 19th June, equipped with a wonderfully instant butane gas canister stove and stomachs full of excellent halibut burritos (from a Mexican food 'van' that's now enveloped by it's own restaurant) we were faced with a choice: We could turn left and attempt the tantalizingly short yet perilously shallow Orca Inlet out to sea, or turn right and retrace our route 50 miles (a full day sail) back up Orca Bay around Hawkins and Hinchenbrook Islands and exit Prince William Sound there instead.
The shaky optimism imparted to us by various fishermen who shrugged, suggesting that 'yes' we could 'probably' make it through the shifting sand passages of Orca Inlet if we were 'lucky' and perhaps 'tried to follow a local fishing boat' didn't exactly fill me with confidence. The idea of 'feeling' our way along with a strong following current and rapidly falling tide conjured up visions of us being swept pathetically upon the first sand bar, literally keeling-over and being left high and dry watching all the fishing boats (which look like they draw about 2 feet and streak past at 25kn) disappear over the horizon. So, rather than tempt fate any more than we already planned to for the coming week, we opted to go back the long way. We did see two Orca enroute though, and jigged up a tasty 50cm Lingcod for dinner just before we anchored at 'English Bay' (which the guide book correctly identifies as one of the worst rolly anchorages in Prince William Sound, but sits conveniently right near the exit).
We woke at 4:40AM on 20th June (already daylight), pulled our dingy on deck, heaved up our oversize Rocna anchor hand over hand, then less energetically hoisted up our fully-battened junk rigged sail and headed out into the disconcertingly infamous Gulf of Alaska, with aching forearms. The following 350 mile coastline between Prince William Sound and the start of the populous Inside Passage to the south east is usually given a miss by most transiting vessels, as it's fairly inhospitable and empty, and the weather is notoriously inflammatory. This of course just makes the couple of isolated places that are along the way so much more exciting to try and visit!
Our first target: Kayak Island - a conspicuous pencil of land (almost 20nm long and only about 1nm wide) that juts out from the coast, presumably acting as a scoop-net for half the world's floating debris and hopefully making for excellent beachcombing along it's SE (ocean-facing) side. After a full day at sea we finally pulled into a tiny bay half way up the closer NW side, accompanied for the last 15-min or so by an ever growing pod of black and white Dall's Porpoises! Normally these speedy porpoises grow bored of us after 30 seconds, but this time (perhaps curious of my GoPro camera shoved down beside them on a pole underwater and then held out in front of them in the air looking back at Teleport, filming in slow-motion as they came up to breathe right in front of it etc) they frolicked at our bow for ages which was a real treat. Interestingly, this little nook on Kayak Island is apparently where some chap by the name of Georg Steller (a scientist on Bering's expedition in 1741) became the first European to set foot on 'Western Hemisphere' soil, and thus became credited (from a European perspective) with 'discovering' Alaska!
Next morning (21st June, Summer Solstice) was also my 32nd birthday, and after a breakfast of coffee, pancakes and a cheesecake (and reading a pile of b'day cards that Jess had thoughtfully brought along) we motor-sailed down and around the extreme SW tip of Kayak Island to the famous Cape Saint Elias known by some as 'the end of the world'! I've never seen a more dramatic and splendidly remote-feeling headland in all my life! Most of this end of Kayak Island is fairly low-lying, but right at the end, it dramatically rises up into a sheer 1665 feet hunk of stone. Huddled the base of this monolith, seemingly scarcely above sea level, is braced a tiny lighthouse, utterly dwarfed by the cliffs rising vertically behind it. This incredible scene is completed by 'Pinnacle Rock' a second dramatic rocky spire lancing 494 feet into the air just out to sea, connected back to the lighthouse by a thin, gravely spit. Normally boaters give this place a wide berth as the weather's usually foul and the charts are woefully inaccurate. In fact, an earthquake in 1964 completely re-sculpted the sea floor around here, creating loads of new rocks and shoals most impressively lifting a huge strip of sea floor (some ½ mile wide and perhaps a dozen miles long) up into the air along much of the East side of the island basically making the island perhaps 40% wider at low-tide and scarily absent on charts published as late as 2012!
For my birthday however, the weather gods were smiling on us and the Gulf of Alaska was unusually calm, and so, peering wistfully at the charts (especially the most up to date 'Navionics' charts I downloaded to my iPhone before we left since proved invaluable) I suddenly noticed a vague 'bay' formed by rocks and shoals right beside Cape Saint Elias itself, just around from the tip! We not only managed to carefully motor into this 'bay' (my eyes glued to the depth sounder and Jess perched on the bow looking down as we inched our way in at the snail's pace of 1kn), but managed to anchor securely, and even go ashore! What an amazing place to spend a birthday!
We spent all afternoon wandering along the driftwood-strewn coastline of Kayak Island just like I'd dreamed, finding all kinds of knick-knacks including floats, whale baleen, bones, bottles etc as we hopped from one immense, washed-up log to the next for 3km, right out to the lighthouse where we found our first fresh salmon berries of the season. Without a soul around (not even any bears, despite plenty of evidence), we climbed the rusting, internal spiral staircase to the glass-encased top chamber of the lighthouse (complete with it's slowly revolving, automated light still in service) and there, basking in the warmth of this greenhouse, we called my folks and sister for my birthday on our Iridium satellite phone. What a treat! Back onboard in the evening we played cards and ate chips, while listening to sea lions barking on nearby rocks and the BANG of humpback whales breaching out to sea, before turning in for a few hours sleep (with our anchor-watch alarm set tight!). Another excellent adventure birthday! Thanks Jess!
We awoke soon enough next morning at 3:40 AM (already light) and snuck out of our rocky embayment and set our sights on our next exciting stopover - Icy Bay. Without any real wind (though a storm was coming) we motored most of the 95nm, arriving 22hrs later at 2AM with the light seriously fading, straining our eyes to spot chunks of ice drifting around from the sizable glacier at the head of the bay. A lone male Orca surged directly towards us and then vanished, adding to our sense of unease.
We ended up being stuck there in Icy Bay for a full week as some bad weather blew through. On the upside, we got to photograph plenty of seals, scooter ducks, curious sea otters and got to met the staff at the remote, fly-in, fly-out luxury fishing camp 'Icy Bay Lodge' beside the bay who gave us loads of fresh king salmon and halibut, which we kept fresh on glacier ice in our ice-box and ate almost exclusively all week, except when a rather luxurious motorboat came into the bay and invited us onboard for a wonderful meal and even a movie! Such lovely people thanks Carl, Joann & friends! On the downside, I dislocated two of my ribs dragging our outboard-loaded dingy up the gravy beach away from the clutches of the excessive tide before going on a great hike inland. At long last after two fairly agonizing days of repeatedly writhing around on the floor (or wall, or anything else vaguely flat that I could try and pressure my back against to try and pop those ribs back in again) I finally got one back in, and a day or so later, the other - and finally could move and breath freely again. Phew! =)
Conveniently, the weather cleared up the following day (the 29th June), and at 4:30 AM we headed out, past three moose that were inexplicably standing right on the bare end of the long gravely entrance spit as we went past, almost as if they'd come out to see us off! Our first good moose photo-opp in our 4 Alaskan Summers, we turned back around and passed them several times before eventually setting our waypoint at the isolated fishing village of Yakutat, arriving there 12 hours later at 8:30 PM. The Gulf still had some swell left over from the bad weather and so with Jess feeling crook, she slept mot of the day and I listened to endless 1hr long, in-depth 'Conversations with Richard Fidler' interview podcasts with interesting people they're always excellent.
As soon as we tied up at the wharf, Jess started cooking some lentils for dinner (having eaten nothing all day she was starving) and I hopped ashore to stretch my legs on the wharf. Less than two minutes later I came rushing back, beer in hand, shouting to Jess "Wait! Don't start cooking we don't need to eat lentils!" We'd been invited onboard a wonderful 100+yr old wooden fishing boat 'The Republic' who'd just prepared the most amazing feast of steaks, black cod, baked potatoes and sour cream, mushrooms, and even Hδagen-Dazs ice-cream for dessert! Having just wrapped up a few weeks successful fishing, Dewie and his crew couldn't have been more welcoming.
We spent a couple of days in Yakutat while some more weather blew past, trying not to run into bears while jogging to burn off all the excellent meals we've been enjoying and absorbing the local high school's Wi-Fi internet after pressing two young kids for the password who we found loitering outside doing exactly the same. We met some more lovely powerboaters (Hi Bob & Al) and got talking to some French guys onboard a heavy-duty sailboat 'Marguerite 1', owned and skippered as it turned out by Michel Joubert a world famous naval architect (www.joubertnivelt-design.com) with more than 20,000 boats afloat today that he's designed, from production sailboats to one-off custom yachts, to massive superyachts and luxury mega motorboats - he even designed the boat that won the America's Cup in 1988, and of course, his current personal sailboat 'Marguerite 1'.
Just before departing Yakutat on the morning of 2nd July, we met Les, who drove us to do a few last-minute errands around town, took us out to some scenic locations (where we saw the swell was still up, causing surf) then back to his house for wonderful hot showers. We met his wife Robyn and daughter Sonya who surprised us by offering to take us body boarding / boogie boarding! We started mumbling some excuses about it being 'a little cold' (there is a glacier dumping ice into the bay after all), and that we really had to get going, but then thought, what the hell how often do we get to go surfing in Alaska? And as Jess pointed out, it'd probably be way more fun to play in the surf rather than sail in the swell, and so before we knew it we were squeezed into wetsuits (and wetsuit hoods, booties and gloves) and marching out through the foamy white surf in the Gulf of Alaska with Sonya! It was such fun! Warming up afterwards cooking hotdogs on sticks over a campfire, I realized that seizing random opportunities like this really is the spice of life.
We stayed for a tasty halibut dinner (before which I showed everyone how easy it is for me to fly my drone smack into a distant tree), and met a local native fisherman who said he was going out fishing by the river in the morning, and if we wanted to photograph Bald Eagles we should come, because loads of them often hang around grabbing the scraps. Did we ever! Les picked us up early next morning, bristling with cameras, and we couldn't believe the scene: dozens and dozens of these large, majestic eagles perched on every driftwood tree stump, regularly swooping down to snatch up fish heads, tails and guts as various fishermen threw their scraps aside after filleting. We got some great shots, and I even tucked my GoPro camera into a fishy scrap and scored some impressive footage as one eagle sliced down, huge talons extended and grasps the camera head on and flies off with it lucky I had the forethought to tie it on.
Our final unusual adventure destination, Lituya Bay, is a terribly infamous yet fascinating place 95 miles further down the Gulf of Alaska that I've wanted to visit ever since I heard about it last year. About 6.5nm long and 1.5nm wide with a dangerous bar entrance formed by a spit almost closing off the bay, an island in the middle and a T-shaped head to the bay with glaciers feeding in around each corner, this long bay, straddling the 'Fairweather Fault' is officially the site of the largest wave in history, and the story of the Lituya Bay mega-tsunami is as unbelievable as it is terrifying.
Just 57 years ago (in 1958) an earthquake caused 2,000 ft of mountainside (40 million cubic meters of rock and ice) to collapse into the left-hand glacial inlet at the head of the bay, ejecting a colossal surge of water that swept up and over the left hand corner headland, snapping off every single tree up to a height of 1,800 feet (600m!), and then this wall of water rushed down the full length of the bay at about 120 miles/hr (almost 200km/hr), engulfing much of Cenotaph Island in the middle, completely removing even the largest pine trees on either side of the bay forming a 'bath ring' or new 'high tide level' about 300ft (100m) up all the way out to sea. Check out the photo I've included taken soon after the wave showing all the trees gone, and just Google 'Lituya Bay' for heaps of websites dedicated to it! Still clearly visible today as a neat division below which only younger, smaller trees are growing, the most amazing thing is that there were actually three fishing boats anchored in the bay when it happened!
All three boats were woken by the earthquake and said they could see "even the tallest mountains shaking". Two of the boats reacted fast, pulled their anchors and tried to make a run for it out of the bay. One of these disappeared without a trace, and another was thrown completely out of bay, their terrified crew apparently looking down as they passed right over the tops of tall trees and house-sized boulders on the entrance spit and smashed stern first out into the ocean where their boat quickly sank but amazingly they were rescued with broken ribs etc. Watching the wall of water race towards them, the captain of the third boat put a lifejacket on his son and tried to pull their anchor too but it was jammed into the bottom. Issuing a mayday call ending with "I think we've had it. Goodbye." He let out all their chain in the hope of riding up over the wave, and held on for dear life. As their boat was swept up the near vertical face of this huge wave, their chain eventually snapped right at the peak, freeing them to somehow steer their boat around the washing machine-like fury of fallen trees and debris until things finally started to settle amazingly they survived unhurt. Four years later, the captain of the boat thrown over the spit returned to the bay for the first time since the disaster, and shortly after passing through the narrow entrance, suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Dauntingly, this 1958 wave is only the most recent of a recurring phenomenon in the bay. It was apparently preceded by similar waves in 1853, 1874, 1899 and 1936. It would seem, looking at that pattern, that we're rather overdue for the next one. In terms of lives lost however, even more deadly than the giant waves, is the narrow, rock-strewn entrance, where swift tidal current in excess of 6 knots (more than 10kn on occasions) meet the Gulf swell which can form formidable breakers. The guide book cheerfully states that "The first thing you need to know about the Lituya Bay entrance is that is has killed many people." Over 100 people have been killed trying to cross it, indeed in 1786, 21 sailors were drowned from two separate boats all part of the La Perouse expedition. Slack current only lasts for about 5 minutes, and for us, coming from 95 miles away (an overnight sail from Yakutat) we'd need a miracle to somehow arrive on time, and Jess wasn't keen on bobbing around out there waiting.
I know it sounds like a daft, unnecessarily suicidal game to stop over in Lituya Bay, but honestly, it was the most beautiful, awe-inspiring and unforgettable place we've visited this year and one of the more memorable locations of my life. We miraculously managed to turn up at the entrance dead-on slack tide and without even so much as pausing, we swung to line ourselves up with the distant lead markers (through binoculars) and slipped through unscathed. We spent 2 amazing days anchored behind Cenotaph Island, blissfully calm and sunny, caught huge numbers of giant prawns in our shrimp trap (including out biggest yet at 25cm!), had campfires ashore, and even hiked inland to the face of one of the glaciers with a beautiful melt water pool at the terminus where we took 360 degree panoramic photos, 3D photos and even flew the drone as rocks continually melted free and tumbled down into the pool in front of us. Standing there between the still very obvious landslide site to our right where half a mountain is still clearly missing, and gazing up in incomprehending awe at the height where the old trees were swept away 1,800 feet above us on the opposite face to the right is something we'll never forget. Some books refer to this as one of the most beautiful and dangerous places in the world.
Things got a little bouncy as we exited the entrance on the 6th July due to apparently updated current timings being 30min off (should have used the Navionics instead), but all's well that ends well, and from there it was an excellent 40nm sail down the last stretch of exposed coastline before we rounded Cape Spencer and tucked, at last, into the start of the popular 'The Inside Passage', rafting up to another boat (shock horror) in the tiny boardwalk village of Elfin Cove.
From here on for the next 350 nm to Prince Rupert, we'll be day-hopping in protected waters, weaving around islands, whales, seals, hot-springs, cruise ships and fishing boats in what we're hoping will be an enjoyable change of pace and tension for a few weeks.
Stay tuned, and thanks very much for sharing in our adventures. We love hearing from everyone, so please do say 'hi' if you've got time. =)
In other news, you'll see previous to this news piece we've put online (but didn't email out) detailing TELEPORT FOR SALE what's included (heaps) etc. Basically, $39,950 US, and she'll be in Prince Rupert, Canada perfectly positioned for you to turn her around and enjoy the Inside Passage and beyond yourself =)
Chris & Jess