The best time to visit Alaska's Prince William Sound is early May, everyone had promised, and we were believers as our small charter yacht, Faithfully, turned Point Doran into Harriman Fjord with the afternoon sun lingering in a cloudless sky. The air temperature was near 60 degrees.
The fjord opens into a panorama of sea, glaciers and 7,000-foot snow-clad Chugach Mountains rising from the shore, all indescribably dramatic against a flawless blue sky. Each time the 40-foot Nordhavn swung a few degrees to a new course, another glacier or mountain came into view. Rows of icebergs heading for sea on the ebb were off to port, and snow neared the highwater mark on shore.
Harriman Fjord is remote, overlapping 61 degrees north at 148 degrees 14 minutes west. It's an area on the northwest coast that appears untouched by man, and it felt like a voyage of discovery as we motored toward Harriman Glacier 10 miles to the southwest. There could be no such place anywhere else in the world.
In the coming days in the vastness of Prince William Sound, the Faithfully expedition found equally outstanding vistas of ice, mountain and blue sky around any number of points of land, as well as waterways that would delight any passagemaker. It is an area populated with a diverse array of land and sea animals, fish and birds: puffins to eagles, bears to whales, salmon, shrimp and halibut. And sea lions, porpoises and sea otters.
Because it was still spring, there were no other pleasure boats to be seen, and we spent a week cruising the sound-alone but for a rare sighting of a commercial vessel.
This was one cruising adventure that had tempted us for years.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Considering the nature of the crowd milling around during a TrawlerPort reception in Seattle during the January 2004 Boats Afloat Show, it's not surprising that a great boating adventure was born there.
Joyce Gauthier, a Seattle-area physician who owns the 65-foot Ursa Major and operates her as a crewed charter boat in Southeast Alaska, was talking with Tom Love, a Girdwood, Alaska, medical-computer consultant, who owns Faithfully, which he charters in Prince William Sound.
"I've never been to Prince William Sound," Joyce told Tom.
"Would you like to go?" Love asked.
My wife, Polly, and I were across the room doing the boat-talk bit with others. Joyce saw us and remembered that 2 years before, we had been frustrated by our inability to find a bareboat charter in Prince William Sound. "Hmmm," she thought.
Soon, plans were firm. Four of us-Joyce; Gary Lumm, a Seattle professional photographer, kayaker, and bird and wildlife expert; Polly and I-would cruise for a week aboard Faithfully. Garth McPhie, Tom's Coast Guard-licensed skipper, would come along to keep us out of trouble. "Bareboat with captain" is how he describes it.
We would view our cruise in Prince William Sound and our involvement in the operation of Faithfully as much like a bareboat as possible: Buy groceries, do the cooking and the galley drudge work, select destinations, operate the boat much of the time, fish, dump shrimp pots in deep water, and go kayaking on the Alaskan frontier. Tom wanted to know whether the idea would appeal to experienced boaters with a yen for adventure in a faraway place, and he was looking for recommendations on equipping and crewing Faithfully.
Prince William Sound is a magical destination, and the answer was yes, let's go. Enjoying the beauty of those remote waters would be a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
There was another reason for the trip, however. Prince William Sound has suffered devastating disasters, and it was time for us to see if its wounds have healed.
The Good Friday earthquake in 1964 hammered the sound, along with much of Alaska and the West Coast. With a magnitude of 9.2, it was the largest quake recorded in North America at that time and the second worst in the world. The epicenter was near the mouth of College Fjord, a few miles from Whittier, Alaska, where Tom keeps his boat in the summer.
Anchorage suffered significant damage. Scores died, mostly because of the tsunami (tidal wave) generated by the quake, and waterfront communities around the sound were obliterated. Forced by the narrow waterway into a high-speed vertical wall of water, the wave measured 220 feet high as it raced through Valdez Narrows, a few miles from the fishing port of Valdez. Approaching the town, the wave flattened out significantly, but it still measured 30 to 40 feet in height when it slammed into the shore. About 30 people waiting on the Valdez pier for the arrival of a freighter from Seattle died as the tsunami engulfed them.
Areas of the sound shifted and rose and fell with the quake, making the accuracy of navigation charts uncertain. We had been told that's one reason bareboat charters are not available in the sound; owners are not going to put their vessels in the hands of boaters who don't have the necessary local knowledge.
Another tragedy-worse than the earthquake, perhaps, because the damage was manmade- occurred as an oil tanker, Exxon Valdez, hit Bligh Reef in Valdez Sound on March 23, 1989. Eleven million gallons of crude oil spilled and coated about 1,300 miles of shoreline, devastating marine life.
Sounds grim, but it was a rare opportunity for us. What better way to go boating where we ordinarily can't go boating?
Cruising Prince William Sound is appealing because it's a world away from bustling population centers. Seattle is about 1,800 sea miles southeast, and if you're making the trip by boat, the last 400 miles is across the dangerous Gulf of Alaska. Some boaters report they have enjoyed flat-calm crossings of the gulf. Others thought they were going to die as gigantic seas threatened to overwhelm their boats.
Obviously, few of us have the time, the will or the craft for such a crossing. It makes Tom Love's bareboat-with-captain charter plan unusually attractive.
Three communities on the sound, Valdez, Whittier and Cordova, are microdots with only a few residents. The metropolis of Anchorage (population 260,000) is 50 miles from Whittier. The highway to Whittier flows along spectacular Turnagain Arm (which has a tidal range of 35 feet) and then plunges through a tunnel in the Chugach Mountain range. For decades open only to rail traffic, the tunnel was improved for one-way auto use a few years ago, but motorists must wait for entry to the 2.5-mile tunnel at specified times.
There is hope that making Whittier available to motorists will boost tourist travel to the rough, little port community whose principal businesses are the unloading of cargo from seagoing vessels, sportfishing, kayak rentals and day cruises on excursion vessels. Big cruise ships have begun discharging passengers at a new pier in Whittier, and buses hustle them off to the airport in Anchorage. A hotel has been built, and a new marina is planned. Others are worried, however, about the possible harmful impact of more people and vehicles on the land, sea and air.
Dean Rand, owner and captain of Discovery, a half-century-old 65-foot working yacht that cruises the sound every summer, fears the crush has begun.
"Prince William Sound remains my favorite part of the Alaskan coast for personal exploring and showing people around," says Dean, who has been a logger, fisherman, shipwright and charter captain in Alaska for 28 years. "Unfortunately, it's being discovered a bit too fast. Prior to the completion of the road into Whittier, you could spend a week in the sound without ever seeing another boat, except at a distance."
In the few years since the tunnel opened to auto traffic, Dean adds, "I've seen summer visitation into the sound increase by a factor of about five."
A worse sign of the times, in Dean's view, is a plan "to place a floating 7-Eleven right smack in the middle of the College Fjord Wilderness Area." He and others have won a public hearing on the issue "and plan to call out the troops opposed to this very bad idea."
Winter is so harsh on the sound that some owners, including Tom, take their boats south to the more benign climate in the Seattle area. But others- like Dean, who lives aboard with his daughters in Whittier-button up for the weather and endure cold, wind, rain and snow in their moorage slips.
There is plenty of space for privacy. Prince William Sound sprawls across about 7,000 square miles. There are islands, inlets, bays and fjords to explore, with about 3,000 miles of shorelines and countless quiet spaces to anchor, and plenty of hot fishing spots, if you have local knowledge or if an experienced captain is aboard.
It offers typical flooded-mountain-range cruising, with glacier-carved wooded and snowy peaks rising sharply from water's edge, and rocky knobs just below the surface of the sea ready to spear careless boaters. There are some beaches for hiking and exploration, but again, local knowledge is vital. Bays and deep fjords gouged from bedrock by glaciers about 12,000 years ago abound, but boaters must search their charts for shallows for anchoring. Aside from the three small communities on the sound and two native American villages, there is no development. No fuel docks, no marinas, no small groceries, no baristas.
Our adventure began in Whittier. Despite its remoteness, getting there is not difficult. We flew from Seattle to Anchorage and rented a car for the trip to Whittier. Besides just getting ourselves there, we needed a car to carry our baggage and a ton of groceries, which we bought in Anchorage because there is no grocery store in Whittier.
Carrying duffel bags and carts loaded with groceries down a steep ramp (they have huge tides in Whittier) and out a float was wearying. Energized by chowder and fish and chips at a small cafe, the crew accomplished all of that and lugged three kayaks from a rental shop to the boat as well. By midafternoon, we were ready to go.
OTHERS WERE FIRST
We chose Harriman Fjord as our first anchorage, partly because it was an easy run of about 35 nautical miles from Whittier, but also because we were drawn by the great story that's told about its discovery by the first cruising yacht to reach the area.
Faithfully carried us into Harriman Fjord on May 6, 2004, a few weeks short of 105 years after George W. Elder, a 250-foot, iron-plated steamer, puffed into the fjord carrying railroad tycoon Edward Harriman of New York and an entourage of scientists, artists, writers, photographers and hunters. They included names we honor today: John Muir, the first to study Alaska glaciers in the late 1870s and a founder of the Sierra Club; Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who at that time was considered the finest bird painter since John James Audubon; John Burroughs, an honored nature essayist; and Edward S. Curtis, a photographer who garnered fame for his portraits of native Americans.
Harriman had become exhausted serving as chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and, heeding his physician's demand that he rest, had George W. Elder fitted for a 2-month trip from Seattle to Alaska.
Harriman described the journey, which covered 9,000 miles, as "a summer cruise for pleasure and recreation of my family and a few friends."
A few friends, indeed. There were 126 persons aboard, including family, scientists, guests and crew (deckhands, firemen, nurses, doctors, stenographers, a chaplain and a chef ). The ship also carried cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys and horses. It's unclear what role the horses performed, but I suspect the cows, sheep, chickens and turkeys represented the 1889 version of our run on Safeway in Anchorage in 2004.
The Harriman expedition returned with thousands of photos, drawings and new scientific information about Alaska. The one blemish came when he and guests removed totem poles and other artifacts from Cape Fox Village, an "abandoned" Indian settlement south of Ketchikan. (The tribe had moved temporarily to better fishing grounds.) Muir, to his credit, objected and refused to pose in a group photo with the appropriated totems.
In 1999, a group of scientists and educators retraced the Harriman route in a modern cruise ship, Clipper Odyssey. They stopped in Ketchikan to return many of the artifacts to native groups.
Military and commercial ships had been in Alaska a century before Harriman's R&R cruise, and, because of my fascination for stories about regional exploration, I could sense all around me the ghosts of famous explorers who sailed Prince William Sound.
One of the honored was Royal Navy Capt. James Cook, the British seaman considered to be one of the world's most skilled explorers. He entered the sound in 1778 aboard the 110-foot Resolution, a shiprigged sloop of war he had sailed to both the Antarctic and the Arctic on earlier voyages. On board was Lt. William Bligh, who later lost his ship, Bounty, to mutineers.
A second ship in the expedition, the 91-foot Discovery, had aboard a midshipman named George Vancouver, who would in the 1790s explore and chart the Northwest and Alaska from his ship, also named Discovery.
The British explorers under Cook, believed to be the first Europeans to enter the sound, were looking for the Northwest Passage everyone thought would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They found neither the passage nor our elusive inlet.
Cook named the sprawling waterway Sandwich Sound to honor his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. Map editors in England, working after Cook's death in the Hawaiian Islands, changed the name to honor Prince William IV, a member of the British royalty popularly known as Silly Billy.
As George W. Elder cruised the sound in the summer of 1899, someone aboard spotted a narrow channel around what is now Barry Glacier and, daringly, Harriman ordered Capt. Peter Doran to take the ship into the fjord. Smithsonian Magazine, in a June 2003 article, said he had the steamer brought to full speed. "As the ship barreled along, Harriman shouted, 'We will discover a Northwest Passage!'" the magazine reported. Dreams die hard.
The showpiece glacier, one of many in the inlet, was named for Harriman. He later took his ship up another nearby channel, calling it College Fjord and naming its glaciers for Ivy League colleges, women's schools to the left hand (Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr and Smith) and men's on the right (Yale and Harvard). I wonder what he and his scientist guests would think about the idea of floating a convenience store in the fjord.
Later, back home, I dug into the University of Washington library and found hundreds of Curtis photos. One focused on a man paddling a canoe in Glacier Bay. I think it was Muir, who discovered the bay years before and who is famed for his exploration of its glaciers.
Another Curtis photo, black-and-white, of course, looked down Harriman Fjord to the Harriman Glacier. Graceful coniferous trees provided an artistic frame. In another photo, Harriman Glacier in 1899 looked just as it did when we arrived in 2004.
Faithfully's anchor and chain went down in 70 feet of water inside a hook of land midway down the fjord. Either wind or current pushed icebergs toward our side of the inlet during the night and ice scratched, bumped and clattered along the hull. (No harm done, however.)
With a crunch of gravel against fiberglass, we were aground.
This was at the upper end of Port Nellie Juan, and a search was on for a passage through a gravel bar that would admit us to a lagoon glittering with icebergs calved by the Nellie Juan Glacier.
It was a heck of a place to be aground, alone in the wilderness of Prince William Sound with only birds, seals, otters and other critters nearby. Fortunately, it was our fleet of kayaks that was stuck in the gravel, and it was simple to push off into deeper water.
Faithfully carries a dinghy with an outboard, but kayaks proved to be best for ice exploration and general gunkholing along beaches in the sound. We paddled along the gravel bar, a sand and rock moraine left by the retreating glacier, Joyce and Garth in one kayak and I in the other. Oystercatchers and other birds were scratching for breakfast on shore. Polly was in command of the Nordhavn, which was drifting not far away.
We scooted through the opening and found Gary, who had departed Faithfully soon after sunrise, and his morning cup of instant Turkish coffee. Using a 35mm camera and long, stabilized lenses, he had been photographing ice, birds, sea otters and seals on drift bergs below the glacier, one of nine in the area but the only one still discharging ice into the sea.
Big chunks of ice were flaking from the glacier's face and crashing onto the beach at its foot. High tides would float them free. Attracted by a large berg that glowed electric blue, I paddled close to touch. I neared a second for a good look at a surface that reminded me of a frozen ocean swell. Then I remembered watching a few days before as bergs from the Columbia Glacier rolled over without warning as Faithfully motored slowly by. Gently, I backed away from the tempting Nellie Juan bergs. Drift ice from the Columbia Glacier was so thick that day that the Nordhavn could not close within an estimated 5 miles of the glacier face. Judging by Curtis's 1899 photos, the George W. Elder steamed much closer to the face of the glacier. Curtis recorded a close-up view of Heather Island (just offshore of the toe of the glacier) on glass plate, while the crew of Faithfully squinted at it through binoculars.
Columbia Glacier is dumping prodigious amounts of ice into the sea and creating a new fjord as it retreats toward the mountains. Most of Prince William Sound, however, is free of ice, and cruising is fine.
We spent a night in Valdez, the port where tankers load crude oil from the north slope of Alaska.
A tanker and its two-tug escort and a tug towing a barge loaded with stacks of containers were in the narrows as Faithfully motored toward Valdez that sunny afternoon. Other than the caution exercised in directing tanker traffic, there was no hint of the tragic moment four decades earlier, when a tsunami brought death to the harbor.
The big tankers are escorted by a team of tugs, following a Coast Guard vessel traffic control system. Pleasure craft must stand well clear of the loading terminal inside the harbor.
Valdez was rebuilt on a new site and now has several blocks of stores and shops that cater to the large fishing fleet-sport and commercial-that operates from the harbor. The Faithfully crew stocked up on groceries.
One indication of continued good fishing is the fish-cleaning station found at the head of each string of mooring floats. I was amazed at the size of the stations, until I looked down into the holding basins below and saw the bony carcasses of halibut, some of which must have been 6 feet long.
The next morning, the Coast Guard broadcast warnings about Columbia Glacier ice in the outbound vessel traffic system lane used by tankers. We soon found ourselves in the midst of it. At slow bell, we dodged the ice-some of it as large as our 40-foot boat-while imagining the weather-sculpted bergs resembled famous people, cartoon characters and boats. A bald eagle perched atop one, looking for a meal. He (she?) must have had really cold feet.
Prince William Sound offers enjoyable and interesting challenges in navigation through skinny channels, around rocky points and in and out of small harbors. None are overwhelmingly difficult, however. Digital charts were running on a computer, but we made great use of NOAA Chart 16700, too.
Navigating through Esther Passage, a narrow, winding, rocky waterway connecting Port Wells and Wells Passage, demanded concentration and care. But with a crew of at least three in the pilothouse, the passage was completed safely.
One night was spent at anchor in a nook in Eaglek Bay, with Cascade Falls in the background. At anchor nearby was Discovery, Dean Rand's 65-foot round-bilged steel charter vessel that was launched in 1958 for missionary service in Alaska. Later, she was used in commercial fishing. After restoring the vessel and equipping her for guests (there's a piano on board!), Dean has been operating her in charter service for 15 years.
Discovery has berths for 12 passengers. The crew includes a full-time chef. Dean's cruises emphasize natural history and wildlife. Occasionally, musicians come aboard to entertain guests.
We waved to the crew and passengers, perhaps a little envious of her great spaces, her classical styling and her galley crew.
Running southwesterly later, Faithfully had an easy crossing of the sound to Naked Island and an anchorage in Bass Bay. In 1989, Naked Island was awash in oil from Exxon Valdez, but as we motored past, the shoreline looked pristine.
The day's plotted course was bent a bit to permit ogling of hundreds of sea lions hauled out on a rocky shore. Another narrow passage between the dark slopes of Knight and Disk islands led our little expeditionary force to Perry Island, where a shellfish farmer sold us three dozen oysters. Earlier reports had suggested the farmer would trade oysters for Southern Comfort, but he explained he had given up that habit and cash would be fine, thank you.
The crew was impressed that the shellfish man changed his clothes before harvesting the oysters and then scrubbed them with a mild disinfectant before making a delivery to us. Alaska fishermen often dunk shrimp and prawns in a weak bleach solution to kill the organisms that hasten deterioration of that tasty pink flesh.
Joyce landed a small halibut one day, and Garth wrestled and subdued it on the swim platform. I later sliced and fried it for dinner. Someone else hooked a rockfish. It became sushi. Borrowed prawn traps were dumped in 600 feet of water per instructions from the owner and then hauled back up by hand. The catch was disappointing.
The last night was in Long Bay, off Culross Passage, a place recommended by many. Faithfully anchored easily, and a sportfishing boat owned by Tom, Carry Me, tied alongside. Tom's corporate name is Over The Seas. Put all the names together and you have Carry Me Faithfully Over the Seas.
Tom explains how the names were chosen: "The names of our vessels and the company name come from a song by a little-known Israeli singer, Ishtar. She sings in Arabic, French, Spanish, Hebrew and English. The song is 'The Last Kiss' from the album The Voice of Alabina. "The refrain from the song is, '...won't you carry me faithfully over the seas. I'll open the sky, to kiss you goodbye....' For me, the song has always evoked the mystery of loosing the lines and setting sail on a voyage of discovery!"
Also anchored there was Sikumi, a 67-foot charter yacht built on a steel fishboat hull and licensed for 12 guests. She is owned and operated by Tom Manos and his family. They are neighbors and friends of the Love family in Girdwood. (Tom Love's daughter, Nellie, occasionally crews on the Sikumi when she's not working aboard Faithfully.) Sikumi was on a family outing, with no charter customers aboard, and we were invited over for dessert and a chance to learn more about Alaska cruising from Tom, a veteran skipper.
Long Bay reflected the quality of the entire trip. The water was calm and the sun was sort of warm as kayakers explored the upper end of the bay. And friends new and old surrounded us.
Under Garth's guidance, possible earthquakerelated depth changes were avoided by keeping Faithfully generally outside the 10-fathom line. Courses plotted on the computer screen often were in water up to 400 fathoms deep. In shallow harbors, the depths observed seemed to agree with the chart data. The Nordhavn carried an Interphase sonar, which was helpful in looking for risks ahead.
The Nordhavn 40 is not a large or fast boat, but her 8-knot speed is just right for Prince William Sound cruising. There's no need to hurry.
It was a bit of a struggle to haul kayaks aboard. Two stacked neatly in racks atop the pilothouse, and one lay across the foredeck. The prawn traps and other gear were stowed on the side deck aft of the portside pilothouse door.
The five of us got along well for the week. While Polly and Joyce did some great cooking and I dished up fish and grilled oysters, Gary and Garth cleaned up and did the dishes much of the time.
There are many storage spaces aboard the Nordhavn. The most frequent question in our time aboard was, "Where did we put...?"
One of the challenges was developing a menu and doing the shopping. Polly and Joyce had worked out four-star dinners in advance via e-mail and telephone; a load of stuff for breakfast and lunch was loaded aboard, and each of us fixed our own.
Tom also will charter Faithfully fully provisioned, with a cook aboard and a menu that inspires hunger simply by reading it. That would add another person to the crew, but there's space enough if all are friends or family and the weather allows socializing to spread into the cockpit and onto the Nordhavn's expansive foredeck.
Although we'd prefer to cruise in our boat and to be in command, the concept of a bareboat-withcaptain charter in remote waters clicked with us. We made some suggestions regarding equipping Faithfully for guests, and Love intends to continue promoting that kind of charter service.
Tom and Nancy Konop offer similar opportunities in Prince William Sound aboard their custom aluminum charter yacht, the 54-foot Miss Brizz. She has a chef and a full menu of four-star meals, but guests are welcome to provision and do their own cooking.
Miss Brizz is based in Seward and offers a full agenda of fishing, whale- and bird-watching, and exploring ashore. The Konops, Alaskans since 1991, built their boat to commercial boat standards and put her into service in 2004.
To casual visitors, Prince William Sound appears to have recovered from the earthquake and the oil spill. Residents, however, can point out changes wrought by the quake, and boaters told us about snagging oily grass with an anchor. It apparently is possible to dig in some beach gravel and find traces of oil.
Populations of some marine animals and birds have not recovered from the oil spill, but that's not obvious to first-time visitors. A fishboat operator from Cordova told me the herring population was hard hit by the oil spill and has not recovered. Herring live near the bottom of the food chain, and as a result, the larger game fish that live on herring and other small fish continue to be affected.
As I was writing this article, I noticed an Associated Press article reporting that scientists have written off the orca (killer whale) population in the sound. The orca population has dropped to about seven since the 1989 oil spill, and the pod has not produced a calf in 20 years. Scientists also said that the population of harbor seals has dropped by more than 50 percent; orcas feed mostly on marine mammals such as seals and on salmon.
We spotted many species of birds, thanks to Gary's knowledge, and enjoyed watching Dall porpoises, sea otters, harbor seals and Steller sea lions.
Considering the dwindling population of marine mammals and birds and the sensitivity of the sound's environment, it's ironic that our one attempt to be good citizens ended in failure.
Garth wanted to pump out the Nordhavn's holding tank in Valdez. After moving the boat from dock to dock in a vain search for a working pump and chasing down the harbormaster for help, it became apparent that not one pump in the harbor worked. It was late in the afternoon, and the harbormaster obviously was ready to go home. Impatient after finding an electrical fault in the pump house, he growled at us, "Why didn't you do it while you were out there?"
Some yacht owners do make the journey across the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William Sound. Most of us, however, will not. No matter how one gets there-by air or by sea-the sound is a rich and rewarding place to cruise, particularly because of its spectacular mountains and glaciers, secluded anchorages, uncrowded waterways and abundant wildlife.
If this beautiful place were closer to the urban world, the real danger would be overcrowding far worse than Dean Rand has experienced. The trials of getting there should protect the sound from a huge flood of cruising boats, but large, fast excursion vessels now operate in the sound ("See 28 glaciers in 8 hours!") and undoubtedly will draw larger crowds because it's now possible to drive to Whittier. But you won't find one of them at anchor overnight.
We encountered nothing in the sound that would have challenged any boater who possesses decent navigation and seamanship skills. Navigating ice might be intimidating at first, but slow and easy gets one through, usually. Concerns about shifting landmasses and changes in depth are real, but with care and good equipment, serious boaters should get along well.
Cruising in this sprawling sound assumes a love of wilderness; an independent and self-reliant nature (remember, there are no coffee shops there-yet); a fascination with birds, marine mammals, geography and geology; and an affinity for historical context.
I enjoyed our cruise because it wound through the areas Cook explored in his Resolution more than two centuries ago, while offering an exciting challenge to our comparatively high-tech yacht and crew. Was it my imagination, or was there a hint of smoke in the air from the George W. Elder as Harriman hurried her into that remote and unknown inlet? Could I hear the echoing voices of seamen working Resolution's rigging?
What I really know is that this was cruising the way I like it. If you cruise that way, please tread lightly. We owe it that.