Only eight hours into a two-week trip, and already I was yielding to circumstance and deviating from my plan.
Under a leaden sky I had been trying to make the Ugashik River to anchor for the night. But a 20-knot southwester fighting big ebb tides from Nushagak and Kvichak Bays was stacking chaotic 8- and 10-foot seas, and Inconnu was rolling vigorously. With 30 miles to go, prospects of making Ugashik that day were fading with the daylight. I swung the wheel around and headed for the broad, shallow mouth of the Egegik River.
We ran east an hour and a half and then picked our way over the shoals by plotter and sounder, found a hole of 4 fathoms about 5 miles up the river, and anchored for the night. We'd already taken a drubbing and were only 60 miles into a thousand-mile trip. It had been a breezy summer so far, and the weather wouldn't do us many favors on this voyage.
I had been keeping Inconnu, which I've owned for six years, in Dillingham, Alaska and for the last 10 summers I'd taken a break from my position with the University of Alaska's fisheries extension program to run wildlifeviewing boat charters in the Walrus Islands of northern Bristol Bay. My business specializes in showing visitors from around the world the amazing walruses, seabirds and shorebirds, sea lions, and seals in the islands, as well as bears and caribou on Alaska's mainland coast. After six seasons, Inconnu needed some cosmetic maintenance that I couldn't perform in Dillingham, so I made plans to run the boat home, where I would chip away at the chores over the winter, which was the reason for this cruise.
My home port of Homer is on Kachemak Bay, part of lower Cook Inlet, off the Gulf of Alaska, and is some 220 road miles south of Anchorage. Dillingham is on Nushagak Bay, which is part of Bristol Bay, on the Bering Sea coast, about 300 air miles southwest of Anchorage. You might think the two are close to one another, but between them lies the Alaska Peninsula and 1,000 nautical miles of southern Bering Sea, eastern Aleutian Islands, Shumagin Islands, Shelikof Strait, and Cook Inlet. I had allowed three weeks to make the trip, but weather and other delays had reduced my time window to two.
With me was 22-year-old Dan Beyer, a commercial salmon fisherman who crews for a friend of mine in Bristol Bay. I usually singlehand, but for the long run I wanted company, and Dan volunteered.
ABOUT THE BOAT
Inconnu, named for the big northern anadromous whitefish (also known as sheefish, or poisson inconnu in French), is a fiberglass tri-cabin trawler. She was launched in 1984 as a 40-foot Navy personnel boat, built by Willard in California, and I rescued her from a used equipment yard in Long Beach, California. A Homer boatbuilder constructed to my design a spacious wheelhouse with dinette and two guest cabins, also adding a galley, head, and seating and bunks for seven. Inconnu's main cabin windows are Lexan and are screwed to the outside of the cabin walls, rather than set in frame, so as to withstand heavy seas. We doubled the size of the fuel tanks and installed a water tank and all new electrical, plumbing, and fuel systems. She carries the standard complement of electronics, mostly inexpensive but adequate low-end models.
Alaska winters are brutal on boats, so I designed Inconnu to be simple, rugged, and easy to maintain, with a minimum of wood, and basic mechanical and electrical systems. Some interior bulkheads are surfaced with an attractive wood veneer, and there is a little interior oak trim. Otherwise, surfaces inside and out are painted and can go years with minimal cosmetic maintenance.
A hydraulic anchor winch holds more than 50 fathoms of rode. I carry a 44-lb. anchor and, for a spare, a big Fortress with its own rode, as well as a 12-foot parachute-type sea anchor for emergencies. The smooth Detroit 6-71 is more power than I need but very reliable, and the 2,700 lb. of steel and cast iron composing the engine and the big Allison reduction gear provides good ballast. A crankcase vent filter system keeps the engine room clean and prevents engine oil leaks. We placed good soundproofing around the engine room, and at cruising speeds of 1200/1400 rpm, there's no discernable blower whine.
A heavy steel rudder shoe braced by a substantial Vstrut protects the prop and rudder in case we hit a log or run aground. It's pretty much a necessity, since bouncing bottom is a frequent occurrence in Bristol Bay, and there are drift logs and deadheads on the Gulf. I carry a 10- foot hard-bottom inflatable on the boat deck aft that I launch and retrieve with a davit on the port side. A welded safety rail surrounds the entire deck.
Aside from the low-maintenance interior and a few more bunks than most boats her size, Inconnu is basically a standard semi-displacement hull recreational vessel. Though she is capable of 12 knots, it's not practical to run faster than the 8- to 9-knot hull speed due to the difficulty of obtaining fuel in remote locations. Besides, where I travel, the sea is rarely calm enough to permit moving any faster.
GETTING UNDER WAY
This year I had planned an abbreviated tourist season, because I had committed to a charter with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, providing boat support for a survey of seabird nesting colonies in the Walrus Islands and along a 100-mile stretch of mainland coast. With the charter finished, I returned to Dillingham the last week of July 2006, then waited five days for a favorable weather forecast for the 300-mile open-ocean passage to False Pass.
At last, on the drizzly morning of Aug. 2, the National Weather Service provided the cheery outlook I'd awaited: winds westerly to 15 knots, seas to 4 feet. I collected Dan, loaded the last supplies, said a quick round of goodbyes, and shoved off at 11 a.m. to catch the ebb down the Nushagak.
I know from years of experience that forecasts in western Alaska are little more than guesses. The region is so huge and there are so many localized conditions, only occasionally is the weather as predicted. After all, the Aleutians are the "cradle of storms" for the whole north Pacific, and weather develops more quickly than forecasters can anticipate.
Still, I felt a little betrayed as I passed Ustinoff Shoals at the 20-mile-wide mouth of the Nushagak, only 40 miles south of Dillingham, and the benign forecast turned to 20-knot southwest winds and a steep 6- to 10-foot chop. At least we had the broad mouth of the Egegik, protected by barrier dunes from the southwest, for relief.
Still in range of continuous VHF weather broadcasts, I was encouraged by the forecast for the next day, which called for winds diminishing and shifting to the east. It appeared we would be able to parallel the coast, staying just outside the breakers, and have an easy ride. Early the next morning we caught another ebb and soon were gobbling 9 or 9-1/2 nautical miles each hour. We steamed past Ugashik; the sun came out and we felt fine passing Cinder River and approaching Port Heiden. The afternoon forecast called for 35 knots at Heiden, but still from the east, so we kept bombing down the coast.
Late in the evening we saw a fish tender some miles seaward of us, the first vessel we'd spotted since leaving Egegik 13 hours before, and I yakked on the VHF with the skipper of the vessel, soon identified as Island Trader. He encouraged us to run with him to False Pass, but I wanted to see the walruses at Cape Seniavin in the daylight and was getting tired. The skipper invited us to stop at his cannery, called Squaw Harbor, when we got to the Shumagin Islands, and I made a note to look for it.
As darkness overtook us at 11 p.m., I tucked up to the beach and anchored in 2 fathoms about 200 yards outside the breakers. By then the wind had shifted to the northeast and was running straight down the coast, and soon we were bucking on the anchor. I went out on deck once to add chafing gear at the roller, and I got up several times to check for drag. It was a miserable night.
Next morning, the situation was no better. Winds were northeast at 25 knots with a big following sea, and visibility was less than a mile. We passed Seniavin closely enough to see hundreds of walruses packed on the beach below the cliffs; otherwise, the view was the sounder, plotter, and radar, and the foaming combers sweeping past. The autopilot and I labored to keep us from broaching.
Late in the morning I asked on the radio if anyone listening had tips for crossing the bar at the entrance to Port Moller, and a tender skipper came back with some advice. We floundered in a couple of fathoms of water over the broad bar, trying to pick out buoys bounding in the combers. Eventually I got them lined up and found the tip of the low sand spit that supports the fish processing plant-and not much more-that constitutes Port Moller. We anchored behind the spit in a fleet of gillnetters who were enjoying a break from fishing.
The forecast called for another crummy day on the sea, so we planned to stay put. I ran into a pal from my fishing days who invited us to join a bunch of his friends in a potluck aboard his boat.
Dawn of Aug. 5 brought light winds and an optimistic feel to the air. We weighed anchor and rounded the spit to take on the Bering Sea once again. The sea was still lumpy at the mouth of the bay, and I thought about ducking into Nelson Lagoon but kept on going.
This time, the benign forecast turned out to be accurate. In 14 hours we steamed past Izembek Lagoon, watched Amak Island fall away behind us, and found the sea buoy off False Pass. I had dreaded the potentially hazardous entrance to False Pass, the narrow strait that separates the western end of the Alaska mainland from Unimak Island, the first major island of the Aleutian chain. Tidal currents sweep through the pass at upwards of 3 knots. When the flood at the entrance on the Bering Sea end counters northerly and westerly winds, wicked breakers can build across the entire opening.
But we were lucky, and, before a dramatic sunset, we slid between the channel markers into the calm waters of the strait and found a quiet anchorage near the cliffs below Traders Mountain on the mainland side of the pass. We could see the lights of the Aleut village of False Pass twinkling on the Unimak shore below the snowcovered dome of Roundtop Mountain.
TIME FOR SOCIALIZING
The next day was Sunday, and we went ashore to the village to inquire about fuel, but the fuel dock operator was not at home. We motored up the channel and anchored off Stonewall, the seasonal home of Buck and Shelley Laukitis, two of my friends from Homer. Buck was out long-lining for halibut, but Shelley and the girls and some of Shelley's relatives were at the homestead. We had coffee and examined their Pelton wheel, a DC generator that harnesses the flow of water in a small creek nearby to supply all power to their home. Shelley gave us some vegetables from her cold frame, which she uses to extend the growing season.
We waited out the tide and then made the six-hour run to the next village, King Cove. Arriving in the evening, we found our way into the snug boat harbor and tied up for the night. King Cove is a busy place, serving the salmon, halibut, black cod, and crab fleets, as well as numerous tenders and transport vessels.
We got fuel and water and were under way by midmorning the next day, bound for the Shumagin Islands. We passed the abandoned Aleut sea otter hunting village of Belkofski, and I could see that even fewer of the buildings remained standing than when I had last seen it 10 years ago. Light winds, sunny skies, and sightings of humpback whales made this the most pleasant day of the voyage.
We hadn't seen a tree since we'd left Dillingham; the southern Bering Sea coast is mainly tundra. In summer, the mix of short, dense shrubs and grasses on the islands of the eastern Aleutians is green as pool-table felt. Cliffs hundreds of feet high line the shore, and distant vistas reveal volcanic peaks, like the perfect cone of Popov, suspended above the mist. One king crabber and salmon tender passed us midday, and we spotted a couple of other tenders in the evening, the only signs of humanity.
That evening we made Sand Point, tied up in the boat harbor amid dozens of gillnetters and big purse seiners, and walked up the dusty road through the village. The few shops were closed, and it seemed most of the local residents were roaring past us in four-wheel drive pickups, headed for their boats to get out for the salmon fishing opening. Squaw Harbor wasn't on my charts, but we learned that it's on Baralof Bay, only a few miles down Unga Strait from Sand Point. We untied and ran down the strait as the sun lowered on the horizon, passing a few seiners and a big fin whale along the way. The hills of the Shumagins are blanketed in dense stands of alders, and the landscape was somewhat gentler than what we had passed the previous couple of days.
We found the Squaw Harbor cannery at dusk and were surprised to see Island Trader alongside. I called on the VHF, and a crewman told us to tie to one of the docks. A small greeting committee consisting of the watchman and two teenagers met us and invited us up to tour the site.
Island Trader's energetic and seasoned skipper, Ted Moorhouse, had recently purchased the derelict cannery from a fish processing company and was using it mainly as a moorage for several large salmon tenders. His cheerful 19-year-old daughter, Wendy, one of the greeters, showed us around the facility, a veritable museum of early 20th-century fish processing technology.
Wendy had already had several seasons of tendering experience and told me she will run one of the big wooden power scows in Bristol Bay this year. The watchman lives in the huge, drafty machine shop, which contains tools and parts to maintain and repair virtually any kind of boat. Ted told me of his plans to turn the old cannery into a maintenance facility for large fishing industry vessels.
I asked the watchman if anywhere in the well-stocked supply room there might be a ring connector of the correct size to attach my HF coaxial cable to the antenna. He searched the parts boxes and found what I needed. I had bought a single-sideband radio and paid a technician to install the antenna tuner and power wiring, but in my haste to start the season, I'd left before the installation was complete. I had mounted the antenna and pieced together all the components while under way, but when I reached the final step, I found I didn't have the right connector.
Since most of my route was outside the range of VHF shore stations, I'd been unable to get weather forecasts in these areas or call the Coast Guard in case of an emergency. The satellite phone is a poor second to HF. Now, with the missing piece in hand, I was able to connect the antenna. I put out a radio check call on 4125MHz, the emergency and calling frequency in Alaska, and was thrilled to get a reply from Air Station Kodiak, some 200 miles away.
Under darkening skies and a building southwest wind, we said goodbye to Sand Point and left the sheltered Shumagin Island passes for the open Pacific and the ragged coastline to the northeast. We spent the day rolling heavily in a quartering sea.
Eager to put as much ocean behind us as possible, I twice revised my day's plan, selecting more distant points as my destination. After passing Stepovak Bay and the rugged cliffs of Mitrofania Island, we finally anchored at dark behind Seal Cape in a deep fjord called Devil's Bay. Since leaving Sand Point 12 hours earlier, we had seen only two other vessels, both large ocean-going tugs with barges in tow.
We left the fjord at 6:45 and about three hours later passed the dramatic headland known as Castle Cape. Seiners bobbed like toy boats, working just off the base of the cliffs. We soon entered Chignik Bay, tied to the dock, and took fuel. Chignik is the last fuel stop for 350 nautical miles, and we rode the company bus around the bay to the business office and general store, where I paid the fuel bill and bought a few groceries. Originally an Aleut village, Chignik now is a company town; the fish processor provides virtually all of the services and employment in the village.
We got under way again in the early afternoon and were soon rolling in a stiff southwest breeze. To save travel time and increase the chances of seeing wildlife, I tend to cut corners rather than run long, straight courses offshore. This day, the shortcuts wound us through a maze of unmarked reefs and rocks.
With the intention of saving money and precious storage space, I had purchased a folio of reduced-sized charts for the trip from Bristol Bay to Kachemak Bay. Each chart is a two-thirds size, black-and-white copy of a NOAA chart. I discovered that the folio was missing one page, so for more than a day I had only the largescale running chart for reference. Furthermore, I found that the copies were made from outdated charts and did not accurately portray nav markers and other features (not that there are many nav markers in the region). The compressed imagery, lacking color coding, is difficult to read. And I found that the C-Map card in my little Sitex plotter lacked detail in some areas. I was navigating a pretty challenging route with less than optimal tools.
One other problem: my JRC color depth sounder had quit in False Pass, then come back to life, then faltered frequently and unpredictably throughout the remainder of the voyage.
My observation is that there are two kinds of navigators. One plans meticulously and relies heavily on the accuracy of his or her charts, cruising guides, and electronic navigation tools. The other eschews detailed planning and instead integrates the five senses with charts and instruments to develop a flexible and continually evolving navigation process. I'm one of the latter, and if I have even a large-scale running chart and at least one of my instruments (depth sounder, radar, or GPS/plotter), I can usually muddle through.
This, in my judgment, points to the folly of the current trend toward integrated electronics. If one of my key instruments fails (and, over the years, each one has), I still have two working to keep me out of trouble, which should be more than enough. But if you put all of your eggs-depth sounder, GPS, plotter, and radar-in the one basket of a single display unit, a fried circuit or blown fuse suddenly leaves you helpless. Of course, if you have the money and space for backup units, you may protect yourself from the one-blown-fuse scenario. But I believe that the physical act of shifting focus from one instrument to another forces you to look out the window more often, and it is this visual contact with the real world that fosters safe operation.
Our luck held, and we poked our way into a rocky anchorage behind Cape Kumlik, just south of the Aniakchak River. At 6:30 the next morning, we were under way through a tide-swept rock garden once more; this time, the thrill was enhanced by a dense fog. I ticked off what I believed to be the rocks and islets that showed on the chart, and gradually the atmosphere cleared as the breeze increased. With the wind behind us and the tidal currents mostly favorable or neutral, we covered a lot of miles.
We passed Chiginagak Bay and Agripina Bay and Kilokak Rocks and Wide Bay (where, some years ago, Inconnu and I had taken a thrashing by west winds hurtling down the mountain passes). We also passed Puale Bay and Cape Kekurnoi, as well as hundreds of islands, rocks, reefs, and points, both named and unnamed. The dramatic landscape of the Alaska Range dominated the view, and that evening we anchored behind another windswept rocky point at a place known as Big Alinchak.
At 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, we had the anchor up and were under way. Our route kept us close to more capes and offshore rocks. The view was unfailingly breathtaking; we were boating in the mountains. The 7,000-foot peaks of the Alaska Range, replete with glaciers and snowfields, seemed close enough to touch from the wheelhouse door.
I had heard about Geographic Harbor, and with the continuing miserable ride on Shelikof Strait, it was an easy decision to take the side trip into the bay. We slipped into the narrow tidal passage, which leads between basaltic cliffs and knobby hills choked with alder thickets to a gem of a harbor.
The country here is part of Katmai National Park, though you'd be hard pressed to find any sign of the Park Service, or anyone else, along most of the 650-mile stretch of wilderness coastline between Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Islands.
It was a warm day for August, with temperatures in the mid-50s. Still, a 25-knot southwesterly wind pushed 6- to 10-foot seas out on the strait. We anchored in the narrow entrance and took the inflatable to the inner bay. At least a dozen grizzly bears were digging clams on the minus tide, oblivious to us and to skiffs from a tour boat. We watched the bears in silence from the water, surrounded by snow-cloaked peaks that nearly enclosed the harbor.
A friend of mine from Homer, Clint Hlebechuk, has a bear-watching camp at Hallo Bay, which is more like a 20-mile-wide indentation on the coast of Shelikof Strait than a proper bay. I wanted to see Clint's place but didn't know exactly where it was. We left Geographic the next morning, and when we got to Hallo I tried calling him on the VHF. Eventually he replied, directing me to Kaguyak, a long-abandoned Aleut village.
As we approached, I spied skiffs on the beach and antennas poking above the alders, so I anchored about a quarter mile out in 2 fathoms on a flood tide. The winds on Shelikof had diminished, and the break on the beach was only a couple of feet. We launched my tender and wove our way between a few rocks to make a dry landing. A short way down the beach, a bear was fishing in the surf at the mouth of a pink salmon creek.
Clint graciously showed us around his camp and fed us lunch. His clients were out with guides, so we had the place to ourselves. Although the guest cabins are Weatherport tents, the place has the feel of a first-class ecotourism resort. Clint is particularly proud of his stateof- the-art composting toilets.
Under way again at 4 o'clock, we passed through rafts of sea otters at the edge of kelp beds on the north side of Hallo Bay, and we started seeing real trees: small spruces that mark the front line of spruce expansion facilitated by a warming climate. That evening, we made our last anchorage of the voyage at a keyhole bay called Sukoi ("dry" in Russian), surrounded by low basaltic cliffs at Cape Douglas.
The cape divides Shelikof Strait from Cook Inlet and sits at the base of Mount Douglas. Thirty miles north is Mount Augustine, the volcano that erupted last winter; a dozen miles to the west is Fourpeaked Mountain, which suddenly started blowing steam and ash, for the first time in 10,000 years, a few weeks after our passage.
The forecast for our Cook Inlet crossing was not encouraging: southwest winds at 25 knots on the Shelikof and northwest at 25 on Cook Inlet. On still waters, these winds would not have been of much concern, but Cook Inlet has swift tidal currents. I pulled anchor at 6 a.m. on Aug. 13, hoping to make the 90-mile crossing and run up Kachemak Bay before the winds built. For a couple of hours, I thought I'd succeeded. I turned over the helm to Dan and went down to my bunk; four hours out, I was roused by lively motion. From the wheelhouse I saw that the wind and tide had worked their sinister magic on the inlet. Standing at the helm, my eye is 10 feet above the waterline. I was looking up at the collapsing crests of confused seas sweeping past us.
I studiously avoid rough water, although over the years my definition of rough water has changed. Three factors influence that perception: discomfort, fear, and real danger. If you pilot a small boat along the outside coast of Alaska, you learn to live with discomfort. Fear stems mostly from knocking against the outer limits of your previous experiences; cross that threshold into a new experience (big waves, darkness, fog, leaving sight of land), and the fear diminishes.
Unlike the other two elements, danger is a physical factor, rather than an emotional one. Many potential dangers are out there, but as long as you pay attention to your position and look ahead once in a while so you don't hit anything, there's really not much to worry about. A well-found, properly maintained boat is quite safe in prevailing summertime conditions. Maintain propulsion and steering and avoid blowing out windows in breaking seas, and there really isn't much that can go terribly wrong. Usually, my aversion to rough water has more do to with discomfort and fear than real danger.
We were tossed like a toy for seven hours, until we passed Point Pogibshi and Dangerous Cape. We then rode following seas up Kachemak Bay to the Homer Spit and tied up in the boat harbor.
In the last three days and 300 miles, before entering Kachemak Bay, we had seen only three other vessels: one bear tour boat in Geographic Harbor and two scallopers on the horizon in Shelikof. It had indeed been a trip of solitude.
I've run small commercial and recreational boats in Alaskan waters since the 1970s, and I made my first trips up the Inside Passage in a plywood dory with only a depth sounder, magnetic compass, and wristwatch for navigation. Don't get me wrong; I savor the comfort and security of sheltered bays.
But for adventure and stunning scenery, the wild and lonely waters of southwest Alaska provide the best cruising of all. With a rugged and capable little boat, there is much joy in remote passages.