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Our crew of four are gathered in the organized quiet of the pilothouse as my Fleming 65, Venture, slips through the glassy waters of Icy Strait, en route to Dundas Bay. Ahead, the snowcapped peaks of the Coast Range straddle the Alaskan horizon. Chris Conklin, Venture’s longtime captain, suggests that, with weather this good, we should seize the opportunity to head instead to infamous Lituya Bay.

We are all in instant agreement. With a spin of the wheel, we alter course 90 degrees and turn into the aptly named Cross Sound. In the distance, we glimpse Cape Spencer Light marking the entry into the formidable Gulf of Alaska.

Tony Fleming on the bow of Venture, back in Alaska.  

Tony Fleming on the bow of Venture, back in Alaska.  

Lituya Bay lies 40 miles north in the open waters of the gulf, and it is essential to be at its tricky entrance at high water slack. We estimate we will arrive too early, so we turn into narrow Dick’s Arm at the back side of the lighthouse to reset our ETA. On shore, we spot a mother brown bear grazing on sedge grass while her two boisterous cubs gambol nearby.

Once we enter the open waters of the gulf, the wind is gusting to 20 knots, kicking up choppy seas. Sheets of dazzling spray, backlit by the lowering sun, sweep the windshield. A commercial fishboat, following in our wake, calls on the VHF radio to ask where we are going. The clear skies provide stunning views of the Fairweather Range, a line of magnificent, snowcapped mountains dominated by Mount Fairweather rising to more than 15,300 feet. Its summit delineates the border between Canada and the United States. La Perouse glacier, named after a French admiral who explored this coast in the 18th century, displays its dramatic icy face when viewed through binoculars.

Crossing Dixon Entrance 

Crossing Dixon Entrance 

We reach the rock-strewn entrance to Lituya Bay shortly before sunset at 10:30 p.m. At flood, the outgoing current can reach 12 knots, but our timing is right. The water at the entrance dances to its own mysterious rhythm, and waves from the gulf are manageable as we pass through the narrow channel. There are range markers, but the inner beacon lies hidden in the trees and only makes a fleeting appearance after we are convinced it is missing.

Once inside, all is calm as we head past Cenotaph Island and its colony of wheeling kittiwakes to the same anchorage we have previously used, toward the head of the bay dominated by magnificent, snow-clad mountains. We spend two days in this alluring place with its wicked history: Lituya Bay is infamous for being the scene of the highest recorded gravity wave at 1,720 feet, triggered by an earthquake in July 1958. It stripped the shoreline down to bedrock.

Fords Terror is among our favorite anchorages. On this trip, with the drone, we were able to capture the spectacle of the tide rushing though the narrow channel.  

Fords Terror is among our favorite anchorages. On this trip, with the drone, we were able to capture the spectacle of the tide rushing though the narrow channel.  

We put plans to go ashore on hold as, while looking for a place to land on La Chaussee spit, a female brown bear with two cubs appears from the undergrowth followed by a large male.

To reach this bewitching place, we had departed Sidney on Vancouver Island on June 4, and made our way north up the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. It’s a path we have followed many times in Venture, but we had resolved that on this journey—our first after a Covid hiatus of two years—we would make it a priority, once we had reached our northing, to follow an outside route, weather permitting.

The entry into Rene’s Relief, on the west coast of Baranof Island in the northern Alexander Archipelago.  

The entry into Rene’s Relief, on the west coast of Baranof Island in the northern Alexander Archipelago.  

And so, after departing Lituya Bay, we remained in the gulf all the way south to Sitka along the coast of Chichagof Island. From there, we continued down the west coast of Baranof Island and rounded its southern tip at Cape Ommaney.

Most recreational boaters avoid the exposed west coast because the open Pacific is seldom calm compared to those more protected waters. The only vessels we usually see here are commercial fish boats working hard for their living, and people whose passion for recreational fishing has convinced them it is good value to spend hours bouncing up and down in tumultuous seas aboard a small boat several miles offshore.

Venture approaching Endicott Arm, one of two fjords located within the 653,000-acre Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.  

Venture approaching Endicott Arm, one of two fjords located within the 653,000-acre Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.  

Venture has a stainless steel anchor chain that flakes beautifully in the anchor locker, but is so shiny that paint will not adhere to it, so we cannot color code. We rely on our chain counter to know how much chain we have out, and along this coast, it can often reach 400 feet. After the counter goes on strike, we resort to using multicolored cable ties secured at 50-foot intervals along the length of the chain. These have a short lifespan. After dismantling the windlass, Chris diagnoses a faulty sensor. The nearest town to which a replacement can be sent is Sitka, so we head back north along Chatham Strait, up the east coast of stunningly beautiful Baranof Island. Reaching Sitka from the east means passage through Peril Strait, which requires careful navigation and paying close attention to the tides.

With the chain counter fixed, we follow our usual practice of pushing our limits and exploring interesting, narrow waterways. This time, we travel south through Keku Strait, which we had previously avoided because of the dire warnings in Don Douglass’ book Exploring the Inside Passage to Alaska. It states that some turns are so abrupt, they require the use of a bow thruster. We time our transit to coincide with the start of a rising tide at Entrance Island, where the initial green marker has toppled over. Although requiring careful navigation, the strait is not especially difficult to transit (and we did not have to use the bow thruster).

A black bear explores Prince of Wales island. 

A black bear explores Prince of Wales island. 

We anchor in the northeast lobe of Labouchere Bay, and awake the following morning to gray skies and a fog band along the horizon. An ultra-low, minus tide reveals skeins of hitherto invisible rocks. We appear to be hemmed in by a combination of fog and skerries—so different from yesterday evening. But the barricade is all an illusion as we thread our way between myriad islands and islets, each wearing its wig of trees.

Next, we pass through Capitan Passage, which separates Prince of Wales Island from Kosciusko Island. It is deeper but even narrower in places than Keku Strait, which, to me, makes it more scenic and interesting. One section is named Dry Pass, so presumably, it has been dredged at some time. We have never before explored Prince of Wales Island but, based on what I have seen this year, I believe it is worth serious attention. It is even possible to hire a car from several locations, including the town of Craig, where we tried to get a berth in the marina. Sadly, they were full and we had to anchor in the northern harbor in the company of large commercial fish boats and tenders.

Crewmember Christine Edwards in the kayak on a nature paddle.

Crewmember Christine Edwards in the kayak on a nature paddle.

It’s impossible to describe the drama of navigating tidal channels without including Fords Terror. This magical place is an inlet off Endicott Arm, 50 miles south of Juneau. It is only safe to enter at slack water—preferably high water slack. Slack water in the narrows does not coincide with high or low tide. Instead, it occurs when the height of the water inside the inlet matches that of the water on the outside. The tidal range in Endicott Arm at springs can reach 20 feet, but the narrow entrance restricts the rate at which the water can enter the inlet, so water continues to rush into it even while the tide outside is still on its way down. This flow continues until the levels are equal. Then, just for mere moments, the currents in the inlet will be still before reversing direction.

Fords Terror is perhaps our favorite anchorage. Although we have visited it on several occasions, we have never been able to observe the spectacle of seeing the tide rushing though the channel. This time, we have a drone and are able to anchor the tender just beyond the reach of the current.

Seals lounge on ice floes in Endicott Arm. 

Seals lounge on ice floes in Endicott Arm. 

Heading south, we re-enter Canada at Prince Rupert, where we moor at the Cow Bay Marina. In line with our plans to navigate the exposed west coast whenever possible, we avoid the Inside Passage and head for the open ocean. Here, we are really on the outer edge of the continent with the next piece of land due west being the Aleutians, many miles away. We head toward Swindle Island and Price Island to anchor in Higgins passage. This is an amazing area with countless islands and bays, all of which are basically out of reach if the weather outside is rough­, which is usually the case.

The following morning, we continue south through open waters before tucking back inside at Calvert Island to anchor in Pruth Bay where, in complete contrast to the past few weeks, we find ourselves in the company of many other boats.

Capt. Chris Conklin and crew fixing the chain counter.  

Capt. Chris Conklin and crew fixing the chain counter.  

We cross Queen Charlotte Sound, passing Cape Caution in fair conditions. In Queen Charlotte Strait, we see the rocks where both of Capt. George Vancouver’s ships ran aground and found themselves in great peril in August 1792. We visit North Island Marina at Port McNeill, a favorite stopover for cruisers who often park their boats for extended periods while taking a break.

Johnstone Strait, dividing Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland, has a bad reputation but presents no difficulties. Morphing into Discovery Passage, it opens into the often boisterous Georgia Strait at the Campbell River. Just as we arrive, we hear a barely audible mayday call from the Victoria Coast Guard concerning an adrift, 16-foot boat without fuel just south of Texada Island. Being in the vicinity, we respond.

Venture on Takatz Bay on Chichagof Island’s east coast.  

Venture on Takatz Bay on Chichagof Island’s east coast.  

We are just able to pick out the subject boat, which is difficult to see in the choppy water. We pass the one male occupant what little gasoline we have on board, but it is insufficient for him to reach a fuel source. We stay with him until a Coast Guard boat arrives to shepherd him home on Vancouver Island. It was miracle that his weak mayday call was picked up and relayed by a passing tug towing a huge barge. Had it not been, the outcome might have been very different.

Our cruise to Alaska culminates with Venture being on public display in both Vancouver and Seattle. During the previous three months, we spent 62 nights at anchor and covered 3,215 nautical miles, bringing Venture’s cruising total up to 71,580 nm. 

This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue.

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