The following is a letter received from members Patrick and Alyssa several months ago as they continue to make their way about the Pacific. We’ve added a map to help picture their stops along the Alaskan coast.
It has been a while since I have sent an update.
Here is Sand Point – Juneau.
Please let us know how you are doing as well!
Our 2 new starters arrived at General Delivery in Sand Point.
We installed one, stored one away, said our sad goodbyes and headed east.
Our neighbor of the last 2 weeks, Jack, had his fishing spot around the corner on the way out. He invited us to come watch his operation. Jack works year-round as a commercial fisherman, but sets aside the month of August to fish with his wife and son. His spot is right under a waterfall.
We helped to unload a net and from his catch we were gifted 11 silver salmon.
Each salmon became 2 fillets, which were carefully stacked into a five-gallon bucket, in between generous layers of course salt. We are super excited about this preservation method. They had brought two buckets of salted salmon with them to Hawaii and it lasted outside on the porch for 2 years. You have to soak it before cooking to wash away the excess salt.
We will let you know how it goes. Having a bucket of salted fish sure does feel “salty” though.
We had salmon sandwiches and headed off.
It was an incredible trip. We sailed through beautiful isolated anchorages along the Alaskan Peninsula. One of our favorite spots ever was called Agripina Bay. Absolutely the most incredible anchorage, it encompassed everything we were looking for in sailing Alaska, Patrick dubbed the mountains “the Sunken Sierras”. They rise thousands of feet straight above the ocean, a glacier, a river. We didn’t see any bears, but we felt so small tucked away in this gem of a cove.
Once we got to Kodiak, we were anxious to cross the Gulf of Alaska.
The consensus among the fisherman was that we needed to get across before September 1st when the September Gales start blowing. The Gulf of Alaska is a notoriously unfriendly body of water. We installed a new antenna and antenna cable to the top of the mast and waited for a window.
We were beginning to realize that breezing through Alaska may not be as “real quick” as expected, so we put a sign in the galley that reads “Let’s Be Unrealistic Together” and chuckle whenever we see it.
The weather forecast gave us a nice window to make Yakutat with time to spare, so we motored away, then sailed into the night. In the morning, I kicked my shoes off and climbed into “the nest”, the bed we sleep in on passages.
Suddenly, a little bird came and landed on my head! It jumped around both of us, and then landed on Patrick’s head! Tiny Bird gave itself a full tour, clearly not intending on leaving anytime soon. We decided we couldn’t have him pooping in the cabin, so Patrick made Tiny Bird a little house out of blue tape and cardboard, and put it into the cockpit. It was a fixer upper, but cozy.
To my surprise, Tiny Bird hopped right into his tiny house and slept the whole night there!
In the morning I was having tea on my watch when Tiny Bird hopped out of its house, and stood puffed up on the front porch. So cute. I went inside to make some pancakes, came back out, and poor Tiny Bird was legs up, on her back, dead. On the front porch of her new home.
The seas remained very calm with no wind, or very little, and we motored through the night. We should have guessed that was a bad omen!
We were moving more slowly than anticipated, the wind was zero and our engine was missing some of her usual “choooch”. The system was moving in faster than predicted so we altered course to Icy Bay. With 20 miles to go,
The wind picked up suddenly, blowing cold glacier air directly on our nose. Althea’s tacking angles were devastatingly defeating. We were losing hope, tacking parallel to where we wanted to go.
Between 12 & 4 it dramatically increased…
It was our first time in “I want my mommy” kind of weather.
Reducing sail from reef 1 to reef 2 on the main and pulling out our storm jib, the weather kept brewing.
We dropped the storm jib finding it difficult to move around on deck. When on the bow to take down the jib, it felt like being sky rocketed into space only to plummet back to earth, being submerged in ice, grey, green, cold, cold, water.
Under a double reefed main, we went down below to rest, dry and get out of the freezing weather.
Putting wet clothes on and going back outside to face the Gulf of Alaska was a feat within itself. When we emerged, we discovered the canvas roof was halfway off and our double reefed mainsail had 3 of 6 cars pulled out of the track. Back to work.
We hauled the storm jib up, tacked away from shore, and experienced great difficulty in getting the main down. Suddenly I looked over my shoulder and saw, beam on…
Patrick leaped as high as he could on the mast. I got low on the cabin top and grabbed the handrail.
Patrick saw the wave commute through the cockpit of Althea. I was waist deep in rushing water on top of the cabin.
What felt like hours later we had the storm try and storm jib up and were underway.
Dressed in our smallest suit of sail, we lashed down the helm and went down below.
Above deck there was horizontal rain, uncharted waters towards shore, and supposed massive swell further out to sea. We hove-to, from one tack to the other, staying between these two boundaries while keeping Kayak Island 60 miles downwind.
The wind blowing from Icy Bay was the coldest, most biting wind I have ever imagined, the water was churning and boiling and looked as icy cold as it felt.
We went back down below, took off our wet clothes, dried off and tried to warm up, all the while doting sweetly on one another.
Nothing like a storm in a small boat at sea to ignite the flames of passion.
We wished we had a heater that worked at sea.
The cockpit was pooped many times, waves finding all the cracks in our door.
When we lifted the floor boards we discovered we had taken on quite a bit of water, despite having been pumping all the while.
So we pumped the bilge until there was no doubt it was empty. We were exhausted.
As the system began winding down, another boat came into view on our AIS. It was fishing boat. We called to see how they were faring.
“You guys fishing halibut?” He said.
Jaws dropped, we looked at each other and exclaimed…
NO! We are just trying to survive!!…and then we had a good laugh.
It tempered down. By morning 0700, we were snuggled up together in bed, rocking in the sloppy afterswell. We didn’t want to get out of bed, but it was time to get underway.
We went down to check the engine before starting, only to discover an engine mount bolt had vibrated up and the oil dipstick had flown out and water had gotten in. Oil change underway was the solution, while bobbing around on a windless, lackadaisical sea.
Oddly, at this time, more than 50 black footed Albatros came, one by one, landing like sea planes and sitting just behind Althea in the dead calm, all facing us. It was very strange.
We couldn’t remember if Albatross were good luck or bad luck but we were spooked.
Our weatherman warned of another system coming our way. This is probably a good time to give a shout out to our weatherman Mike Shimer who was such an amazing friend throughout this whole deal, keeping us with updated reports through the night, absolutely invaluable. And through our whole trip in fact. It would be more practical to get the Iridium Go for accessibility to predict wind, but it’s just so much more fun to have a Shimer.
We got the engine going, but she was just not making her usual speed. So out came Nigel Calder and we spent the day studying the fuel systems of diesel engines, thinking perhaps we had a clogged fuel line somewhere from the tanks being all shaken up. We tried bleeding the injectors, fiddled with the lift pump, changed the filters, but weren’t able to fix the problem.
I climbed into our bilge and cleaned the mess up as best I could, Patrick sewed the cars back on the mainsail and we were back in business (sailing).
After the low passed, my body was so tired I couldn’t even lift a can. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, but I was lifting things like superwoman and my muscles weren’t ready for that. Patrick gave me the day off. While I rested in bed, Patrick was busy getting all the sail up.
He “opened the book” with the boomed-out Genoa and we plowed along directly towards our new destination of Elfin Cove. We decided to skip the sightseeing at Yakutat and Icy Bay and get the heck out of the Gulf as soon as possible. With another system predicted, we wanted to get into the relative safety of the Inside Passage.
We were sitting in the cockpit, excited about our incredible speeds of 6 and 7 knots when BAM! We hit something, it felt like a speed bump. But Big!
We looked back and saw a huge whale roll over and spout.
Oh. My. Goodness. We hit a whale.
Entry from the log:
1540: “Bumped a fricken whale I kid u not holy crap!”
We watched the bilges for a while after that, no water. WE LOVE YOU ALTHEA!!
Whales sleep on the surface of the water with their blowholes above the surface.
We probably interrupted some much-needed rest. I really hope that whale is okay.
Made the entrance to Icy Straights early in the morning, and had to wait for a flood tide.
Once we were nestled snugly behind Ron in Elfin Cove, one by one S/V Moorea, S/V Zoutrec and S/V Maple arrived.
So there we were, 5 boats, who a few months ago were sitting in Hanalei together planning our weather windows to get over the high and up to Alaska.
There was dockside dinner and beer drinking and harmonicas on the dock.
I did laundry, and we showered glorious hot showers.
We relaxed in this idyllic little cove town, very reminiscent of Sweet Haven from the Robin Williams version of Popeye, and with all the fun dramas too.
We mingled with the local fishermen, and celebrated again and again with all our sailing friends on the dock, sharing locally caught fish and meat in the form of salmon jerky, bear burgers, regular burgers, salmon sushi, and salmon pesto gnocchi.
We picked up some temporary work, helping to winterize a super awesome lodge where there is always a fresh pot of coffee on the counter, lunch and dinner. King crab, fresh caught shrimp, steak, and more from the incredible Chef Doog.
Our time there ended abruptly. The lodges shut down, the ferry stopped running, the planes stopped flying in, and Elfin Cove turned into a ghost town.
We began the journey to Juneau, where our solid fuel Dickinson heater was waiting for us.
About halfway, we stopped in a little cove called Swanson Harbor.
There were two docks in an otherwise empty bay, separated from the shore about 800’.
It was on this new dock that we made the acquaintance of a wonderful man named Al. Al had it all figured out. He has a bulletproof fishing boat with an aluminum overhead and partial siding, and the drip Diesel stove in his cabin. He works as a commercial fisherman during the summertime, and since the season was winding down, and a storm was rolling in, he was doing as so many people in Alaska do…he was preserving some of his catch for the winter.
And he had everything to do it right on board.
We admired as Al cut salmon filets to the size of small mason jars, smoked the filets, then canned them. Each can filled 2/3 with smoked salmon and 1/3 with raw salmon.
He was so excited about our salted catch from Sand Point, and gave us instructions should we choose to pickle it. He also shared some sea asparagus which he harvested himself, and gave us a few books and pointers on foraging and mushroom hunting in Alaska. Later we saw those same small sized jars of fresh canned salmon in the supermarket for $16.99!
Behind Al was another darling fishing family. Mother, father and two little girls.
Jessica was native Alaskan, and I admired the way she so naturally slung a rifle (shotgun?) over her shoulder to take the girls for a walk onshore. Her oldest daughter Milly, around 8, was a fishing machine. Her and Patrick spent a lot of time fishing on the dock together, catching cod, flounder and sand dabs.
This family spends the summers fishing together in the Inside Passage, and the winters on land. We all enjoyed hanging out with Al on his boat. Milly threw a crab trap in the water and up came 6 or 7 Dungeness Crab. So we even had a crab boil.
One beautiful morning, we all untied and set off in different directions.
We set our course to our new fireplace, which was waiting patiently for us at Air Freight in Juneau.
We decided after extensive googling to dock at Harris Harbor. It is right downtown, walking distance to the grocery store, gym, library, laundromat, thrift shop and a few coffee shops. At this point we were beginning to accept the fact that wintering in Alaska was on the horizon. We looked at the quote in our galley and chuckled,
“Let’s Be Unrealistic Together”.
On the one hand, we “just” had to install the new solid fuel heater and transmission “real quick” before continuing south before the winter arrives.
We looked at all of the projects we had put on the “later” board and decided that since we weren’t in any real rush to get south. Why not stay in Juneau?
Then, our neighbor pointed out the boat on the other side of him. “See that boat over there?” He asked.
“A couple from Florida shipped that boat up here last year. Thought they could last the winter. I asked them if they needed help putting a tarp up. They thought that would be enough (points to a handkerchief of a tarp tied on either side of the boom).
“I don’t know what happened.” He continued. “She complained of his drinking problem, but she got hauled off to jail one night. Last I heard he was back in Florida. No one’s been back to the boat.”
And if that wasn’t enough, we learned that the boat in our slip last year didn’t build a cover. The snow piled up on it, then froze, then it snowed again and it froze again and the owner never shoveled it off.
That boat sunk, right here where I am writing this letter from!
We love each other.
We want to make it through the winter, Together. With Althea.
So we built a plastic house around our boat, mimicking some of our neighbors as they built theirs. Particularly our neighbor Jerrell.
Jerrell built a perfect PVC frame and wrapped it in fancy snow wicking plastic. He built a toe-rail around his toe-rail and screwed the tarp into it with wooden cleats.
Let us backtrack a moment:
We met a man in San Diego whose old wooden boat had bullet holes in the hull supposedly from her participation in the Dunkirk evacuation in WWII.
We thought that was so cool.
So we built the tent very similar to Jerrell, except our ribs aren’t lined up perfectly, and don’t tell Matt Willis but we screwed the tarp right into our existing toe-rail.
Now when no-one asks us about the tiny holes in our toe rail we can tell them,
“Oh those little ole things?
That is from when we braved an Alaskan winter, walking a mile to work in the dark, in the ice, in the snow and in the blizzards…”
Fast forward a few weeks, and we are finally getting settled in.
The tarp has been completed.
I got a job at a sweet little café called The Rookery, working 5 days a week from 6:30-10:30am. Which leaves me plenty of time to try and develop a winter hobby like ice skating or snow shoeing or sledding.
Patrick got a job at the ice rink. He’s hoping to be driving the Zamboni by Christmas.
He’s excited to get on the mountain and snowboard on one of the only mountains on the island. Supposedly when you get to the top on a clear day, it is magnificent.
The mountains have snow on the tippy tops already and it is definitely getting cooler and cooler.
There have been a few mornings that the docks were frozen and it was a slippery walk to the parking lot!
Walking around town, there are ginormous ravens which line the sidewalks and bridges, bald eagles who sit on the streetlights, and once we found two baby bears on a staircase!
We love it up here. It is cold, but as long as we have the right clothes on, it’s refreshing to get those deep cold breaths of air.
Some mornings the mountains get a fresh dusting of snow, and the fog hangs around the top the mountains like its painted on, thin waterfalls plummeting 3,500 feet down Mt. Juneau. The docks get icy so we had to get some snow chains for humans which look like soccer cleats but more sharp, and the clip onto the bottom of our boots.
One morning I came outside and my forgotten coffee had turned into a Frappuccino.
Another morning when I put my cup of coffee on the deck, it started to slide off! Ice!
I got to whip around in a local’s car at full speed, making turns and braking on an iced over parking lot with strict instructions not to hit the streetlight (which was right in the middle of the parking lot), slip sliding and spinning out everywhere.
Patrick got to make bottle opener out of a railroad spike at a local homemade metal forge. And we have traded in our black pearls and are sporting fossilized walrus teeth necklaces these days.
When the days are nice, they are so incredibly enjoyed by everyone in the town. People beam and everyone exclaims, “Isn’t it beautiful?! What a beautiful day! This is why we live in Juneau.” Downtown Juneau sits between 2 tall mountains the Gastineau Channel and Douglass Island.
It is a stunningly beautiful city, people and buildings are full of character. The locals feel like they really get to reclaim their downtown in the wintertime because cruise ships and tourism have come to a halt.
Everything is working itself out, we love it up here in Alaska.
I wish I could write shorter emails more frequently but it doesn’t seem to happen that way.
So thanks for reading this novel! Miss you. Hope all is well.
Alyssa and Patrick