2004 Sep 5: Sitka to Petersburg to Wrangell

Our daughter and her family boarded their planes for home, and we prepared ADAGIO for her passage south to her winter berth on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We enjoyed a final meal at our favorite Ludvig’s Bistro.

On September 5 we departed New Thomsen Marina, Sitka, Alaska. Our first destination was to be Tracy Arm to see the Sawyer Glacier. The weather was clearing, and we could see the mountain peaks in their snowy splendor.

We were East of Scraggy Island at 2:30 PM, and slowed our speed to arrive at Sergius Narrows 30 minutes before slack tide. Our cruising guide says, “At ebb tide Sergius Narrows is dangerous, with tide rips and turbulence.” A few showers filled the skies. At 3 PM we passed through Kakul Narrows with a favorable current of 1-1/2 knots. Ahead it looked like more rain showers. We were looking for whales. We entered Sergius Narrows at 3:45 PM, in light rain, at slack high tide. No current was visible at the base of the navigation marks. Several small sport fishing boats passed through going both directions. Our passage through was a piece of cake!

We followed the channel called Peril Strait, formed by an ancient fault, which passes between Chichagof and Baranof Islands. The name comes from an incident in 1799 when a party of 100 Aleut hunters died of paralytic shellfish poisoning after eating quantities of mussels.

Passing Nismeni Cove, we headed for an overnight anchorage at Appleton Cove in the east arm of Peril Strait. Light rain and some fog was all around, but we still had good visibility. We rounded the Duffield Peninsula at the north end of Baranof Island, seeing the shoreline of Chichagof Island across the strait to port. This land is forest-covered mountains of spruce and hemlock, separated by glacier-carved fjords. We were cruising among the “ABC Islands” (Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof) that constitute the northwest quarter of the beautiful Tongass National Forest.

At 7 PM we set our anchor in 6 fathoms in the west end of Appleton Cove. In the soft bottom, our anchor dragged very slowly while setting at 1000 rpm. We avoided crossing a line of four round floats strung out from shore, across the head of the bay. They might be attached to a fish net. We did not want to find out the hard way. The rain was easing, allowing brief glimpses of some blue sky. When the sun set at 7 PM there was still lots of light in the sky.

On September 6, on a beautiful, quiet morning, totally overcast with low clouds, we raised anchor and entered the east arm of Peril Strait, passing a fishing boat which was pulling in salmon on what looked like a longline.

The wind had already turned to the northeast as we passed between Pt. Craven on Chichagof Island to the north and Fairway Island near Baranof Island to the south, and entered Chatham Strait. Turning south just east of Midway Reef, Chatham Strait was a little bumpy coming out of Peril Strait, but became smoother with seas astern.

After lunch, the seas were calmer, waterfalls lay to starboard, and a clearing sky lay ahead. The barometric pressure was up to 1021, and the wind had decreased. Occasional rain sprinkles. By 2:00 PM we were five nautical miles northwest of Pt. Gardner, the southern tip of Admiralty Island. Clouds had cleared somewhat, revealing the white mountain peaks and hanging glaciers on Baranof Island.

Just south of Point Gardner we spotted two Humpback whales, spouting and sounding, feeding around the kelp. Several more humpbacks were feeding across the channel to the southeast, their white, steamy spouts contrasting sharply against the dark hills behind.

At 4 PM we anchored in Chapin Bay on the SE corner of Admiralty Island, in 6 fathoms, over sand. It was a very pretty, quiet, still bay. The shores were thickly forested from the waters edge to the mountain peaks. Wispy white cloud fragments interwove their strands between the silhouettes of the dark green trees. Large white moon jellies pulsed their way through the water and were joined by large orange jellies with round star-shaped spherical heads with dangling tentacles. A kingfisher chattered in the trees and flew quickly to and from various perches in the shoreline trees. A small sailboat was anchored close to shore.

On the morning of September 7 we raised our anchor on a beautiful day, and changed our destination to Petersburg, the Norwegian fishing town. We had heard from several cruisers that Tracy Arm was full of house-sized icebergs, and we needed to get some better information about the situation. Also the barometer was falling, so we needed some up-to-date weather information. After all, we had to get south before the rain (and snow?) was so heavy we couldn’t see our way. There was still so much we did not understand about this area, even after reading books, guides and talking to locals. We will know more soon. We have seen humpback whales every day, and today sailed close to several pods who were heavily feeding. Mountain clouds were clearing and we could see the soaring peaks.

Our route through Frederick Sound took us between Turnabout island and Pinta Rocks, north of Kupreanof Island. We watched whales just northwest of Pinta Point. More whales ahead. The barometer continued to fall and the wind was increasing slowly. We passed a tug pulling a barge full of shipping containers and an Alaskan state ferry, both heading west as we headed east.

The small town of Petersburg was settled by Norwegians in 1900 when they established salmon canneries, and later canneries for herring, halibut and frozen shrimp. Decorated with paintings of traditional Norwegian floral designs called rosemaling, the historic buildings, sport tidy gardens as they line the orderly streets. All of this with expansive views of mainland glaciers in the Stikine-Le Conte Wilderness.

We spent one night in the town of Petersburg. Steve downloaded from the internet the latest weather forecasts, and we saw that a deepening low would be approaching our area over the next three days. We decided to continue south to the town of Wrangell, which has more facilities than Petersburg. To get there we had to make our way through the notorious Wrangell Narrows, 21 miles long, between Kupreanof and Mitkof Islands. To quote from the Coast Pilot, “The channel is narrow and intricate in places, between dangerous ledges and flats, and the tidal currents are strong.” Our passage through the Wrangell Narrows was as good as it gets. Under a sunny sky, with the glacier-covered mountains sparkling astern, the currents in the narrows never exceeded two knots, because of the neap tides of the quarter moon. Following the instructions in the Pilot, late on the flood tide, we left the dock a few minutes after the large Alaskan Fish and Game research vessel “KESTREL”, a very impressive boat with navy hull and gold bootstripe. We made the passage in two hours 15 minutes. At one point, about half way through the narrows, the boat was being swung slightly back and forth, back and forth, oscillating in the current. The navigation aids are numerous and well-placed, and the shoreline dotted with the occasional tiny peak-roofed cabin, each with a tiny boat launch ramp or small dock.

By noon, the northwest wind was up to 20 knots as forecast. The ride was a little bumpy. Our course took us through the channel between Sokolof and Vank Islands. Seas were on the beam until we were in the lee of Sokolof. On the other side of the islands was Zimovia Strait, and more wind waves on the beam.

As we approached the mainland, the water turned from a sparkling clarity to a milky appearance, due to snow-melt and tiny rock particles from the glaciers.

The Wrangell harbormaster is named Ladonna. Her assistant is named Steve. We tied up to the Reliance Harbor transient dock, next to the historic Shakes Island. This small island in the middle of the small-boat harbor is the site of a Tlingit Indian clan house and collection of totem poles constructed by Native workers, using traditional tools, in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930’s. Berthing ADAGIO within a stone’s throw of this historic site gave me goose-bumps, as I could imagine the lifestyle of the First Nations peoples two hundred years ago, before the arrival of Europeans.

Small fishing boats tied to the float ahead of us and astern were rafted together two and three abreast. ADAGIO was as wide as the two boats ahead of us, SALTY and MEMORIES, so we hoped no other boat would raft alongside ADAGIO and her fragile hulls. Almost all of the other boats in this harbor are small commercial fishing boats, smaller and quieter than the large fishing boats at Sitka. The owner of the boat, named DONICA LYN, across the narrow channel, one morning was sorting out his green fishing net with white floats. He carefully inspected it as he strung it out, and repaired it when he found a broken strand. Other local boat names were SAVAGE, NESTOR, SCANDIA, CHELSEA L, ISLAND DANCER and SEA SPRAY.

Locals looked at me with longing when I said that a storm was coming bringing rain. Wrangell was suffering from a long drought and was almost out of water. Water had been turned off at the marina. The best internet cafe was the library. The best restaurant was said to be Zack’s.

I had been looking forward to visiting the Wrangell museum which displays an excellent collection of Native artifacts, including a Tlingit spruce wood canoe, thought to be the only one left in existence. One afternoon I walked to the Wrangell Petroglyph Beach State Historical Park where petroglyphs had been chipped into rocks above high tide. They are thought to be very old, pre-dating the Tlingit peoples. Finding each carving in the stone took some careful observation, and getting the angle of the light just right. As I walked among the rocks, suddenly a face would appear, carved into the rock, or a spiral or other shape would reveal itself.

Black bears and brown bears can be viewed from a platform at the Anan Wildlife Observatory, as they catch salmon swimming upstream. When we inquired, we were told that there were no bears to observe this year because of the drought. Not enough rainfall meant not enough water in the streams for the salmon, so there were no salmon for the bears.

The children of Wrangell sell to the tourists beautiful semi-precious garnet stones. The garnet ledge on the Stikine River was deeded in 1962 to Wrangell’s children who are the only ones allowed to sledgehammer and chisel off garnet-studded rocks from the site. Each garnet is about the size of a large marble, dark translucent red in color and multifaceted.

One morning the local radio announcer said, “Nobody out there is upset because it is raining”. The barometer fell to 992 MB overnight, then rose. Showers came in the afternoon. I was not sure what happened to the forecast wind. The following day the sky was heavy with dark grey clouds all around, and the wind picked up. On September 13 a cold front passed through during the night.

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