Still sailing the same silent sea. Photos by Nancy Krill (published January 2016)
“So you didn’t go anywhere this season…you only cruised Alaska”, is a refrain that, I must acknowledge, sometimes makes me rather testy. I hear it with some frequency, so I’ve managed to quell my annoyance and stoically reply, “Yes that’s so, but there’s really nowhere else that we’d rather cruise since we returned from all those years away.”
Perhaps, like the mariner in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I should stop myself and begin to narrate the tale of how, once, we were driven south until eventually we fetched up in Antarctica. Never did we suffer the torment of that ancient mariner’s “unfortunate predicament,” yet, like him, I seem forced to wander the earth telling my tale, until, like the epic poem’s Wedding Guest, my interlocutor wakes the next morning, “a sadder and wiser man.”
Perhaps, it be that I’ve been subsumed into that earlier 17th century nautical folklore myth, the tale of the Flying Dutchman, said to have influenced Coleridge. Have I been condemned to a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the same ocean forever?
Whichever myth best suits my “unfortunate predicament,” I’ll gladly suffer that albatross around my neck.
“Only” having cruised Alaska is to me no condemnation of eternal wandering. It is in fact a great privilege. What my frequent interlocutors may not fully appreciate is the stunning enormity of Alaska.
A fantastic 33,900 miles of shoreline that detail 6,640 miles of coast—twice the amount of the entire lower 48 states taken together! 29 active volcanoes, more active glaciers than the rest of the inhabited world and more area of continental shelf in the eastern Bering Sea alone than in all of the rest of North America, including Arctic Canada, combined!
Most Pacific Northwest cruisers are familiar only with the 1,000 miles or so of the Panhandle area of Alaska we commonly and simply call South East. Few venture beyond Glacier Bay National Park to Cape Spencer for the Gulf of Alaska. But that’s not even the half of it.
To the north and west of Cape Spencer a vastly different mariner’s paradise invites continued exploration. The terrain becomes much more rugged, the cruising much more demanding. Massive volcanoes dominate the mountains ashore. With each mile made to the west, the last of the Pacific Northwest rain forest falls farther behind, and the land is now devoid of heavy forests but is covered with a tundra-like heather carpeted with wildflowers. Even after all of these years, there is much left for me to discover, and at times Alaska still rewards me with great surprises, and makes me feel as though, in Coleridge’s words:
“The fair breeze blew,
the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free:
We were the first that ever burst
Into that Silent Sea ….”
In another way, however, there are some aspects of my experiences that might lead to the conclusion that I have in fact been at this forever. Anniversaries of various sorts lend some credence to this theory.
This spring marks both the 35th anniversary of my vocation or avocation as a mariner nearly full-time, and the 25th year for my boat Tamara as I began our season in early March (still winter in Prince William Sound). I was very much aware that 50 years earlier, the 1964 Good Friday earthquake had wrought utter devastation to some communities, as well as radically altered the topography, hydrology and geology of the region. Finally, as if geologic upheaval were not enough, this spring marked the 25th anniversary of the man-made devastation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
March found me still here, beginning yet another season aboard a boat, bound once again for an uncertain destination, but absolutely certain how elemental all of this remains to me. Yes, I know that I’ve done this all before—even the solo late winter cruise, for which I was honored with the Royal Cruising Club Trophy. A few months of winter alone aboard Tamara, for me, is the ideal way to begin another season of cruising. Nancy would join us later, after she completed another section of her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and then, once again, we’d set Tamara’s course westward.
Winter alone aboard a boat is, by its very nature, virtually pregnant with introspection. Relaxing aboard Tamara, secured in a secluded anchorage that I’d finally located after finding a few of my favorites frozen over, I reflected on how long I had indeed been at this game, and how familiar items and events had conspired to mark that time.
I had passed, earlier in the day, the exact spot where the Exxon Valdez fetched-up in 1989, and soon I’d pass the original site of Chenega, an Alaska Native village that had been obliterated in the 1964 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in the Northern hemisphere. Spruce trees on the shoreline, killed by the resultant tsunami and geologic subsidence, still stand as silver monuments.
Objects around us also serve in much the same way as anniversaries to mark the passage of time. Wearing my often darned and threadbare Norwegian fisherman’s sweater, I recalled an old New England adage that summed up the essence of Yankee frugality: “Eat it up wear it out make do or do without.” But both my old sweater and Tamara have come to represent much more than frugality, or even conservation, to me. They have become very trustworthy, very familiar, dear old friends.
As I looked around, I noted that there were many other things that have long served me faithfully, and continue to do so. Why give them up? These objects represent connections in the continuum of time. Perhaps, like the endless wanderings of the Ancient Mariner or the Flying Dutchman, these connections link me to the past. A rucksack that I bought 35 years ago, a handcrafted expedition sleeping bag that has served me for more than 40 years and a penknife that’s been in my jeans pocket for 45 years, until events forbade it when flying on airlines.
As the winter turned to spring, the first to shatter the deafening silence of winter and alert me to the impending summer were the Barrow’s Goldeneyes that flew into my anchorage. Soon other ducks, then ravens, then bald eagles joined me. When the first of the early return of Chinook salmon arrived, a small flock of eagles raucously tussled on the beach to share the catch.
Each night, crystal clear skies brought very low temperatures that froze over the sea water in the anchorage. But the absence of any fresh water flowing out atop the salt meant that the bright sun of the day cleared away the ice by noon, allowing me to row the inflatable wherever I chose. I chose a course well out of the secluded anchorage to the head of several small bights further up the bay, up into the mouths of the thawing streams, around the small islands and to the meadows that let me snowshoe and ski wherever I wished.
By mid-May, Nancy had completed another section of the trail and flew to Cordova, homeport to Tamara. A couple of days later we set out westward once again, as we had for several seasons before. This time we would make a concerted effort to search out very small, secluded and protected anchorages that we could use as protection from the frequent storms of the region, perhaps even in winter. Some were only hinted at on even the most detailed charts, some we’d only heard about from fishermen or hunters, and a couple had been reported to me by aircraft pilots.
Our plan was to cruise to as many of these potential anchorages as we could, survey with the portable electronic depth sounder mounted in the inflatable, and, if feasible, anchor Tamara inside for a few days in order to get a real feel for the place.
This search took us through Prince William Sound, the length of the Kenai Peninsula, across the Gulf of Alaska to Shuyak and Afognak Islands in the Kodiak archipelago, across Shelikof Strait to the Katmai National Park region of the Alaska Peninsula, and then a return by way of Kodiak to the sound.
Only on rare occasions did we encounter another yacht. Only two flew the U.S. flag. We met Finnish, French and Austrian yachts that had completed the Northwest Passage, Kiwis that had sailed to Alaska by way of Japan, a Swiss catamaran and a few others. For the most part, this region is devoid of cruising yachts once one departs Prince William Sound. I have written detailed cruising notes for many foreign yachts, some of whom we met as far away as Antarctica, and for others referred to us by friends and cruising acquaintances. But I do not intend to widely publish these notes, as the sense of discovery still rewards me each time we cruise these grounds, those visiting share in this same sense of discovery, and the very difficulty and challenge of cruising this region is its own reward.
A long train of easterly gales kept us pinned down for quite some time in a seldom-used anchorage at the head of Nuka Bay on the Kenai Peninsula called Home Cove. We found it to be very secure from all wind directions and not prone to the often-violent williwaws of this very mountainous region. The security of the place, even during the gales, let me row and Nancy kayak all about, with numerous seals hauled up on the rocks and playful sea otters back-stroking across the bay. For a time we shared the anchorage with another yacht, friends we had met in Tierra del Fuego who had come to Cordova the prior autumn.
Eventually, the weather cleared and allowed us to sail our separate courses, but during the next month our wakes would cross a couple more times. We relish our time alone in this wild place, but the very occasional reunions were the perfect social anecdote. Their cruise took them far to the west, to examine many places we’d talked about for hours during the intervening winter, their enthusiasm for the region every bit as expansive as our own.
Nancy works very hard to take photographs that not only illustrates our cruises and serve to keep my storytelling from straying too far from veracity, but, whenever possible, also accurately evoke the feeling of the place. This is a very difficult thing to do, capturing the essence of something so intangible, but she meets with much more success than I (much less visually oriented than she) could ever hope to achieve. As part of her approach to her craft, she insists on getting very close to her subject, and eschews long telephoto lenses. Obviously this has made some subjects, like Alaska’s huge brown bears, elusive. So she had set another objective for this season’s cruise—a better close-up of a large brown bear.
One of the greatest concentrations of the massive bears of Alaska is found on the Alaska Peninsula, part of which is included in the Katmai National Park and Preserve. We simply call all of them the brown bear, as the massive Kodiak brown bear and the grizzly bear are in fact the same species (Ursus arctos horribilis) with only very slight regional variations.
We’ve been to a number of Alaska Peninsula anchorages many times, and nearly always we have been fortunate to observe brown bears. but we have never really been close enough for Nancy to be satisfied. In Kukak Bay we’d despaired of getting close enough for the non-telephoto philosophy to yield good results, as the numerous bears were roaming the extensive river deltas that flow from the volcanic mountains into the bay. Instead, we pursued our goal of exploring, sounding and charting hurricane hole anchorages. A completely calm, bright sunny day allowed us to make a long excursion in the inflatable. Our objective was a completely land-locked lagoon on the east side of the bay that looked as though it would offer shelter from the frequent gales of the peninsula if it proved deep enough for Tamara. Running transits with the dinghy and the portable depth sounder, we were more than satisfied with the promise of the lagoon.
The narrow entrance carried 12 feet of water at low tide, and an adequate area of similar depth within for safe anchorage. The firm mud and clay bottom would afford excellent holding for the anchor. As I turned the inflatable to return the mile or so to where we’d anchored Tamara, a yearling brown bear cub, completely carefree, bounded down through the alder and willow on the bluff to the west, across the beach, and into the water to swim the narrow entrance to the lagoon. 50 yards or so behind the cub, huffing and snorting to keep up, mama bear crossed the beach and pursued her cub into the water. She was close enough to us that we could clearly hear her heavy breathing as she swam the gap and ran down the beach after the bounding youngster. Finally Nancy had gotten close enough for the photo she’d wanted. The motion of the small boat, the speed of the bears, and our excitement conspired to add extra difficulty to her shot.
As if to compensate for her difficulty with the first opportunity, another large bear, a lone male, worked the beach along our way back to the yacht. Nosing the rubber boat in as close as I dared, I finally got Nancy the opportunity she’d been waiting for.
BIT OF HISTORY
Not far from where we’d left Tamara, the remains of a small, quite old, salmon cannery were right down at water’s edge. Although it was destroyed by the same 1964 earthquake that had shaken the earth far beneath Prince William Sound, most of the equipment remained. The quake had generated a tsunami that wrought devastation many miles distant. These sorts of ruins always fascinate me. their often exceptionally remote locations, as well as the technological and logistical challenges that had made their operation possible, are, today, inconceivable to most people. The machinery of this example was still powered by steam when the tsunami struck, as it most likely had been since the early days of the 20th century.
Only the fantastic abundance of salmon had made such efforts practical. In the final analysis, I suppose that there is some measure of truth to the notion that I’m caught up in an eternal wandering. If that indeed were so, I cannot conceive of a place that I’d rather serve such penance. or perhaps as one ship’s captain, to overcome his crew’s fear of the phantom Flying Dutchman, explained it to all be a mirage, a “Fata Morgana,” as it was known. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he explained, when the sun’s rays form a picture in the air, like an image in a glass of water. The “phantom ship” would be displayed bottom up, but eventually the ship itself would appear.
I’m satisfied that what we’ve been fortunate to experience in the nearly eternal vastness of Alaska has not been a mirage, yet even were it so, it would evoke no greater wonder. So yes, in one way it’s true. Though we didn’t go anywhere this season, the far horizon always beckoned. We’d only cruised Alaska.
Mark Roye and Nancy Krill hail from Port Townsend, Washington. Their 44 foot steel ketch Tamara, with a home port of Cordova, Alaska in Prince William Sound, has safely carried them in excess of 50,000 miles, more than half of it at latitudes beyond 50 degrees. After a series of voyages that took them from the Arctic to the Antarctic, then home to Alaska, they continue in search of adventure in the North. They were awarded the Charles H. Vilas Literary Prize in 2011 and the Royal Cruising Club Trophy in 2012. Their adventures are detailed at www.krillroye.com, www.krillroye.blogspot.com, and in numerous sailing publications and presentations.