Where Might & Majesty Meet
A cruising couple sailing the North Pacific arrives in Alaska to discover that where there's smoke, there's desire. A feature from our November 2010 issue
I could hear the panic rising in her voice. I knew I had to commit to a course of action immediately.
"We're going to sail under the mountains and hope that the visibility improves in their lee."
Visibility did improve nearer the land, but as the rocky entrance narrowed, we were forced to start the engine. I winced at the thought of all that abrasive grit being sucked into the air intake.
By the time we dropped anchor in keyhole-shaped Quail Bay, the decks were buried in ash. Our eyes were scratched, our lungs irritated, our sails and equipment clogged with destructive dust.
We braced ourselves for a second blast or the precursor swells of a tsunami, but none came. Eventually, the skies lightened to reveal a once-green landscape cloaked in gray. For the next two days, we hauled buckets of seawater up the mast and sloshed the grit down and off the boat.
We later learned that on the very day of our arrival, after lying dormant since 1899, Mount Kasatochi blew its top. It spewed millions of tons of debris 45,000 feet into the atmosphere, forcing air traffic to Alaska to be suspended for days. An unimaginable nine-minute earthquake shook the Aleutian chain. To the best of our knowledge, the crew of one fishing boat, two scientists, and Diana, Halifax, and I were the only witnesses to the event. Timing is everything.
But even this ash cloud had a silver lining. In a river pool above the anchorage, I caught a huge sockeye salmon. Back at the boat, Halifax and I fought over the last scrap, for it was hands down the most delicious fish I've ever tasted.
By late August, we were running out of energy, time, and fuel. When a westerly gale approached, I told Diana that we had to latch onto it, however rough, and ride it all the way to Dutch Harbor.
Dutch Harbor, part of the town of Unalaska, is America's most productive fishing port and a quintessential Wild West boomtown. It is treeless, stark, isolated, cold, rough as guts, and I like it.
Rugged men seek their fortunes from a rugged sea. Whiskey flows and big fists fly. But like the cowboy of the western plains, the fishermen and fisherwomen here face the end of an era as large corporations buy up fish quotas, standardize the fleet, and consolidate distribution.
But the friendly and outgoing character of Dutch remains. We no sooner rafted up to a trawler than a bearded bear of a man dropped a massive chunk of moose meat on our deck from above.
"Eat that" were his simple instructions.
The next day, it was king crab. The next, silver salmon and black cod.
Our new friend, Byron, the captain of Nancy Ellen, said, "I'm goin' fishing. Use my truck."
Richard, an engineer from a processing ship, spent an entire day helping me repair the transmission. He wouldn't hear of any payment. A local family had us up for an elegant dinner. The local fish factory let us shower and do laundry in the staff house.
Dutch Harbor is the end of America's air highway. My brother in Montana sent along my teenage nephew, Ryland Jon, to join us for an adventure-with the message that "If you bring my son home alive, you'll never have to buy a drink in my presence for as long as you shall live."
I had to weigh this windfall opportunity against my desire to expose my nephew to the thrills and spills of Alaskan life. For his initiation, I asked Byron to take Ryland cod fishing.
Upon their return, we discovered that perhaps the seaman's gene skips a generation. But if nothing else, after experiencing backbreaking work executed in appalling conditions, Ryland will appreciate the relatively luxurious lifestyle commonly led in what some Alaskans refer to as the "Lesser 48."
We toured the ornate Russian Orthodox churches and the extensive ruins from World War II. But again we couldn't linger, for we had 800 miles yet to make to our intended winter haven of Seward. We set sail for the Alaska Peninsula through clouds of murres, guillemots, horned puffins, crested auklets, fulmars, and petrels. Stellar sea lions and seals littered the rocks, while smartly dressed bald eagles congregated near streams choked with fat salmon.
I've spent a lifetime searching out the world's best bad place. I may have found it here. The Alaska Peninsula is God-forsaken country, wracked by volcanoes, scoured by glaciers, and ripped by gales. But it gets even better. It's crawling with monster bears, not to mention caribou, moose, fox, wolves, and wolverines.
Deserted anchorage by deserted anchorage, we made our way up the 400-mile-long peninsula. On Jacob Island, I was thrilled to find wolverine tracks on a lonely beach. Then, on neighboring Paul Island, I was ecstatic to find bear prints the size of dinner plates leading into a high stand of grass. Diana and Ryland chose not to investigate further. I did, but alas, my first brown bear was gone.
It wasn't until we backtracked up Ivanof Bay that I got to see Ursus arctos up close and personal. And believe me, when a 1,500-pound carnivore equipped with bone-crushing teeth and claws looks you straight in the eye, it feels nothing less than personal.
It seems I couldn't get enough of these burly brutes and even started ranking our days as per the number of bears encountered-a five-bear day and above being superb.
From a hummock in Agripina Bay, Ryland and I counted nine large bears in the tall grass between us and our dinghy on the beach. Much as we were tempted to wait until they moved off, we were forced to sneak our way through the maze before sundown, for the first adage of Alaskan life is "The bears own the night."
Ryland caught his first fish-a pink salmon, known locally as a humpy. We devoured it that night. We grazed like bears on the succulent salmonberries and tart blueberries that painted the tundra.
Geographic Bay was perhaps our most beautiful anchorage, boasting craggy peaks, salmon-swollen rivers, and bears lumbering as casually as cattle in a field.
It was there that our alternator failed. No problem. I carry a spare. When the spare failed, I almost agreed with Diana that this voyage was somehow jinxed. But in hindsight, I can see that each apparent misfortune led us to a new fortune.
To effect repairs, we reluctantly crossed the Shelikof Strait for the services to be found in relatively populated Kodiak Island. As we made our way through narrow waterways approaching Kodiak, we came upon flotillas of sea otters, hundreds strong, clinging to each other affectionately. To witness such beauty and bounty is a rare and uplifting experience.
Both Kodiak and Afognak Island turned out to be delights. We sailed through pods of spouting whales, hiked through forests bristling with bears, caught fat fish, and lost count of the eagles.
But as winter approached, it was high time to cross to the Alaskan mainland via the Barren Islands, reputed to lie in one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world.
It's said that a sailor with time always has a favorable wind. By waiting for that wind, we crossed smartly and without incident onto the Kenai Peninsula, known for its deeply carved fjords. There, beneath the Harding Icefield, the largest in the world, we watched house-size chunks of ice explode off the Holgate Glacier and tumble to the sea. We yelled in awed delight as the ensuing thunder reverberated through our bones.
As our winter haven of Seward appeared at the head of Resurrection Sound, Diana heaved a sigh of relief. It had been a hard, and at times even harrowing, three months of wilderness travel.
But as we dropped the lines of Roger Henry on that still, safe dock, I wondered where and when again on this Earth we might live our lives as large. I'd shared with my wife and, for part of the journey, my nephew the kind of deep experience that will bind us forever. We'd sailed secret waters, been buffeted by storms, humbled by gargantuan beasts, and shook by the very bowels of our planet. And through it all, we'd been profoundly touched by the might and majesty of Western Alaska, a true wonder of the natural world.
After spending last winter in the Pacific Northwest, the Simons pointed the bow of Roger Henry west again, toward home in New Zealand.