The Home Stretch

Shhh… we think the North Pacific has been sleeping this summer, and we’re afraid that if anyone makes too much noise, she’ll wake up and we’ll finally hear her furious roar.  The Aleutian summer has been very kind to us.  Though we saw plenty of fog, we had more than our entitlement of sunshine, with more clear volcano views than we had thought remotely likely.  We changed plans mid-sail several times to dodge weather threats, we had our taste of williwaws, and we saw just enough of the currents and gap winds to know that the Aleutians has earned its harsh reputation, but our time at sea was…I’m afraid to say it…almost pleasant.

It took us a couple of months to work our way through the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula.  The trip was full of wildflowers, wild landscapes, and wild life.  The Aleutian Islands are mostly tundra-covered grassy slopes, dropping abruptly into the ocean.  Some had layers of snowy mountains.  Other islands were gentle, with rolling bluffs and lakes, but jutting out of one end might be a perfect volcanic cone, smoking 5,000 feet above the ocean.  As we worked our way eastward, the islands grew closer together and the volcanoes steeper.  Some islands have geysers and hot springs.  At Umnak Island, just east of the Alaska Peninsula, three deeply glaciated volcanoes tower 7, 8, and 9,000 feet above a field blanketed in blazing fireweed and purple lupines.  On the Alaska Peninsula, the landscape is a mix of towering volcanoes, striated capes, and steep scree slopes, with purse seiners cruising the coast to round up salmon.

The concentration of wildlife also grew more intense as we sailed further east.  We watched flocks of puffins fishing in the strong currents in tidal passes, sea otters munching urchins, sea lions growling on the rocks, humpbacks breaching, orcas prowling in packs, and massive Kodiak brown bears (the biggest grizzlies on the planet) frolicking on the beach.  Whale dodging,  a sport you’d think might be incredible, became a stressful past-time when we saw whale spouts everywhere we looked.  One evening, we were utterly surrounded by fin whales.  Fin whales can swim at up to 25 knots–our boat can only manage 6.  They reach 75 feet in length and weigh 73 tons; only blue whales are bigger.  One kept pace with our boat to port, while we spotted spouts in the distance as far as we could see.  Another whale churned the water to starboard.  It sped, its giant baleen-filled mouth open and skimming, directly for us.  We watched in awe as the whale, twice the length of our boat and moving fast enough to create its own bow wave,  charged right at us.  Then it dove.  It surfaced directly in front of us, 10 yards away.  Our marine mammals book says fin whales are “indifferent to boats.”  Indifferent might be too ambivalent.  Rob stopped the engine and turned in a circle to stop our motion.  The whale dove and we spun in place.  It must have gone deep.  It eventually resurfaced behind us and we continued on our way, dodging fin whales for the next several miles.

On land, after Dutch Harbor, we found foxes, bears, and ground squirrels.  Rob caught a salmon when we stopped to swim in a stream at Umnak.  A curious fox wandered by.  Noticing Rob’s salmon, the fox came over for a trade.  He dropped the ground squirrel in his mouth and offered it up–squirrel for salmon?  Rob declined the trade, but the fox practiced his puppy dog eyes and Rob almost gave in.

Finally, we made our way to Kodiak and it was time to start thinking about crossing the Gulf or staying put for the winter.  We thought we’d be in Kodiak for awhile, but the weather cleared up and we had what looked like a brilliant, if slow, window to cross the Gulf, so, with some trepidation, we decided to head for Cross Sound.  We started with light wind and a lot of bouncing, and used the motor much of the way across.  But our last night out was a warm welcome home.  With clear skies, we had a pink, sunset view of the bulky mass of 18,000 foot Mt. St. Elias to the north, and  the perfect tri-pointed pyramid of 15,000 foot Mt. Fairweather to the east.  As the dark set in, the green glow of the northern lights appeared above the northern horizon, first faintly, then vividly, with bright spurs dancing to their own jazz beat in an arc across the sky.

In the morning, we had a sunny day and a clear view of icy Mt. Fairweather and its massive neighbors guarding the coast as we approached Cross Sound.  We anchored for a night in a beautiful cove on the outer fringe of Glacier Bay, and picked enough blueberries for Rob’s belated-birthday pie in the morning.  Then, yesterday, we sailed into Cross Sound under a light breeze.  As we turned the corner, the deep blue of the open ocean changed abruptly to the glacial teal of the inside waters and we found ourselves struggling a bit as we waved farewell to the open sea.  Today, the rain set in, but the sea lions came out to give us a welcome home show as we crossed the line where we first headed south, and entered into home territory.  In the strong currents at the entrance to Glacier Bay, a massive bull sea lion tossed a halibut in the air, thrashing it and gulping it down.  Another sea lion tried to grab a bite, and a momentary fracas erupted.  A puffin surfed the current, and sea otters bobbed along to say hello as we motored into Bartlett Cove, where we’ll probably spend a couple of days before we start head back home.

The internet’s not letting me post photos from here, so those will have to come later.

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