Six months ago, we eagerly awoke early in the morning to reserve three cabins along the highly-popular Resurrection Pass National Historic Trail. The trail is a 39-mile odyssey that spans from the tiny towns of Hope to Cooper Landing, following an old gold miner’s route established in the 1890’s. The trail is part of Alaska’s boom-and-bust history and has been popularized in nearly every backpacking article around. It has numerous campsites and US Forest Service cabins throughout the route. The trail is so popular that hundreds of people make the year-round trek over the 2,600-foot Resurrection Pass. The moral of the story: it is really hard to get a cabin.
Three mornings in a row in snowy March, we booked three consecutive cabins hoping for descent weather during the stormy month of September. Of course we were wrong, seriously wrong. The remnants of a typhoon from Japan were pushed up to Alaska and six inches of rain was dumped in a single day on the Kenai Peninsula – the same day we planned to crest the pass. Unfortunately, we were forced to abort on the first two cabins. Instead of fun, we did boring married chores like fixing up some of the vinyl siding on the house and winterizing Carpe Ventos.
Good night, Carpe Ventos. We left your mainsail on for the hopes of sailing sometime this winter, but we are essentially done for the season.
As the weather cleared on Saturday, we decided last-minute to push nine miles to Romig cabin on the shores of Juneau Lake for a brief respite from the lousy weather.
The consensus: WOW. Now we see why this trail is so popular. After the initial and somewhat painful 4.5-mile uphill climb, the valley levels out into a blueberry-and-spruce valley of epic proportions. Coupled with cooler temperatures, fall colors, and clear skies, it whetted our appetite to complete the trail in its entirety. We are going to attempt the full trail over Halloween when the bears will be in hibernation, the ground frozen, and all the mountains snow capped.
Our destination for this one-day hike was the last cabin reserved in our line of three, Romig cabin, on the shores of remote Juneau Lake. Juneau Lake, like so many lakes in Alaska, is home to wild trout, whitefish, burbot, lake trout, and the elusive arctic grayling. Yep, fly rods were in tow.
We arrived to Romig two grouse richer and a handful of hedgehog mushrooms. The downside of most of the hike was the the trail was relatively mushroom-free, except for the patch of hedgehogs near the halfway point. We figured they would bump up our usual meal of Mountain House, which dearly lacks in things like fiber causing a consumer to run to the outhouse the next morning. On a side note, we purchased an Excalibur Dehydrator as a wedding gift to ourselves and have been using it dearly to make our own dehydrated food for such adventures. On tonight’s menu: ratatouille made with all the leftover veggies from our wedding.
Romig is a plush cabin with the same layout as the Devil’s Pass Cabin we discovered last year. The woodstove is finicky, but being woodstove fanatics we figured it out and ended up opening the windows at one point. The cabin is equipped with a canoe instead of the usual rowboat (the USFS has a lot of faith in cabin users supplying woodstoves and boats), which we were highly skeptical about. Luckily for us, the cabin was mostly clean thanks to the previous users who we met on the trail. They packed out most of the junk, but refused to touch used soap and dirty socks, which we promptly burned.
Before our packs hit the floor, we assembled our fly rods and hit the lake. Have you ever tried to canoe by yourself in a breeze? Well, it’s difficult. Bixler found that out when we came back complaining that canoes are for girlscouts and kids at summer camp. Krystin joined in waders and we canoed over to a sweet spot to catch trout for dinner. We eventually reached our limit as Bixler raised his fly rod and snapped the tip off of it. Oh no! Down one rod!
We returned to the cabin and gorged on ratatouille, wild trout stuffed with mushrooms, and a Mountain House. Bixler tried his hand at fishing for some of the other species in the lake, but had no luck. We spent the evening playing cards while Bixler eyed a can of buffalo chicken soup someone left in the cabin. Every hand he said something along the lines of, “I wonder what the soup tastes like” or “Should we eat that soup or leave it?” Finally, he broke into the soup. It was disappointingly bland, but at least he got to try it out.
The next morning we awoke early to hit the lake when the water was flat. Fall has come to Alaska and the cool weather caused an eerie fog on the lake.
Rises were everywhere, but we had no luck catching anything.
We hiked out that morning bagging one more grouse and meeting a friendly couple from Northern Europe (we think) and a duo from the east coast heading into Romig. The new Romig occupants were lighthearted and had a slew of questions about the trail. Their packs were twice the size of ours and all we could say about the 4.5 mile uphill grade was “good luck.”
We reluctantly returned to the car and went to Wildman’s for our customary single scoop of ice cream before heading home. Wildman’s always raises our spirits before our return to the real world of doing boring married stuff like working (yes, we do have real jobs). But soon it will be October and we’ll be cresting the pass on Halloween. Stay tuned!
So guess what? It finally happened. We got married on August 30th! Carpe Ventos was the venue and the turnout for the ceremony and after party was a great mix of family and friends. Even a non-conventional wedding was stressful for us. It took us a few days to recover. Our poor cat Jupiter slept for three days straight after the last wedding guest left our house.
“Where are you going on your honeymoon?” many people asked after the wedding. Sorry, no Hawaii, Tahiti, Bora Bora, or any of the conventional destinations. An outside-of-the-box wedding deserves an atypical honeymoon. Ours is broken up over the next two months backpacking through the Kenai Peninsula’s many trails and a fly-in hunt on Afognak.
This past weekend we packed up our packs and headed to out to the Russian Lakes Trail for a two-cabin, 21-mile one way haul. The first half of the hike follows the mighty Russian River, a confluence of the Kenai River that hosts a massive salmon run and is home to many resident wild rainbow trout. The second half of the trail continues through alder and spruce at higher elevation before reaching Snug Harbor Road. You start and end in Cooper Landing, rounding the same mountain for the entire 21-mile trail.
We packed fly rods, bear-protection, food, and fun and headed out to Aspen Flats cabin for the first night, 9 miles from the Russian River campground. Already, our sailing season is essentially over with storms appearing in the Gulf of Alaska and rain pounding Seward. We started our backpacking season early to enjoy the warmth and added sunlight. The tradeoff: high brush and tourists. Eager fishermen, along the first part of the Russian River portion of the trail, which is open to salmon fishing, were surprisingly friendly.
Through drizzly rain, we trekked to Aspen Flats cabin, stopping only to pick King Bolete mushrooms. A few weeks ago, Krystin picked an unknown bolete mushroom and opened up a whole new kingdom for us to gather and preserve. Even during the wedding madness, we were taking mushroom hikes to gather, chop, and dehydrate mushrooms before they all disappear. Because of our limited capacity while backpacking, we limited the mushrooming to King Boletes, our favorite.
Bixler has taken mushrooming to a whole new level and stopped to check every bolete on the 9-mile path. Krystin eventually pushed him forward and we arrived at the nice-and-clean Aspen Flats cabin.
Located along the upper Russian River, Aspen Flats is a favorite of ours. The cabin is nestled far off the trail along a river bend in an area sparsely inhabited by spruce by high in blueberries, now turning fall colors for the season. We tried our hand at fly fishing with no luck. The trout have moved upstream in the river following the red salmon to Upper Russian Lake.
We spent most of the evening relaxing, listening to the rain pelt the cabin roof. Bixler mixed the boletes with smoked salmon and nori for a delicious, non-Mountain House dinner option.
We were still tired from the wedding and slept a good 14 hours before awaking to clearing skies the next morning. Next stop: Upper Russian Lake Cabin!
A mere 4 or so miles from Aspen Flats brings you to Upper Russian Lake, the headwaters of the Russian River. The lake is huge and remote. Remnants of a fishing lodge are somewhere along the lake, though we never bothered to look. Bear sign was everywhere and the salmon were thick in the lake and river.
We arrived to the cabin a bit early, about a half hour before the designated noon arrival time. We even stopped to shoot our first grouse of the season along the way in an attempt to delay our arrival.
With only a half hour until noon, we pulled off the trail to allow the previous cabin visitors to pack up. We ate lunch near the river mouth and observed the fishing opportunities. After a summer of intense saltwater fishing, we were eager to fly fish in the calm, serene surroundings without the hum of engine motors or playing bumper boats.
Around noon we headed to our next destination. As we rounded the corner, the previous cabin users were still there packing up their packs. They looked at us awkwardly and through the language barrier they said something along the lines of “you’re early.” We responded with, “No, you are late.” The National Forest cabins have a noon-to-noon occupancy that these people still on European time didn’t quite understand. Had they been nicer about it, we would have chatted with them. But no, in typical fashion they were completely cold about it, feeling that they did no wrong. People always look at us like we are a bunch of idiots with guns and fly rods sticking out of our packs.
We dropped our packs and started picking highbush cranberries while the previous cabin users packed up at a glacial pace. Finally, when they gathered everything and paraded off the scene, we moved into the cabin.
The Upper Russian Lake cabin was inherited by the Forest Service after being built by hand before Alaska became a state. The solid log cabin had an old-timey feel and the information binder even contained a collection of historical photos. Unfortunately, the cabin was in complete disarray from a summer of abuse. The previous users left the woodstove burning and neglected to replenish the wood supply. Junk was everywhere in the cabin: pool mats, beer bottles, rocks, trash. We gathered the unnecessary items and had ourselves a bonfire. Everything that couldn’t be burned we packed out. The cabin returned to order.
The sun emerged and we soaked up some rays on the deck, watching a Steller’s Jay hop around the cabin steps.
Though the wind was up on the lake, we decided to try our hand at fly fishing. Bixler went first in the cabin-provided skiff and hooked up and landed a beautiful trout. Krystin ran out in waders and started casting. We eventually went into the river to avoid the wind, trying to coax trout to take our flies. As the salmon start spawning in the river and lake, the trout hang out waiting to get a quick meal of salmon eggs. The trout were often interested in our flies, but an angry salmon would chase them away, thinking that our egg flies were one of their eggs. In the end, we caught three beautiful wild trout, two of which came home with us and one of which would become dinner.
How do you make a vegetarian dish awesome? Add meat. Try this: 1 vegetarian Mountain House (or other brand) + 1 trout = AWESOME!
We checked in late after playing cards and Bixler’s second round of fishing. The wind on the lake was not about to slacken, so he came home empty-handed.
Our hike out the next morning was beautiful under a sunny sky. We shot one more grouse and picked numerous mushrooms along the trail and along the road out to Cooper Landing. A stop at Wildman’s for ice cream and a short drive home ended the perfect weekend.
Perhaps we had broken the spell of last year’s backpacking, where every time we came home something bad would happen.
Ah, married life.
If you dislike hunting or images of hunting, don’t continue reading. We warned you in advance. Remember, we do live in Alaska where this is a regular thing!
We loathe Homer. There. We said it. Living in Seward, it is obvious for us who wins the great “Homer vs. Seward” debate. Yes, we have friends who love Homer and yes, most people point out that Homer has better weather than Seward (better weather being measured in number of sunny days, of course). Of all the times we’ve visited Homer, we’ve discovered three possible things to like about the area. Sorry, the Kilchers are not on the list.
- K Bay Coffee. Honestly, throw your bitter Starbucks crap out the window and get some K Bay Coffee. The coffee cup near Safeway in Seward uses nothing but K Bay in their coffee and we carry nothing but K Bay’s Dream Blend at home.
- Starvin’ Marvin’ Pizza. Bixler nearly slammed on the breaks mid-traffic when he saw the Starvin’ Marvin’ Pizza Restaurant near the spit in Homer. We buy their frozen pizzas at Three Bears in Seward as a Sunday treat after sailing and enjoy the calorie bomb.
- DM546 Antlerless Moose Hunt. Also known as the “Homer Cow Moose Hunt,” this draw (lottery) hunt is one of the most highly sought-after draw tags because it is a road system hunt that pursues cow (female) moose instead of bulls (males), and a strictly meat hunt. The chances of drawing a DM549 tag? Between 2-5%.
In February, when the draw hunt results are published, Krystin drew the rare DM549 tag. Her first impression was excitement. Hunting the largest of the deer species and the one animal that is quintessentially Alaskan is going to be a treat, especially if you don’t have to worry about rack size like in most bull moose hunts. Her second impression was, “oh no, we need to go to Homer…”
The western, or “flat” side of the Kenai Peninsula is moose country and cow moose are virtually everywhere. The Homer hunt area is relatively small compared to most hunts we’ve done and unlike most hunts there is a fair amount of private lands. The reasons why we dislike Homer are virtually endless and the list could be in a blog post in itself, but the lack of public land is a big one. The draw tag warns hunters of this and probably leave the average hunter standing in a lot scratching their heads.
Thank goodness Bixler has worked as a Geographic Systems Information (GIS) professional for last five years and has six years of college doing the GIS behind him. He used the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s GIS layers along with some voodoo magic to place both the hunt boundary and public lands onto our GPS and into Google Earth. Krystin then visually picked out access points to the public lands and then transferred the points to the GPS. The finished product looked something like this:
Full of confidence, we loaded up the car and headed to Homer to spend Day 1 vetting our access points and hopefully bagging a moose. Our red meat supply at this point was extremely low since we didn’t get any bears and only have a handful of goat steaks left. Have you every wondered how much meat you eat in a year? Lots. Fish is great food, but in the dead of winter when it is below zero outside, nothing really beats a hearty steak.
Our plan of attack for this hunt was to look at each access point and hike along any promising trails. Of course, on paper, this is plenty easy, but in reality it is extremely frustrating. Most of the western peninsula is muskeg with the occasional spruce thicket except for Homer. The terrain changes abruptly to spruce pockets and open fields of the most gigantic fireweed we’ve ever seen. Our first viable stop was along a powerline easement where the fireweed and grasses grew so tall we could hardly see anything even when hiking to the top of the hill. Most of the fireweed appeared undisturbed meaning that even a moose wouldn’t traipse through a fireweed thicket.
One-by-one we crossed off access points. Some where blocked by private parcels, others were just plain inaccessible. We found a few promising “trails.” Apparently trails in Homer are either ATV roads to access powerlines or flat-out bogs. Most people will tell you, “Oh, there is great hiking in Homer!” only to add the footnote of, “but it’s across Kachemak Bay.” You know what else is across Kachemak Bay? The mountains, the camping, and probably the moose. Ugh.
The last and most frustrating hike led us into said bog along a waterlogged trail where both of us ended up knee-deep in a quagmire. “So this is hiking on the Homer side of Kachemak Bay…” we said in unison. Our spirits were pretty low at this point. The only moose we had seen all day were two calves and no cow to go along with it.
Frustrated, we fought the traffic and road construction back to Safeway to get some food and regroup. Homer has an ecclectic personality that can be observed through the people-watching opportunities. The Safeway in Homer reminds us of a grocery store out of Los Angeles but with more of a hippy vibe from the local art community juxtaposed with the Russian Old Believers in traditional dress. All of this was observed while sitting in the parking lot observing the locals walking in and out of the store. Bixler nearly spit his juice out on the dash when Krystin pointed out a grungy shopper walking into the store barefoot.
At this point we debated about heading home. It was getting late, but reaching that “magical hour” of the night when animals seem to appear. We took a drive back to one of the promising areas to scout for moose. As our luck would have it, a cow moose was grazing in the open on a small public parcel! She was close to a spruce tree and a house was just downrange of her, but it was the first cow we had seen since leaving Seward at 4 am. We frantically stopped the car and assembled our hunting gear. Krystin took off through the fireweed thicket and tried to close in on a good shot. The moose reappeared for a second near the spruce tree. Behind us on the road, an ATV zoomed by. The moose bolted.
Krystin ran off after it trying to track the moose. The trail went cold quickly and we searched in the nearby grasses and fireweed. We didn’t find the moose, but we did discover that both of us are allergic to something in the vicinity. We both exited the brush back to the car sneezing and sniffling. Krystin got the brunt of it and struggled to breathe as we figured out what to do. Somewhere during that entire episode, Krystin’s dad called about what to wear at our upcoming wedding and mentioned that moose hunting is best in the early morning. Hmm…
We took one last drive around before deciding it was too late to drive home and settled on camping in Homer. Do you know how much a hotel in Homer costs a night when trying to make a last-minute summer reservation? $250. And no, that’s not the presidential suite. That’s your run-of-mill room, probably in between the elevator and the ice machine.
Discouraged by the lack of hotels, we tried to find a quiet campground. Here is another thing about Homer that brings it further down the list of Places We Like to Visit in Alaska: there are NO campgrounds other than the Spit. This time of year getting to Spit involved torn up roads and pilot car moving at a snail’s pace. We finally arrived to the limited camping area and set up our tent in a comfortable place.
The setting sun, serene water, and sandy beach would have made a peaceful campsite if it were not for the roadway right next door and our camping neighbor. If you ever want to hear about how someone hates their ex-girlfriend, we know a location where you can listen to that all night long. All. Night. Long. Couple that with drunkness and trying to open our car repeatedly, we can ensure you that camping along the Spit is not a restful way to sleep.
We switched back and forth sleeping with earplugs and keeping tabs on our belongings. By morning we were livid and drove by the noisy tent honking our horns before heading to Safeway to get some food. We entered the grocery store in our full camo and several people asked, “are you going hunting?” At this point we were so exhausted we couldn’t respond with a snarky remark such as, “no, we are going fishing,” or “actually, we just really like to wear our camo in public.”
We loaded up on donuts and coffee and headed back to where we saw the cow moose originally. As we approached the hunt area, a cow moose crossed the road in front of us. A good sign. Further into the hunt area, a young bull ran awkwardly down the middle of the road. Another good sign. We continued onward.
On a side note, during this time we were reading the smut novel Fifty Shades of Grey. It is an oddly addicting book that we find hilarious. Bixler had just reached a part in the second book that Krystin already passed. The conversation went something like this:
Bixler: I like that part when Christian Grey takes vanilla ice cream and drops it down Anastasia Steele’s stomach and starts licking from her belly button down to her…MOOSE!
We rounded a corner and a cow moose was standing in the middle of the road. We grabbed the paper maps and GPS and confirmed that we were on public lands. Krystin hopped out the car and chambered a round into the .30-06. Bixler prepped the tripod and returned to the car for videoing equipment (yes, we have this on video).
The moose was in the middle of the road grazing on some of that nine-foot tall fireweed. Shooting on a drivable surface is illegal, as is from and/or across it. We had to wait for the moose to get off the road on the side where the road curves away from the moose. The moose appeared to be heading towards that general direction, so Krystin stepped off the road and set up the shot in anticipation. Bixler held back to give the signal. When the thumbs up came, Krystin fired a shot. The moose staggered and then ran.
“Did you miss?” Bixler asked.
“I think so,” said Krystin.
Krystin rarely misses a shot, especially on a fairly large target like a moose. So we were both perplexed when the moose ran away, though she did run awkwardly. We drove up to where we saw the moose disappear behind a spruce thicket and headed into the fireweed. The fireweed was damn near impassible meaning the moose did not go that way, so we opted to go in front of the spruce thicket. Krystin, with rifle and tripod in hand, climbed over a log and happened to peer into the spruce thicket. There stood the moose. Their eyes met. In a complete surreal moment of understanding, the moose laid down on the ground rather than run. She was obviously fatally wounded, a shoulder shot that penetrated a lung as well. Krystin shot her again through the heart to give her a quick and honorable death.
We both rejoiced at the successful hunt. This was an especially large cow, estimated at well over the 1,000 lb mark. It took us three hours to skin and quarter the moose, but we had the fortune of only hauling the quarters, ribcages, and all the delicious odds and ends 100 feet to the car. The meat looked fantastic: bright red, fat in all the right places, and best of all, hormone and antibiotic-free. If you are looking to be on the ultimate Paleo Diet, then this is it!
Giddy, we removed five inches from the front of the lower jaw and turned in the tag and jaw (a requirement for this hunt) to Homer Fish and Game. We said a thankful goodbye to Homer, hopefully never to return unless we draw the same tag again (both K Bay and Starvin’ Marvin’ can be purchased in Seward). We stopped in at Kenai River Brewery where a round of congratulations were in order. Krystin had yet another allergy attack where she was spilling not tears of joy, but tears of “get me to the other side of the effing peninsula.” A shot of bourbon and a Benadryl completed the day after hanging the meat. We spent the entire next day roping in friends to make vacuum seal bags while we butchered up the moose. Our dog friend Chugach received all the bones and spent the evening gnawing on a shoulder blade.
So how does a cow moose, aged overnight, taste? Oh. My. God. Amazing. Can’t wait to experiment with the meat this winter!
The last leg home always ends in the southwestern portion of the Sound. Nearing the end of July and into August, the faintest hints of autumn are around. The grass looks a little more golden, the blueberry leaves a bit redder, and something is bound to break on Carpe Ventos.
Well, nothing really broke, but we had a minor issue.
Upon pulling anchor in Nellie’s Rest, Bixler noted that the autopilot failed to turn on. After a complete overhaul of each cord in the system, he determined that the entire system was receiving power. The day before he had hit the display with the cooler setting it into a calibration mode, but the old “on and off” of the switch usually fixes it.
As Bixler was diagnosing the autopilot, our chartplotter kept spewing out low battery alarms. The voltage was cycling and a thorough assessment determined that our batteries were dead. Flat dead. Dead to the point that the combiner that charges from the alternator wouldn’t even put electrons through to the batteries.
Frustrated, we dropped anchor back in Gunboat Cove outside of Eshamy Bay Lodge. We speculated the cause: corroded connection on the alternator, loose belt on alternator early in the trip, no power in Cordova, old batteries, etc. Lucky for us we had the common sense to bring a Honda generator that spent the afternoon topping off our batteries.
As the generator hummed and Bixler fixed the corroded connector on the alternator, the lodge’s owner came over to see if everything was okay. We explained that we had the situation under control, but he offered a charger to take with us. The batteries were charging and nearly topped off, so we declined, but said thanks anyway for the thought.
That day in Gunboat was a low point for us. We weren’t talking to one another for a number of reasons (we can’t remember what now) and the salmon snagging on shore was nearly impossible. Whereas the last few years in the Sound each stream was boiling with salmon, this year there were barely distinguishable schools. Mike, the Cordova fisherman/marathoner said that many of the fishermen were already calling it quits this year.
Bixler managed to snag a few pinks and a fresh dog for the freezer, now running happily off our batteries. Our shrimp pot in Eshamy produced four shrimp, which we introduced to the heat and dipped in soy sauce. We left Eshamy and debated on where to head next. Paddy Bay was on the list, but an ugly rain cloud hung over the bay. 7-Fathom Hole was next from Paddy, and with the potential for increasing salmon and shrimping, we skipped Paddy and headed to 7-Fathom Hole.
7-Fathom Hole had no discernible salmon, but it did have sunny weather with the occasional squall. We took a dinghy tour around and ended up at a river in nearby Em’ur’luq Lagoon that was lined with salmonberries. Our guidebook talks of remains of a cabin in the woods that we never found, but it was a nice walk nevertheless.
We spent the rest of evening reading and discussing why 7-Fathom Hole is so wonderful. The cove lacks glaciers or waterfalls or astounding views, but it feels so wonderfully nestled and pleasant. And it has saved our asses from a number of nasty summer storms. No trip to the Sound is complete with at least three visits to 7-Fathom Hole, whether we want to or not.
The next morning we pulled our pot and harvested 16 shrimp before re-dropping nearby for a long soak. We then started backtracking to Paddy Bay. Bixler, wanting to always fish, insisted we fish an area where we’ve never caught anything. Krystin was less than inclined to fish and gave up shortly. As she said “there are no fish here” Bixler hooked up to something that “hit like a tank.” The fish took off as Carpe Ventos started drifting slowly to the shallows. With adrenaline surging, Bixler barked the usual orders: “grab the gun, grab the GoPro, get the gaff, mark a point!” With a lee shore coming up, Bixler muscled up a 65-lb halibut, roughly half the size of the 140-pounder caught by Seward. It was still a sizable fish and it took several bullets to the gills to dispatch it. With our ears ringing and hearts pumping, we slid the fish into the cockpit and headed to Paddy Bay. Bixler called his mom on our satellite phone to inform her should we need to plug in another freezer before we got home.
We anchored in Paddy and set to clean halibut and deck. Bixler filleted the giant fillets out and Krystin bagged them and buried them in the icebox. There was too much fish to fit in the little Dometic freezer, so we opted to pack the fish in glacier ice.
After hours of cleaning and scrubbing, we detoxed and discussed another long-planned adventure: packrafting on Eshamy Lake. For the past two years we’ve milled over the idea of hiking in rafts and fishing on the lake. Before we lost interest, we pulled everything out and decided to do it.
We hiked in packrafts and fly fishing gear on boggy tundra to Eshamy Lake. We’ve never anchored in Paddy when it wasn’t raining and expected rain at the lake. Eshamy Lake was entrenched in rain and a foul wind. We knew the odds of catching fish were hopeless, but we assembled anyway and set out on the lake. Blowing winds, pouring rain, and wet clothes were all we caught on Eshamy Lake, but we were glad to have accomplished a goal.
We returned to the boat and settled in. The weather grew considerably colder than the previous weeks on our trip, probably due to the return of actual darkness at night. We nestled into the v-berth under a pile of blankets listening to rain hit the deck of the boat.
The next morning the weather had cleared slightly and we headed onward to Gaamaak in Icy Bay. We stopped at a fishing spot where Krystin hooked up to something big. Unfortunately, her line on her reel had tangled around the level-wind making it impossible to fight the fish. In eventually snapped the 50-lb test line. Bixler had thought she was just being dumb about setting the drag, because, you know, girls don’t know how to fish and immediately provided unwarranted male fishing advice. But the scour in the level-wind was obvious evidence of an unfortunate tangle.
We pressed on to Icy Bay and were greeted by foul headwinds coming off the glaciers. Our destination, Gaamaak, was awash in wind. We tried pushing up the fjord to a small anchorage called Tiger Bite, but it was chocked with ice. Regardless, we gathered ice for the halibut and any future fish and decided to return to 7-Fathom Hole. A revision in the route was in order.
7-Fathom Hole was peaceful as always and we dropped anchor in our usual spot. Krystin slaved away in the kitchen preparing a Captain’s Platter of fried seafood: cod, shrimp, and rockfish with side onion rings.
After dinner, we returned to the usual salmon stream only to find a handful of salmon. We set out berry picking instead when Bixler noticed flagging tape wrapped around a small tree. Krystin set of berry picking while Bixler narrated his findings. Next to the tape was a stack of rocks. “I think it’s a geocache!” Bixler thought as we started dismantling the rock stack. Wrong. Way wrong. Bixler did find a box, but it turned out to be the ashes of someone who wished to spend eternity to 7-Fathom Hole.
Bixler was mortified. He returned the box to its rightful place and restacked the rocks. We debated about putting a cross or something, but maybe this fellow wasn’t religious. Krystin picked some flowers and said a few words of apology and told the deceased he had picked a great spot.
Bixler, who proclaims that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, spent the rest of the evening speculating on whether or not we would be haunted. Krystin assured him it would be okay, having watched enough of movies like Poltergeist as a kid and learning that you need to build a subdivision on graves to really piss off the Dead.
The fear of haunting passed the next day and we pulled our shrimp pot to a dismal return. We headed out of 7-Fathom Hole towards Whale Bay and dropped the pot on a precariously steep undersea hillside before heading to Eleshansky Cove.
Eleshansky Cove is a small bight well up Whale Bay that is beautiful but ill-protected from winds. The southerly winds were up, blowing ever-more high pressure into the northern Gulf but forcing Carpe Ventos to buffet around all night. Regardless, we were secure at anchor and set off to hike to the top of the mountains surrounding the cove to get a full-blown view of Bainbridge Passage and Knight Island.
We marched through boggy wetlands, blueberry thickets, and biting flies. The heat was intense, but after some bushwacking we arrived at the top of the hill and were rewarded with an awesome view of Knight Island and the start of Bainbridge Passage.
It was here that we got our first glimpses of fall. The mountains on Knight Island were craggy and scored with shadows – something not well defined in the midnight sun. The air was cooling rapidly as we began our decent back to the boat. We got hopelessly lost at one point, but managed to follow a bear trail back to the beach, where the winds were raging. With all the spray we received on the short dinghy ride back, we determined a shower was out of the question.
The next morning, we awoke to a cool, clear morning with hardly a hint of wind. We returned to our shrimp pot, pulled it, and struck pink gold. The pot was loaded with 38 of the most giant and juicy Prince William Sound Spot Shrimp we’ve ever seen. Some of these shrimp were the size of small lobsters.
We debated about staying in Whale Bay, but Bixler had his heart set on Thumb Bay on the south end of Knight Island which has remains of an old herring saltery. So, we packed up the shrimp and pot and headed towards Knight, which was gusting williwaws off the south end. Thumb Bay is a beautiful cove, but unfortunately wind-prone, even in mild easterlies. We dropped anchor anyway after dropping our pot just outside the cove.
The weather was warm, but cool winds gusted around the boat. We took a dinghy tour over to the old herring saltery, which was once a lodge but is now under new ownership. Schools of salmon were darting under the boat, so we returned to the boat to grab our fishing gear to give snagging a try. We beached near the now-defunct lodge and Bixler immediately snagged a fresh pink. A seal tried to nab it as he reeled it in.
Meanwhile, someone hopped in a kayak over at the nearby “lodge” and paddled over. Oh, no, someone to come and yell at us about something, we thought. We tend to attract a number of people wanting to offer us “advice,” and, after not seeing people for several weeks, we weren’t looking forward to the forthcoming advice. Luckily for us, the bearded fellow in the kayak was just remarking at the beautiful day. We asked him about the building and he mentioned it was purchased by one of the parties that sued Exxon after the 1989 oil spill and is currently being renovated into an eco lodge.
He bid us farewell and we returned to the boat one fish richer. After a full stream shower, we set out planning the rest of our route. Tomorrow we wanted to fish the lingcod spot, but the final destination would be dependent on the number of shrimp in our pot.
The next morning’s pull resulted in two small spot shrimp which meant we were heading back to Whale Bay. We first diverted to our lingcod hole, where Bixler immediately pulled up a barely legal (“that’s the way he likes them!”) lingcod and Krystin pulled up a nice rockfish. Both went in the freezer while both carcasses – including the entire lingcod – went into the shrimp pot next to the shrimp pellets and a can of catfood.
We returned to Whale Bay and dropped the pot in the same spot as before. We dropped anchor in Orca Cove, another deep anchorage, but close to the pot and beautiful. Last year, we sat inside the boat while rain poured outside, but this year the weather was perfect in the cove. We took a long beach hike and found a waterfall. A few salmon were making their way in, but the streams were so low from the lack of snow and rain that it seemed hopeless for the fish.
That night as we headed on deck to check the anchor, Krystin spotted a giant smack of jellyfish under the boat. We thought for a second we were running aground, but we realized the situation when the water column started to glow from the jellyfish.
We went to bed dreaming of shrimp wondering into our pot. We had given them a smorgasbord and hoped the pot would be loaded.
And it was – 73 shrimp! Finally, we were able to bring some home with us! We had been dining semi-exclusively on shrimp for the past few days, feeling slightly guilty for the lack of shrimp in our freezer. But 73 shrimp headed fills two gallon-sized freezer bags and weighs about 10 pounds. Into the freezer they went. Oh the meals we can make!
For most of our trip, the weather had been good, though the transmission station seemed to be having issues. When we finally received the weather later that morning, the news was dismal: Friday was good, Saturday was okay, but starting Sunday (our transition-back-to-Seward-day) a series of low pressure systems would be marching in along the northern gulf.
We revised our plans and headed out of Prince William Sound to Goat Harbor in Puget Bay. It was a horribly sad transition. We had spent the last four weeks moving at our pace exploring the Sound in detail. We were not ready to head home, but several obligations await us: our cat Jupiter, our hot tub, and filling Krystin’s moose tag, to name a few.
After an unsuccessful fishing attempt, we dropped anchor in Goat Harbor. Last year at this time, Goat Harbor was empty, but this year there were several other boats. Obviously others were taking advantage of the good weather in the late summer to get some fishing in.
We went to shore to walk around and stumbled upon a flattened tent cabin with two camouflaged, locked outbuildings. Hmmm….suspicious. We explored the surroundings and discovered an impoundment notice from the Chugach National Forest. Apparently someone had been squatting at Goat Harbor and had gone to great lengths to conceal the cabin. Naturally, we found it right away.
Unable to get the weather, we instructed Bixler’s mom on how to look up the NOAA forecast for the “Cape Cleare to Gore Point” forecast zone. She said there would be showers. He said, “No, the marine forecast.” She talked about how Jupiter is behaving himself among other things. Somewhere among that, along with a delay from using a satellite phone, Bixler determined that the weather for Saturday’s crossing would nice.
Leaving Puget the next morning, we awoke to a fall scene with light spilling over the mountains from the rising sun. We had dropped our shrimp pot experimentally outside of Goat Harbor and only got small tanner crabs, which one cannot retain.
After securing the shrimp pot, we headed west towards Resurrection Bay, picking up a few fish on the way. The boat traffic increased with the charter fleet heading out to Montague to serve their clients. Carpe Ventos got into a chicken fight with the charter vessel Hope, who thought it was funny while we showed them the middle of our five fingers as the disappeared in the distance.
As we rounded Cape Resurrection, boats appeared on the horizon everywhere. It was obvious that the combination of the silvers (coho salmon) being in and the nice weather had brought everyone onto the water. We grumbled at the sight of people. After two weeks of wilderness, we returned to usual madness of summer in Seward.
Channel 16 (distress) on the radio was a flurry of chatter of course. Throughout our trip, we had listened to Channel 16 as a form of entertainment, especially when the Coast Guard gets involved. Here are the highlights of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage from this year’s Prince William Sound trip:
- A man gets a fishing hook stuck in his eye. Helicopter 6006, known as “the six” is nearby to airlift him out. The helicopter pilot has an awesome radio voice.
- A vessel is on fire somewhere in the Sound. The Coast Guard asks for a cell number to call about the medical conditions. Those radioing the Coast Guard say, “I’m pretty sure you can’t get cell service out here.” Coast Guard tries to call anyway.
- A jetboat (small, flat-bottomed boat designed for rivers) sends a MAYDAY call after their engine explodes and spews oil everywhere. A charter vessel is relaying and asks the vessel in distress if they can anchor properly while the Coast Guard is asking the relay vessel if the vessel in distress can don lifejackets.
Channel 16 is blurting names off and on as we drop anchor in a familiar cove near home. Immediately, we start halibut soaking and spend the afternoon napping and reading on the deck. Krystin wakes from her nap, fresh to seize the day while Bixler starts preparing the pink salmon for dinner. In the middle of dinner prep, one of the rods starts to bounce and Krystin rushes to attend to it. It bounces, it clicks, and then whines as the fish takes off with the hook. Slowly, Krystin increases the drag to gain control of the fish. Bixler drops his dinner prep and clears the deck. By the way it is fighting, it can only be a halibut. She reels it to the surface. Bixler takes a shot and hits it in the meat. The halibut dives and Krystin reels it again. Bixler takes aim and shoots the gill plate. We pull it aboard. A nice 40-pounder! And a redemption halibut for the one lost in the Sound!
After cleaning and burying the fish in ice, we continue to soak while Bixler makes dinner. The night begins to cloud over, but we relax sitting on the deck and reminiscing on the trip. There is only one destination left after four weeks of traveling: home.
Carpe Ventos, laden with fresh provisions, motored out of Cordova Boat Harbor around noon on Sunday. She was tired of being crammed between two salmon tenders and thoroughly disliked stares from sponsored boats. She wanted to be free on the Sound, to feel the wind on her bow and the ocean on her keel.
And feel the wind she did.
Our original destination out of Cordova was just short of Knight Island, clear across the Sound. We opted for an amended plan given the late departure and deteriorating conditions by going the first 30 nautical miles to St. Matthew’s Bay in Port Gravina. This would give a decent jumping off point to cross to Disk Island and cut our travel from 66 nautical miles to around 40. Unfortunately, the travel to St. Matthews meant stiff westerlies on the nose. Tired from lack of sleep, we motored into the wind for five hours.
We dropped anchor in St. Matthews, swarming with williwaws. The weather forecast said the winds were supposed to calm, but heavy gusts were expected. We laid out all of our rode: our 44 lb oversized Bruce anchor, 100-feet of chain, and plenty of line. All night there was only the slightest land breeze. Whew.
The next morning we awoke to flat calm, serene conditions. The sky was cloudless and the seas were like glass. The only waves we felt were those from the passing ferry. There was one slight spot of wind and soon we were out of it. Just outside of Knight Island, Bixler caught a nice yelloweye that we turned into real fish and chips that night after re-provisioning in Cordova with the proper ingredients.
Just outside of our next anchorage of Disk Island, we started looking for shrimping spots. Bixler picked a nice 450-foot hole to drop our pot as a dry run to iron out any kinks. It didn’t go quite as planned as the line tangled despite our persnickety winding on the docks in Cordova. We cursed and yelled, but managed to get the pot on the bottom, marked by our buoy.
We anchored in Disk Cove on Disk Island, a circular lagoon with a small entrance. It is one of our favorite spots in Prince William Sound, next to Landlocked Bay and 7-Fathom Hole. The temperature in the cabin rose to 75 degrees, making it much warmer outside. We dried everything out. We waited until the air cooled slightly before going to shore on our first great missing for filling our small freezer: blueberries.
Each year after Cordova, it is “game-on” for resource extraction from the Sound to bring home with us. We usually return home with a healthy portion of fish. This year we are adding berries and shrimp to the mix. And Disk Island is quite the blueberry destination!
Coming to shore on Disk, the area is teeming with blueberries. Fat, juicy huckleberries, elusive high-bush “true” blueberries, and low-lying bog blue berries make up the shopping list at Disk. This year, Krystin stumbled upon a large patch of salmonberries as well. Holding two bags, she picked every berry in sight, keeping Bixler in ear distance as he devoured plants. We speculated on the best method for picking and the end, with fingers stained blue, we collectively picked a gallon of blueberries and half gallon of salmon berries. Success!
While berries were successful, shrimping was not. We pulled all 600 feet of line and let it naturally coil in the cockpit like a longliner. In the end, the pot was empty. The weather was fair, but obviously changing, so we opted to cross over to Port Nellie Juan, a shrimper’s haven on the west side of the Sound.
Port Nellie Juan is a new destination for us, having only ventured as far as McClure Bay near the entrance. The fjord is long with a handful of beautiful anchorages. Port Nellie Juan curves into Kings Bay, the closest we could get to Seward via the Sound. The upside is that it is a major shrimping destination. The downside: the proximity to Whittier. Port Nellie Juan is one of the more visited destinations in the Sound.
We entered Port Nellie Juan and traveled down to Deep Water Bay, a huge bay surrounded by Yosemite-like granite domes with a white-sand beach. The area looks like a miniature Lake Tahoe, but without the scores of people.
Carefully, we dropped the shrimp pot in the deep bay. Our idea of setting up the line the cockpit worked much better than before. In the middle of Deep Water Bay, it seems that everyone else had the same idea. Numerous shrimping buoys dotted the bay, but there was plenty of room for our pot.
After anchoring near the white sand beach, we headed to beach to explore. A small camp was setup behind the beach, but no one appeared to be home. Instead, we headed up a trail across mossy vegetation on granite overlooking an astounding valley behind the cove. Words could not describe the view; you had to be there. But imagine a verdant valley with a meandering river surrounded by touring granite monoliths. It put Yosemite to shame.
We hiked back to the beach and met two of the four campers. They were camped in this particular cove to climb those granite monoliths and create new routes in an otherwise unvisited landscape. They invited us to come ashore later for a bonfire and we offered to give them the weather forecast, but Carpe Ventos was not sitting comfortably at anchor. Gusty winds were peeling into the cove and the water was insanely bumpy.
Sadly, we stayed aboard and experienced one of the worst nights of our time board Carpe Ventos. The winds increased, the waves built, and we were on a lee shore. We went to bed at midnight and were up every hour to check our position. The winds didn’t let up. By 5 am, we pulled anchor to move to a fairer anchor. Unfortunately, we needed to grab our shrimp pot.
Facing gusty winds, a lee shore, and 600 feet of line to pull, we coordinated a ballet of pulling line, positioning the boat, putting Carpe Ventos in and out of gear. By the time the worst gust – around 30 knots – hit the boat, we had the pot on the boat and were 16 shrimp richer. We had little room to celebrate, the serene Port Nellie Juan we hand experienced coming into the cove was now a raging torrent of wind and rain.
The Sound doesn’t experience much swell, but the wind chop can build to huge proportions. The choppy waves we had felt in the cove were the result of the huge wind waves experienced in Port Nellie Juan. With a critical decision to make, we looked left and right and opted to head up Kings Bay to seek protection.
Most of the anchorages in Kings Bay are on the northern side and were gusting winds out of them. The only available anchorage was a small hook called Shady Cove that had its fair share of mild williwaws that were manageable. After dropping the shrimp pot outside, we wolfed down breakfast and went back to bed, dead tired, and sleeping until noon.
The mild williwaws persisted, but slowly began to die as the rain settled in. We pulled anchor to check our shrimp pot, gathering one whole shrimp before resetting it in a different spot. We lightly explored the beach. Krystin made an epic dinner of shrimp sushi with tempura vegetables. We went to bed at a reasonable hour, finally catching up on all the lost sleep since Cordova.
The next morning, we awoke to clearing skies and calm seas.
We pulled our shrimp pot, counting 22 shrimp that went into tacos that night. We dropped again outside of our next anchorage of Nellie’s Rest. Nellie’s Rest lies outside of the moraine and lagoon of Nellie Juan Glacier.
Needing exercise, we blew up the packrafts and paddled to the moraine.
Glaciers often have a slight breeze blowing off of them due to vast differences in temperature. A glacier is always trying to cool down everything around it. It is successful and you know it when you anchor next to one.
Unfortunately, that breeze is not great for packrafting. Packrafts don’t track well in a headwind and we fought a headwind up to the moraine and across it within view of the glacier. Despite the hard work, the journey was worth it. Nellie Juan glacier began receding in the early 1900’s, so the drastic changes in vegetation are readily apparent. Beyond the moraine, only alder have moved in. Much of the area is still bare rock. It is a strangely beautiful sight to see as you paddle among massive icebergs.
We paddled around icebergs up to a point where we recouped and watched the glacier. Ice was calving off the front of it, adding more to the already ice-chocked water. We turned around and let the wind push us out of the lagoon mouth and we paddled back to the boat.
After Bixler’s epic dinner of shrimp tacos, we hung out on the boat hoping that more shrimp were invading our pot.
Late at night a giant power trawler entered the cove, circle around, and dropped anchor nearly a foot from shore at high tide. The weekend was coming about and our proximity to Whittier meant we had no cove to ourselves. “I’m tired of sharing coves,” said Bixler as we watched the trawler drop anchor straight down without backing to set it. “We need to head south,” Krystin replied. The next morning, we pulled anchor and headed out of Nellie Juan on the last leg home.
If there is ever a place to fall in love with over and over again, it is Landlocked Bay. A narrow winding inlet flanked by towering mountains opening up into an estuary with mining ruins, it essentially encompasses what the Sound is about: scenery, wilderness, history. Each year as we approach Landlocked it is the same: fighting the currents and winds of Valdez Arm followed by inclement weather. But Landlocked remains a miniature paradise, and it only got better this year.
Tired from our trip across from the northern portion of the Sound, we dropped anchor in our usual spot in Landlocked Bay. The weather was overcast, but it was slowly breaking and revealing the grand peaks that surround the bay. After a short repose and cheese course, we hopped in the dinghy at high tide and explored the tidal flats. The salmon were just barely coming in and bear trails were everywhere. Salmonberries were ripening in full.
Our explorations brought us to several previously unmarked trails now marked with flagging tape. One appeared to go nowhere, so we turned around. Another brought us to the motherlode.
Landlocked Bay was mined for copper shortly after the cusp of the Alaska Gold Rush. Mining ruins dating back to the early 1900s dot the hillsides noted mostly by the tailings piles. We followed one of these tailings piles and discovered nestled in the woods a small cabin, unseen from boat or beach! Well-kept and more of a glorified lean-to, the cabin proudly displays a sign saying it is owned by the descendents of such miners and those seeking refuge are allowed to stay. The log book for the cabin tells stories of weary kayakers, winter travelers, and fishermen happy to have stumbled across the cabin as we did. In the days of Old Alaska, before remote cabins became a social status symbol for big city Alaskans, cabins were left open in case someone traveling was in dire need of shelter. Most of the cabins we stumble upon are locked, but this was wide open. We noted that in the log book and hoped the owners, now living in New York, would continue this time-honored tradition.
Excited by the cabin find, we hiked way up a tailing pile only to find an old mine shaft! The miners had dug straight into rock leaving gaping hole hidden away in the hillside. Many of the support beams were still intact, but the rest of the shaft had collapsed, leaving a watery mess. Bixler climbed inside for a picture. Krystin, with her sense of self-preservation and an Xtratuf with a hole, opted to stay out.
We returned to the boat in high spirits after such an adventure. The spirits continued the next day as we raised the sails and sailed dead downwind 14 nautical miles to the head of Port Fidalgo. Sailing in the Sound is rare for any sailor because of the generally light winds and many land masses. A couple we met on a beautiful wooden boat called Sunstone were leaving for the Sound shortly after us, filled with diesel like us. Though they had sailed up from the Marshall Islands straight to Alaska, even they knew the Sound was not a place for pure sailing. And these people are true sailors, with well over 100,000 nautical miles under their keel. We tried to tell that to a fellow from Boston who bought a boat in Seward, and he found out about the Sound’s sailing potential the hard way.
A thrilling day of sailing, we dropped anchor and the incredibly scenic head of Port Fidalgo. A huge lagoon with a raging inlet resides at the head and we dare not attempt to motor through with our dinghy. Instead we hiked around very obvious bear trails and quickly retreated to the boat. All the clouds had cleared from the sky and the westerlies were raging. Carpe Ventos bobbed snuggly at anchor until the sun set behind the mountains.
Just before bed, a black bear wondered onto the beach. Bixler hopped in the dinghy in hopes of getting some descent pictures, but it bolted by the sound of the outboard.
After a pleasant sleep, we awoke hoping to see more bears, but instead were surrounded by placid waters.
No sailing for us to Port Gravina. Instead we motored and consumed the last of our red salmon from Eshamy. Bixler had an itch to fish and Krystin had an urge to sleep. Before pulling into Olsen Bay, Krystin lay down for a nap and just managed to get comfortable when Bixler yelped, “Fish On!” Krystin scrambled on deck and help gaff a huge lingcod Bixler had reeled up from the deep. Lingcod fish and chips, anyone?
We dropped anchor in Olsen Bay, a beautiful wide cove with a gentle sea breeze and an old cabin proudly on display at the beach. Bixler filleted the lingcod, saying it would last us four meals when in fact it lasted us eight. Krystin set out to make fish and chips out of the available material on the boat. No flour? How about Krusteaz? No vegetable oil for frying? How about olive? It was an 80% successful dinner, but boy it was sure delicious!
After dinner and brief nap, we started to explore the beach. Keeping up with our daily exercise regimen, we beached the dinghy near the old cabin. The cabin was property of the US Department of Agriculture and hadn’t been use for some time. A sign on it said you can receive a $25 to $100 reward for any information regarding defacing of this cabin. Oooh, big spenders!
After determining that there was no way into the cabin, we set out to walk along the beach to the head of the bay. Dog salmon (chum or Keta, as the supermarket calls them) were running up the river and this was a prime time to see brown bears in action. Krystin thought she saw one chasing seagulls away from the boat, but it was too far to tell.
We walked along the beach and then up the river. In the distance, Krystin spotted a brown bear. He appeared from the woods and slowly reached down to snag a salmon and retreated into the woods. We waited hoping to see more. Seeing brown bears is always a treat, whether in your yard or at a salmon stream!
We waited and later returned to the boat. As we were sitting on the deck reading, we heard the distinct sound of a bear fight on shore. Bixler quickly jumped in the dinghy and saw two bears, one near the stream and the other well off into the grass. The larger bear had obviously banished the smaller bear from its fishing grounds. Incredible!
We moved up Port Gravina to Bear Trap Bay, of which Krystin has a love-hate relationship. Krystin loves this cove because it has a beautiful lagoon, waterfalls, and a salmon-filled river, but hates it because of the swarms of biting bugs and – for reasons unknown – severe allergies. Every year, she ends up inside the boat sniffling.
Before the fit of allergies, we immediately explored the beach because the tide was low. Low tides put the fish in shallow water making the potential for seeing bears much greater than high tides. We beached the dinghy at what we thought a safe spot and started hiking up river. A tidal lagoon lies behind a grassy knoll that dries at low tide and that was our intended destination. We started making our way through the grass when Bixler shouts, “Bear!” A young brown bear was watching us from his perch on a rock. He seemed thoroughly disinterested in us and continued on eating blueberries on a knoll. He would peak over at us occasionally. At one point, a salmon spotting float plane flew over us and the three of us looked up.
Living here for as long as we have, you start to learn that bears have distinct body language and will let you know in advance if they are dissatisfied with your presence. This bear was nonchalant, so we were safe and thus kept a safe distance. Our bond of understanding was broken when we realized that the tide was rising quickly and our dinghy was slowly becoming surrounded by water. Bixler bolted to move it up higher and the bear didn’t seem to care. He eventually retreated back to the woods when the second or third float plane buzzed over the three of us.
We returned to the boat where Krystin started in a massive allergy fit. She barely made it into the dinghy for the high tide tour of the river, where we saw swarms of salmon but no bears. One antihistamine later and she was out for the night.
We pulled anchor the next morning quickly avoiding the bugs and breathing clearly. Our next destination was Sheep Bay, before Cordova. Sheep Bay is our traditional pre-Cordova stopping point where we set the boat up for port. Aside from attempting to hike to the lake above the waterfall and attempting to get into the lagoon at the wrong tide (neither were successful), we started making our “to do” lists. Fuel dock, harbormaster, post office, Fish and Game, Bidarki Rec Center (to check into the race), Laundromat, the Alaska Commercial Co. (or the AC, as we call it), Baja Tacos, etc….the list seemed endless.
The next morning, at 4:30 am, we got up, made coffee and hit the fuel dock even before they opened. We squeezed Carpe Ventos between two salmon tenders on the transient dock across from a large sailboat splattered with sponsorships. Most sailboaters are friendly, but these were the exception. Looking at our boat, they forced a “hello” and realized that we are neither sponsored nor possessed a custom-built boat for an expedition. Our 1979 Cal 34 may be classic plastic, but she has thousands of miles under her keel with only the beautiful name of Carpe Ventos with the hailing port of Seward, AK across the stern. No sponsorship required. As the weekend went on, we learned that their boat was a floating daycare and a clown-car’s worth of people would enter and exit daily glaring at us. The kids played violins (of course) and were whored out around town to make money. When race day came around a few of the adults complained about the $18 entrance fee for the 5K. Really? You’ve been gone sailing for years, on a custom boat, on someone else’s dime, and you complain about $18? The entire thing was disgusting and Krystin nearly lost it when the only conversation came from the expedition’s leader wanting to know about the race as she was exiting Carpe Ventos for the half-marathon. We see what the Aussies on Teleport mean when they were relieved to meet young people.
Hitting port in Cordova is always a whirlwind of activity. Aside from the glares and stares of our unfriendly boat neighbor, we met plenty of friendly fishermen passing by. Cordova is a working town with a working harbor centered around fishing. The docks may disheveled and the harbor loud, but it has the best $5 shower money can buy at the harbor and the best wood-fired pizza served out of a shipping container.
We started at the Laundromat and checked into the race at the Bidarki Recreation Center. We headed down to Fish and Game and got our shrimp permit, eager to start shrimping. Somewhere during our transition of the northern part of the Sound, Bixler’s mom called to say that the pot would not be guaranteed delivery upon our arrival. She even called the post office in Cordova (“the nice man at the post office”) to confirm it was not there. Bixler managed to get the line and accessories, but not the pot. After a visit to the harbormaster, he learned you could buy pots in one of the many industrial buildings that line the harbor. He purchased the last one in town.
In the meantime, Krystin finished up the laundry and bought oysters at Nicholai’s Backdoor (through the front door), said hi to the race director, chatted up with a fisherman excited about our shrimping prospects, and reconvened with Bixler at Copper River Fleece for some shopping. At the end of our errands, we enjoyed tacos at Baja Tacos with milkshakes and beers, saving the oysters for a post-race treat.
We spent the afternoon sorting out the shrimping gear which consists of a pot, 600 feet weighted line, a buoy, and a canister for shrimp bait (essentially cat food). Bixler walked the line up and down the dock bantering endlessly while arranging 50-foot sections of line to mark. He only shut up when a young fisherwoman in a tight tanktop and sweatpants walked by. Krystin remarked at the abrupt transition.
We walked up and down the docks with line receiving stares from our boat neighbors and friendly hellos from fishermen. Eventually, we packed up the shrimp gear, took the longest, hottest shower in two weeks, and grabbed a pizza at Harborside Pizza.
As we were eating pizza, a group of three girls came by and started asking us questions about fishing. For whatever reason, everyone in Cordova – locals and tourists alike – seem to believe we are fishermen. Maybe it is the no-bullshit attitude or the wearing of sweatpants, but most people were asking us independently how the fishing has been. After an explanation of sport fishing on a sailboat, they are further intrigued, just as these women were, fresh from the interior of Canada. We explained the differences in fishing and then wished them luck on the race. We had to be in bed early; Bixler’s Marathon race started at 6:15 am.
We both ran our respective races. Bixler placed fourth in the marathon after an injury from the Mount Marathon race caught up with him forcing him to walk certain portions. Krystin met up with the Canadians, then proceeded to pass all of them running the best half-marathon since last year, albeit not her fastest. Regardless, the Copper River Salmon Run is the friendliest race we’ve ever done. The small amount of contenders and amazing scenery is worth the run. Our fourth time running the race, Bixler is becoming known in the Cordova community as “the guy from Seward who comes by sailboat who runs with Mike.” Unfortunately, Mike was out fishing this year on his new bowpicker, complete with built-in treadmill.
We ended the night at the Salmon Jam, a salmon buffet and awards ceremony where most people meet in the beer tent. It was light crowd, due to the salmon fishing and the now-pouring rain, but we joined a couple we recognized from this same race three or four years ago. They decided they wanted to run it again and had returned to Cordova. Ironically we found out that the wife’s family had owned a boat called Reposado that was sold and brought to Alaska. That boat now resides in Seward’s small boat harbor. The owners are friends of friends.
We said farewell to the couple and race director who is hoping to see us next year. Our plan was to leave early in the morning, but the marine forecast was saying otherwise. A fast moving storm was racing out to the Gulf and all that dry air from the Interior was whipping in behind. The wind howled all night in Cordova and 30-knot gusts were broadsiding Carpe Ventos by morning. We thoroughly debated crossing the Sound and even leaving. Cordova’s location makes it an easy place to get stuck. After listening to the buoy reports, a breakfast burrito from Baja Tacos, a final glimpse of Bix’s heartthrob young fisherwoman, and a final glare from our unfriendly sailboat neighbors, we said, “Let’s go.”
Every year as June turns to July, we eagerly gaze at our calendars, pile up provisions, and await our favorite trip of the year: the annual trip to Prince William Sound. Yes, we do speak of visiting other places such as Kenai Fjords National Park, Kodiak, and even the Inside Passage, but the pull of the Sound is too great. Still, in our fifth trip traversing the Sound, we have yet to visit all of its many coves and anchorages. Much akin to explorers filling in blank maps of the world, we are slowly filling in our local knowledge of the Sound.
The day after the infamous Mount Marathon race, we loaded up Carpe Ventos and headed out east. The forecast was less than desirable: northeasterlies up to 20 knots with the buoys near Montague Island (the barrier island that causes Prince William Sound to be a sound and not a bay or a bight) following the forecast. We motored dead into the wind and experienced 20 to 30 knot winds on the nose as we neared Montague. Once in the lee, the winds piped down and we dropped anchor in the usual welcome cove: Fox Farm anchorage.
Surprisingly for us, there were two sailboats in the anchorage. A third, Sundowner from Seward, joined us. Bixler was still recovering from the race, so we stayed aboard for the evening, cooking up the rockfish we caught just outside the anchorage.
The next morning, we awoke to sunshine and a Sitka Blacktail Deer on the isthmus at the head of Fox Farm. This was the first deer we had ever seen in Prince William Sound!
Eagerly, we hopped in the dinghy and explored the isthmus thoroughly. No on-shore deer sightings, but we did connect with Sundowner and found out the captain’s dog has a taste for barnacles. The other two boats in the cove we learned were from France who had just come over by way of Kodiak. The language barrier made it hard to carry on a conversation, but we wished them luck on their travels.
We pulled anchor in Fox Farm and headed immediately to good old 7-Fathom Hole. We had an ambitious first-half of the trip planned to help fill some gaps on the northern and eastern parts of the Sound while saving the western half for the weeks after Cordova. This meant putting miles under Carpe Ventos’ keel, who was happy to be moving after a dismal June of endlessly crappy weather.
Though only one day in, we made an ice stop in Icy Bay to gather as much glacial ice as we could hold. We usually plan our food meticulously, but since we knew we were going to be gone for a month, we decided to clean out our refrigerator too. There was little room in our ice box for ice, but we managed to stuff enough ice in the icebox and two coolers to last us until Columbia Glacier, thanks to some cooler weather.
We pulled into 7-Fathom Hole and anchored next to a boat we recognized as the yacht Teleport, captained by Aussies Chris and Jess. We had seen the boat the week before in Aialik, but didn’t have time to say hi as they had pulled anchor well before we even awoke. Luckily for us, a blustery forecast forced us together in 7-Fathom Hole to wait for a small storm to pass. We hopped in the dinghy and went over to introduce ourselves. They invited us aboard later for appetizers and beers since we were on our way fishing. We took up that offer later since apparently the salmon had yet to show up to Jackpot Bay! This was the first year that we were salmonless sitting in 7-Fathom Hole.
Armed with beers and some canned salmon from a few years ago, we joined Chris and Jess in a dish of canned salmon and fresh-caught shrimp from their shrimp pot. It was at this moment that the epic quest to acquire shimping gear started as the Aussie described the shrimping process and Chris later showed Bixler his pot pulling technique.
The Aussies were delighted to have met young people (hint: the sailing world is usually a 60+ affair) and spoke of their travels and connections. They had communicated over email with our friends traversing the Northwest Passage on Empiricus and in Nome, they met Art, our lovable, chain-smoke, longhandle-wearing, gold-prospecting, former neighbor now searching for gold somewhere near Hope. Before we moved, he left us detailed instructions on how to get to his mining camp: “You take the Y to Hope, go behind the road maintenance building, follow dirt the road, and take a left, then another left, and then another left. My camp is right there.” To which we responded: “Art, pretty sure that’s driving in a complete circle.”
As the night wore on and the rain began to fall, we invited the Aussies over to dinner on Carpe Ventos, where Krystin made an awesome shrimp-and-rockfish curry which we all devoured. We spent some time mulling over charts and suggesting anchorages to the Aussies, then discovered that Chris and Jess were planning to tie the knot on the same day that we were! Small world. We told them we wanted to visit Australia and they said we were invited to stay with them. Sounds like a plan. We bid them good luck and made a note to contact them when we hit Cordova.
The mild storm passed leaving only rain in the path. Bixler decided that we need to get shrimp pots and called his mom who was planning on going up to Anchorage to make sure she could pick up the stuff and general delivery it to Cordova. She begrudgingly agreed after already watching our house, cat, and driving up to Anchorage to get our car serviced. Bixler always jokes, “what else would she do with her time if I wasn’t around?” He then placed an order to Donalson’s in Anchorage. Theoretically, a full shrimping setup with be awaiting us in Cordova with the shrimp permits available at Fish and Game, practically right next door to the post office!
The weather was clearing as we approached Gunboat Cove in front of the Eshamy Bay Lodge. We joke that the weather is always sunny at Eshamy and it’s true; even the owners say Eshamy Bay is a sunny hole in otherwise overcast Sound weather.
We dropped anchor in the middle of Gunboat Cove among jumping salmon. We quickly opened up the boat to dry her out and dug out our dive gear in the quarter berth. Our quarter berth is our mini storage shed which we have recently removed the useless cushion to make more room. On this trip it house a complete set of SCUBA gear, free-diving gear for two, fly fishing gear, packrafts, and our new Dometic AC/DC freezer. It is quite the task to organize that compartment.
We changed into wetsuits and hopped in the water with a speargun and GoPro. Snagging salmon is fun, but spearfishing is wonderous. The salmon in Gunboat were so thick that we had a hard time picking out which to spear. Both of us ended up with three each that we filleted and froze for the next week. One salmon went straight to the grill on a cedar plank.
We gorged on salmon, hiked to the lake behind the cove and up to a knoll (Krystin was promoting daily exercise since we were running a race in Cordova) and settled in for the evening. The lodge appeared thoroughly occupied, so we decided not to bother the owners or caretakers, both of which are Seward friends.
The next morning we awoke to a black bear on the beach in the usual spot scoping out the salmon situation. The lodge seemed unusually quiet, so we decided to head over and chat with the owner who was just about to take his guests to Whittier. He thanked us for our support of getting their dock permitted, asked about Bixler’s mom, and other Seward gossip. We said hello to the caretakers who were very busily prepping the lodge for the next round of guests. When we asked what they were doing this winter, they replied, “hibernating.” And we don’t blame them. After a season of serving tourists well into December for the deer hunting season, the caretakers could use some peace and quiet.
We said goodbye to all since we had to move as well. Our next destination put us up on the north side of the Sound to Cascade Falls. We anchored there last year with a superyacht eating oysters and complaining about the heat. This year, it was warm the day we made the long, windless trek north, but the oyster farm was out of oysters! Hailing them on the radio didn’t help; there was a two to three week wait for oysters (in theory).
We anchored in Cascade, sans oysters, and headed up to the lake above the waterfall. We intended to packraft the lake, but it was small and buggy, so we opted out. Both of us were in need of a bath, so we headed over to a nearby stream to bathe. Four years of bathing in snowmelt streams really catches up with you. Both of us froze, but we were clean.
Cascade was calm with ever-increasing clouds. We listed to the marine forecast that night and were shocked: a nasty storm was spawning in the gulf. Tomorrow would be increasing winds up to 25 knots, then 35 knots, then 45 knots with gusts to 55 knots near Hichinbrook entrance, all of this persisting for the next few days! Cascade was not an ideal place to weather a storm. The wide open bay has little protection from such fickle winds.
Krystin poured over the chart that night and selected an anchorage in Cedar Bay, not far from Cascade. Our guide notes it is not a highly visited place, but has good protection from weather. And on the plus side it contains the northern-most population of Alaskan Yellow Cedar which rings this fragrant fjord.
The next morning we pulled anchor early and booked it to Cedar Bay. Concerned for our Aussie friends, we tried hailing them on the radio but instead picked up Gypsy Vixen, piloted by “Captain Dave and Admiral Cici,” ardent followers of our blog. Captain Dave was extremely excited to talk to us. They were headed to Whittier to weather the storm and mentioned a cove called the Hidey-Hole in Cedar Bay. He hoped to meet us in person someday.
It turns out Hidey-Hole is a real place, but far too small for such a powerful storm. Instead, we settled on Cedar Lakes Cove with good holding bottom and plenty of swing room. Before the winds increased too much, we explored the lake at the head of the bay and the lagoon that contained a mysterious fish. We wanted to go back and flyfish, but the rain settled in. During the storm when the Hichinbrook entrance was pounded with storm-force winds and 45-knot easterlies raged through the Sound, all we experienced was pouring rain. We would hear noises that sounded like wind, but it turned out that our rainy haven was right in the flight path for every 747 coming out of Anchorage.
For two days we holed up until the winds backed down and the rain slackened.
We were able to take a dinghy tour across Cedar Bay, where we wondered upon a flock of geese hanging out near a lake. Looking out of Cedar Bay, we decided we could move up to nearby Wells Bay and still have protection from the weakening storm. We pulled anchor and headed to Keyhole Bay.
Keyhole Bay looks like a giant keyhole on the chart. It is surrounded by towering waterfalls and was one of our deepest anchorages yet. Dropping anchor in 125 feet, we noticed a greenish tinge to the water from the immense amount of runoff from the rain. The storm was breaking, so we headed out for a hike along the keyhole. We climbed up grassy, granitic mounds offering incredible views of the area. We spent a significant amount of time hiking, a blessing after being holed up inside for so long.
The weather finally returned to the usual 10 knots of wind and we motored to Emerald Bay near Columbia Glacier. We rounded Glacier Island expecting to find tons of ice, but the water was empty. We headed slightly out of our way to collect more ice. Our ice supply was low, thanks to us using our woodstove during the storm.
We dropped anchor in Emerald Cove and climbed to the usual overlook near the moraine of Columbia Glacier. One of the fastest retreating glaciers in the Sound, Columbia is no longer visible from the many nearby anchorages. Since the area was still overcast, it was not nearly as impressive as last summer, though one can enjoy the view much better without food poisoning.
That night we headed out to bathe again. This time, the stream we selected was unusually cold. We later determined that it may have been glacier-fed, or we are finally getting old. We snuggled up under our 6-lb Filson blanket watching a Great Courses about food history (naturally) when we heard the low drone of a boat engine entering our cove. Before we knew it, we had two salmon tenders and two seiners anchored in the cove, all of which were running their generators. So much for peace and quiet!
After a restless night, we pulled anchor and pointed our bow east. We had filled in a few spots on the north, with a few to go for coming summers. We needed to make progress to Cordova for the annual Salmon Jam, so east we went, fighting the winds and currents of the Valdez Arm and Tatitlek Narrows.