Last week, we wandered down to one of our favorite fishing holes and each caught a king salmon.
The next day, the entire town seemed to show up, including a hot-headed 23-year-old who had a problem with Krystin’s casting but didn’t have the cajones to say anything to her face. We named him Slim Shady. Word travels fast in the fishing community, and with a crowd like that we knew it was time to head to the boat. Memorial Day weekend was upon us and that means Alaska is officially open for the summer.
We headed out early to avoid the screaming winds that Seward is experiencing in the afternoon. Carpe Ventos’ engine purred and the boat swayed under the five shrimp pots we had on deck. Our destination was Aialik Fjord, the first fjord in Kenai Fjords National Park. If you pay to go on a boat tour of the park, chances are this is where you end up. While visitors usually go for the wildlife, we were going on a shrimping expedition.
Resurrection Bay and the surrounding fjords were heavily bottom trawled for shrimp in the past, so the general consensus is that the shrimping is “no Prince William Sound” and very few people participate in this resident-only fishery. However, we were determined to find the shrimp and maybe catch a few fish on the way and avoid the crowds. Our early departure to Aialik Fjord allowed us to avoid a small storm that blew into Seward. We damn-near had the fjord to ourselves!
We dropped our pots at our first test location. Shrimp cannot be seen on our bottom sounder, so we used the charts to determine a good location. The mantra of “steep and deep” usually works to find them, with 450 feet of water usually being our target depth. We had a delicious cocktail of shrimp bait, king salmon carcasses, and a meaty bear skull in the pots (note: this is a fantastic way to clean skulls!).
After dropping our pots, we anchored up in Coleman Bay, a calm anchorage near Aialik glacier’s terminal moraine. We usually visit Aialik in July, when the mountain slopes are green to the top. In late May, mountains that aren’t snow-capped are still barren.
We have heard that there are black bears everywhere in Aialik, but we’ve never seen them because of the lush greenery. Shortly after dropping anchor, we watched a black bear skirt the mountain and climb over to Resurrection Bay.
Another sailboat joined us late in the day while we were sunning on deck after a delicious dinner of bear burgers. The sailing community has a bad habit of calling Krystin either “Krystine” or “Krystina.” We trained a few people out of it, but after six years of sailing in Seward, the mispronunciation still occurs. When they came over to say hello and introduced them to a friend they had on board, we chuckled at the “Krystine” and politely corrected only to feel a wave of embarrassment from them. Honestly, Krystin wishes she can have an interesting name like Bixler.
That evening as the skies clouded up, we headed to shore to explore. As we arrived on shore, a black bear appeared out of a salmonberry thicket. We moved in close to get some pictures. The bear didn’t seem to care at our presence and started to move up the hillside to eat greens. After our camping trip on Afognak with giant brown bears, we are growing less afraid – though still cautious – of Alaskan bears.
The following morning we awoke to pouring rain. We geared up in our Grundens and set out to pull our shrimp pots. Three of our pots came up fine with little-to-no shrimp. One of our pots hung on the bottom and we drove Carpe Ventos in circles trying to pull it up. We finally used the halyard winch to free the pot from the bottom. Our fifth pot was in the middle of an ice field. Apparently the glacier spewed a bunch of ice out during the night tide right where our pot was sitting. We ended waiting two hours for the ice to clear before grabbing that pot.
Our original plan was to head to Northwestern Fjord to the west should Aialik not produce any shrimp. We had about a cocktail’s worth and thought about the long transition, but considering it was already noon we decided to stay put and try another area. Our iPad (yes, we have an iPad) has enhanced charts, so we explored potential areas. We settled on a different area and began peppering it with pots.
After dropping our second round of pots, we dropped back to McMullen Cove, a favorite of ours. Unfortunately, another boat was taking up the entire anchorage, so we anchored in an unusual spot that turned out to be a decent cod hole where we picked fresh cod off the bottom all night. The entire fjord was socked in with fog and rain, so we huddled up inside next to our woodstove. Bixler had a slight relapse in his sickness, so Krystin put him to bed. We calmly drifted off to sleep dreaming of shrimp entering our pots.
Aialik was bound in a thick layer of fog the next morning. We set out to pull our shrimp pots followed by some much-needed fishing. The first pot produced an interesting surprise: an octopus! Octopodes are one of the few invaders you can keep in the shrimp pot. This octopus happened to be dining on our shrimp, favoring the tails like people do. There were three or four shrimp heads tightly bound in its tentacles like it was visiting a buffet. We could just imagine this octopus trolling the bottom and coming across a pot full of delicacies unable to escape.
The octopus wasn’t too pleased to be on our deck and immediately wrapped one of its tentacles around our engine kill switch. We contemplated on how to dispatch it. Krystin read somewhere about putting it in fresh water, so we filled a cooler up and dunked it in fresh water. We were now one octopus richer.
A few of our pots produced no shrimp, but the remaining had a decent amount. Definitely “no Prince William Sound,” but a non-trivial amount for the freezer since we had non anyways. We continued prospecting by re-dropping all five pots and continuing onward to fish.
Fishing was slow, oddly, and we managed a few rockfish. It is still relatively early in the season and each year presents a different crop of fish. We nailed cod like we nailed rockfish last year. Anything in the freezer is food for the winter.
We dropped back to McMullen having the cove to ourselves. The sky wanted to clear, but it was still foggy and drizzly. As we pulled into McMullen, a black bear appeared on the beach and took a swim before returning to shore. We rounded the spit to anchor in the hook behind it. As Krystin stood on the bow and prepped the anchor, the bear stood on its hind legs watching us and ran as soon as we started to drop anchor.
With Bixler still under the weather, we spent the evening enjoying the breaking weather and cleaning fish. Carpe Ventos gets destroyed shrimping, so we scrubbed her decks and settled inside. We had an early morning the next morning to pull our shrimp pots (moderately successful), fish (not so successful), and head home. At this point, the bear skull was squeaky clean!
Carpe Ventos was all the rage on the radio as friends chimed in with the clearing weather. During her watch, Krystin noticed a fishing boat make a beeline to Carpe Ventos’ stern. It turned out to be friends just pausing to say hi. We hit the dock, cleaned up our disgusting boat, and headed home to vacuum seal and make some shrimp stock. What a weekend!
Why is this blog post so delayed? Because we have 17.5 hours of sunlight in Seward right now and we are trying to spend as much of it outside as possible. Though it is just starting to green up, it feels like summer, where the days are long and filled with resource collection for the winter.
We had big plans for the weekend to head over to Day Harbor to fish, shrimp, and possibly stumble upon a bear. We were moving along at high speed for the week, watching the weather deteriorate for the usual Friday rain (honestly, every weekend!) and then Bixler got sick.
A sick Bixler is no laughing matter. Bixler, who continuously moves at the speed of Bixler, is forced to slow down otherwise his sickness lingers. When the rain hit on Friday, Bixler’s health took a nose dive. Krystin put him to bed and said, “let’s go out sailing tomorrow. The weather’s supposed to improve.”
And it did. The rain lifted, the winds slackened, and a nine-foot swell was rolling through the Gulf of Alaska. This made for a windy, bumpy ride to Driftwood Bay, one of our favorite out-of-Resurrection-Bay destinations. Krystin drove most of the way while Bixler rested in a semi-conscious Dayquil-induced state down below in the boat.
Soon we rounded Cape Resurrection and Bixler emerged from his cocoon to drive while Krystin prepared lunch and got herself seasick in the process. Those leftover swells were bouncing off the cape making for a bumpy ride. We fished one of our spots near the cape and pulled up some nice rockfish, including a monster caught by Krystin.
We dropped our shrimp pot and headed into Driftwood, which was slightly bumpy, but surprisingly calm considering the wind had picked up on the outside. Right now the Interior is having a record-breaking heat wave which means windy weather in Seward.
We dropped anchor in the usual spot and sat on the deck to calm our queasy stomachs. Our long hiatus from sailing had made us lose our sea legs, iron stomachs, and put us out of sorts in our usual routine. We almost left the dock with the shore power cord still plugged in.
We dropped the dinghy into the water and sped to the beach. Driftwood Bay is a state marine park with a private inholding and also a collector beach for interesting ocean debris (and driftwood, obviously). In all of our years visiting this bay, we’ve never seen the cabin occupied. Sure enough, a kayak on the beach and the smell of wood stove showed that the cabin was indeed occupied for the first time in six summers of visiting. Wow!
We had a slew of rockfish to fillet, but we spent some time first exploring the beach debris. We’ve found some interesting junk on Alaskan beaches ranging from 55-gallon drums from China to vodka from Russia. We were just having a conversation with a friend about the weirdest beach stuff we’ve found. So far, it was the bottle of Russian vodka, but our hour of beach exploration at Driftwood Bay redefined weird.
Bixler picked up a bag of salmon feed from the Lower 48 for feeding farmed salmon. Weird.
Krystin saw something buried under a buoy and stretched out the material. Any person who has watched enough Law and Order and X-Files would recognize it: a body bag! That’s right, likely straight from an Alaskan cruise ship, a (thankfully) unused body bag likely discarded accidentally. Weird!
Bixler rounded a log jam and picked up the most giant lightbulb we’ve ever seen. Still weird, but at this point we were grossed out by the body bag.
We returned to the boat with fish filleted to rest on the deck. Bixler was taking a turn for the worst, but the weather was so pleasant that we couldn’t resist sitting on deck until midnight. Last week we had a cold snap where the evening temperature got down to 30 F and killed all the pesky mosquitoes, so basking the midnight sun was exceptionally pleasant without DEET or bug nets.
We settled in for a rocky night thanks to the leftover swell. We fished again the next morning, where the action was less hot, but we still got our limit of tasty rockfish. Our shrimp pot was empty when we pulled up the 600 feet of line. Sigh.
We rounded Cape Resurrection which was calmer, but noticed that the south wind had picked up. We passed through El Dorado Narrows and raised the sails. Carpe Ventos screamed on a broad reach before heading wing-on-wing, pushing 7.5 knots, straight downwind to the harbor. It was some of the fastest, most intense sailing we’ve had in a while. Though Bixler was coping with his sickness, he couldn’t resist messing with the sails and troubleshooting a seized winch.
Carpe Ventos snugged into her slip. We unloaded and put her away, waiting patiently for the adventure next weekend. Hopefully, with a less-sick Bixler!
Obviously, this posts contains some semi-graphic images of hunting bears. Remember, these are not your teddy bears; they are dangerous animals that also happen to be delicious and provide a year’s worth low-fat, low-calorie, high-protein meat that rivals beef any day of the week!
The previous weekend we had an unsuccessful fly-in hunt looking for a Kodiak brown bear. After such an amazing experience of being out in the wilderness, it is hard to be at home dealing with reality. We hit a pretty big low mid-week, and the deteriorating marine forecast for the weekend didn’t help either. Really? 35 knots of wind and 12-foot seas? Two inches of rain? Ah, spring.
Instead of sailing and doing the usual gamut, we decided to occupy our time doing our favorite springtime activity: black bear hunting. Black bears are the smallest bear species, averaging about five feet long from nose to tail and standing only about 30 inches high. In the spring, they only weigh about 200 pounds, but can gain up to 300 extra pounds before hibernating in the fall. There are over 100,000 black bears in Alaska, roughly one bear for every seven people. Because the species favors coastal environments, there are probably more bears than people in the Seward area. Because we don’t have deer in the area and moose are hard to come by, black bear is a main staple next to fish.
Friends from Seattle where coming into town on Mother’s Day to rig sailboats and the non-vegetarian of the two was craving a black bear burger. We had unsuccessful hunts last year for black bear and have been craving the peppery, unique flavor of the meat since we cashed our stash over a year ago. Last spring was hard on the bears; it was warm and dry for the majority of it preventing their main spring food sources from growing properly. With the snow from our April storms, this spring was beginning to look a little more normal.
We spent Friday afternoon and Saturday hiking a few trails up high where the snow had just melted. Nothing was growing quite yet, but we did notice a few bear tracks in the snow. On Sunday (Mother’s Day), before driving out the road we decided to stop and glass the mountain we can see from our hot tub.
Bixler parked the car and grabbed the spotting scope while Krystin used the binoculars to scour the bare (no pun intended) hillside. Before she even put the binoculars up to her eyes, Bixler said, “Oh my god, there’s a bear.” Sure enough, with the naked eye, we could see a bear scooching down an avalanche slide and milling about a cliff before finding a patch of greenery to graze in. The only problem was that this patch to graze in was up several thousand feet in an alder thicket in a seemingly inaccessible part of the mountain.
We watched the bear for a while and we decided to go after it. Our strategy was that Bixler would climb the mountain while Krystin watched in the spotting scope from the ground, so she wouldn’t have to suffer through the climb if he didn’t get one. Once she heard a shot, she would start the climb to where she last saw him. The tactic worked well in theory, not so much in execution.
Bixler started the climb. The forest in the lower reaches of the mountain has some decent animal trails, but the middle section was thick alder. By the time Krystin returned back to the scoping spot, Bixler had exited the forest and was halfway up the alder. He continued to climb up an avalanche slide to the treeline and then skirted across three avalanche chutes to reach where we first saw the bear.
Bixler then followed the bear’s route to the small cliff. At this point, Krystin had lost sight of the bear. Bixler peered over the cliff and saw the bear sleeping in the thicket just below the cliff. He watched for a while trying to discern which end was the front of the bear and his method of attack. From the top of the small cliff, he aimed and shot the bear. The bear bolted upward and ran and Bixler fired a second shot for good measure. In an instant, the bear was down in an alder thicket.
Krystin heard the shot from the mountain, and stared at the mountain. The last thing she wanted to do was to take Bixler’s “up and over” route, so she drove down the road to find a better access point. The treed area below Bixler was cliff-like and steep, so she backtracked and parked the car.
Krystin took off into the woods climbing an animal trail up to the alders. From there she bushwhacked hundreds of feet of elevation to Bixler, getting lost and having to turn around at one point because the alders were so thick. Calling out Bixler’s name and with him responding, she was able locate him among the hundreds of acres of thicket, nearly three hours after Bixler had shot the bear. Yeah, it was that difficult.
By the time Krystin arrived on scene, Bixler was done butchering the bear. We loaded our packs with about a hundred pounds each and started the painful trek down the hill. Carrying such a heavy load down a steep hillside makes you realize where your weak point is on your body. In our case, it was the ankles that were giving out. We each had a few missteps and Krystin had the best fall, pitch-poling head-first down the hill and ending up stuck in an alder.
The ideal route for us was to find the point where we had come up to avoid the cliff section. Unfortunately, with the heavy packs it was difficult to slide step the mountain so we headed basically straight down. Sure the alders were bad, but the devil’s club was worse. This relative of ginseng grows as a spiky column and can penetrate even the toughest of clothing. Krystin was covered in clothing from neck to toe while Bixler was wearing shorts and did not have his “devil’s club gloves,” work gloves with the tool-dipped palm.
The route steepened and at times became more of a controlled slide through thick devil’s club before reaching the flat lands. We hobbled back to the car, exhausted and dehydrated (Bixler drank all of the water before Krystin even arrived), but successful.
We called our Seattlite friends who were elated. We got home and hung the meat to age in our garage for a day. Our friends arrived who were impressed (even the vegetarian). An acquaintance arrived shortly after who was not as impressed as the Seattlites. It was the usual comments of “that bear’s kinda small” and “you guys are always killing something” followed by promptly leaving our driveway.
Unfortunately for them, they did not get to experience the amazing bear burgers we had that night!
Kodiak brown bears are the largest of the brown bear species. Isolated from their mainland cousins about 12,000 years ago, they thrive on the Kodiak Archipelago. Their intelligence is somewhere in between canine and primate (smarter than most people we went to high school with), and to hunt them in an exercise in patience. We attempted to hunt them on eastern Afognak, a heavily-wooded section on an island north of Kodiak. It was our first fly-in hunt and we weren’t successful. The brown bears outsmarted us.
Back in February 2013, Krystin pulled a tag for a Kodiak brown bear hunt that she never expected to get. Getting a tag is difficult enough for a resident. We can’t imagine being a non-resident where you need to pay up to $20,000 for guide services to hunt Kodiak brown bears. Yikes!
With the tag in hand, we went back and forth about the hunt. One does not traditionally eat brown bear, so this is generally labeled as a trophy hunt. We had plans to salvage the meat to try it out in the field to put the age old question of “can you eat brown bear?” to rest. Brown bear burgers anyone? Hmmm…maybe sausage…
In the end, we decided to do the hunt for the experience. We would be flying into a remote section of Afognak, an unpopulated wilderness, to fend for ourselves for five days. Planning for this trip was somewhat of a nightmare because of the logistics involved. We had to get all of our camping and hunting gear to Kodiak, and then onto a Seahawk Air bush plane. It went smoother than expected, though Krystin nearly ripped the head off of the Ravn employee when she said, “oh, your luggage may not make it on the flight because of a weight and balance issue with the aircraft.” Seriously, in this day and age, do you really think an airline is going to store your luggage at the airport?
We arrived in Kodiak with four Actionpackers, a gun case, and a contractor bag with our hunting packs in tow. Bixler’s cousin picked us up and delivered much of gear to Seahawk Air to store it for the evening. After a brief family visit (and a visit to the brewery), we packed up our remaining gear and were dropped off at Seahawk Air.
Seahawk Air is one of Kodiak’s small bush flying services. The road system in Kodiak City is small, and Bixler’s cousin said he wished he could drive around the island. Where the road ends, the airplane takes over. Though Kodiak is surrounded by ocean, the Gulf of Alaska and nearby Aleutian chain is hopelessly unforgiving in terms of weather. A friend of ours who visited Kodiak asked a local about the prevailing weather. Her response: “everywhere.”
We arrived at Seahawk and met our pilot of a de Havilland Beaver on floats, Roland.
He was a soft spoken man and reminiscent of the following phrase:
In Alaska, there are old pilots and bold pilots, but never old bold pilots.
He seemed like the type of guy who meditated every morning and who you wanted to buy a beer after a long day at work. Hell, we wanted to be Roland as soon as we took off, climbing up to a cruising altitude of 1,000 feet with our collective 800 pounds (us included) of gear.
We flew over a few small islands and part of Afognak before setting down in the western arm of Tonki Bay.
Roland cut the engine and we floated to shore. He simply turned the plane around and we unloaded all of our gear onto the beach. Roland said goodbye and wished us luck as he flew off. We watched our last connection to civilization fly away in a de Havilland Beaver.
And it’s always such a surreal feeling when the plane takes off. And it doesn’t quite sink into you just how alone you are. – Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man (probably the only intelligent thing he ever said or did)
For fly-in hunts, you cannot legally shoot an animal the same day you land, so we devoted the day to setting up our camp: two tents (one for sleeping, one for gear), covered by tarps and surrounded by an electric fence. It was probably the most comfortable camping we’ve ever experienced. Coming home to our tents every night was a great feeling. We would climb into our sleeping tent with our Kindles and read before drifting to sleep (white person problem: Kindles fog up in a moist tent environment).
After setting up camp, we explored the area for prospective hunting. Our camp was on a wooded spit with a lagoon behind us.
The lagoon had an old otter that beached itself to rest and lots of bird activity, a sign of the salmon smolt out-migration.
There were fresh bear tracks where the lagoon exits to the ocean, an excellent sign.
The bears themselves had created a sophisticated trail network like nothing we’ve ever seen before. These trails rivaled the Forest Service trails and were easy to use unlike most animal trails. In fact, the following morning, we took off on one of these trails which went over a saddle in the island and ended up at Pillar Lake on the south side of Afognak. The trail was still a climb and hiking five hours with a heavy pack sure knocked us out at night. However, the bears were using the trail regularly.
Usually, the modus operandi of bear hunting is to climb up high above the treeline. Afognak is a low-lying island and the trees grown damn near to the top of the island. There were several exposed hillsides, but for a bear that is smarter-than-the-average-bear, they know not use the exposed hillsides; all of their trails are in the woods. We contemplated going up high one morning following another bear trail we had found, but as we rounded into the lagoon we saw fresh bear tracks. A big brownie had walked just in front of us across the tidal river.
We scouted the surrounding area and realized that this bear had walked on a trail just behind our camp! That same trail led to a wooded area where bears enjoyed munching on 5-gallon buckets lifted from the selection of beach trash. Plastic is a serious issue in the ocean and Tonki Bay is a classic collector beach. The best thing we found: a partially-filled bottle of authentic Russian vodka.
It was obvious that the bears enjoy using this trail and we hoped that they had a reason to walk by again. As luck would have it, that old otter living the lagoon expired overnight and it floated out to the main beach at high tide. We decided to setup a spot to in a “bear blind” to wait for the bears and allow us to glass the exposed hillsides.
For many days we waited. Nothing bear-like walked by during the day, though they frequented the area at night. The bears were becoming more careful to walk on the gravel than the sand to hide their tracks.
A curious fox somewhat adopted us after dining on the dead otter. She got within three feet of Krystin who was sitting patiently in the bear blind. Three other foxes walked by: another orange one, a grayish one, and Gimpy, the three-legged fox (that was the only one that got named). They all conveniently shared the otter meal without a single fight. Ironically, the camouflage that we used to hunt with makes some of the best wildlife viewing garb we’ve ever purchased. We spent more time shooting with our camera than with our gun.
Our evenings were filled with glassing the hillsides and observing the Sitka Blacktail Deer that frequented the beaches to munch on seaweed. It was a serene feeling and we were somewhat sad when Roland rolled in an hour late to pick us up. We were hoping the world had ended, but alas, civilization keeps on moving.
No bear? Not a problem! We were all smiles when we arrived back in Kodiak. It is not just about the hunt; it is about the experience.
This is Bixler’s adventure, as told by Krystin:
Bixler and Jesse arrived at their final destination on a warm Canadian day: Q-Cove on Quadra Island. It took a two hour car drive, three flights, and a ferry ride. All loaded with tons of gear.
Finally, the tiny harbor of Q-Cove loomed in the distance and there sat the sailboat, a 37-footer, that the two would be moving to her new home.
Five years ago a friend asked Bixler and Krystin if we would go with him to sail straight from Seward to Hawaii in September. We had to decline since our careers and vacation time were still in their infancy and both of us, especially Bixler, had regretted it ever since. Bixler swore that if he was ever offered a long passage on a boat either to or from Alaska, he would jump at the opportunity. Jesse, our friend at Empiricus Embarks and owner of Seven Seas Sailing Logistics, asked Bixler to come, since Jesse’s wife couldn’t. Of course, Bixler said yes.
Bixler and Jesse spent the first few days going over the boat and meeting up with the owners, both old and new. The new owners are fellow Alaskans, eager to explore the cruising grounds around Seward. The old owner was a Canadian gentleman that had sailed the boat to Mexico on numerous occasions, but also let her sit for the last few years. After only a minor setback with the engine idle set screw (Bixler and Krystin had had the same problem on their boat, so it was easier to fix this time around), and the two moved to fuel. Bixler called Krystin who would serve as a lifeline for weather and chatted about the trip. The weather was warm and sunny in Canada while Alaska seemed to finally get winter snow.
The two headed for Seymour Narrows. This small passageway is known for notorious currents. Usually, passages are made at slack tide when the water velocity reaches a minimum. However, Seymour is different, having to take the brunt of the Pacific draining through the passage. At what should have been slack water as they figured it, the passage was raging.
The boat dodged sucking whirlpools and tried to make her way “up river” before being pushed backwards.
Jesse and Bixler pulled into Menzies Bay near the narrowest part of the passage to wait for the real slack water.
Menzies Bay is a final example of those industrious Canadians with salmon pens and active logging operations. In Alaska, it is rare to see logging operations north near Seward, though a giant, abandoned log loader and sawdust pile sit across the bay from town. Farming salmon in Alaska is illegal and highly frowned upon. “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon” is a favorite bumpersticker. Despite being our friendly neighbor to the east and south of Alaska, Canada is a way different place than the US.
While sitting and waiting for passage, Jesse discovered that Seymour Narrows has a tide and current table and that they had read the table incorrectly. Much of this came down to observations and checking units. While Jesse taught Bixler some advanced charter plotting methods on paper charts, Bixler gave Jesse a lesson in dimensional analysis.
The following morning, they motored through Seymour Narrows without a single lick of current.
The two decided to stop in Alert Bay, since a large storm was about to hit the Canadian coastline.
Alert Bay is a small village located on a crescent-shaped island reminiscent of Cordova. After doing a few more boat projects, Bixler and Jesse hit the town, exploring the island’s ecological preserve and spending time in an “everything” store that Bixler was convinced was a cover for something nefarious. Regardless, the locals were friendly and many of the ladies were eying the two sailors fresh off a boat. Bixler spent a good portion of time trying to find a decent Canadian brew, but was stuck with low alcohol, sweet beers instead of the high alcohol, hoppy beers of Alaska.
The weather forecast was still lousy the next morning, but forward progress needed to be made to reach Ketchikan by April 17th. Bixler and Jesse left Alert Bay and headed north along Vancouver Island to Port Hardy to wait for the storm to pass. The wind freshened to 25 knots with higher gusts and they sailed on a reach most of the way to Port Hardy.
The two pulled in along side another boat with a couple from Juneau who were also waiting out the passing storm. They too had bought a Canadian boat they were bringing home to Alaska. After talking about traveling for a while, Bixler and Jesse checked with their wives who relayed weather and checked in for the night.
With weather building, Bixler and Jesse spent the morning scavenging an old sailboat that the harbormaster said was due to be lifted and crushed at the dump. The boat reeked of black mold, but had a few hidden treasures aboard, such as a radio and shrimp pot for Bixler and stainless hardware for Jesse.
Sometime during the scavenge, Samm (Jesse’s wife) called and said there was a window to cross the infamous Queen Charlotte Sound. Bixler rounded up Jesse who was contemplating taking a few winches off and the two prepared for a nasty crossing, leaving that night.
The only weather window had 30 knots of wind and 8 to 10-foot beam seas. Switching off on two-hour watches, both crew members experienced lightning and hail beyond belief. They motorsailed across the sound making 9 knots. At one point Bixler bumped the DC switch causing the boat to go black. He was certain they had been struck by lightning. On second inspection, he found he bumped the switch and turned it back on. Finally, mid-day, the boat pulled into Bella Bella to wait out the rest of the storm.
A cold Pacific hurricane was settling north of them over Haida Gwaii, an island offshore of British Columbia. Tired, Bixler and Jesse slept a while and awoke to dried jelly fish on the deck from the previous night!
Bella Bella, like many small coastal towns in Canada, has free moorage in the harbor resulting in a variety of interesting boats. They were tied up three deep to decrepit fishing boats.
The town was equally decrepit, probably due to the similar “boom-and-bust” economies of the Far North.
Bixler and Jesse spent the afternoon scavenging for milk crates and walking through the creepy grocery store, a favorite pastime of Bixler. They scored a few empty milk crates as the wind was building and spent the afternoon doing a canned meat tasting. Spam won out by a long shot!
The winds raged in Bella Bella, building to 50 knots. A few locals mentioned that the ferry ride had been terrible and Bixler and Jesse decided to stay put in the town. They spent the afternoon in the “cafe” which was housed in a shipping container, checking on Amazon orders that had been placed in Campbell River and picked up by their respective wives. Bixler went a bit overboard and Krystin received a slip in their PO Box that said to go around back to the post office. An entire cart of boxes was waiting to be picked up.
A break in the weather allowed the two continue north. The passages became narrower and the scenery more Alaska-like.
They stopped in Klemtu for fuel and continued northward, picking up a southerly wind and sailing for several miles.
The wind was picking up again, and Krystin did her best to relay weather via the sat phone which was not looking promising. Jesse suggested they divert slightly out of the way to Bishop Bay Hot Springs, which would be a highlight of the trip. Bixler relayed that to Krystin who then looked it on the internet and realized that the Canadian Provincial Government had removed the ramp from the dock to the hot springs for repairs.
Under the cover of darkness, Bixler stood on the bow trying to find the dock at the hot springs. Finally, among the rain and fog, he spotted the dock and Jesse saddled the boat up along side. They noticed the lack of ramp to the shore and proceeded to blow up the dinghy to paddle to the hot spring. A two hour soak that evening and another in the morning allowed the storm to pass.
As they left Bishop Bay, they were blasted with 30 knots of headwinds. Bixler called on the sat phone and Krystin did not see any evidence of it on the weather models. It turned out to be a strange local effect that soon passed as the boat inched forward into the 70-mile long Greenville Channel.
Greenville Channel started to look more Alaska like. The weather calmed in the channel, but the thick cloud cover darkened the skies. Jesse contemplated pulling in somewhere as they neared Prince Rupert for fear of giant floating logs. After discussion, the two decided to slow down to be safe and continue forward to make yet another weather window. The boat whizzed past Prince Rupert into clearing skies. While Bixler was on watch, they sailed in rolling seas over the international border into Alaska.
Jesse took over and called Customs, who pre-checked the passport names making an easy entrance into Alaska. Jesse and Bixler hit the dock in Ketchikan and celebrated over a pile of nachos and good, hoppy Alaskan beer. Samm arrived the following morning to switch with Bixler who headed on a plane back to Anchorage. Samm’s car had needed work in Anchorage, so Bixler offered to drive it back to Seward allowing Krystin to drive home after her exam (which she nailed, hopefully).
Bixler, who had toiled through currents, winds, and heavy seas, had the most difficult part of his trip on the last 120 miles home. Samm had told the dealership about Bixler arriving around 10 pm to pick up her car. Bixler arrived and had to fight with the night mechanics to get the car, who were unaware of his arrival. After much back and forth with Samm on the phone and the dealership, they released the car and Bixler started to drive home. The drive was going well until Bixler hit heavy snow in Turnagain Pass. The small car did not have much clearance, so Bixler dropped it down into first to plow up the hill. When he thought he had made it, two jack-knifed semis blocked the entire road. He dropped back down the pass to call Krystin in the middle of the night, who said Seward was locked in a blizzard. Finally, a plow drove by and Bixler started up the pass again. A loud “kerchunk” followed by the dash lighting up like a Christmas tree forced Bixler off the side of the road.
He called Samm on the sat phone who said “drive it until it dies. It is under warranty.” Bixler started driving again. The windshield wipers slowed, the lights dimmed, the RPMs dropped, and he pulled over. The car was dead. The alternator belt had snapped and took out several wires with it.
Stranded, Bixler called Krystin and told her to get on the road, which she did reluctantly at 2 am, driving no more than 30 miles an hour in heavy snow and wind. In the meantime, a good Samaritan finally pulled over and gathered Bixler to take him over the next pass where Krystin was waiting. At 4:30 am, Bixler and Krystin rolled back home into Seward.
It was the adventure of a lifetime.
We’re back on the water after a long hiatus! How has April been? Snowy. It seems that winter happened in the span of one month here in coastal Alaska, where each April day resulted in more and more snow. Usually, you will find us out sailing in the snow, but the weather has been less than agreeable. We had a one day window for sailing this weekend, so we headed out to an old favorite: Bulldog Cove.
Bulldog Cove is best visited during the summer months when the swells are minimal and the storms non-existent. Sometimes, even we don’t take our own advice. We headed out to Bulldog Cove noting the swell as we rounded out of Resurrection Bay. We left Seward under beautiful sunny weather and were greeted by a brewing storm moving toward land as we crossed in front of Bear Glacier. By the time we anchored up in Bulldog Cove, Carpe Ventos was rocking and rain was splattering her deck.
We were a bit down on account of the rain and weather. The last few Aprils had been beautiful and we have excellent pictures of Carpe Ventos anchored in Bulldog under clear skies and calm seas. We realized that after two epic summers of great weather, we were due for a rainy one. Our first summer up in Alaska in 2010 saw 66 straight days of rain.
After a delicious dinner of moose burgers, we headed towards the south beach at Bulldog. A few major storms had hit the gulf recently and the beach steep and carved by waves, exposing boulders that would normally have been buried by gravel. The storms had been powerful enough to push fish carcasses ashore and clear off some of the growth so the lake behind the beach could be seen from the top of the beach.
As we wondered around, Bixler noted how much he wanted to find a whale bone on shore. Sure enough, in the distance, there was the spine of some sort of whale or porpoise lying on the beach. As we got closer, one could easily smell the marine mammal as it stank of rotting flesh. We posed for a few pictures and moved on scavenging the not-so-natural marine debris: plastic. We hate how it ends up on beaches in Alaska, but have started to collect the many tubs that wash ashore for our greenhouse. They make excellent planters.
We returned to the boat that evening when the winds arrived. Blowing all directions, the wind howled all night long and Carpe Ventos rocked around in the increasing swell.
At some point, the storm blew out when we lay awake rocking and a new one blew in. The rocking lessened, and we slept a solid three hours before waking up.
The following morning we headed to the other beach at Bulldog, walking along looking at the usual beach trash. At some point during our walk, the Alaska State Trooper boat circled Carpe Ventos before they left. We had fishing gear out on the deck among other things, so they were probably checking in on us only to realize that we were not aboard!
Our original plan was to stay out until Sunday, but as usual the weather had other plans. A fast moving storm means it will leave quickly and the wind would pipe up in Resurrection Bay. A forecast of north wind at 25 knots did not sound too much fun to beat into, so we headed home. We sailed as much as we could under a gentle south breeze, noting the many boats already out on the water. We hit the dock as the wind started to increase and headed home for some much needed sleep. This weekend, the weather in Alaska did not want to cooperate.
Everyone has heard of the mighty Kenai River with its hordes of salmon and tourists, dotted with lodges and bordered by the Sterling Highway, but very few people have visited its origins. Far upstream past the zig-zag of Kenai Lake lies Snow River. As you drive into Seward, you cross this river at about Mile 18 and follow the river upstream for a portion before it turns deeper into the wilderness.
Snow River has access points, but no road leads up to the glaciers that feed the river. The waters rise in the summer and fall in the winter. Usually the river is covered with snow at this time of year, but our snow drought has kept it completely bare. Snow River experiences a jokulhlaup, or the bursting of a glacier dammed lake high upstream, and nearly floods the highway in the process. This happened a few years ago and we didn’t realize that the river could hold so much water!
For us it has always been a very ominous place. Access to the upstream reaches of the river is notoriously difficult at all times of the year. There are no paved roads or bridges. There is only the perfect timing and the right tool for the job: fatbikes.
Right now with our warming temperatures and lack of snow, the water level at Snow River is low enough for any person with a load of endurance, pair of old Xtratuffs, and a fat bike to have one helluva ride upstream. We did a test ride after work one day and got reasonably far. There were a few spots where the Xtratuffs were just a hair too short to keep our feet dry. A few days later when the temperature rose to 51 degrees F, we took off one wild ride. (Note: despite the excellent weather, we didn’t sail and there is a reason for that – stay tuned!).
We loaded up the fatbikes and parked at essentially the only access point to the river. Where the Kenai is lined with trails and fishing points, Snow River is difficult to access with its impenetrable wall of alders. An inconspicuous turnout is where we started our journey.
Bixler rigged up his hunting pack hoping to scout for bears. There are rumors of bear sightings despite the lack of fresh vegetation. Besides, he needed to practice riding with his hunting pack for future trips.
We started heading upstream along the gravely banks crossing the river repeatedly. The jokulhlaup has carved a gravel outwash in the Snow River valley that is perfect for riding. The river meanders through this outwash and has to be crossed several times in the narrower locations. Bixler mastered the riding through the river technique while Krystin was a bit more skeptical. The tires on the fatbikes are so large that the bikes become buoyant in deeper waters. We took a few river spills during our test ride.
We biked further up river away from the highway and began to see signs of moose. Snow River is a moose superhighway and tracks were everywhere. In a few of the sandy spots on the river, there appeared to be a moose skirmish.
Further upstream the riding became more difficult. The smoother gravel turned to cobbles covered in spring snow. Bixler took a slow-motion spill on his bike and face-planted into the snow. Krystin did a sideways plant on the return leg.
We continued to ride over cobbles and rocks, taking the time to walk our bikes over difficult sections. The fatbikes are tough, but our knees are not. After a lousy rocky section, we reach a fork in the river with another small outwash plain. There, among the rocks, we saw it: bear poop. No tracks in the rocky soil, but definitely bear poop. Bixler took some time to scout while Krystin explored the area. Surprisingly, we found a fire ring and an abandoned raft that we couldn’t pack out. Hunters frequent Snow River in the moose season, and surprisingly those were the only signs of humans.
We took a wrong turn up a deep section of the river into a bog and promptly aborted. We then continued up a snow, rocky river bed with no water. The riding on the bikes became nearly impossible, but when the river bed shift from rocks to sand, we took advantage of the situation and rode. Bixler was far ahead (as usual) when he spotted something out of place. A moose antler! For years we’ve been wanting to find a moose antler and it only took us five years and miles of riding to find one!
As we continued upstream, we drank the last of our water just as Bixler spotted a second moose antler. He already had the first one on his back and he was feeling the weight of the antler. Surprisingly, those things are heavy. The extra 30 pounds on his back was making the ride difficult, so we turned around when the rocks turned to boulders. There is a glacier at the head of Snow River with a cave from the jokulhlaup that seemed to be close, but was still a few miles away. Damn that Alaska mile!
The ride back wasn’t easy. Out of water, we did not dare drink from the river because the origins were from a beaver pond, a big no-no unless you want a bout of giardia. The weight of the moose antler was slowing Bixler’s ride and Krystin couldn’t help in any way. She didn’t bring a backpack and her only cargo was an empty water bottle in her frame bag. Bixler made it very clear that that was her only cargo.
With each river crossing, our boots became more flooded as we neglected to walk in the shallow spots. The sun set over the mountains, darkening the river bed. Our balance was wavering and the riding was becoming more difficult. When we reached the car we found out we had been riding for five hours – that means an equally long soak in the hot tub.
That evening, after replenishing our bodies with gatorade and water during a long hot tub soak, we discussed the adventure. Snow River was incredible and truly a wild place. As much as we like the hiking trails in the area, we are looking forward to more of this in the future.