It is hard to impress me with a boat trip in Southeast Alaska.
I grew up here — born and raised in an island community founded by Norwegian fishermen who decided the rain, rugged landscape and bountiful offerings of nature were much like their birthplace.
I was raised in the woods and on the waters — hiking, hunting and fishing, earning a trade in the latter because the feel of a boat under your Xtratufs is a high unlike anything found on solid earth.
I was falling in love with a land that flourishes in muskeg, granite cliffs, tall pines, colorful shrubs and weeds that earn the classification of wildflowers yet are as colorful as any garden-show rose, and each was available in a cove or bay or tiny village along my many wanderings.
Yet here I was, about to leave Petersburg, or rather Little Norway, on board the Ursa Major, a 65-foot schooner-style motor yacht, for a trip on waters I had plied many times before to tiny little hamlets that have always welcomed travelers with the proverbial “open arms” and the local culinary specialty.
Shipwrights in Norway crafted the vessel’s solid wooden hull, and she was launched in 1972 at the Malahide shipyards in Dublin, Ireland. She has classic Old World charm, solid North Sea construction and warm European ambiance. She has literally traveled the world and her “Det Norske Veritas” construction means she can operate year-round in extreme conditions similar to the North Sea.
As the Ursa Major casts off from the Petersburg dock, we motor through a harbor coming to life: fishermen mending nets, stacking crab pots and sharing cups of coffee on their decks; sport fishers jigging for bait herring; bald eagles perching on boat masts; canneries beginning to buzz with activity; “yachties” stirring from docked slumber…
Floatplanes rise off the water and climb past us as we move north along Wrangell Narrows into Frederick Sound. Petersburg begins to sink under the mountains that surround it, and I begin to feel nostalgic. This vessel has a charm that even its infamous history can’t belittle.
Ursa was a lady once mistreated, in a sense, by legendary gangster Meyer Lansky’s great-nephew Ben Kramer (now serving time for murder). Kramer refitted the luxury yacht in the 1980s for drug-running.
So after a failed attempt at confiscation by authorities, the Ursa wound up on a Seattle dock with physician V. Joyce Gauthier, who rid her of a diesel tank that served as a smuggling compartment and dressed her up for vacation tours. Ms. Gauthier is still the owner.
At the time I was asked to ride along she had a crew of three:
Captain Ron Miller, First-Mate Josh Haury and chef Jim Briggs.
It was the last summer for Capt. Ron. When the Ursa Major leaves Alaskan waters for cruises between La Paz and Loreto, Mexico, Ron will be at the helm, entering those warm waters for the last time. Josh would assume command, as he already is able to operate the Norwegian wood like a classic Beatles’ song… smooth and tender, loving every inch of its fine design.
Jim was a professional chef, which is an understatement. Don’t forget I grew up with fresh king salmon flopping on my plate, king crab kicking up a fuss on my stove and halibut bigger than the king of Siam bending my trolling rod over like a rainbow. Yet every dish that passed from the galley table out to the dining room on this voyage followed an eye-closing aroma into your up-turned nose and deep into the depths of sensory stimulation… then you would bite into a world that never ceased to amaze you. Jim was a god. They all were. Ron had tales, some navy, some just an old salt on the water. Josh was ambitious, had a love of his life he met during an Ursa voyage (they are now married and operate the Ursa and live on a sailboat in Mexico) and was passionate about showing everyone he met what a wonderful life is on the water.
I was along by chance. Ms. Gauthier asked me to share some thoughts on little coves and such in the area and over a glass of wine she offered a berth on board for a week.
So here I was.
Holding this fine Norwegian lady’s hand (the Ursa, not Ms. Gauthier) — or was it the Ursa coyly holding mine? — and we were heading off with no agenda.
I like to call this the ABCs of “rudderless” wanderings. Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Islands. The only restrictions were tides and anchorages.
My Swedish father would take us to the plethora of local beaches in Frederick Sound and Wrangell Narrows in a flat-bottomed river punt he built himself. He steamed and bent the oak ribbings, draped it in thick plywood and cedar, and melted down lead for parts of the anchor.
As I grew, a heritage of fishermen would take me along the coasts and into the coves, hours and days away from my bed. I would earn these cruises through the sweat and toil of seafood harvesting.
Now, I was a guest, and each nautical mile that would lazily float by would trigger a remembrance of not only my life but my father’s and his heritage, and the histories of both the indigenous peoples and the settlers who nosed there vessels along the shores here.
Admiralty Island would be our first stop, eventually. Along that path we would first detour to LeConte Bay, as it is just roughly a half hour out of Petersburg.
It is also the most blue and active glacier I have ever been to, and as young lads of Scandinavian descent, glaciers are things we went to a lot.
The Stikine Indians called this “Thunder Bay” because of the rumblings they believed came from the Thunder Bird which made his home there and whose flapping wings made the thunder.
LeConte is the southernmost active tidewater glacier in the Northern hemisphere. Due to the 810-foot deep water in the bay the glacier calves instead of advancing, resulting in spectacular “shooters” and ‘bergs, which make excellent seal habitat. The bay is a breeding, birthing and rearing area for harbor seals. Thus it also attracts transient killer whales that, unlike resident pods who prefer fish, dine on marine mammals.
LeConte is one of the few remnants of the vast ice sheets that covered much of North America during the Pleistocene age. Considered stable today, the glacier has retreated 2.5 miles since first charted in 1887. Petersburg High School students began measurements of the glacier in 1983; results show the glacier generally moves forward in the spring after the cold winter weather decreases melting. In the fall, after warmer summer temperatures, it retreats. Roughly 21 miles long and one mile wide, the LeConte Glacier rests at the head of the LeConte Glacier Bay, a 12-mile fjord carved out of the coastal mountain range over thousands of years.
Natives say glaciers are children of the mountains whose parents held them in their arms, dipped their feet in the sea, clothed them with heavy snows in winter and scattered earth and rocks over them to protect them from the summer sun.
We nudged aside smaller ice chunks and found leads of open water and were soon a few hundred yards from the glacier face. One could spend the night here if not for the tide and wind moving mountains of ice about.
We push out and away.
Just getting to Admiralty is a treat.
A sea lion haulout at Horn Cliffs. Devil’s Thumb, a mountain whose northwest face has turned back every climber and a single peak where Native lore states they were led by the tracks of goat and bear to survive the Great Flood. Sukoi Islands, some of the many where fur farms once operated in 1923, a trade my father first undertook. Thomas Bay, where legend boasts of strange creatures that took a miner captive and resulted in the writing of “The Strangest Story Ever Told.” Cascade Creek, a wondrous hike up to a glorious waterfall and lake.
Many of these beaches can be enjoyed by kayak or small skiff, too. A proper landing involves raising the motor as you glide in. Important to note is to rest the anchor on the skiff’s bow (attached, of course) and with plenty of tethering line, shove the small vessel as hard as possible out to the sea, tripping the anchor at a safe distance that allows the craft to be floating when you return or at least at a point that the tide will lift it soon upon your return. I was fortunate at one miscalculation to have a Powerbar in my pocket and a Forest Service cabin that had one Jiffy Pop and a bag of large stale marshmallows. This gave me the most incredibly delicious s’mores on a stranded chilly night.
The bays and capes roll by as the Ursa moves through Frederick Sound with Turnabout Island (another abandoned fur farm site) approaching on the left and The Brothers to the right.
We motor to Five Finger Lighthouse. Owned and managed by a non-profit dedicated to its restoration, preservation and public accessibility, the lighthouse is 20 miles from Kake, 40 miles from Petersburg and 65 from Juneau. Around it swirl sea lions and humpback whales, and deep in the waters are halibut for dinner.
The Ursa bobs for some time and then grows weary and searches for a place to rest.
We decide that Gambier Bay will be the best place to enjoy fresh caught halibut.
With Josh gently letting the anchor caress the bottom and Jim in the galley, Capt. Ron spots a local: A roughly 1,000-pound brown bear boar on the beach following a slightly smaller sow.
The kayaks are lowered and from a safe distance photos are taken. We are far enough away to remain unobtrusive until the wind shifts and the sow bolts to the trees. The male approaches the water’s edge, teeth clacking together in annoyance.
Admiralty Island is the seventh largest island in the United States and 132nd in the world. An estimated 1,800 brown bears live there. Alaska Department of Fish and Game bear researcher LaVern Beier is a trap and release expert. He has crawled into dens, slept in dens, and learned from mentor Bruce Johnstone, the only man who survived the attack of three brown bears at one time (on the Unuk River). Beier has survived at least four bear attacks during his work that involves snaring and attaching GPS tracking collars. Beier once told me, “We are not on the brown bear’s dinner menu. You could walk straight across Admiralty and not see a one... unless they wanted you to see them.”
Tonight we take comfort in fresh caught halibut, a slight breeze, and the arms of Ursa Major rocking us to sleep.
Notes: Angoon, a traditional Tlingit community of roughly 600, is the only settlement on the island. More than 955,000 acres of the island make up the federally protected wilderness area known as Admiralty Island National Monument. The island features the Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area, to which permits can be obtained through the Forest Service. The Greens Creek mine began operation on the island in 1982. The island was named by George Vancouver in honor of his Royal Navy employers, the Admiralty. It is known to the Tlingit as Xootsnoowú, or “Fortress of the Bears.”