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The ABC's of "rudderless travel," Part II

Heading to Baranof and its treasure of bays

Posted: March 31, 2013 - 11:04pm
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Whales, like guides, move through the mix of waters that are Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound.
Whales, like guides, move through the mix of waters that are Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound.

Fog lightly covers our anchorage in the morning and Ursa wears it proudly. Breakfast is apple and strawberry turnovers, the dough for which had been rising long before we were lulled out of our bunks, and a healthy dose of homemade yogurt and granola.

Today will be a short three-hour journey through Frederick Sound to Baranof Island, or it may be five hours, as our schedule is set by what happens to float past.

I amble out to the bow for my cruise duty. If one wants, they can do any task on board and will be well taught in that particular endeavor. I help first mate Josh Haury haul and set the anchor, or rather Josh tolerates my help.

We have anchored at various spots while on Admiralty. Now it is fitting that low tide brings a send-off by a local brown bear. He turns over rocks and licks the salt and crunches barnacles.

We push off among whales and porpoises. The waters of Frederick Sound, Stephens Passage and Chatham Strait tumble together here and are literally a whale highway. Like guides, they lead us to Chatham Strait.

Captain Ron Miller steers us past Tyee, the abandoned site of a 1910 whaling station and cannery.

We also pass Murder Cove, so named by the retaliatory killing of Ludwig Maager and William Walker by a Kake Native whose brother had been shot and killed by the military guard at Sitka, a series of events that caused the destruction of the Kake villages. So much history lives in each nook and cranny of the Southeastern Alaska coasts.

And Yasha Island, droves of sea lions sound off a warning of hidden and uncharted rocks.

Ursa hesitates at Chatham Straits. We are bound for Sitka. Will she take us to starboard and across to Warm Springs Bay, or to port and Cape Ommaney? Weather dictates a bit of both.

On this trip, we will motor in to bays along Chatham. My most pleasurable anchorage, first discovered as a crewmember on a salmon seiner, was in Gut Bay: huge granite cliffs tumbling straight down into blue water. At one time a natural hot spring heated one of the streams here. A lake awaits those inclined to hike.

Baranof Island has a shoreline of over 619 miles. It is the eighth largest island in Alaska, the 10th largest in the United States and 137th largest in the world. But it’s the smallest of the ABC islands.

Sitka is the prominent town but there are settlements at Baranof Warm Springs, Port Armstrong and Port Walter. A few private homes remain at Goddard hot springs and there are three salmon hatcheries: one at Port Armstrong, another at Hidden Falls and one near Medvejie Lake.

Many of the coves and bays on Baranof entice one to stay until their anchor chains become laden with kelp.

History abounds. At Port Walter the ruins of an abandoned saltery and cannery can be found, if one knows were to look. The ruins of a salmon and herring cannery can be found at another site, and a saltery and fertilizer plant at another. All from before the 1920s.

Red Bluff Bay is another great bear viewing bay and scenic wonderland with, again, the ruins of a cannery and saltery.

The peaceful inlet of Port Alexander was once a booming fishing community with hundreds of fishing boats and vessels of Hollywood stars docking. There were general stores, bars, beer parlors and dance halls, restaurants, fuel docks, fish-buying stations, a church, a schoolhouse, a dairy and of course a number of “cat houses.”

After various nights anchored in various coves, Ursa turns back toward Warm Springs Bay. On the agenda is tying up at the dock at Baranof and soaking in the natural hot springs there.

I first came here as I have come to so many other adventures, by way of commercial fishing.

But my connection to Baranof Warm Springs is that our family friend, Wayne Short, used to run the small general store here. It was here Wayne wrote “The Cheechakoes” and “This Raw Land.” Wayne would move his family to just down the road from us in Petersburg, and our own home library held original first copies of his work.

There is usually a space at the dock. In the summer, fishing boats will visit between openings and yachties will tie up to soak in the public bathhouse.

Humpback whales have come up to the dock to scrape away their barnacles.

Most of the humans, however, like to walk up the path to the natural hot mineral springs, bypassing the three tiny rooms at the top of the dock with tubs ready and waiting.

An ice-cold waterfall empties into the bay. It flows past the mineral bath higher on the path and is fed by Baranof Lake high above.

The lake has great trout fishing — and bears. It is best when soaking in the springs to not have fishing clothes that smell of the day’s catch, as it never fails that when your pants are stolen by a bear, it is on that bare-bum walk back to the boat that you meet half the population of the area and most of the crew of boats anchored about.

The Ursa crew and passengers’ bodies are relaxed after an evening of soaking in the springs.

Down at the dock, a Native carver from British Columbia has tied his boat and is whittling away at a mask. A commercial Dungeness fishing boat also is docked, as are two sail boats, and a yachtie is approaching.

Our cook, Jim Briggs, begins an impromptu saxophone session of tunes he has recorded in a Seattle studio. A professional photographer from New York, who I know only as Kit, wanders down from a house he owns here to listen, as does a harbor seal, and the black lab that was seemingly running the small grocery atop the planking here.

On this docking, on this boat, I will spend two days, each of which consists of a morning hike to the lake, an afternoon of adventure and an evening of mineral bathes.

An early morning departure is always sad here.

A last look back at the Baranof dock with the huge waterfall to the left and the few scattered homes hugging the tree line, showed that black lab’s tail doing the “you all come back again soon” wag.

We have a day of motoring down Chatham and into Peril Strait, with a stop or two to catch dinner.

Ursa enters the mouth of Salisbury Sound and is the belle of the ball among the small pleasure yachties anchored in Kalinin Bay. She seems to arrive fashionably late, and attracts attention like all have been waiting to sign her dance card.

Our anchorage is actually on Kruzof Island. Here we will hike up Sea Lion Cove Trail past an unnamed lake and descend into the most misplaced beach ever on an Alaskan coast. Sea Lion Cove could appear in Mexico, aside from cool water and bald eagles: it is a take-your-shoes-off-and-wiggle-your-toes walking beach with an ocean breeze whispering for you to do so.

It was here that I upset the natural order of the ecosystem.

Hearing the delightful peeps of a dozen small ducklings in the tall grass near the beach I became a Natural Geographic photographer.

The startled youth made a run for the surf and swam to the swells. Out of the treetops came three or four bald eagles. They swooped time and time again; plucking away terrified tiny waterfowl in their taloned grasps.

At one point I brandished a long driftwood sword and chased about the surf trying to fend off the predators, but to no avail. The female of this ducky brood appeared and saved two, swimming them out and away.

There I was, on a piece of coastline that I had never dreamed existed, a virtual heaven for the wayward traveler, feeling like I had extinguished an entire species from the planet.

Even the sand felt grittier between my toes as I sulked back towards Ursa.

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