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Chichagof Island's hidden gems and treasures

Posted: April 1, 2013 - 11:27pm  |  Updated: April 2, 2013 - 12:02am
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  Klas Stolpe
Klas Stolpe

Storms on the coast prevent travel from Salisbury Sound to outer Chichagof Island.

In my commercial fishing days, I would always get seasick for one day. Then, my body would purge that ailment for the rest of the season. I am glad we have chosen to retrace our path along Peril Strait, Chatham Strait and along the inner coast of Chichagof to Icy Strait.
Chichagof Island is 2,050 square miles in landmass with 742 miles of coastline, making it the fifth largest in the U.S. and 109th in the world. It also features the highest population of bears per square mile on the planet.

Logging and commercial fishing still provide economic opportunities here, but attention is turning toward guided hunting trips and charter fishing.
We are heading for Hoonah and Pelican and will bypass the communities of Tenakee Springs and Elfin Cove.

The Tlingit tribe Huna named their home Hoonah, the “village by the cliff” or “place protected from the North Wind.”
Loss of logging in Southeast Alaska has hurt Hoonah and many other small communities. While a small commercial fishing fleet still operates, Hoonah, like other communities, now relies more on the tourist trade.
An old fish cannery from the 1950s was obtained by the Hoonah Indian Association, converted into a visitor center and is now a destination for cruise ships.

Tourists can walk through a replication cannery to see how life once was; at one point “canned” T-shirts could be bought in tins, just as salmon was years ago.

Hoonah residents embrace tourism, as it brings many of their own youth back to the community during the summer and may lead to some wishing to return to settle here.

We are here just over night. In the morning first mate Josh Haury hauls out a crab pot and chef Jim Briggs cooks crab omelets while Captain Ron Miller, with Canadian passengers Allan and Diane Chisholm accompanying him, steers us out past Icy Pointe.

I note the irony of a large luxury liner anchored next to a logging clear-cut across Port Frederick. Shuttle boats of tourists are ferried back and forth to Hoonah’s amusement-style cannery while we partake in the intimate setting of Ursa’s sun deck and then the captain’s wheelhouse to inquire about the surrounding history.
Between Eagle Point, and Point Adolphus we drift in Pinta Cove for some fishing time.

The Vi-Ray II, a small commercial long-liner and converted gillnetter, run by Juneau fishermen Mike and Ray Carder, is hauling gear as humpbacks move about. I kayak out to them to pass the time while the Chisholms dangle herring in the depths. Watching son Mike at the roller and father Ray coiling gear I holler a hello. They offer a catch of halibut to me, like many locals will, but I politely decline, relying on the expertise of my fellow passengers to fill our plates.

A humpback decides to accompany me back to the Ursa, which is unnerving and yet comforting as his huge bulk and geyser-sound of air seems to be part of the Ursa’s daily routine.

The Chisholms have provided for our dinner… but we decide that sea anemone will be best suited for another cruise.

Besides, Jim has landed a halibut and it will do nicely.

It is decided that a side trip to Glacier Bay is in order. After checking in at the national park headquarters at Bartlett Cove we motor near North and South Marble islands, still gleaming white in the early evening. Horned and tufted puffins, cormorants, murres and gulls flutter about, as this is a nesting area. When we dock back at Bartlett Cove for the night, our propeller churns up the greenish glow of photoluminescent zooplankton in the water.

Morning finds us anticipating a trip to Margerie and Muir glaciers, two of the 15 tidewater glaciers in the park. We are not disappointed. Whales are out, and we also see one very large mountain goat and numerous brown bear.
On a similar adventure here, I was on the Grand Adventure, a 53-foot Grand Banks owned by a crazy Brit called Andy Darby. Andy had at one time been a deserter from the French Foreign Legion and wrote a book about it. He had put into Petersburg looking for a photographer to capture him doing his bucket list in Alaska. On the list: bathing naked in the glacier and kayaking along a glacier’s face. These both went off without a hitch.
On the Ursa, we are tamer. We nose toward a waterfall coming from inside the Margerie. We nibble on fresh French pastries. We consume the day as a smaller version of the 4,500-passenger liners we pass.

The next day we leave the bay, pass Lemesurier Island, through South Inian Pass, around George and Three Hill Islands, and into Lisianski Inlet.
In Lisiansky Strait, we pass the oncoming Explorer, Ursa Major’s sister ship, owned and operated by Richard and Nancy Friedman. Its hull was built in Spain, same design, and finished in Ireland. They are heading north to Idaho Inlet.

“They are five feet shorter and a half-knot slower,” Capt. Ron states.

“And they burn a third less fuel,” Josh adds.

Ursa Major has a bow nose for Pelican and Capt. Ron will get to say hello to his old friend Rosie and introduce the Chisholms to what every seiner, gillnetter, long liner, yachty and all who have stopped at Pelican’s dock know _ time spent at Rosie’s World Famous Bar and Grill is best remembered by just you and those who take you there.

We tie up and move up the half-mile of boardwalk called Pelican. Capt. Ron slips a envelope with our moorage fee under the harbormaster’s door (he’s out fishing) and we are introduced to Rosie.

Rosie found Pelican when she brought in a catch of salmon on her tugboat many years ago. With two twin girls on her knees in the pilothouse as she fished, Rosie wanted a change. She sold the fish and tug, put a down payment on the bar and the rest is history.

Locals seated at the bar holler, “Welcome!” in unison when we step inside.

Rosie moves among us, her 77 years (which she seems to have been for a few years now) are a cover for her boundless energy. She coaxes the unsuspecting to stand on the bar and pin a dollar bill there or sign the ceiling, at which point the signee will lose their pants and underwear in one quick tug, either by Rosie or by whichever of her now mid-adult daughters is tending bar.

Patrons can tend bar themselves, mixing their own drink and leaving the money in a jar next to a list of what they consume. Rosie will settle up with you later.

A glance at the ceiling is a virtual who’s who of names you hear mentioned at your local town’s public meetings, on television, in the pulpit or, well, it seems everyone has been here at one time in their life.

I stop at the Pelican cannery to find out how the first landing of halibut went and the rest of the cast and crew return to the Ursa for Jim’s dinner, which went forgotten somehow. Local entrepreneur, charter captain and hunting guide Terry Wirta joins them. No one is at the cannery but the forewoman is also a massage therapist so I schedule an appointment for after Ursa’s dinner of fresh halibut.
I dine and head for my massage. A sign on the door addressed to me says, “Watching the sunset at the point, be back in 15 minutes.”

Betsy Caccione has traveled through China and Tibet and operates a Tibetan travel agency with a Tibetan boyfriend whose family, and the Tibetan government, prevented from becoming man and wife. They are doomed to be friends and in love, he in Tibet, she in Pelican. We talk for hours, my 8 P.M. massage instead turns into a four-hour visit which includes her younger brother Ben from New York (in his first year working at Pelican Seafoods) and pal Marco, who flies helicopters but is helping a doctor from Seattle build a cabin in the area while he finishes his doctorate. Pelican weaves together many tales like this.

I leave at midnight for the Ursa but realize everyone else is at Rosie’s. Jim comes back to get his sax and I cannot pass up listening to a professional alto-sax player sitting on a bar stool under dollar bills pinned to a ceiling signed by names that “dropped trou” there.

My night, that was to have ended restfully, will instead stretch into the late morning and only end when someone inadvertently trips a fire alarm and the town of Pelican meets on the boardwalk, determines it is a false alarm, and packs into Rosie’s for a “night-cap.”
There is no early rising the next morning. Not when in Pelican… and especially not after pleasant conversations with Rosie and all who like to flock to her bar. Even hangovers from Rosie’s are pleasant when you awake in Ursa’s tender comforts.
Pelican Seafoods is buying troll-caught king salmon today, yesterday they bought halibut. It is the first time in three years the plant has begun processing seafood. Kake Tribal Corp. is leasing the plant to Sitka’s Ed Bart who, with the backing of Royal Greenland Corp. from Denmark, will try to bring some revenue and profit back to the community.

The Ursa has been a welcome addition to these docks for years and plant managers Robin and Paula (last names are for family, not friends, they joke) welcome us with a tour. Our masseur from the previous night is in charge of unloading the troll fleet, her brother is fletching halibut in a corner, and various bar patrons have similar duties along the historic facility.
Ursa makes many friends in the small juts and ruts of Alaska’s waters, and Pelican is one of her best buddies.

Approaching 10:30 A.M. we motor out. The 120-foot Carpe Diem will be taking our place. We are envious that the wooden planks will be catering to another but the Ursa faces into the breeze and seductively puts her stern to Pelican so all can see her fine assets.

We motor to the coast, anchoring off of Bertha Bay, and here I discover another gem that I never knew existed.

Josh runs us into White Sulphur Springs for an hour soak in the natural mineral springs. There is also a large bathhouse-type covering that looks out onto the open ocean. I watch Ursa rise and fall in waters that come from Japan as my hot bath sweats my western decadence away.

A bit of beachcombing and then the anchor lifts. We fall in among more humpback whales, a gray or two, and the largest of the family, a sperm whale.

While we snacked on pickled crab, pickled black cod and goat cheese, over 70 of the majestic mammals rode the swells from Porcupine Island to Hill Island with us. The Ursa swept into Imperial Passage, between Hill and Hogan Islands, motoring to the back side of Herbert Graves Island past Black Bay in Surveyor Passage and out Ogden Passage. Along the route, sea otters lay back as if expecting us to serve up a crustacean snack for them.

We anchor in the south anchorage of Ford Arm.

I get up at 5:30 a.m. to the smell of freshly ground coffee… I’ve long since quit trying to discover the variety of bean; instead I savor some sips and make my way outside. Launching a kayak I paddle into nearby creeks and make a two-hour loop around the bay. When I return to the Ursa, Josh is out in the skiff hauling crab pots. Can we ever have too much fresh food?

Breakfast is Hawaiian bread, fresh of course, French toast and a platter of fruits which somehow are fresh and in season.

We haul anchor and slowly motor out of Ford Arm, weaving through a small patch of rocky islands called Piehle Passage. Piehle was a famous rumrunner who eluded federal agents by cutting effortlessly through this maze of danger.

The Ursa is used to being on the other side of the law. She dips and bows and turns and rolls as we slide into the ocean swells, hugging the coast for Salisbury Sound.
Large comers lift her and delicately place her into the next trough.

“A little salt water on the deck is a good thing,” Josh says.

This is what the Ursa Major’s hull was made for… to fish the seldom-tepid waters of the North Sea off of Norway. When owner Joyce Gauthier was researching the vessel’s history, she asked what type of hull was designed. The response from Malahide Shipyards marine architect Myles Stapleton was: “What type of hull? It is THE hull.”

Ursa’s “birth” began with her conception that the hull is such that she can navigate the open oceans of the world… and she does.
‘We’re coming over and we’re coming over on our own bottoms’ was the Malahide’s first advertising announcement. The vessels weren’t shipped to destinations for purchase. They were passage makers to these ownerships.

We turn to starboard at the mouth of Kalinin Bay and go past Scraggy Point and into Neva Strait. Jim tracks down each of us on board to deliver freshly baked “eenadu chocolate” pastry to tide us over until lunch.

We pass Highwater Island at the north end of Neva Strait and are told it has one of the rarest breeds of bird in Alaska.

“They are actually pink flamingos,” Capt. Ron says matter-of-factly. “What makes them so unique is that they nest in the trees here.”

Evidently one of the Alaskan locals had a day with too much time on his hands and set up a small gathering of the bright pink lawn ornaments in the tall spruce and hemlock here. It’s a good joke I have enjoyed every time I sail through with unsuspecting tourists nearby.

The Ursa moves into Krestof Sound. We drop anchor in the south corner at Port Krestof. The waters constant current will give us a shot at some king salmon.

Lines drop over the side just after the anchor touches bottom. Josh has rigged what will certainly catch a monster salmon or barn-door halibut, the Chisholms are set for salmon and Jim just has a passion for wetting a hook.

Soon all succumb to a light breeze, hot sun, Reuben sandwiches and German-style potato salad, and pleasant naps. Various pleasure trollers and weekend adventurers stream past returning to Sitka for their workweek.

As per every day, the yellow sun highlights eagles as they soar above us, then swoop down toward the blue water and ricochet up to green spruce perches. Wind licks at the wave tops, which in turn kiss the Ursa’s bow lightly.

In the dining room aft, surrounded by window views we eat our last dinner together as a cruise family: Barbequed pork loin with Napa cabbage salad for an appetizer; Dungeness crab salad with asparagus and lemon basil; beef burgundy with Daphne potatoes and spiced butternut squash; and Jim’s Baked Alaska.

Tomorrow we will roll over and nudge Ursa in our sleep and she will rock us tenderly until we awake to motor slowly towards Sitka.

Tonight however, after dinner wines, and some minor effort fishing, we retire back to the salon and exchange tales.

Only we know what we have seen on board the Ursa Major. She was the beacon that shone upon us as we stood on Alaska’s rugged terrain and among its vast beauty. She was truth and all that is good among the yachters that venture far out to sea or close to wild shores.
I was impressed.

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