A June 2001 trip
to Ketchikan by Idler
Quote: Novice sailor rounds out a crew of three on a private yacht going up the Inside Passage from Bella Bella, B.C. to Ketchikan, AK. (Work in progress)
Vast, unpopulated spaces. Eagles, bears, and other wildlife. Catching (and eating) fish and Dungeness crab. Mountain peaks and cascading waterfalls. Putting in at remote, pristine bays. Misty inlets and quiet coves. Night skies on deck, followed by a warming drink and cozy bearth. Learning boat basics and steering by G.P.S. Bonhomie and good times aboard the good ship Viking Fjord. The Inside Passage mystique!
You don't have to be particularly knowledgeable about boats to help crew one, provided that the skipper and other crew members are willing to teach you the basics. (But don't make the mistake of taking anything for granted - a boat's a dangerous place to make assumptions!)
Be sure to bring a good set of binoculars and plenty of warm, fleecy, wind- and waterproof clothing. Buy a fishing license - then study it, as the restrictions on what can be caught where are fairly complex. Take along some good ship-board reading, such as Jack London's The Sea Wolf or Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau. I also enjoyed having a big fold-out map of the Inside Passage
If you get the chance, spend a day or so in one of the remoter inlets, where there's nothing but the swoosh of eagles and splash of jumping fish to disturb the profound silence. You won't regret it.
There's really on one way to see the Inside Passage - by ship! The question is, which kind? I can't speak for the cruise ships or public ferries (though I've heard good things about both). Different types of ships will appeal to different types of people. I was lucky to have been offered a spot on my friends' boat. If I hadn't, I probably would have taken the public ferries. There are several good guides to using the ferries and to the cruise ships, such as Alaska's Inside Passage Traveler or Alaska by Cruise Ship. Taking a look at such guides might give you an idea of what sort of ship you'd be happiest on and where you'd like to go.
The only difficulty that presented itself was coming up with a workable itinerary. Jan and Jay were planning to go by easy stages up from San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington, to Sitka, Alaska. When I got their proposed itinerary, I quickly realized that the only week I’d be able to come was the week of June 26-July 2, on the leg from Bella Bella, B.C. to Ketchikan. My first challenge, therefore, was figuring out how to get to Bella Bella, a small Heiltsuk tribal village on Campbell Island, some two hundred miles as the crow flies north of Vancouver and accessible only by boat or plane. Planning was complicated by the fact that I hoped to use flyer miles to get out west, but didn’t have enough for a flight outside the U.S. Furthermore, there were no flights from Seattle to Bella Bella; the sole airline that serviced the village being Pacific Coastal, based in Vancouver. Thus I ended up developing a slightly lopsided itinerary, flying into Seattle to take a bus north to Vancouver, then getting a flight to Bella Bella. Another slightly worrying factor was that if we encountered storms or technical problems cruising north from Bella Bella, we might not get into Ketchikan on the date planned, so I added a couple days onto the end of my trip to allow me extra time, if needed, before flying back to Washington, D.C.
I’d never planned a trip in which one stage was so dependent upon the prior ones operating smoothly, but whether luck with was with me or my planning paid off, I found myself on June 26th on a Quick Coach bus headed for Vancouver Airport, having flown into Seatac the night before. I’ve always enjoyed travelling by bus. I’m a poor passenger in a car and a nervous driver, so sitting on a clean and comfortable motorcoach is just about my favorite way of travelling, save by bicycle on flat terrain. At Vancouver Airport, I learned that the Pacific Coastal flights all left from the South Terminal, which services small planes. Coming into the terminal, I quickly realized I’d entered what was a small universe unto itself – the world of the sports fisherman.
Now, I don’t want to step on any toes here, so I’ll say right from the start that I think being a sports fisherman is a wonderful thing. Still, I was somewhat taken aback by the passengers disembarking and waiting to embark on the charter flights, going to places like Oak Bay and Chatham Sound, places I’d never heard of before. Every one of them seemed to be of a type, with some variations, with a tanned, weather-beaten face beneath a sport hat, which usually bore a beer company or fishing gear logo. Almost all of them wore fishing vests with numerous pockets, woolen jerseys or flannel shirts, jeans, and sturdy boots. They carried long, canvas bags for their rods and reels, and most were also carrying small coolers.
I had two and a half hours to kill before my flight for Bella Bella left, and I spent most of it watching the sports fishermen come and go. The ones waiting to leave sat hunched over beers around tables at the terminal café, splaying their hands just-so to indicate the size of the one that got away as they spun their yarns. The ones disembarking proudly carried large cardboard boxes containing the fish they’d caught, which had been duly canned, smoked, or frozen by what must be an entire British Columbian mini-industry devoted to preserving whatever the sports fishermen catch. I seemed to be the only non-fisherman in the terminal, save the efficient Chinese staff of the café. After eating lunch at the café (leaving a big tip, which was what I imagined any sports fisherman would do), I boarded the flight to Bella Bella.
There were four passengers aboard the 13-seat plane. The pilot looked like he was scarcely of age, but flew like a seasoned pro. I''d worried a bit about a smaller plane ride being bumpy, but other than the loud, persistent drone of the propellers, which sounded like an outsized basso box fan, the flight was remarkably pleasant. The occasional view through the clouds below revealed flat, shimmering sheets of water interspersed with green islets and peninsulas. An hour and a half later, the plane descended towards one of the larger pine-tree studded land masses: Bella Bella.
A stretch of asphalt for a landing strip with a prefabricated building sporting a wind sock alongside comprised the airport. So this was Bella Bella. But where was the village? One of the other passengers, a trim-looking woman with an air of efficiency, turned to me and asked it I knew how to get into town. As I professed complete ignorance, one of the other passengers, a great bear of a man with a shaggy beard, turned to us and said, "There''ll be a taxi along any moment now. Would you like to share it into town?" Sure enough, moments after disembarking and retrieving our luggage from the underbelly of the plane, a battered station wagon pulled up near the plane. Meeting the flight from Vancouver was obviously a local cottage industry. As we squeezed into the station wagon - one door, it turned out, did not open - my fellow passengers introduced themselves. The trim woman was the new resident nurse practitioner for the village, and the bear was a local skipper, "Big Mike."
I told them I was planning to meet some friends coming up from San Juan Island on their boat. "What''s the name of the boat?" Big Mike asked. "The Viking Fjord," I replied. "Hmmm... we can check down at the harbormaster''s." And so we did. After the nurse got out at her new digs, Big Mike took me in tow, leading me along the dock to the harbormaster''s hut. But no one there had seen or heard of the Viking Fjord. I wasn''t quite sure what to do, but was determined not to be thrown by this potentially worrisome fact. "The plane got in a little early, Mike. Perhaps I''ll just wait here a bit. Thanks!"
Sitting down on a bench on the pier, I partially succeeded in squashing my fears of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. People watching provided a distraction. The scene at the pier was lively, at least by local standards. One tribal fisherman was doing something complex with a net while several other fishermen leaned on pylons and chatted with him. (Why is it, I wondered, that it always seemed to take a minimal of three workmen to do anything - one to work and at least two others to watch?) Several teenage boys motored up in a flat-bottomed fishing boat, angled it effortlessly into a small slip, and tied the boat off, all in just a few minutes. Born to the aquatic life, I surmised. Several wary-looking cats skulked around the pier, hoping for bits of fish, while a dog of indeterminate ancestry scratched at fleas before stretching out for a nap. Men came in and out of the local bait and liquor store a stone’s throw from the pier. No women were in sight. Perhaps they were home cooking dinner? Worry got a foothold in my mind. Where would I stay if Jan and Jay had been delayed somewhere en route to Bella Bella?
Lost in the grip of this negative fantasy, I didn''t at first hear someone calling my name. "Kay!" Startled, I looked up. There was a gaunt, bearded man in a skiff coming towards the pier. How did he know my name? Then I recognized him - Jay! Good grief, he''d lost a lot of weight, looking like the proverbial old sea salt, with his hair tied back in a pony tail. And what of the Viking Fjord? Anchored out a ways, Jay said. He’d come to take me out to it. He manhandled my suddenly silly-seeming red suitcase on wheels into the skiff (oh, what I suddenly would have given for a seaworthy duffel bag instead) and off we headed for the Viking Fjord.
(to be continued...)
When I stepped tentatively into the skiff that would take me out to the Viking Fjord, I had little notion of the sea change my journey was about to undergo.
A traveller on land, however removed from civilization, never confronts as featureless a terrain as the sea. A wayfarer can cut a notch in a tree or build a stone cairn to mark his route, while a seafarer leaves no evidence of his passage. A ship’s wake quickly subsides into the vast indifference of the sea. There is, when you get right down to it, nothing so lost as lost at sea.
These were not the thoughts that preoccupied me, however, as we motored across the bay toward the Viking Fjord. Though I had assumed the 65-foot vessel would be quite large, she seemed smaller than I had expected, or perhaps the scale of the landscape diminished her. There was a self-containment in her trim lines, something almost chaste about her freshly painted white hull. Set against the still, dark water and backdrop of wild tree-lined shore, she was a welcoming sight.
I spotted movement on deck, the long-limbed form of Jan, my friend and shipmate-to-be, accompanied by Skyler, an aging springer spaniel. It was good to see Jan’s smiling face beaming over the rail as Jay secured the skiff and we climbed on board. We had the long evening before us to catch up on news and plan for the trip ahead, but first came a tour of the Viking Fjord.
Jan had sent me photos of the boat when they’d first bought it, but they didn’t do justice to the boat’s workmanlike elegance. Originally built in the 1960’s for a member of the Scripps family (of the Scripps Institute), the Viking Fjord was a cross between sturdy trawler and pleasure yacht, built for rough seas but boasting niceties such as wood paneled cabins and a large comfortable saloon. Jan and Jay occupied the main cabin amidships and were in the process of renovating the second cabin.
My berth was in the crew’s quarters, or foc’sle, in the prow of the ship down a small hatchway. There, a narrow corridor flanked by two compact berth compartments provided sleeping quarters for four. Sharing this space with three others no doubt would have induced claustrophobia, but as the sole occupant I found the foc’sle reassuringly snug. Soon my books and possessions were spread out over all four bunks.
A miniscule bathroom occupied the area most far forward. One of the first bits of instruction I received involved the working of the hand-pumped toilet. Later I receive instruction on another feature of the forward head. The area just behind the mirror and sink, it turned out, was the storage area for the anchor chain. As it was taken up, the chain would fall in unruly heaps unless someone tended it, shoving the chain from side to side to assure it would fit.
The anchor chain storage was but one of many compact practicalities of the boat, which was striking in its efficient and clever use of space. No square inch was wasted, with cunning cabinets, bins, racks, shelves, drawers, and fold-down tables set into every possible niche. Some cabinets were so tiny or peculiarly shaped that I wondered what they could possibly have been intended for. Each compartment fastened with a latch, and, indeed, there were few things on board which were not already secured or capable of being lashed down. The boat’s essential tidiness, I realized, had more to do with safety than with aesthetics.
The saloon and galley took up a good part of the main deck. A series of windows running down either side of the saloon and a large picture aft provided a light and a sense of space for those sitting ensconced in an armchair or on the large sofa. Unlike my previous trips on large, impersonal ferries, this was a nautical space I could relate to. I have a deeply ingrained love of compact, scaled-down things: small cars, efficiency apartments, cottages and cabins, and now, I found, boats.
But the most delightful area was the wheel house, reached by a hatchway set between the galley and saloon. This to me seemed by far the choicest spot on the boat, providing not only views of the surrounding waters but a sense of dominion over the vessel itself. In the wheelhouse, an impressive battery of levers, knobs, and navigational devices, whose purpose I could only surmise, was arrayed behind the ship’s wheel. Behind the wheelhouse was a winch for hoisting the skiff, which was stowed on the top deck along with a dingy and other larger equipment.
Jan and Jay conducted the tour with understandable pride. They’d spent the spring months preparing the Viking Fjord for their first season cruising the Inside Passage. While I was to spend only a week on board, this was to be their new home.
After a thorough introduction to the boat’s features, which, if nothing else, served to clue me that I was now part of the crew, Jan led me over to a locker and gave me a steady look before opening it.
"This is where we keep the survival suits," she said. "You need to know how they work."
And so the final thing I learned on my first day on board was how to don a day-glow orange survival suit. Both Jan and Jay are paramedics and have conducted rescues at sea, sometimes during the brutal winter storms characteristic of their home on San Juan Island. Immersion hypothermia is something they have first-hand experience with. The amount of time that a person can survive in frigid water varies with a person’s body type, behavior, and gear. However, a person can become confused and even delirious after a fairly brief time, becoming a danger to himself and his shipmates. It was essential, therefore, that I understood how the suit worked.
Strangely, I found this demonstration somewhat comforting. Jan’s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact demonstration boosted my confidence. "You’re part of the crew here," I thought. "You’re not a passenger." This was, to be truthful, the main appeal of the trip: to be a member of the crew, however temporary. To know where the survival suits, flashlights, and emergency flares are stored. And to have someone depend on my knowing that.
Before darkness fell in the oddly prolonged Northern evening, I said goodnight to my hosts – correction, shipmates – and settled into my small upper berth in the foc’sle. The ceiling of the compartment was only a few feet above my head. I reached up and touched it. I wondered, briefly, if I might wake in the dark, sit up, and hit my head, so I tested how far I could sit up without this happening. Not very far. "Remember where you are," I murmured drowsily to myself, as the almost imperceptible rocking of the boat soothed me to sleep.
(continued in Part 3...)
Before leaving Bella Bella the following morning, there were errands to run. We had to stop by the Marine Centre at nearby Shearwater to see if they could repair the alternator, plus we needed to stock up on provisions at the small grocery store in Bella Bella. I also needed a fishing license – a whopping $40 for a five-day permit, which I didn’t begrudge paying as so far as I could tell selling marine equipment and fishing licenses or catering to sport fishermen was about the only moneymaking proposition in Bella Bella.
We made the run over to Shearwater in the skiff. Coming up the ramp from the dock, Jay paused to point out a bald eagle perched in a dead tree. Bald eagles are a common sight along the British Columbian waterways, and while I’d seen them elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and even on the East Coast not far from where I live, I doubt I’ll ever see them again in such concentrations. The man who had driven me into Bella Bella the day before had reported seeing thirty-five of them in a single day.
While Jay was consulting with the repairman about the alternator, I passed the time looking over boating supplies at the marina, essentially clueless as to the purpose of most of the items. By midmorning we’d finished the provisioning and repairs, but there were still further mechanical preparations that needed to be made. Finally at around noon we were able to weigh anchor. I made a modest contribution to this procedure, standing in the forward head and making sure the anchor chain was stowed properly. The Viking Fjord’s lugger engine made a surprising amount of noise. For some reason, I had conceived of the voyage as essentially a quiet affair, but this was definitely not the case when the engine was running.
More surprising, however, was the smell of diesel fuel wafting up from the engine room into the saloon. When the saloon windows or doors were open, this effect was minimal, but then it invariably became quite chilly. I must confess that one of my many faults or peculiarities is a hypersensitivity to smell. Merely spending a few minutes’ time at department store perfume counter can bring on a splitting headache. As a consequence, I spent much of the voyage out on deck or up in the wheelhouse, both blessedly diesel fume free.
Of course, during the first few hours of the voyage the last thing I wanted to do was sit in the saloon. Merely leaving Bella Bella behind, then rounding a bend and viewing what seemed like an endless broad channel ahead, seemed quite an accomplishment. My only disappointment was that there were so few on hand to observe what I deemed our stylish departure. Only a sprinkling of small craft were near Bella Bella, and soon we left these local watermen behind us. We would see only a few vessels over the next few days. The sense of isolation, of being beyond reach of man's help or hindrance, grew increasingly profound as we progressed.
The gentle movement of the boat, not quite up and down or side to side, but flowing over the water with faint jostlings, exerted an almost hypnotic effect. Then came that curious sensation, so pronounced on boats, of things slipping by, almost as if – and this has never made sense to me, yet it always seems so – the land were moving and not us. Part of this may have had to do with the stillness of the water and smoothness of the run. Yet we were indeed moving, as the throb of the engines and the broad wake spreading behind us testified.
Heading for the Milbank Sound, we cruised at a moderate pace of about 7.4-8.4 knots, the speed measured in nautical miles per hour, a nautical mile being approximately 1.2 miles. The distinction between nautical vs. land measurements and terms has long fascinated me. Of course, by virtue of reading Patrick O’Brien, Horatio Hornblower, and suchlike, I at least knew starboard from port, but I felt completely baffled when I first glimpsed at one of the boat’s nautical charts. Latitude and longitude, depths and bottom contours, tides and hazards – it was all quite beyond me. I might venture that after several weeks if not months of diligent effort that I might make some vague sense of it, but on the whole I was simply glad that there would never arise any conceivable occasion when I’d be called upon to actually read a chart.
Several hours out of Bella Bella, I received a bit of a shock when bringing Jay some coffee up in the wheel house.
"Thanks," he said, accepting the cup. "I needed that. Here. Would you mind taking the wheel for a bit? I need to go check how the engine is doing."
"But..but…" I sputtered. "I don’t know how!"
"Just follow this line on the GPS tracker, " he said, indicating a line on a map displayed on the laptop next to the wheel. He then gave a two-minute crash course on how the GPS system worked. Our course had been laid into a laptop running a global positioning program. The person at the helm simply followed the line shown on the screen. A small red icon represented the boat, and all that was necessary was to keep the boat icon aligned with the line representing the course. It was almost mindlessly simple, really.
But during the first few minutes alone at the helm, I felt utter panic. With exaggerated vigilance, I scanned the channel ahead for the one thing that I'd been warned about - stray logs. Each minute or so, I’d nervously flick my eyes downward to check the computer screen, making sure I was following that sacred line.
After a quarter hour or so, it miraculously transpired that I had not sunk the boat, and I began to breathe normally again. I found that steering was largely a matter of reacting to whatever currents were affecting the boat, and that I could feel the tension against the wheel and steer to counteract it. What I found hardest was reconciling the shape of the channel and surrounding terrain with what was shown on the GPS screen. It was as if the shapes on the map were more real, more easily understood, than the indisputably concrete but less easily analyzed vista before me. I was just beginning to feel uneasy about this incongruity when Jay re-entered the wheel house and I happily relinquished the helm.
At around 7 p.m., we turned into Kynoch Inlet, a deep channel with spectacularly steep cliffs on either side. The forest seemed to close in purposefully, almost menacingly, as the channel narrowed. The endless forest was monotonously uniform, consisting mostly of dark conifers relieved by an occasional stand of birches. Punctuating this dense greenery were numerous waterfalls, varying in size and spilling from the snow-capped peaks of the coastal mountain range. An hour and countless waterfalls later, we reached the base of the inlet and began to look for an anchorage.
The word "anchorage" has such a solid, reassuring sound, but I soon found that, as in all things have to do with boats, there is seldom any certainty. I’d assumed that anchoring the boat would be a simple thing: just find a likely spot and drop the anchor. However, the channels and inlets of the Inside Passage can be extremely deep; often the drop-off from the land is immediate, with a spot just offshore being several hundred feet deep. Finding a spot that is shallow enough to drop anchor and yet not too shallow can be a tricky business, especially as it may not be clear whether the anchor has "set" or not.
We let out some 375 feet of chain at a spot that, according to the nautical chart, was about 90 feet deep. It was then a matter of watching the depth finder and chain to see how far we drifted. There was, of course, a considerable radius of drift for a boat anchored on 375 feet of chain, and so there was the suspicion that perhaps the boat wasn’t anchored at all, that it was merely drifting. Only when it became apparent that the boat was drifting within a circumscribed radius could some measure of certainty be gained.
(continued in Part 4 . . .)