Illywhacker - Laurence in Alaska


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Author Peter Aston
Date Sept-2001
Map Ref Prince William Sound

Cruising Prince William Sound with Laurence, one of our grandsons and his Dad

Laurence relaxes in the cockpit

"Mum, you promised me I could stay with Grandma and Grandpa"…. A reasonable demand from a 7 year-old you might think if it involves packing his pyjamas and toothbrush and a short drive through the suburbs. Young Laurence however was determined to make this a holiday to remember. We, his grandparents live aboard our yacht Illywhacker in a remote region of Alaska and of course were delighted to hear of his … according to his parents … relentless resolve. One of the downsides of long-distance cruising is having the younger generation grow up without regular contact with us and our compromise has been to leave the yacht in a foreign port and fly home for a few months when we do our best to spoil them rotten. Our dream is for the older children to crew on a leg or two so when Laurence was finally allowed to come if he brought his father James, we were more than happy.

We sailed Illywhacker to Cordova, a small fishing village in the SE corner of Prince William Sound. At 60N, 145W it is about as far as you can be in the Pacific Ocean from Australia and presents a seriously different climate to Townsville, Laurence's home in North Queensland. Most cruisers to Alaska travel north from Seattle and Vancouver via the Inside Passage to visit Sitka, Juneau and maybe Skagway and Glacier Bay on the Alaskan "Panhandle". Only a handful of hardy souls cross the Gulf of Alaska each year from there to Prince William Sound, even less take Illywhacker 's route from Japan and Kamchatka via the Aleutians. After our long journey that way we were in no hurry to press on towards the busy US west coast and the rewards for "holing up" in this remote area have been unparalleled in all our cruising so far.

Prince William Sound offers a myriad of exclusive, magnificent anchorages. Visited and named by Captain Cook in 1778 it has since shaken off fur traders, gold seekers and copper miners and has formed an uneasy truce with oil developers and fishermen to remain a largely pristine environment. The local people have a rich heritage of Chugach, Tlingit, Eyak, Yupik, Athabascan and Inupiaq Alaskan Natives seasoned by the early hunters, fishermen and miners from Russia and Scandinavia. There are 3 major towns in the Sound, Valdez, Whittier and Cordova and a small number of remote villages and aquaculture ventures. For Laurence, this could be quite an adventure … the task for us grandparents was to manage the experience to make it exciting, educational and a happy memory.

Alaska has only 4 months each year of good summer weather for comfortable cruising. Storms are less frequent in June, July, August and early September; when they occur it is wise to take shelter, comfortable in the knowledge that a period of calm will follow. Fortunately the Sound has many very protected anchorages in close proximity, the ideal place for a cruise with family or friends. The long summer days (up to 19 hours of daylight) make it easy to see and do a lot in a day but getting a small boy in bed by 8pm proved to be difficult when the sun was still high.

By the time we met James and Laurence at Cordova airport, the forward cabin of Illywhacker was no longer a workshop, supplies for 10 days stowed and a set of "cool" Alaskan-style clothes purchased from the local Thrift shop for Laurence. An empty "daybook" was ready on the saloon table with all the coloured pencils and cutouts the local drugstore could furnish. This was to form the holiday record to which we would all contribute. Laurence was to write the story and draw the pictures, Grandma would take and print the digital photos of the day, Grandpa would provide the day's passage data and James would supervise the minimal schoolwork brought from Townsville. Figuring the travellers would be tired and jet-lagged after 3 days of air travel, we tucked them into their bunks and motored away over calm seas to our first anchorage.

"What's that noise Grandma?" An enquiry from Laurence had us all concentrating on our surroundings. Was it the coughing sound of a distant bear, the screech of a bald eagle, the splash of leaping salmon or the howl of a coyote? Looking around had us craning our necks upwards to the top of the steep mountains of the fiord or scanning the volcanic shoreline crammed with conifers and dense undergrowth. The view is so overwhelming it takes some time to complete the 360 degrees. It is only then that we realise that we are so alone that the sounds we hear in Two Moon Bay are the sounds of silence. Welcome to our first anchorage of Prince William Sound. Although it was 7pm, we launched the dinghy and took an hour's run around the bay in subdued sunlight before a quiet dinner in the cockpit. It's cool enough to have the cockpit clears zipped-up which keeps the pesky no-see-em's at bay; these little biteys unfortunately are especially prevalent in Summer in a windless anchorage. Still, we count our blessings as "wind" around here usually means more than we need and besides we'll be away early tomorrow to a really special place.

As we motored on Day 2 toward the magnificent Columbia Glacier, the battle between industry and the environment took on a new reality for us. The day before we had passed Bligh Reef, the site of the unfortunate grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 when 11 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into this pristine waterway. There appeared little evidence of the disaster to our untrained eyes but later conversations with experts working in the Science Centre in Cordova told us a different story. Today, there are many safeguards in place for any subsequent spills as we were soon to find out.

VHF traffic that morning as usual at that time of the year related to the movement of fishing boats as well as to those of the oil tankers and the associated tugs and pilots as they transit the Sound to and from the Valdez Aleyska pipeline terminal. On such a beautiful morning we were alarmed to hear a "Mayday" call from a fishing boat just 5nm ahead of us. One of the few remaining wooden seiners, she had struck a small iceberg - a growler, at speed and was sinking very fast. The skipper was only able to indicate a rough location to the US Coastguard Marine Safety Office in Valdez before communications were lost. Other craft rushed to the scene and we all spent an anxious 20 minutes listening to the search traffic before a life raft was spotted. The water temperature at 60N even in summer makes a full immersion suit a necessity and all craft are required to carry one for each crewmember. The penalty for not wearing one is rapid hypothermia so we were much relieved to hear the skipper radio from the rescue fishing boat that all hands were safe.

End of story? Well not really, the elation in the voice of that skipper abruptly sunk when the Coastguard requested details of his plans to remove the oil slick for which he was responsible. "…Well no plans really" he said. "Then do you agree to accept all costs associated with the cleanup which will be instigated by the Coastguard?"… a pause then, "..I suppose so". Later we learned that companies on standby for this purpose think $$millions are petty cash. Indemnity insurance in the USA is a real good idea; it might stop a bad day getting VERY BAD.


Writing up the day's log In the snow at Beartrap Bay

There is nothing we find more delightful than slowly motoring amongst the bergy bits and growlers, the fallout from a tidewater glacier, on a sunny afternoon. Laurence was able to pick out the shapes of moon rockets, goblins and galloping horses as the melting forms twinkled and tinkled and cracked as we glided past. Columbia Glacier is melting and retreating so fast that the floating ice prevents visiting craft from reaching a point no closer than 8nm from the face. We would have to visit a different glacier to get really close… and we had a special one in mind for that, a day's sail away. Later that afternoon we anchored in Emerald Cove; true to it's name it is one of the most beautiful places we've ever been in. A small, crystal clear keyhole anchorage it is surrounded by a high bluff to one side and a low hill to the other covered in a colourful muskeg meadow. We walked over this hill for a stunning view of the glacier. To see a living river of blue ice stretching back the length of Sydney harbour knowing it predates us by thousands of years is enough to silence even a 7 year-old in awe.

A day later we approached Meares, a remote glacier situated at the head of the 20nm deep Unaqwik Fiord. It offers a good example of the processes and immense geological pressures that over the eons have formed Prince William Sound. High in the mountains, the weight of snow falling since the last Ice Age compressed the ice below, turning it blue in the process, (as a result, this dense glacier ice lasts 3 or more times longer in the freezer - as if you need one!). The weight of ice builds up until it exceeds the ability of the volcanic rock below to support it and an immense solid river of ice forms, moving very slowly down the mountain, grinding away at the geology beneath. A wall of rock is pushed ahead of the glacier and is known as the moraine. Huge fiords are formed this way and when glaciers retreat, the magnificent anchorages of Prince William Sound are the result.

Meares Glacier has been advancing and retreating for many years and at the maximum point of it's last advance, about 10nm out from the location of the present tidewater face, the rocky moraine remains as a dam wall across the fiord. Fortunately the continuous outflow of melted ice has eroded the moraine sufficiently to allow our transit across it towards the head of the fiord with a metre to spare under the keel. From afar, floating ice appeared to block our approach but a path through these bergy bits always seemed to emerge. It was slow going, weaving between them as barging through just wasn't an option, the varying densities of the floating ice meant there might easily be more weight below that we couldn't see, more than Illywhacker's tonnage and the glacial silt made visibility underwater very poor.

The journey along the fiord seemed endless and the glacier we had come to see was nowhere to be seen. It wasn't until we made a sharp turn to the right that the sight before us took our breath away. Gleaming in the low sunlight, the face of Meares Glacier with a river of blue ice climbing upwards to the clouds behind seemed like the biggest hidden treasure in the world. About ½ mile from the face we turned off the engine and listened to the sounds of the giant who lives inside. The groans and cracking noises made by so much mass trying to escape are awesome, our 42' home so insignificant beside the towering face. Glacier watching is about being enveloped in the sounds and ambience of something live and VERY BIG while you wait for the face to calve. If you're lucky you will be watching the right spot and see a city-building size chunk slide majestically into the water before a loud CRACK is heard. Minutes later the yacht rolls to the swell and we are back to hoping for a bigger calving next time. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but alone and a day's sail from any help we felt vulnerable - and besides Laurence wanted to go fishing.


Laurence on the foredeck at Meare's Glacier At Columbia Glacier


We knew of 2 wonderful anchorages, one offering a taste of history and bottom fishing for sole and halibut and the other, great exploration possibilities and fantastic salmon fishing a few easy days of sailing away. The first was Landlocked Bay, very protected with good holding and an old gold and copper mining area. With such steep sides to the harbour and dense foliage it was hard to conceive of the place as a mining site let alone imagine the sounds of industry and the thriving community that existed here when we saw only trees and heard only the nature's silence. Closer to the shore in the dinghy we found the remains of 100 year-old equipment and jetties and by following some more recent tailings up into the undergrowth, came across a small cabin still in occasional use. As is the practice in Alaska, it was open with a welcoming sign and stocked with some emergency supplies. "Let's stay here," said Laurence, never had he seen a better cubby house - or us a get-away-from-it-all retreat for that matter.

The approach to Beartrap Bay our next anchorage, took us from the long outer harbour through a narrow pass into a wide lagoon, which shallowed at the head where 2 streams entered. With bulletproof protection, we anchored in sticky blue mud and took a look around. The surroundings are spectacularly Alaskan; snow-covered peaks, steep and heavily forested mountains and the sounds of many cascading waterfalls to lull you to sleep - in complete isolation. We sat quietly for only a few minutes when a black bear appeared at the waters' edge foraging on a patch of cranberries. Bald eagles could be seen fishing, pairs of Canada Geese, ducks and a variety of migratory waders were feeding on the flats at the head of the bay. Quite an incredible place which was made to really come alive by the dense schools of salmon. This was the season when mature salmon return to the stream of their birth after 3 years in the Pacific Ocean. The fish arrive in thousands, their bodies charged with enough oil to sustain them on the journey upstream which in the case of the Yukon or the Copper Rivers, can be in excess of 1000 miles. The freshwater immediately begins the process of deterioration and one can sense the urgency to get going and to start spawning before it is too late.
Throwing a line in the dense shoaling fish was hardly sport fishing but Laurence enjoyed the thrill of a 10lb fish on the line and learned to distinguish between the fresh, new entrants to the bay and those still waiting their turn to enter the packed streams. He was to later experience fishing the Eyak River near Cordova for Coho salmon, which is a sport fisherman's dream, and greatly different from rock fishing the tropical waters near his home in Australia.

We were pleasantly surprised when ANOTHER YACHT sailed into Beartrap Bay, and even more so when we learnt there were 3 children on board. Local sailors from Seward, they were making the best of the short summer on their once-a-year sailing holiday. We enjoyed their company for a few days, climbing the mountains to sit on remnant snow drifts and following the freshwater streams to watch struggling salmon, fins in the air and 5 abreast making their way upwards. Ever watchful for bears, we saw many signs of feeding, tracks and scat but managed to make enough noise to scare them away. Laurence was mightily impressed when the American children invited us to a campfire ashore one night to roast "smores" - marshmallows squeezed between chocolate biscuits - "can I have s'more?"

With so much light, there was time for us all to contribute to Laurence's "holiday book". Our routine of a few evening beers and a great feed of fresh fish followed by American ice-cream was to help Laurence enter the day's activities into his ever-growing tome. It was either that or playing Monopoly, so with some reluctance Dad and Grandpa were dragged from "sunset-watching" in the cockpit to the saloon below. Our labours were well rewarded since as usual, Grandma was right and Laurence went home feeling very special armed with proof of a holiday he wouldn't forget.


Canoeing the Alaganik River with Dad and friend John It's hard to sleep in the midnight sun


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