Monday, July 29, 2013

Vibrant Curiosity
By Michael

It's a never-ending job keeping the Lady clean.
That's a tail rotor up top.
I walked past striking people today as I climbed off Del Viento. Not striking in the fighting-for-improved-working-conditions sense, these were strikingly attractive, perfectly put-together people. There were a dozen of them, talking amongst themselves as they breezed by in casual clothes, everything about them so together, so flawless. I nodded as we passed. Our eyes didn’t meet. They smelled clean.
Now, it’s possible I might not have noticed this group were they, say in Paris, seated in a snazzy restaurant overlooking the rue des Petits-Champslost in a crowd of oenophiles. But we walked by each other on the transient docks in Auke Bay, Alaska.

Auke Bay, Alaska: fifteen miles north of Juneau, 58 degrees north latitude, population: barely a few thousand.
But unassuming Auke Bay is a jumping off point for Glacier Bay National Park. This is the reason that some of the largest privately-owned yachts (Ice Bear, Athena, Lady Christine, Compass Rose) are here, awaiting their owners, their guests, and their turn to enter the Park—just like Del Viento.

To put the size of that retro-
snazzy inboard inflatable
in perspective, that's a 47-foot
beam on Vibrant Curiosity.
Windy’s brother and one of our nephews (Oliver) are flying up from San Francisco and then we’ll leave Auke Bay for the two-day trip to one of the most lauded cruising grounds in the world. (We’ll soon learn whether it lives up to the hype.) Anyone can enter 5,100-square-mile Glacier Bay, but the National Park Service requires reservations to limit the number of boats in there at any time. We got our seven-day reservation two months ago before leaving Victoria.
I continued to the top of the ramp where half-a-dozen red-jacketed crew busily unloaded fine-looking luggage from three limousines. I turned back to the docks to watch the striking people being helped aboard one of two Vibrant Curiosity tenders tied to the dock. They were little kids with their 30-something parents, they were 40-something couples, they were 60-something people.

I’ll admit I’d sell one of my kids for a week—okay, for a couple days—aboard the 280-foot-long Vibrant Curiosity, looking striking and smelling good. Windy probably won't let that happen, but I can take solace in something else. Aboard Del Viento, sharing a dock with these obscene yachts, I'm reminded of the power of even a modest, capable boat, able to transform the forces of nature into motion, along a big blue path to some of the most desirable places in the world. No matter what you look like (or smell like).

Obviously, the owner wasn't aboard Athena on this day.

Another shot of Vibrant Curiosity. There's a 27-foot MasterCraft ski boat still
tucked away in the garage, hard to see in this photo. The boat is reportedly
owned by a German--so why an English name and a London hailing port?

This is a cabin aboard Lady Christine, according to Google.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Growlers In The Arm
By Michael

The Thorne Bay market was closed.
Unfortunately, that meant powdered milk
(the girls call it "fake milk") for cereal in
the morning. Fortunately, none of us
had to shed our cork boots or handguns.
I thought at first I was looking at a boat, a big, white cabin cruiser in the distance, anchored at the base of more green mountains. Then it was closer, our first iceberg, and it was otherworldly.
I know, just frozen water, but massive, sculpted blocks of the stuff floating where we sailed, was magical.
As we entered Tracy Arm—a winding, narrow, 30-mile fjord off Holkham Bay—ice was everywhere. The icebergs and bergy bits were easy to spot, but the smaller growlers demanded hours with one of us at the helm, hand steering, and the other on the bow, focusing ahead.

Like our trip up the Princess Louisa Inlet to Chatterbox Falls, the steep, glacier-carved mountains were streaked with waterfalls thousands of feet up. Fifty feet from shore, the water was 300 feet deep; in the middle of the half-mile-wide channel, it is over 1,000 feet. Yet the color of the water, a milky turquoise from meltwater, belied the depth.
I didn't get as close as it appears,
these things can turn-turtle
without notice.
About twenty miles up, we turned left into an intersecting fjord that led to North Sawyer Glacier. Rock wall shot straight up from the water to two-thousand feet, bare and displaying the patterned scars from unimaginable forces. Then, around the corner, a glacier like we’d seen only in pictures, rendered in jagged, bunched spires of cool blues and whites.

A deep boom and CRACK! sounded over the kunk-kunk-kunk of our engine to announce the white cloud of ice we’d already seen. Then, with a splash, a new iceberg pitched and rolled in the cold water at the base of the glacier, finding its equilibrium. We floated in-place for an hour, taking pictures and taking it all in.
The South Sawyer Glacier is larger and known to be more active (meaning it calves more icebergs). This was evident as we approached; the channel was almost completely clogged. Two hours later, moving forward at less than half-a-knot, we were within a quarter mile of the face, but the size of the thing and the landscape that framed it, interrupted the scale of everything, making it seem like we were within a hundred yards.

This is the last-known picture of our
clan before we'd see our first iceberg.
This is good-weather summertime
cruising in Southeast Alaska. The girls
are reading and learning on the bow,
Windy's relaxing in her favorite
hot-pink bean bag.
For all the reading I’ve done about high-latitude cruising, I’m embarrassed to say I always imagined growlers—much of what we picked our way through—and even bergy bits, were not a big deal, something you could simply motor through, pushing them out of the way with the hull as slowly blazed a trail. But seeing 50- to 500-pound growlers in the water ahead, having poked at them with the boat hook and rammed them with the Portland Pudgy, I realized they are a big deal. In our days in Tracy Arm, I came to see anything bigger than a softball as a floating boulder, a landmine to our fiberglass hull.
And for me that highlights one of the main reasons we travel: to see, touch, and hear things for ourselves. So far, it’s been illuminating and more dazzling than anything I imagined.


Between Petersburg and Tracy Arm, we anchored
two nights in Sandborn Canal. We took our dinghy
on a five-mile cruise up a shallow inlet looking for
bears. No joy on the bears, but lots of joy. It was
unbelievably still and quiet--it felt like we could
have been on the moon. 

Here it is, South Sawyer Glacier up Tracy Arm.

The girls love nosing up to waterfalls. It was more
than 100 feet deep here.
Del Viento tied up in pretty Petersburg.

Monday, July 15, 2013

We're In Alaska!
By Michael

Cindi and Robert and the two families
welcomed us to the Ketchikan Yacht
Club with a family BBQ.
We’re at 56 degrees latitude and our internal clocks are all messed up by our northward progress. The days continue growing longer despite the passing of the summer solstice. And now that we’re in Southeast Alaska, we’re west enough that we’ve rolled back an hour earlier to Alaska Daylight Time (ADT). Longitudinally we’re now halfway between Southern California and Hawaii.
Most of the places we visit have some kind of memorial to mariners lost at sea. These memorials range from modest to elaborate, but none I’ve seen is like the one in Prince Rupert, our last Canadian port. It’s a white fishing dory displayed in a seaside park. It was found adrift in these waters in 1987, inverted and covered in barnacles. After some research, the Prince Rupertonians learned they’d found the Kazu Maru, missing since it left Owase, Japan 18 months earlier with only Kazukio Sakamoto aboard. They were surprised again when they realised that Prince Rupert and Owase are sister cities. A group of local fishermen restored the dory before inviting the family of the lost mariner over from Japan.

The seaside park and the rest of the city are built on rolling hills high above the water with a mountainous backdrop. We wandered by the Prince Rupert courthouse, perched atop a broad hill, its Federal-style architecture out of sync with the unrestrained wildness of this part of the world. Around back we stumbled on a gem: Sunken Gardens, a manicured park, tucked two stories below street level. It’s terraced and bright with flowers along a path that leads down to a grassy area with benches and chess tables. In an amphitheater-like setting, a stunning variety of flowers and plants rose up around us to meet blue sky. This unlikely garden left us with smiles after so many miles of green of forested mountainsides.
It was only 15 minutes, but Eleanor's
ride in this helicopter took her over
the harbor and then way out over the
rugged mountains of the island. 
At 11:00 p.m. the Canada Day fireworks exploded from a barge just off our docks. It was still a bit too light out to really dazzle, but I guess they have to get the kids to bed sometime.

The next morning, having enjoyed the hospitality and hot showers of the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club, and with a can of bear spray and fresh produce aboard, we cast off and headed northwest, bound for Ketchikan. While we still had phone service, Windy called U.S. Customs to let them know we were inbound and would be spending the night en route, in an unpopulated U.S. anchorage called Foggy Bay.
There are few days in any year when a boat can sail merrily across the Dixon Entrance, an open stretch of water that breaks up the Inside Passage, separating British Columbia from Southeast Alaska. By stroke of luck, we hit one of those days. Blue sky surrounded us and during her watch, Windy called us all topsides to welcome us to Alaska.

It would be easy to denigrate Ketchikan, our first Alaskan port. After all, it’s a remote island community with too many souvenir shops catering to too many cruise ship passengers. Beyond the tourist apron, several run-down bars are more successful than they should be. It lies at one end of the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.
By the time we settled in, the three cruise ships that towered over the city earlier that day, blocking seaward views, were gone. The shops that cater to them were promptly closed and only the town’s 8,000 residents remained on the island. We felt like guests, invited back stage after the main event, to see what real life is like.

Frances and Brin on the ramp above the
Ketchikan Yacht Club.
“There’s Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus,” our friend Cindi said, standing next to me along Ketchikan’s waterfront main drag. The white-haired couple waved and smiled as they crept past us in a convertible, an entry in the annual Fourth of July parade. “They’ve played the role every winter for years and years; everyone knows them.” More folks on the fire engines and floats and the beds of pick-ups called out to their friends sitting curbside, kids making mad scrambles for thrown candy. Miss Ketchikan beamed in a red dress.
Standing next to her was our friend Molly and her three boys: Michael, Gabe, and Caleb. They cheered loudly as Molly’s four girls (Addy, Annika, Katie, and Elaine) marched by in kilts, part of the children’s highland dance troupe. Molly and her husband Peter live with their seven children aboard Nadejda, their 65’ Colin Archer-designed steel ketch.

At the post-parade, dockside barbeque we met Cassie and her husband Scott and their three kids. They’re in the market for a family cruising sailboat and we tagged along with them to the town’s annual rubber duck race. Frances and their daughter Brin became fast friends and stayed up until the 11:00 p.m. fireworks playing Pet Shops, Calico Critters, and “spy team 2-2-1,” a game in which they run around spying on everything.
This is what fireworks
look like at 11:00 pm in
Prince Rupert.
The next day we went to the library with the Nadejda clan and hiked along the Rainbird trail above the city. In the evening, Cindi and Robert drove us out to the banks of a local river where they thought we might see bears. There were no bears, but a half-dozen bald eagles perched around us, fish-spotting.

Early the next morning, the girls and I went to the local NPR-affiliate station to sit in the studio with Scott while he did his 0600-0800 classical music program. Between queuing songs on his iPod and reading the weather and local announcements, he explained to the girls and me how everything works. Finally, as he watched the clock and timed his sign-off to the second, the familiar Saturday-morning bumper music for “Weekend Edition” began playing and the voice of NPR’s Scott Simon came in crystal clear from our former Washington, D.C. home.
We said goodbye to our new friends and headed northwest, just as that day’s cruise ships began releasing their passengers.


This is the view at 10:00 p.m. from our anchorage in
Fury Cove, BC. So many of the spots we've anchored
along the Inside Passage are almost completely
land-locked like this one, with just a narrow entrance,
sometimes 50 feet wide.

Windy, the girls, and the Nadejda boys
along the parade route.

Windy and Peter.

Eleanor using her mad chess skills gained in Victoria
against unwitting Nadejda crew member Caleb.

This is the very popular annual rubber duck race. Four of
the specks in this picture are ducks, headed to the finish
line--the end of the boom intended to trap the hundreds
of numbered ducks released.

Does your library have a view like this? I'm writing this
caption in the Petersburg, AK library--we tend to visit
the library of every town we're in.

On the Rainbird trail with some of the Nadejda
crew, high above Ketchikan. Note the cruise ship
tied up in the background.

This is Katelyn giving the girls a private show/instruction
in baton twirling. She was an accomplished collegiate twirler at Kansas State University
who was there on a visiting yacht, Galatea,
 as a caregiver to Marge, one of the owners..

The girls with Scott  in the studio for his early
morning classical music show. This gig is a
hobby. In real life, he is in the U.S. Coast Guard and
planning to go cruising soon.

This is another way to arrive at Ketchikan. This is Athena,
built for James H. Clark who founded Netscape. At 295 feet,
it's one of the largest private yachts in the world. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Breakfast With A Writer
By Michael

Kevin and me in our yellow dinghy.
“We’re ten minutes early,” Windy said.
I’d hurried them all morning to be sure we weren’t late and now she and the girls sat calmly on the park bench while I paced back and forth, killing time.

I didn’t know Kevin Patterson from Adam when he sent me an email almost two years ago. He wrote that he enjoyed my blog and that we were absolutely doing the right thing by our kids. He added that he’d done some sailing and written a book about it.
“Hey, thanks for the email, I’ll look up your book.” I clicked Send.

The Water In Between is among best travel writing I’ve read. I’ve studied it since, rereading and marking it up, wondering whether somehow, if I keep working at it, I’ll someday put my thoughts into words with the same mastery.
I emailed him last month; we agreed to meet for breakfast at the Tree House Café near his home on Saltspring Island.

I grew anxious during my ten minutes of pacing. I fear small talk and awkward silences. I’m not good at thinking on my feet, coming up with interesting questions to spur conversation. I often say the wrong thing. I’m much worse if the person’s books are reviewed by the New York Times.
I hoped we wouldn’t see Kevin that morning. In the perfect world I was constructing in my head, we’d get a table at the restaurant and wait 30 minutes before declaring him a no-show and ordering. Our food would come and we’d eat, pay, and leave. Later I’d get an email. “My God, I overslept. Please accept my apology.”

Frances showing off her caterpillar
rings on Galiano Island.
I’d feign disappointment in my response, chiding him that he probably didn’t oversleep for Terry Gross. “By the way,” I’d add, just to be clear that everything was cool, “I really enjoyed that radio interview, fascinating.”
Perhaps to assure me that oversleeping was regrettable, Kevin would offer a behind-the-scenes anecdote. “You know, I wasn’t late, but Terry was. Her staff apologized and one of the interns pulled me aside and explained that Terry’s always late, always hung over. She’s a mean drunk too, they stay out of her way.”

“Really? She seems so sensible and together.”
“Nah, that’s magic in the editing room. She has a team that feeds her interview questions. Terry’s simply a reader with the gift of a soothing voice that sounds sincerely curious.” 

And so our email conversation would go. Before long, we’d form a tight writers’ friendship via correspondence, spared the expense of that awkward first meet and small talk.
But it didn’t go down that way. He was there at the café when we arrived, drinking coffee and reading the paper at a table for two. We shook hands and made introductions while the server cobbled together a couple more tables.

Kevin’s a medical doctor who spends part of each year in the Canadian north, serving an Inuit population. He’s also opened up the bodies of Afghan fighters and South Pacific Islanders. He’s known for his insight regarding the effects of the encroaching Western diet and lifestyle on the health of previously isolated cultures.
This is what we do every
time we weigh anchor: hose
the mud and shells off the
chain. It can take quite a
while sometimes.
After everyone ordered, I announced I was self-conscious about the plate of huevos rancheros I was about to eat in front of the doctor who had indicted our Western diet. It was a quip I came up with the night before, the perfect ice-breaker. But it sounded lame when I said it. Uncomfortable, Kevin assured me he eats like Homer Simpson. He ordered a small fruit and yogurt plate.

Kevin asked a question about our lives. I nodded blankly and blurted out the first of a dozen writing questions that boiled over in my head. I would turn our conversation into an interrogation.
Listening to him answer, I began focusing on the key words that were the difference between us. What word would I have used there? I grew more self-conscious, editing my own vocabulary and sentences in real time, as the air rushed past my vocal cords and my words were made and released. The result was a jumbled, stilted reproduction of my own thoughts.

At some point I told him I was working on a book; he asked about my progress. Something I read in a magazine interview the night before started to spill out, and it sounded good. “Oh, it comes and goes, Kevin, long periods of procrastination and slow going, and then bursts of unanticipated productivity.” He nodded and it dawned on me that I’d just paraphrased his answer to the same question.
Finally, the meal was over and I was eager to separate, eager to return to the boat and be free of my social anxiety, to process the writing perspectives I’d gained.

“Do you want to come out and see Del Viento?” Windy asked. For a split second, I thought it was possible, hoped it was possible, she was talking to me.
“I’d love to,” Kevin answered.

So we found these guys, a grandfather an his grandson, adrift in
their dinghy off Galiano Island. Their outboard conked
out and the current took them miles from their
mother ship and neither appeared to know how to row.
Grandpa was stressed and fatigued. We towed them
back--they refused our invitation to come aboard.

Eleanor doing her Houdini imitation in this strange, hollow boulder
she found on Wallace Island.

Found object on a hike. Wallace Island is too small for cars,
a mystery why this is here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Abandoned Trapper's Cabin
By Michael

This was a second sign, with additional
foreboding info, about 30 feet past the
first one.
the first sign
“Look, those signs are all about CYA.” I said, “The government puts those here to keep from getting sued. It’s certainly not going to take us two hours each way, those are just estimates based on people who stop to rest ten minutes out of every twenty.”
I had the girls in my corner and the fact that Windy loves to hike meant there was no further discussion, the Robertsons marched on. And up.

The sign was right about one thing, the trail—there is no trail, let’s call it a route—the route is not maintained. But people had clearly passed before us, and abundant blazes made it possible to find our way. And this route was a climb—no wimpy switch-backs—nearly straight up a mountain, through a dense, beautiful forest. The smell of the conifers was invigorating and the four of us continued enthusiastically at a pace that could last no longer than nine minutes.
"Climbing the trail to the trapper’s cabin is like taking the stairs to the top of the Sears Tower—twice—with a boot-camp training obstacle on every third landing.”—Chuck Gould, Waggoner Cruising Guide, as read after-the-fact by the Robertsons
After an hour, surprised we hadn’t yet reached the cabin, we began joking that the two-hour estimate was based on records set by competing, professional mountain climbers. “Ha, maybe it’ll take us four hours to get to the cabin!”

Note Eleanor repelling down this slope
with Windy below. From here, they
would make their way behind the roots
of that fallen tree and then shimmy down
in the crack in the rock, foreground.
After two hours, no cabin in sight, we stopped joking, fearing the two-hour estimate was based on records set by competing, professional mountain climbers.

“Wow, this is something else,” I said.
“My legs are going to be very sore tomorrow.”

“Do you have any water left?”
“The trek cannot be considered a walk, or even an ambitious hike. Anything less condemning than ‘hand-over-hand-scrambling-climb’ would be insufficient to describe several sections of the accurately labeled, ‘primitive trail’”—Chuck Gould, Waggoner Cruising Guide, as read after-the-fact by the Robertsons
“Look at the girls, I’m glad they’ve reached the age where they can do this. If they get through this, this family can do any hike,” Windy said.

“Of course they can do this; if I had only 65 pounds to carry up this hill I’d be at the top already.”

The girls still laughed and talked non-stop, evidence that they did not yet know fatigue. I realized the next development stage is where they don’t need us at all, where they leave us on the boat so we don’t slow them down.
It was wet and every rock was slick. We shimmied along cracks in a wall of granite. We climbed under, over, or walked along the tops of countless fallen trees. The girls used a rope to repel, the only means to navigate a particularly steep slope.

“In many places, the trail climbs 30 feet or more up nearly vertical rock outcroppings. The only way up is by natural ladders formed by exposed tree roots. Rivulets follow the invisible trail, creating muddy and slippery morasses where substantial footing is needed.” –Chuck Gould, Waggoner Cruising Guide, as read after-the-fact by the Robertsons
In our third hour, we nudged each other along by sharing fantasies about what we’d find in the cabin.

“There’s a huge ice box filled with Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA.”
I think this picture helps to convey the
scale of this place. That's Eleanor on
the grass, her arms raised in a V. But
the mountains still rise out of the frame.
“And root beer!”

“And a couch.”
“And four pints of Haagen Daz!”

“And a shower”
“And a bed.”

And then the trees thinned before a couple-hundred-foot-high wall of rock there was no way we would be able to climb. Just at the base, the route leveled and went sideways along the mountain. A waterfall we’d heard in the distance was now booming. We picked up the pace, our breathing less labored. And just like that, in front of us, the remnants of a trapper’s cabin ten yards from a raging waterfall.
It was clear immediately that there was no fridge, no couch, and no shower, but our relief at having made it was prize enough. We stepped around in the overgrown floor space beneath a tangle of rotting, fallen logs, only the first foot of the vertical wall still apparent. A frame of rusted iron bedsprings was tucked into a corner and we wondered how in the world someone got it up here.

And then we sat to share the slim pickings Windy stowed in her backpack for a 30-minute walk.
“How long did it take us?”

“Two hours and forty-five minutes.”
“That was hard.”

“And it’s going to be technically harder going down.”

I thought of all the slick, steep steps we took to get up here.
“That was probably the best hike I’ve ever been on.” Windy said.

“Me too!” the girls echoed in unison.

Victorious in the trapper's cabin, waterfall behind us.
I later spotted these three guys checking out the
prettiest girl at the dance--none of them had the
courage to step forward.

We picked all these berries at the base of the trail and
enjoyed a killer berry crumble aboard Del Viento that night.

This is looking over our transom as we motored out of
Princess Louisa Inlet the next morning.

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