Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ocean Motion
By Michael

Climbing down to the warm natural pools
of Hot Springs Cove, just north of Tofino,
on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Just a couple mornings ago we left Port Angeles, WA and headed northwest through the Salish Sea. At dinner time, approaching Cape Flattery, our bow began to rise and fall in the large, gentle ocean swells that found their way into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I’m writing to tell you what that feels like.

On one hand it’s simple, really nothing more than a rise and a fall, elevator-like. But on the other hand, it’s something else, nothing like an elevator. It’s a feeling of big.

Close to shore and bridled to an anchor or bound in a slip by dock lines, our restrained boat seems vulnerable. There are shore-based hazards we anxiously shield her from, we deploy fenders to protect her fragile gelcoat.

But when we remove the bridle or slip the lines to head offshore, our boat seems transformed, capable in this environment, a good match for the sea. She isn’t simply rising and falling, she’s alive, synced to the pulse of a body of water larger than I can really comprehend. She tests and teases the ocean, engaging the rhythmic, energy-filled swells. Together they’re playmates that toy with tremendous forces.

Windy and the girls perched forty feet above
tidal pools on the outside of Little Bunsby Island, BC.
Urged by momentum, our bow pushes deep and forward, sending a heavy sheet of water arcing up and outward to crash on the surface. Then the ocean pushes back, halting the plunge and lifting us out of the sea until we’re hanging, poised for another pounce just further ahead.

There is sureness in this motion, a give and take of displacement, bound by absolute physical laws. And it’s a dance, a rhythmic groove that feels right when it is.

Heading the opposite direction around Cape Flattery last year, we left the ocean swell behind, to instead navigate the straits and passes and narrows and inlets and channels of the Inside Passage. We were impressed by all we experienced, but we missed the allure of the ocean swell. We forgot that for us, the familiar rise and fall is the feeling of a journey beginning and the promise of a destination to come. It’s a fluid feeling of possibility and frontier. It’s something we can now look forward to, all the way back to Mexico.

The girls on a mooring we found just beneath Cape Scott, BC.
Note our as-of-yet seldom-used Code Zero on its foil-less
furler ahead of our furled jib. It's been fantastic the times
we've flown it.

The post office at Winter Harbour, BC.

Frances holding her tiny crab habitat on one of the Bunsby Islands, BC.

The girls played for hours on this Calvert Island beach.
A constellation of hungry sea stars make their way to a tempting
field of tasty mussels on Little Bunsby Island, BC.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Japanese Translation Needed
By Michael

Here are a few of the Japanese floats/buoys
we've found. They're heavy, made of thick, hard
black plastic. These are spherical, about
18 inches in diameter, but we've found some
much larger and even smaller, in all colors.
Heading north to Alaska, we stuck to the Inside Passage. Now (urgently) heading south to Mexico, we’re going outside. We’ve already made it to the southern coast of Vancouver Island, less than a month after leaving Sitka, Alaska. It’s been an entirely different trip on the outside, and one of the differences is a bit sobering.

We’ve discovered ocean-facing shorelines in remote, unpopulated places that are chock-full of debris from Japan’s horrific 2011 tsunami. It’s all plastic stuff. By count, it seems mostly to be small bottles of consumer goods like drink bottles or liquid soap bottles. By weight, it seems mostly to be thick, hard-plastic floats or buoys of all different sizes. Most are black with one or two eyes molded in. From what I’ve been able to determine, these were used in Japanese oyster farms. We’ve also found shoes, polypropylene, plastic crates, coolers, and many odds and ends. Everything has Japanese Kanji characters on them.

I’m interested in learning what is written on that horseshoe-shaped thing below and I appreciate the help of anybody who reads Japanese or can forward this to someone they know who does.

And this is the most unusual thing we've come across.
It's filled with dense foam and covered in black vinyl,
hand sewn onto it. I'd like to learn what it is and
 what it says.
And this is the most unusual wildlife we've seen in a while.
It's an ocean sunfish, the largest bony fish on earth. They're flat and
tail-less and occasionally  hang out on the surface like
this. I was gratified to learn they eat jellyfish--if you
haven't been out here, you can't imagine how many
jellyfish are everywhere, it's unbelievable.

All dressed up for laundry day in Winter Harbour, BC.

Monday, September 9, 2013

By Michael

This is looking back at Del Viento
over the dinghy transom. Cool, eh?
I took this in the anchorage inside
Reanne's Terror on the west coast
of Baranof Island, Alaska.
At least a decade ago, somebody described to me a moonless night on a dead calm sea, far enough offshore that the lights of civilization didn’t eclipse the brilliance of the stars. The effect was magical, pin points of light reflected all around so that it appeared to this sailor like their boat was floating in space.

Lately, I’m reminded of this daily.

On the Inside Passage running up the North Pacific coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, anchorages everywhere provide almost complete protection. Mornings and evenings are often still, without a hint of a breeze. The result is that our day-lit landscapes are echoed in mirror-like water. It’s not the cosmos, but it’s still otherworldly.

P.S.-- I want to add one more thing to last week's post about That Place. Our new friend and resident of That Place, Brooke Elgie, is a former Good Old Boat writer who now writes a column about That Place for Juneau's Capital City Weekly newspaper. Here is a link to this week's article which concerns the school I talked about in my post. It gives a good general sense of the Place as well. 
Okay, this isn't what it appears, I
rotated the photo upside-down, to
show how dramatic it is. 

And this is upside-down too, a fishing boat
in Hoonah, Alaska.

Isn't this trippy? I turned this one upside-down too.
(I promise this is the last of this upside-down thing.)
I took this on a lake we came across hiking near
the Glacier Bay National Park Lodge.

How will we ever get used to sleeping in rolly anchorages again?

We anchored on the other side of this tiny,
unnamed island. We went ashore there the
previous day, hiked all the way around it
in about four minutes, named it Robertson
Island, and then harvested about three pounds
of excellent huckleberries off that foliage.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

There's This Place...
By Michael

This is a glimpse of Snyder's Mercantile.
The food isn't priced like Safeway,
but the selection is good. That cash
register has been there for a long,
long time and is still used.
I’m down below with Eleanor, cleaning up after our passage and preparing dinner. Del Viento is side-tied to a dock and she gives gently under the weight of Windy and Frances returning aboard.

“You guys are just in time, dinner’s ready—what’s this place like?”

Windy doesn’t answer right away, she just sits down kind of quiet and serious-like. “Are you sure you want me to tell you? I think you should see for yourself.”

I laughed, in fourteen years of marriage, I’ve rarely seen her dramatic side. I look at Frances for clues, but she’s already engaged with Eleanor, apparently unaffected by the walk through a new city. “Why are you acting weird, of course I want you to tell me.”

“I’m just going to say this: of all the places we’ve been the past couple years, I would choose to settle here.”

“You were gone only an hour, what could have blown you away? You don’t do hyperbole like this, that’s my department.”

The bath house hours are plain
and strict. This door and siding
belies the beautifully renovated
interior inside, the changing room.
“You have to see for yourself, tomorrow.”

I stuck my head out the companionway to take another look around, to see if I’d missed something obvious. Beyond the collection of about twenty boats on the docks around us, a row of small buildings, mostly homes, stood on stilts along the water. About a mile away, this strip stretched out of sight, around a bend. A short concrete pier jutted out.

I didn’t get much else out of Windy overnight and in the morning, we all headed into the city.

Wait, I’m sorry, city doesn’t work. It’s accurate, but we’re in Southeast Alaska, a place where city means something altogether different than what’s in your head. Comparing cities of Alaska to cities of the Lower 48 highlights the absurdity.

For example, what’s the largest city in the United States? Do you know? It’s Sitka, Alaska—encompassing over twenty-five-hundred square miles across two islands. And though huge Sitka is home to a scant 9,000 people, that’s enough to make it the fourth-most-populous city in the entire state (after Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau).

So the four of us walked into this particular incorporated city of 104 people. We followed a narrow dirt trail bordered by stilted homes and a dense forest. Each home was personalized and appeared to have evolved over time. We herded the girls off the road for an approaching ATV.

“Hi there, please don’t stop, don’t step aside, as a pedestrian you have the right-of-way here. Did you just arrive by boat?”

“Yeah, yesterday evening. We’re headed into town to check things out.”

“Well, welcome. Be careful of the nettles growing along the side of the road…I think the cafe is open this morning.”

Before riding off, he introduced his daughters, a preschooler sitting on his lap and clutching a paper bull’s eye, and a girl Eleanor’s age behind him, a BB-gun rifle across her lap. They were on their way to target practice.

By law, there are exactly two trucks and no cars here. The trail is only as wide as the city’s small fire truck and a pickup used to deliver heating oil. And there really isn’t a use for a car anyway, because though we were on Chichagof, the fifth-largest island in the United States (after Hawaii, Kodiak, Puerto Rico and Prince of Whales), and though this island is home to several other towns and cities, no roads connected this place to any other place.

From the top of the docks, call
anyone in town, free.
The Part(y) Time Café was open, serving quiche, scones, and cinnamon rolls. The walls and shelves inside were filled with the work of local artists. Sated, we crossed the road and explored the garden-shed-sized book exchange. Outside, the town carried on, the door to Snyder Mercantile opening and closing for patrons of the city’s single store, in continuous operation since 1899.

And then, I saw the heart of the place, the reason it is where it is: the public bath house. It’s the town’s treasure, fed by natural hot springs and owned by no one and open to all. There is a committee (formed in the 1930s), independent of the city, which oversees all things related to the bath. No clothing or bathing suits are allowed and hours for men and women are long-standing and strictly enforced.

“I get it,” I said after a while.

I’ve never seen any place like this place. It seems to have everything, absent the drawbacks of having everything. Here is a proper, self-contained community, a functioning city of fewer people than attended our wedding. There is a mayor, fire station, store, school, library, café, church, free WIFI, farmer’s market, historical society, post office, seaplane terminal, harbor, and a glorious public bath house. City revenue comes from slip fees (modest), a sales tax (2%), and a percentage earned from the commercial fishing transactions that happen in the surrounding waters. There is tourism too, but it is strictly managed, limited to those who find their way here aboard their own boats, sea plane, ferry, and the micro-cruise ships (roughly 30 passengers and fewer) that are all over Southeast Alaska.

This is a shot looking back down the dirt
walkway towards the docks.
In fact, this place made national headlines in 1998 when they turned down a cruise ship company’s bid to stop here. The company ignored the city’s plea to stay away. One summer morning, a ship arrived, dropped the anchor, and began disgorging its 120 passengers. The town reacted like a sea anemone that’s been touched. Everything was quickly shuttered and a few residents lined the walk, smiling and apologizing as they handed out leaflets to confused passengers, explaining that they were not welcome, that the city didn’t have (and didn’t want) the infrastructure to support their numbers. No large ship has called here since.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of a Dionysian commune or a new-age socialist’s utopia (that’s not my style—and I’m talking about Alaskans here, after all). This is a place where an eclectic group of people live independently, together. Here are 104 entrepreneurs, farmers, fishermen, artists, writers, kids, grandparents, Catholics, atheists, homeschoolers, schoolers, construction workers, historians, and woodworkers doing their thing without a police station or hospital.

It’s vibrant and that element is celebrated. Nobody in this community wants this place to die the quiet death of a seasonal retirement community. Families are needed and appreciated. The school is closing this year because enrollment dropped below the district-mandated ten pupils. That means a few jobs are lost. That means families must adapt or they may leave. That could begin a spiral that would diminish the quality of life for everyone. We thought seriously about changing our plans, staying over the winter. We even did our best to recruit another family we thought might be a good fit (and it turned out that this other family knew all about the place and had gone through their own deliberations, ultimately deciding the timing wasn’t right for them either).

I understand that the character of any place is an intimate thing, truly known only to its residents. I would never have thought that two days in a place—especially a place that requires socks in the winter—would suffice to make a life-changing decision. But this little place stayed with us, on our minds and dominating our conversations over the past couple weeks. I’ll tell you now: when our cruising days come to an end, you are likely to find our family rooted here.

Here is the name of the place, impossible for
search engines to detect.
Here is a view of the place from the boat.

Looking back at Del Viento. The mountains in the background
are across the inlet.

There were actually a few of these painted
bikes scattered around, someone's art

This is the book exchange. Not pictured is the nice,
modern library about a quarter-mile from here,
befitting a town 50 times the size. Same for the
school, built with oil money and overkill, but nice.

And this is the tub in the bath house. It runs a
few gallons a minute 24/7 and overflows off to the
left and out a hole in the wall. Protocol is that
everyone douse and wash themselves first
using those empty plastic containers, then
enter the bath clean.

This is the only public toilet. Windy is waiting for
Frances. There is no plumbing, at high tide, everything
is carried away. Phone books are provided for TP.

And this is the community fire pit. That's Del Viento's
mast on the left.

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