Posted on July 13, 2012 - by Nadia
Tuesday July 10, 2012
Few places are as social as a safe harbor in a storm. I cut short my planned exploration of the gorgeous, glacier-sided Endicott Arm and beat a hasty retreat through eyelash-bending fog. The forecast indicated that wherever I spent Monday night would be home for at least Tuesday as well, maybe longer. I was anxious that that place should be within striking distance of Juneau.
I’ve extended my daily paddling range, doing more 30-plus mile days in Alaska than was possible further south. Here, tidal currents have less impact because the water is deep and wide, so my schedule is not driven as much by the turning of the tides. Campsites are more abundant so I can push on, confident I will find a place to stop. And the landscape is huge, I can take it in as I paddle hard, so long as the fog allows. But those long days depend on relatively calm waters and winds, and that, I knew, was about to end.
I pulled hard for Taku Harbor, marked as a marina on my map. I had fantasies of a hot shower and hot dogs cooking on one of those Ferris wheel-like contraptions. Those fantasies were dashed as I turned into the deeply sheltered cove containing yet another abandoned cannery and two public mooring docks. No boats. No showers. No hot dogs.
Taku Harbor was a Hudson Bay trading post in 1840, a commercial cannery into the ‘70s. Now it is an Alaska marine state park where cannery buildings and some old cabins are in varying states of decay. As I adjusted to my new reality – this is where I was likely to be pinned by two days of 25-knot winds – I saw an aberration: A new cabin with a long, overhanging roof. There, at least, is where I could pitch my tent. The overhang would give me some relief from the hard rain that was forecast. I went to inspect the situation.
It was an Alaskan state parks cabin, named for Tiger Olsen, a grouchy but affable legend of the area who gave kids who visited chunks of fools gold and let them shoot .22s from his stoop. It was also unlocked and vacant. I couldn’t believe my luck. I would send the state of Alaska its $25 later. I fixed and fired up the oil stove, virtually everything from the boat was soaked through and I unpacked it, set it to dry and marveled at my good fortune. The cabin would be a perfect place to wait out the coming storm.
I arrived at about 3 p.m. and knew that my luck could change with the arrival of the cabin’s rightful reservation holders. As the afternoon ticked toward evening, I thought it might not have been reserved for the night, but at about 6, Pua and Leonard arrived like the three bears to discover their vacation home had been invaded – by me.
I was a little chagrined and stammered an explanation about my presence. I was glad to have dried out as much as I had. I hastily tidied up and prepared to relocate to Tiger Olsen’s actual cabin, which was in a state of decay and lacked a stove, but otherwise would tame the rain and wind and was a reasonable alternative to me. Pua thought otherwise.
My luck had indeed changed, for the better. If you ever encounter a benign home invader, take a lesson from Pua and Leonard: disarm them completely by adopting them and overwhelming them with kindness. Pua rejected my relocation plan and Leonard backed her up. Tiger’s actual cabin was not OK, she said, I should stay with them. When I protested, Leonard said, “It’s OK, it’s not like we’re on a honeymoon. She’s here to paint.”
Pua paints landscapes. When I awoke in the cozy loft the next morning I could see how calm the bay was by looking at the painting taking shape on her easel out under the long eave. She painted from dawn’s interesting first light, sketching and painting Taku Harbor and its funky buildings and surround. Leonard is a fisherman, among other things, an easy going enabler of this outing, three hours by boat from their home in Juneau. They had arrived with their friend Mary and her father John aboard John’s Nordic Tug. The Nordic Tug is an immensely popular power cruiser, much coveted among the long-range cruiser set for its sturdy engine and comfortable living space. John is less mobile than he once was so he and Mary stayed on the boat, while Leonard and Pua – and I – shared the cabin.
The day unfolded as promised. Winds rose and waves steepened in Stephens Passage. Boat after boat sought the relative calm of Taku Harbor. I paced the dock, anxiously interviewing anyone with local knowledge about what these winds meant for my chances to get out and set up for the crossing to Juneau, which was 20 miles away – closer to 30 if I were to reach my intended destination of Auke Bay. No one had anything good to say. I interviewed each new arrival as though the one who thought the winds would diminish in time for me to leave that night would somehow be right and all the others wrong.
As the day wore on the size of the boats seeking shelter grew as the wind rose and the waves steepened. Seasoned boaters arrived with big eyes and stories of surfable breaking waves in the channel. A big tender came in and tied up. Tenders are the refrigerator boats that buy fish from the fishing fleet at sea and deliver them to the processing plants in towns. It came in and the family running it said there was no point hanging out in chop like that. Six-year-old Kate disembarked with the enthusiasm of a kid born to boat and raced up and down the long dock wearing a gymnastics leotard and sneakers, chased by a puppy cairn terrier who independently explored every boat at the dock. A bunch of Canadians with a guitar and tons of enthusiasm arrived in a sailboat and a full-blown party was brewing along the dock.
I was not really ready to stop pacing. Still anxious to get closer to Juneau I watched the weather and interviewed everyone about their predictions. I worried that I could get stuck with a short window of opportunity to cross the 3-mile Taku Inlet, six to eight miles away from Taku Harbor. The inlet is a windy stretch, freighted with cross currents and the flow of a mighty glacier and river system. The cruisers guide to Southeast Alaska tells power boaters the best way to explore Taku is by plane.
Finally, a power boater named Tim gave it to me straight: You’re not going to hear anything you want to hear tonight. Tomorrow’s going to be beautiful. Leave early and you can make it to Juneau in one straight shot.
I relaxed a bit. Pua, Leonard and John let me cook one pot slop for dinner on John’s boat – an expanded and dressed up variation on my kayak camp dinner. I packed the boat with everything I didn’t need for the night. It was getting light. I had little food left, but that couldn’t stay on the boat because black bear had been known to wander the dock.
My watch said 3:15 as I slid into my dry but still stinky wetsuit and clanked down the trail to the dock, singing a bit to let the bears know I was coming through the half light of Alaska dawn. The gnats were insufferable on the windless dock and I pulled my mosquito net over my head and neck By 4:10, I was paddling light and quick across Taku Harbor. Behind me, Leonard and Pua got up to watch me go. “As fast as you were going, I knew we wouldn’t see you until inside the channel” Leonard said later.
The three miles of cliff-lined channel called “The Wall” that was scoured by wind the day before was calm but for a mild tidal current against me. I ate breakfast as I went and made it to the earliest point of departure for the crossing in three hours. My plan was to work my way up the inlet more, to a narrow point, allowing for the possibility that the ebb tide that would arrive when I was mid crossing would push me the wrong way, toward the route of ferries and cruise boats entering busy Gasteneau Channel. But a burst of sun set a rainbow across the way and it seemed too auspicious to ignore.
I set a course clear of the main traffic routes and left the far shore behind – Juneau was just 10 or so miles ahead. As I went, groups of three of four loons circled me in crazy loop after loop before continuing up toward Taku Glacier. That had never happened before, yet group after group stopped to circle.
A huge Alaskan ferry passed me, inbound to Juneau. It was a half mile away, by far the closest I had been to a ferry. The wake, when it reached me, was a pair of enormous breaking waves that demanded respect. I turned and paddled into it, taking water over the bow and up to my rib cage as my bow rode up the first wave and crashed down through the second. I reset my course and continued, glad to see just one such ship on this crossing.
I entered Gastineau Channel and hailed Mary and John’s boat on the VHF. My watch read 8:30. I got no response from them, but instead was hailed by the Bunkhouse, folks I had enjoyed meeting in Wrangell. “Where are you?” we both asked, and there they were, a mile or so across the channel, headed the opposite way. They crossed over toward me and I pulled out from shore so they could see me. There was no traffic and I could bob next to the big motor yacht, chatting. Susan asked if I could land on the swim step and come aboard for coffee. It sounded lovely, and like it would be much harder to manage n the bouncing water than it sounded. We chatted, then parted ways. (Bunkhouse, I looked for you in Auke Bay on Friday, but was told you had pulled out just before I arrived. Sorry to miss you. Have a great rest of the trip. Stay in touch.)
At a wide beach in Thane I stopped to stretch. For the first time in eight days I had cell coverage, so I turned on the phone to check in. Good thing I did. My SPOT satellite message of the night before had located me three or more miles off base. When my father checked it on Google Earth, he saw I was in the middle of Stephens Passage, in the ferry route, late in the day with bad weather. He worried and late that night had gotten out of bed and called the Juneau Coast Guard, asking if any kayak accidents had been reported. The Coast Guard said No, and made a round of radio calls that someone heard – I suspect it was Lizzie on the tender, mother of leotard-wearing Kate – and reported that I was safe and waiting out the wind in Taku Harbor. It was a pretty cool practical evidence of the community that forms in a harbor. Satisfied that I was OK, Dad went back to bed, but he was pretty glad to hear my voice when I called.
I paddled through the cruise ships and the seaplanes taking off and landing that make for chaos in downtown Juneau. I tied the boat up at a marina, grabbed my essentials in a sea bag and, after stopping for a shower and big lunch, walked the few short blocks to … Pua and Leonard’s house.
Josie first passed through Juneau in 1898 on the way to the gold rush. She returned with her husband and two kids in 1916. He ran a weekly newspaper and print shop, was in the legislature and involved in local politics. She was assistant curator at the Alaska State Historical Museum for many years. They lived out their lives in Juneau, working to create the things that make a community a home.
As my trip draws to a close at Juneau, I was swept into the safe haven of an affable Hawaiian artist and a powerful Tlingit man who embodies a native tradition of extraordinary generosity infused with a deep sense of what it means to be live as a Christian. A home that was a true haven after more than 50 days of paddling.
It felt clear to me that while Josie continued through Skagway, Juneau was the true terminal for this phase of Travels With Josie, and so I declare this phase of the adventure a success and hang up my paddle. For now. I’ll post a couple more wrap up posts, but for now, thanks for following the high seas portion of Travels With Josie 2012: The Inside Passage. Blogging the trip wouldn’t be half as fun without the readers.