Turning South

Sat 18 Sep 2004 01:43
17th September 2004. From the Queen Charlotte Islands, in Canada!

Dear All,

Astoundingly, we have finally made it into Canadian waters and raised the
last of the courtesy flags that we have carried so hopefully around the
Pacific. Raising the Canadian flag was a dramatic and tense moment, proud of
our achievements to date but all the more tentative about the last few
delicate weeks of our journey ahead. What can possibly go wrong? Go wrong?
Go wrong?

From Afognak Island, just north of Kodiak, we had an entertaining night
passage across the entrance of Cook Inlet to the Kenai Peninsula. Headwinds,
drizzle and thick fog suddenly gave way to a crystal clear starry night,
leaping dolphins and our first glimpse of the aurora borealis, which hung
like a faint ghostly green curtain low over the northern horizon. Shortly
after dawn with a good wind blowing and the prospect of a beautiful day
ahead we altered the plan and bore off for Nuka Bay and the McCarty Glacier,
instead of pushing on for the potentially larger Northwestern Glacier in
Harris Bay.

As we entered the bay we lost the wind and motored across the shallow
moraine bar and up the twelve mile long fjord, basking in the burning
sunshine. The motorway-like stream of the glacier curving down from the
Harding Ice Field grew gradually more staggering as we approached, finally
hiding itself behind the giant ice cliff as we positioned ourselves below
it. We dropped the anchor in the strong current about three hundred yards
off the face of the glacier, clear of the ice floes grounded on a shallow
bank and teeming with a community of Harbour Seals. It made surely one of
the most tremendous anchorages we have ever been in. The cold air from the
ice field rolled down the glacier blowing a constant strong and icy wind, so
Katharine stayed onboard in case the anchor dragged in the soft mud and I
made short trips in the dinghy, snapping photos of Kokiri, the glacier, the
seals and the ice floes. This was interspersed by repeatedly whizzing back
to the safety of the boat to avoid huge breaking waves created by the
fantastic falls of ice breaking off the face of the glacier. On our first
approach a large cave at the bottom of the ice face, possibly thirty yards
wide, collapsed completely with a tremendous roar and became a pile of
hundreds of tonnes of broken ice. The falls of ice continued at regular
intervals with huge blocks of ice breaking off the fragmented face of the
glacier and setting up great breaking waves, the power of which was
fortunately taken out by the floating ice floes before they reached Kokiri.
This cumulated in a great pinnacle of ice, towering like a church spire over
the rest of the glacier, gradually growing more isolated and unstable as its
surrounding buttresses collapsed, which finally toppled like a felled giant
into the fjord throwing its wave and sheets of spray for hundreds of yards.
Fortunately its triumphant demise had been obvious enough for us to capture
it on video and film, making some really dramatic shots that were quite in
keeping with the rest of the spectacle.

We reluctantly weighed anchor and had a glorious run back down the fjord,
setting the spinnaker for a short while and cooling ourselves with glacier
ice in our (or at least my) stiff drinks. Anchored in the enclosed Midnight
Cove, we spent the next day recuperating from the experience, Katharine with
a migraine, and were briefly entertained by black bears frolicking on the
shore. But we finally had to admit that there was no time left to continue
these northern delights and for the first time since departing from New
Zealand we turned south and made the long passage across the Gulf of Alaska.
The weather was settled and we aimed for Lituya Bay, which creates a Pacific
outlet for the back side of the glaciers that feed the famous Glacier Bay.
This small fjord was discovered and charted by La Perouse in 1786 and we had
onboard a photograph of his original chart which would have been interesting
to compare, considering also the Admiralty Pilot's warning of a recurring
phenomenon of giant waves created by rock and ice falls that was last record
in 1958 and stripped the fjord of trees to a height of 180 metres. Alas
however, the wind headed us and we turned for Sitka and subsequently for the
Dixon Entrance as the forecasts worsened. By recompense, we were treated to
some great sailing and stupendous views of the northern lights. This
spectacle is almost beyond description as the concept of the great curtains
of glowing and rapidly changing light in the sky is so supernatural, if not
downright magical, as to be difficult to contemplate when not actually
sitting and watching. The log describes it as "Sudden bright display of the
Northern Lights in the north, with bold bright steaks and patches of
iridescent green glow, rapidly moving and changing. Very bright, brief and
exciting. Beautiful moon glowing on the black water to the south, creating a
long silver path all the way to the boat." It also includes a long
description of a staggering double moonbow on that same night and the
comment "I really need to go to bed". Even in mid ocean life can be just too

We approached the town of Ketchikan through mist and rain and spent a couple
of days in this strange town, a mixture of outback fishing village cum
cruise-ship Disney Land. More than 800,000 tourists flood through this tiny
town each year, disgorged by the leviathan ships for eight hours at a
stretch. We did a little tourist shopping ourselves and enjoyed a rainy
barbeque with the Ketchikan Yacht Club before clearing out of the US and
beating south through the channels to the Canadian town of Prince Rupert.
This had a real two-bit border town feel but good travel connections, so
that we could clear customs and immigration and also pick up our
long-standing sailing friend Lizzie and her boyfriend Chris. We also made
the best use of the much cheaper medical facilities to get Katharine and the
Nipprog tested and scanned and my back done-over by a chiropractor.
Thankfully we soon headed out into the islands again, cruising through the
channels and rain inside Porcher Island and riding out a staggeringly deep
low in the beautiful shelter between Spicer and South Spicer Islands. Here
we had a great walk ashore, clambering through the thick undergrowth and
carpets of mosses that coat the web of fallen trees of this virgin woodland,
the fear of bears pushing our singing to greater than usual volumes. We
sailed overnight across the Hecate Strait to Skidegate Inlet in the Queen
Charlotte Islands, where we dried out Kokiri on the precarious tidal grid
and finally scrubbed her weedy waterline and hull which had suddenly
suffered in the warmer waters of southern Alaska. We also paid the
exorbitant entrances fees and attended the dull orientation lecture required
for the Gwaii Haanas National Park, which makes up the southern half of the
Queen Charlottes group.

The park protects the lands and heritage of the Haida Indian people, albeit
in a rather OTT manner. We stopped overnight at Thurston Harbour, had a
brief walk through the wondrous forests at Echo Harbour and another longer
walk up the river at Kostan Inlet. Here we caught occasional glimpses of
bald eagles, deer and black bears and had a successful and very dramatic
grapple with an unlucky chum salmon, which had found itself tapped in a
shallow pool. The result of this encounter was three wet and satisfied
barbarians clutching the bludgeoned fish and the splintered remains of a
dinghy oar! A wet afternoon motor took us across to Hot Spring Island where
we had an idyllic soak in the thermal pools looking out across the straits,
islands, rocks and forests that make up the coastline of the Queen
Charlottes. So we have at least been making the most of our time in this
temperate rainforest paradise.

Bye-bye and lots of love to all at home.

Peter & Katharine