Cruising Stories

The Vast and Majestic Wilderness of Southeast Alaska

Well Worth the Wait

By
Cathie
Trogdon

How did an East Coast couple and their Down East lobster boat find their way from the Atlantic seaboard to Alaska The answer: When you dream big and don't let anything get in your way, amazing things happen.

This particular dream was 20 years in the making, and the plan began to gel before we even took possession of our cruising yacht, Bee Weems, in 2006.My husband, Peter, had been bitten by the Alaska bug 20 years earlier. He worked in Alaska when we lived in Seattle, and he had many friends who either fished professionally or cruised on their own pleasure yachts in southeast Alaska. Peter had traveled there on other people's boats, but his dream was to do this on his own.After two years familiarizing ourselves with our new boat on the East Coast, cruising from the Bahamas to Nova Scotia, we were ready to turn our sights toward Alaska. Due to busy careers, we only have two months available each year for cruising, so we had to plan carefully. Over the summer of 2008, we executed the first two-month stage, traveling from Annapolis, Maryland, to Duluth, Minnesota, by water then Bee Weems was put on a truck and shipped to Anacortes, Washington.

The second stage involved a month's vacation in the Broughton Archipelago in British Columbia the following summer. We outfitted Bee Weems with crab and shrimp pots and a good supply of food and departed from Anacortes, where Bee Weems had wintered in a comfortable covered slip. We gunk-holed for four weeks, exploring the rarely visited islands that hug the Canadian coastline and cruising among whales, dolphins and spawning salmon, hauling our full crab and shrimp pots aboard. Bee Weems maneuvered well in strong currents and deep waters. It was an excellent introduction to the third stage of our Alaska odyssey the following year: the wilderness experience of southeast Alaska.

By the time this two-month summer adventure rolled around, we had tapped into the knowledge base of all our friends and acquaintances who had ever cruised to southeast Alaska. They had shared lists of favorite anchorages, provisioning stops and secret crabbing and shrimping locations. We were like sponges, soaking up every bit of information we could glean. We acquired all the charts and cruising books, all the necessary equipment, clothing and boots.

Our plan was to take two weeks to travel to Ketchikan, Alaska, from Anacortes. Weather is always the number one concern for any cruise, and we were fortunate that the weather was good for our mid-June departure. The trip north involved crossing wide-open straits and ducking into pristine anchorages among the many islands. We planned out stops for fuel, water, provisions, and garbage removal in the sparsely located towns along the way.

When we crossed into Alaskan waters from Canada, we were greeted by a convocation of bald eagles on two rocky outcrops on either side of Bee Weems. I had never seen so many eagles in one place before. They were a harbinger of what was to come over the next weeks.

Southeast Alaska was designated a national forest more than 100 years ago by President Theodore Roosevelt. Tongass National Forest is 16.9 million acres, the largest in the United States. The entire region is a coastal temperate rainforest, which means it receives more than 55 inches of precipitation annually. Approximately 75,000 people live in 31 communities, the largest of which is Juneau, Alaska's capital, with a population of 31,000. It's impossible to convey the immensity and majesty of this vast land of giant timbers, glaciers and snow-covered peaks. It is very possible, however, to spend several weeks here without catching a glimpse of a mountain due to cloud cover and rain. Either way, the opportunities to observe the spectacular wildlife are exceptional.

Peter and I each had a pair of top-quality Weems & Plath binoculars. We often diverted course to follow the wildlife. We learned very quickly to scan the shoreline for bears, wolves and moose. We listened to the radio for chatter about whale activity. We watched humpback whales bubble feed and heard their eerie dinosaur-like calls. We saw bears turn over beach rocks in search of crabs and watched four bears feeding off a dead whale at the same time.

There are no preset itineraries for Alaska cruising adventures. Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka are the three major provisioning towns with airports. We docked at Eliason Harbor (907-747-3439, cityofsitka.com) in the city of Sitka, which has Russian ties and an onion-domed Russian Orthodox church sitting in the midst of it. Most other stops are native villages or old fishing or logging camps with minimum services.

Our method of cruising in Alaska was always to pay attention to weather first. We didn't attempt open-water crossings in high-wind situations but usually moved every day because there are so many amazing coves, inlets and bays to explore. We timed our visits to villages and towns only when we were in need of fuel and provisions. The rest of the time we anchored in solitude or with only one or two other boats. It might seem like a lonely experience, but even in this vast area, we repeatedly saw the same boats and began communicating with them on the VHF radio and then inviting one aboard for cocktails. They've developed into lifelong friends.

Most boats are in Alaska to harvest the bounty of the sea, and most folks on boats are commercial, charter or sport fishermen. Even the pleasure boaters spend much of their cruising time fishing, crabbing and shrimping. Peter and I didn't have all the correct fishing gear on board and Bee Weems doesn't go slowly enough to troll, but even if we were able to catch fish, we didn't have the freezer space for storing it once it was caught. We were, however, the benefactors of several gifts of salmon, halibut and shrimp from boating friends along the way.

There are two sites that almost all cruisers visit in southeast Alaska. The first is Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory, and the second is Glacier Bay National Park. Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory is set next to a river where salmon spawn from June to September, and the black bear come to feast on them. The National Forest Service operates this park, and at high season visitors must call ahead to make reservations and pay a fee. When we arrived, we anchored in the bay, took the dinghy to shore and walked the mile-long boardwalk to the observatory situated next to a waterfall. I was a bit nervous because I'd observed fresh bear scat along the path and bear claw marks in the wet dirt, which reminded me that we were not in the safety of a zoo. Soon after we arrived at the observation area, a bear sauntered up the boardwalk behind us. The observation area is enclosed and safe from bears, but it was still a little disconcerting to see a bear show up so soon after our arrival. We spent an amazing hour watching the bears feed on the salmon.

By the end of our adventure, we knew more about the three types of Alaskan bears than we ever had expected to learn. The Alaskan brown bear is essentially the same as the grizzly bear, but bigger. Both grizzly and brown bears have humps, whereas black bears are humpless and are much smaller and less aggressive ” or so we were told. We took seriously the advice we'd gotten to carry noise makers for scaring away bears if they approached us while we were exploring the shore. And although it was tempting to venture out on long hikes to stretch our legs after days on the boat in tight quarters, we did very little hiking in order to avoid any possible bear confrontations.

Our favorite cruising area, without a doubt, was Glacier Bay National Park. This national treasure is as spectacular as the Grand Canyon, except that instead of looking down at the amazing scenery, you look up at it. Even though it is hundreds of miles from civilization, the park is visited by many thousands of people who arrive every day via cruise ship, charter boats and commercial aircraft. Because of the popularity of Glacier Bay, we made reservations months in advance at Glacier Bay National Park's marina facility in Bartlett Cove (907-697-2627). We enjoyed a full week there, attending talks given by park rangers and a tour boat trip before venturing into the bay ourselves. There are several glaciers in the park. In the 1700s, Captain Cook would have seen just one glacier, many miles long. Now, due to global warming, that one glacier has receded into more than five smaller ones. We were able to bring Bee Weems very close to the face of the glaciers, but stayed clear of any possible collisions with calving ice. Maneuvering among bergy bits small chunks of ice that have broken free of the glacier face was a first for us and not an experience for the faint of heart.

Our journey to Alaska was both challenging and spectacularly rewarding. It was well worth the 20-year wait. We hope this story inspires you to go forth and follow your cruising dreams, wherever they may take you.

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The Autumn: Why Haul Out
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Water and Fall foliage at Dory's Fall
Dory's Fall

Why do so many yachtsmen hurriedly haul out their boats immediately after Labor Day? Sure, the kids are back to school, and the weather starts to change. But we have enjoyed some of our most clear, calm, beautiful days boating in the fall. I dare say don’t haul before fall, have a ball while everyone else is buttoning up their boats and turning to watch football or baseball. Perhaps those sun-soaked sandbar rafting days have passed until next summer, but from New England to the southern coasts you’ll still find glorious warm days, less boat wake and less boat traffic in general, which opens a world of late season cruising opportunities. My father always said boating is better once the “summer yahoos disappear.”

Boating Experience: So soon in fall? 

A FEW REASONS TO LOVE THE FALL BOATING SEASON

Red Fall tree with water and boat in the background
Cape Porpose Maine Fall

Fall boating is just quieter. As most boaters vacate the water in lieu of other pursuits, September and October can offer brilliant blue-sky days. Waterways that were jam-packed with everything from inflatables to tour boats a month prior are now more open for you to explore. Loud two stroke “boater-cycles,” as my friend likes to call jet skis and sea-doos (personal propelled watercraft) are trailered away leaving in the absence of their wake- jumping a more serene scene.

Foliage starts to pop on the waterfront come mid-September into October from Maine to Virginia. The sparkling water reflects the kaleidoscope of autumn leaves in their shimmering crimson, gold and orange. It’s spectacular, truly a photographer’s dream, whether you’re on a lake, the ocean, a beautiful bay or waterway. Boating in September, October, even into November a bit farther south, is a gem. Just be mindful of the forecast, hurricane season, and significant temperature shifts that invite pop-up storms.

Man's legs propped up on seats facing stern of the boat with sunset in the background
Block Island, RI.

The weather. With cooler fall days, temps trend toward delightfully crisp and clear. Days are also shorter, so midday boating is best for peak sun. For your boating comfort, have sweatshirts, sweaters or jackets handy, even hats and gloves, especially if you’re in northern New England.

Good news: Gone are the hot humid mugginess and the bugs that accompany spring and summer heat. Bonus: you have less chance of that scorching summer sunburn. Still, be sure to apply sunscreen, refraction on the water is real even when a chill is in the air. You may want to eat steamed lobster by the waterfront, but you don’t want to look like one. Evenings on the water cool off, making for great sleeping aboard. Snuggle under covers and wake to fresh air and hot coffee on deck that never tasted so good in another season.

Fall means more available dock slips, moorings and anchorages as many are pulling their boots “up on the hard,” which frees up marina space for you. The same prime spots that were impossible to get in summer, with wait lists at places like Block Island, Newport and Annapolis, are now wide open. Same goes for waterfront restaurants with tie ups; their face docks are free and on a first come first served basis.

Just be prepared that dockhands and marina staff may not be as readily available in the fall, as students that typically manage the docks have returned to their campuses, and marine techs are pre-occupied prepping folks’ boats for winterization and storage. Be ready to tend your own lines.

Wildlife abounds in fall. Migratory birds are on the move. Enjoy watching geese, loons and birds-of-a-feather flocking south as winter approaches.

Speaking of marine life, if you like to fish, then fall is your wish. As temperatures decline, the fish sense that winter is coming. In preparation of the next season, fish begin their migrating south and their subsequent feeding frenzy.

Sailboat on a mooring with fall trees in the background
Kennebunkport Fall Foilage

Snowbirds of the human variety start their boating trek south too, if they aren’t storing their boat up north. Cruising the ICW in fall can be a social circuit where you may see the same boat owners and crew as you stop along your way at various harbors and marinas. It’s entertaining to compare ship logs and experiences from your adventures, favorite sights and seaports, with fellow boaters along your journey.

I have always loved how friendly boaters can be, and how an impromptu sharing of dock-side drinks aboard yours or their top deck can quickly transpire into an animated evening talking about best and worst boating with your nautical neighbors.

Word of caution: don’t be like my dear deceased, super-dedicated-to-boating Dad who insisted there’d be one more great boating day in late fall in New Hampshire. He would hold out on hauling his 28’ Eastern well into November, insisting it’s not winter till December. I recall more than once having to chip the ice of the dock lines to free up his pride- and-joy, then boating to the nearest icy ramp while frost clung to the windshield, and it was bitter cold on the slippery decks. That’s taking fall boating to an extreme.

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Cruising Grenada
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Sugar Spice and Everything Nice

When the end of the cruising season in the southern Caribbean was upon us, we did what many Caribbean cruisers do: We sailed south for Grenada. We delayed as long as possible, knowing the hurricane season was upon us, but we didn’t want to be forced south. I had one impression of Grenada, and that was of rotting boats and retired sailors. It was a cruisers graveyard, or so I thought, and I was far from accepting an end to our sailing days.

Grenada is the southernmost group of islands in the Lesser Antilles archipelago as well as the name of the main island in a cluster of eight smaller islands and about a dozen smaller islets and cays. The only thing I knew of its geography prior to arriving was that it was one of the few island groups in the Caribbean far enough south to be considered out of the hurricane belt. So, it was ironic that on our first day in the country we had to shelter in the mangroves from a Category 1 storm.

As we lashed our boat Ātea’s bow to densely bound tree roots and secured lines to the cleats of yachts on either side of us, our small unit became part of the larger, unified collective. Little did we realize that this interconnection would be representative of our Grenadian experience.

Safely through the storm, we disbanded and spread out to explore our new surroundings. We completed our clearance in Carriacou, Grenada’s northern sister island, and were amazed to see a hundred or so yachts anchored in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou’s main harbor. I knew Grenada was popular, but if the numbers of boats in Carriacou were anything to judge by, I’d have to cope with much larger crowds when we travelled farther south.

The south coast of Grenada not only provides the most settled weather, but it’s riddled with about a dozen safe harbors from the dominant easterly swell. It’s the reason cruisers gather on Grenada’s south coast and also the reason why they remain. Some stay for hurricane season, some use the island as a base for a few years, others retire from active cruising and either settle or sell. One thing was certain: Grenada was far more than the end of the line.

Before making the journey south, however, we wanted to stretch out the season by adding a short circumnavigation around Carriacou, known as “The Isle of Reefs” to the Kalinago people (the original Island Caribs). We spent our time there dodging bommies (submerged coral reefs) and soaking up the tropical island experience with our feet in the sand, our bellies in the water and our hands on a bottle of rum.

We stopped at Petite Martinique, the third and smallest of the three main islands. There we enjoyed rugged, rocky beaches and side-stepped clusters of goats grazing the green rolling hills as we hiked up Mount Piton for panoramic views of the surrounding islands. We climbed down into the Darant Bay Cave for framed views of the same islands at sea level.

Of course, we couldn’t miss a few sundowners on Mopion, a tiny sand mound rising amid expansive coral reef with a single thatched beach umbrella perched in the center. While technically a part of the Grenadines, its proximity to Petite Martinique made a quick dash across the border for a sip in the shade of this unique little spot a worthwhile experience. Carriacou is an island surrounded by unspoiled reef, and it did not disappoint. A quick tour of her perimeter was the perfect way to salute the end of an amazing Caribbean season.

With a quick stop-over in Ronde Island, a beautiful private island that’s halfway between Carriacou and Grenada, we continued our transit south. Again, I hadn’t prepared myself for the wild beauty of Grenada’s west coast. Mile after mile of dense, lush forest cascade down the leeward side of the island from peak to sea.

We hugged the coastline as we sailed the 13 miles down the west coast, looking up at 2,700 feet of volcanic rock and shear waterfalls that fed small rivers that ran down the slopes of the mountainous interior to the coast. While Grenada is well reputed as a tourist destination for holidaymakers seeking either a sun- drenched party or quiet refuge on one of its 45 beaches, I knew from sailing the coast that my preferences would draw me inland.

Grenada’s coastline contains many large bays, but most yachts head for safe anchorage behind one of the many narrow peninsulas that split up the southern coastline. As we pulled into Prickly Bay, the first of Grenada’s southern harbors, I knew from the crowd of yachts that I would escape to the interior as soon as possible. As it turned out, I didn’t get that chance. As soon as we dropped anchor, we were invited ashore for a cruiser’s jam session to reconnect with friends from past seasons.

The following day we crammed into the back seat of a taxi on our way to an event for the annual Chocolate Festival, and our schedule quickly filled after that with tours of cocoa plantations, cocoa grinding competitions, chocolate tastings and chocolate drawing contests. In additional to the island’s cultural events, we were also immediately drawn into the cruiser’s social scene.

On our first week of arrival our mornings were already booked into early morning yoga and bootcamp on the beach. The kids joined a cruiser’s homeschooling collective and regular extracurricular activities that were held under the shade of the trees. If we weren’t listening to live music or joining the locals’ beach barbecues in the evenings, we were sitting poolside and sipping beers from a $5 bucket with other cruisers at Le Phare Bleu, a boutique hotel that opened its amenities and services to cruisers during the pandemic.

Every morning offered an activity, and every evening we joined a social get-to-gether, so the weeks flew by in a social extravaganza unlike any we’d experienced. As yachts gather in Grenada every year for the hurricane season, the regularity of this influx of boats resulted in a solid cruising community and a variety of services and events. Far more than a collection of retired boats and sunburnt seamen, my preconceived notions of Grenada didn’t come close to the reality of the vibrant cruising network that existed on this popular island.

As we made new friends and reconnected with old ones, we really enjoyed the buzz that the tight community offered.

Pulling myself out of continuous activity took a concerted effort, but I eventually dragged the family off the beach and up the mountains.

After our trip into the interior, I developed a new passion for my time in Grenada: A short bus journey followed by a hike into the forest would lead us to one of Grenada’s many waterfalls. Unlike other tourist destinations where fees were handed over and you’d stand under falls next to groups of other tourists, we had the rivers for free and all to ourselves. Some of the trails were near the road, and we’d hop on and off a bus to walk the short distance to the falls. Others, such as Seven Sisters and the Concord Falls, required planning as it took a full day to hike in and out of the forest, clambering up steep banks and crisscrossing the river to wind through deep forest and get a view from the top.

Each part of the river that ran down from one of the six inland lakes had its own magic, and I was enthusiastic to see what each had to offer. Later I appreciated all that I’d experienced of Grenada’s inland beauty. As I paid $20 per person to stand in crowds under cascading water at Costa Rica’s most popular waterfalls, I couldn’t help but compare it to all that I’d seen in Grenada’s secluded, remote interior.

In additional to nature, we explored some of the historical roots of Grenada’s past. Grenada’s original economy was based on sugar cane and indigo, and with that, slaves were imported in the mid-17th century to work and harvest crops. We set out to search for some of the old plantation houses and slave pens that remained from that period, which took us on a wild tramp through the backstreets of quiet neighborhoods and into unmarked bush to find these lost relics.

It was quite the education for our children to see small, dank, windowless, stone slave quarters set behind grand old houses, a potent reminder of darker times in this beautiful and vibrant country. We also smelled and sampled some of Grenada’s current crops, nutmeg, mace and cocoa at the top of the list of exports, and enjoyed local culinary treats such as oil down, a vegetable stew that is the country’s national dish. Thanks to these excursions we can say that Grenada is, both figuratively and literally, full of sugar and spice.

Cruising often leaves you tied to the boat and, therefore, the sea. Grenada offered a wonderful period of enjoying the most of both land and sea in equal balance, so we were able to get the most of what the country has to offer. To see the beaches but not the forest, lakes and rivers offers only half the experience; likewise, to spend time inland but not explore the coast leaves only half an impression. As Grenada offers safe anchorage throughout the hurricane season, cruisers remain nearby for an extended period, sharing experiences and building friendships. This is unique for a community that is typically very transient, and it offers plenty of opportunity to create a home away from home atmosphere.

In addition, suitable yacht services are available, so that time spent waiting for the next season gives everyone a chance to get much needed repair work done. Far from being the end of the line, Grenada offers an interim rest stop where friendships are forged and yachts are restored on an island that offers a range of activities and opportunities both on and above the waterline.

Article and photos by Kia Koropp

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Our Adventures between the Great Lakes from Detroit to Port Huron
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My husband Tim and I spent 2021 traveling 8,000 miles around the Great Loop. Like many, we wanted to cruise in Canada, but we didn’t get the green light for entry in time. We were initially bummed, but our mood quickly shifted as we discovered some of our favorite stops on the stretch that kept us in U.S. waters, including our journey between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

Stop 1: Belle Isle

Estimated Mileage: 2 NM

Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in America, located on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. The island’s only marina is the Detroit Yacht Club, which has a limited number of transient slips for reciprocal members, so it’s best to explore while keeping your boat at Milliken Marina. 

Roughly 1,000 acres, Belle Isle is home to an aquarium, maritime museum, botanical garden, beach, picnic areas and playgrounds that provide a plethora of options to explore. You won’t find great spots to grab a bite to eat, so we recommend stopping at Atwater Brewery on the way back to the marina.

Stop 2: Harrison Township, Lake St. Clair

Estimated Mileage: 24 NM

Often referred to as the Great Lake’s smaller cousin, Lake St. Clair is large enough to easily keep your distance from freighters yet small enough to explore in a day.

By boat, you can visit several of the lake’s swimming spots in Anchor and Bouvier Bays (or “Munchies” Bay as the locals say), popular for their clear water and hard bottoms. After an afternoon of swimming, cruise through the Clinton River and tie up at one of several restaurants catering to a lively boater scene for a drink and meal. Crews Inn is one of our favorites for their fun atmosphere and great food.

Lake St. Clair Metropark Marina is a popular spot for transients. The marina is located in the park, so after docking, enjoy the expansive park’s beaches, trails, picnic areas and swimming pool.

Stop 3: Port Huron, MI

Estimated Mileage: 44 NM

Port Huron is home to the start of one of the longest fresh-water races in the world called the Port Huron to Mackinac Sailing Race, and the port is a charming and boater-friendly destination.

Ideal for its central location and friendly members, Port Huron Yacht Club is a great place for tying up, sipping a drink at the clubhouse and avoiding the drawbridges on the Black River. Another popular spot is about a mile farther down the river at the 95-slip River Street Marina.

Port Huron is home to the Island Loop Route National Water Trail, a 10-mile loop through the Black River, Lake Huron and St. Clair River. Your dinghy is a must through the Black River and for exploring the town and clear waters by boat.

Walk a mile along the Blue Water River Walk that runs along the St. Clair River. Be sure to leave enough time to watch the freighters go by and delve into the area’s history that is shared along the route. Continue a couple of miles farther to Lighthouse Park, where you can enjoy an afternoon at the beach and swim in Lake Huron’s crystal clear water.

During a stroll downtown, check out the Knowlton’s Ice Museum of North America to discover the history of local ice harvesting that took place along the Great Lakes.

When you’ve done enough activities to work up an appetite, Casey’s is the place for delicious breadsticks and pizza. For a more upscale option, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu at The Vintage Tavern. Maria’s Downtown Café offers a hearty breakfast, and Raven Café or Exquisite Corpse Coffee House are great options for a cup of coffee.

Kate Carney is a writer and Great Gold Looper who traveled 8,000 miles on Sweet Day, a 31-foot Camano trawler. Learn more about her and her husband’s adventures on lifeonsweetday.com

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