To the Gulf of Alaska Again—
Tips from an Experienced Cruising Boater

By Paul Lutus

I learned nautical basics while solo circumnavigating the world in a small boat between 1988 and 1991. Since then, and especially over the past six years, I've been exploring British Columbia and Alaska from my home base in Puget Sound.

Each year I ventured farther north and found new places to explore. Finally I found myself at Cape Spencer, the border between the Inside Passage and the open-water unknowns of the Gulf of Alaska. I had encountered plenty of rough water during my around-the-world sail, but the Gulf has a reputation all its own.

Ironically enough, about the time I contemplated leaving sheltered waters, I decided to replace my sailboat (a Pacific Seacraft 37, a sturdy boat meant for ocean sailing) with a Nordic Tug 37, which, despite its many advantages, is not a boat meant to cross oceans. And why did I make this change? Primarily because I almost never sailed the sailboat.

Some places on the Inside Passage require you to cover a lot of ground between suitable anchorages, regardless of one's preference for sail over diesel power. Also, the winds in this area are not consistent, even from hour to hour. I realized if I was going to cover greater distances, I would have to get a boat intended to move under motor power, rather than one with an engine as an afterthought.

As things developed, I chose a better boat for this area than I at first realized. It certainly wasn't because I thoroughly researched power boats, then made a reasoned choice - I was just lucky. Some of the requirements for making my annual passage between Puget Sound and the Alaska Peninsula have been met in an unforeseen way by my Nordic Tug, and its suitability only slowly came to me as the years passed.

One example. This year (2004), on arriving at Yakutat, I discovered their fuel dock had been condemned and there was no fuel to be had. Because Yakutat has the only fuel between Cape Spencer and Prince William Sound, I had always stopped there. I now did a quick calculation and realized I could make the full distance between Elfin Cove near Cape Spencer, and Cordova in Prince William Sound (over 430 miles) with about 70% of my 370 gallon fuel capacity, while maintaining an average pace of 9.5 knots.

When I first acquired this boat I thought the 370 gallon fuel capacity was excessive. Suffice it to say I don't think that any more - you never know what small-town fuel dock might disappear as Yakutat's did this year.

When I am done steering the boat from one pretty place to another, I put my kayak in the water and paddle around, or I hike on the land, and I take pictures. Bears have become one of my favorite subjects, and there are plenty of bears in Alaska.

I have been visiting with a particular family of bears for three years now, at a place called Geographic Harbor on the Alaska Peninsula (more or less at 58∞ 6m North, 154∞ 35m West). I try to arrive on a low tide day, because when the tide is low the bears come out on the beach to go clamming. This means I can paddle my kayak a safe distance from shore and take pictures.

When I first met this particular bear family, three years ago, I had planted my kayak against a sand bar to steady the camera. After I had taken a few pictures, Mama bear poked her nose out from the brush directly in front of me, and a moment later I could see three other, smaller noses. At first I thought I was in big trouble, because mama bears are notorious for fiercely defending their young, I was too close to her, and I could not easily dislodge my kayak from the sand bar without getting out of it. I realized I had lost control of the situation.

But, after sniffing in my direction, mama decided I was not a threat (which is why I am here to tell the story). Then she did something I will never forget - she plopped down on the sand right in front of me and nursed her cubs.

That was one of those moments for which nothing prepares you. It's not a movie, there is no music, there's no forest ranger to interpret the experience for you. It's just you and nature, and nature shows her generous side. I stayed quiet and thought to myself how this one moment made the entire trip worthwhile - and there were many more like it.

The next year I met the same bear family, in the same place. Now the cubs were older, much bigger, and I watched them help their mama fend off an attack by a pack of teenage bears intent on eating one of them.

Finally, this year, I saw the three cubs, now teenagers themselves, moving as a pack but independent of their mama. As I paddled around I realized this was likely the last time I would see them as a family unit, because bears spend most of their lives alone.

I want to emphasize that visiting Geographic Harbor and places like it is not a normal boating destination. If you don't have the right equipment, if you are not careful, if you let things get out of control, you may end up on shore, and if that happens, it's likely you will be eaten by the bears. And I am not trying to over-dramatize this - two people were eaten in the fall of 2003 about 10 miles from where I normally anchor. They were not particularly cautious, and worse, one regarded himself as a bear expert. I have come to think if you declare yourself a bear expert, you are months away from being eaten by your subject.

To travel in this area, one should prepare very carefully, not just for bear areas but because this is not a typical cruising area with a marina in every anchorage. The weather is much less predictable, there is less chance to summon help, therefore one must be self-reliant and own a reliable boat. And take a good camera! • Herb Nickles, Editor in Chief
Copyright © 2012 Don and Réanne Douglass