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
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
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