Wednesday 29 January 2020

More Ice - Yale Glacier and Watersports

Yale Glacier in the distance with Fluenta anchored in Tuition Cove.

We loved the Nellie Juan Glacier so much that we felt that we could stay there for weeks, but when we woke to grey, leaden skies one morning, we decided that it was a better day for transiting than glacier watching, and motored the 40 nm to College Fjord in late August.

Liz guiding us through College Fjord.  Harvard Glacier is seen in the distance.  You can see a big piece of ice off to the left.

Most of the trip was through clear water, but when we got to within the last few miles of Yale and Harvard we put our years of coral-spotting into practice, and navigated carefully around and between pieces of floating ice.  I went on the bow for a quick minute when we encountered some ice, and I came back to the cockpit an hour later when we were anchored!  I was thankful that I had bundled up beforehand, and that we had grabbed our headsets.  Just before sunset, we anchored in a little nook called Tuition Cove, within sight of Yale Glacier.

All afternoon we motored near what we assumed were spectacular mountain views, but we couldn't see them for the heavy, grey skies.  We worried that the weather had changed and we had arrived at Prince William Sound only to experience the end of the summer sunshine we had been enjoying while we were in Seldovia and Homer.  The bright sunshine that greeted us the next morning proved our fears unfounded, and we had brilliant blue skies for the rest of the week.

Yale Glacier in the background

There are hardly words for the beauty we found when we anchored at Tuition Cove.  We anchored at 7pm in this sheltered refuge, with a handful of pieces of ice around us reminding us that there were glaciers nearby.  We woke to a view of numerous glaciers hanging from the mountains that encircled us.  The morning sun lit the face of Yale Glacier, and all the mountains were reflected in the still water (in fact, Victoria took a photo of the scene, and when she showed it to me, I couldn't tell which way was up!). 

There were some 14 glaciers visible from the anchorage (Victoria photo)
Our chart showed that the face of the glacier would be a little over 2nm from the anchorage, but the dinghy ride was more like 4 or 5 nm due to the distance that the glacier had receded since the charts were drawn.  The dinghy ride, as usual, felt like a high-stakes endeavour, with our path blockaded in most directions with densely-packed pieces of ice:  a journey that would normally be accomplished in 15 min took nearly an hour. 

Picnic with the ice.

As we approached the glacier, we could see it snaking smoothly down to the water from a great height, but by the time we arrived, all we could see was the jagged vertical face.  Some people sit in their dinghies for hours waiting for a piece of ice to fall, but we were fortunate that the show started almost right away.  Numerous times, the impact of the ice set up an undulating swell that picked up our dinghy and noticeably moved us.  At one point, we saw a piece break off from under the water and come rocketing up past the surface before toppling sideways back into the sea.  As usual, we made a game of guessing which precarious piece would be the next to fall.  Given that we were still some distance away from the face, it was sometimes hard to see the falling ice, as it had often stopped moving by the time we heard it (queue the homeschool physics lesson on sound and light here...).  Sometimes the loudest noises were made by the smallest pieces - little rocks would bounce off the cliff and sound like massive bergie bits falling.

Boom ! Considering the face of the glacier is about 200' high this is a lot of ice falling.

Given that the round trip in the dinghy was two hours, and we spent much of the day at the glacier, you may be wondering what we did when nature called :)  Not having facilities in the dinghy, and not having a beach to land on, we were a bit stumped, but eventually the call got stronger than my hesitation, so we nosed the dinghy gingerly towards a rocky cliff where a few rocks at the bottom created a bit of a platform, and scrambled carefully, in shifts, over the bow to the rocks, where we each found an appropriate spot for our contribution, all while keeping a cautious watch above for falling rocks.  Once we were all back in the dinghy at the end of the evolution we felt 'relief' in more ways than one!

The relief trip.
As much as we enjoyed the show of falling ice, it was hard not to feel concerned about the causes of our warm sunny weather and beautiful blue skies.  The relentless march of ancient ice into modern ocean was sobering, and we reminded our children to enjoy it because no one knows how much ice will be left when they are adults.

Harvard and Yale Glaciers from 1899.  Yale Glacier is on the right and Fluenta is about 2nm further from the face of the glacier in the photo and the present face is about 5nm further.

Even when we got back to Fluenta in the evenings, the show continued.  We could sit in our cockpit and hear the thunder of ice falling at the glacier. One time, I even happened to see it as it fell - and it took about 11 seconds for the sound to reach me.  It really was a bit like watching a safe thunder and lightning show!

Ogopogo !

Tuition Cove was a lovely anchorage for family movie nights - we didn't have many boat jobs to do, there was no internet to distract anyone, and it was getting cold enough that everyone appreciated the chance to heap together on the aft bunk with our TV propped up in the corner of the room.  One of the movies that we watched was "Shackleton" and it was profound to experience the story of a team who spent so much time in the ice, while we could hear pieces from the glacier bumping against our hull.  We actually tipped the engine of the dinghy when we hoisted it to the toe rail in order that it wouldn't be bumped by the ice moving around us.

Victoria pushing the ice away.

We woke on our third morning at Tuition cove with a thought of moving on to another anchorage, but the weather had a different plan.  The tide had filled the cove with ice to the point that we didn't think it would be advisable to move, and the forecast was for 30 kts in the channel in front of Harvard Glacier.  It didn't take much convincing for us to decide to stay put for the day, and we had a lovely bonus day at anchor.

Ice around Fluenta

Ice around Fluenta

By the afternoon, the sun had come out and the ice had mostly cleared, so it was time for Arctic Watersports Day.  The first event was swimming stations: Max was the only one who signed up.  The rest of us were happy to goad (I mean encourage) him from the sidelines, but no one else volunteered to cannonball from the life lines.  With the big pieces of ice floating by, the next activity was obviously "ice standing" so Victoria, Johnathan, and Max each took their turn to pose on top of a piece of floating ice (I offered to take pictures).  Finally, as the afternoon was drawing to a close, Max got his wish of paddleboarding to the ice.  With a water temperature in the single digits, I have to admit that I was relieved when he came back, but he seemed pretty at ease on his board :)

Nice day for a paddleboard trip

Kids on ice.

Kids on ice.

Time for a swim.  Benjamin "helping"

A bit chilly.

Icy watersports were not my thing, but I did seize the chance to lay my yoga mat down for the first time since Ailuk (late March!)  The little rocky outcropping beside us offered the least chance of sharing my space with bears, so I got dropped off in the dinghy, and managed to find the one mat-sized space to practice.  It was a different feeling to be standing on hard rock after years of rooting into sand.  With mountains on either side of me, a view of Yale Glacier before me, and water all around me, I felt profoundly grateful that we had managed to journey to this place.  It was glorious to be in such an extraordinary new setting, while following the familiar instructions in my usual podcast.  A sunset yoga practice seemed like a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary week.

Alaskan Yoga Studio

Love to all,

A chart covering most of our travels in Prince William Sound last summer (Nellie Juan from the last post is further to the south).  Yale Fjord is shown by the blue arrow.  The red lines are our GPS tracks.

A larger scale chart showing our anchorage in Tuition Cove (marked with the blue arrow) and Yale Glacier to our east.  Note is has receded about 2 nm from this chart.

Gratuitous sea otter photo.

Monday 13 January 2020

Presentation to the Bluewater Cruising Association

In addition to the talking at the Vancouver Boat Show where we will be doing three presentations and Liz will be opening the Women's Day, we have also been invited to do a presentation for the Bluewater Cruising Association (BCA) in Victoria on the 18th of February. The details are in their nifty poster below.

The BCA offers many programs for people interested in getting out offshore cruising to members here in BC and Alberta.  Our transition to cruising would have much smoother if we had been members out here in BC before we left almost eight years ago !

Thursday 9 January 2020

Into the Ice - Nellie Juan Glacier in Prince William Sound


As we planned our summer in Alaska, we were motivated by our desire to spend as long as possible in Prince William Sound; in fact, this place became almost mythical as we looked ahead to our trip.  It would mark the Northern apogee of our seven-year journey (north of 60N), and would be one of the most remote areas we would visit in Alaska.  Everything we had read about this unique area of glacial ice, wild mountain scenery, and quiet anchorages, populated only by wildlife (and very rare tour boats) beckoned to us to come and stay for at least a couple of weeks.  Of course, everything else we read reminded us to clear out by the end of August before the weather changed, so even as we were getting ready to leave Majuro in May, we were mindful of the days ticking by on the calendar.  After the usual weather and chart considerations, each travel decision was informed by this sense of urgency.

We loved all the puffins near the cliffs.

Happily, our plan came together beautifully, and we set out from Homer, headed for our first glacier, on the second Saturday in August.  Our weather and our boat had cooperated, and we had met our goal of leaving ourselves 2-3 weeks to enjoy the area before we had to cross the Gulf of Alaska.

After an idyllic overnight passage, we drew quietly into “Nellie’s Rest”, a little key-hole shaped nook a couple of miles from the Nellie Juan Glacier, shortly after dawn.  As usual, I was on the foredeck and Max was at the helm, and we spoke to one another using our Bluetooth headsets.  What was unusual was the way the extraordinary stillness of the place invoked such a sense of reverence that I almost felt compelled to whisper. The trees came all the way to the shoreline and reflected on the glassy surface of the water.  Hardly a breath of air moved. When we stopped the engine, the only sound was the welcoming call from the loons.

Our calm anchorage in "Nellie's Rest"

Our calm anchorage in "Nellie's Rest"

Having sailed all night to arrive in the morning, the obvious next step was to go to sleep for several hours :)  Sometimes it is nice for the kids when the parents sleep in - our nap gave Victoria, Johnathan, and Benjamin time to 'triple' in Minecraft without any harassment to do chores.  When we surfaced, we had a quick meal and then launched the dinghy for an exploratory expedition.  The long hours of daylight meant that there was plenty of time, even leaving mid-afternoon. 

Almost immediately, we learned our first glacier-watching lesson - glaciers make the cold headwind from the dinghy even colder and windier!  As we got closer to the glacier, the wind and chop picked up, and made those of us who were wearing foullie bottoms (me) glad that we had done so, but those of us with no gloves (also me) wish for them!  Future expeditions saw us much more warmly dressed!  (The worriers among you may be reassured to know that despite our not-quite-adequate layers, we were carrying a tool kit, emergency beacon, flares, radio, and other similar supplies, as we always do, in case we ran into trouble.)

In the end, the effort was worth it.  The Nellie Juan glacier reaches down into both sides of tiny bay.  Active calving was occurring to our left, and the glacier had receded from the shore on our right, so we positioned ourselves in the middle and watched and listened from the dinghy as gigantic pieces of ice cracked and fell from the glacier, before landing the dinghy and scrambling up the rocks to get a view down on the water.

The view from the climb down to the Nellie Juan glacier.

A third of the way up.
When we visited the volcano on Tanna in Vanuatu two years ago, the feeling and sound of the lava boiling and exploding was primal.  We could feel the vibrations of the explosions in our rib cages.  I would describe the sound of the glacier cracking and calving the same way. Especially with reverberations echoing off the steep rock walls, each time even a small piece of ice or rock broke off and tumbled into the water, the sound was immense, and there were times when we could feel the sound in our chests as much as we could hear it with our ears.

Boom !  As the face of the glacier is about 200' high the noise is amazing.

From our perch on the side of the hill, we learned about the kind of waves that could be generated when large pieces of ice broke off; unfortunately, we had to watch as the waves made their way across the bay to our dinghy, which we had pulled up the beach. It was one time that we were glad it had dried out with the falling tide!!  The first wave rocked it a little; the second would have hit it harder, but by then the tide had dropped and the dinghy was safe.  Whew!

Ice Sculptures.

Benjamin and I put our new Alaskan boots to the test on our little climb.  Xtratufs are intended for fishing, but we found that they worked for scrambling as well :)  After years of seaboots that just barely fit, didn't have room for extra socks, and invariably gave me cold feet if I had to be still for any length of time, it was nice to have roomy, cozy boots, lined with wicking 'Bamas' as per the advice of our friends in Dutch Harbor.  Benjamin wasn't very happy scrambling up over all the big rocks (truth be told, neither was I), but he made it up to the ridge that we picked as our photo location, and once Johnathan took his hand, they were faster than all of us on the way down :)

Liz modelling her Woolx top and fashionable Alaskan boots.

Back in the dinghy, we were surprised to see another boat approaching what we considered to be *our* private glacier, but when it turned out that they were another family travelling together (and that they would very kindly take our photo with the glacier behind us) we decided that they were welcome :)

Not in the tropics anymore ! (Photo credit to Ann and David Rappoport on MV Loki)

On our way back to Fluenta, we saw a scene that we hoped would be repeated so we could get a photo of it, but it turned to be a one-off for the entire season.  As with so many fleeting experiences, we will have to retain this moment in our mind's eye, and try to use words to describe it: we briefly saw a mother sea otter with her tiny blonde baby on her chest.  By the time we could reach for our camera, they were gone.  Short-lived as it was, we all felt moved at this image of nature regenerating itself. 

We returned to the glacier the following morning, wearing lots of extra layers.  We took a picnic, and watched the glacier from the comfort of the dinghy.  We all enjoyed trying to guess which piece of ice would fall next.  When the glacier took a moment of pause, we would turn our attention the antics of the seals that gathered near its face.  They seemed to have an instinct that told them when we were looking at them, especially if we were looking through the lens of a camera.  They would all lounge on a piece of floating ice, and then if they noticed us they would slide, as one, into the water.  Victoria figured out that we could position the dinghy behind another large piece of ice and watch them without the seals noticing us.

Us watching the seals watching us.

It was about 3nm from Fluenta to the face of the glacier, a short amount of which could be covered at planing speed, but much of which needed to be traversed carefully, watching for pieces of floating ice.  Most were easy to see, especially in the sunlight, as they were the stereotypical shades of aquamarine and white, but some were camouflaged: they were clear pieces of ice that barely showed up against the silty grey water.  We kept a constant safety lookout at the bow.  Most of the time, the ice was far more a source of entertainment than danger: it was fun to try to identify, and give names to, the ice sculptures we were passing by.  We saw lots of sea creatures, birds, swans, ships, and even the odd airplane ready for takeoff :)

More ice sculptures.

and ice for our drinks ....

but not this one.

Don't try this at home.

Meeting interesting people is a fascinating part of travelling.  On our way over to the Glacier, we thought we saw a little tent on the beach not far from Fluenta.  On our way back, we met up with its two occupants: they had come on a two-week kayak-camping holiday from the southern US.  One of them had guided in the area years ago, and she was back to visit.  We sometimes get credited with living a rugged life, but I have to say that sitting in a kayak and sleeping on a beach would offer an even closer experience of the great outdoors!  With only human power, they were paddling towards the glacier, but the 15-20 kts headwinds turned them back.  I was grateful for our dinghy engine that let us experience Nellie Juan up close!

Until next time,

The chart for Homer to Nellie's Rest (Nellie's Rest is shown with the red arrow).  The red line is our actual track while the black lines are other potential courses.

Waypoint 022 is Nellie's Rest and the glacier is to the west.  The glacier has receded further than shown at this chart and is approximately at the magenta arrow.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Soujourn in Seldovia

One of the hundreds of sea otter photos we took this summer.  (Photo by Johnathan).


Ever since we began talking about coming home to Canada via Alaska, a stop in Seldovia to see friends from Mexico days was on the 'must-do' list.  Jen and Bruce and their kids (SV Northern Passage - which is for sale if you are looking for a serious offshore boat for less than $85k) were one of the first families we had met when we left to go cruising, and Jen and I had deepened our connection by practicing yoga together in various spots, so I couldn't wait to reconnect.

They spend winters in Anchorage and summers in Seldovia, so it was lovely that Seldovia was pretty much directly on our route; we were able to combine our visit with a stop in nearby Homer to have Fluenta valued by a surveyor before our return to Canada.  Just as Jen had described, we found Seldovia to be a delightfully pretty little town with a colourful row of restaurants and shops above the town dock and beautiful mountain vistas all around.  Victoria was even able to do some school work most days using the free wifi in the waterfront restaurants.

Enjoying the glorious sunshine to dry out the contents of the v-berth after the gale.

Internet ! Victoria found a spot to catch up on school.

The kids, who were very little when we first met, have all grown up!  Johnathan, Victoria, Carmen and Richard were 7, 9, 10, and 12 in Mexico.  Fast-forward seven years, and Richard has just graduated from high school and left on his own adventure: he bought a sailboat, and left Seldovia three days before we arrived to sail across the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.  We were sorry to miss him, but we understood the need to grab a weather window.  We will be following him on his blog - - where he has already been writing vivid and compelling descriptions of his travels.

Johnathan and Richard sailing Trickle in 2013

and Victoria and Richard sailing Trickle. 

The kids on Exodus in 2013 in the Sea of Cortez.  Johnathan is the furthest to the right.  Beside him is Colton from SV Sweet Dreams (whom we shared time with again last year in the Marshall Islands), then Richard and Carmen.

The young gang heading ashore in the Sea of Cortez in 2013.  Benjamin of course was not even born then.

Bonfire time with the boys from Sweet Dreams, Exodus and Northern Passage (Jen Gordon photo)

And all a bit older now this summer in Alaska. 

Richard had left on a great weather window to cross the Gulf of Alaska just before we arrived, so this is a picture from his blog.  He is off on his own sailing adventure and you can follow his adventures at: 
(Jen Gordon photo)

As fellow cruisers, Jen and Bruce knew what we would really appreciate - laundry, showers, and spare parts - and they assisted us on all fronts.  They even received our parts in the mail at their home in Anchorage and drove them down to Seldovia for us!  Bruce's sister has an extraordinary cabin nearby; we spent an idyllic day there enjoying space to roam, wild strawberries to pick, a full-sized washer/dryer, hot showers, and a beautiful sunny back deck where we could catch up while the laundry tumbled and spun.

To complete the day, Jen and Bruce took Max and the kids for a hike along the shore while I folded laundry and listened to NPR.  This might not sound like fun, but spending an afternoon in my own company in a spacious cabin was delightful!  Even with all the modern conveniences, we still felt at home in the cabin:  Jen and Bruce truck all the water up the hill from a tap in town to fill a water tank in the porch.  We were off the boat, but we still had to conserve!

Out for a walk with Jen and Bruce in beautiful Seldovia

Out for a walk with Jen and Bruce in Seldovia

Out for a walk with Jen and Bruce in Seldovia

After one night on the dock, we moved to anchor in front of Jen and Bruce's cabin.  The town dock is pretty, but at $53USD/day (plus electricity, and the water was non-potable), it was an expensive convenience. 

Being anchored in front of their cabin made it easy to share a meal.  Jen and I arrived back at Fluenta after laundry to find Max and Bruce enjoying the evening light from the cockpit; we all went in our two dinghies to their cabin (even though they live on land, they often dinghy to town) where we shared a potluck meal in their cozy space before Bruce left for Anchorage the following morning.

Seldovia was a very friendly place.  Jen has been teaching yoga all summer, and I was excited to be in town for a joint class that she taught with a young woman who does sound therapy with Tibetan ringing bowls.  The town was enjoying an unprecedented stretch of warm sunny weather, so we were able to practice outside on a grassy hill overlooking the water.  After weeks of bundling up in fleeces to walk ashore, it felt like 'summer' when we were practicing in the sunshine on the hill.

Helping load Richard's other boat .  He built this one as a teenager !

We arrived in Seldovia during a particularly busy week for Jen and Bruce: not only had Richard just left on his trip, but Jen was launching a business, Blue Market AK, that was having its first Market days the following weekend!  We were glad that the dates worked out so well.  Having arrived on Sunday, and crammed as much visiting into four days as we could, we sailed with Jen and their dog Nala to Homer on Thursday evening.  At 15 nm away, it is very close, but the people in Seldovia are still a world away the mainland; their only contact is via water taxi, float plane, or ferry (but the ferries were on strike when we were there).  It was nice to be able to offer Jen a ride back across the water!

The Fluenta ferry to Homer.  Dogs allowed.
We arrived at Homer just before sunset, so we anchored behind the breakwater for the night.  Jen and Nala stayed in their pre-positioned VW camper van, and we met up in the morning for a flurry of errands before her five-hour drive to Anchorage.  The town of Homer is about 5 miles away from the marina, which is at the far end of the "Spit" (the remains of an ancient glacial moraine).  Suffice to say that Homer is *not* a walking destination!

The first thing on my to-do list was to buy a pair of sea boots for me, and a pair of hiking boots for Johnathan (no more sharing with his sister!).  As a good (albeit very temporary) Alaskan, I chose a pair of Salmon Sisters Xratufs.  My last purchase of sea boots had been in England during my RYA Day Skipper course in early 2001.  I bought the only boots available in the little chandlery in Falmouth, and they lasted up until I stepped into the water to see the bears at Geographic Harbor; I discovered the cold way that they had a crack in the shin.  (Amazingly enough, the soles were still grippy, unlike many more expensive pairs that have been brought aboard since). 

There is quite a neat story to the connection between Xtratuf and the Salmon Sisters (whose hometown we had visited a few weeks earlier when we stopped at False Pass, where the local library still has their letter of appreciation posted on the wall after a childhood visit).  I smile every time I look at my sturdy-but-lovely boots with their pattern of humpback whales on the liners.  The trick (apparently) for warm feet is to buy a pair of 'Bamas' (moisture-wicking slippers) and then wear the boots a size larger than normal to fit them.  So far I have been pretty comfortable, with feet that are generally warm and dry :)

Homer has a fantastic library, so Jen and I were able to leave Victoria and Johnathan there to do schoolwork while we did some visiting (I mean errands).  With her help, I was able to tick off many of the items on our Alaska shopping list - bear spray, air horn (for bears), hip waders, a no-discharge of oil sign for Fluenta, and of course, groceries.

When she saw how full my cart was, Jen was insistent that I take her suggestion to rent a car for a day; as it turned out, although I balked at first (being stubborn, and intending to just take a taxi from the library back to the Spit) this was a fortunate decision.  While I was standing at the rental desk (and Jen was negotiating a local rate for us) her phone rang - it was our surveyor.  Our survey had originally been booked for Friday (ie that day), but had been delayed at the last minute to Saturday.  We were otherwise ready to leave town.

It turned out they could fit us in after all, in one hour, if I could arrange it.  All I had to do was to contact Max at the marina to let him know (without a phone)!  I didn't even go to get the kids - I just jumped in the minivan, drove to the dock, and called Max the VHF.  He and Benjamin had just come ashore in search of ice cream, so with a promise of icecream-not-now-but-later I took Benjamin back to town, where we read story after story at the library, while the kids finished up their work, and Max returned to Fluenta to prepare for the surveyor.  This would not have worked if I had been travelling on foot or by taxi!

The view from above Homer.

With our 24-hour van rental, we could actually be a family on holiday in Homer overnight :) We had pizza for supper at a restaurant Jen recommended on the Spit (Finn's) and then took a drive up to a beautiful lookoff point a few miles out of town, from which we could see several different mountain ranges.  The next morning, we all returned to town for a few more errands (including some finds at the local second-hand shop - the whole family was still in need of long layers and sturdy footwear).

Tourists !

By Saturday afternoon, we had returned our rental van, topped up our diesel tanks, and headed offshore towards Prince William Sound, a destination which, like Seldovia, had been one of the focal points of our planning for our journey through Alaska.

Love to all,

You just cannot have too many sea otter photos !

The chart showing Seldovia Bay. For those who are curious, our visit occurred during the first week of August.