Making the Turn (short story)

Making the Turn

©2020 Garrison C Gibson

There was a good price on a skiff some distance away. Buying the craft in July seemed like a good idea though time would need to be taken away from work; maybe a vacation. Without much persuasion or any at all the deal was made. 

The boat would be picked up in Juneau in September.

The vacation started later than planned, the seller needed to be out of town until sometime in October. No problem, the buyer was salty enough to feel comfortable to make a journey more than 150 miles over the water in the dark, rainy days of fall.

Gear for making the journey was stolen from a ferry terminal. A g.p.s. and other technical items were lost. Not much existed in the budget to replace them. No problem, the buyer was an occasional sourdough spanning about a half century.

Arriving in Juneau was good. Familiar sights and mountains greeted the traveler. Low mountains rising a few thousand feet from sea level were picturesque though shorter than those of the average elevation of mountain where he worked. He found a taxi driver at the Auk Bay terminal.

The Philippino was a good fellow. He seemed to know his way around and did fairly well with the cab. He knew where the hostile in Juneau was. A nice facility for a good price, the driver agreed to return the next morning.

Bad weather forecasts predominated. Several days of windy weather were ahead, many with rain. The journey would be interesting; it was time to arrange to see the boat at the seller’s home.

The taxi arrived and found the right street up on the side of a mountain. He remembered taking a passenger nearby on a free New Year’s Eve ride for those with too much to drink. The snow on the steep road made for a treacherous course. The fellow was home. The 12’ skiff was upside down on the side of the driveway.

Finding everything fine a plan was made to take the vessel to the water in a few days when the weather cleared. A few days waiting in the empty though nice hostile wasn’t too bad a prospect. Much shopping for items to make the journey work was unfortunately, in order. Plastic gas can to refuel the two and a half horsepower motor, a spare spark plug, tarps to get out of the rain and the all important knee-high rubber boots were on the list, purchased and placed into a cart. When the goods were got the voyager called the taxi driver who swiftly appeared and took the goods to the hostile where they stayed a couple of day.

With a fair enough weather forecast the next day with wind expected to be less than 15 M.P.H. the trip was on. Next day the taxi took the equipment and journeyman to the boat. The seller put the equipment in a truck and loaded the boat together with the fellow who would be taking the boat. In an hour the boat and driver were dropped off at the boat ramp at Douglas. God byes were said, and good luck. A dark, overcast sky made the trip seem a little dicey.

Gastineau channel is a few miles long. Direct S.E. winds often blow north making the trip south against the prevailing wind and waves. The captain of his craft loaded the boat and set the 2.5 on the transom, gassed it up, replaced the cap and kicked off shore. He noticed there wasn’t a drain plug in the boat and went back to drag the boat stern first back onto a dry spot on the ramp. He called the seller who promptly delivered a drain plug.  After bailing out a little water the trip once again resumed.

A two and a half outboard motor powering a fairly heavy aluminum skiff need go rather slow. Perhaps in calm water and positive currents it would reach 8 miles per hour. With opposition currents and non-positive waves it averaged about half that or 5 m.p.h. In a couple of hours the vessel neared the end of Gastineau Channel where a vista of several confluences of waters ahead could be seen.

Taku Inlet is a turbulent body of water that has interior winds flowing over an eponymous glacier often stirring up waves over tides and currents from Stephens Passage to the South and the waters east of Admiralty Island that lead to the sea at Icy Strait. The confluence of currents and tides makes for occasional complex wave patterns with winds suddenly driving wave to larger size that are focused and move toward Land on Admiralty Island just north of Doty Cove.

October days are rather short; maybe eight hours of light technically, although the height of the mountains rising from the water and dark cloud cover can make total darkness appear earlier. The driver was enjoying the trip he had made numerous times before usually without a motor; sometimes rowing an eight foot inflatable boat- the last time a killer whale or Orcas had passed very close by outside Taku Harbor (not Taku Inlet) before he noticed a cap was lose on the inflatable and the air was gushing out.

A third of the across the water crossing to Slocum Inlet 17 miles S.E. of Juneau the small rippling waves took on a different tone with darker scuds hanging from nimbus clouds scurrying wet as if they had someplace to be. An odd fog cloud with fingers crawled from Admiralty toward the water. In the distance whitecaps appeared. With just so much daylight remaining there wasn’t really a choice of turning back. The journey was to the south at any rate; one need be going somewhere.

One last photograph was made before attention to the boat need be given. There wasn’t really a way to know how much the waves ahead would grow or in fact what size they actually were. The transition into a survival situation was fairly sudden. Suddenly the boat was at its destination in the midst of large, roiling water with waves over which the boat need transect to reach the shore.

With so many current direction there was no way to know if the water was worse astern. Very quickly the driver needed to move the slow twelve foot boat sideways nearly perpendicular to the direction of the waves.

The waves were focused generally on travelling toward Doty cove several miles distant where they probably crashed on a rocky outcrop of land. The waves were space too close together and were too large to consider running with them several miles off course to an uncertain fate. Resolutely with an occasional splash in the face and rain with a wind apparently more than 20 m.p.h. the driver avoided the white wash break of the waves and crossed over the top of each just before they broke and extended the time of travel in the trough and rising swell of the next of each as long as he could, while watching for the unusual changes of wave direction that happened periodically. The transom of the vessel was too low to consider putting into the foam of wave breaks.

In perhaps two or three hours of survival sailing (I use the term to apply to motoring here) the vessel drew closer to Slocum Inlet where the boater knew he would find calm. The south side of Taku Inlet has a few places to get a boat out of the wind; even from the east, because of large coastal mountains that reach as high as four or five thousand feet there. Dark green evergreens ashore looked welcoming, except for the knowledge that the woods were the home of the great Alaska brown bear that can weigh more than 600 pounds and have a skeleton that resembles something designed by a futuristic predator laboratory with twenty knife-like claws, strong legs that look like coiled energy ready to spring in support of a mouth full of sharp teeth. The boater said a few prayers and knew his fate was with God.

The journey passed for the boater as if he were watching a video and was in it himself. It was an either/or, live or die, capsize or stay upright kind of experience. One mistake and the boat would capsize; with the speed of the waves and cold water temperature in the mid-30s it wasn’t likely they surviving turning turtle was likely.

Surfing a small motor craft when necessary is always a memorable experience. It is never a pleasure and better avoided. Suddenly the wind shadow of the mountains arrived. The crazy wave battle was over for now. The turn around the end of Taku Inlet eventually appeared and the water remained calm close to shore. The rewarding site looking far down Stephens Passage to Frederick Sound arrived. Hoping to go farther before dark as the day was drawing toward a close, the white caps were visible out in the midst of the passage to the west. The journey took the vessel beyond Taku Inlet wear a bear had killed a couple of young hunters dressing a deer some time ago and to the unfamiliar Limestone Inlet wear he expected to pass the night uneventfully.

Limestone Inlet is sharp break in the coastal mountain wall. It is narrow and deep and shallow; very except toward the entrance that makes a bad anchorage for a small boat in fall in case waves arrive. The other spot deep enough to keep water in it when the tide goes out is along the north wall. A crabber had left a mess of pots in that spot making it unsuitable for anchoring. With mountains over a thousand feet high around it that seemed like not much of a problem; camping along the south wall was good enough and there was enough water to prevent a bear from reaching the boat while asleep.

With such a shallow deep bay when the tide goes out there are hundreds of yards of dry where a boat unwary of anchoring could find itself on the dry for hours waiting for the next high tide to refloat in. Asleep in a small boat a hungry brown bear looking for a late fall topping up snack before the long sleep might look at a skiff with food and a camper in it as a seafood plate. Without a .44 mag and a speed holster awakening to a bite on an arm should best be avoided; avoid it in any case.

A steady cold rain fell and the sky was dark, the nigh black. An improvised lid on the boat made with tent poles and tarps was rather useless and even dangerous making quick exit difficult. In the middle of the night the sleep was disturbed by the boat slamming hard on the rocks. Clawing out of the cumbersome enclosure in seconds the fellow used an hour to push off the rocks. He paddled madly with one ore-the ore locks didn’t actually fit his oars, far enough to put his prop into the water. Fortunately the stern hadn’t crashed into stone to possibly break it. The motor started with the first pull.

In the dark the vessel skidded across shallow with the tail below the prop hitting skipping mud several times before coming to rest in a spot closer to the north wall. In the night the anchor was tossed numerous times to gain a hold. Wind still hit the craft; somehow the wind had come over the north mountains and covered most of the Inlet, and it was some time before a place was found that worked; enough out of the wind yet still in water. The boat would be on the dry for just a half hour of the twelve hour tide cycle, and dawn was just a couple of hours away. Sleep was impossible; he made a coffee with a propane torch heating a metal cup under the tarp, and tore down the silly tent. For the remainder of the trip his new leaky boots and a tarp would be his distance from cold water. He knew he was luck the boat just took a good dent yet did not break.

Each new day on the trip brought new and familiar sites. Sea lions, seals and whales, eagles and bear-coastal bays he had learned of from hard experience surfing an eight foot boat over Holkam Bay with an oar lashed to the stern for steerage or standing on a monarch scow trying to get a square sail up to catch a sharp wind to cross over Port Houghton while the goings good; the way home was one of his favorite places to be.

The morning brought a new hope, yet there were white caps visible in the passage ahead. There was a kind of glow from somewhere under the clouds that joined sky and water where a line of sunlight broke through. The waters become clearer when the summer’s algal bloom is gone, the salt water smells fresh with ozone from the rains, raising anchor the fueled journey started again.

Once one leaves Limestone Inlet there aren’t too many good anchorages before reaching beyond Holkam Bay. Maybe the north side of Port Snettisham offers a place to bring a boat in, yet there are the bear, and the south shore is very stony and one must portage an inflatable a long way up the beach- a metal boat just wouldn’t work there.

One may find a place on the north side of Holkam Bay for an inflatable to be carried out of the water, and there are a few islands in the bay where one can spend the night on a boat carefully- the boater did that more than once on short rations and another with a sailboat without a motor; it was a tough time in the dark. He saw a humpback whale try to keep an island between itself and a noisy tourist boat going up the bay to Tracy Arm as he waited for the wind to rise and instead found a very slow moving current that took him south and out of the bay.

A cold day’s journey took the boater not only to Holkam Bay; unbelievably he ended up at Hobart Bay; inexperienced with a machine powering his boat the vast distance travelled in one long day was beyond his belief and hope. He set an anchor in the bay he was familiar with, Sunset Island offshore to the S.W.

With a couple of coffees the very uncertain morning looked promising enough. It was a long way from the anchor spot near the deserted whale and eagles feeding ground when the herring returned in the spring. He didn’t know how the wind would be on Port Houghton though Hobart Bay itself was calm. Losing the weather radio to thieves brought more guesswork and dead reckoning to the trip.

He spent an hour and back going to the Port entrance with the time wasted; the winds drove up wave too much; another wave intersecting direction to cross Port Houghton to Cape Fanshaw’s Cannery Island was required and they were too substantial. Wind and waves change with tides commonly, and fog sometimes arises as well. He decided to wait a few hours and kicked back in the boat. In an hour he grew impatient and decided to try it again.

The entrance to the Port, right along the N.E. shore was barely screened from the waves. Though the wave height was enough to make crossing at the wide entrance a bad idea because of the inevitably downwind drift with the wave that would make him miss Cape Fanshaw bay and likely take him out into the middle of Frederick Sound where he would in effect be out of control and luck if he could catch the lighthouse islands or Gambler’s Bay far beyond on the other side toward the south end of Admiralty. He choose to head upwind into the Port wear it grew narrower before crossing, then traverse a little bit; not too much, toward the S.W. where he could make short work of the several miles.

The upwind, downwind journey takes more time; it cost the better part of the day. He knew there weren’t good anchor spots easy to find on the south side of Port Houghton toward the entrance until reaching a little farther south to the entrance behind Cannery Island where even fishing boats sometimes take shelter from the wind.

The wind, waves and approaching darkness were adversaries and it was difficult to tell where the entrance to the channel was. Most bays on the outer side are exposed to the waves and fairly useless for boat camping. Dragging anchors and boats full of water from beach breaking waves can make a terminus of travel. False entrances abounded when in good water and summer the challenge is quite low. The boater wasn’t sure of what direction to go; he thought he may have gone too far going along the shore. Each turn made him think he was approaching the Cape itself. Waves grew with intensity, yet just before dark he found a turbulent entrance and that itself was the entrance to the channel at last. Though last dusk he motored some distance south and camped off Cannery Island in the rain by the rotten remnants of pilings from the place abandoned nearly a century ago.

The night was again cold and wet; his feet hadn’t been dry in days. He bailed out the boat often and found the boat pump the seller had included very efficient. In the morning he counted his blessings. One never knows what winds will be; the morning seemed good. Cold with the start and with a coffee in hand he broke camp and headed for the Cape.

Cape Fanshaw is itself fairly unremarkable except for its location. It is a spit reaching into Frederick Sound with a great few of the internal sea. The driver thought of it as Arnie Sacknussan’s lost world. One of the last great wild spots in the United States unspoiled by development he hoped it would for countless generations remain so.

Taking the small craft around the cape on a fair day he knew that crossing Frederick Sound was a gamble; waves could occur that would terminate the trip, although worry was useless when necessity arose. Point Highland as he thought of it, looked over the Sound too as well as Farragut Bay. Using that as a guidepost was his custom; it was a good crossing point to traverse the Sound to Portage Bay on Kupreanov Island. That is necessary in order to go into the city of Petersburg some 50 miles south of the Cape. He needed to cross the sound at some point and it was the narrowest spot and simultaneously the most scenic.

His crossing went well and steadily; waves didn’t arise until reaching Portage Bay. He had plenty of fuel remaining and daylight hours. Motoring upwind against rising small three foot wave he plunged ahead as there was still light. The day took him along the west side of Kupreanov until reaching Petersburg harbor an hour after dark. He found a spot in the grid, tied up, covered up and fell asleep.

He spent three days around Petersburg waiting for rain and wind to abate. Cold and wet under the tarp sleeping on a narrow metal boat seat under a downpour the chance to leave was quickly taken up. He left the grid and motored south down Petersburg narrows between Mitkov and Kupreanov Islands and beyond Voevoda Island to Sumner Strait. The slow trip made the boat in the waves to test the difficulty decision block difficult; to go forward was probably to lose his life, so he turned about and went north to Petersburg. Another night in the grid. Next morning he travelled around the other side of Mitkov Island and again south. The wind this far in Frederick Sound is screened by coastal mountains and Mitkov. At the south end of the island is a very shallow narrow strait named Dry Strait- the tide goes out completely and it is dry for several hours each day. In the cold rain he went as far as he could and anchored watching the day pass and night get closer.

At last the boat refloated. He trough off the tarp and started the motor heading with the fast Stikine River current along the south side of Mitkov briefly before cutting over toward Kadin Island. The water becalmed and there was a starry night. Darkness arrived and he journey on catching the distant light of Wrangell. He avoided an Alaska ferry boat with his slow craft and reached the city harbor in the night. The journey was nearly done.

Next day he returned to the cabin. That night some sort of cold weather trench foot like injury appeared. He had damaged his feet decades before walking through snow and streams with combat boots until his feet later would swell up nearly twice the size for a time. Apparently his feet that were on fire and felt a couple times worse than a torn rotator cuff persisting for seven days because weather didn’t allow him to return to town were brought into that condition by the cold wet feet for a few days this time. The water portion of the journey was for the time, forgotten.

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