The sunshine and warm temperatures couldn’t last forever. As Erika and Josh departed from Whittier, clouds were rolling in. The forecast for the coming days was considerably more Alaskan than what we’d been used to: overcast, heavy rain at times, highs in the 50s. To be honest, our sunburnt skin, bug bites, and general exhaustion from go-go-go indicated that this was a good time for a few rainy days. Thankfully the weather wasn’t windy, since we also had just a couple days to get across Prince William Sound to Cordova to pick up my brother.
It was late afternoon by the time we left Whittier bound for West Twin Bay, on Perry Island. We arrived around 9:00 p.m. and left early the next morning, no time for exploring. It was a spacious, secure anchorage, conveniently located along our route.
We left West Twin Bay early to cross the bulk of Prince William Sound. Even a slow boat like Akeeva can travel between any two points in Prince William Sound in a single summer day. This is because summer days are long and Prince William Sound is not all that big. Despite its compact footprint, though, Prince William Sound has a lengthy, winding, and complex coastline, perfect for exploring by cruising boat.
As we crossed Prince Wiliam Sound we saw remarkably few other boats, especially as we got further from Whittier. Our most consistent company were these Dall’s porpoise, who escorted us for about an hour.
One of the big changes with Akeeva compared to Safe Harbour (previous boat, a Nordic Tug 37) is how much less time we need to spend tied up to docks to deal with chores. A few things contribute to this: laundry aboard, unlimited fresh water, and a big freezer.
First, having a washer and dryer onboard. Previously, every few weeks I schlepped the laundry to a laundromat. When traveling alone, this isn’t a huge deal, but with guests arriving and departing more frequently, it becomes problematic. Between each group of visitors, I’d need to run to a laundromat to wash towels, bedding, etc.. Practically speaking, that usually means a night in port before guests arrive and another night in port after they leave.
Unlimited fresh water eliminates the need to be tied to a dock to wash the boat. We don’t have super yacht standards for cleanliness aboard, but we track sand and mud in from the beach, salt spray coats the decks and windows, and birds poop. Periodically (every 2-4 weeks) we scrub the outside, which takes half-a-day and uses a couple hundred gallons of water. Traditionally we’d do this only when tied up to a dock because of the water consumption, but with a big watermaker onboard, we’re comfortable washing the boat at anchor.
Finally, food storage. Safe Harbour had a small freezer–maybe 1.5 cubic feet–which didn’t even freeze things well. Akeeva has a 10 cubic foot domestic chest freezer, in addition to tons of storage space for dry goods and two refrigerators. When we arrive in a town, we really only need to buy fresh produce and occasionally restock dairy items. Every couple of months we do a larger reprovisioning, but day-to-day food shopping is greatly reduced.
All of this means we need less time in port, and while we’re there, we can focus on other things like exploring town, visiting with locals, or fixing the boat.
The chores still must get done, though, we just choose where to do them. This is a long, roundabout way of explaining why I have no pictures or stories to share from Olsen Bay. We anchored there for the night, but we didn’t get off the boat. We did laundry, cleaned the galley, and vacuumed instead. It had to get done somewhere, and we hoped by doing it here we’d have more time to explore Cordova on our short visit.
Our visit to Cordova was overshadowed by a local COVID outbreak. Cordova doesn’t seem like the most happening town in the best of times, but the day we visited it felt particularly quiet. Few restaurants were open and fewer people were out and about. The grocery store was open, but the NAPA would only deliver items to the curb. Cordova felt a bit like Petersburg in the sense that it’s primarily a fishing community and it’s accessible only by sea or air, but it didn’t feel quite as tight-knit or prosperous.
My brother Peter’s arrival tells a similar story. Alaska Airlines flies to Cordova once or twice a day on a milk-run that stops in Juneau, and Yakutat before continuing to Anchorage. When the plane stopped at Cordova, Peter was the only passenger who got off. In the cab on the way into town, the driver asked what fishing boat Peter was working on. When he said he was going to a pleasure boat, the driver knew where to drop him off, since we were the only cruising boat in town.
Despite the sleepy town, we enjoyed our time in Cordova. Peter is a ski lift buff (see www.liftblog.com), and the real purpose of the visit was to see the ski lift in town. We hiked up the ski mountain twice (the weather was too foggy for pictures the first time), which was a great workout and offered a nice perspective of the surrounding landscape.
After our second trip up the ski mountain, we left Cordova midday for Beartrap Bay, near the head of Port Gravina. Commercial fishing boats were the only traffic along the way and patches of blue sky revealed, 4,000 foot mountains in most directions.
Beartrap Bay was filled with salmon, more than I’ve ever seen before. We took the dinghy up the creek at the head of the bay and watched as thousands of salmon schooled. As the shadow of the dinghy approached, they’d dart rapidly, the water appearing alive, the fish flitting from one direction to another as a single coordinated mass. Pictures don’t do it justice.
After motoring up the creek as far as we could, we returned to Akeeva. When we reached deep enough water, I throttled up, intending to plane our way across the bay. A rapid succession of thuds followed by the outboard bogging down scuttled those plans. Amazingly, we weren’t hitting kelp or rocks, but salmon. We proceeded the rest of the way barely above idle.
Bears enjoyed the salmon, too. We saw at least three different brown bears here, but I didn’t have a camera with me for most of the sightings. The best of the few pictures I took are below. One of the bears had a severely injured leg, but it looked to be fishing just fine.
The weather grew gloomier, with more rain and lower clouds. We delayed our plans to visit Columbia Glacier by a day hoping for improved weather. Heather Bay, near the mouth of Columbia Bay, came highly recommended, with several cruisers raving about anchorages inside. We selected Gem, based on the promised “gem of a view” of Columbia Glacier. The view never materialized, but we enjoyed a long dinghy ride and extensive knoll walking on shore.
The next morning we headed for Columbia Glacier. We’d read about it’s rapid retreat. In 1976, Columbia Glacier extended to Heather Island, just a mile or so from Gem, where we’d spent the night. Beginning in the early 1980s, Columbia Glacier retreated, and it has continued retreating ever since. As we approached the charted location of the glacier we were a bit miffed, and briefly disappointed. All we saw was a rock wall.
The rock walls were beautiful, though. As we moved further in, the speed of the glacial retreat was evident. Forest gave way to scrubby grass which gave way to stark, bare rock. Ice scoured the landscape so recently that soil has yet to be deposited and vegetation can’t take root.
The picture below shows our first glimpse of tidewater glacier. Note the chart puts us well onto the glacier at this point, despite being more than five miles away.
When Columbia Glacier did come into view, it was breathtaking. Rather than a single huge snout, Columbia Glacier now has more than half a dozen tidewater snouts, spread over a 300 degree field of view. Without a chart to guide us, we followed the sunnier, less icy path to the west arm first.
At least four different snouts of Columbia Glacier reach the west arm. We got within about two miles of them before the ice grew dense enough that we shut the engine off and launched the dinghy. Peter explored closer to the ice.
The weather improved as we drifted and we enjoyed fleeting glimpses of the layers of mountains and glaciers high above. Other than the small tour group in the ice cave, we were the only ones here, a nice contrast to busy Blackstone Glacier.
Peter enjoyed the dinghy so much that he decided to dinghy ahead of us as we moved from the west to the east arm.
The scenery along the northern shoreline of Columbia Bay is stark and scarcely vegetated. Most of it is steep right to the shoreline, but in some places the steep hillsides flatten out near shore. We proceeded cautiously past these areas, with a careful eye on the depth sounder. There are no charts for this area and visibility through the water is limited to inches by glacial silt, so we didn’t want to find a shallow spot with the keel.
The scenery at the eastern arm of Columbia Bay is remarkably different from the western arm. The tidewater glacier at the eastern arm is miles wide, so big that it fools the eye into thinking the mountains behind aren’t that tall.
Viewed through binoculars or a telephoto lens, though, and the scale becomes a bit clearer.
We didn’t bring Akeeva closer than about mile to the face of the glacier, yet it still felt enveloping. Peter went closer in the dinghy and we quickly lost sight of him among the ice. Anna and I enjoyed drifting among the ice, continually impressed by the raw beauty of Alaska. I’ve now visited tidewater glaciers dozens of times on my own boat, and Columbia Glacier is among my favorites. The combination of the massive east face and the intimate, intricate tendrils of glacier in the western arm are unique.
The sunshine faded away as we motored out of Columbia Bay. We’ve noticed over the summer that the glaciers seem to create sunnier weather around them, or at least it feels that way. Several times, now, we’ve been surprised by unexpectedly, localized (partly) sunny weather when we’re right in front of a glacier. Maybe we’re lucky, but it’s been a welcome observation that encourages us to visit glaciers in the future even if the weather forecast calls for rain and clouds.
Boat traffic increased as we moved towards Valdez, including an oil tanker. Since the Exxon Valdez disaster, tankers in Prince William Sound have been heavily regulated. The ships move slowly through designated lanes and always have two assistance tugs standing at the ready. Frankly I thought we’d see more oil tankers, but oil output has dropped over the years and tankers now only move through the sound a few times a week.
We also saw the densest group of seiners we’ve ever seen. Despite the crowd, we didn’t hear a cross word on the radio.
Our last stop before Valdez was Sawmill Cove. This is a pretty spot, located just a few hours from Valdez, but we arrived late, left early, and didn’t explore. The day at Columbia Glacier had been enough.
Valdez is at the head of a beautiful fjord. We enjoyed a calm, sunny, scenic two hour cruise from Sawmill Bay to Valdez.
We tied up at a guest dock, talked with the harbormaster, and moved to a slip a few docks away that had power. The harbormaster was super accommodating and helpful, and the marina (actually, marinas, there’s a newer one a little further from town) have lots of room for visiting boats, including slips with power and water. The docks are modern, clean, and sturdy, undoubtedly the best we’ve been in since arriving in Prince William Sound.
Before we got off the guest dock, we chatted with several locals. They noted our lack of shrimp pots and suggested we borrow theirs for a few weeks. Since we don’t have plans to be back in Valdez, we had to politely decline their offer. Not to be deterred, one gentleman walked down to his boat and returned a few minutes later with several pounds of frozen prawns. Thank you for the Alaskan hospitality!
Before Peter flew out of Valdez, we explored town. It’s not a big town, but it’s the most charming and alive of the towns we’ve visited in Prince William Sound. It’s connected by road to Anchorage and Fairbanks, but neither is close, so it’s not a commuter destination like Whittier. And while there’s an active commercial fishing industry like Cordova, there’s also the pipeline and more tourism. One way to judge these towns is by how many options there are for dinner out, and in Valdez there were at least half-a-dozen, the most options we’ve had since Juneau.