Words and Photos by Michael Kew (Peathead.blogspot.com)
There’s ice on the deck. Holding ales with gloved hands, we admire the hallucinatory reflect of snowy cliffs across this tranquil, funnel-shaped anchorage that, globally, drifts with Siberia and south Greenland.
Trevor is fly-fishing. Swish-swish-swish. He whips the line to and fro off the transom many times but hooks nothing. The bottom here is hard mud. The water is hunter green. The time is 10:30 p.m. but still the sky glows blue.
Pausing, Trevor looks shoreward, swigs from a bottle of stout. Halfway hidden on the forested beach, he sees three old wooden cabins that wait for summer.
“Somebody’s idea of a good time right there,” Captain Mike says from the barbecue, his chin bisecting the gray fish smoke.
“Lonely,” Trevor says.
“Yeah, unless you’ve got it packed full of Bush Company dancers.” (laughs)
The Great Alaskan Bush Company, Mike means. Look it up.
A shaggy white male mountain goat grazes fairly low above the pit of the anchorage, above the cabins, on a steep cliff.
“It’s amazing where you see them,” Mike says, flipping the lingcod fillets. “They do fall sometimes.”
“Why would they be there and not up where it’s not so steep?” Trevor asks.
“Snow is up there,” Mike says, pointing at the top of the slope, then lowering his arm. “Grass is down here. Good munchin’ spot.”
In a month or two, the goat will browse in high alpine meadows, eating shrubs and herbs and grass at leisure. For now, though, he risks life to live. Like us. Sort of.
The Gulf of Alaska has a surface area of 592,000 square miles. Plenty of room to cause trouble. In winter, the Gulf is a weather kitchen, a sea of severity, a near-constant stream of cyclones and anticyclones. Sixty-foot waves with 100-knot winds are routine. Depressions twist east from Japan, stalling once they hit the Gulf and, trapped, they mutate and shove north swell down to western North America and eastern Oceania. North swells deny the south-facing Kenai Fjords. We need south.
But this is a fjord and there is swell in the marine forecast, the charts showing a pair of modest, local low-pressure systems, with favorable fetch. Anchor up. We move.
“It’s a good reason to feel optimistic instead of just feeling hopeful,” Mike says, watching a bald eagle soar in the updraft, its spearing blackness contrasted by the white snow bowl of a hanging valley. Below the raptor are steep slopes and shale landslides, chalky brown, laced with thin snowmelt waterfalls. It’s late April — Alaska is beginning to thaw. Soon, bears will be everywhere. Post-Memorial Day until September, this fjord will be flush with cruise ships and fishing boats because the town is a major fishing hub, the ninth most-lucrative fisheries port in the United States.
A diehard surfer and ex-merchant marine, Mike isn’t thrilled about other gloomy fishing towns — Yakutat and Dutch Harbor, for example — he’s had to work in and around since he moved from Hawaii to Alaska to work at a fish cannery in the summer of ‘76.
“What’s Yakutat like?”
“Small. Some good waves over there.”
He leans and steers the ship with its wooden wheel, the first time I’ve seen him do this.
“Don’t you always steer with the compass?” I asked.
He nodded. “It just started acting funny. Maybe it blew a fuse, or a wire’s loose, or there’s a bunch of iron in that mountain and it threw the compass crazy. Happens sometimes.”
We approach the fjord’s entrance, or, in this case, the exit. Instantly the scene shifts. Out here, the wind howls from the east, deeply corrugating the open ocean. The boat lurches and dips in the raw sea.
“At least we’re looking at waves now,” Mike says.
We surf till the sky bleeds gray and the air is seized by an onshore gale. We’re done. Beer and books back in the calm anchorage. Cozy downtime again.
In the late afternoon, we buzz the skiff to the hidden entrance of a tiny cove. Along the shore are the skeletal remains of a bulldozer, barn, and a termite-wrecked cabin. Through falling snowflakes, I see “Herring Pete” and Josephine Sather tending to their noisy fox farm here. But they abandoned this place in 1961, and the barn’s decay, scented with river otter dung, makes me sneeze. Pete too was a reputedly ripe and eccentric guy, his rarely washed clothes afoul of fish. His wife was an obsessive clean-freak, forcing Pete to take cold showers after his fishing trips, even mid-winter.
Admiring his scenic view out over the cove, I pictured Pete shivering wet in the bathroom while Josephine stirred a hot pot of fox stew. But, foolishly standing in snow, I realized I was the one shivering.
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