• Patsy Clark Urschel

The Path to Ketchikan

Updated: Nov 9, 2020


To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. --John Muir


Sunset in Ketchikan

I closed my last post from our anchorage in Neah Bay, after a tumultuous upwind passage from Port Angeles, WA and I open this one from Ketchikan, AK. As I look out the window from our anchorage in the Tongass Narrows I can see at least eight bald eagles, one huge nest, and a trio of Golden Eagles - all perched on snags or the tops of an endless line of trees. If you've ever thirsted for something that you couldn't quite pin down but understood as soon as you experienced it, that perfectly describes what being here is doing to my insides. John Muir knew what he was talking about when he wrote that you should never go to Alaska as a young person because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live.

The Endeavour anchored in the Tongass Narrows

No one will be surprised that it wasn’t exactly a straight line to Ketchikan. Before we left Neah Bay, we found that all of that water washing over the bow during a nine hour motor through rough conditions apparently saturated and shorted the switch for our windlass, essentially rendering it incapable of bringing up our anchor. Bill MacGyvered a manual winch to bring up the anchor from about 50 feet of water. It took two of us to bring up all that chain and get it manually stowed in the chain locker. It was time consuming and difficult, but it made clear two things: a) that we could do this in a pinch if need be and b) that we would rather not do it again anytime soon. Making a choice at that point between heading up the outside of Vancouver Island for our transit to Alaska or heading to a port where we could find parts and a professional to fix us up was easy. We called ahead for a slip in Anacortes and got a good one just inside the mouth of Cap Sante Marina, near the working boats. Bill was able to connect with someone who could help, but a day or two into our stay there, Bill’s brain kicked into a new gear and he found a solution for the fried switch. What was going to be five-night stay could be shortened once Bill applied the fix. So, we filled the larder and departed Anacortes July 5.

Padilla Bay - leaving Anacortes for the first leg to Alaska

We headed north via the inside passage due to our proximity from Anacortes. We called the Canadian Border Patrol with our intent to transit as a research vessel (we're certified with the US Coast Guard as such), with no land-based stops along the way, as we have the range in fuel, water, and stores. If we needed to anchor, we agreed to call in our location. Eleven hours later, we rolled up to Lasqueti Island to anchor for the night. There we had a 360 - degree view of quintessential BC island views, arriving at golden hour to boot. A little research tells me the island has a population just under 400, attracts artists and boasts markets and festivals in the summer. The only way off and on the island is via passenger ferry. It’s the only one of the Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland that isn’t connected to BC’s power grid and instead runs on solar, wind, micro-hydro and standard generators. I’d love to go back sometime to explore it and its islets more closely.

Our anchorages are really important to us and Lasqueti Island exemplifies the reasons beautifully. Choosing them with care is obviously important - we need protected bays, shallow water, and we need to have come far enough on our overall journey to fit our loose timetables. We know the Pacific Coast along the US and BC can be incredibly beautiful and also quite merciless, sometimes simultaneously. The anchorages we choose are where we get to unwind and slough of the tension from the vigilance required when you’re at the helm. Watching out for flotsam – be it a metal barrel, a ten-foot log, or a crab pot buoy that can slip under our keel and mess with our propeller – is one area of concern when we’re under way. Weather is another and that combined with currents and tides at the end of the day will decide whether we’re comfortable or not. But having a rough day is manageable when you can look forward to an anchorage that will be safe, still, and as a bonus, lovely to look at. I have a habit of waking at dawn when we’re anchored somewhere new and taking pics with that gorgeous, crisp light only the morning can bring. The same thing during golden hour when everything is bathed in a diffused warmth.

Since we were heading for Johnstone Strait from Lasqueti, we checked the currents in Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait . Bill determined if we waited til 8:00 or 9:00 am to leave the next morning, we’d hit the strait with a strong adverse current, but if we instead pulled up anchor at 1:30 am, we'd reach Discovery Passage and Campbell River at slack water and have the current in our favor in Johnstone Strait until early afternoon. It was a good call. We made crazy speeds in Seymour Narrows (15.5 knots, which Bill hasn’t seen since he bought the boat 13 years ago). By 2:00 pm, they were reversing again, so we anchored for a few hours off West Cracraft Island to wait another turn. We were back at it a few hours later and made for Beaver Harbor, near Port Hardy. From there, we had our longest stretch of open water (88 nm) in front of us before we reached the next anchorage around Price Island.

Patsy at golden hour and rainbows!

Bill in his natural habitat. Swoon.

A few folks have asked me what we do on those long days of crossing big expanses of water. You’d think we’d be limited, but we’re cruising along in the only home we have. What little we own in the world is here and used heavily. We make good food, play the guitar or ukulele, write music, take turns at the helm so one of us can work on a project, boat-related or otherwise. We spend a few hours a day working on our respective writing projects and take care of each other between with shoulder rubs and cups of tea. One day I gave Bill a haircut on the fore deck as we motored through a smooth stretch of water. In general, we divvy up duties in a way that makes sense to both of us, similar to when we’re moored or anchored. On the big trips to remote spots, we don’t have internet, so we read books. And talk. A lot. Fancy that.

By far my favorite moments while underway involve just scanning the horizon. I learned a while ago the way to diffuse my vision, especially in the open water segments, so I’m alert to anything that wasn’t in my field of vision the moment before, even peripherally. During these times, I have no book or other distractions and I just scan (for better or worse, I was built for this job). This way of watching is certainly helpful to avoid the logs and other flotsam that can mess us up, but it’s also how I find whales and dolphins. Most of the time it’s a spout that tips me off, but sometimes it’s a full breach. The majority of our whale encounters this trip were at dusk, as we were nearing our anchorages for the night, almost as if they were ushering us in (I know - it's all about me!). A family of Orcas saw us into Price Island and a small pod of Humpbacks heralded our arrival in Ketchikan. The breaching of a large Humpback is something to behold. A little research indicates these whales breach for a variety of reasons, from attracting a mate to warning the pod of potential danger; from stunning prey to improving digestion or my favorite, just for fun. While witnessing a huge creature heave itself out of the water and dramatically pirouette is riveting, its body slamming into the water afterwards is the cherry on top. Dolphins, too, were numerous and always playful, zigzagging in front of the bow, apparently positioning themselves for the best wake ride possible. For creatures that are astonishing fleet, it seems they thrill on the idea of going even faster. Watching these creatures participate in pure play is a sight that moves me deeply.


"Imagining the future is a kind of spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present." --John Green in Looking for Alaska


From Price Island, we made 120 miles to Goschen Island, just off Porcher Island – our longest stretch yet. That last anchorage before Ketchikan had us rolling so gently, at just the right angle, that it felt like we were in a 72-ton cradle, being gently rocked to sleep. That next morning, we set off for the final leg and arrived in Ketchikan at dusk to anchor out in the narrows. We haven’t explored the town itself yet, but the next day we moved our boat across the narrows to the Gravina Island side and have spent the last couple of days chilling out. As of tomorrow, we will have satisfied our 14 day quarantine and can take the dinghy into town to provision for our next leg and explore Gravina Island.

Bill made a comment about being in Alaska that really resonates with me. He noted that our Seattle rhythm included a home base from which we could make frequent forays into wilderness. Here in Alaska, our home base is the wilderness, with the potential for forays into town. I am finding this latter reality more fitting for me as a human than any other place I’ve visited. The fjords of BC gave us this same feeling but had no town within easy distance.

A big fan of what the wilderness has to offer, Bella has been restless these last days, relegated to the boat as we made the transit with no stops on land while crossing through Canadian waters. It’s wonderful to see her riding fearlessly in the bow of the dinghy, sniffing and tasting what the wind brings her way. She’s the perfect forest and beach explorer, too, comfortable ranging freely, but completely responsive to our calls. We're looking forward to the end of our quarantine time to give all three of us the freedom to explore.

As we continue our travels in this part of the world, I can’t imagine a better pair of companions. Bill and I both value the same things about this way of living and are committed to keeping an open mind about what we might do next, whether moment to moment or in the future. Will we fall in love with Alaska and over winter here and perhaps start the Northwest passage next summer? Will we head south to San Francisco or San Diego? Will we return to Canada to explore some of what we had to pass through without stopping, if the border opens? We don’t know and amazingly, we don’t need to decide yet. Whatever we do decide, that decision will be made in tandem and with a kind of porous commitment that is open to variation.

Stay tuned for a blog post from Bill!

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