Southeast alaska: totems, misty, biscay?

Dear family and friends,

Liz flew in to join me for our cruise. Our destination was to head south and explore the Behm canal around Revillagigedo Island, behind the city of Ketchikan.

Another name is the Misty Fiords National Monument. We gathered advice from Scott, who visited last year and a cruising couple on YouTube who visited the year before to set ourselves targets to visit and off we went.

On the south end of Wrangell Island we met up with Adrienne and Peter on Amazing Grace. Liz met Adrienne virtually through the women who sail Facebook group, so we were looking forward to meeting them. With a lovely sailing and motoring combination we entered Fools Inlet ( what’s in a name anyway?) in a steady downpour. There was an island at the head of the bay that I wanted to anchor behind, since it was open to the south with a fair south wind running. Peter warned us about the large tree floating behind the island as well, but it still seemed the safer spot. We offered them a dinghy ride over for dinner as their dinghy was not assembled and Liz quickly got them during a brief break in the rain. Pressure cooking beans and rice is my specialty, so we inflicted this with curry on them for dinner. A lovely visit exchanging ideas of where to cruise for each boat and lots of discussion about careers and retirement.

At three AM I woke to the sound of something big scratching the side of Hongvi. Sure nuff, the maybe 150 foot long tree and branches had snagged on our anchor chain and cuddled up with us. There wasn’t a lot I could do but worry, so I did my best, waiting for daylight to try to free us. How about that: a couple of tree huggers hugged by the tree?

Turned out it wasn’t that hard to break free from getting snagged, and we headed south. Big wind forecasts from Amazing Grace’s Starlink satellite predictions had us diverting across Clarence Strait to avoid the next two days of storms forecasted there. It’s a big wind funnel and with southerly winds in our face, didn’t seem like any fun. 

Across the Strait is a tiny town of Thorne Bay, where we were the only boat on the guest dock. At $33 per night we could afford the three night plan.

A burger on shore sounded good, but the cafe’s equipment was down and a temporary closed sign on the door. Even a long stay outside the door with our best hangdog faces only evoked the owner to open the window and explain the closure.

Supposedly, the gas station further out had food as well. Well, sorta. Note to self: don’t get your expectations up with not having to cook food onboard and be really hungry.

Worlds worst milkshakes, “day old” ( at least) sandwiches, and Charley’s first ever corn dog that Liz warmed in the microwave completed our lunch. Why?

We found we could rent a huge Dodge Ram 2500 four wheel drive pickup for our visit to Kasaan, one of two Haida villages on the island. Liz maneuvered the big rig down the gravel road and into what we thought was the town. We pulled up to a house with an “open” sign in the window to see what it was, with no other identification outside. Darn, the door was locked, but as I tried twisting it, someone inside opened the door and asked us what we might want. We told her that we heard we could get a tour of the totems and whale house if we asked so…

She said it just so happened that Mike, who walked into the room was about to give the tour to another visitor and we could go as well. Mike Jones introduced himself as the president of the tribal corporation. Mike said “ follow me” as he got in his SUV.

We knew it might be special when a crow flew down from a tree and rested on the drivers rear view mirror. From behind we could see Mike open the window and let the bird walk across the dashboard to exit and perch on the opposite mirror as he drove away. We followed car and crow towards the other side of their property. Crow flew off halfway there.

Mike explained that Corey was his crow friend and has been around for about three years.

He showed us several old and restored totem poles and repeated stories about the poles inside the whale house. He had old pictures of people and poles on his phone he shared with us as he pointed to the poles in the pictures.

His story is that the poles in the whale house depict the following story:

Turns out that shame of lying to your community can kill you. That’s what happened to the old woman who took credit for feeding the community while her “ lazy” son-in-law slept all day after fishing all night and leaving the fish for them. When “lazy died and the truth came out, she died in shame. The two poles depict this son in law xxxxx

Mike shared more stories and synchronicities with us before he had to lead a meeting. We really enjoyed meeting him: smart, connected to the earth and the past, and will probably be a great leader for the future of the Haida people of Prince of Whales island.

We also used the big truck the next day to explore the El Capitan Caves on the northwest side of the island. Two young Forest Service interns guided us in, using headlamps to find our way. I think these 20 somethings were worried about us ( a few times twenty something old) climbing the 367 stairs to the entrance. The cave goes two miles into the mountain and we saw signs of ancient use by the Tlingit people, who would either seek shelter here or use it for religious ceremonies. The cave was “ discovered” by modern peoples only in 1984. 

I’m struggling with the shift from my winter bike adventure to boat adventure. I find myself anxious and nervous about the boat, the weather, and the wildness. I’ve been trying to examine this to see why the struggle. Once again it is in a privileged situation I presently live: big ol safe boat , retired with time, good health, and the wilds of Alaska at my doorstep. 

I spend my thinking trying to examine what is is I do feel. Is it undeserved privilege? Is it fear of dying? Fear of living fully?

The Stoics might tell me to look at the journey complete with my thoughts about it as a stoic test. How can I muster resilience in the face of this situation?

I can remember another time I was really anxious about my boat:

in 1986 Nancy and I finally took possession of our new steel cutter that we had built in England. We took advantage of the super strong dollar and got a great deal on a 36 foot steel cruising boat, even though it had minimal systems; very strong and very simple. ( like me in my youth?)

Total cost with everything was $57,000.

We weren’t rich and it wasn’t expensive. Even for 1986.

We both read about and heard stories on the dock about crossing the infamous Bay of Biscay with the converging currents, shallow bottom, fishing boats and tendency to attract foul weather. Looking back, I guess those were quite legitimate reasons to be anxious.

Once we took possession of the boat we had only seven days to be out of the country or pay fifteen percent VAT tax, of which we were determined not to pay.

So,in those seven days, we loaded up the boat with all our gear we accumulated at our B and B, bought as much food as we could, and stashed everything away.

We read about how cruisers expecting rough weather would prepare meals ahead of time so they could eat well and not have to cook underway, so we had five days of dinners ready made.

Off we left on our seventh day, clearing Falmouth harbor right into the divided ship highway that is the English Channel. Because of our deadline we were heading into the gales remaining at the tale end of Hurricane Charlie, that just crossed to the south of England all the way from the Caribbean. With my extensive sailing experience (Lake Erie only) and a brand new and untested boat, we quickly turned back to port, went straight to customs and immigration and pleaded our case: “ We are likely to die out there if we are forced to leave now. Any chance of getting a couple of more days?” 

Wish was granted under the “Force Majeure” which is a French word meaning “ iunforeseeable circumstance, like a Hurricane tail hitting England. This phrase typically is used if you have to seek shelter from a storm or have a boat breakdown and have to enter a country’s waters without clearing customs first. International Maritime law, I understand, but not entirely sure of the details.

Anyway, we were granted two more days, so next time when we left, the winds had mostly abated, but the seas were still leftover slop.

Sloppy enough that the waves would pick up our new twelve ton boat and toss it, or so it felt as I laid in my bunk and was lifted above the mattress. A wild ride it was.

Each day, we would throw overboard another meal as our seasick selves subsisted on crackers and water. Glad we prepared all those lovely meals for the fish.

We had the added challenge of leaving with a new sextant, three books explaining how to use it, and a pad of graph paper to plot our position, and a bag of motivation to find Spain using the sun and that horizon that appeared to be jumping around.

When, after five days Spain appeared on the eastern horizon, I thought it nothing short of a miracle. One of the books explained celestial navigation in an understandable way. 

We motored into the marina of Bayona at dusk, after business hours. 

I had prepared ( like a good accountant) the customs and immigration forms in both English and Spanish, flew my Q flag ( a yellow flag flying from the starboard spreaders indicating “ quarantine” until clearing in to a country). The next morning I told Nancy that she wasn’t allowed off the boat until I, the captain, had cleared us in. A “ follow the rules” kind of captain I was.

Just as I was about to step off the boat in the AM to clear in, an old sailor walked by, greeted me and said “ you can take that down” pointing to my yellow Q flag.

“I haven’t cleared in yet” I explained to him, being careful to follow protocol.

“ Nether have I, and I’ve been here six months “ he explained. “ This is Spain, and they don’t care”

Mister official ( me)removed the flag, threw away the dual language paperwork and finally relaxed.

Sending love,


We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.