30,000 Seabirds

At any given moment, there are as many as 30,000 seabirds roosting, nesting, flying and feeding at Cape Resurrection near Seward, Alaska. While kittiwakes and common murres are the two most abundant species, tufted and horned puffins, murrelets, guillemots, auklets, oyster catchers, cormorants, various gulls and other seabirds are also in the mix. Above and below: black-legged kittiwakes in the thousands take advantage of every available ledge.

The noise (and smell) generated by these colonies is as startling as the sheer number of birds. 

The cape also hosts large rafts of common murres containing dozens or even hundreds of birds.  

Horned puffins (above) and tufted puffins are also quite common. They use their thick, uniquely-hinged bills not only to fish, but to dig nesting burrows up to several feet deep. Once the nesting season is over, puffins spend the rest of the year at sea.

In flight, puffins look like large bumblebees, beating the air into submission with their stubby wings. In search of the small fish they feed on, puffins can dive up to 80 or more feet deep and are agile swimmers. 

On land, with their white bellies and dark backs, murres look a lot like penguins, and like penguins, they are very much at home in water. Murres have been recorded diving to depths of  600 feet. Their eggs are various shades of blue with brown speckles and are steeply pointed at one end to prevent them from rolling off the cliffs where they nest. 

Orcas Near Resurrection Bay

It has been an excellent summer for wildlife viewing in Resurrection Bay and surrounding waters. Twice, recently, we have found our C-Dory in the midst of feeding and playing Orcas.

The fishing has been slow out of our homeport of Seward, Alaska lately. For days now, thick fog has blanketed the outer islands and waters beyond, and while boats making long runs are still coming back with fish, even some of the charter captains have been struggling. Nearer to Resurrection Bay, water that recently was teaming with salmon, rockfish and halibut seems to have become deserted, with only a few, scattered fish willing to bite.

It’s still great to be out. An occasional silver salmon breaks the monotony of otherwise fishless hours as we scan the water for whales, Orcas, dolphins and other wildlife. The other day, between patches of dense fog we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by about two dozen Orcas! Maybe they had found the salmon that were eluding us.

We slowed down and idled among these killer whales for awhile, and then motored off in search of fish.

Getting Wasted on Cheap Vodka

“Higher! Lift it higher!” Barbra strains to hoist a lingcod of about 30 pounds that fell to a jig in 100 feet of water. 

Six-thirty AM and virtually no wind. Gaff – check. Rods rigged and ready – check. Plenty of knife jigs, lead-heads, twister tails – check. A fifth of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle…

Check.

It was our friend Jerry’s last day in Seward, and he had just enough time for a quick out-and-back morning trip. We were looking for his first-ever halibut, along with whatever else might be interested in our jigs.

With Barbra at the helm of our C-Dory, cruising between 15 and 20 knots over calm seas it took us about an hour to get to a place we knew would offer a chance to pick up halibut without running all the way out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea birds, vast shoals of herring, porpoises, seals and off in the distance the misty spout of a whale – all against a dramatic Alaskan background of green-sloped, snow-shouldered mountains, glaciers and  rugged, rocky – make any trip out onto the bay a good one.

We got a few fish, too. Jerry nailed his first-ever halibut (not to mention a 50-pound-class lingcod – also a first), Barbra got her hands on her first 30-pound lingcod, and I hooked another nice halibut. In three hours of fishing, we caught maybe half-a-dozen lings, the halibut, Pacific cod, greenling, a brilliantly colored sculpin and over a dozen assorted rockfish including blacks, yelloweye, quillbacks, and a beautifully marked tiger.

We kept a yelloweye, the tiger (photo on the left), and a halibut.

Since the lings have to be released (the season doesn’t open till July 1, and it is permanently closed within Resurrection Bay), the only one we pulled out of the water for a quick photo was Barbra’s 30-pounder.

But she brought an even larger fish to the boat that day, and the way she caught it was a first for us – one that gave new meaning to the exclamation “Color!” fishermen often call out when they get the first glimpse of a fish coming up from the depths.

Laid across the mouth of one of the most beautifully marked lings we’ve ever seen – a 40 pounder with striking, amber-brown spots – was a bright orange yelloweye rockfish! The jig hook was planted firmly in the yelloweye’s mouth, but had no purchase on the lingcod. The ling’s jaws were simply clamped down on its meal – and  it was giving every bit as good of a fight  as if it had been securely hooked.

We released several nice black rockfish, such as this one Jerry caught.

I knew, based on reading about events like this, that as long as we didn’t raise the ling’s head above water, he’d continue to hold onto the rockfish like a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope. So what did I do? I grabbed Barbra’s leader and lifted the ling’s head above water, causing it to instantly drop the yelloweye and sink back into the depths. Oops…

We thus missed a chance for a really great photo – the bright orange of the yelloweye lying lengthwise across the jaws of a massive lingcod. Ahh… next time!

Interestingly enough, the yelloweye didn’t look particularly damaged. When we released it, it scurried straight for the bottom.

And the vodka?

Jerry and I had read about fishermen using cheap booze – not a .22 rifle, not a .410 shotgun, not a billy – cheap booze to subdue fish. Halibut are notorious for going crazy once they’re on the deck of a boat. They’ve been known to bust up tackle, wreck coolers and even injure their captors. But with a shot or two of alcohol on their gills…

When Jerry got his fish up on the surface, I gaffed it right behind the cheek and pulled its head up out of water. As soon as the fish opened its mouth, Jerry poured a couple shots of vodka down its hatch. The affect was amazing. The fish slumped like an overserved patron passing out on a bar, and we slid it over the gunwale without a struggle . Once we had it on the deck of the C-Dory, we splashed its gills with another shot of vodka for good measure and then hung it over the side of the boat to bleed it out.

Easiest time of it I’ve ever had with a halibut.

Even the little fish are cool: Barbra with a brilliantly marked Pacific sculpin that tried to eat a jig nearly as large as itself.

Dall’s Porpoises – Tasmanian Devils of the Northern Pacific

You might see a pod of them off in the distance, plowing up water in plumes of bubbles and spray, arcing, crossing each others’ paths, zipping like mad across the sea’s surface. As they speed toward your boat, you can almost hear the sound effects that accompany the Tasmanian Devil’s entrance in the Warner Brothers Cartoons. “Dall’s Porpoises!”

At an average length of 6 feet (1.8 m) and distinctively marked in black and white, they look like miniature versions of Orcas. And they love small boats. On any given outing here in Resurrection Bay, you can almost count on a group of these speedsters showing up around your bow. And since they seem to prefer to play around boats that are running fairly slowly, they don’t discriminate between powerboats and sailboats.

Dall’s porpoises frequently come right alongside small boats, seeming to use the vessels as objects to play around and to race against. Here a group of them are cutting back and forth beneath our C-Dory.

Strictly speaking, Dall’s porpoises don’t really “porpoise.” They quickly surface, throwing up rooster tails of spray as they do, take a quick breath and keep on swimming. Fast. Photographing them is a matter of guessing where they’ll show up next and snapping shots until they do.

Like other dolphins and porpoises, Dall’s have teeth. They feed on small fish, such as herring. We’ve noticed that when we’re trolling for salmon, right about the time we spot Dall’s, our rods often start arcing and our reels start singing – probably because both the porpoises and the salmon are keying on herring.

Although groups typically contain a handful of individuals, there are times when they gather by the thousands. They roam both nearshore and offshore waters in the Northern Pacific. Unfortunately, although they are still common, hunting (several countries take an average of 10’s of thousands annually – an unsustainable number) and fatal encounters with fishing nets are reducing their numbers.

A good place to read more is in the book Whales and other Marine Mammals of British Columbia and Alaska, by Tamara Eder.

A Boat to Sail the Ocean Blue

We fell in love with this 2002 Island Packet 350 last summer while visiting Seward. Here she is hauled out for survey on March 3.

Her tip-to-tip length is 37′ 10″, on deck she’s 35′, and at the waterline 29′ 4″. Her mast rises 48′ 3″ above the water. Rigged as a cutter, she’s also powered by a 38 hp Yanmar diesel engine. Displacement is eight tons. Gross tons: 12. 

Below deck there are two staterooms (sleeping berths), one fore and one aft. The two settees convert to beds to sleep a total of six people. Teak deck, 6′ 4″ of headroom in the main cabin, and lots of storage space. The head, complete with shower, is located just aft of the forward stateroom. The fuel tank holds 50 gallons of diesel and the freshwater tank holds 100 gallons. There’s a dedicated navigation table, a dinette table that folds into a bulkhead when not in use, a smartly designed galley and easy access to the engine.

The gimbled two-burner stove with oven is the centerpiece of the galley. The narrow space allows the cook to wedge in and brace when the boat is moving. The microwave will go. 

Here she is this past summer with a fresh coat of bottom paint. She sure put a song in our hearts! (Click photo for larger view.)


Yelloweye & Grits: Breakfast Onboard Gillie

Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastus ruberrimus), a species of the Pacific Coast from Baja Mexico to Prince William Sound Alaska, is prized for its delicate flavor.

We’d spent most of the night on our C-Dory, drifting over deep water on Prince William Sound, admiring the moon and stars in the clear summer sky, talking about our life and occasionally dropping heavy, water-slicing knife jigs to the rocky bottom 160 feet below. Fishing was slow – a few small lingcod notwithstanding. The night was as still as a painting, the inky water mirroring the heavenly lights. With the engine cut off, the quiet was enveloping. When the yelloweye hit, I knew right away it wasn’t another ling. “Might be our yelloweye!” I said to Barbra as I worked the fish up from the depths.

And sure enough, it was. Barbra expertly scooped it up in the net, I did a quick fillet job, put it in a plastic container which I set in our cooler, and we headed back to port for some well-earned sleep. It was already early morning, though not quite yet dawn.

A few hours later when we woke, the sun was already high in the sky and the marina was bustling with activity. With daylight burnin’, we walked up the dock to the showers, blue skies and a few puffy white clouds overhead, deep green hanging on the mountains rimming the harbor.

Back onboard Gillie I put the Coleman stove on the aft deck, fired it up, and after Barbra made coffee I fixed a fisherman’s breakfast of southern-style grits topped with easy-over eggs and a couple of yelloweye fillets along with the collars – that especially sweet piece of meat that includes the pectoral fin muscle. (The collar looks a little like a lobster in the above photo.)

Not a fancy breakfast, but a special one. I kept the seasoning simple: a little sea salt and black pepper ground coarse. The steaming plates of food accompanied by French roast coffee made for a great start to another day in paradise.

A Perfect Night

Full moon over Prince William Sound near Whittier, Alaska

Summer days in Alaska are long–near midsummer, they are nearly endless. In our home states of California and Pennsylvania, fall is the season we like best. Up here, it’s summer.

We were camping on our boat in the marina at Whittier one summer in early August. The fishing had been only so-so, but with massive glaciers spilling into protected bays and rafts of sea otters in the nearby waters, the nature viewing was spectacular. On our last day, at about 6:00 p.m. with the sun out and clear skies above, Jack and I decided to take the C-Dory out for an evening cruise. We motored out as the last of the boats of fishermen and sightseers were heading in. We didn’t really have a plan. We just wanted to be out on the water.

Once we got a few miles beyond the harbor, we found a spot to fish and so we cut the motor. There was not another boat in sight. It was as if no one else in the world existed. Surrounded by mountain peaks dusted in the remainder of last winter’s snow, the sea was glassy-calm. Gillie barely rocked as we drifted silently with the current. The slowly setting sun, lit up the few low clouds. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the full moon glowed against a dark blue sky.

We began to pick up fish here and there–mostly small lingcod. The moon climbed higher in the sky and shone brighter and brighter, it’s reflection dancing across the water as our own movements caused the boat to rock. At times we broke the quiet with talk about different possibilities for the future. But for long stretches we were quiet, lost in our own thoughts, washed in this phenomenal night.

The shaker lings continued to periodically attack our jigs, and then Jack connected with something that fought differently. He worked the fish up from 160 feet down and I did net duties on a beautiful yelloweye rock fish. With a fish in the cooler that would provide for a gourmet breakfast the following morning, it was a good place to call it a night. I started up the engine and guided us home across the moonlit water.

C-Dory 22 Angler: A Boat for Alaska

The Gillie: Our 2008 C-Dory 22 Angler taking a cruise on the Sacramento River

“Gillie” is a Scottish term that refers to a fishing or hunting attendant, much like a guide. As such, armed with an excellent electronic fish-finding unit, a dependable 90 hp Honda engine (and an 8 hp kicker), and enough open deck to comfortably fish two or three anglers (four in a pinch), this boat has proved to be a reliable gillie. Barbra and I have spent many nights both on the water and on land snuggly tucked away in the cuddy cabin, and the dinette table in the pilot house is just big enough for the two of us to enjoy a meal. These boats are capable of storing an amazing amount of gear, the hull is tough, and on flat water loaded down with fishing gear and four medium-sized adults, it tops out around 25 knots (about 29 mph). Inside the pilot house with the Alaskan bulkhead door closed, making long runs is both warm and quiet. The 90 hp Honda trolls beautifully when we’re running rigs for salmon, and the shallow draft (well under two feet) allows us to get in the rocks in pursuit of species close to shore.

Ask a typical boat owner what the best boat is, and they’re likely to tell you, “The one I own right now.” That’s how we feel about our C-Dory. With a beam of only 7’9″, it’s a breeze to tow, yet it’s enough boat to feel safe on fairly big water–from the California coast to the ocean bays of Alaska. You’ve probably heard the quip that goes, “The two happiest days in a boater’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.” Not with a C-Dory. The happiest days are the ones we have it on the water.

Titanium Rings

July 14, Seward:

I don’t know why I want to go, but it has always been there. This restlessness. When I married Barbra, we exchanged titanium wedding bands with an inlay of white gold. The rings are incredibly light and strong and resistant to corrosion, characteristics sailors value in titanium. “Someday we will live on a boat,” we said.

A few months later we bought a small powerboat, a 22-foot C-Dory Angler. It is a beautiful craft, white with burgundy trim and lines pleasing enough that it regularly draws compliments. It’s 90 horsepower engine moves it along at 25 knots or so on flat seas. It’s got a pilot house to keep us out of the rain and cold, and enough open deck space for the two of us to comfortably fish from. We have spent many  nights sleeping in its cuddy cabin.

The first summer we trailered Gillie from California to Alaska, we slept on it 42 nights both on land and on the water. That summer we saw our first Dahl porpoises and our first glaciers, and we caught our first halibut and our first yelloweye rockfish. We made our first-ever longish run—90 miles from Valdez to Cordova. On another outing, we learned what it is like to lose the main engine 30 miles from port and what it feels like to limp home on the kicker engine with radar, depth finder and electronic charts all down. And we discovered that our little boat can handle fairly rough seas.

When the summer came to an end, we were left with two predominant  thoughts: We wanted to move to Alaska, and we wanted to get a bigger boat—one big enough to live aboard year-round.

The move from California was more easily accomplished than we anticipated. As it turned out, there is a demand for teachers in this state. We accepted jobs in the Arctic, hundreds of miles from roads. These jobs pay well enough to have allowed us to turn our attention to the passion of our lives: boats. There is scarcely a day that goes by that we don’t talk about them. How big? Power or sail? What kind? How much can we afford?

We read about them, we think about them, we dream about them…

We obsess about them.

These past two weeks we have been in Seward where we completed a six day sailing class during which we sailed 32 foot and 47 foot sloops.

Neither Barbra nor I had any previous experience with sailboats. But after six days of intensive instruction and learning, we now know how to use wind and cloth to make a fairly large boat move through the water.

And by acquiring that skill, we have at last come to an understanding of what we want in our next boat. I’m not going to put in caveats about the many things that could keep us from realizing our goal. We are mindful of those things.

But an important shift happened this past week. The pleasantly hazy “someday, somehow,” image of a dream has been replaced with the clarity and urgency and focus of a goal.

Our boat will be between 32 and 43 feet long. It will have a fiberglass hull, two staterooms, an efficient galley, and a cockpit designed for making ocean passages. It will probably be rigged as a cutter.

Our next boat will be comfortable, relatively easy to sail, and built tough enough to handle almost anything.

We will take it out on blue water, setting our course for places such as Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand and islands in the Pacific we don’t yet know. And Ireland and Greece and Belize and Argentina.

We think we can make ready in five years.

Get our finances in order, acquire a boat, improve our knowledge, hone our skills, set aside enough money to live off…

Cast off the stern line, cast of the bow line, unfurl the main and let her set, find the wind, and go.

This journey has begun.

Shades of Blue

 

In the summer of 2009, we drove over 3200 miles to arrive in Valdez. We were hoping to make it in time for a half-marathon in Cordova, Alaska. It took us six days to drive from Sacramento, through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Yukon Territory and finally through Alaska to Valdez. We drove hundreds of miles per day fueled by eagerness and the energy we absorbed from the incredibly beautiful drive and the daylight that lasted till late at night. The last leg of our journey was the 90 boat trip from Valdez to Cordova.

That sounds pretty doable, right? Never mind that we had just towed our boat behind our truck for all these miles. Never mind that our boat had only about 10 hours on the engine. 10 hours? Yes, Jack and I had taken the boat out of Bodega Bay into the great Pacific a sum total of two times.

We spent the night in the long term boat and trailer parking lot in Valdez. We had prepared the boat, the Gillie, for her journey. We filled her tanks. We scrubbed her down. We loaded her with all that we thought we would need to camp on her for a few days in Cordova. We woke early. She was launched pretty smoothly about 7 a.m. The water was flat. The weather calm and overcast. The further we were from Valdez, the more relaxed we became.

Being very new to boating with the Gillie, we constantly checked guages and our electronics to ensure that all was running smoothly. The main outboard engine was monitored to ensure that it was staying cool.

Ten miles away from Valdez, Jack noticed that the cooling stream from the outboard motor was slowing. It was not “pissing” as it should. Uh oh. We knew we had to shut off the engine and let it cool. Fortunately, we still had cell phone reception. I called the harbor master in Valdez to find out who could work on an outboard motor. Hmmm… no one. Yikes! Now what?

We have an 8 horsepower kicker that runs separately from the main outboard. We started that motor and limped back to Valdez to regroup.

Jack thought to call the motor shop in Sacramento to see if they had any advice. The guy who answered the phone suggested running something long and skinny up the exhaust to see if we could clear it. We found a long zip tie that fit perfectly. After a few pokes and a hard blow on the other end, small stones and dead bugs that had collected on the road spilled out. And then came the clear, strong flow of the cooling water. Thank you to Buck’s Outboard!

It was about noon at this time. The water was no longer flat. The wind had increased a few knots. Should we stay and miss the deadline? Should we go for it?

We went for it.

After we passed the place where we had turned back the first time out, we came to a finger of Prince William Sound which ran up as far as the Columbia Glacier. Someday I hope to see this glacier up close. Floating down from this finger where these beautiful sculptures of ice. The blues in the icebergs were amazing. They calmly floated away from the glacier carrying gulls and kittiwakes. The icebergs have these organic shapes that are captivating. The safe arrival in Cordova that evening should have been reward enough. The icebergs were the real reward.