Seward Yacht Club – Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

Seward’s small boat harbor viewed from the second floor balcony of the William H. Seward Yacht Club.

For either one of us, if, back when we were in our teens or twenties and trying to figure out life, someone had told us we’d own a blue water capable sailboat and belong to a yacht club, we’d have thought to ourselves, “Sure. Can I have some of whatever you’re smoking?”

But the Seward Yacht Club fits. Upon becoming members, we were happy to set aside any preconceived notions about “yacht” owners and to simply fall in with a group of really great (generous, hard-working, helpful, welcoming) people who are bound together by a love of boats and water.

Bikes and the live-aboard lifestyle often go together – this one is parked at the Seward yacht club. It’s nice to belong to a club where the dandelions are left to grow.

In addition to camaraderie, the club provides its members and their guests with showers, a nice kitchen in which to cook a meal, and a fairly extensive library on things nautical.

The small boat harbor at Seward mirrors the yacht club. Boats of all sizes are docked here. A lot of them belong to working fisherman – both guides and commercial fishermen. A lot of the boats belong to people who just plain like water and boats and fishing and have worked hard and been careful with their money, anticipating the day when they could own a boat. It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, where you come from, what kind of boat you have, or what you do on it. People pass each other and most offer a friendly greeting. People take care of their own boats and keep an eye on their neighbors’. It’s a community. Reminds me of the best parts of the small town in western Pennsylvania where I grew up.

Wish there were more places like it.

Stanley and the Lance

Our home on wheels the past three summers – a Lance camper perched on a 3/4 ton Chevy Silverado, here parked for lunch with a gorgeous view of Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska. Note the hitch for towing our C-Dory 22 Angler. This photo was taken on May 21, 2012.

Our first summer in Alaska, we lived aboard our C-Dory 22 Angler, GillieGillie’s pilot house and cuddy cabin made for a cozy nest, and the spirited little Toyota Tacoma that did the pulling over the 8,000 plus miles we drove that summer was, simply, the most enjoyable vehicle either one of us has ever driven. The 43 days we spent traveling in that rig made for a summer for the books. In fact, we talked for some time about traveling all across North America in this rig: exploring blue highways both on land and on water, envisioning jaunts down to the Florida Keys, out to Martha’s Vineyard, across the country to Catalina Island and everywhere in between. We even talked about launching the C-Dory at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and cruising all the way down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans.

But when we made the decision to move to Alaska, rent out our home in Sacramento, and spend our summers on the Kenai Peninsula…

A carved wooden hummingbird given to us by our daughter, Maia, on a trip that passed through a First Nations village in British Columbia greets us each time we open the door. Framed artwork and other personal touches make our camper a home.

After months of comparative shopping and researching campers and trucks, we still felt like we didn’t know as much as we would have liked. On the other hand, we knew enough to be comfortable making a decision. We’ve been very happy with both the Lance Camper and the Chevy Silverado 2500 it sits on.

The camper has a queen-size bed, lots of windows and skylights providing natural lighting, a three-burner propane stove with oven, an air conditioner and heater, a good shower and flush toilet, a TV and sound system, a great refrigerator/freezer, lots of storage space and enough room overhead to be comfortable for a person of my height (I’m 6′ 1″). We added a solar panel, which we highly recommend; even on cloudy days the battery charges. We also have a generator which, although rarely used, has been much appreciated the couple of times we’ve needed it.

A pair of Xtratuff boots – iconic of Alaska anglers and boaters – is ready at the entrance. 

Stanley is a name conferring strength and dependability – like Stanley tools. Fitted with airbags (extra shock absorbers), our three-quarter ton Silverado has performed superbly carrying the camper and towing our 4,500 pound boat. Given a steep mountain grade, Stanley shifts down as if to say, “All right.” Nothing more. No groaning and straining, no needless extra shifting, just a simple, straightforward, “All right” and up the mountain we go. And kicked into four-wheel drive, this truck has the grit to power through even loose beach sand with the camper – a test we didn’t intend to put the truck through and won’t be repeating.

We went back and forth regarding two options: gas or diesel, and dual rear wheels or single. We opted for a gas engine and single wheels, and after three summers of putting this rig to the test we can say without hesitation that with the right tires, single wheels are fine. And we’re happy we don’t have to deal with the noise of a diesel engine (or impose that noise on our neighbors). That being said, the fact is we don’t put a lot of miles on our rig. A diesel engine offers some real advantages to campers engaged in extensive traveling.

To anyone contemplating a rig like this, we have one firm recommendation: Start by choosing the camper you want, then match it to the right truck. 

This watercolor by Homer, Alaska artist Leslie Klaar depicts a boat much like our C-Dory heading off for a day of fishing in the great Northwest. It hangs near the door of of our camper.

Livin’ in a Van down by the River

Seward Harbor, May 21: This is the view from the back widows of our pickup truck camper, our summer home while we work to get Bandon ready to live on and to sail. Mornings start early up here, the first sunlight slanting into the camper a little after 5:00 AM – and getting earlier each day. Warblers and other songbirds are the first to wake. Too early for us. By the time we roll out of bed, gulls are calling and scolding and the high chirps of eagles have taken over. The fishing season hasn’t come into full swing yet, though a few engines can be heard making ready for a morning or a day on the water. Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and strips of bacon on the side some days, fried eggs others, cold cereal when we’re really eager to get moving, but always with a ruby red grapefruit, a glass of orange juice and a big mug of coffee made from freshly ground beans. Then the walk to the end of the dock and a full day of work. In the photo above, as you look down the open water between the docks, Bandon is the last mast on the left.

We’ve submitted the paperwork to the coast guard in order to change the name of our Island Packet 350 from Tarsus to Bandon.

This is a sound vessel, and she surveyed well, but there is always work. The first of it has begun with giving every square inch of her interior – from her beautiful teak-wood sole to her overhead – a good cleaning. Meanwhile, there’s sorting through all the items previous owners left behind. From can openers to canvas, much of it is useful, and much of it is not. All of it requires a decision: toss out, donate to the  local thrift shop, or clean and restow.

Everything we touch, clean, move off or bring aboard makes this boat that much more ours. Bandon will be our home. In the near-term, that means about three months out of the year. And so we are outfitting it as such. This means furnishing it with good dinnerware (we went with Denby for our plates, bowls and pasta bowls), stemware (we found Schott Zweisel Tritan crystal wine glasses that look and feel luxurious but are exceptionally break resistant), and quality bourbon/Scotch glasses.

We anticipate that Bandon will be a full-on sailing vessel in every sense, but we recognize that even the most serious sailing vessels spend most of their days at anchor or in port. We want those days to be comfortable and inviting.

Childs Glacier: When Ice Falls

The face of Childs Glacier forms a bank on the Copper River near Cordova, Alaska. This is the same Copper River famed for its runs of wild salmon.

Two days prior, we’d launched our C-Dory in Valdez and made the 90-mile run across a section of Prince William Sound to Cordova – a fishing village accessible only by air or water. The livelihood of many of Cordova’s 2,000 or so inhabitants is connected to the massive runs of salmon that ascend the nearby Copper River. A running event, the Alaska Salmon Runs Marathon and Half-Marathon road races, had lured us to this idyllic village. We hadn’t even known about Childs Glacier when we first put together our travel plans.

Just 400 yards across the river is a picnic area offering excellent views of the glacier.

As often happens at running events, it wasn’t long after we’d finished the half-marathon that we fell into conversation with another couple. They were planning on renting a car and driving out to see the glacier the following day. When they asked if we’d be interested in splitting the rental car and joining them, we didn’t hesitate. This would be our first opportunity to get close to a glacier.

We figured we’d drive out, snap a few photos, have lunch at the picnic area, and drive back. If we were lucky, we might see a moose or a bear along the way. This was before we understood the dynamic nature of sea-level glaciers. We were completely unprepared for what we would experience.

A shower of ice sloughs off the glacier’s face.

The width of the chalky-brown Copper River was all that separated the picnic area from this very active mass of slowly moving ice. Think of the cracking and popping sounds a couple of fresh ice cubes make in a glass of whisky. Now imagine those sounds magnified to amplitudes ranging from rifle fire to dynamite charges as ice almost continuously breaks away from the glacier’s face. We were mesmerized. The half-hour we’d planned on staying turned into an hour, then into two, and then into three.

We were witnessing yet another Alaskan phenomenon so large and full of energy that it is all but impossible to adequately capture on film or with words – an event you have to experience to comprehend, and we were here, experiencing it. Although neither Barbra nor I gave voice to the thought, it was probably on this day, watching and listening to this glacier, that the idea of moving up here began to root itself in us.

We sensed that something BIG was about to happen.

Suddenly, a massive section of ice below a seam we had been watching seemed to sag. A fraction of a second later a prolonged groaning, cracking explosion unlike any we’d heard before reached our ears as the face of the glacier fell away, collapsing into the water with a force that sent a small tidal wave curling toward us. The four of us looked at each other, eyes wide, jaws dropped, and quickly gathered our gear and scurried for higher ground. Seconds later, the wave hit the shore, inundating the area where we’d been standing only moments earlier. It was thrilling.

This large iceberg in Prince William Sound is the result of a glacier calving event in one of the sound’s fjords. Kittiwakes and gulls have claimed it as a roosting place.

Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Icescapes

Ball and Pyramid, Chukchi Sea, Alaska: This icescape, photographed with a Nikon D90 and a Sigma Bigma 50 – 500 mm lens, has been slightly processed to increase contrasts. The operative word here is “slightly.” Even to the naked eye, these frozen-sea icescapes are other-worldly.

Evocative, perhaps, of a scene from Star Trek, winter hikers venture across the frozen ocean out to a whaling camp. The gun the lead person is carrying is for protection. Although we saw no sign of polar bears on this day, friends of ours who took a slightly different path encountered fresh tracks.

Seal-skin boat at the ready, these men stand vigile for bowhead and beluga whales. Note the light blue block of ice they’ve cut out and positioned near their gear as a shield. These men are standing on sea ice just a few feet from the open sea. Last year was a good year for whaling in Point Hope, with three bowhead whales harvested. The hunt is dependent on the right ice conditions, which can be elusive. So far this year, no whales have been taken.

A well-equipped wall tent, complete with a supply of propane, serves as one of several whaling camps near the village. These camps are set up on sea ice, and may be anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles offshore. The hunters travel out to leads – areas where the ice is open. Winds and currents can open and close leads quickly, underscoring the need for whaling crews to be constantly alert.

Sea ice seem to be lit from within by blue light. Heaved up in pressure ridges and broken into fragments weighing several tons, it is easy to appreciate the arduous work “breaking trail” entails as hunters go out onto the ice to set up camps. 

A black and white composition heightens the contrasts in these massive blocks of broken ice.

There’s a sense of being somewhere other than Earth…

And then a flock of common murres skims across a lead…

Summer Blueberry Picking on the Arctic Tundra

Friends from Shishmaref after an afternoon of blueberry picking. Gathering a cupful or two of these small, tart berries growing in scattered clumps across the tundra was work… the fun kind. The following morning, we celebrated with a stack of blueberry waffles.

Accustomed to the six and seven-foot tall blueberry bushes of Oregon where Barbra and I had picked berries by the bucketful when I lived in Astoria, we were surprised to learn that blueberries were growing right under our feet on our walks through the tundra near Shishmaref. “There’s lots,” one of my students told us. “We’re going to go tomorrow. You guys can follow.”

“Follow” is the village English way of saying “come along.” And sure enough, once we learned to key in on the unmistakable Autumn-red of the bushes (if ground-hugging plants that top out at six-inches can properly be called bushes), we began finding an abundance of small, perfectly ripe, deliciously tart berries. The comparatively thick, woody stems of some of these bushes suggested that they had weathered quite a few seasons near the Arctic Circle. Growing among the blueberries were crowberries (locally called blackberries) and low bush cranberries. Elsewhere in the far north, including in Europe, there are cloudberries, perhaps the most delicious berry on earth.

We walked along in the late summer sun, finding patches of berries here and there, crouching and kneeling to pick, and then moving on to find another patch of tell-tale red. Birds were out sharing the bounty – or maybe the insects associated wtih the fruit: lapland longspurs, white-crowned sparrows, savanah sparrows, and other small birds.

The pause that refreshes. A berry-picker gazes across the open tundra on Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located, snacking on a bag of berries that probably aren’t going to make it all the way home. The red leaves near her feet? Yep. Blueberries!

Chiming Bells, Paintbrush & Bog Candles: Flowers of the AlCan Highway

Fireweed is as common as it is beautiful along the highways of western Canada and Alaska. It’s just one of dozens of wildflowers travelers can expect to encounter. Young fireweed leaves are a tasty addition to salads, and their petals can be used to make a beautifully colored ice cream.

Left: Prickly rose looks a lot like its domestic counterparts. This bud is within a day or two of bursting open. Right: I don’t know if one can properly talk about wildflowers growing in beds, but where we found a few chiming bells, there always seemed to be others peeking out from the shade where the soil was damp and the sunlight sparse.

Appropriately named bog candle lights up the shaded places where it grows..Northern Yarrow is common throughout the region. Dwarf dogwood hugs the forest floor.

Fireweed leans toward the sun above a yellow sea of monkey flower.

Indian paintbrush (red) and lupine (blue) are common throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Orange hawkweed is sometimes mistaken for Indian paintbrush, but it’s an invasive species – albeit a pretty one. Wildflowers seem to be everywhere in western Canada. This black bear is framed in fireweed stalks as he takes a break from browsing a patch of sweet clover. A road trip up the West Coast through British Columbia, into Yukon Territory and on to Alaska had long been on our lifetime things-to-do list. This is one of the world’s great drives.