A Sleeping Giant
A Grey whale snoozes beside the Audrey Eleanor, the clank of the anchor wakes him and with a single graceful sway of his tail he moves on.
Audrey pulled away her moorage in Haines, Alaska on July 26, 2006. Haines was difficult to leave; we’d established wonderful friendships on the docks and in the community as well. Richard from the Eleanor S would no longer commission us to spy on his daughter, she sometimes spent the night onboard the Eleanor S. He wanted to know whom she was holding hands with. She prepared her own reports for us to pass along to Richard her vigilant father.
Carl off of Driftwood Charters had married Jenny and was no longer perusing Canadian girls. We had enjoyed many Dungeness crab fests at his little house tucked into the Alaskan wilderness with an outlook over Mud Bay. While we ate he quizzed us on available Whitehorse women. His honesty was refreshing; Carl was looking for a wife. Not a maid or a nurse, but a wife who would be his partner during his life. He had criteria to follow and was direct in his approach. Jenny ended up being his lady.
This does not remind me of Carl, but it jumps into my mind as part of the usual gyrations of northern romance. I am reminded of a time when my brother Joel and I were in Haines years ago. He was chatting up the barmaid and asked what had brought her to Alaska, her reply, ‘the men’. His eyes lit up at the response. When he asked if she had been successful in her search she replied, “The odds are good and the goods are odd.” I laughed for days over this.
Judy from the homebuilt ship the Arcturus, gave us her personal copy of a book that she wrote on edible plants in Alaska. The University of Alaska was in the process of having it published, it supplied us with invaluable information on edible plants and seaweed in Alaska. I developed a fondness for sea asparagus.
B.J McLean from Whitehorse donated a copy of her CD ‘January Thaw’ I’m not sure if it helped with the homesickness or made it worse…it sings of our Yukon home and is still one of our favourites. B.J.’s songs bring the northern night skies and friendships crawling up onto your lap anywhere that you go. She suggested that the Captain pay particular attention to the “Plump and Friendly Northern Girl” song. He loved flirting with her.
My brother Kurtis had decided that we needed an escort from Haines to at least Hoonah, Alaska. Kurtis uses ANY reason to escape to the sea. Our escort grew to include my parents, Ricks’ youngest daughter Alanah, Kurt’s wife Janine and my little niece Jianna Mia, who was five months old at the time. Jianna is a very special little girl; we waited for her for 10 years. She finally arrived after her parents spent a most wonderful long weekend boating in Alaska. Mia her middle name, stands for Made in Alaska.
We end up dropping the hook behind Sullivan Island the first day out; our 8 knots couldn’t out run the weather we ran into alongside Eldred Rock. The next afternoon we motored into Hoonah, Yukon. That is not a typo; there were more Yukoners on the transient dock than Alaskans. The flying bridge on Audrey is a most social place. The Captain deep fried fresh halibut on the back deck and the fishing stories on the bridge grew as the pinks and purples of the summer night sky reflected back at us in the glass calm water.
Fishing in Hoonah! For some of us in the north, this is what summer is! Icy Straight is thick with marine life; salmon jump out of the water saying pick me, look at me, pick me. I know, I know I’ve heard the sea lice theory, I prefer mine. People say that Icy Straight is a living aquarium and I agree. Kurtis heads out to scout out the fishing ground. We are the mother ship, most meals are done aboard Audrey and the jolly jumper is easy entertainment for Jianna and us as well. A little wake action winds up the jolly jumper and gets that baby swinging in all directions.
At 8knots (approx. 10mph) we get to see a lot of things that I suspect a person misses at 20+ mph. Porpoises love our bow wake, they ride it and roll and race each other. If you lie on the bow and hang your head over the edge they roll over and make eye contact. They will continue to stay in the wake with eye contact as long as you can carry on an ANIMATED conversation with them. It’s harder then it sounds, a one-way conversation with a marine mammal runs out of steam quickly, what to say to a porpoise? A friend of mine who knows these things says very loud female opera keeps them fascinated for half an hour at a time…I have yet to try.
We catch up with Kurtis at the fishing ground, anchors are set, fishing lines are baited with squid and dropped, the games have begun. Once the engines are cut, the quiet drops down off of the mountains and the sea sings its song. We are surrounded and serenaded by choruses of whale song. Their calls pulse deep through the black water and resonate in our bones. In their world, even in a large boat we are comparatively very, very small. Thank goodness they tolerate us and allow our intrusion into their life. The sonar and depth sounders are silenced, these waves can kill sea life, yes especially whales. Turn off you sonar around sea life and especially Whales.
The whale songs remind me of when I was a child. I would swing apiece of garden hose through the air for sound effect; it’s a close second to the sound of these humpback whales. I touch Audrey’s hull and the vibration of their songs carries through the wood and in to my hands and vibrates to the tips of my fingers. I have contact.
The majority of the halibut we are catching are chickens, (roughly 40lbs and less) and in my opinion the best eating. I tell our boys at moose hunting season, you don’t eat the antlers; try to shoot a nice young bull. The smaller the horns, the younger the animal and the better the meat. With some of the big old bulls I believe that the horns would be better eating than the tough old critter it came from. I believe that the same applies to halibut. Mercury levels in fish rise as the age of them increases the longer the time frame of growth, the more the toxins accumulate in the flesh of the fish.
With all of our concentration focused on hauling in halibut we don’t notice that a sleeping giant has slipped quietly into the neighbourhood.
One by one we notice our visitor, we need to pay attention and pull in our fishing lines. Everyone tip toes and whispers as we edge closer to the port side of the boat. There, a few feet from the gunnels is an incredible sight, a sleeping whale. This giant male is suspended beside us in the sea and is very close to the same size as the Audrey Eleanor. We are in awe, we whisper to each other in amazement. Then we begin to worry, he hasn’t moved for a long time, is he hurt or possibly dead?
We’ve never seen a sleeping whale before. The whale is drifting with the tide. It is getting closer and closer to the Audrey Eleanor. The Captain decides that we need to pull anchor, if the whale wakes and is startled we don’t know how he will react. One quick flick of his gigantic tail could be the end of us all. We have been told that the few disastrous whale encounters have usually been while they are asleep or they are startled out of sleep. The clank of the chain and anchor wake him and with no effort he moves his colossal tail and leaves us to wonder.
The captain now begins to wonder about his crew. I have put Audrey in reverse and begin to slowly back away…holy shit! Our day’s catch of halibut is tied under the swim grid off the aft deck. I cut the engines quickly and we all rush to see what kind of damage has been done. The screws (propellers) have perfectly cut off the tail of one fish and slightly chewed the tail of another. Tonight’s supper is intact and I am singing with whales, hallelujah!
Elfin Cove is located on the northwestern corner of Chichagof Island, west of Juneau, Alaska. This is just on the outside edge of the inside passage, still in fairly protected waters, the outer edge leads straight to Japan. We have been repeatedly told that our boat will not be able to navigate the narrow and shallow dredged channel that leads into the protected inner harbour of Elfin Cove. ‘God hates a coward’ are what the Captain responds with, his war cry. Audrey is soon safely secured to the dock, in Elfin Cove, in the inner harbour.
What is this place? We have entered another world. Crooked little houses in bright colours hang off of the rocky cliffs. Flowers are being grown in anything that will hold dirt: an old boot, hollowed out log, rusty teapots sprout beautiful blooms. There are no cars or trucks, there are no roads! Boardwalk webs connect house-to-house and house to dock. Fly here or boat here, lack of access keeps the crowds down in this place of magic. Halibut are caught off of the dock, still. Who could have discovered this tiny harbour tucked into this remote Island? What a jewel was uncovered with the discovery of this tiny harbour, they first explorers must have been elated to discover this magical space.
Monsoons in Alaska. Ask anyone who has boated here and they will verify the truth of this. Tonight it is pouring, a deluge. Our 32-volt chest freezer onboard is loaded with the last few days catch of halibut. Dinner is in the saloon of the Audrey Eleanor; packed wall to wall with steaming people our house lights slowly fade and are becoming dim. The heat from the oil fired Dickinson stove in the galley is competing with the chill and wet of this down pour, setting off its own clouds of condensation. Lights are fading into black and it is getting harder and harder to see, we think it’s from the steam of soggy people, but begin to realize that the lights are dimming from some other sinister reason.
Power is being lost. Oh no, the freezer is full of everyone’s halibut, how long will they stay frozen? Salmon and crab cakes are forgotten as everyone throws their solution in the melting pot of ideas. On board one of the fish boats the electrical repair guy, he knows nothing about a 32-volt system. He recalls that his grandfather had one on his fishing boat, but that’s extent of that. By process of elimination the Captain has narrowed the solution down to; we need to go to Juneau for parts, quickly, before the fish thaw.
Kurtis heads over to Pelican Cove the next afternoon, we have to wait for flood tide to leave the inner harbour. Audrey and the crew make waves for Juneau, possibly Hoonah. Old systems can be fixed; this is why we have maintained our 32-volt system. Over all it mostly works and if it doesn’t replacement parts can either be found or made. Basic mechanics puts things right again. 32-volt light bulbs are expensive; on the other hand I have not had to replace a bulb in years.
We experience our first real Ocean swell as we leave Elfin Cove. Open to Russia and Japan the sea rolls into the mouth of Icy Straights. Swells are telling you that there is a storm out on the open ocean somewhere distant. Pay attention, it could be coming your way. Swells warn you to take cover on the inside. As fast as our 8 knots can go we are heading to Hoonah. The rise and the fall of the great swells underneath us are exhilarating, this is fun. It makes it difficult to see the whales.
Great greys are slapping giant tails on the Ocean; they breach and fall back into the mighty sea with huge waves that ripple mini tsunamis. These giant whales are in their home element. Dahl porpoises zip in rings around each other, looking like baby killer whales; they remind me of puppies chasing each other’s tails. I love their grace and ease as they slice through the water with smiles on their porpoise faces. I now realize the reasons that salmon begin to spring in the air for no apparent reason; someone underneath them wants them for dinner. They are trying to escape.
Manoeuvring parts of this and bits of that the Captain has managed to coax the compressor on the fridge and freezer to produce cold again. With the freezer crammed to capacity the halibut maintained its temperature, so no spoiled fish.
P.S. The morning that we finally left Hoonah, I woke to find an incredible gift sitting on the back deck. Richard Boyce’s daughter that we were supposed to be spying on in Haines was in Icy Straight commercial halibut fishing with her father…she left me a giant barnacle as a going away present. The size of it is hardly believable. Almost two years later we ran into her in La Paz, Mexico. She was working as 3rd mate onboard the “Sea Lion” a National Geographic ship that was doing exploration work in the Sea of Cortez. You just never know, where are you now Lucy?