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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Southeast Sound Bath and Winter Plans


Iceberg from Endicott Arm


As we deepen into our adventure, the visual continues to inspire. Despite the miles we’ve put in, we understand we’ve barely scratched the surface and that indifference to or even complacency with this rich landscape is unlikely, a reality well-corroborated by those that have been out here for years or decades. What is striking me on this last leg, however, is the auditory experience. Our initial immersion into the natural world here was full-on overwhelming; there was so much to take in that at times it was swallowed whole rather than consumed in disparate features. Now that our senses have been jolted awake and we are over the enormity of it, we can start to home in on the parts that make up the whole. The soundscape, when focused on specifically, is relentlessly engaging. The harsh and insistent raven call, the truculent soundings of huge sea lions, the blow of the humpback and their other-worldly song, the midnight carousing of sea gulls, and the cry of a baby otter looking for its mother can stop you in your tracks if you let them.


When keeping a safe distance from whales or glaciers, the separation can create a time delay between when an event occurs and we’re able to hear it. When a large glacier calves off sections of itself, one can see with the eyes the downward slough of ice and the resulting displacement of the water beneath, but it isn’t until 3-4 seconds later that you hear the impact and it sounds like a rifle shot echoing in a canyon. Another example is the humpback breach. One sees the vertical thrust, ¾ of the whale’s massive form above the water line, then what looks like a slight pirouette (but probably isn’t), and the side fin makes contact as 100 tons of whale hits the surface. One hears the impact with the same time delay – one…two…three – the sonic waves reverberate outward from the point of contact. In passages and other somewhat protected waters, the sound vibrates off the mountains in a rounded way, like that same rifle shot, but muffled with a cosmic pillow.


Bill and Bella catching bait fish in Petersburg


At night in the narrows between Kupreanof and Mitkof Islands, sea gulls congregate in the strong pull of the current. Their numbers are great and as a result, their cries obliterate all other sounds, save, perhaps, for the throaty sea lion. It sounds like the lot of them are arguing hotly, one suspects over herring. Hard to ignore. Even our catches, like salmon and crab, contribute to the sound bath with their clicking claws and last-ditch thrashing. Early in the morning, ravens drop their own catch on the surface of the top deck to crack mussel shells, so one hears the initial drop, followed by a fevered pecking. Fear, hunger, excitement, determination, impatience, impending death, and elation – all of these states help create an auditory concert that contributes strongly to our experience. Bella, too, is guided by her ears to a great extent. I think this sense is especially appreciated when the rain comes and visibility drops and boy, does the rain ever come.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

A couple of weeks ago, as we were making our way to Petersburg, we passed through a Humpback feeding ground and had a wonderful few hours surrounded by dozens of whales blowing and breaching. We drifted, engines off, and were afforded a 360-degree view that I’m still wrapping my head around. To share that patch of water with so many grand creatures makes us feel at once a part of their world while also understanding our insignificance to it.



A couple of days before this, we explored Tracy Arm and its glaciers. It was a gorgeous sunny day trip, as we were anchored just outside Tracy and didn’t have to worry about finding good anchorage in the very deep waters of the North and South arms. We encountered a rare (for us during our trip so far) Orca as we entered the North Arm. They move through the water so differently from Humpbacks, who, despite their length and girth, seem so agile as they blow and dive with deep bends in their forms. Orcas seem rigid in comparison, all right angles, but still sleek and beautiful.


Tracy Arm

Tracy Arm


Speaking of insignificance, we continue to be humbled by the speed with which the weather can and does change around here. Small craft advisories can pop up seemingly out of nowhere, forcing us to regroup and rethink our next moves. We are continually reminded of the wisdom of having plans B and C at the ready so we can duck in out of the gusts in a bay protected from the prevailing winds. This is only inconvenient if we get attached to our original plans, and thankfully, we learned long ago to let go of that habit. Over the last years and certainly since we hit Alaska, we tend to see being sidetracked by nature as an opportunity rather than a problem. We’ve discovered some lovely spots this way when we weren’t necessarily seeking them.


Tracy Arm


Another unsought-after moment came as we exited our Tracy Arm anchorage to find the biggest iceberg we've seen to date glistening in the sun. As we drew closer to it, we saw how big that sucker really was: longer than our vessel and at points, twice as high. As we circled the berg, it's profile kept changing, looking like a massive, solid block of ice at one point, only to morph into what looked like 4 smaller bergs cobbled together. It was stunning in its massiveness and depending on where the sun was, a gorgeous glacier blue striated with white



“You must go on adventures to find out where you truly belong.” – Sue Fitzmaurice

I’m not sure when it actually happened. We’re tumbling along, seeing amazing things, feeling like we’re smack dab in the middle of a cracking good adventure, and all of a sudden I realize that rather than this adventure ending anytime soon (as adventures seem to do), it has been converted to a way of life, with no end in sight. Why is this significant? Well, I think I tend to see adventures as distinct moments in time quite separate from the day to day considerations of living. They often feel single-minded, removed from monotony and a certain type of practicality. The adventures that have meant the most to me were thrilling as a result of the intense focus and lack of long view. But what happens when we combine adventure with a longer view? How do we sustain the adventure (and its spirit) while planning for the future? I guess some folks exist like this, but I never have. The coming year will be a test of sorts.


Pelican

Skagway


Gulls lined up in Juneau to watch the sunset


Testing burgers in every port is an important task

and we're good at it!


We’ve done a nominal job of exploring Southeast. I suspect we could turn around and re-explore this huge expanse over and over again and still find new corners. We’ve certainly covered the substantial towns: Ketchikan briefly, Craig, Sitka, Hoonah, Pelican, Haines, Skagway, Juneau, Petersburg, and Wrangell. Add to that 2-6 bays or coves in between each town and still we’ve barely scratched the surface these last three months. Our survey of the towns had another function in that it helped us determine where we’d park ourselves for the winter. Continuing to explore as we have been will be more difficult and dangerous as the weather and early sunsets constrain us. Each town we visited had its own potential, but after two and a half months in Alaska, we landed on Petersburg as our spot. It’s small but well-resourced, the people we’ve met are kind and welcoming (including couples who have been exploring the area by boat for years, some decades), the geography will allow some winter trips to intriguing spots, there is a community pool and gym, a beautiful library, an airport, and a good grocery store. The harbormaster has been incredibly accommodating and will find us a good berth in either the south or north harbor. One of the key features for me is the layout of the harbors in relationship to the things we need. During the long winter, it matters to me to get where I want to go without a dinghy ride or a long walk with a lot of groceries. This practical consideration aside, we always compare notes on what feels right. Each SE town we've been through has been filled with enormously kind people and a great deal of natural beauty. This was actually a difficult decision, but we're happy with our choice.

Petersburg - North Harbor


This gives us roughly another month of exploration before we tuck in for the season and we’re both looking forward to this last stretch of days, knowing we’ll be more stationary soon enough. We’ll need more freezer room and maybe a stop in Juneau again to fully provision. We’ll also be preparing for the coming spring when we hope to head west and then south to explore the Aleutian chain. But before all of that, we’ll be taking a trip to Washington DC in November to welcome our first grandchild. Come spring, I hope to entice my kiddo to join us for our spring journey after he graduates college in May. We miss our kids and are looking forward to finding ways that our lives can intersect.


Taiyasanka Harbor


In the meantime, a good chunk of my time is happily spent procuring and preparing food. Bill is gradually learning these waters and the best places to fish and crab (with considerable assists from the folks we meet along the way). I’m continuing to bake A LOT, which will come in useful in the Petersburg winter as a bartering tool for smoked salmon and other treats we don’t have. I made a lovely and rustic caraway rye bread the other day (my first free form rye bread) and am eager to try new things. I stopped buying store-bought bread a while back and we don’t miss it. I have to say, however, that I’ve burned the crap out of my hands and wrist a couple of times. Wrong oven mitts or I'm prone to a wee bit of clumsiness.



We had a healthy Dungeness crab haul a bit ago and I became more adept at cleaning, cooking, and cracking them. I got a great recipe for crab cakes from an Alaskan fisherwoman and was very happy with them – very little filler, but rich and flavorful. We don’t get tired of repeats around here, so I made a killer crab omelet the next morning. There’s a food dryer in my future, too, so we can make our own dried fruit and jerky and I’ll start to play with smoking and pickling as well. How lovely that something as important as sustenance brings me so much satisfaction and pleasure.



“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” – John Muir

And finally - over the last several months, I've been taking some pics from our stateroom's porthole. They're a little wonky, but seem to create little postcards rather than sweeping vistas - just one more perspective from which to view and record the world. I'll keep working on 'em!





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