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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Spring Has Sprung (in theory)


Petersburg North Harbor


There are moments here that stop me in my tracks. I’m busy with an outdoor chore and all of a sudden, I’m witness to one form or another of nature’s dance. While I have not become inured or complacent in the face of these moments, neither am I shocked or surprised anymore. I’m grateful to have a front row seat to some pretty cool magic: two large bald eagles battling for the top of a nearby sailboat mast, thousands of seagulls scrounging the harbor waters, the call of the heron as it enters and exits its nesting ground, sounding like a prehistoric chicken, or an undulating dusty pink anemone attached to the dock slowly ingesting a large Dungeness crab. And this is all within yards of the boat. This is what I think keeps us here, wanting more: the immediacy and power of the natural world, a world where we as humans are not in the center of anything, as we often assume and behave.

Petersburg shipwreck between Kupreanof and Mitkof islands


I’ve also been struck by the way that nature refigures itself to conform to what we humans so often leave behind. One of our favorite hikes on nearby Kupreanof Island includes the bones of a 1919 Model T in one direction and an ancient, once-cherry red pick-up truck cab riddled with bullet holes in the other. Moss, a most prodigious carpet layer, drapes over anything in its way. Trees teeter over old steel parts aided by shallow roots tenuously gripping in drenched soil. The lichen-covered gravestones in the old cemetery and the shipwreck just off the island, overtaken by moss, mold, and rust – each no longer exactly distinct from their surroundings but instead begrudgingly subsumed by them.


Kupreanof Island

You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here. Alan Watts

Even though there’s been higher than average levels of rain and snow, March (and now April) has lifted our spirits following a dark and isolated January and February. Vaccinations helped, so that’s part of it, but more daylight is the chief variable and I’m rather shocked at the difference that makes, even though I probably shouldn’t be. At times, it felt like being robbed of important sensory input. The months of dark and dormancy have a strange impact on time, slowing it to a crawl, but they also pave the way for possibility and renewal, as is true every year. Next winter, however, I think we’ll have to break up these months with a trip or two to somewhere warm so we can drink up sunshine, in slim supply any season here. In this week alone, we’ve gotten a 360 degree preview of all the possible weather that Alaska can produce and I’ll tell you, it’s not kidding around.


Kupreanof Island

As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can. John Muir


The harbor is waking up as the commercial fishing boats are off and running. The steady line up of vessels at Petersburg canneries are taking on ice for their holds. Later, they’ll return with their catch if they haven’t already handed it off to the roving tenders. That’s when the opportunistic synergy between fishing and the sea lions and seagulls becomes apparent as they feed on the offal. For our part, we love the old fishing boats, both wood and steel. From our slip near the end of the dock, we have a great perch from which to watch their comings and goings and now our frequent walks in the harbor reveal more empty slips than fishing boats. Petersburg is one of the handful of ports where the boats can provision and repair in Southeast Alaska: food, gear, and ice, as well as the services provided by welders and refrigeration pros. And perhaps a bar run or two. All seem eager to get back on the water after a long winter season. Amen to that.



We’ve been making our own preparations in advance of leaving here at the end of the week, when we’ll set off again for the next 6-7 months, returning to Petersburg in fall, when the weather turns again. It’s not lost on us that the moment we are all becoming more fully vaccinated, Covid cases are dwindling, and it’s possible to more safely gather in small numbers, we won’t be here to get to know the town as anything other than a town in a pandemic and new friendships will need to go remote until we return. Bittersweet, because we’re also looking forward to getting back out there and waking up to a new anchorage every morning. It’s like living dual lives that alter only when the seasons do, just like the fishing boats.


The Mother Ship


Bill designed and made plans for a shore boat that is better suited to shallow inlets and rivers so we can explore in areas that our current dinghy cannot. He hired an excellent local welder to fabricate the design and together they treated the project as a prototype, testing various aspects until they were both satisfied. If all goes well, Bill may take the design to market. She’s a great shore boat and has already generated some local interest. That Bill. He’s a goer.


The talented Josef Quitslund working on Bill's design


In fact, he’s on the aft deck right now, braving rain and sleet, welding a frame for our new chest freezer and we have a comprehensive (and rather daunting) list of other chores that need doing before we let go of the lines. It’ll be my job to sketch out our route, make sure we have the provisions we need, and make sure we’re tidied for this next phase which is sure to include some pretty choppy water. If it’s not bolted down, it needs to be stowed.



Although we covered an enormous number of nautical miles last year, there’s so much yet to see and a large handful of spots we’re eager to re-visit. We have friends and family arriving starting in ten days, spanned across the summer, and are eager to traverse our route with good company. Even my introverted self is looking forward to receiving visitors. Back in late February, we picked up some friends in Ketchikan and made a loop around Revillagigedo Island. It was good to be off on an adventure with good company for a long weekend. We took turns on galley duty, hiked (after Bill used the dinghy hull to crack a path through ice that hugged the shoreline), and just hung out. It was great to be on the move again and see the island in its winter finery. We easily covered the roughly 130 miles in two days and some change as we passed through the Misty Fjords, a spot we missed on our entry to Alaska last July. John Muir compared these fjords to Yosemite because of its similar geology and glacial morphology. The walls in the fjords are nearly vertical and soar several thousand feet above sea level and range below the water line nearly 1000 feet more. Beautiful. Traveling by boat in winter is one of our favorite things to do; the unpredictable and sometimes gnarly weather at sea keeps one on point and engaged, which seems to do something to our insides that we both like.


Some scenes from our circuit around Revillagigedo...




photo credit: Ray Troll photo credit: Ray Troll


Even the upper end of the river believes in the ocean. William Stafford

We're both so grateful for the new and excellent friendships we've found here and and will be eager to return come October or November. For now, we're looking forward to getting out and exploring, seeing more otters, whales, bears, waterfalls, glaciers, rock walls, and everything else in our crisscross path, including more crabbing, fishing, and baking. We’ll venture beyond Southeast for the first time starting in August when we’ll be hosting two different sets of scientists. The first will be centered in Kenai National Forest to record receding glaciers and the second a fossil hunting trip with paleontologists. These back-to-back trips will be off the Gulf of Alaska which has its own wind and current idiosyncrasies, so we’re due for some real-time learning. We’re hoping August will bring us ideal conditions but realize we need to be poised to duck for cover at a moments notice.


We'll check in soon!


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