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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Winter is Coming (the night is dark and full of...more dark)

Updated: Dec 14, 2020


Sitka laying it down


Have I mentioned that it’s raining? A lot? We’ve been frequently told by Alaskans that it’s been an extraordinarily wet year so far (Petersburg set a record for their summer rain: 31.6 inches) and winter is here to confirm the trend. Couple the rain with a pandemic and we’re looking at a long and solitary winter.


27 years in Minnesota and 31 years in Seattle prepared me for rain, but Alaska is taking it to another level entirely because of its potential for destruction. Mudslides, flooding, and washed out roads are wreaking havoc in quite a few communities here. Haines, in the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle and roughly 162 nautical miles from Petersburg, saw 10 inches of rain in 2 days which resulted in flooding and a landslide that destroyed homes and roads and displaced dozens of residents, two of whom are tragically still missing. Haines is considered a major gateway to the Canadian border and other points in the interior of Alaska. The Alaska Highway is now closed, so access to Haines is by sea only at the moment. And this is on top of a pandemic which decimated tourism and a rough fishing year to boot. Ketchikan, Craig, and Juneau are also experiencing flooding and landslides. The rain itself is not unusual, but the rates of rain are. I’ll let you decide whether warming oceans are a part of this phenomena.


The aftermath of heavy rains in Haines


No landslides here in Petersburg, but the rain, until just a couple of days ago, had been unrelenting. Add to this truncated daylight (the sun rose at 8:18 this morning and will set at 3:11 pm), and it’s clear we’ll have to come up with coping strategies that don’t include day drinking and sobbing uncontrollably. Truthfully though, there’s a coziness to our lives right now. The wind howls and the rain pours, and we are as snug as can be on the Endeavour. On a good day, I can sense that the boat is filled with the aroma of baking and cooking and there’s plenty of time to dig into projects we were happy to put off while we were exploring, hopping from anchorage to anchorage. We also understand the fallow months pave the way for renewal in the spring. On a bad day, I might invite myself to be the solo guest at my very own pity party (we should have picked South America, dammit!). Happily, that doesn't happen very often and I'm able to think practically about what we can do to better survive (or hopefully, thrive in) the winter. What we’re missing at the moment is getting out like we’re used to, be it a hike, a kayak, or a bike ride - in other words, mobility. I think we're both missing the constantly changing vistas we enjoyed on the hook. Even Bella seems to be saying, “Yeah, hit me up when it’s over; there’s no way I’m going out in that. And when is dad bringing down the dinghy, anyway?”

This is essentially our backyard - the view from the aft deck (November). That's the fish processing plant on the right. The fish offal that ends up in the water attracts a lot of gulls and sea lions.

The front yard, from the bow at sunset


Our dock is quiet right now as most of the fishing boats have packed it in for the winter. The handful of liveaboard folk have found someplace warm in the lower 48 and won't return to town until February or March, when the heaviness of winter lifts a bit. So basically, there are more seagulls than humans at this juncture.


Petersburg has a wonderful community facility that includes a gym and a pool. It's free to residents and frankly, it was one of the features that sold me on the town. A big part of my mental and physical health plan is tied to that pool. I wake up before 5 most days (4:53 seems like a regularly occurring time) and leave the boat a little after 6:00 for the ten minute walk to the pool. I can do my laps, stretch in a hot tub, shower, and be back on board by 7:30. This routine keeps my body, heart, and mind in a healthier place. As a bonus, I love early morning walks before anyone else is out and about. It allows me to to indulge in one of my favorite activities: speculating about the people inside the houses I pass.

When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. --Garrison Keillor

We continue to be carless for the moment. Everything we need to do in town, we can easily hoof it. There's a taxi service here that is very reasonable, so if we need to get to the airport, we're covered. It would be nice to stretch out deeper into the borough to check out the great hikes we've heard about, but we've been offered a car loan for day trips and will gradually venture out of town as time permits. Our beautiful public library and most excellent local bookstore are minutes away by foot, to my (almost) daily delight. When we returned from our DC trip to meet our new granddaughter, we got tested at the airport and then quarantined on the boat until our results came back. Ordering groceries to be delivered to our dock was a cinch and free, so when I'm not feeling like a lovely 2 mile roundtrip walk, I can give my carrying muscles a break.

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The beautiful muskeg that surround Petersburg

Our dock, as seen from downtown (we're on the right, second to last slip).


Covid has touched Petersburg lightly compared to many other larger Alaskan communities. We have had 21 cases and no deaths since the pandemic began. Like other places, there are a swath of folks that won't/don't wear masks, but enough businesses mandate them, so I feel quite safe here. Gathering isn't really happening at this point, so meeting folks has been a slow process. I'm grateful everyday that Bill and I enjoy each others company as much as we do. Our days are spent working in different spaces - Bill working furiously on his business and me (less furiously by design) on my consulting work - and we come together in the evening. We have quite a few folks we Zoom or FT on a regular basis and that keeps our feeling of connection with others in a good place. Getting regular pictorial updates of our new granddaughter helps, too. By the way, she is healthy, gorgeous, and I'm sure months away from playing chess.


Nightly convocation of gulls just outside our door. It's LOUD.


Bill and I are slowly starting to look at all the footage we took over the summer. I've been posting my own photos exclusively so far and below I've included some of his. I love revisiting the places we've been through the photos and videos. Bill keeps a spreadsheet of where we've been to date and since leaving Seattle last April, we made anchor at 51 different spots (about half of which we spent multiple nights) and visited 13 town marinas. We're looking forward to getting back out there come spring!


Skagway

The glorious Skagway marina. We initially ducked in to wait out a storm, but stayed longer because we loved it (and the water is a gorgeous emerald green).

One of the rare transient fishing boats we saw during our 12 day stay. No other boats arrived or left while we were there. Our own private marina.

And our own private town, apparently. Here's what Skagway's main street looks like without cruise ship traffic. The community is used to 7,000-12,000 people a day during high season. I love supporting the local bookstores in towns impacted by the pandemic.

Cuddle puddle of otters. These critters are so entertaining to watch. As they are in the water, they are on the dock - pretty oblivious to us and completely attentive to one another.


Tracy Arm

I recall Bill had a cocktail with chipped ice berg that night...


This is a great perspective shot. That sucker was huge.


We spend a lot of time at the bow, just taking it all in.


Bay of Pillars

The view from the house that hailed us by radio with an invite to stop by upon our arrival into the Bay (which we did, more than once). That was a remarkably lovely string of days.

This is one of the narrowest channels Bill has ever navigated, with a four knot current to boot. In channels like this, I'm posted at the bow to look for anything that might not be on the chart, like a honking big rock. Our charts are good but they're not perfect, so a team approach is essential.

We anchored in Honeymoon Bay and took a bushwhacking hike that led us to this wonderful spot. It hurt to get there, though. We had rashes from the Devil's Club for days.


In Between Points

Exploring Stag Bay (sorry about the gnarly sound)


Bella and Bill checking crab traps so Patsy can....


...make crab cakes. We quickly learned you only need one of these babies. They are delicious but rich.


Nothing but sea and sky behind our scruffy selves

Pro tip: if you've got a tedious task, do it in a gorgeous setting. Here I'm stripping the skylight down to the wood.


When Bill and Bella go out exploring, she can be found on the edge of the rib, which tugs at my maternal instincts. Even at high speeds, she likes the wind in her hair, apparently. She's only fallen in once...and that did nothing to dampen her ways.


When I'm around, she tries to temper it.

Plenty of shipwrecks in SE. Nature and time do a good job of working around them. That's the Endeavour in the background.

Twilight shot from the shore at Francis Anchorage, just before we hit Petersburg for the winter.

Our low-slung dog objects to river crossings that are deeper than a few inches. She just stops at the edge of the water and casts that doleful look up at us.


Wolf tracks. Those are some big wolves...

Speaking of big tracks, check out this bruiser. Bella is beside herself wanting to get closer and I'm not sure what she thinks might happen...a play date?


For now, my friends, that's it from beautiful Petersburg.














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