Thursday, 22 September 2011

Cortes Island

Many of the islands in between Vancouver Island and the mainland were discovered by Spanish explorers, so have names like Quadra, Sonora and Cortes. After spending most of August in Victoria, I went with my brother Steve up to Cortes Island where he has his boat moored in Gorge Harbour. 

Cortes is reached by two ferries: the first takes 10 minutes to cross from Campbell River on Vancouver island to Quadra island, and the second takes a bit longer to cross from Quadra to Cortes Island.

The Ferry port on the far side of Quadra Island, looking towards Cortes Island
On a ferry, hitch-hiking is best done with the voice rather than the thumb. Talking to people on the first ferry enabled us to cadge a lift across Quadra Island to catch the next ferry as well as a lift on Cortes island from the ferry terminal near Whaletown to Gorge Harbour.

The pond at the Gorge Harbour campsite
 The settlement of Gorge Harbour has the feel of a campsite in the woods - in fact, that's exactly what it is. There is a little shop, a building containing toilets, showers and laundry facilities, a restaurant and a small open-air swimming pool and a rain shelter (very necessary given the climate); all of this is centred around a set of floating pontoons so small it could hardly be called a marina. Out in the bay there are various mooring buoys with boats tied to them, and it was one of these that Steve's boat, Jabula was tied to.

Our first mission was to find Steve's canoe, which he had hidden in the woods. This enabled us to paddle out to his boat, which served as a good home for us for the next two weeks, treating Jabula very much as one might treat a cottage in the Welsh Mountains. As it happened, the weather was often rather similar to Welsh Mountain weather - although slightly warmer.

Arriving at the boat
Jabula from below

there's a rudder in there somewhere

The harbour takes its name from the narrow rocky channel, that links it to - and separates it from - the Strait of Georgia. We took a couple of forays out from the harbour out into the Strait, but didn't get much further due to winds that were too light or in the wrong direction, a fair amount of growth on Jabula's hull and rudder, and our general unwillingness to spend money on fuel given that this was a sailing boat. But we didn't need to go far to enjoy it:

Captain Steve

 We experienced a beautiful simultaneous sunset and moonrise, with sky gradients in the style of the latter work of Roy Henry Vickers.

Realizing that our navigation lights were not working, we found an overnight anchorage off another part of Cortes Island.

Landfall in the Smelt Bay Provincial Park
In the morning went ashore to explore a small provincial park, before returning to the boat and sailing (yes, we did do some sailing!) back to Gorge Harbour. 

We did some exploring around various parts of Cortes island, tramping along gravel roads and trails that wound through the temperate rainforest and emerge at various desolate fjords and inlets.

After one damp day of hiking, we braved it through the close-treed wetness of the rainforest to a final awesome cove with a dead fridge, an old saucepan, some beautiful rocks, no orcas and a rainbow.

Steve and moonrise

 There are wolves on the island, and one night we were sure we heard them as we wandered through the dark.

Steve on his way to go and wash the dishes

Diary excerpt, Sep.19th 2011:

Today has been an awesome day! We have accomplished a mission that had been on the cards for some time: canoeing around Gorge Harbour. We made a figure-of-eight loop around the harbour's two small islands, making a ring around Ring island, and getting a tan going around Tan island.The beautifully clear waters were teeming with life: thousands of purple starfish, many jellyfish, and many seals which popped their heads up from time to time.
Log dump and old cargo barge.
We had lunch sitting on the rocks on the far side of Ring island, and later swam off some rocks further round.  

Steve canoeing around the harbour

After two weeks spent in this way, we started to follow leads for jobs at ski resorts on the mainland, and very quickly, we found that we were being offered interviews  in Whistler, which quickly necessitated our departure from Cortes.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Alaska Railroad

Being back on a continental landmass, it felt appropriate to revert to train travel, and the Alaska Railroad was well-placed to acheive this. I managed to get a seat in the "Gold Class" section of the train, with its observation windows allowing us to see up to the tops of the mountains we passed through. 

The curious shape of the observation glass leads to some interesting reflection effects
 This trip was a far cry from the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian journey that I did the year before. Those are very functional working trains, whereas this was entirely geared to tourists - for most of my fellow passengers it would have been a day-trip to Seward from Anchorage as part of a longer Alaska holiday.

  A lot of the tourists on the train were reading magazines or playing cards or computer games - I couldn't think why, as I was enthralled by the jaw-dropping scenery ... glaciers, lakes, complicated river formations with multiple channels... 

The train was well-staffed with a team who gave us a good running commentary on the terrain we were passing through, and pointed out wildlife when it appeared along the way. Another perk of the gold-class section was the ability to go outside to an open-air section where the roof was glass, but there were no side windows. 

 We saw a number of grazing moose, as well as moose tracks alongside the railway, leaping salmon, at least one bald eagle, and a black spot on a distant hillside that may have been a bear.

At an average of about 26 miles per hour, the train took us through the mountain wilderness that is the Kenai Peninsula, over and along a narrow rocky gorge, and then down into a wide open valley that led us back down to sea level.

 Here we wound our way alongside a body of water called Turnagain arm: so-named because when Captain Cook was searching the area for a way through to the North-West Passage, he found that since it was yet another inlet he had to turn again and keep on searching.

We were warned that the mud flats that appear at low tide are treacherous as they look solid and may feel like concrete to walk on, but can instantly turn to quicksand as the water rises.

Coming into Anchorage, we passed crowds of young people waving to the train, and caught a rare glimpse of Denali, North America's highest point, just over the horizon.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

To Seward with Swedes

I had initially been planning to leave the boat in Kodiak and get on the ferries, but I decided to stay on until the mainland so that I could ride part of the Alaska Railroad. Two crew did leave us in Kodiak: Theo, who ended up getting a job there on a fishing boat there, and Eva-Lisa who had joined us in Dutch Harbour and decided to fly to Anchorage and travel the northern part of the Alaska Railroad.

That left 4 of us to sail the boat across to the mainland, and me the only non-Swede aboard. It was a pleasant crossing - a beautifully clear night motoring between islands and fishing boats, followed by a beautiful dawn and a sunny day watching the snowy mountains of the Kenai peninsula get closer and closer.

We continued up the coast past the entrances to many fjords, and then found the entrance to Thunder Bay - a fjord which looked from the map like it might serve as a good anchorage. As we passed between the rocky walls of the fjord's entrance, we noticed some little splashes ahead of the boat, and then suddenly there were flashes of black and white coming out of the water all around us. My first thought was orcas, but no - these were smaller: a group of black and white dolphins breaking the surface of the water as they raced along beside the boat. I have since found that these were Dall's porpoises, a member of the dolphin family, and it seemed as though they were welcoming us (or guiding us) into their inlet. Thunder Bay was an idyllic bay with waterfalls, forests, stony beaches, caves at water-level, valleys bearing the last remainder of snow, a solitary bald eagle perched on a fallen tree ... and misty mountains towering above, with the sun going down behind.

 Seward is situated up another much larger inlet, amongst mountains and glaciers. On the way there from Thunder Bay, we passed many whale-watching boats which seemed to be failing to spot any whales. We passed a few rocks and small islands, and some large chunks of ice floating in the water of a glacial lake separated from the sea by a narrow beach.

There is an unwritten law that I will now write: If you arrive in Seward on a sunny Sunday afternoon, there will be lots of boats in the water.

Some of the boats we saw were sailing, but the wind wasn't quite the right angle for us and we motored up the fjord and into the harbour.

On the first day there, I walked up the 921 metre high Mount Marathon, which is the site of the annual hill-run on 4th July. In 3 hours, I thought I made pretty good time (especially as I took the longer route up, rather than the 3 mile round trip), but this does not even compare to the record time of 43 minutes, or the average race time of an hour and a half.

View from Mt. Marathon Summit

Looking down to Seward

At Seward, two more Swedes came and joined the crew, so as I packed up my belongings, the boat became awash with Scandinavian syllables, flowing around my ears like a babbling brook!

I left Lars and his reformed crew to take Jennifer on her way, and checked into the Moby Dick Hostel, to experience the luxury of a bed that was not constantly moving.