A Covid Summer in Alpental and Alaska Part 1: Juneau and Gustavus

Before coming to PLI we spent most of the summer at our home in Alpental. This is really the first time we’ve done this in a long time because of our expanding boating adventures.

We had forgotten how special summer is in the mountains. We enjoyed our time with neighbors, watching stars on the deck and watering our new plants from the large landscaping project that started last fall.

Because of our nephew’s wedding in August we hung around longer than we normally would have after the Canadian Border opened on the 9th. This allowed us to really enjoy the hummingbird hatchlings in full flight. I’m sure we will spend at least part of August in the mountains from now on.

Our neighbors Cindy & Brian even painted a pickleball court on the road in front of their house and we’ve all had a blast playing in the beautiful mountain setting despite the crazy bounces from the rustic court.

Between our time in the mountains and our “Grandma and Baba Camp” with James and Robert, our summer was lovely.

We even got in a real True Love Travel Adventure up to Alaska. I’ve never been and Jim was only there once in the winter for work early in his legal career.

This spring we decided to book an Alaska trip when we weren’t sure we would be allowed to go to Canada at all. The result was a wonderful Alaskan Adventure. What an experience! The cruise ships didn’t start heading up to Alaska until we returned, so we enjoyed our travel without the huge cruise ship crowds. It really was a perfect moment in time to visit the far North.

Wow, Alaska is big! Everything about it is big. The size of the state, the size of the parks, the glaciers, the mountains, the rivers, the fish, the tides. The only thing that is small is the population (it’s about 750,000 people, the same as the City of Seattle’s) and number of regular flights connecting Juneau with Fairbanks.

We began our trip with a spectacular flight from Seattle to Juneau. The plane had some “issues” (according to the pilot) so we could only fly at 24,000 feet instead of the usual 38,000. This meant of course that we could much more clearly view the spectacular mountains and fjords of northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, which created one of the most beautiful flight we’ve ever taken.

Just flying from Seattle to Juneau you gain an hour because it is so far to the west. After landing we had time and lots of light to explore a bit. During the short Alaskan summer, the sun sets very late, and it takes a long time to get dark outside (in Fairbanks it never got completely dark), and then the sun rises early. It’s certainly strange, and everyone’s internal clock is a bit off, but not really unnerving.

We packed a lot into 10 days. Our goal was to see Glacier Bay, go fishing, kayak with humpback whales, then fly to Fairbanks and take the nice train that connects Fairbanks with Anchorage with a very special stop at Denali National Park. With very little time to schedule our trip we used a local travel agent recommended by Wendy Perrin Travel and as usual we weren’t disappointed.

We only spent a day and two nights in Juneau which is a very small town (about 30,000 people) despite being the Capitol of Alaska with a big dock for large cruise ships. It can only be reached by boat or plane and for us the prominent features were the surrounding parks, mountains, forest and glaciers. We stayed in the lovely Jorgenson House B & B which was about 3 blocks uphill from “downtown.” While in Juneau, we went for lots of long walks through town, saw the Capitol Building and wandered the “back roads” so to speak. On one of our “walk abouts” we passed a local hero, Ralph Austin, lumberjack and prize winning log roller. You can look him up. As is our way, we said hello in passing and he began to share his story including YouTube videos of one of his winning log rolling competitions.

Serendipitously, our friend Robert DeWolf was in Juneau while we were there, on his way back to Seattle after this year’s leg of his decade-long kayak adventure from Olympia all the way up to Juneau. His ultimate goal is Skagway, and he should reach that destination in the next year or two depending on how long he spends in Glacier Bay first. Now that’s an adventure! Again because of Covid and other life experiences we hadn’t seen him for 2 years. We shared a meal at one of the local restaurants and learned more about his latest Kayak journey.

After Juneau we took a small plane to Gustavus (“Gus Stave Us”). Juneau only gets 34 days of sun a year, so we didn’t expect a clear day, but we did get some beautiful views and it didn’t rain. Our lodge in Gustavus (The Bear Track Lodge) was perfect. The founders built it with logs about 20 years ago and it is now operated by their adult children and their spouses. The service was great, the food was abundant and delicious and the excursions perfect. The only issue we had was that all of the activities began really early in the morning and we are not generally early morning people. But the activities were amazing so it was definitely worth getting up early every day for a few days.

Because of our early flight to Gustavus, we arrived at the lovely Bear Track Lodge well before lunch. It had been a busy week before our trip with our grandkids and we didn’t get much sleep during our two nights in Juneau because Juneau wakes up early as well. So after we settled into our cozy room at the Lodge we expected to rest a bit but ended up taking a 2 hour nap. After the nap and a quick lunch we walked out to the nearby giant mud flats in search of animal tracks and found bear tracks, moose tracks, and more. Another big thing about Alaska are the tides. They are huge. We were walking the mud flat at a 14 foot high tide and it didn’t come close to filling the bay. Filling the bay requires a 25 foot tide, and they occasionally get tides that big there.

Our first excursion was taking the 100’ long National Park boat to Glacier Bay and seeing one of the big “calving” glaciers there. The bay is actually quite young in geological years. 400 years ago, there was no Glacier Bay, but over the following 100 years giant glacier carved out the bay and came very close to where Gustavus is now, about 65 miles away. We know this because Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver took very good notes about the extent of the glaciers during their explorations. During the last 300 years, the glacier has steadily receded, but occasionally grown. The National Park boat was pretty new and I befriended the captain and got lots of time on the small decks on either side of the bridge. The Park Ranger who narrated our trip was extremely interesting and knowledgeable and filled with awe in his surroundings. When packing for our trip we traveled heavy and packed two different kinds of rain gear (heavy and light). Today was a heavy rain gear day because it was cold and rainy. With my zoom lens in hand we saw everything, black bears, brown bears, whales, rafts of otters, mountain goats, birds and finally one “arm” of the amazing glacier. Our excursion traveled up up the Johns Hopkin’s Arm. It is closed earlier in the summer because seals birth their pups there but it had reopened to the tour boat about a week earlier.

The part of the glacier we saw was spectacular and it even stopped raining. I particularly love the small floating “bergie bits” scattered on the water approaching the glacier. On our boat we met new friends from southern California, Charlie and Susan Ware, who we would encounter many times during our Alaska Adventure.

One of the other things we discovered on our trip is that the National Park Lodges in Alaska are different from the grand lodges of the lower states. In Alaska, the NP Lodges we saw were more rustic and in the case of Glacier Bay, over 60 miles from the main attraction. But in Alaska there is a good alternative because there are lots of small private lodges just outside of the National Parks that are very nice and because of our travel agent, that’s where we stayed. Good choice. After our cruise to the Glacier we walked the very nice nature trail around the National Park Lodge while waiting for a car to take us back to the Bear Track Lodge.

At dinner that night we met Beth Foster. She is a retired teacher and fellow family business owner of a restaurant in central Massachusetts. She’s the traveler in her family and had come to Alaska after her other trips had been cancelled by covid. We shared meals and learned that she loved fishing, so we convinced her to join us on our fishing excursion the next day.

Again, we were up early for our day of fishing with our guide Captain Dave “Remo” Riemenschneider . He was a perfect guide for us, knowledgeable, interesting, a true adventurer and he liked listening to country music while we fished. We fished for a few hours and caught several halibut. Using salmon heads and giant hooks we landed our first 30 pound halibut. Once we checked to make sure it was the right size (not too small or too big), and decided to keep the fish, our guide quickly killed the fish with a blow to the head and then cutting out its heart and ceremoniously returning it to the sea. I thought it was pretty cool but, Jim thought it was unnecessarily Aztec. The second fish we hooked was truly a whopper. It took all three of us to reel it in close to the boat then Remo actually lassoed its tail and let it tire out before removing the hook and hauling it into the boat for a quick photo. This big fish over five feet long (66”), just 4” short of the “mega” sized fish that can be kept. Because it’s best to return both the smallest fish and the large breeding fish, you have to return all of the largest fish unless they are over 70” long. Captain Remo said our fish was the largest fish any of his customers had caught so far that year and estimated that it weighed over 150 lbs. After taking a few photos, Captain Remo returned the fish to the sea. The final fish we caught was another 30 pounder. We could have kept fishing. We were allowed another 40 pounds of fish, but our guide read us perfectly and asked if we would rather take an excursion to another little local town: Hoonah.

Hoonah is usually a short stopover for cruise ships on their way to or from Glacier Bay. It’s such a small town it’s hard to imagine it filled with thousands of cruise ship passengers, but fortunately we had it to ourselves. We walked along the main street, shopped in the tiny gift store, had a delicious mocha latte and then met a local fisherman friend of Captain Remo and toured his fishing boat. Our cruise back to Gustavus was a bit windier and bumpier but after making it back to dock, I learned how to fillet our fish. To me, if you are going to fish you need to clean it yourself and honor the catch. Cleaning and cutting these big is fish hard but Captain Remo was a good teacher.

Back at the lodge we were served another gourmet Alaska meal and slept well.

Our final Gustavus excursion was kayaking with whales. We shared our kayak adventure with another young couple from DC. Our guide was great and we got to try two person kayaks for the first time. We kayak often on the True Love, but our kayaks are smaller, lighter and one person per kayak. These large heavy two person kayaks were perfect for our whale watching adventure. A small boat took us and our kayaks across the sound to a shoreline where eagles, bears and whales are usually abundant and we weren’t disappointed. Our guide packed a yummy lunch and we had our meal on the same shoreline where a young black bear was foraging a mile a way. He was completely uninterested in us.

Our boat “taxi” driver was from the Seattle area and like many of the people we have met in Alaska he’s drawn to Alaska every summer. He’s created two distinct tracks. His winter track in Seattle is as a biologist for hire and his summer track is as a boat driver in Gustavus. Many of the people in Alaska live dual lives. Usually in sunnier climates in the Winter months but they return every summer to parts of Alaska for fishing, boating, trekking, guiding, etc.

They are calm, hard working, old souls, who enjoy the wide open spaces and glorious scenery of Alaska.

Back to Canada . . . After Alaska

Watching the clouds clear, Listening to the small waterfalls, Evening descends over Princess Louisa Inlet, Peace surrounds us.

Because of Covid and border restrictions it’s been two years since we have found ourselves again floating on the calm magical waters here. As those of you who have followed our boating True Love Adventures, you know that PLI is truly our happy place. We’ve never been here so late in the season but it’s still awesome. The tips of a few maple leaves are just beginning to turn yellow for Fall. The waterfalls are minimal except for Chatterbox Falls although they are still trickling at our favorite anchorage, creating the waterfall surround sound experience that we enjoy so much.

After the joyous wedding of Chad and Brittany on August 21 at Bow Lake (near Bellingham), we spent two two long cruising days to get to PLI. As predicted, the skies were overcast and we had a cool SW wind as we left Bellingham. But true to its summer name, the weather cleared as we approached the Sunshine Coast and we were able to travel on the fly deck with the top open to the sun. Although we followed the Canadian entry rules by filling out the Arrive Canada app, uploading our vaccine records and receiving our negative Covid test, we were still unsure how it would go at customs.

Because we began our cruise into Canada from Bellingham, we planned to clear customs at White Rock, which is a lovely town just north of the Canadian border near the “Peace Arch.” Unfortunately, the dock there was not suited for larger boats, especially at low tide. In fact we’ve since learned from other boaters that the big docks there were wiped out last year in a storm. So instead I called into the main phone number for Canadian Customs. It was busy initially, but after a few attempts I got through to a very helpful border official who took down all our key information over the phone and sent us on our way, just like they usually do in a normal year. Amazing!

After clearing customs, we rode a big flood tide north as we cruised past the City of Vancouver and Howe Sound, which is the beautiful fjord that takes you almost all the way to the Whistler Ski Area. Enjoying the afternoon sunshine and light winds we were able to ride the tide all the way up to Pender Harbour, where we anchored for the night.

Monday morning the Captain had a zoom conference so the First Mate took the dinghy to the public dock and walked from there to the grocery store to get some fresh fruits and veggies because you aren’t allowed to bring those (or alcohol) into Canada. And then we were off with another flood tide and favorable winds up Agamemnon Channel toward Princess Louisa Inlet.

Cruising 40 miles down the big fjord and then into the beautiful little side fjord that is PLI always feels like coming home for us. We easily set our anchor and shore tie at our favorite anchorage, about a mile away from Chatterbox Falls and the handful of boats that were anchored there or tied up to the one dock managed by the BC Parks Ranger. We still had time to explore a bit on the dinghy and the First Mate enjoyed the best paddle boarding in the universe on the calm waters, literally paddling over the reflection of the mountains. Malibu Camp at the tidal rapid entrance to PLI was almost empty, probably because of Covid and the end of the Young Life camping season. As I write this we share the four mile long fjord surrounded by tall mountains with only six other boats and the two sight seeing seaplanes that flew in today, stayed for about an hour, and then flew out.

The air is cooler in late August, not cold, but not warm either, similar to early in the summer when we usually hang out here. Still the water is 70 degrees so we plan to do some floating later. The seagulls that usually nest in the inlet have done their thing and flown the coop. We haven’t spotted any eagles yet. I’m sure they are out searching for salmon. Early in the summer we see the very new baby seals and mothers. But now there is more of a little community. When we were out paddle boarding this morning they surrounded Jim. We’ve never seen so many together here.

Although there have usually been some clouds/fog coming over the mountains during the day, the last two nights have been clear. A bright moon is rising, but it doesn’t overtake the mountain top until after 3 AM, which creates a fun star watching opportunity in the first few hours after the the sun sets and the sky turns dark.

Last night we laid out on our camp cushions on the bow and watched the Summer Triangle appear (Vega, Deneb and Altair), followed by a great collection of stars, satellites and even a few shooting stars. We always sleep well here. Although the sky lightens up with the sunrise we don’t get direct sun until late morning this time of year so its easy to sleep in.

What is that in the corner of this star photo: shooting star? UFO?
The full moon rising.
Saturn rising and reflected in the water.

We weren’t sure what to expect coming here so late in the season and we don’t have time to do much exploring in Canada other than our visit to PLI. But it’s still absolutely worth it. We’re here for 6 nights and then we head back to the little town of Egmont (about an hour closer than Pender Harbour but much smaller), where we will pick up Stephen and Kaysi Kushner.

Stephen and Kaysi were the “silver lining” of our Covid time. They are friends we met and spent lots of time with in Hawaii during the first months of Covid when we happened to be at our condo on Oahu. They taught us how to improve at pickle ball and we taught them how to play bridge. After leaving Oahu we’ve continued our friendship with regular zoom calls and by playing bridge online. I’m not sure our paths would have crossed for such an extended period of time, but we are now lifelong friends and we can’t wait to share our favorite place with them.

Chatterbox before the rains.

Our first two days in PLI were full of sun, star watching and very dry conditions. But as predicted a rainstorm came in Thursday, bringing the 10+ cliff side waterfalls back to life and filling the inlet with the stereo sounds of water falling everywhere. Chatterbox falls is filling nicely and the surrounding waterfalls are adding to the chorus. In early summer the smaller waterfalls flow steadily as the high mountain snow melts, but at the end of summer it takes a rainy day to ignite the surrounding smaller but very tall waterfalls that surround Chatterbox Falls at the head of the fjord, and it’s well worth a day or two of rain to see PLI in all of its waterfall glory. We had a similar experience on the hike along a river on the southern island of New Zealand that led to the Tasman Sea.

Chatterbox after the rain.

Friday night I turned on our underwater lights to attract fish and the fish came but so did a seal. What fun it was watching the seal swim and spin in the light!

Today is our last day before we head back out for a few days. It’s sunny again! But with the sun the high waterfalls diminish back to a late summer flow. This may be the first time the weather forecast was correct up here a week in advance.

Today we explored a new little trail that follows the path of one of the high waterfalls. It’s hard to believe that after 12 years coming up here we never explored the fresh water pools from the waterfall directly across from our anchorage. This is a known spot to clean off and wash clothes in fresh water if you don’t have abundant water on your boat. It’s not a necessity for us and we usually just swim in the salt water. But because of the low run off from the lack of snow melt it was easy to get to it. This late in the season the underbrush is dying back and the trail around the waterfall is obvious. So we scrambled up and got pretty far up the waterfalls. We couldn’t do this during the heavy runoff the last two days, but today it’s perfect.

Fresh water pool before the rain. See the heart rock?
Fresh water pool after the rain. See the rainbow.

I continue to take lots of photos. I don’t know which is more beautiful the mountains and the waterfalls, or the reflection of the mountains and the waterfalls in the water.

Ripples in the water behind Jim’s paddle board intersecting the current.
Sunset at Egmont

Our next blog we’ll share our Alaska Adventure from July.