The Myriad Islands
An Outer Coast Journey in Southeast Alaska’s Wilderness
By Blain Anderson
C50 BOB • Hull # 18
Published in MAINSHEET Magazine Spring 2014
This sailor’s dream: To sail into the open Pacific breezes and set our course through the thousand greened islets of granite, limestone, and greywacke of the outer coast of Alaska – where white foam and bull kelp frost the edges and indigo oystercatchers and cormorants pepper the tops. Gulls salt the edges and Steller sea lions groan atop smooth marble like they can’t believe they ate the whole thing.
The Myriad Islands are the cookie crumbs of the outside coast of Baranof and Chichagof Islands. If one just counts those with trees, there are more islands along this coast than Minnesota has lakes. Listening to the VHF weather radio, the familiar robot voice dispassionately reads the text forecast – “an inverted trough with light easterlies. …larger seas offshore”. We pull out the charts.
The natural hot spring to the north is the hedonistic destination for six of us. It is sometimes surprising to me what folks from Southeast Alaska will endure to lie outside in warm water. Mountaineers frequently slog a three day trek over Baranof Island across its glaciers and rugged peaks, slashing through the brush just to get to the thermal pleasures of Warm Springs Bay on the other side. Kayakers will paddle for a week. We laugh that it would be cheaper and easier to fly to Hawaii.
Our route takes us out past the Coast Guard base and the end of the airport runway. Leaving Makhnati Island to port, we spy the rusting WWII gun emplacements and crumbling bunkers of Fort Rousseau.
Farther into Sitka Sound, the hard angles of town smudge as Mt. Edgecumb shrugs its volcanic shoulders ahead. I slow to troll for king salmon at Vitskari Rocks, hoping for just one.
The pole leaps and we’re hooked -a purple sequined back flashes with every desperate leap. Netted, I gill her to bleed out quickly. She’s fat-bellied and beautiful and enough for three dinners for six. I say a quiet thank you to her. Admittedly, I’m not spiritually-inclined, but on landing my first salmon 16 years ago it seemed right to do. It felt like a gift. At first, I was surprised to find that most anglers here do the same thing. We might differ on politics, but we share a common pot-luck party mantra that we are fortunate indeed to live where we can still catch such a wild treasure. We linger at St. Lazaria Island; its columnar basalt flanks bend and break to form black caves. A swarm of red-necked phalaropes dance over the water surface.
It’s still 30 NM to Khaz Head so we trim for a beam reach; the maw of the open Pacific to port. Because of the arc of Alaska’s coast, the nearest landfall westerly is Kodiak Island at 600 miles; roughly the same as Cape Hatteras to Portland, Maine.
We weave a tortured route through the uncountable rocks and islets amidst the swell like an ant on a still-wet Sidney Pollack canvas. We skirt the kelp patches and sea foam breakers which sometimes, but not always, divulge a lurking rock. These are risky waters to be sure; the wild child of the Chichagof – Yakobi Islands Wilderness Area. Silver salmon rocket into our world and belly-slap the water seven, eight, nine times. We hear a whale’s blow, and a bear is spotted.
Around a craggy point a perfect cobblestone shore shows itself and driftwood fences the storm line. One dreams of glass floats in mossy nooks, and lady slipper orchids offer treasure for the camera in the stunted elfin forest of cedar, spruce, and hemlock.
The few named features of this coast sound like a child’s treasure map. Outer Rocks line up on the north and Black Rock guides us into Rough Channel. We could have sailed through Smooth Channel, but we want to see if Three Tree Island lives up to its name. Our destination emerges as Pinnacle Mt. pokes its wizard cap into the clouds.
We drop the hook in the clear green water of Goulding Harbor. Once home to aboriginal Tlingit villages, then to fish canneries, gold mines, and logging settlements; the forest is now slowly restoring itself. The rusting, rotting remains of its more muscular past are allowed to disappear under the alder tangles – an outcome of Wilderness Act designation years ago. Today, this coast is known to our neoprene-booted residents for its beauty and abundant wild fish and game.
We have the bay to ourselves and decide the hot springs aren’t going anywhere. Two hundred feet of chain rattle through the windlass, echoing from the cliffs. The kayak is launched. The captain switches off the VHF and smiles to himself. He has a salmon to fillet. ◊
— Capt. Blain Anderson is a US Coast Guard licensed Master. He co-owns Sound Sailing with his wife Monique. Together, they operate S/V BOB, a 50’, four-cabin Catalina/Morgan in the waters between Sitka, Petersburg, Juneau and Glacier Bay. Trips are typically 6-9 day charters for up to 6 persons, and can be booked at (907) 887-9446, or through email at email@example.com. More information on trips and adventures aboard Sailboat BOB are at www.soundsailing.com.