Dawn comes early in Alaska this time of year—3:30am to be precise—but the steep hills surrounding our quiet cove keep the sun from streaming in my stateroom window for just a while longer.
It's 6:00 am aboard the MV Mist Cove, and this is my first visit to Alaska. I'm just getting ready to join five fellow travelers to pull up the crab pots we dropped last night after dinner. We're anchored in Deep Bay on the south side of Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska, en route from Sitka to Juneau.
I arrived in Sitka two days ago in brilliant sunshine that only seemed to amplify the deep greens of Tongass National Forest, and the deep blues of the waterways, inlets and coves. This really is the Alaska I imagined. It not only lives up to, but surpasses expectations. I manage to pack in as much as can in the short time I have in Sitka. Taking advantage of the weather, I walk over to Sitka National Historical Park, a two mile coastal trail lined with replicas of totem poles representing the various indigenous cultures of Southeast Alaska. The scenic backdrop only augments the beauty of the artwork and is a "must see" for any visitor. Also not to be missed are the beautifully restored Russian Bishop's House—now a museum covering the Imperial Russian colonial period—and Alaska Raptor Center, the foremost rehabilitation sanctuary for Bald Eagles.
6:30 am and we're now in the skiff heading towards the head of the bay. One by one, we haul the crab pots up from a depth of 60 feet. The first pot comes into view and it's loaded with a dozen beautiful Dungeness Crabs. We inspect each crab to determine gender. Females have a much broader and rounder tail flap on their underside where eggs are held. All females are thrown back. Females with eggs are placed gently back into the water. Males measuring 6.5 inches across may be kept, but only three per fisherman, so we make sure we keep the biggest three. The third pot up is mine. I pull with anticipation as First Mate, Allison, carefully coils and stows the line. As the pot reaches the surface, I can see it's bursting with crabs—14 in total. The largest three are kept, each one over 7 inches across. I'm very pleased with myself. All totaled, we collected 12 large crabs to present to the galley back aboard ship.
We return to the boat in time to wash up and join the sixteen other guests for breakfast on the fantail. This morning, the chef has prepared scrambled eggs with asparagus and parmesan cheese, home-fries with roasted onions and tomatoes, crispy bacon and freshly baked scones.
During breakfast, Captain Eric Olsen is moving Mist Cove onward to Saook Bay along the northern tip of Baranof Island, across the Peril Strait. Simon, our guest coordinator, comes and briefs us on today's activities. This morning, we'll have the opportunity to try fly-fishing, spin-casting or go for a leisurely meadow walk.
After breakfast, Patricia, our naturalist guide, gives a short briefing on walking in bear territory. Our guides will have bear spray and shotguns as a last resort, but our first line of defense is to simply shout out "Hey Bear!" frequently and basically just make a lot of noise. Bears will generally avoid noisy humans when given the choice. I was relieved to learn the crew has never yet had to fire shotguns or deploy bear spray.
We reach Saook Bay and anchor near the mouth. Wearing tall rubber boots, we board the skiffs which take us to the shore. We step off into about a foot of water and quickly walk ashore. I'm with the spin-casting group this morning. Hey Bear! and we're off. We walk across a broad meadow to the stream where we'll be casting for Dolly Vardon and Steelhead. Hey Bear! Jan and Cliff, our guides, accompany us, supply us with rods and lures, and give us pointers on best technique, best spots, and where to stand. I'm a complete novice, but after a few false starts, the fish start biting. One, two, three Dolly Vardon's in a row. It's catch and release, but this is fun!
The location is stunning and I break from fishing briefly to take in the scenery. We're told that later in the season, you'll be able to walk across the stream over the backs of salmon returning to spawn.
Right now, the tide is coming back in fast. The stream waters are rising and the meadow is starting to flood. We pack up our gear and head to the mouth of the stream. Good thing we have boots, but the water is still rising. Those wearing waders are smiling confidently. The skiff arrives just in time to take us out of the rising waters and back safely on board. OK, so my boots flooded a little—I hit a deep spot—but no worries, there's a drying locker back on board for my boots and thick wool socks.
It's lunch time, and the chef has prepared Rockfish and slaw sandwiches, iceberg wedge salad with bacon and blue-cheese dressing.
During lunch, we pull anchor and move on to Hanus Bay for more stream fishing or a hike to Eva Lake. Another beautiful spot, more spectacular scenery. This is going to be one adventure-filled trip. While we were peacefully fishing in the stream, those on the hike caught site of... Hey Bear!
Back on board, it's time to shower and change for cocktail hour and dinner. Everyone is quite animated about our first full day out on this adventure. Fishermen recount their best catches while hikers compare notes on flora and fauna. Simon and Patricia recap our day's activities, detail our route on a large laminated map, and review the day's sightings.
The Dungeness crabs we caught this morning make an appearance this evening, served as appetizers, followed by perfectly grilled NY Steak with horseradish cream, mashed potatoes and broccoli. Dessert is salted-caramel mousse.
It's a full moon tonight, and with sunset around midnight, we enjoy a lingering dusk before retiring after a busy day. Dawn will come soon enough—in just a few more hours—and another day of adventure in Alaska will begin again!
For more details on this adventure, see our trip: The Wild North