Reaching south out of Resurrection Bay past the Rugged Islands, an easterly swell rolls from our port side like small grey hills and a dense rainy fog envelops jagged Aialik Cape to the southwest. The glorious weather we basked in days before is but a fleeting memory, as a gale has been turning up the Gulf of Alaska ever since. Our true welcoming party back to cruising, then, is a washing machine ride around the cape. A rip-off-the-band-aid sort of sail that opens our eyes, turns our stomachs and makes us say, “Hello again, ocean”.
The ominous cape we’re rounding deserves the wide berth we give it. Rain pours off my hood while I steer through the 10-plus foot swell and mixed up sloppy seconds reverberating off the rocky headland. To be sure, it proves to be a sporty rounding that is invigorating in an odd way that only a sailor can appreciate. But once we tuck around the eastern side of the peninsula into Aialik Bay, our crew (including Jill’s mom Donna for this leg) finds relatively calmer seas and what will turn into five up and down truly Alaskan days of cruising. The payoff is worth it.
Ups and Downs
I sit in Yahtzee’s companionway staring across a glassy cove. A waterfall plummets from a verdant forest and tumbles into the sea. Clouds swirl between mountaintops and a heavy mist reminds me that indeed, we are cruising in a rainforest. Just in case I wasn’t fully aware.
From this nook in Three Hole Bay, we motor-sail northward to Coleman Bay and then Abra Cove. Though Aialak Bay (pronounced I-al-ick) is named as such, it is actually a glacial fjord—hence being part of Kenai Fjords National Park. Moving north or south in the bay, mariners quickly notice steep mountains rising from a deep sea. Razor-sharp ridge lines and impressively twisted coves and valleys make up the eastern and western shores where hanging glaciers reside in cirques and three huge glaciers creep seaward down self-made valleys like fingers of ice: Holgate, Aialik and Pederson. The former two are tidewater glaciers, meaning they terminate in the bay and we watch as they do just that, calving with a thunderous roar into the water. Motoring carefully between bits of ice, we dip a net in to collect our fair share for coolers and cocktails before anchoring with a stunning view of both Aialik and Pederson glaciers looming in the distance.
Besides a handful of tour boats coming from Seward daily, we don’t come across another sailboat and only happen upon a young couple aboard a kayak while we are in the bay. After rounding the cape, the feeling of wilderness becomes palpable, in many ways on par with our time spent in Glacier Bay National Park two summers prior. No cell service and virtually no VHF connection helps usher in an intense sense of solitude and creates that need for self-sufficiency that we respect and love. Though devoid of people, the bay is teaming with life. We dust off our field guides and spot a variety of seabirds, sea stars, urchins and anemones. Bald eagles and gulls soar overhead, pairs of black oystercatchers chatter at us, seals and otters play in anchorages, and we even come across a lone wolverine trundling along a beach.
Along with the natural beauty, plentiful wildlife and spotty bits of sunshine that highlight the week, our crew is also working through some big lows—literally. Low pressure systems sweep in from the Gulf of Alaska every couple days, which is reminiscent of the three winters we spent cruising the Gulf and San Juan Islands of the Salish Sea. Accompanying rain and wind makes moving from one anchorage to another difficult at times and prolonged heavy downpours keep us bound to the boat more than we like. Making the best of it, we do schoolwork and knot tying with the boys, read, play games (Yahtzee, of course), watch movies and cook. Though we’re well aware there is nothing we can do about the weather, and that we are living in a temperate rainforest at 60 degrees north, we’re more than ready for a bigger taste of summer. Any day now, we tell ourselves while watching the barometer drop yet again. Such is life aboard a cruising sailboat in Alaska.