Tracy Arm - Days 4-5
June 13-17, 2012


AG pod

At 4:00 I got up again and found the boat perfectly situated off the bank.  At 6:00 I let out a little more anchor line (because the tide was turning and I didn't want it pulling anchor if there wasn't enough line as it rose above the point at which I'd tossed it out the night before) and went back to bed for good.  So, not the most restful night!  I got up later than Katie and Rob, who had the start of a fire and hot water going when I emerged.  Rob had gathered more dry wood but was still struggling to get anything going--my foray into the woods to find tinder to help yielded very little that wasn't thoroughly soaked from the night's rain.  We did eventually get a nice fire going, though, which allowed us all to dry some of our rain gear a little before we left.  It was foggy, but not rainy, and nice to put on a rain jacket that at least wasn't wet on the inside.  The gravel bar had been a neat camp site, but the wet sand had migrated everywhere and stuck to everything!  We packed up and left around noon, impressed by our consistently improving packing and loading skills.  Thankfully, Chris remembered to dig up Cailey's bone, which she began devouring immediately.  Endicott Arm was flat calm and I was grateful that the front had moved through in the night and left us this peaceful morning.  We crossed the fjord, passing a whale or two farther down the arm, and went to Sanford Cove, the old site of the town of Sumdum.  Founded to support nearby mines, Sumdum actually housed a post office until 1942!  Chris, Rob, and Cailey went exploring while Katie and I stayed on board. I went up the beautiful brown water creek as far as I could along a grassy meadow with pilings and fished as we drifted out.  It was very pleasant, drifting along the old shoreline, chatting with Katie, and casting (with absolutely no success).  We started to head toward another creek farther down the beach, but turned back when I heard the boys yelling for me (though it turns out they were yelling for bears).  We later picked up the boys at the beach and I poked my head into the woods long enough to see a cluster of metal artifacts while Rob panned for gold a little at the shore.  The boys had found other remains, including a pipe in the creek and old cart wheels, and came across a big picturesque waterfall a few bends up the creek.  All in all it seemed like a perfectly beautiful waterfront for a town and very protected, we soon found out, from the southeast.  I wondered what it was like in a northerly storm.

And so we left on glassy calm water, rounded the spit, and headed up Stephen's Passage along the outside of Harbor Island.  The seas immediately picked up and it was a bit swelly as we approached and passed Pt. Coke.  I'd say they were three footers, requiring a constant cycle of revving up to climb the back side of the swells, slowing down to slide into the trough, then throttling back up to reach the next peak.  Thankfully they were behind us and the only time I was nervous was when the starboard bow would catch on the upcoming swell and drag us along the side of the boat to port.  But mostly I slowed down and directed the boat to avoid that.  The swells laid down a little past the Midway Islands, which was good because the engine acted like it was out of gas and I had to go back to switch tanks.  Although I made no indication of it to the others, I was a little worried about that, as I expected that tank to take us well into Snettisham, and probably all the way to the homestead.  Instead, we were way out in Stephen's Passage and only had one gallon of gas left beyond the five gallons in the smaller tank.  Could my calculations have been so far off?  The engine had been acting funny the previous afternoon, too, as though it was running out of gas, but never actually dying.  A few seconds would go by and it would pick up again.  I attributed it to the packs pinching the fuel line, which seemed to make sense, and moving the packs seemed to improve the situation.  However, the packs were not the culprits on this occasion.  I discovered at the homestead that there was still quite a bit of gas in the main tank (which was a relief).  The smaller tank took us all the way in, but just barely--it died while I was anchoring the boat!

When we all mustered at the lodge, I confessed that, much as I like adventuring, it's also nice to come back to a familiar place, and everyone seemed to agree with that.  We covered the upper deck of the lodge with our gear, sandy from the beach and wet from the rain, and circled the wood stove with assorted gear that needed drying.  We hadn't had lunch yet, so Katie made us tuna melts and smoked salmon melts and we ate with gusto.  In the afternoon we relaxed and each took turns in the "birthing pool" to freshen up (the pool the boys created last summer in the nearby creek).  The six weeks of nearly solid rain had the creek roaring and it was more raging than serene!  Later in the evening, Katie made an amazing pasta dish.  We planned the next day's adventure and went to bed; with my boat safely at anchor, I luxuriated in drifting off to bed between sheets.

Our plan was to leave the next day at 10:00, so we all gathered in the lodge to warm up with a fire, drink some Katie coffee drinks, and have breakfast.  We managed to leave about 10:15, which I call pretty good!  The water was calm as we cruised across Gilbert Bay and down the port to Doc Fushe's cove.  The center of our plan was to find the Crystal Mine, one of two main mines in that area.  With information from several sources, we were able to put together a pretty good idea of where they were.  The Mines of the Juneau Goldbelt book that Rob gave me last summer had a few tantalizing details, including the presence of not one but two corduroy roads, one leading to the Friday Mine from the ruins we explored last summer, and one in another place leading to the Crystal Mine.  Everything came together with data Rob had, which he loaded onto his new GPS; he not only had the actual coordinates of the mines, but his map showed two "foot trails" leading to the mines and, in fact, intersecting.  We figured they had to be the corduroy roads!  The third part of the puzzle was Doc Fushe's cabin, which sits on the inside of a cove closer to Stephen's Passage.  Although we hadn't found it the last time we were there, my dad said there was a road right behind it that he thought led to the Crystal Mine as well.  We opted to go to Doc's cabin because that way we could be sure of seeing something (the ruins) and hoped to either follow the trail or bushwhack it across country in the hopes of hooking up with the second corduroy road, which runs perpendicular to shore.  The final owner of the Crystal Mine lived in a cabin somewhere nearby until his death there; we suspect that Doc Fushe simply adopted that cabin as his own (and also subsequently died there), which would explain why there was a trail to the mine.

We found Doc's compound in much the same state as when Chris, Gabe, and I explored it several years ago.  There are actually two buildings--my dad says the one by the water is the shop, which used to have a covered, connecting walkway to the house on the other side of the tiny creek.  We saw old pipes in that creek as we crossed it.  We peered inside the collapsed house at the trash left behind, admired its rough hewn logs, and perused the refuse surrounding it.  Unfortunately, we saw no sign of a trail, so we started bushwhacking along the bottom of the steep slope behind it, keeping a close eye on the GPS to track our progress.  The going was infinitely better than it was in Avalanche Valley--fairly open woods with more skunk cabbage and blueberry bushes than salmonberries and devil's club.  Everything was soaking wet, though, from the rain through the night, and we were wet from head to toe (thankfully in our raingear).  We made our way over gullies and fallen logs, through a beautiful sphagnum bog, and to the top of a ridge.  Unfortunately, we weren't making great time, and I wanted to be back at the boat by high tide.  Two hours to tramp around sounds like a long time until you get out there!  It was clear that we weren't going to make it to the trail in time make use of it, let alone find the Crystal Mine.  Chris and I hiked quickly back to the boat and left Rob and Katie to make their way more directly to the beach.  Half an hour later we picked them up on the rocks and made our way two coves past the little peninsula outside of Doc Fushe's cove.  That's where the map showed the start of the foot trail, corroborated by the presence of a single piling on the beach.  Katie stayed on the beach while the rest of us tramped around.  Within a couple of minutes I found the corduroy road.  Like many beaches in southeast, there was a narrow shelf of flat land at an elevation just above the high tide line, backed by a steep cliff leading up to the rest of the area.  Once I saw the road cut into the steep embankment behind the shelf, I had no doubt what I was looking at.  It was flat, had no large trees growing on it and I could even see a few of the logs under the moss.  Very exciting stuff!  Chris and Rob joined me and we followed it up through a dense thicket of alders and into a wet meadow where we saw a straight line of young hemlocks that I figured were growing from the logs at the edge of the road.  From there it became less clear, as it was obviously quite overgrown with moss, and the whole area had the type of sparse vegetation that could have been the same vegetation you'd expect on an old road.

And then the meadow ended and it was not clear at all which way the road went.  I started crashing into the woods to the right and soon came across a piece of survey tape.  All three of us took different paths through that area and all of us came across many old stumps, no doubt trees cut to make the corduroy road.  At first I thought that was a good sign until I realized how many trees it would take to make such a road--they must have sourced them for some distance.  We eventually hit a dead end at the edge of a steep gully--the road must have been to the left of it.  We did come across a stand of very large cedar trees, though, which is always neat.  And then it was high tide, so I left the guys and hurried back down to the water to make sure the boat was floating.  I joined Katie there, who was serenely looking out onto the water and willing herself to warm up, having become inexplicably soaked during the initial hike.  We could hear the raucous sea lions at the winter haul-out across the Port, which was quite surprising, as I think they're usually gone by early June at the latest.  I wonder if they are hanging around longer than usual this year, or could it be that I just haven't been paying enough attention?  I usually don't go close enough to that side of the port unless I'm going to see them specifically or seeking shelter during a southeasterly chop behind Mist Island. 

When the boys showed up we shoved off and headed home, eating lunch on our way out of the port.  We had a pleasant enough following sea all the way up Stephen's Passage.  Unfortunately, we continued experience the strange anomaly of the engine starting to slow down, then picking up again.  After several successive episodes, I finally got up, drained the fuel filter (which was half water) and switched tanks.  I wish I hadn't switched tanks so I had a better idea if it was the fuel filter, but in any event, the episodes stopped and we continued unimpeded.  We entered the channel around 2:15; I was a little chilled and thinking that we only had 20 more minutes in the boat until we were back to civilization.  Then a big, male orca erupted to the side of us!  I might have squealed quietly in excitement and Katie summed it up with her comment, "Now this trip is perfect."

Behind us we saw a few fins back out in Taku Inlet, and in front there was a group a little closer in, farther up the channel.  The bull slapped the water with his big, curled flukes twice while we watched him.  I never got a photo of his saddle patch but I'm fairly confident it was AF19 (a.k.a. Sergius), the only big male I know of with a very open saddle patch.  So I figured we were seeing AF22 pod again, the pod (and individual) I saw twice last summer.  He headed back toward Taku Inlet, though, and the closer group was still in the channel, so we stuck with them.  For a while they didn't seem like they could make up their minds which way to go, turning around a lot but not exactly milling, but we were probably confused by the fact that there were, in fact, two large groups there.  Suddenly they switched gears, grouped up together, and started headed out of the channel with a purpose, traveling along the Douglas shore.  The water was glass and the orcas stunning as they came up one after another like an oiled machine, blow blow blow blow blow blow blow blow blow, each new dorsal fin slicing the surface in succession.  There was one young calf that came up more often than the others, and at least three large males.  One had a tall dorsal fin and a thumb in the saddle patch and looked like AG13; another had a tall dorsal fin with a closed saddle patch (possibly AG21); and the other had a shorter, triangular fin with a tiny hint of a thumb.  Among them were many many females and younger animals and every time they came up for a breathing cycle I was newly stunned by how beautiful they were.

As they headed down the channel with us, they were mostly business, with the occasional tail slap thrown in.  Except for one exception.  Out of nowhere, a female/young male porpoised out of the water quite close, and somehow both Rob and I managed to take decent pictures of it!  When they rounded Marmion Island, the mood seemed to change.  They spread out a bit and became more playful.  There were more little tail slaps and the mood generally became more relaxed.  We were shut down while I took a long video during which two orcas broke formation and surfaced quite close; one raised his head above the water to take a look at us and the other just raised his tail in the air.  I caught it on video, and Rob got the photo.  When I stopped the camera I definitely squealed in delight, for there's nothing better than eye contact with a curious orca.  Unfortunately, we'd spent some time with them and needed to get back, so reluctantly turned and let them go on by themselves, watching one spyhop (I like to think he was looking for us) as we turned away.  The group seemed to have dispersed somewhat, some heading into the center of Stephen's Passage, others moving along the shore.  I could have followed them all night.  We never saw the orcas that were back in Taku Inlet when we caught up with our group, nor did we see AF19 again.  After studying the photos, I'm fairly confident that we were traveling with AG pod, which makes me think that the others in Taku Inlet were AF22 pod.  Perhaps they'd finished a superpod, perhaps they had a chance encounter and AF19 was checking out AG pod.  I think it's interesting that the last three times I've seen AF19 he's been alone (meaning without an immediate companion).  Males often travel with their mothers, but AF19's mother, AF22 (the former matriarch of his pod) has passed away.  It's good to see that he's still around, as adult male resident orcas often do not long outlive their mothers.
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Stunned with the finale to our trip, I changed back to the larger tank, making it all the way to Sandy Beach before it gave me more trouble.  We unloaded the boat efficiently and headed for hot showers and pizza.  Next year, Ford's Terror and Endicott Arm!


Rob consulting his GPS on the way to Sanford Cove

Arriving at Sanford Cove (Rob's photo)

Chris hiking up the Creek (Rob's photo)

Tram wheels on the beach

Pilings on the beach at Sanford Cove (Rob's photo)

Intertidal area at Sanford Cove (Rob's photo)

Chris at Sanford Cove

Rob panning for gold at Sanford Cove

Katie and Rob as we head out on the last day

Looking at artifacts at Doc Fushe's cove

The workshop?

Cailey makes me nervous as she explores

The house

Looking inside the bottom floor

Inside the collapsed attic

Log walls

Stumps in the surrounding forest

Rob checks the GPS as we bushwhack

Katie bushwhacking

An unexpected sphagnum bog

Trust me, this is the corduroy road!

Rob and Chris stand on the corduroy road

Katie and Chris resting before we head back

Leaving the beach

AF19? (Rob's photo)

AG13? (Rob's photo)

AG21?

AG30?

AG5 (foreground)?

Porpoise! (Rob's photo)

Rob's photo

Rob's photo

Rob's photo

Everyone is exhausted when we get home!

Sanford Cove ruins (Chris's photo)