We booked tickets on the ferry to skip ahead to Wrangell. It was the same sailing we were supposed to catch in late March from Bellingham that was delayed by a week. It was good to hear the stories of others who waited, like Diana and Laughlin, who were moving to Alaska with their car and U-Haul and had to ride on the ferry. Given how late winter is staying here, perhaps we should have waited too!
In Wrangell, we were picked up at the ferry terminal by our wonderful b&b host Alan. He gave us a little tour through the town before bringing us to their cozy b&b with a breathtaking view of the ocean (ie Grand View B&B). His wife Leslie brought us freshly baked cinnamon rolls and made sure we had the best stay there. We had many interesting conversations with them. Alan used to be a fisherman and told us stories of crabs, orcas, and humpback whales while Leslie told us stories of an eccentric guest that came to Wrangell to hike to Rainbow Falls to look for the elusive Alaskan unicorn (if you are curious, no sighting, but plenty of signs). Alan works in Prudhoe Bay in the oil fields and gave us a lot of tips for our hiking section around there. We hope to see him once we get to Prudhoe Bay in late July.
Wrangell is a quaint fishing town with 2000 people living in it and we spent a full day exploring it. We visited a beach with many native petroglyphs on the rocks, spent a few hours in the local museum learning about the local history and discovered that you could not buy any fresh fish in the supermarket (nearly everyone has a fishing boat and therefore does not want to buy fresh fish!).
The next day we set off directly from the beach in front of the b&b for a 14 miles open water crossing. We are now getting used to getting all seasons in one day, from sun to rain to snow to wind, changing pretty rapidly from one weather condition to another. We are able to stop in two islands along the way for short breaks to stretch out our legs and eat a small bite (and most importantly, pee). Just as we approached the beach where we were headed to, the wind and currents picked up, with snow blowing into our faces. Time seemed to stop while we continued paddling vigorously without making much distance. When we finally landed, we were pretty exhausted. Cold and tired (the temperatures were close to freezing) we packed up our boats and walked 4 miles to a campground which we had to ourselves.
The next day we walked the 21 miles on the road into town. On the first 10 miles we barely saw any cars. It had snowed over night and everything looked quite idyllic. We walked in the forest and by snowy muskegs (treeless swamps). For most of the day we had sun and did not mind the freezing temperatures. To be honest, we could have paddled half of the distance on the famous Wrangell Narrows, but we decided against it as we need to get used to walking for later sections on the trip. We celebrated every single mile marker we reached and arrived in Petersburg with sore feet and shoulders. Petersburg is a charming Norwegian fishing town, nestled between snowy mountains.
When we checked the weather, it was obvious we had to wait one day out – a forecast of 35 mph winds for the following day made it too dangerous for us to paddle forward. Alaska suffered from a cold snap that set record low temperatures and snow, especially in Central Alaska, but also in the Southeast. The following day in Petersburg was simply a blizzard and snowed hard all the way until 6pm. The forecast didn’t look promising either for the days ahead, with daytime wind chill values of 15F / -10C. Although that might not seem terrible for a hike or a ski day, it’s so much colder in the water, where there is barely any protection from the wind and paddling does not warm you up as much as hiking. It wasn’t too hard to decide to extend our stay here.
We had initially stayed at the local hotel in a tiny room, but we switched to a cute b&b in a house on stilts in a slough. When we talked to Dianne, the b&b host and a nurse at the local medical center, she mentioned that there was a COVID vaccine drive the following day, the last large one in town. Here it seems like everyone who wants the vaccine, has already gotten it! We signed up on the waitlist, and after making sure we were not taking anyone else’s spot, we were able to get the single shot Johnson&Johnson vaccine! Hooray! We had a terrible night after the shot, with both of us feeling feverish, so it was great to have the extra days to recover.
Having some down time also helps us plan the route ahead a bit better. This year the snowpack in Southeast Alaska is 160% of normal, and many locals have echoed similar thoughts (“most I’ve seen in 30 years”, etc), so we plan to stick to paddling for a while. We were able to talk to Charlie, Dianne’s husband, who could recall every single bay and point from here to Juneau. We also reached out to the Five Finger Lighthouse society, that preserves the first- and last-manned lighthouse in Alaska, and that we may stop by on our way north. Thomas and Jeff, members of the board, replied to our last minute text, and met with us and brought us to Jeff’s house, where they shared many stories about the lighthouse and the surrounding area! Alaskans are so welcoming!
We are now excited to continue our trip tomorrow! Due to the currents in the narrows, we better have an early start, as otherwise we would need to paddle against a 4 knot current at the entrance of the narrows (which is impossible in packrafts!). The weather looks much better next week (highs of 50F / 10C) and we hope to make it to Juneau in 8-10 days. See you then!
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