The fishermen in Petersburg warned us. The area of the Inside Passage we wanted to paddle on our way to Juneau can get pretty rough. Our route would take us on the Frederick Sound to the Stephens Passage and then to the protected Seymour Canal. The latter two are notorious north-south wind corridors. The weather can be so unpredictable and rough that the people here call the area around the Five Finger Lighthouse, from which we are writing this post, the Little Bering Sea.
We left Petersburg on Monday, with the help of Thomas and Jeff, who brought us to the beach. We had already walked to it, so we were ok with getting a ride to it! Initially we had planned on leaving very early in the morning from the Hammer Slough, where we were staying, and ride the tide through the narrows. But a small kitchen knife accident made us do a morning trip to the medical center to get it checked out, missing the tide, so the drive to the beach was very appreciated!
Thomas and Jeff made for an amazing send off. Thomas gifted us one of the last pieces of his own smoked salmon, and Jeff had Rocío come by, a fellow Madrileña that lives in Petersburg! This shows the exceptional hospitality we have experienced in Petersburg. The day before, as we were going on a walk on a city trail, we met Kristi, who had already given us a ride from the post office during the Thursday blizzard. She ended up inviting us to her beautiful log cabin that she and her husband built years ago and prepared an amazing dinner with halibut and crab salad. Just before our walk, we ran by the only Thai food truck and the owner, Wear, whom we had met over two visits, ran out to wish us best luck in our trip!
As we paddled north from Petersburg, we got new travel companions, small icebergs that calved from the nearby LeConte Glacier. It started raining in the afternoon, making us feel cold fairly quickly. We saw a whale far away, and were followed by two curious sea lions that had probably never seen packrafts. Sea lions can be aggressive, and meeting them on an inflatable raft always makes us slightly nervous. Fortunately, they were more interested in fish than us, and we even saw one of them swallow a whole fish that it just had caught!
The following day it continued raining. We walked the beach for a bit, seeing all sorts of tidal sea creatures. The crossing of the mouth of Thomas Bay was exciting, with choppy seas that had a handful of waves breaking. Crossings are always scary, as the sea can change while you are away from land. As we continued paddling along the coast, the weather held on and the seas became rougher, forcing us to stop paddling and look for a campsite earlier than we hoped for. Camping is generally easy, the coast is full of gravel beaches, and we can land our packrafts almost everywhere, including on mussels and barnacles if we are careful. Going into the forest a bit, it’s easy to find fresh water and campsites, even though our pyramid shelter has an enormous footprint and we often have to clean up a space large enough to accommodate our tent.
On the third day after lunch the wind arrived. It wasn’t that much of a wind, perhaps 10-15 mph, but combined with an opposing tide, it made paddling very strenuous. We love our packrafts, but they are not super fast. In normal conditions we can paddle close to 2.5 miles per hour (compared to 3.5-4 on a kayak). But their oversized tubes aren’t very aerodynamic, and the wind really affects them. In Seattle, we tried them out in 20 mph headwinds and discovered that it was pretty much impossible to make progress. So when the winds hit that evening, we ended up transitioning to land and walking the rocky beaches and negotiating the headlands through the forest. Not super fast either, but at least we could take breaks without losing ground. However, soon enough we got to another headland with impassable cliffs. We had to transition once again to paddling, a process that easily takes 30 minutes (we’re not the most efficient yet!). We decided to eschew the normal way to pack the boats with the contents of our packs inside the tube, and instead sat the full backpacks on the boats. We fortunately didn’t have to paddle much to get to a beautiful estuary where we could camp.
As winds generally pick up throughout the day, the next day we set to start much earlier. We didn’t really need an alarm, as countless birds started singing at dawn, including one that sounded exactly like a car alarm. We set off quickly and made it to Cape Fanshaw by 10am. After that, we planned to cross 6 miles to the Five Finger Lighthouse, nestled on a rock in the middle of the “Little Bering Sea”. However as we rounded the cape, our enemy appeared again, a strong northerly wind blowing in our faces. It’d be impossible for us to continue against that wind. We quickly checked the weather forecast on the inReach and it was supposed to die at 2pm. But it never really did until the evening. We were stuck. The predominant winds in Southeast Alaska are from the South, and generally associated to bad weather. We were being treated to sunshine for once, but it also drew the northerly winds that made our progress impossible. We debated our options of hugging the mainline instead, but it would be a longer route and still very slow due to the headwind. We were able to get the extended forecast, which looked similarly bad for the following 3 days.
We were confronted with a whole new set of questions: can we still make it to Juneau? Do we have enough food? Should we turn around or have someone pick us up? We had initially budgeted 10 days for this section, and added about an extra day of food after talking to fishermen in Petersburg. We had done 4 days and less than a third of the miles. If only we could get to the lighthouse, we could resupply there. But the weather forecast made it seem impossible to get to the lighthouse. We debated and talked to Thomas in Petersburg about our options. Perhaps we could charter a float plane to Cape Fanshaw. We felt terrible and didn’t want to give up. We decided to sleep on it, hoping that the weather forecasts was wrong and that there would not be any wind allowing us to make it to the lighthouse. There we could regroup and wait out the headwind days.
We were up by 4:45am, which although it seems very early, the sun already began to raise. The sea was calm, and there was no wind. Run, run, run! Let’s give it a go! We set a new record for the time to pack up, eat breakfast, inflate our boats, and start paddling – just over an hour. Although the conditions were perfect, we had to fight the tide, which was flowing against us at 1 knot, which made us go at roughly 1.5 miles per hour, making 6 mile crossing take about four hours. Hooray! We already knew that the lighthouse was on an extremely rocky island, where is very hard to land at low tide. We were more concerned about the winds and knew that with packrafts you can land pretty much anywhere. Indeed, we landed on barnacles, and the climb to the island’s main trail was so steep and slippery that we decided to unpack our boats on the barnacles one by one and hike up with everything on our back, unlike our normal routine of carrying our packed boats to the high tide mark, before unpacking them.
When we finally got the lighthouse, it was better than Thomas and Jeff had told us. Within 5 minutes on the deck, we saw orcas swimming by. The building is beautiful,built in the thirties in Art Deco style. There is a full fledged kitchen, four bedrooms, and a beautiful living room with views on the ocean. And of course there is the tower, with imposing views and an ultra modern LED light that does not require maintenance anymore. What a magical place!
The forecast still looked a bit iffy for the following days, and Jeff encouraged us to continue paddling that day as the conditions were perfect. However, we couldn’t resist the temptation of staying in the lighthouse. Its pantry is well stocked with canned food, and we can sit out the windy days.
We are so thankful to Thomas and Jeff, and the FiveFive Finger Lighthouse Society for their help and advice, and for letting us stay in this amazing location! Five Finger Lighthouse was the first and last manned lighthouse in Alaska, having a 365 day crew until 1984. Since then it has been used by researchers to study the wildlife around here, especially the hundreds of humpbacks that travel through here every year. In our short stay here, we have been delighted to see dozens of whales. We even saw (and heard!) two humpbacks breach in front of the lighthouse. If you are interested in the history of the lighthouse, please make sure to check their website and consider making a donation to ensure that this beautiful place is maintained (we’ll be making one).
Reflecting back on this leg, we keep learning a lot about ourselves and the rhythm of traveling with packrafts. Although our extended stay at the lighthouse will further put us behind our schedule, we don’t regret it. We (mostly Ricardo) often think how much easier this section would be if we had brought our sea kayaks instead. But only by travelling slowly we can have these unique experiences such as staying in this beautiful lighthouse. Nonetheless, we look forward to making it to Juneau and continue on to Gustavus, which will be our last long marine packrafting section of the trip.
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