I left Juneau on July 4 to head out to the outer coast for king salmon. I only set foot in one of my favorite places in the world, Elfin Cove, for about 30 minutes last year, so I was eager to get back to familiar surroundings.
I left town in my 26 foot boat. I thought to myself I haven’t felt this good since the last time I went to Cross Sound in my own boat 2 years ago. When you untie from the dock, you leave all your troubles behind.
I saw humback and killer whales in Icy Strait, as well as sea lions and porpoises, and all the sea birds. Calm seas made for a comfortable ride in the first planing hull I’d made such a long trip in.
I got to Elfin Cove in 4 hours – 4 hours! It took 10 hours in the Dutch Master on a good day. I took fuel, took a lap around the Elfin Cove boardwalk, then headed out to Mite Cove, in Lisianski Inlet, where I was meeting my longtime friend Joe Emerson, and his twin teenager son and daughter deckhands Molly and Tyler. I was a little apprehensive about crossing Cross Sound, which is exposed to the open ocean, but it was calm seas. I anchored in Mite Cove, and would meet Joe the next day.
I re-read Pacific Troller, written by Frances Caldwell in the 1970’s, which I always would do the evening before the big July 1 king salmon opening in years past. It was a good feeling being at anchor in a familiar place. When I woke up the next morning, the Lightly, owned by John Clausen, was anchored nearby. John’s boat, which he built himself, is in the Pacific Troller book I was reading. John is a mountain of muscle and sinew and bone. I saw him climbing up the ladders to attend to his tattle tales and trolling pole tag lines in the morning. Not that unusual in most circumstance, but John, I believe, is well into his 80’s. A quiet, reserved man, he’s a living legend and commercial fishing pioneer and still lives with his lovely wife in Pelican, Alaska.
Joe arrived the next day to offload fish with me. His twins are now about 16. Molly looks just like her dad, with the blond hair and naturally rosy cheeks of healthy kid who spends time outdoors. Tyler is long and tall, with the brown hair and eyes of his mom.
I knew the boat could hold 6 fullsize fish totes. A fish tote holds about 800-1000 lbs of fish, so I’d hoped the boat could haul as much. We started putting fish into the totes, and I was only up to about 3000 lbs when water started sloshing into the self-bailing deck skuppers, and I had to call it good. While were were working, word came over the VHF radio that a boat had sunk, but all hands were okay, and I didn’t think any more about it. The boat, called The Prospector, was a little horseshoe stern boat that worked out of Elfin Cove for years.
I headed back to Elfin Cove. I’d missed the flood tide, which would carry back to Juneau, as well as last call at the fuel dock, so I decided to stay the night.
I went to Cohos Cafe, the lone restaraunt in town, for dinner and catching up with Shirley, the owner. Shirley has lived in remote parts of Alaska throughout her life, and knows the local gossip and news from Sitka to the Fairweahter Grounds and beyond. I went to bed with the boat tied to the front float in town after Shirley’s dinner of halibut and fries.
I awoke to the sound of what I thought was luggage being dragged along the dock. I was tied up right next to where the small floatplanes come in to ferry passengers from Elfin Cove to Juneau. I then thought I heard something rattle on the back deck, so I put on my boots and stood up. My deck was swarming with otters! They were trying to eat my fish! One had his body halfway in to one of my fish totes. When I banged on the door, all left except the one in the tote. I stepped on deck, and yelled, but it still didnt’ leave. I finally banged on the lid he was under, and that got his attention and he scurried off. I checked for damages. One king salmon lay unscathed on deck. I put it back in the ice of the tote it was removed from, and made sure the latches on all totes were secured. I returned to the cabin and waited. Sure enough, 2 otter came back on the dock and tried to feign interest in coming back aboard my boat by half-heartedly investigating the yachts tied to the dock. But the scent of fish was too much temptation. One kept looking at me in the window, and I tried to remain motionless just a few feet away. Finally, the two tested the lids on the fish totes with their noses, vigourously trying to lift the tote lids. With no luck, they finally returned to the dock, then over the side and into the water.
The tide would not start flooding until noon, so I headed back to Cohos for breakfast. Shirley mentioned the sinking, and that Nelson Merrill and Erin Nash were okay. Nelson Merrill? I had no idea he had bought the Prospector. Nelson is the son of fisherman Ted Merrill, and in his mid-20’s. Everyone likes Nelson, and it was his first boat. His father was tied up across from me on his boat, the Dundas, having come in the previous evening after I’d gone to bed.
After breakfast, I went back down to see his dad, and as it turned out, Nelson and Erin were also on board, as he had brought them back from the sinking. Nelson was taking the boat out for his first trip trolling with it. He said as they were about to put the gear out for the first time, he saw there was 10 inches of water in the stern cockpit. He called the Coast Guard as he knew this was trouble. When he went forward, he saw things floating in the foc’sle, and knew his boat was flooding. Luckily, he was among many boats. He had a life safety ring aboard. When the siderail of the boat was level with the water, he sat back in it and paddled to a fishing boat on it’s way to help him. His deckhand had a surf board on board. He climbed on and paddled to the rescue boat as if heading out to surf. Nelson said he got more wet than his deckhand on the surfboard! The boat sunk in 150 feet of water, and went down quickly. The rescue boat got it on film, which I’m eager to see.
I offered Nelson a ride to Juneau, but his dad was going to take him in. I left after they did, headed for Juneau with about 3000 lbs of king and coho salmon. I was not sure how much more fuel I would burn going home full versus coming out empty. When I ran out of gas in one of my 2 tanks less than half way home, I knew I wouldn’t be going directly home. Although I had an extra 30 gallons on board in jerry cans, I didn’t want to risk it. So, I detoured to Hoonah. I dodged the big cruise ship at anchor near the Icy Strait Point complex, and had no wait at the fuel dock. With full tanks, I was on my way again. The seas were the roughest of the trip, but not bad at all, and fully loaded, the boat rides much more comfortably than when empty. I carefully monitored my time, and switched tanks at Pt. Couverdon, just before I entered the nexus of Icy Strait and Chatham Strait, which can be lumpy. I ran up and around Pt. Retreat, across the south end of Shelter Island. With the dock in sight, I ran out of gas and put a 5 gallon jerry can of gas in the tank, and made it to the dock. I left at 11 am, and was in at about 6 or 7 pm.
I was surprised when my chevy 3/4 ton pulled the boat and 3000+lbs of extra weight up the boat ramp. Luckily, I arrived right at high tide. I pulled the boat into the parking lot, unhitched the boat from my truck, then used the hydraulic davit to move totes from the boat down to my pickup bed. I made 2 trips with fish to my processor, then took the boat back to it’s parking space. I was home about 1130 pm, and after a quick shower, was asleep almost instantly. That was a full couple days. Whe
Mark Stopha and Sara Hannan
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
Wild Salmon and Salmon Pet Treats
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801