Seven Days of the Mist Cove
Story and photos by Terry Sheely
This is not the type of cruise where we lean on damp steel railing four stories above green water, talk about food and watch Alaska slide past in the misty distance, too far away to know but close enough to say that we were here. Neither, though, is it a daylight-to-dark hardcore fish trip, although we do our share, or an eco-cultish excursion, although we have an onboard naturalist, or safe and padded exploration, although we're well-tended by guides with bear sense and 12-gauges.
This excursion is an Alaska education, a boot-in-the-mud learning adventure with just the right amount of edge, action and diversity—Southeast done right. This trip, mapped out by The Boat Company, is the kind of experience that once back home you soon give up trying to describe because what you're describing is impossible to conceive by those who weren't here.
Our mid-July wander starts in Juneau, pokes into coves, waterfalls and unforgettables on the backsides of Admiralty and Baranof islands and ends a week later down Peril Strait in Sitka. (A reverse Sitka-to-Juneau route is also offered.). This week will be punctuated by natural exclamation points; stops for stream-wading fly fishing, spin-casting, halibut hammering, king salmon, glaciers, icebergs, kayaking, hiking, hot-spring soaking, humpback bubble-netting, tag-team orcas, shrimp potting, crab trapping, bear sighting and trail walking.
It starts with introductory handshakes at the Westmark Baranof up on Franklin Street, shuttles through drizzle past the Red Dog Saloon, under the Mount Roberts tram to a dripping dock on Gastineau Channel and a sharply-bowed boat with a Portuguese Bridge, forest of teakwood and brass. Loaded, the 157-foot M/V Mist Cove slides down-channel in Stephens Pass into Taku sunshine, past floating blue icebergs, into Ford's Terror, past Midway Islands, Sum Dum Glacier and into a near people-empty wilderness of forests and fjords, mountains and wildlife three times larger than any other national forest.
For a week we ghost south, stopping, photographing, running the skiffs ashore, the kayaks to coves, go-doing days and anchoring up nights; always in an infinitely changing hush of calendar-quality panoramas.
If that description comes across as over the top, it's because that's exactly what this trip is. Over the top by design.
When he put The Boat Company operation together 35 years ago, Michael McIntosh was looking for a stage to rouse appreciation for Southeast's staggeringly large, diverse, controversial and water-isolated Tongass National Forest. It was a goal McIntosh tempered with his reality. "I love the wilderness," he admits, "but I have also reached a stage in life where, at the end of a day filled with fishing, kayaking, hiking, berry picking or watching wildlife, I'm ready for a long hot shower, a gourmet meal, good wine and a warm, comfortable bed."
Three decades later the bunch of us are stepping off the dock into McIntosh's muse on board the M/V Mist Cove. We are on a touch it, smell it, wade in it, taste it, fear it, love it, wonderstruck hands-on stick-your-nose-in-the-waterfall, step on grizzly scat, gobble huckleberries, salmon fighting, halibut hammering, kayaking, hot-spring soaked adventure
There are 25 of us onboard the M/V Mist Cove, arriving from far-flung residences, professions and dispositions representing Boston, Cincinnati, Tulsa, Orlando and other dots on a national map. We have private rooms with showers, and heat, library, open bar, plush furniture and a single dining table sculpted into a crescent to fit the rounded bend of the fan tail.
We have common curiosity about Southeast, the 17 million acres of Tongass and across-the-board convictions that real Alaska comes alive while standing on slippery golden kelp over reefs of blue mussels, looking at fresh bear tracks, playing a salmon on a light rod.
We see our first humpback whales within a half hour of leaving Juneau, black bear before dinner, then a sea otter, icebergs, a dark rock packed with lumps of brown sea lions and the jagged teeth of a reef that I burn to jig for lingcod. Another day.
By the end of the week in Sitka naturalist Alice Lee will have written the names of 58 species of spotted and verified wildlife on the whiteboard.
We have a crew of 13; deckhands, guides, naturalist, engineer, chef, baker and Captain Eric "I-stop-the-boat-for-everything" Thor Olsen who is holding up a Dungeness crab the size of a dinner plate.
The dungy is one of a baker's dozen that guests pot on the fifth day in the back of Ushk Bay, and it disappeared with the others dipped in butter melt and served on the back deck with marinated black cod, caramelized carrots, poppy-seed baguettes, caramel-n-nuts sundaes, pinot noirs and chardonnays.
The crab feast is the upside of the Mist Cove's sea-to-table eat-off-the-land reality experience. I helped demonstrate the downside, bagging just three orange prawns from a string of six shrimp sets. James Snider, later, wards off starvation by coming out from Ohio to donate his first-ever halibut to the table.
There were visceral and visual offsets for the shrimp bomb: streams loaded with pinks, chums and Dolly Varden, saltwater halibut and kings; brown bears grazing on marsh grass, a whale that charges the port side of the moving boat diving under at the last instant. Anchoring in the back of a dead-quiet cove between mountain walls with three plunging waterfalls looking into a basin that leads to more glaciers and ice. The waterfall plunges break across rocks at the edge of saltwater, creating a constant murmur into the night, the mountain water shattering into fingers of white gush that disappear into a twist of alders and willows.
In the morning we leave the Mist Cove at anchor in the calendar photo and take the skiffs on a five-mile run to a hundred yards of floating, melodic ice balls, picking our way around weather-sculpted bergs, to the cracking, calving, crevassed blue face of Dawe's Glacier a massive wall of living ice at the head of Endicott Arm.
Seals with pups haul out on drifting bergs, waterfalls gush into the arm, Steve Whisler says he may have spotted three mountain goats in the high rocks before the glacier, Bonaparte gulls scream, careen and dive on krill. The half-mile-long wall of ice, a hundred-plus feet high above the waterline, 320 feet below is primitive, ancient, ugly and beautiful. It possessses more power than we can imagine, scraping away mountains, hiding prehistoric clues. The face seems to have been attacked with a monstrous axe, whacked, cracked, splintered and crevassed. While we bob and watch the glacier booms and calves on the right side. The wake rocks our drifting boats.
Each day of The Boat Company's May through September season is crowded with hands-on, go-do experiences on both the Mist Cove and her 20-passenger sister ship, M/V Liseron, and each day is a choose-your-option day. A listing of the day's possibilities appears with breakfast; crabbing, hiking, stream-fishing, kayaking, halibut jigging, wildlife excursion—the list is long, changes daily and is never boring
Explains one of the crew, "Hikers can spend as much time off the boat as they like—on Forest Service trails, beachcombing the tide flats, walking the stream beds and taking leisurely strolls along the beaches in the company of our trained naturalists.
Fishermen can stream fish or take out skiffs (19-foot center consoles) with guides and try their luck. Kayakers explore hidden coves and scenic shorelines. Our guests get out and experience it!"
A bunch of us are experiencing it in the shifting gravel of Rusty River at the head of Port Houghton, a sweeping crescent bay fed by the surge of the river where Dolly Varden char and pink salmon are butting into freshwater.
We're wading and casting, some with fly rods, others with spinners. Consummate East Coast fly fisher Stephen Burt is at home on the shifting gravel. Consummate golfer Mark Allert is relearning the fundamentals of spinner hurling. Claudia Miller is knocking pinks and Dollies dead with beginner luck and I'm walking upstream adjusting to Alaska-legal non-felt-soled wading shoes.
Like a lot of freshwater waders, Alaska's recent ban on felt soles sent me scurrying to find legal. I found a pair of Cabela's Guidewear boots with braided steel ratcheting laces and Vibram-style sheet rubber soles that qualified—in the store. No laces or felt to spread containments. I held my breath, stepped into the Rusty onto an angled rock green with moss and stuck. Who needs felt? Three casts later with a chartreuse and blue Clouser I'm fast to what I think is a big Dolly. It romps cross-current, strips line from the reel and rips into a burst of acrobatics revealing a supercharged humpy. Guide Alex Madden tells me it's the first Rusty pink of the season and hands me a Humpy Hooker to try: his pet tie.
I look down the line of anglers and watch five catch their first salmon or char.
Lunch comes on the run toward Brothers Islands, where our naturalist guide will lead hikers into Tongass old growth, thick mats of moss and mushrooms, while Claudia, James, Worth Matteson and I jump in a halibut skiff with guide Barb Matheson.
Before the Mist Cove reaches the Brothers', three orcas, a bull with a deeply notched dorsal, cow and calf, follow us alongside. Cameras click. The bull dives under the boat and surfaces on the port side. Three of us get an aerial view from the wheelhouse bridge with Captain Olsen. The wheelhouse is oversized, designed for guests and casual conversations with the captain. Most of the conversations are questions and Captain Olsen is a Southeast encyclopedia of answers.
Barbara watches the depth sounder, eases the throttles in and out and drops anchor in 100 feet of water a rock-throw away from a small island with a dead tree and a perched eagle. Herring are impaled on large circle hooks and dropped to the bottom. Worth nails a small hallie, legal but....he releases it. I land a 35-incher a perfect fit under the 44-inch maximum slot limit and the final halibut in my possession limit. Tomorrow I'm free to kayak.
Claudia hits a fish that stands her up, twists her around the boat, burns line off the reel and strains her Oklahoma crappie roots. Three times she gets it up, twice it sounds. Her biceps burn when the halibut is finally worked alongside the boat. Fifty-seven inches, a foot plus an inch over the maximum bonk size. Circle hook out, the 92-pounder undulates down into the green. A Steller sea lion circles and watches.
I started the day with a six-weight fly rod on pinks and Dollies in a twist of a river, lunched with a close-in killer whale show and ended with halibut and sea lion on a placid piece of saltchuck. Gotta love it.
More halibut come into the ship the next day while I'm exploring a deep cove with Laura Kozarek in one of a dozen orange kayaks. We slip along the shoreline in cold crystalline water, over huge palms of waving copper kelp, purple and orange sea stars, black rocks, quick poggies and slow jellyfish. I set the double-blade down, lean back and smile. Laura is staring into the water mesmerized by the kelp ballet. Two eagles whisper past and glide inland.
Back at the Mist Cove five anglers are returned from Eliza Point, grinning, laughing and limited on halibut. Guide Alex Madden opens the fish box on five prime hallies all just under the 44-inch maximum and there's a cheer. Best catch of the trip, but that was before the Surovik family catches 15 hallies, runs out of bait and jigs up more, then later puts seven silvers in the boat at King's Point. All before the kings go on a herring and flasher binge off Kruzof Island north of Sitka in Salisbury Sound. A lot of white and red fillets are vac-packed and stacked like frozen shingles in the ship's freezer.
In Red Bluff Bay we anchor for the night just off the crash of a white waterfall and eat fresh halibut. In the deep purple light of after-dark a bull killer whale circles the bay, passes the ship and leaves. In the early morning, coffee steaming in hand, I watch three blacktail deer wade the shallow braids at the back of the bay, their red sides lit up by low morning light in bright contrast with the yellow-tan grass and blue water. After breakfast Captain Olsen pokes the M/V Mist Cove into the sunrise, turns north into Chatham Strait for Halibut Rock and Warm Springs Bay. We'll anchor in the bay, offshore from the 100-foot fall of the Baranof River—a half-million gallons a minute, I'm told. There's a boardwalk, cluster of summer homes and sometime-businesses, a clutch of derelict buildings sliding headfirst toward the bay and the nine waterfront bathhouse tubs filled with 120-degree hot-spring water from up on the hill.
In waders carrying daypacks and rods, half a dozen of us hike the half-mile up the Forest Service trail, past the Grotto at the top of the falls, where soakers are chin deep in a pair of natural rock hot springs, to Baranof Lake. The lake is a 2½-mile oblong with a noisy flock of Arctic loons and a reputation for cutthroat, most of which seem to be stacked in the rocky outlet to Baranof Falls. The cutts are small, a foot-long fish brings out cameras, but they are aggressive, brilliantly colored and plentiful. At one point I catch 9 cutts on 10 casts with a homegrown peacock herl and grizzly hackle wet. It's a slam dunk. Cast into the current, drift downstream into the edge eddies, hold the fly behind a rock, drop it back and set the hook. We're all catching trout.
Worth Matteson is on a rock just above me. He packed a 1950s-era, two-piece white fiberglass fly rod from DeKalb, TX, to fish this moment. His grandfather's rod, he says, earned its keep fishing grandfather and grandson on Michigan trout streams. "He never made it to Alaska," Worth tells me, "but he talked about it. Read all the magazines. We fished a lot in Michigan when I was a boy." He lobs a fly behind a rock, the white rod bends and shakes. Around us Baranof Lake rises into dark conifers and reaches for a ring of ragged silvery gray peaks that surround us. Loons cry. There's a bear track up lake. The grandson, retirement age, plays the cutthroat easy and gently. Grandpa's white rod. In Alaska.
Later there is Eva Lake, stream and lagoon where schools of Dolly Varden are packed so dense it looks like the bottom moves when they swim. A waterfall, wide and head-high crosses the stream, creating a barrier and keeping the pool packed with sea-run fish. Mostly Dollies, some rainbows, a few chums and pinks. Bear trails have torn up the hillside above the pool. We leave when a seal invades the pool.
A light mist falls in the night and leaves stringers of steam and clouds for the morning light to set afire. We pull out and head into Peril Strait and our last day toward an anchorage in Kalinin Bay. But that was before the bubble-netting show of the trip. A half-dozen humpbacks are on a bubble-netting binge along the shoreline. From the upper deck we clearly see the bubble-net form in the un-rippled green satin, a circle of white air in clear water fencing in a massive school of herring, candlefish, maybe salmon smolts forcing them into a tight, panicked cluster. We hear a clarion roar from the lead whale and on signal the pod torpedoes upward through the packed feed, cavernous mouths open, scooping protein, rising above the surface in a massive spray of water, light and fish scales.
Again and again we watch the show, 45 feet long cetaceans erupting 10 maybe 12 times, blowing out of the water in spectacular leaps. It's a rare sight with perfect morning light and it puts a serious dent in the day's activity schedule. "Want to leave or stay?" hollers Captain "I-stop-the-boat-for-everything" Olsen from the bridge. "One more" we holler back. Four times we do the "one more." For an hour the captain holds position, lets us eavesdrop through the hydrophone and go bug-eyed when the black behemoths blow through the surface, mouths gaping, water flying, crashing.
Then it's king salmon in Salisbury, a bear-abbreviated hike at Kalinan Bay and a final anchorage in the Magoun Islands about an hour north of Sitka.
The last full day is storybook stuff; bubble-netting super show, king salmon at Salisbury, a hike cut short by a grizzly grazing in the trail and a close-out sunset that Hollywood couldn't imagine—shades of pink and red orange, and yellow and blues that paint the clouds, fill the sky and the pointed bow of the Mist Cove and reflect in the water. In the centerfold of this runaway palette rises the razored silhouette of a single pyramid peak.
"We weren't just watching," James Snider says, "we were part of it."
Terry W. Sheely is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine and resides in Black Diamond, WA. He can be reached through his website at www.tnscommunications.net.