We did it! We made it to Alaska! We started to believe that we could do it when we were approaching Prince Rupert, but with the wind, seas and fog up here, it never feels like it’s a sure thing until it happens.

As we crossed into Alaskan waters, we toasted our arrival with Patrick’s spur-of-the-moment international blend of Jack Daniels and Canadian whiskey and watched an adorable baby harbour seal waiting for its mama on a little rock outcropping. That afternoon, back on the Canada side of the border, we anchored temporarily in a little cove where we found one of the stone masonry cabins built in 1896 by the U.S. crew that surveyed the Canada/Alaska border.

Though the roof and wooden floor were gone, we found what we think may have been the original wood door in the tall grass above the high-tide line not far away. The construction of the stone shelter was fascinating. Though brush, ferns and even a small tree were growing inside, we could see the jutting stone ledge that would have supported the floorboards all around the lower perimeter of the one-room hut. Pairs of indentations inside the doorway and the window on the opposite wall would have housed hinges for shutters that swung in, ready to be barred against the weather – or unwelcome visitors. There was no sign of a chimney or hearth, and we wondered how the survey crew cooked and kept warm. Nights are cold here, even in summer.

We followed the sound of waves crashing and walked into the woods behind the little structure. Within 50 yards we found a tiny pocket beach, the shore piled high with layers of huge driftwood logs. The cabin had been built on a narrow isthmus. It seems firewood would have been easy to come by.

Before we returned to Tenacious we examined a smooth rectangular block of pale stone to the left of the cabin’s doorway. It contrasted with the irregular chunks that made up the rest of the structure. Carved letters could be detected in the flat block. By close examination of the worn stone we read, “… PROPERTY, DO NOT INJURE, Port Seattle.” It seems that at the time of the survey, the cabin was considered to be in U.S. territory. When the international border and boundary of “Seward’s Folly” was finally established a few miles to the north, someone must have chiseled away the initials, “U.S.” at the beginning of the inscription. In that moment we felt very close to history.

Our last anchorage before that was in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, a preserve that is now surrounded by a conservancy area and home to an estimated 50-60 grizzly bears. We spent two nights there, anchored in a corner of the “L” shaped inlet. One leg of the ‘L’ looked out toward the entrance to the inlet, and the other gave us a vista of a huge, bare granite mountain that sloped down toward the grassy meadow at the head of the inlet. We took our dinghy all around the inlet, spying out and watching bears as they grazed on sedge grass in the sunshine. I was interested to learn that grizzlies (or brown bears, as they are commonly known in Canada) make grasses and roots a large part of their diet, especially in the spring after hibernation. During the summer they tend to move to higher elevations to enjoy the ripening berries. Of course, late summer brings them back to the salmon streams to gorge on the fattiest parts of salmon in preparation for their long winter nap.

One bear’s territory was quite near our anchorage. We watched him as he meandered along the sedge grass meadow bordering the waterline, yanking and chewing mouthful after mouthful of grass. Occasionally he stopped and sat down, taking a break from the unusually hot weather we’ve been having. At one point he must have decided to cool off. He waded in up to his shoulders and proceeded to groom the fur around his neck with his big claws, then ducked low to wash his face with his huge paws. He ducked again and came up with a silver herring in his jaws. We could only imagine that with his thick fur, the cold water felt wonderful, though we hoped he didn’t decide to take a longer swim, as we watched him from the dinghy!

We spotted a younger bear, still slim and showing some ribs, clambering over and around the boulders scattered in the outlet of the Mouse River. He must have wondered where the salmon were, but we knew. We could see thousands of them — pink salmon — milling around in the shallow water near the mouth of the creek, awaiting whatever call would tell them it was the right moment to head upstream to the spawning grounds. Later that evening Pat rigged his fly rod and caught a pink. We enjoyed it for dinner.

Early on our last morning I was on the bow pulling up anchor while Patrick flaked the chain into the anchor locker below. Our anchor windlass is operated with a large button embedded in the foredeck, so I kept one foot on the button, one eye on the anchor chain, and watched for wildlife around us. I was hoping to see our grizzly bear, or perhaps a visiting harbor seal, but instead I spotted what looked like a strange bird swimming toward us from shore.

Trying to identify the species, I realized that I was not looking at a bird at all, but rather at a pair of antlers coming through the water. A deer was swimming across the inlet. I called Pat to come up on deck. The deer passed within 25 yards of our stern, so close that we could see the rhythmic clouds of his breath jetting in front of him just above the surface of the water.

We watched his progress, worrying about the distance and the ice cold glacier-melt water, but he was a fine swimmer. We followed his progress with binoculars for half a mile, until he clambered up on a rocky point on the opposite shore.

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  • Rex Crippen August 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Sounds like the voice over from one’s personal “Animal Planet”
    a delightful segment.