Six anchorages along the Inside Passage stand out from the rest.
Whenever I travel to new places in the world, I always take a moment in a favorite spot to make a mental record of that particular point in time. It’s like a photograph hidden in my mind. I sit very still. I look around and notice the color of the water, the boulders on the beach, the green of the trees, the smells surrounding me. I breathe deeply and take it all in. I know I may never be back and I want to capture this sense of place, so I can pull out the memory when I need it the most.
The first time I remember doing this was in the Seychelles Islands in 1992. I can still see the beauty of my particular “favorite” beach. I was by myself on a huge boulder, surrounded by the bluest of blue water. I have used that vision to help me get to sleep at night, to calm me through MRIs and to daydream away a rainy afternoon.
Mick and I recently cruised the Inside Passage to southeast Alaska on our 55-foot Fleming, Mola Mola. It was our fourth trip to this magnificent part of the world. We visited our favorite bays and harbors and searched out new favorites along the way. In this rugged wilderness there is no shortage of spectacular scenery. There are grand surprises around every corner.
Six Inside Passage anchorages in particular stand out in our memory, for their combination of glorious sights, potential for wildlife interaction and a special mystical, magical feeling. These places now make up new pages in the photography book in my mind.
Whether it’s a fog-shrouded sunset scene or a playful tail slap in Idaho Inlet, or bear and porpoise sightings in Fords Terror, the Inside Passage delivers countless reasons to frequent its spectacular anchorages.
1. Mussel Inlet — Fiordland
Fiordland Conservancy is a large marine park in British Columbia that encompasses Kynoch and Mussel inlets, their estuaries and surrounding mountains. Both inlets are spectacular and worthy of a visit. On our last trip to Fiordland, we fell in love with Mussel Inlet, which we approached by way of a 6½-mile fjord that begins where Mathieson and Sheep channels converge. Sheer granite cliffs climb to more than 3,200 feet and are dotted with dense coastal forests and imposing waterfalls. The most impressive waterfall is at the entrance to Oatswish Bay. It’s about 150 feet wide at the base and has perfect rock steps that look like a landscape architect designed them.
Farther up the fjord, Mussel Inlet and Poison Cove await. Each has a river to be explored, and both make interesting dinghy trips. At Mussel Inlet we were greeted by two Watchmen from the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, which co-manages the Conservancy with BC Parks. They explained the limitations for visiting the Conservancy.
Beginning Aug. 1, they control the entrance into the estuary that marks the start of the river. A maximum of 14 people are allowed up the river at one time — and only one small boat. If the boat from Spirit Bear Lodge from Klemtu arrives, it has priority. Even if this happens, visitors can sit on their boat at the head of the bay and have a great chance of seeing bears on the beach (and explore the river after the tour departs).
Both brown and black bears are regularly spotted fishing for the abundant salmon. We watched in awe as a huge brown bear dove underwater and came up with a prized meal. Ashore, wolves, mink, eagles and seagulls all wait for bears’ salmon leftovers.
2. Khutze Inlet
Khutze Inlet has been a favorite anchorage since our first trip to Alaska, in 2006. A long fjord entrance sets the scene for the beauty that lies ahead. After a five-mile ride and a dogleg to starboard, the vista opens into a grand bowl. There are mountains with sparkling ice fields on three sides and a spectacular towering waterfall surrounded by several smaller falls. Creeks run into the bay on either side of a drying flat. At high tide, it’s possible to take a dinghy or kayak between the two and be surrounded by high brush, rocks and trees. We’ve been treated to grizzly bears, the cries of wolves, lots of birdlife and playful seals.
To add to the allure and adventure of Khutze, there is a touch of danger in anchoring. Visitors need to be very aware of the drying peninsula at the head of the Khutze River on the north side of the anchorage. It shoals quickly, so we always give it extra room.
One morning after an extremely high tide, we woke to find that a 70-foot tree had floated out of the river and lodged itself inside our anchor chain. It ran the length of the boat — on the side where we launch our dinghy. We have often enjoyed this serene anchorage by ourselves, but this time we were thankful for the helpful fellow boaters who came to our rescue.
3. Fords Terror
Off Endicott Arm, 60 miles southeast of Juneau, Alaska, guarded by a bottleneck entrance that requires careful planning, is a sheer-walled fjord called Fords Terror. In 1889, a naval crewmember named Ford rowed his dinghy into the narrow entrance at slack tide, only to be trapped inside by the turbulent currents until the tide turned. Today, boaters are armed with tide and current charts and can plan a safe voyage with accuracy. Nonetheless, many boaters on their first transit of the tiny opening follow others who are more experienced. We have launched our dinghy and done a practice run to scope out the depths and to get a good mental picture of the sharp turn in the center of the channel.
Past the entrance, a vast wonderland opens to visitors. The towering fjord walls remind us of Yosemite with water. Magnificent waterfalls and towering crevasses run from the top of the mountains to the sea and display the deep gouging effect of long-departed glaciers. We have seen black bears frolic on the beaches and had curious, normally shy harbor porpoises swim around the boat. Much to our surprise, we even snagged a king crab one evening as we were jigging for halibut. The wonders of Fords Terror are many, but the thing that stands out the most for me is the deep emerald green color of the water that reflects the splendor surrounding it. Pure magic!
4. Red Bluff Bay
The stunning red bluffs on the east side of Baranof Island in Chatham Strait sit as sentinel to my husband’s favorite anchorage, Red Bluff Bay. These prominent and treeless red bluffs mark the unmistakable entrance to this near-perfect anchorage. The bluff is high in chromium, magnesium, nickel and iron, which are responsible for this geologic feature’s phenomenal color and the lack of vegetation in the immediate area.
Passing through the intricate waterway at the entrance to the bay, we were treated to a huge roaring waterfall, a large “bear meadow” and snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. A massive granite bowl is home to silvery slivers of waterfalls, snowfields and hanging glaciers. And if all of this isn’t enough, the fascinating ruins of an old cannery occupy the shore opposite the massive waterfall. Brown bears are frequent visitors to the drying flats, and the Sitkoh Creek is fun to explore and offers additional chances to see wildlife. Trumpeter swans, river otters, seals, mergansers, harlequin ducks and eagles frequent the area. The shrimping is reported to be outstanding, and the bay offers good protection and solid anchoring.
On our last afternoon in Red Bluff, the sun came out, so we launched our drone and tried to capture the grand scale of the towering peaks and waterfalls that dominate the bay. Even these gorgeous aerial photos couldn’t do it justice.
5. Idaho Inlet
Location, location, location! Half of the joys of Idaho Inlet are in its approach. Idaho Inlet sits on the northern shore of Chichagof Island, the fifth-largest island in the United States. Its entrance is off Icy Strait — the prime feeding ground for humpback whales — via the Inian Islands. Pods of orcas, the occasional minke whale, harbor seals, sea otters and Steller sea lions also frequent this area. We have watched in amazement as humpback whales breached and tail lobbed dozens of times at the entrance to Idaho Inlet. We’ve also spent an hour inside the 10-mile channel that leads to the head of the bay, watching humpbacks breach between us and the shore. It always takes our breath away when these mighty animals are close enough that we can listen to them breathe and blow.
The Inian Islands, a small archipelago that forms an hourglass through which tides fill and empty from the Gulf of Alaska, are definitely worth exploring. These currents stir the seawater and bring a delicious meal to the surface, as sea lions and seabirds scour the water and feast. On one occasion the hunt reached a frenzied pitch as dozens of sea lions jumped in and out of the currents and threw fish in the air in what appeared to be a mighty game of catch.
When we can pry ourselves away from the wonders of Icy Strait and the Inian Islands, the night’s anchorage in Idaho Inlet is quite wonderful. Silt has filled the bay over the decades, creating a flat shelf that provides perfect anchoring. The inlet is nestled among dramatic tree-topped mountains. Yellow kelp rings the head of the bay at low tide. High grasses and wildflowers are thick. There are streams and beaches to explore and berries to be picked. Be alert for black and brown bears, which also enjoy the inlet’s bounty.
6. Punchbowl Cove & Rudyerd Bay
Behm Canal is the major waterway that cuts through Misty Fiords National Monument, 40 miles east of Ketchikan. It is more than 100 miles long and is extraordinary among natural canals for both its length and depth. Because Misty Fiords, which includes Behm Canal and its spectacular anchorages, is slightly off the beaten path, it is often overlooked by transiting boaters. We have found it takes at least three or four days to even begin to explore an area that encompasses some of Alaska’s most breathtaking scenery.
Rudyerd Bay is one of the highlights of Misty Fiords. Receded glaciers have created 3,000-foot-high fjords that cut through steep-sided mountains and extend far into the mainland. It is exhilarating to cruise past dramatic 1,000-foot-high waterfalls that plunge through the rainforest and over moss-covered cliffs. Wildlife is abundant; we have seen several species of salmon, whales, mountain goats and deer. Last summer on our way to Rudyerd Bay, we watched in delight as a family of six wolves played on the beach. The four pups bounced and jumped around like puppies in a typical suburban backyard.
Punchbowl Cove sits at the mouth of Rudyerd Bay. A 3,000-foot-tall glacially carved granite wall on the east side of the cove makes it obvious how Punchbowl got its name. At the head of the bay is one buoy that’s available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are anchorages for other boats. In the evening and morning, we had the cove to ourselves and soaked in the magic and untouched serenity of this pristine wilderness. During the height of the day, however, many seaplanes land in front of the massive granite bowl. Passengers get out and stand on the plane’s floats so they can relish the cove’s grandeur.
We watched them fly away, knowing we could stay as long as we wanted.