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Winter Cruising "Alaska Style"

Story and photos by Ted Mattson

[includes/wintercruising.htm]

 The motor sailor "Skookumchuck" under power in the Alexander Archipelago.

Sailboats and warm tropical islands have been on the back of my mind for longer than I care to remember. While the horizon always seemed to beckon me to go to such places, I knew in my heart that Alaska was not ready to let me go. Thirty five years ago, when I first finally managed to get to Alaska, my thoughts centered around a cozy log cabin in some wild place with herds of caribou migrating past the door or moose high up on the hillsides. I’d been lucky enough to fly airplanes and helicopters over much of state during that time and had had the opportunity to visit many folks who were actually living the wilderness life that I’d thought someday would be mine as well. But, as the years crept on and my experience with such things increased, the cabin idea fell by the wayside and the sailboat dream took over.
The "Skookumchuck"

It seemed that boats of all kinds had always been part of my life. My first one, “Tar Baby” I made from some old boards my dad had left over when building cement forms in the construction of our new house. It leaked so much, that roofing tar, the thick sticky kind that’s used to cement cracks in shingles, kept most of the water out. Later, I acquired a kayak that was badly in need of new skin. Somewhere along the line an Old Town canoe came into the picture. It too, needed a new covering and the experience I’d had with the kayak proved very beneficial. And that experience proved a great asset when I started recovering and doing patch work on the fabric covered Super Cub I would later own and fly into a big portion of Alaska’s outback. While the dream of far away places with their soft tropical breezes continued to linger in the back of my mind there, it was not to be. Alaska had taken me into her bosom so strongly there was no where else I wanted to be.

Commercial fishing paid the bills for nearly thirty years and boats then were always in the forefront of everything I thought about. Of course, the airplanes I flew when I wasn’t fishing took up the slack. Ultimately, it was the airplane that changed my thoughts from the log cabin in the wilderness to a boat in the wilderness. Alaska had so much water and coast line! I had experience with Western Alaska and the Bering Sea with the fishing and had visited the North Slope and tasted flying near the Artic Ocean with the helicopter but had still never managed to explore any of Southeast Alaska where the waterways seemed to go on interminably.

Skookumchuck rides at anchor in a quiet SE Alaska cove.

Still, it took a shock to get me off top dead center and do something about it. I was 56 years old when it occurred to me that my life was slipping away. My dad had died at 65. What was I waiting for? Skookumchuck, a fifty-three foot blue water motor sailor built by Skookum Boat Works in Port Townsend, WA, came into my possession shortly afterward. Even with the sale of my Super Cub, I still had a huge debt and I now had two boats to look after but, at least, no airplane. That was eight years ago. The debt was finally gone and the sailboat boat was rigged almost to perfection. There was no excuse for any more delay. And so, a week ago, the cruise I’d held in my thoughts for all those years actually left the dock. It was November 6th.

So where does a person go in his boat in the wintertime when his summertime is filled with chartering and commercial fishing when that person knows in his heart that he doesn’t want to leave Alaska? Well, if you’re in Southeast Alaska, the answer is simple. Its incredible inland waterways are perhaps the best kept secret in the whole world. They are a joy to explore in the summer and many people certainly take advantage of them. In winter it is a wilderness lover’s paradise come true with hardly a soul around. On top of that the place is like having your own private hunting and fishing reserve. Ducks, geese and deer abound. The salmon are long spawned out with the stream banks littered with the bones of their carcasses. The bears are elsewhere. Perhaps they’re in the high country eating the last of the berries and thinking of hibernating. There are winter storms to deal with to be sure and bays that freeze over but there is nothing better than going out on the deck in the early morning light with the fragrance of the forest heavy in the crisp air.

 

With so many bays to explore and finally enough time to do them justice, it’s hard to know where to begin. There are old mines and cabins just begging for someone to wander through one more time while wondering about the past inhabitants. Waterfalls everywhere that deserves a closer look and, of course, there’s the hiking. “Wonder what’s up that valley?” Or, “Let’s go see where that big meadow goes.”

I say we because cruising is not something I ever wanted to do alone. I know at least one guy who travels that way. He starts out in early March with his snowshoes strapped to the back of his 27 foot sailboat. Only in Alaska! I’d been divorced for 22 years and, although I bought the boat while still alone, I never gave up hope of finding a traveling companion. And last year it finally happened. Cindy has two grown boys and had been on her own for a couple of years after her divorce before we met. She has lived in this incredible country for nearly 30 years, is familiar with boats and is as close to a wilderness woman as I’ve ever met. But, she’d never had the chance to get out and explore back country. We clicked in every respect. We put our noses to the grindstone and our hearts and souls together just so we could do this very thing. We are two of the luckiest people alive!

Winter Cruising l Starting Out l We Get Visitors l Winter Comes l A Windy Night l A Special Day
Rhythms l Back to Civilization

Skipper Ted Mattson is an Alaska sailor with broad experience in Bristol Bay and especially his home, the Alexander Archipelago, Alaska's panhandle.  Ted operates popular adventure sailing cruises with guests in the summer months aboard the Skookumchuck.


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