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Part 2: Paddling up to the mouth of a creek, I was suddenly surrounded by dorsal fins.
By Richard Thiel — February 2003
Southeast Alaska harbors millions of such tales, and Ursa's crew seemed to know `em all. But as we entered Ford Arm on the western shore of Chichagof Island, I was more interested in how a Seattle-based rheumatologist came to purchase Ursa as her first boat. The story is a convoluted one involving a slip Gauthier owns and near confiscation by the U.S. Marshals. Somewhere along the line, she fell in love with not only Ursa, which at the time needed considerable work, but all of the Malahide trawlers, of which Explorer is also one. After bringing this four-stateroom double-ender to the fine condition she was when I was aboard, Gauthier decided to charter her in Alaska. But the decision was not motivated solely by financial concerns. "You don't get into this business to make money," she told me. "You do it for three reasons: to see the boat used as she was intended to be, to expose her to as many people as possible so they can appreciate her, and to preserve something special."
After dropping the hook about a mile into the arm, in about 50 feet of water and ringed by craggy, cloud-enshrouded peaks, we offloaded the kayaks, hoping to spot grizzlies feeding on migrating salmon. Paddling up to the mouth of a creek, I was suddenly surrounded by dorsal fins. Hundreds of salmon were schooling, waiting for that mysterious signal that tells them it's time to head upstream, spawn, and die. They leapt all around me, banging into the hull of my kayak until I thought I might capsize. I headed on up the creek and soon spotted the distinctive brown humpbacked mass of a grizzly wading 50 yards ahead. As he turned to face me, I realized the creek was too narrow to allow me to quickly turn around. Knowing he could cover the space between us in seconds, I furiously backpaddled as he eyed me with apparent disinterest and beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the bay.
I awoke the following morning at 7:30 and, stepping out on the misty foredeck with my coffee, spotted a mother grizzly and two cubs nosing the shoreline. I watched them for about 15 minutes, until the scene was broken by the sound of Ursa's engine. We were off for what locals call the "inside-outside passage," in the Gulf, but shielded from big swells by islands. After two hours we left the lee of the islands and learned what we were missing: eight-footers on the beam, rolling even the bulk of Ursa. We were glad to turn up into Lisianski Strait, a fjord that separates Yakobi Island from Chichagof, and head for the town of Pelican, a half-mile wide, a boardwalk deep, and named after a bird that doesn't exist in Alaska. Pelican's principal attraction is Rosie's Bar and its eponymous owner, a garrulous 60-something Alaska native with platinum blond hair and oversize designer glasses. She has enough 1950's tapes to test the capacity of the hydroelectric generator a few steps away. A word of advice if you visit: If someone asks you to climb up on the bar and write your name on the ceiling, don't.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.