We had three days of fuel left for our diesel generator, and it was forecasted to storm for the next week. This was obviously the day we needed to cross the strait in order to stock up on fuel for the month, since the water was glassy still.
There was only one problem. Fog.
I climbed over the rocks to see how bad the fog was and couldn't see across the strait to Prince of Wales Island where we'd have to go for fuel. I could hear way out somewhere in the mist a ferry or cruise ship blowing its lonely horn every minute. Closer to shore, where I stood on the seaweed-covered rocks, the diesel engines of seine boats rumbled.
As I stood there, a seiner appeared in the distance, ghosting through the opaque air, hardly seeming to touch the water at all.
My dad called the fuel station in Thorne Bay to find out how bad the fog was on their side and heard that it was about three hundred feet up. This was reassuring, but not a guarantee of safe passage. Even though we had a GPS, it wouldn't work inside the narrow, twisting channel that led into the town. If the channel was fogged in we'd be in trouble.
He tried calling again a little bit later and received good news. The floatplanes were flying into Thorne Bay again! This meant that the fog was down low and probably only on our side of the strait. We hurriedly put our gear on and steered for the whited out strait.
My dad steered the tiller handle outboard with one hand and held his GPS in the other, driving entirely by its direction. We were being guided by a satellite orbiting earth in the lifeless darkness of space as we drove blindly into the thick mist.
Without warning we broke through the fog.
The middle of the strait, we found, was swept clear of fog as what wind there was tunneled between the mainland on our side and the lengthy bulk of Prince of Wales Island on the other. The fog was heavy above us and on all sides. Horizontal bands of mountains appeared sandwiched between the overcast and the fog on the water. Heavy tendrils of mist streamed down mountains like huge, diaphanous rivers, lit by a yellow glow as the sun fought to shine through.
It was a strange, pewter-colored world and I couldn't help thinking about a description written of this strait (or so some scholars say) in the Sixteenth Century:
For the sun striving to perform his natural office, in elevating the vapors out of these inferior bodies, draweth necessarily abundance of moisture out of the sea:...and instead of higher elevation, to leave in the lowest region wandering upon the face of the earth and waters as it were, a second sea through which its own beams cannot possibly pierce, unless sometimes when the sudden violence of the winds doth help to scatter and break through it.*
Seiners crept in and out of the fog behind us, ahead of us, and up and down the strait, guided by radar, and like us, by GPS. They had it much better than the sailors of long ago.
Once we made it safely inside the town, my dad dropped me off on a grass and gravel beach to hike up to the store, while he went to deal with some other business. The town seemed oddly silent, locked in under heavy skies. I didn't hear any cars on the street above the creek as I climbed the rocks beside it. There were no planes, either, though I knew they must have been backed up by the fog and probably had dozens of passengers waiting to be flown in or out.
I was the only shopper in the small store and was able to get one of the cashiers, named Daniel, to give me a courtesy ride down to the loading dock where my dad had said he'd meet me. Daniel and I carried box after box down to the end of the dock until we had quite a nice pile.
He left and I sat down on the warped boards and waited in the locked in, damp heat of the day.
The heavy, unnatural stillness was shattered as one floatplane after another descended. I counted five in a row. The seaplane base in Ketchikan knew as well as we did that it was forecasted to blow and, after being backed up by the fog, they were trying to crowd in as many passengers as they could while the flying was good.
My dad arrived and told me he'd knocked at the boat of my fellow Alaskan blogger, The Beachcomber (www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com), but that no one was home. We'd missed meeting yet again! Hopefully, one of these days we'd manage to cross paths.
On the way to the fuel station we watched as the floatplanes acted as a conveyor belt, one landing and disgorging passengers as another took off with a full load. The one taking off was so heavily loaded that its tail was almost in the water and it took a long time for it to get in the air. And even when it was off the water, it hovered just above it for quite a ways before gaining altitude.
After getting 75 gallons of fuel (diesel and gas), we headed back home and had an uneventful, safe trip. The fog had cleared completely.
That evening the strait was glassy, the seiners traveling without impediment on a beautiful, champagne-colored sea.
*The World Encompassed and Analogous Contemporary Documents (Quoted in The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf).
Tara Neilson (ADOW)