CAUGHT ON CLARENCE: The Strait Strikes Back

CAUGHT ON CLARENCE: The Strait Strikes Back

With two kids, a boy and a girl, staying with us we found we needed to make another grocery run across the strait. We were informed by the Little Girl that we were running out of peanut butter and jelly, which struck fear into all our hearts. All the same, my dad wanted to make sure we had a good day to cross, so I took a walk through the woods to get a view of Clarence Strait.
     We didn’t want a repeat of our last trip. On our way home from Thorne Bay the driver’s seat broke just as we got out into heavy seas. My dad tried to steer while sitting on the broken seat’s mount but found that impossible–he could barely reach the throttle on the tiller handle of the outboard engine, for one thing. For another, the position was killing his bad leg and sciatica.
     Fortunately, we had a five gallon bucket in the skiff with us. I turned it upside down and used it for the seat. On the plus side I could reach the throttle. On the down side, the bucket had no grip and slid around in the heavy seas. It was also too low, so I couldn’t see over the bow very well. My dad directed me where to steer to get in the trough. It was a pretty harrowing ride and not one either of us wanted to repeat–with or without the broken seat issue.

When I checked the strait I saw a tide rip on this side, but it looked all right on the other side, glittering in the strong sunshine. It looked fine to the north and south as well. I took pictures and had my dad take a look. He decided we were good to go and we headed out.
     It was marginal to the halfway mark, then Clarence Strait struck back. In minutes we were taking constant spray, getting hammered by growing and confused seas. The wind direction appeared to be switching around on us. Trying to avoid some waves, we hit others from another direction and our teeth clicked together and our spines got slammed as we came down hard. Repeatedly, even going at a slower speed. This was particularly hard on my dad’s leg. But at least the seat was fixed and solid despite the abuse.

 It reminded me  of a skiff ride in my teen years when my dad was working on the community waterline in the nearby village and my sister and I had been hired to clean and pack up a house for someone who was leaving. After a day of work, on the ride home we got into heavy weather, launched off a particularly big wave, and smashed down hard.
     My dad tapped the bottom of the skiff with his foot. “Yeah,” he said bleakly, “there went the bottom.”
     I felt the bottom with my foot and could feel the unnatural movement as the hull flexed independently of the rest of the skiff. The bottom had separated.
     We made it safely home, but that skiff–a thirteen foot Boston Whaler that had seen years of hard service–had to be put out to pasture. My dad built a sixteen foot wooden skiff, with lumber from his own sawmill, that we used for years afterwards. It was the one I used to drive my younger brothers and sister to school when I was sixteen, in all sorts of weather.

We made it across the strait and were relieved to get inside the protected passage that led to Thorne Bay, but both of us were thinking about how fast we could get fuel and groceries and cross the strait again before it got worse. At least, we thought, even if it was as bad out there as when we crossed, we’d be going with it on the way home and be able to get in the trough with a quartering sea on our stern to push us. Assuming the wind direction didn’t switch yet again.
     The Port, where we got fuel, still hadn’t been able to replace the malfunctioning pump down at the dock. The last time we were there I’d had to carry a jerry jug up to the street level pump and fill it there. This time they’d run a very long hose from the street pummp to the dock. I just had to go up and switch it on. My dad fueled up just as another boat arrived. When my dad finished I turned off the pump, then, at the newcomer’s request, turned it back on for him, saving him a trip up to the street and back down.
     As I paid at the counter I noticed that there was a new woman on duty and she had an accent. She revealed that she was from the Ukraine as she handed me back the credit card.
     “Spasibo,” I thanked her, and she did a double-take.
     “Nazashto. Have you been to Ukraine?” she asked, surprised.
     “No, but my family on my mother’s side is from there. My great grandmother’s family was from Odessa.” I would have loved to have talked with her more and used some of my limited Russian, but we had to get going. Maybe next time.

 We had one stop to make before the grocery store. I knew that the Beachcomber who writes a wonderful blog ( of her travels and experiences in my part of Alaska was in Thorne Bay on a live-aboard boat moored at the city float. I wanted to stop by and say hi. I knew she’d understand that I couldn’t linger as I would have liked–she’s well-acquainted with Clarence Strait and its mercurial ways.
     Unfortunately, when I knocked on the side of the boat and called out to see if anyone was home, there was no answer. I got back in the skiff, but as we were pulling away a man called out to us and told us that we’d just missed them–they’d taken off in their camper just two hours earlier. I asked him to tell her that I’d stopped by, that I was from across the strait. He gave us a disbelieving look.
     “You came across the strait in that?”
     “Yes, and it wasn’t nice,” I said ruefully.
     He asked if I was the post mistress for the village on the other side of the strait and I said no, though I’ve known the post mistress most of my life. He said that when he was preparing to move up to Alaska, someone he’d met in passing asked him to tell the post mistress at our small village hi from her sister. He apparently hadn’t thought it was likely he’d bump into her, but I’m sure he will at some point, just like he bumped into someone who knows her well.

Our next stop was the store. My mom had called in most of her order and it was already shopped and boxed. When I stepped inside I snagged a young man named Daniel and asked if he’d deliver her groceries down to the skiff, below the parking lot, while I did my own shopping and a few extra items my mom had thought of. I went as fast as I could. It was flat calm inside Thorne Bay, but that was never an indication of what was happening out on the strait.
     After finishing shopping, Daniel again helped with the boxes. He did most of the work–I stayed in the bow of the skiff as he trudged up and down the steep gravel incline for box after box, handing them off to me. I asked if they’d ever found out if it was possible to put a dock here to make loading groceries easier.
     He said the Army Corps of Engineers had come and looked at it and told them that they’d have to put in thirty feet of fill and pay over $300,000 for a thirty year rental. And that didn’t include the cost of building the actual dock! Obviously, we’ll be trudging up and down that gravel incline for years to come.
    Once we’d arranged the boxes around the jugs of fuel and lashed the boxes in place for a bumpy ride home, we noticed that it was blowing inside the protected bay, now. But, to our relief, when we made it back onto the strait we saw that it had actually laid down. It was still rough, but it got nicer as we crossed until it was frankly friendly as we reached home.
     It’s always such a relief to put another corssing behind us. Best of all, we were stocked up again on PB&J!


7/17/2016 03:59:02 pm

I am SO-O sorry that I missed you! We had quite a crossing on Clarence Strait, also, but we were in a 60′ boat. I can’t imagine a rough day in an open Boston Whaler on Clarence! Confused seas are the worst!
Glad your return trip was better. I hope that we are around next time you come this way!
Alaska Beachcomber



7/21/2016 11:15:17 am

Hopefully next time we can connect. And I’m so glad you made it across Clarence all right–even in a bigger boat that’s not a fun crossing in bad weather.

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