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Oysters and Ice

A New Life for an Alaskan King Crab Fishing Boat

David and Susie Sczawinski operate an oyster culture site in a cove behind a small island in Eaglek Bay and distribute their harvest around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Our mind’s eyes pictured glistening fresh oysters on the half shell on a bed of ice and we hoped to find them there. As we approached the culture site David was tending the hanging net enclosures holding the oysters at optimum depth for food-rich water. Their home, a small floating cabin, was barely visible tucked into a cozy cove nearby. For a half hour we visited with Dave, who shared his knowledge of Prince William Sound’s natural history before we departed with five-dozen oysters still in their shells.

For the night we eased Norseman over a rocky bar into a well-protected lagoon and out of the brisk northeast wind making up the bay. The ambiance was classic coastal Alaska. In the dusk of dim twilight the primordial forest rose from the shoreline into the mists and our thoughts conjured aboriginal spirits and ghosts of explorers hidden within the perpetual rainforest. A tray of fresh oysters on the half shell on a bed of crushed ice appeared from the galley and while seated around the dining salon table we toasted to the comfort of a secure anchorage, the priceless scenery, and especially – oysters on ice.

The early morning light found us threading our way through crooked and narrow ten-mile long Esther Passage. Small islands, abrupt headlands, and freshets of rain-gorged mountain streams tumbling off the slopes emerged out of the mists. At the western end we swung around a low headland and set out across a broad stretch of water for the entrance to Barry Arm and Harriman Fiord.

We had seen no other vessels since leaving Whittier and were surprised when a woman’s voice came over the VHF radio as we headed for Barry Glacier. “NorsemanKlondike Express is that you in Barry Arm?” We were soon overtaken by the big powerful catamaran making the rounds of their daily signature “26-Glacier Cruise.” We arranged a rendezvous and cameras clicked across the water from both vessels as Nina maneuvered the Klondike Express close alongside so t-shirts and hats could be exchanged with a toss.

Three glaciers tumble into the head of Barry Arm and we felt totally surrounded by rock and blue ice as we pushed through fields of bergibits toward the face of Barry Glacier. Harbor seals watched apprehensively from floating ice as we collected small bits of iceberg for use in the galley. We then crossed the shallows of Doran Strait into a remarkable fiord named after the railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman, who in 1899 with characteristic boldness ordered his chartered expedition ship the S.S. George W. Elder with its eclectic complement of naturalists, writers, explorers and notables aboard into these previously uncharted waters. We aboard Norseman felt as explorers too, contemplating our surroundings that were so unspoiled by human endeavor and only changed by nature over countless millennia.

Anchored close along shore that evening the western horizon was defined by the silhouette of 7,600-ft. Mt. Muir. The great naturalist John Muir, who accompanied Harriman in 1899, would be pleased and comforted to know that a century later his namesake mountain can now be viewed from within the borders of the Nellie Juan College Fiord Wilderness Study Area. That evening our repast was splendidly preceded by a platter of fresh oysters arranged on a bed of cracked glacier ice as prepared by Chef Charlie. Our drinks sparkled with diamond-like cubes of centuries-old ice picked from the waters of the fiord that day.

For the next two days we learned the secrets and moods of Harriman Fiord by cruising the rugged shoreline and drifting for hours off the face of tidewater glaciers while waiting for huge slabs of blue ice to fracture away and with a great roar cascade into the sea. A small, unnamed cove served as an anchorage for our second night. The silence was only broken by the sound of waterfalls high among the peaks and icebergs gently rubbing along the hull as they were carried by the running tide.

The next morning the air was crisp and calm as we threaded out way ashore through grounded bergs in the inflatable boat. In this place a stream had formed its course parallel to the shoreline and joined the seawater at one end of a long pebble beach backed by a grassy marsh and alder thickets. While Keren searched the beach fringe for birds and interesting flotsam, Bruce and I ventured inland along the stream bank until we happened upon fresh piles of droppings and tracks of a large bear. Not desiring a close encounter in the alder thicket we climbed to the top of a low ridge and collected handfuls of bog blueberries while observing this furried local resident in his natural surroundings.

The following day we left the fiords, high mountains, and glaciers for the heavily forested islands of Prince William Sound. On the way to our next anchorage we passed offshore of a haulout area for Steller sea lions on the rocky shore of Perry Island. Hundreds of sea lions were lying on the rocks or frolicking in the surf for a least a mile.

Our last anchorage was in a small bay on the north end of Knight Island surrounded by steep forested slopes and high craggy peaks. That night, after a fine meal of fresh-caught salmon and toasts to lasting friendships, under a crystal-clear sky we observed the stars undiminished in brilliance by any unnatural light.

The anchor was aweigh before dawn on the day we would leave Prince William Sound for Seward, our final destination. Threading through the narrow channels between islands, there were reminders everywhere that natural forces still hold sway over human endeavor along the coastal regions of Alaska. Massive rock slides, avalanche zones, and lingering evidence of land upheaval during the 1964 earthquake abound. While passing Chenega Island we turned westward along the south shore to observe the abandoned site of Chenega Village, destroyed by the tsunami of 1964 and later rebuilt at a safer location on another island.

By evening we had completed our passage westward along the coast to Seward, with time to explore Driftwood Bay and spot mountain goats clinging to the cliffs above as we rounded Caped Resurrection. Bruce and Keren allowed time to get acquainted with Seward before making the scenic 125-mile drive to Anchorage and their flight home. Replete with shops, restaurants, and friendly saloons warmed by wood-fired stoves, Seward is the home of the Alaska SeaLife Center. The Center is a world-class research and educational facility and as such has played a roll in the resurrection of Norseman into an expedition and research charter vessel – but that’s another story.  

More Stories By Captain Paul Tate

Cpt. has a long history of duty at sea. After the Coast Guard and years aboPaul Tateard fishing vessels in Alaska, he spent several years aboard scientific research vessels as Shellfish Biologist. From 1986 to 2005 he was employed as yacht captain by the Carlson Companies of Minneapolis and in charge of their various vessels between 90ft and 145ft, engaged in chartering and corporate entertainment as well as private use by the owners. His duties took him up and down the East Coast of the United States. Cpt. Paul holds a USCG master 1600 tons domestic license and a 3000 tons ITC upon oceans.

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