Laughing Gull’s 2017 Blog: Midnight Ferry to Ketchikan

Posted on Jul 13, 2017

Laughing Gull’s 2017 Blog: Midnight Ferry to Ketchikan

by Capt. Steve Spencer (adapted by Capt. John Page Williams)

Libbey and I left Whitefield, Maine on May 25, towing Laughing Gull with our six-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup.  Our destination: the ferry terminal at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, some 3,800 miles cross-continent in seven days. We cooked and slept aboard the boat each night in interstate rest areas or parks. I forgot to factor in a time-zone change, so we hit Chicago during rush hour. As a rural Mainer, I’m a mediocre city driver, towing a 24’ boat, in hard rain, with detours and construction everywhere. What could go wrong? Somehow nothing did, despite a kamikaze tractor trailer passing me on the shoulder of an off-ramp at 50 mph.

Headwinds of 25-35 knots on the open plains of North Dakota slowed our progress to 45-50 mph and reduced our fuel economy by one-third.  The road grades crossing over the Canadian Rockies at Jasper, Alberta were surprisingly mild. However, there were a lot of long, steep downhill stretches in BC’s coastal range that will slow us when we return to Maine in September. We’ll hope for tailwinds on the plains.

So now it’s midnight in Ketchikan on June 2 as we back up the truck and trailer 150 feet around a curve in the bowels of the ferry Matanuska. Possible only with the expert directions of the deckhands! We straighten the wheels and drive up the ramp into a very quiet town, headed for our destination for the night: the parking lot at the Chateau Wal-Mart. We find a space among the RVs and settle into our V-berth for the night.

Next morning, it’s raining and blowing hard, so we launch the boat at the in-town ramp and tie off to the float in the “open moorage” section. Open moorage means you can dock for as long as you pay, but you don’t have an assigned space.  Thus somebody with another boat can take the space you leave behind, and then you have to find another space. The harbormasters are a friendly crew, though, and they can direct you to an open spot by radio or phone.

We spend a couple of days at the float while the wind howls and the rain comes sideways (Ketchikan gets an annual average of 13.5 feet of rain).  Fortunately, the town has a handsome new library with free Wi-Fi and plenty of big, comfortable armchairs. I’m concerned with dampness on our half-open boat affecting my laptop, so the library is a great amenity.

After two days, the wind (but not the rain) abates somewhat, and we’re eager to fish. Valnear Bay should offer good cover from the southeast wind, so we make the 15-mile run up there, stopping occasionally to troll unsuccessfully for salmon that we mark on the fish finder. When we arrive, there’s a steep 3-4’ ground-swell running in the windless bay, so we turn and run back to town. A few drifts in the lee of Pennock Island and we have a couple of nice windowpane flounder for dinner at the dock.

The next morning is calm with a mix of sun and showers, so we decide a night on a US Forest Service mooring buoy in remote Carroll Inlet would be fun. The Forest Service has placed these buoys in remote areas with poor anchor holding ground to provide safe mooring for recreational boaters. We mooch and jig for salmon at Herring Cove without any luck, but we catch a nice mix of Alaskan pollock and rockfish (quillback and silver-gray) for dinner. The following day is sunny with calm conditions and no strong wind in the forecast, so we head for the USFS buoy in Thorne Arm. A “chicken” halibut (as we call those between 10 and 20 pounds) and a 6- lb. yelloweye rockfish give us a fish feast for supper, with plenty left over for a fish-hash breakfast the next morning. Then we run back to town to wait out a coming two-day blow.

Once the wind calms down, we have time for one more night in the wild country before it’s time for Libbey to catch a flight home to Maine and me to welcome customers of Baranof Fishing Excursions. We head out Nichols Passage and hit an old favorite halibut spot to pick up dinner: a four-pounder that’s a perfect size for two fish-loving diners.  The next drop produces another fish of similar size, so we start to fill the freezer (back at Baranof Fishing Excursions). Libbey hooks a big one and does a great job of reeling it boatside, where I manage to knock it off the hook with poor gaffing technique. Libbey is kind enough to insist that it’s better to practice on her fish than on my upcoming paying guests. A few minutes later, I’ve got a lightly-hooked 15-pounder alongside. I’d normally gaff a fish that size, but I’m in no mood to lose another, so I drive a harpoon through both gill plates.  That’s a fish we’ll savor back in Maine this winter. We also catch a bunch of 12-15” pollock, so we keep some for breakfast and bait.

We have Bostwick Inlet to ourselves for a lovely evening. Next day, we run back to town, stopping to fish a few spots but catching only pollock. They are okay as table fish, very mild but a bit soft-fleshed. A liberal splash of lemon juice a few minutes before sautéing is a great help, but we’ll never prefer them to halibut, rockfish or salmon.

A few errands the next morning, a short stroll on the Rainbird Trail that overlooks the town, a fabulous lunch at the Thai Deli, and it’s time to drop Libbey off at the ferry landing for the short ride to the airport.  I drive down to the Baranof company shop and plug in our freezer to start the fish. In the fall, we’ll load the full (I hope) freezer into the truck and plug it into the inverter for the ride home.

I’m sitting in the boat at the dock that evening when a dark-green, 26’ hand-trolling boat pulls in behind Laughing Gull. I jump on the dock to offer help docking and we start chatting. They’re a couple of great guys from Washington state doing the dream retirement thing, so we’ve got stuff in common. It turns out their boat is a 1986 Sisu (a brand now being built in the same Eastern Boats plant in Milton, NH as my 24’ Seaway). We share drinks and some of their tasty salmon dips. They give me some excellent and much-appreciated tips on salmon fishing. I hope to see Brent and Steve often this summer!