Welcome to Alaska Endeavour

February 2, 2021

This is the first of our weekly logbook broadcasts from the Endeavour, our non-profit research vessel up here in Alaska. We'll do our best to make these posts a Friday afternoon tradition.
For the next dozen or so posts we’ll be catching up from last season. We do, however, have two new expeditions scheduled in March: The Bubble Feeders of Sitka Sound and The Star of Bengal. We’re looking for additional sponsors for both. Visit our Expeditions page to find out more.
Patsy and Bill Urschel

Out Early

It’s cold, the clouds are low, and it’s snowing lightly. I’m at the wheel of our old boat, heading south down the Wrangell Narrows, a 22-nautical-mile-long irregular and narrow channel separating Mitkof Island and Kupreanof Islands in Southeast Alaska. It looks and feels like a river, which just happens to change direction four times a day. The snow is down to the waterline from the last high tide, cut sharp like someone has just pulled off the masking tape.

There are three of us on board, me, my wife Patsy, and Bella the boat dog. We’re headed from our winter dock at Petersburg south to Ketchikan – a two-day trip with only eight hours of daylight a day – to pick up friends for a mid-winter look into Misty Fjords, if it’s not iced-in.

We’ve just passed Point Lockwood and can see the open water of Sumner Strait ahead. There has been no one on the water except one man in a covered skiff near Keane Island, and another man alone in another skiff at Hicks Point, a mile and a half later. They were talking to each other on the radio, and we made out that they are both trappers, going home after checking their lines. One said he needed to get back to “take care of his animals.” Both boats were moving fast.

Sumner Strait is flat this morning. The snow has stopped but the clouds are still low. I turn the boat slightly to starboard, toward the west side of Zarembo Island.

The Boat

The Endeavour is a 72-foot-long former US Army boat, built in 1954, made of steel with a black hull and white cabin. It has a single Detroit Diesel engine, one propellor, and a range of 3,000 nautical miles – roughly the distance from here to Hilo, Hawaii, with a 20% reserve. Inside, the woodwork is all mahogany and yellow cedar. There are two staterooms, a bunk room, and a stand-up-and-walk-around engine room with a workshop. It has a full-sized washer and dryer and a desalinator. It’s not a fancy yacht, more like a four-wheel-drive truck. It’s cheap to run and tough as an axe.

Our Life

Patsy and I live on board year-round. Our kids are grown and launched. We gave up the house and the cars and most of the things we didn’t need. Last summer we were pelagic, exploring Southeast Alaska, going where impulse took us. With Covid it seemed like we had the entire archipelago to ourselves. There were no cruise ships, no tour boats, no fishing charters. We saw no one for weeks at a time. We ate a lot of fish.

This isn’t a simple life, not with the maintenance and navigation and having to be always aware of rocks, ice, the weather, and other perils. But we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Every day, in every season, we’re marinated in the awesome and delicate beauty of one of the wildest places left on Earth. We feel alive.

Our Work

In years past – now and then, starting in 2009 – we’ve hosted scientific expeditions on the Endeavour. We’ve had archeologists, paleontologists, biologists, geologists, anthropologists, and historians on board. Most of the work was off Southern California and in the Pacific Northwest. I have been involved with a couple of natural history museums, and we donated these trips.

The payoff for me was seeing some small piece of the natural history story told by someone who knows, someone who made this piece of the story their life’s work. These trips were like the best college precept I ever had. They stretched my understanding of time and taught me something of how nature works. Nature often strikes me as a glorious machine, an infinite number of parts and systems all interconnected and interdependent, when in balance, stretching backward and forward in time. And we humans have only just started to figure it all out.

On top of the science and the beauty, there are the friendships that came from living together on a small ship and sharing a mission.

Coming to Alaska, Patsy and I decided this work would be our life. We will use the Endeavour for scientific expeditions and broadcast the work of the scientists through our website and other means. We’re doing this because we believe the more we all know about our natural world the more we appreciate it, and the more we appreciate it the more we all will want to protect it. Science – especially when it’s presented as a good story − leads to conservation. We can’t think of anything more important to all of us than a thoughtful and informed stewardship of the Earth.

Last month, a few of us set up a non-profit corporation called Alaska Endeavour to support these expeditions and the larger mission. The Endeavour was already designated as a research vessel by the US Coast Guard, which helps when working with museums, universities, government agencies, and other institutions. I expect we’ll have two formal expeditions this coming season (more on those later) and at least six expeditions next season. In between, we’ll fill the gaps as we always do with our own, less formal explorations.

I’ll write about them here, in the Endeavour Logbook.

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Next Anchorage

At the south end of Zarembo Island we pass through Snow Passage – last summer we drifted here for nearly an hour, engine off, watching a pod of humpbacks bubble feeding – and enter the north end of Clarence Strait. We haven’t seen a boat or heard radio chatter since the two trappers, back in Wrangell Narrows. Stikine Strait joins us now from the east, funneling wind down from the Stikine River valley and its glaciers with gusts up to 25 knots hitting our port side. It’s time to pick an anchorage for the night. Maybe Coffman Cove, or Ratz Harbor or McHenry Inlet a bit further on.

We still have light. Let’s go see.

— William Urschel