On our trips from Wrangell to Craig and Klawock on the TWINKLE we carefully cruise through El Capitan and Dry Passes that separate Kosciusko Island and the west coast of Prince of Wales.
Southeast History: Navigating El Capitan and Dry Passes 061913 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly On our trips from Wrangell to Craig and Klawock on the TWINKLE we carefully cruise through El Capitan and Dry Passes that separate Kosciusko Island and the west coast of Prince of Wales.

Photo By Pat Roppel

A boat safely squeezes through Dry Pass.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Story last updated at 6/19/2013 - 2:23 pm

Southeast History: Navigating El Capitan and Dry Passes

On our trips from Wrangell to Craig and Klawock on the TWINKLE we carefully cruise through El Capitan and Dry Passes that separate Kosciusko Island and the west coast of Prince of Wales. In the beginning, the entire length was known as Klawak Passage. When the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey explored this area in 1904, there was a marble quarry called El Capitan being developed. Thus, this protected pass became known officially as El Capitan Pass. At that time two shoals blocked navigation except at flood-tide stages for everything except a canoe. At some point, Captain Cyrus Orr of Shakan began to use the name Dry Pass for the middle section that went dry about four feet at lowest tide.

Today, through dredged channels, the entire three and a half mile length of the passes are heavily traveled by commercial fishing vessels, pleasure boats, and occasionally tugs towing log rafts.

This became possible after 1937 when the dipper dredge EVERETT removed five underwater shoals. It cost the government $59,000. Vessels could navigate a channel 60 feet wide and six feet deep. Then in 1951, the federal government surveyed Dry Pass in anticipation of Ketchikan Pulp Mill's construction. The log rafts would need to be towed from the West Coast logging camps in protected water and in shorter periods of time. Up until then, tugs with long, wide log rafts rounded the often treacherous waters of Cape Chacon or around Point Lynch into Sumner Strait to reach Ketchikan and Wrangell sawmills.

It took eight years before dredging began, possibly because of government's restraint of money. Modifications were finally authorized in 1954 to deepen to 12 feet as well as widen the channel throughout the passes to 70 feet through seven shoals. It took five more years before work started in February 1959 and was completed in September. Costs had risen: this dredging cost $943,000.

Today vessels follow the navigational markers of red and green that tell the captains how to maneuver through the twisting maze of small islands and rocks. There is also a range finder. I learned you line up the two markers of the same color to identify the precise course. The shores along the dredged portions have rock piles built from the debris that was removed to deepen the channel.

No new dredging has taken place since 1959, although dredging was scheduled in 1998 but postponed. This trip we found the depth at mid-tide to be seven feet in one place.

It is always interesting for Frank (my husband) and me to see new things and remember past experiences as we travel along the narrow waterway. Near the western entrance from Sumner Strait and Shakan Bay, some of the hillsides are covered with new growth so tall that the only way to recognize it is the lack of dead cedar trees poking about the green. There are many portions of old growth. A slide that let loose at least three years ago now has alders growing on it. We always remark about the El Capitan marble quarry waste blocks still stacked on the shore.

Occasionally we meet another boat coming from the opposite direction. However, on our recent return trip from Klawock to Wrangell going east to west, we encountered tugs moving a large raft of logs. This took place at our entrance to Dry Pass - the short very narrow middle segment of El Capitan Pass.

We heard on the radio "ALLISON H entering Dry Pass with a raft of logs in tow." Although we could not see her, Frank said it would be impossible to pass a raft of logs being towed toward us. So he radioed "We'll wait." Fortunately it was slack tide. This made it easy to idle. We have occasionally seen the tide change, and the current suddenly flows in the opposite direction. This time we avoided the challenge to stay in one position.

It seemed forever before the Boyer Towing tug appeared. She loomed and seemed to take up the whole channel. She had poles suspended from one side to show the captain the width of the raft compared to the width of the pass. Frank pointed out the prop wash behind the tug pushing against the raft. "Why?" I asked "It seems as if it is pulling and pushing at the same time." The raft had to be near the tug to control it in such close quarters. Any contact of the log raft with the side of the channel could break it apart causing the bundles to scatter.

As the raft slowly moved through the narrow area, we could see the EDITH OLSON, a smaller tug, pushing the raft from the rear. She was assisting the ALLISON H maneuvering the tow through this constricted, tree-lined water passage.

As the raft passed the TWINKLE, I counted 12 boom sticks on each side of the raft holding the log bundles. Frank remembers boom sticks were about 70 feet long. Thus, the raft itself was about 840 feet long: adding the tugs, the length was a little short of 1,000 feet. No wonder it took 50 minutes for the ALLISON H and the raft to complete the Dry Pass section. It may have taken the TWINKLE five minutes at the most to cruise through once the area was clear.

About an hour later as we neared the Barrier Islands in Sumner Strait, we heard the captain of the ALLISON H announce the vessel was heading east to west back through Dry Pass. When we had come out of El Capitan Pass into Shakan Bay, we saw another, larger raft at anchor. The tugs were coming to pick up this second raft. We speculate that the logs were for the sawmill of Viking Lumber at Klawock. It is the only operating large mill on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island.

Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at patroppel@hotmail.com.