My friends Dan and Lyn are intrepid kayak campers and travelers, and do a big trip each summer. This year they planned a 3 week trip to Alaska, and during a fundraising party at a local brewery they invited me along. I thought it sounded like fun. We then all went through a little soul searching to be sure it wasn’t just the liquor talking, and we could really be compatible for such a long trip. In the end I thought 3 weeks would be too much, so we agreed that I would meet them and do the last 2 weeks with them, which would still be twice as long as any camping trip I had done before.
We were going to Prince William Sound. This is a nice area because it gives you a lot of wilderness, but is somewhat sheltered. It can become nasty but you can see from the map that most of it is protected from the open ocean swell.
We rented our equipment from Tom Pogson at Alaska Kayak School in Homer. This is a great operation, and Tom is a great resource. All the equipment was top-notch, I was actually worried about ruining the almost brand new Explorer he gave me. It had at least a few scratches on it when I picked it up, but it was a whole lot nicer than any of my boats. I figured if I could keep from dropping it off the car at high speeds, or doing excessive surf landings, as I have done with my kayaks, I couldn’t mess it up too much.
My original plan was just to get in the boat at Whittier where Dan and Lyn were starting a week earlier, and catch-up by taking a shortcut. Tom gave me the “not so fast city boy” talk, and assured me that was not actually “a plan”. Later I realized he was right, and that wasn’t such a good idea, in fact it was actually a pretty stupid idea. Although I have a lot of paddling experience, I had never been to an area so remote. Throughout my entire time in Alaska I came to appreciate what their license plates say: “Alaska the last frontier”
You can’t actually read it on this picture because the wacko who drives this truck covered it up with his frame, when he installed this hood ornament, but trust me it says that on the license plates, and they mean it.
Tom would only agree to renting us the boats, and allowing me to meet my friends if we presented a detailed itinerary, and structured the meet-up such that it took place via a motor boat drop off, or a meeting in a port. Many people do day trips in Alaska where a motor boat ferries the kayaks out to a remote location for a day or two, then picks them up, so in the end we were able to arrange this type of service.
I would get the boat in Whittier, take the ferry to Valdez, then hitch a ride out to the Columbia Glacier with Pangea Adventures on their scheduled trip out there. Not the cheapest way, but it would work.
Tom was a funny guy. When I spoke to him on the phone, and via email I got the impression that was very uptight, asking lots of annoying questions about all our experience, and critiquing our route, especially the meet-up. I think he was just trying to be sure we were capable and safe. Like most outfitters he is a lot more comfortable if he has his own staff on the trip, and doesn’t want anyone to get in trouble in this very remote area.
My mental image was of a trim clean-shaven ex-military guy. When I met him he was almost the opposite, a very friendly and relaxed guy, who spent quite a bit of time with us before and after the trip answering questions and chatting with us. I don’t think he ever didn’t have a smile on his face. We knew we had the right guy when all the 20 something employees from the 2 kayak shops in Whittier tripped over themselves talking to him, and wouldn’t let him go home. I think he had trained most of them, and is clearly very respected and admired, even among his business competitors.
I flew into Anchorage, spent the night there, took the train to Whittier, and then got on the ferry.
The scenery in this part of the trip was already really great. Both the train and the ferry are part tourist attraction, and part transportation. Tour guides were on the PA system on both, describing the landscape, and wildlife we were seeing.
I was a tad annoyed when I arrived in Valdez to find that the good folks from Pangea had forgotten to pick me up, but one of the crew from the ferry strapped my boat onto his truck and gave me a lift into town. I quietly made camp behind the Pangea office and set-off for the super market. When I had asked Kenny at Pangea on the phone about where I could buy white gas and food, he told me they carry it in the supermarket. This is a real switch from New York City where it is illegal to sell stove fuel it in city limits for love or money. The market in Valdez is open from 4AM to 2AM the next morning. In fact the whole town of Valdez, and much of Alaska seems to be on overdrive in the summer because they are so busy.
I bought the last of my provisions, some booze, and a fishing license, and I was ready to go.
The ride out in the morning went smoothly. The shuttle boat was full of boy scouts, and everyone looked at me funny because it was 75 degrees, sunny, and I was wearing a drysuit. It was a relief to find Dan and Lyn happily waiting for me on Jade Island right near the Columbia Glacier. It seemed like a long time since I had landed in Anchorage, in which time I had walked, ridden in cabs, trains, bummed rides, and taken two different boats, but I was finally there.
Columbia Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in Alaska, and it was very impressive. In recent years it has retreated a long way from the shoreline, but it still deposits massive amounts of ice into the bay on a daily basis. We played around the various icebergs. I wanted to hike on them, but that turned out to be a bad idea.
While were playing around paddling in between the icebergs, I suddenly found my boat pinned between two large icebergs moving together. I was pinned lengthwise bow to stern. For a moment it seemed the boat would be crushed as they moved together, but then the stern began to lift up, scraping along the side of the iceberg. The stern was about 3 ft out of the water, it felt like 10, before the boat twisted, and dropped me back in the water. I quickly paddled away. I was a little more careful after that.
One of the great things about paddling up here in the summer is that there is so much light. In the beginning of the trip the sun didn’t set until midnight, so we didn’t have to hurry in the morning to get on the water, and if we were having trouble finding a campsite, we didn’t have to worry about running out of light.
The next day we paddled over to Glacier Island. At one point we came upon a giant sea-lion colony. There were hundreds of them basking in the sun, barking and growling. I took a couple of videos of them, and put them on youtube:
We found such a nice spot for lunch we decided to just stop there and stay the night. It was a beautiful rock beach, the sun was out, and hot, so I went for a swim, a quick dunk really. The water was very cold, but it felt good because it was such a warm day.
I then got bored. I still wasn’t quite in synch with my paddling partners, who had been out in the cold and rain for a week, and just wanted to dry out. I went on a hike up into the hills, while they enjoyed some nice warm quiet time on the beach. I followed a stream bed up, it was more of a bushwack climb, than a hike, but I got to see a great view when I was finally up there. Eventually I could see between the trees, to see a humpback whale spouting off in the distance in the Sound. It was thick brush, very steep, and I started worrying about falling and being alone. It would have taken a long time for my friends to find me, so I went back.
In the morning we crossed the sound to Storey Island. During the crossing we were treated to great views of humpback whales.
The whales were spouting and slowly coming towards us. One of them eventually swam right under our boats, and we could clearly see it underwater, maybe 15 feet down. It was really impressive, but I wonder if it even knew we were there.
On Storey Island I insisted we visit the old fox farm. There wasn’t much left of it, just some tools and metal items in the woods. but I just love industrial ruins. We ended-up camping on Naked island in a light rain. I went out fishing after we set-up the camp. I caught and released 2 small rockfish, then promptly broke my fishing pole in two places after getting hooked in the rocks. I fixed it the next morning with some epoxy, and part of my socks as glass cloth.
I had packed very light, and only had two sets of clothes, one for paddling, one for the land. It was nice to be able to easily fit everything into my boat, but I could have used a few more changes of clothes. I did bring a land anorack and rain pants and if it was raining I made sure to wear them, or my drysuit. Whenever it rained I was very afraid of getting clothes wet. It can rain for days and days, so I was careful and thought twice before sacrificing 1 inch of stinky sock for the fishing pole.
The next day we went to Eleanor Island then Knight Island stopping in Herring Bay. For some reason this was the first place we saw lots of other groups. In the end we stopped at a beach with some other paddlers because we couldn’t find one of our own. The other group turned out to be a young man who was a kayak forest ranger, and two young women who were biologists. The man, David, turned out to be a great resource. He spent time with us showing us edible plants and berries, and going over our chart pointing out campsites for the rest of our trip. It seemed like he had been absolutely everywhere. I had heard about these Kayak Rangers, and it was cool to actually see them in action. They had been out paddling and camping for almost a week, and motor launch was coming to pick them up the next day. It was hard not to be jealous of his job. The biologists were cute too, and he had a 30.06 for the bears.
As we got near our end destination every day we had to get a new supply of fresh water. This was usually easy since it rains a lot, and there is lots of snow melt. It was almost always possible to find a clear running stream or trickle to fill the bottles. We always treated the water just to be safe. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to get it. On this day I had to climb out of the boats and stand on a small rock ledge to catch it running off the cliff.
The next day was warm and sunny, and the campsite was so nice, we decided to take the day off from paddling. I immediately seized upon this as an opportunity to go fishing. My friends weren’t into fishing, so I usually waited until an off time to try it, so as not to slow them up while I played around with the lines and equipment. Watching fishing is about the most boring thing there is, especially when you don’t have any beer.
When I was in Anchorage I went to some fishing stores and bought spoons that were recommended by the locals for Salmon. Each day we saw salmon jumping out of the water from time to time, and/or swimming under the boat. It was a mocking sort of a jump, and I was anxious to have a go at them.
These lures proved to be very effective, and I caught a nice sized Chinook salmon that we immediately had for lunch. We ate a lot of it as Sushi, then grilled the filets over an open fire. I made sure to clean the fish well below the high-tide line while standing in the water to reduce the chance that it would draw a bear.
We also cooked the fish well below the high-tide line. This proved to be a slight problem since the tide was rising. When the water put out the fire, it was done. You can see the flames lapping at it in this picture:
After eating way too much lunch, I hiked up into the hills. It was rough going for a while, but eventually it opened up onto a huge grassy plain far up above the beach. I took a few pictures, but it doesn’t do it justice. I just wanted to sit up there all day and take in the view.
After the sweaty hike, it was time for my 2nd, , and as it turned out my last, saltwater bath of the trip, and to wash some clothes.
The next day we actually got a work out, paddling into to some fairly stiff current down to the bottom of Knight Island. The day after that we crossed over to Whale Bay. This turned out to be another really beautiful spot. There were great waterfalls everywhere. I also came across a huge school of tiny herring, and spent about 20 minutes watching them through the still clear water.
At the head of Whale Bay, there was a stream with breeding salmon. Some fishermen in a motorboat told us we had just missed a black bear going after the salmon. It was really cool, the fish were basking in the shallow water, some of them were all beat-up, and tired after breeding. I was able to grab one, just like a bear with my hands, but since it was so damaged, and half dead, I didn’t eat it.
The next day we paddled over to the Chenega glacier. It was very cold because the sun wasn’t out, but it was a great view. The glacier came right down to the water, and we could see bits of ice dropping off of it, right into the bay. This looked a little dangerous, so we didn’t get real close. I took some videos of it. In the videos you can actually see the meltwater pouring out of it in a torrent. The glacier goes on for miles and miles behind the part that meets the sea.
We were then treated to what the forecast said would be several days of steady rain. We sat around until 3:00PM the next day, then decided to check-out a cabin we saw marked on the chart. Amazingly it turned out to be the same cabin visited by Peter Dew on this same website, I guess just last year!
It turned out to be open, and had a welcoming note, so we stayed for a few days to wait out the bad weather. One afternoon three men walked up who were camping nearby. We talked to them for a little while, and it turned out they were NASA astronauts out on a training/team building mission. The entire crew, and some of the ground controllers for ShuttleFlight 124 to the international space station were on the trip. After talking to these guys, and giving them some olive oil we went over later to meet the rest of them, and sample some fresh salmon tacos they were cooking for their dinner.
We were happy to get back to paddling the next day and get on our way. The cabin was nice to dry out in, but eventually we got “cabin fever” and were all very anxious to be moving again.
At this point we started working our way back toward Whittier where we were to return the boats. It was just more and more great scenery. We had a few bright days, and a bit more rain, but apparently it was really good weather, sometimes it rains for 2 weeks day after day.
We explored an abandoned salmon cannery, and checked out Port Nellie Juan.
At one campsite I finally found some fresh blueberries. I had been seeing them every once in a while, but they were not ready in most spots. I found a dense concentration, and was able to get enough for our breakfast the next day.
We saw one last glacier on our second to last day, and tried to hike to it via land, but the dry streambed turned into a creek after a mile, so we had to abandon that plan. The brush was too think to bushwack through. One of the things I love about paddling is to go to places that you can’t get to any other way, and explore them. After being in the boat for a few days, I’m always itching to go for a hike, or explore something different. After less than ½ mile this dry streambed turned into a raging creek that was too cold, wet, and fast moving to walk through.
The last day was another bright sunny day, and made me wish I had some other clothes other than my drysuit, like my friends. Fortunately the water is so cold that I didn’t get overheated, as long as I didn’t paddle too fast.
I had a pretty impressive beard by the end of the trip, but it was a lot grayer than I remember it.
We all uploaded a lot of pictures to show our friends what they missed.
After the paddling trip, I spent almost another week driving around, car camping, seeing mountains etc etc. I think that I just scratched the surface of the state. I saw more incredible sights, so I will have to go back someday.
Actual Bottle Release Post Below...
I released this message between Glacier Island and Storey Island. We had spent the night at a nice beach on Glacier Island, then had a beautiful paddle across in the morning.
The day before we saw Columbia Glacier, and I climbed on some ice bergs.
It was so warm on Glacier Island that I went swimming. The water was in the low forties, so I didn't stay in very long!
The scenery here has just been amazingly beautiful. All kinds of wildlife, great coastline, glaciers, etc etc....
There was very little trash on these beaches. I found the bottle for this message on Glacier Island, it smelled like it had held camping fuel before.
Soon after I let the bottle go a huge humpback whale passed right under our boats. He just got closer and closer, then went right underneath. We had been watching the whales all day the day before feeding, and we were hoping they would still be there when we left.
When we were paddling around Glacier Island we saw a huge colony of Sea Lions.