When I was planning my trip to Alaska earlier this summer I was quite fixated on finding at least one, ‘true’ Alaskan wilderness experience. As you may have read in my previous post, Alaska is an extremely vast state. However, the ports of call can get extremely crowded thanks to tourist laden cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers into town. I wanted to plan something in advance that would guarantee I would put as much distance as possible between those masses and myself. Hiking trips were my first choice, but once I realized just how much coastline Alaska has and how much there is to see there, I knew I wanted to be on the water. I first came across a six day, five night kayaking adventure in the Misty Fjords near Ketchikan. Unfortunately, because I was traveling solo, they were unable to run the tour just for me and there were no existing tours running that coincided with my schedule. (I did still take an awesome day tour with that company, which is where I met Mary, who you can read more about here) After many calls during which I was told they couldn’t run a tour just for one traveler, I finally found a three day, two night trip into the Tracy Arm Fjord with Above and Beyond Alaska. Not only did I find a trip that would coincide with my itinerary; there were already two people signed up which meant the trip was guaranteed to run! After working out the details and putting down a deposit I found a school in San Diego that does a training course for sea kayaking. I’ve used sit on top kayaks many times, but I’d never used a kayak that you actually sat inside of and that has a spray skirt. Taking that course in San Diego gave me the confidence that I could definitely handle a few days of kayaking in a sea kayak. They’re so much more comfortable and maneuverable than the sit on tops and I even learned how to rescue myself and others in case of a rollover. With all that under my belt, I figured I was ready for a real adventure!
I can honestly say I had no idea what to expect kayaking in the ocean, in Alaska, right at the foot of a glacier. I kinda figured it would be pretty cold, so I geared up as instructed (far ahead of time, of course). I also figured there’d be a premium for storage space onboard so I took the opportunity to buy the pocket-sized camera I’d been wanting for years and proceeded to purchase a little dry bag just for the camera that I could clip onto my life jacket. With all that taken care of you’d figure I was rearing to go. Well . . . . . I was still pretty nervous. Meeting Gabe, my guide, and Ross and Rebecca the night before certainly helped. I knew I’d be with fun people. But something about the remoteness of it all, and the fact that we’d be entering our kayaks on-the-water, from another boat, kept me from sleeping soundly that night.
The morning-of turned out to be pretty straightforward. Get up early. Scarf food. Acquire (hot) caffeinated beverage. Get picked up. Pack dry bags with gear. Pack dry bags into kayaks. Get on the boat. The boat part was actually a pleasant surprise. We were riding out on a large touring vessel; our kayaks waiting patiently on the stern side deck. The ride out took about three hours, during which we chatted with the crew and the other tourists and also got to enjoy the tour part they’d all come for. We circled around beached icebergs, got some geological descriptions of the fjord (including a little jab at California) and even tucked the bow of the boat under a waterfall for the tourists to get wet and/or take pictures of their children getting wet. The real highlight came, however, as we rounded a bend in the Fjord and I got my first up-close look at a calving glacier. What a sight! I could’ve stood there for hours staring at the face of the Sawyer glacier and waiting excitedly for those cracks of thunder as chunks of the glacier separated off into the cold saltwater below. But alas, the most (un)egearly awaited part of our trip was upon us. We were about to get into our boats and begin our journey. Quite unfortunately for us, the captain turned out to be a royal arsehole at this point. Gabe had told us that he was going to get into his kayak first and then stabilize our kayaks while we got in from the boat. As soon as he was in the water, however, and told the captain what he was going to do, the captain went ape-shit. “Get away from this vessel!” he shouted. Gabe calmly told the captain that he felt it was a safety concern, but the captain would hear none of it. He announced to everyone watching that he’d never been ‘spoken back to’ like that in his entire career as a captain and then he told Gabe that if he said one more word he would end this trip before it even started. Gabe never raised his voice in return, he just backed off and waited for us. Of course, lucky me, I was the next one in. I wanted to tell the captain he was a total dick at that point, but I, too, kept my mouth shut and did as I was told. The entry went smoothly for myself and for Gernot, my kayaking partner who was riding up front in our double kayak and who I’d just met that morning. After Ross and Rebecca were also in, we were finally free of the tyranny and madness of Captain Cook and continued on with our adventure.
It took us all a bit to get adjusted in our kayaks. Attach the skirts. Make sure everything strapped on top was secure. Then we got to explore. What bliss! The sounds of Nature surrounded us, punctuated by the rhythmic sound of the paddles cutting the water and propelling us forward. Gulls and other birds cried as they flew overhead. Harbor seals (guess no one told them there was no harbor nearby) watched us from safe distances as we passed; silent sentinels of this water world. We passed waterfall after waterfall after waterfall endlessly depositing the silty glacial melt into the fjord and giving the water an almost tropical turquoise color but also near zero visibility below the surface. The whole while the glacier calved, sending occasional cracks of thunder into the air that would echo through the fjord around us. It all felt so unreal. We didn’t paddle far that first day, maybe 7 miles total. Before we knew it we had spotted the island where we’d be spending the night. Nestled right at the junction where the fjord splits to reach out to both the North and South terminuses of the Sawyer Glacier, the view was spectacular. An extremely rocky outcropping itself, the island let us see a full three hundred and sixty degrees around us. Waterfalls were everywhere (to the endless delight of Ross). Pieces of ice were floating by in the water. Thousands of feet above us, the peaks of the mountains defined the edge of our visual perception. It felt like we were in a cold eden. Rain fell, but it didn’t matter. We set up our tents in the rain, ate the delicious dinner Gabe cooked for us in the rain and, of course, slept in the rain. I thought for sure I’d sleep terribly that night, my tent small and literally set up on a tremendous rock near the edge of the island. But I slept deep that night. Warm and dry in my little cocoon with a huge smile on my face.
The next morning we played out our previous evening’s events in reverse. Gabe made pancakes, bacon and coffee for breakfast (in the rain, of course). We broke down our tents, packed them into our dry bags and gathered everything at the landing site. Then we slowly packed everything into the kayaks, squeezing what seemed like a inordinate amount of stuff into all the little cubbies and storage areas we had on the boats. Then came the magic moment of launching into the water as the tide came up to meet us. Gabe had planned our arrival quite carefully the previous afternoon to coincide with high tide since that was the only time the landing site would be reachable. Tides are quite dramatic in Alaska, spanning as much as twenty five feet in certain conditions. As the tide started to fill in that morning, we set up the kayaks in a little incline of rock and hopped in while Gabe shoved us off, getting in to his own kayak last with the skill and agility of a seasoned pro.
We paddled towards the North terminus of the glacier that morning, excited and energized by our delicious breakfast. It was still raining, but our surroundings were so incredible it hardly mattered. When we arrived at the glacier we backed up our kayaks against the rocks so that the current wouldn’t move us and enjoyed the lunch sandwiches we’d made before leaving the island as the glacier put on it’s non-stop show of breaking pieces of itself off with mighty, thunderous reports. That moment is so clear in my mind’s eye. How unreal it all was. How alone we were. How positively pleased we all were to be there. I hope I will be able to recall it for the rest of my days. And then we were off again. Retracing our route away from the glacier and back out into the main fjord. We had our longest distance to go today, about 12 miles. We stopped twice along the way. Once for bio breaks, which got a little hairy when a huge ship passed and it’s wake nearly took Gernot off the rocks, and again at a waterfall to refill our water supply. Did I mention how amazing it is that in the wilderness here, you can drink the water, untreated!? Fresh, ice cold glacial melt has got to be the most delicious water on earth!
Pulling up to our campsite for the night we had another incredible view. This time we were staying on a grassy meadow behind a rocky beach with a river emptying out the deep valley behind us into the fjord. The sun was peaking out as we landed and it was spectacular to see the sunlight shining on the face of the mountain behind us. We all got right into the work mode and emptied out the kayaks, placing all the food stuffs in one area, our ‘kitchen’, about a hundred yards from the spot we chose to set up our tents. We had had ‘mild’ concern over bears the previous night, but being that it was an island it was far less likely than this spot. Here our bear concerns were validated by the finding of quite a lot of fresh scat around our tent area. I also had the privilege of spotting a bear on the other side of the river while finishing up taking care of number two in the inter-tidal zone. I shouted “BEAR!” a few times before the group heard me and shouted at the bear, finally scaring it off into the woods. We knew there wasn’t much we could do about them so we just accepted it and went on with the evening. As things began to settle, talk of a fire arose and Gabe swung into action. He scraped sap off of some trees with a rock and tried to find the ‘driest’ wood he could in the completely saturated forest. He then proceeded to scrape all the wet bark off the wood he and Ross picked until only the dry interior was showing. Slowly a little teepee of prepared wood began to come together, and finally, with just a few drops of white cooking gas, a fire was born! How amazing it was to have a fire to warm and dry ourselves by as the night settled in around us. Gabe got some serious Alaskan credibility for that move from all of us. After evening drinks and stories around the fire the group began to dissipate back to the tents as the need for shut eye overcame us. It was another deep night of sleep there in the meadow with thankfully zero further bear encounters.
That last morning was both a sad one and a joyous one. No rain fell as we gathered in the ‘kitchen’ for granola and coffee and the sky looked as if it might actually clear enough to show some blue today! But we also all knew that only a few hours of solitude remained for us before we rejoined the world that afternoon. We enjoyed our morning meal slowly and then decided to paddle the kayaks, empty, across the fjord for an hour or so before breaking down camp and packing things up. It was actually shocking to see just how immense the mountains behind our campsite were from the opposite side of the fjord. There was even another glacier up on the mountain behind our tents, completely invisible to us while we were on the beach. That morning paddle was peaceful and relaxing. We even saw the evil Captain Cook’s boat pass by our site on it’s way into the fjord. We knew we would have to contend with him later, but no one spoke of it. Finally we turned back and paddled to our camp. The sun started to break out for real and spirits were high as we packed up the kayaks. Everyone was smiling during those last few miles of paddling through the fjord. I think, in our own ways, we were each soaking up every last minute of the experience before it ended. Soon the dreaded Captain’s vessel could be seen bearing down on us and we readied ourselves for the encounter. Shockingly, it went incredibly smoothly and silently. The captain even smiled at us!? Whatever multi-personality disorder he was suffering from, we luckily got to meet his happy personality that day. We climbed aboard, got our kayaks on, and then settled in for the three hour tour back to Juneau. Satisfied that I had found the ‘true’ wilderness experience I was seeking, I was at ease among the tourist masses once again.
As the captain put it, the real estate crisis had forced the state (of California) to sell off a portion of the granite dome found in Yosemite creating what is now known as Half Dome. The Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska, on the other hand, had the full dome, which could be seen out the port side windows. Hrmph. Not funny and not even remotely accurate. Lame.)