A Sea Kayak Trip In Southeast Alaska
In 1794, Glacier Bay was only a dent in the shoreline. Now the glaciers of the Fairweather Range and the Takishna Mountains stand up to 105 km back from Icy Strait. This rapid pace of glacial retreat has left a living textbook of glaciation and plant succession in the hundreds of kilometres of inlets.
The flight from Alaska’s capital, Juneau, to Gustavus takes only about 15 minutes in a jet airliner. The aeroplane barely has time to climb before it lands again. On arrival at Bartlett Cove, the parks rangers give campers a very thorough indoctrination about safety, of both people and bears. The only places to camp, store and prepare food in the bay are at the high tide line on steep stony beaches, and these are the only places where bears can move back and forth. Lindsay and I heard out first bear sniffing around the tent that night.
The following morning we packed our hired double sea-kayak onto the “Spirit of Adventure”, an 80 passenger tour boat, for a three hour trip up to the drop-off point at Mt Wright. We had arranged to be picked up at the same point after six days in Muir Inlet, ready for a further drop, and four days in Scidmore Bay. The wildlife in the Glacier Bay National Park is so prolific that before we reached the drop-off point we had already seen sea-otter, seals, sea-lions, black bear, humpback whale, bald eagles and a dozen species of sea-birds.
South-east Alaska is notorious for its wet weather, so we were surprised that the first two days were a heat-wave of 28 degrees and bright sun. The air temperature and the temperature inside the kayak were in stark contrast with the water temperature. I tried wearing socks and sandshoes but the hull, at 1 to 5 degrees, was too cold, and for the remainder of the trip we wore gumboots all the time we were on the water.
Our first night’s camp was in Adams Inlet, on an island facing the outwash fans of Adams and Dirt Glaciers. The tidal range in Glacier Bay is about 5 metres, which creates quite a sizable tidal current. We spent the following morning idling on the water, watching the seals, terns and Canada geese feeding around us, while we waited for the tide to turn. Black bear and moose were visible in the distance.
That evening, we approached a likely looking cove beside Point Mcleod. Neither of us were wearing our salt-encrusted glasses in the failing light.
“Lindsay, what’s that dark thing in the cove?”
“It’s a tree stump.”
A few paddle strokes later… “I think that tree stump moved.”
“That’s not a tree stump, that’s a bear!” It is possible to stop and turn a double sea kayak almost within its own length, when a bear is waiting at the water’s edge.
We paddled about 4 km further to pull out at Rowley Point. As we pitched camp, we watched a pod of Harbour Porpoise leave Wachusset Inlet at speed. At 11 pm there was still enough deep orange twilight to see a pod of orca, a dozen cow and calf pairs, round the rocky point only 6 metres from the tent.
The next day, between Rowley Point and McBride Glacier, we paddled from mature spruce and hemlock forest, on shores exposed for over a century, to alder scrub, newly colonising land exposed by the glaciers in the last twenty years, to new shores of bare rock and silt. There was a little sandy beach, with enough room above high tide and far enough from the face of the glacier, for the tent. We cooked dinner in the freezing katabatic wind, and watched terns fishing in front of a cascade of rotten ice falling from the face of McBride Glacier.
A day trip out across the inlet to White Thunder Ridge allowed us spectacular views, at 500m, over twin frozen lakes towards Riggs, McBride and Muir Glaciers. The warm weather of the first two days may have been the trigger for a spree of calving from the face of McBride Glacier: we gingerly pushed the last half hour of our way back to camp, through masses of small floes, well aware of just how fragile the kayak really was!
That night, the glacier made the sound of continuous rolling thunder, and sent half-metre high breakers down the bay. We woke to find car-sized pieces of ice beached from low tide to within a short distance of the tent, and had to wait for high tide to float the ice before we could get the kayak to the water. Then followed another nervous half hour pushing our way out of the inlet.
Two days later we met the “Spirit of Adventure” for a short cruise up the West Arm and to our second drop in Blue Mouse Cove. While on the boat we had good views of more humpback whale, grizzly bear, a kittiwake rookery, glaucous gull rookery and two families of mountain goat. Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers were actively calving in the midday sun. City buildings came off above water and shot up from well below the surface too. That’s why you are meant to keep the kayak half a kilometre back!
The next four days were typical weather for the misnamed Fairweather Range. Cloud sat just below the tops of the fjords of Scidmore Bay, reducing them to tunnels of rock and cloud. Drizzle and fog filled in the spaces. Waterfalls cascaded down from the snowline, at about 50 metres, straight into the sea. It had the sombre atmosphere that we had expected, and missed, for the previous week.
We were still on constant bear watch, but saw only their tracks and scat. Bald eagle fished near the mud-flats, while glaucous gulls tried to drive them away. One afternoon, lines of pigeon-guillemot, 10 metres deep and 2 to 3 km long, blocked our way up a shallow bay.
On the afternoon of our last pickup the sun broke out, giving us superb visibility for more whale-watching from the tour boat. We flew on to Juneau and Anchorage over the next few days, to meet with other Sydney bushwalkers for 5 more weeks of walking and canoeing in the centre and far north of Alaska.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, USA
June 10 to 21, 1992
Alaska Airlines from Seattle to Anchorage, Juneau, Gustavus. “Spirit of Adventure”, Glacier Bay Tours, to pickup and dropoff points.
One Easyrider Beluga, double fibreglass sea kayak, hired from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. Recommended: hire a boat from someone else (for example: Alaska Discovery, who are based in Juneau) or bring your own folding boat.
one day paddle & walk onto White Thunder Ridge, side excursions in Scidmore Bay to Charpentier Inlet and “Weird Bay”.
Best time of year
Summer for the warmth, autumn for the leaf-fall. We chose early summer, before the US went on summer holidays.
Prepare for cold water. We were not well enough prepared for even a simple capsize in the waters of Glacier Bay which vary from 6 down to 1 degree Celsius (43 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit). Wetsuit (with or without dry top) or a full dry suit would be a good idea. The parks service requires campers to use bear-resistant food containers.
NOAA chart of Glacier Bay (1:80,000) and tide tables for Bartlett Cove, available from the Parks Service office at Bartlett Cove.