Kayaking in Alaska’s Prince William Sound
The face of Alaska has been shaped by two of the most powerful forces on earth — the clash of great crustal plates and the relentless grinding of glaciers. Denali, The Great One, uplifted by the colliding plates, towers as the highest point in North America. About 200 km to the south are waters which now occupy deep, classic U-shaped alleys, carved by ice. These fjords are still being created by the glaciers at their heads. The glaciers originate on peaks which are 3600 meters high — not particularly big by Alaskan standards. However, they thrust their bulk impressively from sea level. The entire snow-covered mountain is there to see, when the rain lets up.
The glaciers in Prince William Sound have retreated since the last ice age, but are still quite healthy. Storms sweeping in from the Gulf of Alaska strike the icy walls and dump huge amounts of precipitation, feeding the glaciers and maintaining a thriving rainforest.
The scenery, plus whales, otters, seals, eagles, and aerobatic salmon makes Prince William Sound a spectacular kayaking destination. An added attraction is the sheltered nature of the Sound’s waterways, protected from the open ocean by a ring of offshore islands — including Montague and Hinchinbrook. If the names seem familiar, it is because they were bestowed by the same Captain Cook that honoured those two gentlemen on his voyage up the East Coast of Australia. Maybe he just ran out of patrons.
I was making a pilgrimage back to the Alaska I left in 1958 when I graduated from the University in Fairbanks. I had already revisited Denali, which I climbed in 1954. This time I merely rode a mountain bike to the base, but it was good to be back.
My next goal was to go kayaking in Prince William Sound. I had flown over the area as a bush pilot, but had never spent any time on the water. Fortunately, my old university buddies in Anchorage introduced me to Richard Larson. Like them, he was a keen mountain biker, competing in events like the Iditabike — the bicycle equivalent of the famous Iditarod dog race. Iditabike racers hurtle down icy Alaskan trails in the dark, maintaining traction with studded tires. The races take many hours and merely to finish is an achievement.
Richard is a stocky ball of energy, a graphic designer and writer who had already published a mountain bike guide to Alaska. Now he was completing a kayaking guide to Prince William Sound. He had only one area yet to explore — the remote Unakwik Sound region. Halfway between Whittier and Valdez, Unakwik was rarely visited, even though the Meares Glacier at the head of the fiord had the reputation of being very spectacular indeed. He needed someone to go with him. Would I like to make the trip? Yes, I would.
My Anchorage friends had done considerable sailing on Prince William Sound and delighted in telling me horrific tales of week-long deluges and howling gales. They advised me to take heavy, bomb-proof wet weather gear and rubber boots. I reluctantly accepted the loan of the boots, but baulked at the bulky vinyl. I put my faith in my normal paddling jacket and REI parka.
I bought food, scrounged some dry bags and met Richard at his home in Anchorage. We put a rickety wooden rack on the back of his battered pickup and drove off to collect our kayaks. Richard had a long term rental arrangement which provided kayaks whenever he wanted them.
We loaded up an Aquaterra Chinook and a Prijon Seayak and hit the road for Whittier. The day was warm and sunny in Anchorage — but things on the other side of the mountains could be different. Anchorage is now a very average looking mid-size American city, with highrise, freeways and rush hour traffic. Some refer to the place as a cold Fresno. (Perhaps a frigid Wollongong?) The same people also delight in saying that Anchorage is a great place to live because it is so close to Alaska.
Richard hurtled enthusiastically down the freeway past the mud flats of Turnagain Arm. (Named by Cook as he tacked back and forth against the currents and flukey winds.) The kayaks creaked on their flexible perch overhead. Richard entertained me with stories of hapless people who walked out on the flats, got stuck in the gooey mud and drowned when the tide came in. The tidal range here is about 5 meters and the flats are kilometers wide at low water. One particularly poignant story involved a duck hunter who was last seen completely submerged, breathing through the barrels of his shotgun until the barrels too disappeared.
We stopped in Girdwood, about 45 minutes from Anchorage, where Richard bought a can of Fosters to drink on the train. There is no road to Whittier, the jumping off place, so we had to load Richard’s pickup on a flatcar. We sat in the truck for the 20 minutes it took for the train to pass through two long, completely black tunnels. We emerged into a cold, drizzling world, with waterfalls pouring down steep dark green slopes topped with snow.
Whittier is more of an outpost than a city. It was once a major port for bringing military supplies to Anchorage, but the collapse of the Evil Empire put an end to that. Now the remaining residents all live in one 10 story building. The block is self-contained, with all the amenities under one roof, like some lunar base. The harbour is the only part of town which looks relatively normal. It was packed with fishing and pleasure boats.
We backed towards a dock and loaded the kayaks onto Jerry Sanger’s Sound Access. The 9 meter aluminium boat was specially built for Prince William Sound excursions. It even had a roof rack for the kayaks and a landing barge type bow door for unloading on the beach. The bow door was handy for us, but essential for Jerry’s other clients — he often carried wheel chair passengers.
By the time we got gas and left the harbour it was about 8 PM. There was still plenty of light left, in fact it never gets really dark at this time of year at 60 degrees North Latitude. The twin 150 hp Yamaha outboards drove us across the gray water at 28 knots. We saw two kayaks paddling along the shore on their way to Blackstone Bay. This is a popular kayaking locality, scenic and close to Whittier.
We were heading for an area where we would see no other paddlers, but the seclusion came at a cost. The boat charter, including drop off and pick up, was $US600. We speared expensively across the Sound, watching the salmon leaping out of the water. They would be our constant companions. Why do they jump? Nobody knows. Some say it is to get rid of sea lice. Others have the opinion that it is a jump for joy at the thought of their impending sexual act. (They undoubtedly don’t realize that this moment of lust will result in their deaths.)
Jerry nudged the bow up on the steep pebbly beach of Olson Island and we unloaded the gear. The tide was out, making it a climb to reach the area above high tide. When all the gear was safely elevated, we searched for relics from a fox farm which had once been on the island. Little trace of the operation remained. Vegetation bursts out of the ground here, quickly obliterating the puny activities of humans.
It was overcast, calm and warm. There were clouds of mosquitos, taking advantage of the first human blood in a long time. An old Sourdough joke goes: “There isn’t a single mosquito in Alaska.” (Expressions of disbelief among listeners at this point.) “No, they’re all married and have large families.” We retreated to our tents at midnight.
We were up at 7 AM on Wednesday, June 19, 1996. There was drizzle during the night, but now it had stopped and the sky was merely overcast. It took a long time to pack up. I had decided on the Prijon Seayak. Richard didn’t care which kayak he paddled. I found that the Prijon was a bit short of stowage space, in spite of the fact that it had no front bulkhead. I managed to cram everything in and we started off at 9:45. The tide was out again. We climbed into the loaded kayaks and slid down the pebbles into the water. I guess Tupperware boats do have an advantage, except that these two were pretty furry on the bottom from all the scratches and seemed slow. I wore the regulation rubber boots on that first day, but later abandoned them in favour of Goretex socks and watersport sandals.
A 10 knot wind swept a dark band of rain across the water from the southeast. It turned bleak and cold, with reduced visibility. These were the conditions I had been told to expect and I wasn’t unduly perturbed. It was good just to be there, paddling into a place I had never been before. We cleared the south end of Olson Island and headed up the east side of the sound, which was several kilometers wide at this point. Bald headed eagles watched us suspiciously from their perches in the tree tops.
Richard was compiling a list of campsites and we explored many coves along the coast. He entered each suitable location in his GPS satellite navigation equipment. Some sites looked good from the sea, but had dense vegetation growing to the high tide line or were soggy swamps. We finally paddled into a deep cove which was guarded by 20 ravens. It had no name on the map, so we christened it, not surprisingly, Raven Cove. Raven Cove was a benign place, with good camping and a nearby supply of water. (Even here, we pumped our drinking water through filters. Guardia is everywhere now.)
It was too early to camp, so we had lunch and watched a raft of about 30 sea otters. They floated on their backs and stared at us with wise, round eyes. Once the Russians and their native slaves had hunted the otters almost to extinction for their fur. Now they were protected and abundant. We launched the kayaks and paddled quietly past the otters, respecting their space. Our course took us along shores cloaked with massive spruce trees which produced intense green hillsides. The green was overpowering, uncompromising. The definitive GREEN.
The clouds lifted and revealed the lower portions of the mountains. The tops were still hidden. The wind died and the water was glassy calm. Otters, some solitary, some in groups, sat up and stared at us as we passed through their domain. This was what I had hoped to find. A quiet, peaceful corner of the world.
The peace was shattered by a float plane landing at the one trace of “civilisation” in the area — an oyster farm. We paddled past and left it on the other side of a point. Ahead of us was a region which showed no sign of humans. The water was now grayish green. We were nearing the glacier. Bergs floated by, carrying seals as passengers. They would swim up to the glacier, climb on an ice floe and drift with the current until the ice melted.
We paddled into a deep cove which fronted a river. The spot looked good from the water, but turned out to be very soggy. We were tired and weren’t sure of finding anything better, so we unpacked the kayaks. As we scouted around for the driest possible tent sites, we spotted piles of fresh, black shit. Bears! We had chosen a bear loo to sleep in.
I later saw two large black bears on the other side of the river. Black bears aren’t normally dangerous, but even they seem to be getting peskier as the years go by. Grizzly bears are another story. They have always been a threat. Three people had been killed by them in Alaska and the Yukon Territory in recent times.
Richard was ready for the bears and rigged lines to hoist our food high into a tree — all of our food. There are stories of bears tearing into a tent and mauling the inhabitant just to get a candy bar.
We cooked dinner 100 meters from the tents and then hauled food, garbage and even the cook stoves (a Trangia and a Whisperlite) into the tree. We turned in at 9:45. It had been a long day but a good one. We had paddled about 25 km, not counting side trips into coves, much of it against a current. I climbed into my tent which felt like a waterbed on the bog. Fortunately, the tent bottom was completely waterproof and I floated. It was comfortable and the thought of bears didn’t keep me awake.
We got up at 6:30. The night-time drizzle had stopped but everything was still very wet. The bears had maintained their distance. The only wildlife was a bald eagle which sat on a tree directly overhead and observed us imperiously while we ate breakfast. Promising breaks were appearing in the cloud cover. We hit the water at the now usual time of 9:45.
We paddled upstream in calm conditions past fantastically shaped ice floes. Every once in a while, one would roll over as its bottom melted. The ice floes got closer together. We were afraid of getting caught if the wind shifted and packed the ice tight, but decided to keep going towards the glacier. The valley was becoming narrower now. As this was a classic fiord, the water was still very deep. The chart showed 170 fathoms, 300 meters. No worries about running aground.
We turned a corner and were confronted by a hundred-meter-high wall of blue ice and rock. Many Alaskan glaciers have retreated so far that their snouts merely melt unobtrusively over solid ground. Not so the Meares Glacier which is still calving into the sea. We paddled as close as we dared and then watched the massive ice towers peel away from the body of the glacier. The tonnes of ice fell slowly at first and then, with increasing speed, smashed into the bay. The roar would hit us a few seconds later, followed by a small tidal wave. Blinding white mountain tops were now peeking through holes in the clouds. The glacier bellowed. Seals barked. I felt a profound sense of awe. I sat there in my little kayak surrounded by ice and immense beauty.
After a while, I joined Richard in paddling several kilometers to the west side of the inlet to find a camp site. We landed on a beach just opposite the glacier and I dragged my kayak the customary distance above the tide line.
Richard pulled his higher, saying that he had heard that surges from the calving ice had carried away kayaks in locations like this. I just grunted, feeling mine was high enough anyway. We went exploring, finding the usual piles of bear shit and two nice (if boggy) tent sites on a bench overlooking the glacier.
We both yelled at the same time. My kayak was already 30 meters from shore and caught in the current. Richard’s was still in knee deep water. I didn’t fancy a swim in the near freezing sea so I raced down to the beach, corralled Richard’s kayak and paddled out to retrieve mine. When I was safely back on land, I noticed a bunch of ice blocks high up on the shore. We dragged the kayaks well above them.
The weather turned warm and clear later in the day. From our evening dining room, we watched the passing parade of hundreds of seals on their ice floes. Two sea otters observed us in turn while eagles soared overhead and the glacier boomed. We soaked up the experience for a long while and then hoisted our gear above the bears and climbed into our tents. We had paddled some 20 km that day through a very special place. I felt very fortunate.
A chill wind poured down the glacier and the temperature dropped during the night. My boggy waterbed seemed more icy than the previous night and I didn’t sleep very well, in spite of my recent euphoria.
I was glad to extricate myself from the tent at 6:30. The sun soon struck our camp site and we dried out our gear while we drank in the view of the snowy peaks against the dark blue sky. We were on the water at 8, joining the seals drifting seaward with the current. Now, sweeping along with the wildlife, we felt we were a part of the picture rather than mere spectators. Otters and birds, mostly murrelets, were fellow voyagers through the extravagantly sculptured ice floes which scintillated in the brilliant sunshine. We skimmed over the blue-white water between forested hillsides and snowy mountains.
The spell was broken about noon when we paddled out of the ice floes into a 10 knot southerly wind. We slogged along until 5:30 when we made camp on a little bench just above a rocky beach. We had come about 30 km and weren’t very particular about our site. At least there were no bears or bogs here, but not much space, either. (There were, sad to say, bugs.) We turned in early. I savored the images of the day for a while and then drifted off to sleep.
5:30 AM. I had slept well, and warm. The day was clear and sunny. We were on the water at 7:30, paddling around the western entrance to Unakwik Sound. I was sorry to leave, even though we were still kayaking in beautiful surroundings. There was something special about Unakwik.
The original inhabitants probably thought so, too. We visited the now abandoned Chugiak village of Knikilik, once a thriving community of sea-going people. The vegetation has reclaimed the site, but the sheltered beach where the canoes were once kept is still there. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the little bay full of activity. I was glad that I had arrived by kayak to this place. To come in a power boat would have been an insult.
We paddled on, and on. Richard’s agenda was to find as many campsites as possible for his book. I was in a mood to just be. We had a conference and decided to take it easier. Richard’s rudder had broken anyway, and his shoulder was bothering him.
We drifted through a keyhole in the rock and entered Schoppe Bay Lagoon, a perfect basin set in forested mountains. We would have tarried with this jewel over lunch, but feared being trapped by the torrent of incoming tide.
We cruised through small, wooded islets into Eagalik Inlet where we found a cove with good camping at 1:30 pm. We had covered 18 km and I, at least, felt justified in having an early day. It turned out to be a great spot. No bugs, no bogs, just bears — which we could take in our stride. We lounged around in the afternoon sun, listening to the geese honking in a nearby meadow. (Actually, it was a bog, but if you didn’t try to walk in it or sleep on it, the scene was very pleasant.)
I was in my sleeping bag by 8 PM, luxuriating on a dry, mossy bench. Richard had threatened a 4 AM wake up call in order to get an early start to beat the sea breeze. He was slightly pre-empted by a flock of alarm geese bears, bugs etc. which flew over at 3:59. The sun wasn’t above the peaks yet, but it soon would be. The air was warm and the wind was calm. It promised to be a great day. We were on the water by 6 AM, paddling in a glassy wonderland of islands, reflections and sunshine. Salmon jumped, eagles soared and life was good.
Visiblility was exceptional. I shot a whole roll of film on the mountains at the head of the sound. It was actually hot on the water and we stripped off our paddling jackets. So much for the deluge. Richard spotted a deer on the beach and raced in to take its picture. I wasn’t all that impressed, having seen lots of deer, but Richard said they were rare in the area.
Our goal was East Flank Island, where Jerry would pick us up that evening. We were getting back into crowded waters where fleets of commercial fishing boats were netting salmon. Richard went over to speak to one fisherman and scored a beautiful seven kg. coho. We were near our destination now, so the prize wasn’t a problem.
We landed on East Flank about noon after coming 20 km from our previous campsite. East Flank was a nice little island with no bugs, or bears (or bergs), just a bog. We unpacked and lounged around in the hot afternoon sun. I played with Richard’s GPS, fascinated by the toy, but having trouble visualizing a situation where I would need one.
Jerry was a little late, finally churning into view about 7PM. I was glad to see him, but felt slightly invaded when the bow ramp hit the beach. I had been blessed with a rare experience and was reluctant for it to end. Already, the bears, bogs and even the bugs were starting to look good. As for the bergs — well, they were always magnificent!