Paddling Glacier Bay, Alaska

June 26 - July 8, 2008

Morning light, Blue Mouse Cove.




It had been four years since we last kayaked the fjords of Glacier Bay in Alaska's southeast panhandle. So we were delighted to be back here again, this time with our lifelong friends -- Peter and Margie from North Carolina. It was 7:15PM by the time we finally got our two double kayaks loaded and launched from the Bartlett Cove dock and set out for what was intended to be eleven days and ten nights of camping on the shores of this watery wonderland. True to form, the clouds had thickened and lowered all afternoon and by now it was raining steadily as we made our way through the high tide passage into the misty fog of the Beardslee Islands. But our gear was still dry inside a small mountain of dry-bags squirreled away inside our boats.


At this time of year, the sun sets at 10:15PM and rises at 4AM, with bright twilight lasting an hour or more beyond that, so it's possible to schedule our waking hours just about any time of the day. Even in the middle of the short night, the orange-red glow of the sun shines over the horizon. We timed our paddling to line up with the tides that helped us going up-bay with the rising tide and down-bay with the falling tide. After a few days, we settled into the rhythm of the tides which defined our daily cycle of packing the boats, paddling, unpacking and setting up camp. We were out during the high tides of July's new moon which gave us 22 feet of vertical tidal range. The whole landscape of the beach changes between high and low tide as acres of land emerge during low water. We were surprised over and over again by the speed of the rising water -- anything left below the high tide line gets swept away, a painful lesson learned in 2004 when two of our paddles were carried away by the tides during the night!


Dinner preparations at Johnson Cove as rain clouds gather behind the Marble Islands.





What you are looking for always seems to find its way to the bottom of the big plastic bear-proof food storage canisters. But which one?


Margie tries out her handmade sunglasses.







On a morning paddle north through the Whidbey Passage, the water turned glassy smooth and we all had the distinct impression of floating on a lake of mercury. At times it seemed as if we were suspended in a rippling energy field as the gentle waves slowly tipped us back and forth. A dip of the paddles sent us gliding along the surface...






Sound Recordings: birds, whales, and calving glaciers:

Glacier Bay -- July, 2004 (6:13)

Glacier Bay -- June, 2002 (8:32)






Margie and Pete's special wildlife encounter: While bathing at a nearby stream late one afternoon, surprise! They suddenly looked up and noticed a lone timber wolf standing about 15-20 feet away, quietly staring at them. Startled, they tried to scare off the intruder by yelling and blowing "the world's loudest whistle" as we had planned in the event of a campsite bear encounter. But señor Wolf just backed up a few paces, laid down, and rested his head on his outstretched legs.

Clearly we were in his territory now and he had no fear of a couple of lowly human visitors. As Margie and Pete slowly walked away to return to camp, the wolf followed for a while and then loped off into the rye grass. What an auspicious sign! Henceforth we named our little island in Hugh Miller Inlet Wolf Island.

The wolf and his mate returned the following morning and we could see their footprints circling our island above the high tide line.




One windy afternoon we rounded the southern tip of the Gilbert Peninsula in search of a quiet cove to camp for the night. The waves were bigger than they had seemed from a distance and immediately we were engaged in a struggle to make headway through whitecapping waves and a strong northwest headwind. We were all acutely aware of the danger of capsizing in this cold water and our senses were on high alert as we focused on the task at hand.

Then a loud WOOSH from the starboard quarter. Liza and I thought it was a large breaking wave heading towards us; Margie and Pete thought they were hearing us capsize! But no, it was a full-sized humpback whale (average length 47') surfacing not more than 20 feet from our kayak. Similar to kayaking a few feet away from a surfacing submarine, adrenaline coursed through our veins as we noticed a bunch of white scrapes on its huge gray back as he slid by. This fellow was clearly much bigger than we were. The apparition took a deep inhale and sank back into the waves. Was this some strange dream? We were reassured to see the whale surface one more time far in front of us before disappearing all together.

Kayaking here is a bit like sailing -- hours of relaxed reverie interspersed by the odd moment of terror!


















We were camped on the beautiful rocky southern tip of Russell Island Saturday night and had planned a Sunday evening paddle ten miles to the kayaker pickup point at Queen Inlet. But that afternoon, winds started blowing hard from the northeast and the placid waters of Glacier Bay were churned into whitecaps and big green waves breaking on our rocky beach. So we decided to hope for better weather in the morning and set our alarm watches for a 3AM wakeup in order to make it to the 10AM morning pickup. We had planes to catch Monday afternoon and were already looking forward to a cold beer and nice dinner together in Juneau.

By 4:30AM we were on the water and enjoying being awake and aware for our first sunrise of the trip. 3 1/2 hours of paddling took us to the big rock cairn marking the steep rocky beach pickup point at the mouth of Queen Inlet. By 10AM we had washed up in a nearby stream, the Feathercraft (our folding kayak) was packed away in its giant duffel bags, and we were all wearing the cleanest clothes we could muster, waiting for the Fairweather Express to round the corner and give us a lift back to Bartlett Cove.

At 11 we noticed a small NPS boat headed our way from across the bay. Soon friendly rangers were motoring just off shore, asking us if we were all right and had plenty of food. Hmmm... this wasn't sounding at all good! The Fairweather Express had been diverted off to "assist a vessel in distress." The ranger instructed us to "relax and have lunch." Steve and Rachael, the honeymooning couple also stranded with us, looked especially disappointed because they had plans to head towards Denali the next day.

Several boats, planes, and numerous helicopters motored past our beach on the way up-bay to help out. We heard tantalizing snippets on the VHF radio. When we heard the call for divers, we were really wondering what was going on! At 7PM the NPS radioed again and said we'd be spending another night there, and would be picked up at the regular time the next morning. As the rain started up again in earnest, we set up our tents for one more rainy night.

In Tuesday morning's misty drizzle, our pickup boat appeared right on schedule, charging right up onto the rocky beach to load our kayaks. Soon we were to find out the details of the previous day's disaster: A small cruise boat, called the Spirit of Glacier Bay, grounded on a sandbar. With a rapidly falling tide, it became completely beached and they had to wait all day for the tide to return. Nobody was injured, but the Fairweather Express took on all the passengers and crew from the stranded boat and didn't get back to the Glacier Bay Lodge until around 10PM that night!

See the coast guard video of the event here:





Finally onboard the kayaker pickup boat -- Margie shows off her glacier (Margerie Glacier).






We didn't see any bears while out camping, but from the deck of the tour boat, grizzly bears were easy to spot as they searched for food in the intertidal zone.