My husband and I had always wanted to go whale watching by kayak. But something always got in the way — kids, work, other catastrophes.
This year, though, we were able to make it happen.
We chose Spirit Walker Expeditions out of Gustavus, Alaska, near Juneau, for our big adventure. We arrived in Gustavus on Saturday. Sunday evening we had an hour long
meeting with our Spirit Walker our guides, Karen and Jessie, and met our eight fellow adventurers, to learn the basics of what we were doing. We had been told that Southeast Alaska was variations on wet, so we weren’t too surprised when the guides handed out rain suites and muck boots. Then they warned us that they were anticipating 40 mph winds that would produce horizontal rain. The adventure begins…
I knew we were in for a good trip when there were bald eagles perched on the pier as we loaded our gear onto the sea taxi. We crossed Icy Straight to a spot near Mud Bay on Chichigof Island in a fog, enhancing the transition to another world. The sea taxi ran right up onto the beach and lowered a ladder so that we could unload. Instead of sand, the beach was made up of fist-size cobbles, which meant that technically, it was a “shingle” beach.
Shingle beaches are relatively rare, according to Wikipedia. Omaha beach had shingle, which added to the Allies problems when they landed at D-Day. I can understand why.
Walking over smooth round rocks slick with sea weed while carrying equipment was a challenge – it would be very easy to slip and break a leg. For us, doing it with visibility reduced to less than a hundred feet by dense fog made the entire experience surreal.
Karen and Jessie helped us set up tents on soft sand and moss. Karen had us make everything very tight in anticipation of the incoming storm.
In the afternoon, the sky cleared enough that we could go for a shake-down cruise in our kayaks. All ten of us paddled around our
little cove and got used to the gear.
After dinner, we lit a fire on the beach. My husband and I were worn out and went to our beds around 10:00 pm. The wind and rain came in, beating on the tent, about midnight.
When we got up Tuesday morning, we discovered that the storm had been surprisingly mild. It was still raining lightly and there were larger waves in Icy Straight, but there was nothing blown away, nothing soaked and needing to be drained. The storm hadn’t been any where near as bad as it could have been.
It was foggy out as we ate breakfast, but we could see far enough into the bay to watch a pod of orcas and a humpback cruise by. Much better than reading the morning newspaper.
Karen had us gear up for a paddle to Mud Bay to see salmon and therefore bears and bald eagles. Karen and Jessie helped my husband and I get in the water first, to see how rough it was. We were both in and fastening our spray skirts to our cockpits when I felt the stern of the kayak rise up. I reflexively looked up at the folks still on the shingle. Their eyes were as big as saucers. Then the big wave slapped me in the back. Doug had gotten drenched. With the sea still rough, Karen scrubbed the mission and hauled us back in.
Instead of going to Mud Bay, we hung out on the beach. Nobody seemed to mind.
In the afternoon, most of us hiked down the beach to a stream where we hoped to find clear water (the creek we were camped by was full of sediment washed in by the rain.).
As we walked down the beach we heard ravens making their “TONG!” alarm call. Looking around for what was upsetting the ravens, we saw a juvenile bald eagle perched up in the trees.
Further down the beach, we saw very fresh (since the rain stopped) grizzley bear tracks on a sandy portion of the beach and bear scat. Nearby was the flattened grass of a bear bed.
When we told people at home about this, they were stunned that we were in an area where the bears got so close. But I never felt threatened or in danger from the bears. We kept a very clean camp – all of our food was in caches high in a tree, all toiletries like toothpaste or chapstick were in bear-proof canisters. All cooking was done below the high tide mark, so any scraps were washed out to sea every twelve hours. The bears had more salmon than they could eat just over the hill. Why would they bother us?
Dinner was lovely, and the other kayakers delightful as we sat and talked. Doug and went to our tent about 9:00, but the others sat up, and, as the night sky cleared, they saw the Aurora Borealis.
We packed up camp and moved from near Mud Bay to Point Adolphus, a distance of eight miles. All our tents, sleeping bags and pads, personal gear, water jugs, and food we packed into the kayaks, scraping our knuckles and using a few choice words in the process.
Once packed, and riding low in the water, we set off. Without our paddle to Mud Bay on Monday, this was our first serious attempt at going any distance. As an ocean novice, I hadn’t really grasped how important tides and currents were. For a significant portion of the paddle we were going against the current; if felt as if we were going up a hill. Jessie saw me struggling, and gave me the tip that I shouldn’t paddle with my arms, but with my core muscles. This meant twisting my upper body and keeping my arms straight through most of the stroke. I’m not sure that my technique was correct even then, because I still had to focus on every movement.
This meant that when we on the water I had to focus on paddling, not sight-seeing. The required concentration turned out to be one of my biggest regrets of the entire trip. But it was a cost of getting closer to the animals.
It was, however, impossible not to notice the sea lions that swam along with us, poking
their heads up to watch us as we paddled along. We also saw several bald eagles and Sitka deer. The deer were so tame that we were able to drift in very close to them, much closer than we would have been able to approach if we had been
As we worked our way up the coast, the kelp became much thicker. Kelp floats on the surface of the water. Some of it is fairly hard, and all of it tangles in your paddles and rudder. But there were thousands of little fish and jellies living among the stalks. Very fun to watch.
On the approach to Point Adolphus, we began to see whale spouts. Usually, we’d hear them first – whooosh! – then see the mist from their blow. If we continued to watch, they’d often surface nearby. They were probably feeding near the surface. When we saw the tail fins go up, they were gone on a deeper dive.
Two thirds of the way there, we came up on a day boat watching a huge humpback whale. You are supposed to leave 100 yards between you and the marine wildlife, but if you drift closer, or they approach you, that’s okay. This boat had drifted quite close to the humpback, and the whale was very active. First, it did head lunges – lifting its head out of the water and letting it crash down with a big boom. After the head lunges, it waved first
one pectoral flipper, then other, bringing six feet of flipper down with slaps that sounded like rifle shots. It rolled on its back and waved both flippers in the air. Then the whale took off, blowing and diving, to all appearances upset with the boat for drifting so close.
When we finally pulled onto the beach at Point Adolphus, Karen told us that this was the premier point for viewing whales in this region of Southeast Alaska. I believe it. It was a humpback highway.
Our fourth day out we were woken by the whooosh of a humpback cruising in front of the camp. They came in much closer to shore early in the morning.
The excursion for the day was to paddle down the coast to a muskeg, or peat bog. Another long pull – six miles – but with the chance to see wildlife and wild flowers.
When we got there, we found an old growth forest with murre sea bird nests in the tops of the
Carnivorous sundew traps insects on it’s sticky leaves. It is growing in a bed of sphagnum moss.
trees, old man’s beard in the branches and fungus on old stumps. On the muskeg itself, it was like walking on a sponge. The muskeg was full of sphagnum moss, skunk cabbage, and carnivorous sticky sundews, which were very cool.
The clouds burned off on the paddle back, and we saw whales spouting with a backdrop of the Fairweather Mountain range, visible only on a clear day. Post-card beautiful.
As we paddled back, I realized something else, too. I wasn’t having to fully concentrate on every stroke that I took. It wasn’t easy yet, but I wasn’t completely absorbed in just pulling the boat forward, either.
That evening, the skies stayed clear as every one relaxed by the fire after dinner. As the sun
set, we could see across Icy Straight to the lights of Gustavus. And then we realized…there was too much glow for it to be simply tiny Gustavus. The Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – were once again glowing across the northern sky.
We were awakened on our last morning out by the sound of passing boats sounding their fog horns and passing whales blowing. Guess which one got us out of bed?
The whales were again cruising close to the beach, huge and silent except for their spouts,
closer than yesterday. They were just beyond the kelp beds where we had been kayaking. I hadn’t realized that the water there was deep enough for a whale to swim, let alone dive. And yet they were.
We took another quick trip to a muskeg. It was again very wet beneath its top layer of sphagnum moss. On this trip, we saw a very stunted “coastal” pine, which is a short-needled sea-shore version of a lodgepole pine. It wasn’t doing very well in the wet, acidic soils of the muskeg. Karen said that many people consider the muskeg the climax community for old Alaskan forests. That means that if left alone, the forest will eventually become muskegs. This is an interesting idea, because I would have thought that eventually the bog would build up enough moss to dry out on the top and allow other plants in. I’ll have to do some more research on the topic…
After lunch, we loaded all our gear back on the sea taxi and headed back to the known, this time without fog to enhance the transition.