Alaska’s Glaciers, Mountains and Ice Flows
Who in their right mind would think about going sea kayaking immediately after paddling 3300kms down the Yukon River? Surely it was time to relax. For me though I just had to be on the move. How could I leave Alaska without checking out some of the incredible coastline?
After a couple of days in Anchorage I was soon taking a bus along one of the most scenic roads in the world, heading to one of the most beautiful coastlines and National Parks (Kenai Fjords) in the world. I was in search for something stunning and my bus journey ended at Seaward, south of Anchorage.
Shouldering a heavy backpack I walked around the small town and about 1km from the bus stop I found a kayak rental company, ‘Kayak Adventures Worldwide’. They were a young enthusiastic lot, located in a house in downtown Seaward. Before I could rent a kayak though, I had to answer a few questions relating to my kayaking experience and safety issues. It was strange having to prove that I knew what I was doing especially after all my experience, having clocked thousands of kilometres on the ocean and having written a book on the subject. When my assessment was complete I breathed a sign of relief, what if I had failed!
Within the hour I had hired all the gear and was told the best places to check out. To get to the stunning places in the time that I had, it was necessary for me to rent a water taxi and to be taken closer to the hot spots. Kayak Adventures Worldwide didn’t have their own water taxi going out that day, so they booked me on Millers Landing water taxi instead. The cost of renting a kayak seemed quite reasonable but it was the added expenses that hurt. I had to rent flares, a marine radio, a bear drum, buy the maps, get a permit but the biggest expense was the water taxi. When I reached my destination along the coast, it was soon evident that it was money well spent.
The water taxi, carrying two single guys, a couple and myself, left Millers Landing at 6.30 a.m. before Alaska was awake. We were being taken to Aialik Bay about 85 kilometres away. On the way there they asked us where we wanted to be dropped off and picked up in the following days. When I told them the skipper told me that I couldn’t be dropped off at the point I wanted and that I couldn’t be picked up at the point I wanted unless I paid a double fare. I was a little shocked, I had arranged my plans with their office the previous day and I was told my plans were okay. Wow, my trip had started badly. After some debate and compromise, the skipper, who just happened to be the owner of the company agreed to pick me up at my choice, but it had to be in the morning instead of it being in the afternoon of that day. She was accepting no arguments, so with disappointment I had no choice but to change my plans. With the trip now shortened it meant that I would have to paddle more miles in a shorter time to cover my intended route, I was not a happy paddler!
On arrival into the Aialik Bay the mist and clouds hovered along the mountain tops, it was a breathtaking experience. Our ride came to an end at a stony beach across from Slate Island about 8 kms from the Aialik Glacier. The boat’s bow was lowered and we all carried our gear to shore. Below the mist we started packing and the couple in the double kayak, who were on a day trip, moved away first following a small bear that was walking along the shore.
I left the other two guys trying to sort out their gear. They hadn’t paddled before, so packing their large bags in a small hole was also a new challenge for them. I was paddling a Necky 15 foot Estuary type kayak, I would have liked a longer one but that’s all that was available at the time. The Glacier looked incredibly close but as I adjusted to my new boat it became obvious that it was a lot further away than it looked. The double kayak was lost in the distance, eventually appearing like a small dot below the glacier. Twenty minutes later I was with them. The glacier was thundering and shedding huge lumps of ice that created small tidal waves after each ice fall. Cracks of thunder continually rumbled and echoed across the bay.
I was in a new world, I had sea kayaked in many different places, but this was the first time that I had encountered glaciers. It was great, it was different, and it was what I needed as a paddler to expand my horizons.
There was a mysterious air about the morning, it was quiet, slightly hazy from the hovering clouds with a little drizzle falling for a brief moment. I would have preferred a cloudless blue sky and a clear uninterrupted view of the glacier, but like everywhere else in the world the weather always has the upper hand and I was happy to see it all just as it was.
The rumble from the glacier continued, more ice shed from the ice wall and fell as ice floes into the water. These ice floes were spread across the water in front of the glacier to later move away with the falling tide. My kayak scraped along them as I moved towards and away from the glacier. I sat, looked and listened for some time, took photos but the time came to move on and paddle towards the Pederson Glacier further along the bay.
The morning had been quiet, and just as I was getting used to the silence, a group of sea kayakers and two tour boats appeared. Not being too upset with the intrusion I stopped on the same beach that we had first landed on and had morning tea as the group were about to take off.
I later caught up with them as I entered the lagoon that surrounded the Pederson Glacier. The tide was close to full so I moved into the first lagoon with the rising tide. Ice floes some two metres high were stranded on the exposed shores. The kayakers ahead were taking their time to look at a bear before moving into a smaller lagoon. The ice floes were thick as I followed the kayakers in.
Seals were lying on the ice floes like kings in castles and as we all got closer, they slipped off them and into the icy waters. They were wary of the kayaks and took a dip if the kayaks got too close. I forged on slowly moving closer to the glacier where other seals were resting on the floes. I sat and watched the seals whilst the ones in the water circled me.
The ice floes were all different shapes and sizes and my imagination ran wild coming up with things that the various shapes resembled. The glacier wasn’t as big as Aialik Glacier but with all the ice flows trapped in the lagoon and the seals slipping off them into the water, it was very special area. I hovered for a while and then started to ease out of the lagoon. The big splashes behind me that I thought was the ice dropping off the floes, was in fact seals diving under the water and slapping their tails.
Thin waterfalls cascade down the mountains
I left the lagoon and moved along the shore that towered with steep mountains and a multitude of thin waterfalls cascading down them. The mountains were thickly covered with green vegetation, an incredible contrast to the white of the higher mountains behind me. I turned into Holgate Arm a smaller off-shoot bay and forged on towards the Holgate Glacier meeting small ice floes along the way, each floe had a shape and personality of its own.
I could hear the glacier cracking, thundering and shedding ice from afar. It looked a stone’s throw away but again it was a never-ending paddle to reach it. I was tiring; I wasn’t as comfortable in my hired boat as I usually am in my own boat. When I reached the glacier I sat, watched and listened to the rumble, the cracks and the thundering. Ice was falling at regular intervals, mostly small but then a huge block from the face started to cascade. My camera was within reach so I started clicking. The ice continued to fall, so I changed cameras and took more pictures. Then I realised the avalanche of ice had hit the water and created a tidal wave that was heading my way. Although I was some distance from the glacier face my heart skipped a little as I realised the wave was bearing down on me. I put my camera away and readied myself for a brace. I had nothing to fear though, by the time the wave had reached me it had dissipated enough to have little effect on my stability.
I sat there and had a quiet moment, just looked on and let the wind blow me slowly back down the channel. It was time to move, as I needed to find a beach and relieve the pressure in my bladder. The ice flows that I met on the way up to the glacier had now moved further down Holgate Arm. It was amazing how quickly they had drifted away.
Although I had recently finished paddling 3300kms in a canoe I was feeling the strain of paddling 45kms in a kayak with two blades. I couldn’t believe how unfit I felt and how strange it was to be in a boat that I wasn’t used to. Fortunately I had the wind behind me on my return trip to my camping spot, so it was much easier than the paddle up. I was pretty tired but happy to make camp below a number of high mountains looking directly towards the impressive Holgate Glacier which continually shed ice throughout the night.
I erected my tent on a flat bed of small pebbles and cooked tea about 50 metres away, near the low tide mark. This was to keep the smell of food well away from my tent and to discourage bears from investigating my dwellings during the night. To further ensure my personal safety, I put my food and toothpaste in the personal bear drum that I had hired and then placed it in a permanent bear box that was situated at the camp. No bear was going to get my food that night! It had been a perfect day only slightly marred by gnats trying to make their home in my nasal and ear passages that evening. I slept soundly.
When I unzipped my tent the next morning, the tide was out leaving a huge piece of ice on the stony beach a few metres from me. It was amazing piece of ice architecture that had been sculptured overnight by the wind and tide. When I retreated to bed the evening before, there wasn’t one piece of ice in the bay, now it was crammed with ice floes. My ice monument had dug deep gouges in the beach by its massive weight and by it being pushed in by the tide. Now stranded, it lay melting in the early morning sun. The whole scene was a fascinating sight.
The glacier had been cracking and thundering in the night, but even so I had slept well. A water taxi carrying more kayakers came into the bay, it waited beyond the ice floes trying to find a way to the beach but without success, forced to abandon its attempt, it turned and left the bay.
By the time I was ready to move off, the ice had thinned along my path. I moved from the cove across the Holgate Arm knowing that if I wanted to reach the North Western Lagoon that day it was going to be a challenge. Fifty kilometres in a 4.5 metre Estuary kayak was going to be hard going.
As I passed Quicksand Cove, the view of the mountains backing the cove was magnificent and with every 20 metres that I moved the view changed to another just as magnificent view. I found it so hard to stop clicking my camera. At the same time the waters around me were teeming with Puffin birds and seagulls, but fled when I got too close.
I moved further along the coast and found an arch that had been carved by nature, the tide was not quite high enough to make it possible to paddle under. I had lunch in the nearby sheltered Verdant Cove where dead pine trees stood like skeletons some 20 or so metres deep. Others were lying on the beach and I could only imagine that some disease had caused them to die. At the far end of the bay the mountains were razor sharp and steep and the mountains in front of my stony beach, steep and wooded.
I finished my delicious lunch of bread, cheese and chicken paste and moved on. My energy levels were revived but my body was hurting, yet I moved on knowing that I still had 30kms of hard slog to go before reaching my next campsite. The kayak’s backrest was bruising my back and the now unfamiliar sitting position strained my legs. I was not at all comfortable but to get to my destination I just had to work through it.
I slipped out of the cove and around the corner to find another even bigger arch carved in a small island. I just couldn’t resist paddling through it a couple of times, opportunities like this are rare in Western Australia. Twenty minutes later I approached Aligo Point and could see a cruise ship in the distance near Beehive Islands. How perfect would it be if I was aboard it and living the high life at this point in time? No soreness no aches and pains, wonderful food, relaxing near the pool, gorgeous women. What was I doing here!! I rounded the beautiful Aligo Point and hundreds of cormorants and seagulls fled from their high perches on the vertical cliffs to circle overhead. I looked on in awe and came to my senses. This is the life that turns me on, not a cruise ship. I dodged the bird’s droppings and entered another unique bay.
The view before me was so enthralling that my aches and pains disappeared and unbelievably as I paddled on, the bay ahead was even lovelier than the one I had just left, and I had thought that bay was amazing! I moved between Granite Island and the rugged points of the mainland and headed towards some snow capped peaks. It was just the boost I needed to paddle on.
Between Fire and Ripple Coves I landed on a rock ledge to have a pee and stretch my legs. The tide was high and the water calm. I climbed out, letting the boat float next to the ledge and peed. Suddenly a small waved lapped up the ledge and sucked the kayak away. Instantly I stopped all proceedings and attempted to grab the kayak. It was less than a metre away and sitting just out of my reach. With my paddle being in the boat I couldn’t use it to help bring the kayak back. I waited for the next swell to push it back towards me but it didn’t and the kayak was drawn further away. The ocean was freezing but with no option or hesitation, I leapt in to retrieve it. The cold was intense and as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson” I was back on the ledge with kayak in hand. Phew that was a close thing! I had never done such a stupid thing before. Good can come from a near disaster though, I felt much fresher and raring to paddle on to warm up.
I sat eating my ‘Trail’ mix at Crater Bay next to two amazing patches of seaweed that looked like super large onion patches floating on top of the water. I faced directly toward a snow clad mountain with cloud surrounding its summit. It was a beautiful sight, but it was the taste of the small chocolate pieces in my ‘Trail’ mix that really made my day. I was content, often it’s the small things bring joy and happiness.
The next two bays were full of thin waterfalls cascading off the mountain, a picture postcard scene. They were noisy and echoed throughout. At this point I only had 7 – 8kms to go and all I could think of, was “yippee I aye, yippee I oh”, I was so looking forward to reaching my destination and resting. Fifty kilometres was a fair way in a short boat.
The entrance to the North-western Lagoon was closed in by a line of reef and sandbars. The tide was low so rocks were awash with the swell. Several sea otters floated on their backs as I moved into the Lagoon and they duck dived as I got close. I sat around, no longer in a hurry and drifted with the tide, watching and having a quiet moment before landing on a nearby beach. I was so pleased to be there.
I camped about 50 metres from a pile of huge rocks that had fallen from the hill behind. The view was quite stunning, to my south-east a high mountain with some cloud around its peak, to the south the rugged Granite Island, to the west more high mountains, and to the north, massive snow clad mountains with glaciers squeezed between them. What a view, what more could I ask for? Who needs a cruise ship!
I erected my tent on bear tracks imprinted in the sand, and to keep the smell of food away from my tent, I cooked my pasta meal on the flat rocks nearby. Once I had eaten I then retreated to my tent to write in my diary. So much had happened in the last two days but I fell asleep before it was all down on paper. Beside me lay my trusty can of bear spray and tonight it was even closer because of my tent being pitched over bear tracks!!
I woke up around 7.30 a.m. and looked outside my tent to see an absolutely perfect day, not a cloud in the sky. The view of the mountains surrounding me was simply stunning. I just knew it was going to be a great day and I had no reason to hurry.
A group of sea otters were playing as I started my paddle towards the glaciers. I edged by them and out into the middle of the channel to get the full benefit of the in-coming tide. The view around me was so spectacular it really didn’t matter if I paddled at all, I could just sit and look at this view all day. I did paddle on though and as I moved the scenery on each side of the bay changed constantly. I stopped often and sat for a few moments to gaze at the exquisite and ever changing scenery.
Eleven kilometres on I reached Erratic Island which differed so much in colour compared with the rock and mountains around me. It was more like the colour of the Kimberley area in Western Australia and my heart warmed as I recalled my many expeditions in the countryside that I really love.
I paddled beyond the island and into a position where I could see four glaciers at the same time, the North Western being the most spectacular. I was happy to land for a break on the shores of the receded South Westerly Glacier. I had lunch and took photos, just as I was putting my camera away I heard a roar that startled me. I looked around to see an avalanche of snow fall from the mountain top hurtling down its steep slopes and shattering into fine particles. Though the avalanche was spectacular to witness the roar was a frightening sound.
I moved off watching waterfalls cascade from the mountain sides. Many of these waterfalls disappeared under rocks on the lower slopes. Within minutes I had paddled into a pack of small ice floes falling from Anchor Glacier. The floe thickened opposite the glacier slowing my progress. As I pushed a path through, the ice scrapped the hull of my kayak. All morning I had heard thunderous cracking sounds coming from within the glacier, I was so close to it now and yet I still couldn’t pin point exactly where the sound was actually coming from.
I cleared the ice floes of Anchor Glacier and the Ogive Glacier stood before me. It was quite dirty, almost as if months of dust storms had blown over it. Looking dormant and with no ice carving from its face, the build up of dirt made the glacier look quite ugly, a real eye sore, I just wanted to clean it, I hated the dirt or any eye sore that ruined the beauty of the countryside. The next generation of wilderness travellers will have mobile phone towers, huge wind generators and power lines stuck on the top of mountains to photograph.
I was now opposite the steep and rugged Striation Island. The North Western Glacier ahead of me was very active, I could see ice piles falling from its face at frequent intervals. The sounds, which regularly vibrated and echoed through the narrow channel, had no let up. I sat, watched and listened to this very active glacier.
The day was still beautiful and sunny but streaks of clouds now began to infiltrate the sky. I moved back and landed on a ledge on the northern end of Striation Island. It was great to stretch my legs and wander about, bounding around the rocks like a wallaby. The ice continued to carve off the glacier but I couldn’t stay looking forever, I headed for camp.
Landed on the northern end of Striation Island looking towards the North Western Glacier
Being a little tired I was hoping the wind and receding tide would help push me back to camp 14kms away. But at this time of year, night doesn’t come to this part of the world so with no darkness and a vista of incredible scenery around me it didn’t really matter when I got there. Every ten minutes I stopped, dropped my legs over the kayak cockpit and lay back taking in the beauty of every mountain peak. The kayak was slowly turned by the wind giving me a 360° degree view. My body limp, my thoughts reflective, my senses serene, all of these feelings created by the peace and harmony from the amazing location I was in. There was no where else in the world that I wanted to be at that moment.
As my conscious state began to drift into sleep I roused myself before I capsized into the cold water. I paddled on and every few minutes I’d capture fresh views. Once again I stopped and lay back just to absorb the truly magnificent scenery. Eventually I neared my campsite where six sea otters played, squabbled and lay in front of me.
This was my last day on the water, the water taxi would be arriving to take me home the following day so I spent some time cleaning and drying my gear, my paddling was over.
I had slept well and readied myself early to be picked up by the water taxi. I stood aloft the rocks near my camp searching in the distance for a boat to speed my way. I saw two boats on the horizon but they veered off once they cleared the north end of Granite Island. I tuned into the radio and listened to them talking about the fishing spots. I waited and watched a whale in Harris Bay blow water spray. Four seals, which at first I thought were the sea otters, kept surfacing just out from my beach. They would rear their heads have a good look at me and dive, they repeated their actions again and again.
One hour after our planned rendezvous and still no water taxi, I rang the company on my satellite phone to find out where they were. They told me it was too rough for them to leave their base and they might not even be able to pick me up that night, but they would try. “Give us a ring a 3.00 p.m.”, they said. It all sounded a little too vague for me and left me with a sense of unease.
I was flying out of the country the following night and here I was stuck out in a bay 110kms from Seward. Seward was about a twenty hour paddle away. I was in no mood to sit all day waiting for a boat that may never come, I just had to get closer to Seward. So after getting all my gear and myself washed and ready to go home, I now had to get wet once more. I called the office again on my sat phone and told them that I was paddling to Verdant Bay, where the other guys who were on the same taxi were going to be picked up. Verdant Bay was a lot closer to Seaward.
It meant that I had to get focused again. I quickly loaded my kayak, taking time to ensure that I had nibbles and water at hand and moved away from the stony beach. Within minutes I realised that my rudder elastic was still firmly holding my rudder blade in place. Damm, I had to return to shore to undo it. Back in the water I cleared the lagoon by 11.10am and sighted a whale ahead. It dived and was never to be seen again. I was focussed, driving all my energy into paddle strokes without tiring. It felt good to have physical aggression burst from my body. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching Seward in time to get to the airport. I powered on clearing bay after bay, mountain after mountain.
It was a 35kms to paddle to Verdant Cove and I was determined to get there by 3.00pm. It was 9kms an hour that I needed to paddle and it was a big ask. Nevertheless I powered on and sped by some incredible scenery arriving at the cove at 2.50pm feeling quite proud of myself at getting there ahead of time.
As I paddled in the bay the guys were lying in the sun on mattresses reading. They were as pleased to see me, as I was of them. But until I rang the water taxi company again I didn’t know if I had to paddle another 70 kilometres back to Seward that night. We were in luck though, if all went well they would pick us up later, so we relaxed. It was funny, a part of me didn’t want them to come, that way I could take on the 70 kilometre paddle challenge back to Seaward. I was just in the right mood to give it a go!
My new friends had spent a day more than they had planned in the cove and were short of food, with only a few nibbles left they were very happy that they didn’t have to stay another night camping. It wasn’t until the boat was half way to our destination on that first day that they were told they should carry extra food, in case of bad weather preventing the water taxi getting to them on time.
We waited for the 6.00 p.m. pickup but that came and went and eventually at 10.00 p.m. the water taxi arrived, the sun had dipped well behind the mountain range and our bodies had chilled. Never mind, a porcupine had kept us amused whilst we were waiting. We all climbed aboard and the taxi sped across the bay towards Seaward.
In 24 hours I would be flying from Anchorage to Seattle. My dream journey was nearly at an end. As the ferry leaped across the waves I peered out through the glass looking at the stunning wilderness. I was both humbled and sad to leave it.