Monday, July 09, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 5

Let the rains begin… today was the day we were to be picked up by the day boat and head up the west arm of the bay. Lisa and I loaded up the perforated double we had acquired in the safety trade. It did not pack as well as our two singles and it was as wide as the row boat I had in my teen years. E and H were a step more organized than us and were ready to go before us. We headed to the pickup point and saw a plethora of campers settled in an area that was off limits for camping. The rangers definitely don’t want to encourage bears to expect food in an area where people will frequent. All had their excuses but frankly I think they were all inconsiderate. We were greeted by a too friendly fellow who confided to us that he had left his girlfriend 30 miles up bay because they couldn’t agree on where to paddle to. He claimed he was sacrificing the trip to save the relationship. (I think both were cut short.)

The day boat is a 100-ish foot catamaran that pulls directly up to the beach to pick up and drop off boats. Upon boarding I was overwhelmed by tourists who thought we were mountain men and women for camping “in the wild”. They wanted to hear of our stories and adventures. I didn’t want to tell my story. I just wanted to be back where I came from in the peace and quite of the bay. I retreated to the cold and rainy back deck of the boat where only an occasional guest would wander. I missed the bay already. Fortunately I knew I was better off leaving while it was still a good experience. It would rain for this and the next two days straight. We were leaving on a high point.

The tour boat afforded us some great views of a half dozen glaciers. The boat stopped in front of one that was calving. We could hear the ice cracking and watch it dropping into the sea. We also saw a seal or two, a family of three bears, and an orca. I was slowly settling into public life.

When the boat landed back at the ranger station we had to rush about and empty our camp fuel, return the boats, return the ‘thankfully un-used’ bear spray, pack our stuff, pick up E&H’s stored bag from the lodge, return the bear canisters, and close out our float plan. We had less than an hour and a half before our flight left. Fortunately we made the flight. It was delayed by the weather.

The trip was simply delightful in its entirety. We all suffered a little anxiety about being alone in the wild (in a way three of us had never been before). Lisa’s expertise made it very comfortable and the company of E&H and their agreeable and relaxed demeanors made it very fun. It was definitely a trip I’ll never forget. It just has me yearning for more. After all, I still haven’t paddled with whales!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 4

Although the forecast was for strong southerly winds and rain we woke up to sunny skies and a light north wind. All this concern to beat the weather and it turned out to be a beautiful day all day with temperatures at times in the seventies!

We had no paddling planned but exploring in the east arm was an option. But the boats were just not that comfortable and we decided to just hang out and play on the island. Lisa and I had our hearts set on catching a fish. We had seen Salmon jumping on the east side of the island so that was our destination. Travel to that side of the island required disturbing the already quite disturbed Oyster Catchers. It would also sometimes incite a dive bomb attack by the terns. We knew that the Oyster Catchers were nesting on the beach and tried to give them their space. We did get a chance to see their eggs when they were off nest. They blended amazingly well with the rocks and were arraigned in no obvious “nest” structure. They were just laid on the beach above the tide line. I can make no excuse for the terns.

Lisa and I both have little interest in fishing but a huge interest in eating fresh fish. We made two forays to that side of the island during the day. The first time Lisa did have a fish almost landed. We did see fish jumping each time we went over there but getting a bite proved difficult. In a last desperate attempt before committing to turkey fettuccini for dinner Lisa tried a few casts right by our tent. (She had wanted to fish there but Eric and I insisted that the other side was better. It was the only side we saw fish jumping.) On her second cast she had a fish hooked. I went into coaching mode. Keep the line tight, just drag him to the shore… (she would have done just fine). Before the fish had a chance to know it was out of the water Lisa was ready to release it. I would have nothing to do with it. Besides, it was hooked in a funny way. Convinced that we were keeping the fish the focus turned to a humane death. She was suggesting dropping a rock on its head! Two indirect hits on a crazed flipping fish convinced me that we were far more likely to get hurt than the fish was. I quickly beheaded it and cleaned it in the water to avoid attracting bears. Our dinner would be Pink Salmon!

We also spent time on the island exploring the woods and the geology of the shoreline rocks. At one point Lisa stopped for a little nap on the shoreline and within 10 minutes the water had risen to the point where her boots began to fill (funny thing about 20 foot tides).

Lisa and I were also approached by a couple in a double kayak with a little problem. It seems as if the guide service had dropped them off in a boat with a hole in it. They had fixed it with Duct Tape but it seemed a little foolish to head out on a 6 day paddle with a patched boat. Eric and I used our hand held marine radios to try to hail a nearby boat. Our radios would not reach all the way back to the ranger station but we assumed we would be able to communicate with a boat or cruise ship that we could see on the other side of the bay. We finally talked to a chartered 50 foot sailboat that relayed a message back to the ranger station. We had offered to let the couple trade their double for a couple of our singles. We only had about a mile and a half to paddle to the point where we would be picked up and were comfortable we’d be able to make it with the patched boat.

It was a very relaxing lay over day on the island. We appreciated not having to tear down and re-setup camp for one night. It all worked out quite nicely.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 3

The first half of our trip was within the protection of the Beardslee Islands. The second half was to be up the east side of the bay along the Beartrack Mountains. This section was exposed to the most open section of the bay. It also was a section with limited shoreline camping because a significant portion was closed due to high bear activity. This gave us few fall back opportunities is something was to go wrong. Our plan on paper was to paddle about 10 miles to Sturgess Island on day 3 and then 6 more to Garforth Island on Day 4. But with a forecast was bad for day 4. I was wondering if the right thing to do was head back along a different route within the safety of the Beardslee Islands. Back home, on a day with 20 knot winds and rain predicted I’d tend to stay home. Here, in Glacier Bay, miles from help, in uncomfortable and fully loaded kayaks, why would it suddenly be a good idea? Lisa and I discussed it a bit in our tent and then opened it up to Eric and Heather. It was decided that we’d go for an epic day and try to go all the way to Garforth.

With full agreement we all suited up in our Drysuits for what would include two 5 mile open water crossings. While making the first crossing we were fighting a light headwind (the forecast was for a push). But a little liveliness in the water and sweeping views in every direction as we paddled in the open water was exhilarating. We stopped for a snack at Leland Island which looked to us as if we were in the middle of Glacier Bay. We had distant views of Mt Fairwether at over 15,000 feet. We were also in a zone where the glaciers were approximately 150 years earlier. Our next crossing brought us to Puffin Island which was where we would begin to paddle against the shore and search for a much needed re-supply of water.

Our long paddle didn’t allow us to explore this shoreline as much as we would have liked to. It was a shore with mile high peaks and in spots dropped from about 2000 feet of elevation to 500 feet of depth over less than a mile. Some of the streams would disappear into the coarse rubble within the last few hundred feet of the shore. I finally located a stream where I could just step out of my boat and fill the dromedary bags.

We were now in clear sight of our destination but it was still almost 4 miles away. We paddled on with the long twilight beginning to start. I was starving and tired so I quickly jumped out of the boat and began to search for a place to camp.
I was excited to find zero sign on bear but the first spot was not ideal. Lisa and Eric continued to search around the island for a good spot. There was a boat camping on the north end (this island is often used as a staging point for the guide boat drop off spot which was less a mile away). We settled on a beautiful spot on the west side of the island that had almost 360 degree views.

It was still clear and comfortably light outside when we retired to our tents at 12:30 (We never used a flashlight during the whole trip). We had completed our “epic day” and were prepared to hole up for a windy rainy fourth day.

Air Low 60s, clear, light North wind, 16.2 miles

Friday, July 06, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 2

We launched our boats about 1.5 hours before low tide. The day started overcast and warmed and cleared up as it went along. We headed to the west of Eider Island and skirted west of the outer Beardslees. This brought us over deep water where I thought there might be potential of seeing a whale. It was pretty and relaxing but uneventful. We did see one tent but no other boats. We stopped on a rocky beach for lunch. I perused the horizon with binoculars for a whale but only saw seals and sea otters. After lunch we tucked between a couple of islands and continued our journey up the middle of the Beardslees into a stiffening breeze. Here it felt more protected and visually the islands all looked like interesting places to explore but the wildlife spotting was limited. We were in no rush so we rafted up frequently to trade stories and snacks and debate whether the map was indicating that we could pass between the last two islands or whether a portage would be required. We avoided making the wrong call by going around the islands instead.

We only had ten miles under our boats for the day but we were surprisingly tired. The wide boats loaded down were deceivingly slow. We were at the top of the Beardslees at the entrance to Beartrack Cove. A squall was looming ominously to our west. It was time to find a campsite. I jumped out and was pleased by the first spot I found. It was a small knoll surrounded by beach on the front and marsh around back. I returned to the boat and discussed it with Lisa but her feeling (from a distance) was it was too wet. The second spot I checked was loaded with bear scat. The third spot was ideal from a tent point of view but was fairly close to the second spot and looked too “bear-y” to me. Lisa and I returned to the first site and with the two of us looking the debate about wetness was dismissed as we found multiple piles of both bear and moose scat. We headed further back towards where we had come from and finally settled in on our fourth choice. We had passed it initially in favor of sites with deeper water access but otherwise it was a beautiful sight! A lightly treed point facing straight up the heart of Glacier Bay.

Our camp site quickly became magical as the wind died down and the squall passed us slowly in the distance playing hide and seek with the sun. The marine mammals started to play right in front of us. Throughout the evening Sea Otters, Seals, and Sea Lions passed just off shore. In the quiet air we could hear the otters cracking shells on their bellies. Lisa spotted a baby on top of mom. The Sea lions rolled over each other like unruly teenagers wrestling.

We set up our tents (a little further apart than the first night) and began to cook dinner well down on the shore. Just as we were getting started a double showed up on shore with two slightly freaked out young men we had seen back at the ranger station. They said that they had seen 6 bear and 2 moose as they paddled up through the Beardslees along the mainland. Everywhere they had stopped had too much bear sign. And in fact we had a bear walking along the shore right now only some 500 yards to our south. I ran up to alert E&H to make sure they had their food packed away properly and have them join us on the beach for safety in numbers. I wanted to go see the bear but didn’t want to abandon cooking duty so we continued to cook. Given that we had not found any favorable sites for at least another half mile we invited them to camp near us.

Just as we were finishing up dinner our neighbors stopped by and told us there was a big bull moose just behind out tents. The four of us went off to explore and saw the huge animal a few hundred yards away and slowly approaching. He disappeared from view too close and for too long so we all retreated back to the beach.

Lisa and I walked the shore and I could hear what sounded like an elephant in the distance. I asked Lisa what it was and she said it was a whale she had heard before (or a whale with a similar atypical breathing sound). We searched for it until Lisa finally spotted its tail. It was not just diving but flipping its tail repeatedly at the surface.

What had been up until now just a nice paddle in a beautiful place had turned nothing short of breathtaking as the sun set and the animals continued to frolic out in front of our tents.

Each day at 8:45am and 5:45pm the Ranger station reads the weather forecast for the bay. The forecast for our forth day of paddling was rain and winds 20 knots from the south. Hmmm… I needed to sleep on that. Sleep that is until I woke to the sound of wolves howling and barking in the distance.

Air temp Low 60s, Winds light-10 North, water 45, 10.2 miles

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 1

It was nearly 6pm before we were on the water. It was raining lightly. E&H had donned their dry suits. Lisa and I were in our Helle Hansens. We passed our only kayak of this day by the dock. A double clearly rented for the afternoon by a camper. We were greeted by our first seal almost instantly. We were later than we had hoped and were already fighting the tide. Glacier Bay has tides of 15 to 25 feet so they can be a significant factor. Within a half hour the going was already slow against the tide. We were all uncomfortable with the fit in the boat. The loose foot pegs of a ruddered boat were unfamiliar. The wide boat altered our strokes (as did the load).

Suddenly I noticed a large “brown” bear on the shore. I pointed to him to alert the others. Lisa rafted up with her binoculars and we debated whether this was a brown “Black Bear” or a “Brown Bear” aka a Grizzly. The most notable feature is the hump on the back of the brown bear but when feeding with their heads down the distinction is not as clear. It was all very cute and comfortable until it looked up at me as I was focused on it with the binoculars. Sure I was fine in this kayak but the face gave me chills when I realized I was going to be camping with this beast in just a few hours.

Because of our late start, the tides, the rain, and the fact that this was all new to three of us we decided to look for camp fairly quickly. We found a small island with a limited amount of bear trail and only one large pile of bear poop. It was small enough that we were fairly certain that there was no bear on it at least at that moment.

We all set up our tents without fighting although they were pretty close so no one was far from the bear spray. The procedure is to set the tents away from a bear trail. Store the boats empty in one location, the food in a different location, and cook in a third location. 100 yards is the recommended separation. Add to this the fact that a 20 foot tide puts the low tide line an awful long way from the high water line and you have a recipe for a lot of walking.

The misty air gave us limited visibility. Light rain made it less than “perfectly comfortable”. At this point we were happy to be on our way and the quietness and isolation we found a mere 4 miles from our launch point was the excitement.

We cooked our first meal and watched as the receding tide connected our little island to the much larger neighbor. So this is how the bear gets over. Shit! Fortunately Lisa explained that the nesting pair of Oyster Catchers on the beach would be our security system. If a bear walked over they’d go nuts protecting the nest. True I’m sure but Oyster Catchers are just nuts in general and made a racket at random times causing me to think a bear might be approaching when none was in sight. (I know this because I got up once just to check … well I had another reason also.)

The next day was less misty and we could see mountains to the east and a plethora of islands to the northwest. We could see salmon jumping, porpoises, and more seals. We ate breakfast, broke camp, and patiently waited the turn of the tide to get our second days paddle under way. Four happy campers were beginning to relax, Alaska style.

Air Temp 60, water temp 45, winds light, 4.3 miles

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Glacier Bay Day 0

Lisa and I were planning a kayak adventure in Glacier Bay Alaska. We decided July would be the best time, after Eric and Heather’s wedding. We knew that they were planning their honeymoon in AK so we invited them to join us. I was not surprised to find them interested but was surprised that they would agree to participate in a 5 day un-guided adventure. There is significant planning and preparation to be done for a trip like this and they were already planning a wedding and buying a new house.

We located 17-foot singles from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. We could take these from the ranger station in Gustavus. We planned to paddle 30 miles up through the Beardslee’s into the east arm of the bay. There we would be picked up by the day tour boat and continue into the west arm. The plan would maximize our wildlife exposure on our kayak journey. The up close (and much colder) glacier viewing would be had from the heated tour boat. This doesn’t sound like a lot of miles but we wanted to go slow and take in the sights. The trip was about wild nature not exercise on the water.

Collectively, there were almost a dozen trips to REI/EMS involved in the preparation. Half that many to the grocery store. But we were well equipped and ate well!

Alaska air had a direct flight from Boston to Seattle and then a jump to Juneau. We chose a small plane for the hop to Gusatvus for schedule reasons. We also hoped the views would be great from the little plane but as it turns out we traveled over in the rain.

We arrived at the ranger station for our back country camping orientation and then our kayak orientation. This left fueling our camp stoves and the bear spray. Two items that can’t make the flight over in a plane. The fueling went well but the lodge and the hardware store in town were out of bear spray. Now if you can’t fly the spray over you can’t fly it back either. Where was all the bear spray left behind by the campers? Do bears like Cajun? No one knew. But Lisa managed to talk (someone) into letting her borrow theirs. It could have been an empty canister but it was peace of mind. (Yes Heather, it was full. I shook it.)

Combined we loaded two large wheelbarrows with equipment to pack into the boats. The boats were so large that they packed easily. Each boat held two bear resistant food canisters (did I mention we ate well?). Although L&I took a lot of grief for having three times as many bags as E&H, when the boats got packed theirs were just as full as ours.

And so the adventure began…