North to Alaska
Exploring Nature’s Wonders by Boat and Kayak
-Lisa Alpine, Pacific Sun
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”- Martin Buber
The place of deep impact for me on my trip to Alaska last summer was a “shoe-sized,” sphagnum moss-blanketed island. Erik and I had stepped out of our sea kayaks onto Brothers Islands. Wandering through the light-dappled cathedral forests of Western hemlock, yellow cedar, and Sitka spruce, up to the high knolls overlooking Frederick Sound, a haunting sigh lilted over the landscape stopping us in our tracks. We were alone on this island, weren’t we?
We had been assured that because there were no streams on the island, there were no grizzly bears as on other islands we had recently visited.
Was it the call of loons high in the canopy? But this peculiar noise came from something large. Very large and vocal. Again it sounded. The stillness carried the call, weaving between the trees and over the green carpet peppered with mushrooms. The exhale gave them away – humpback whales surfacing a mile offshore and calling through their blowholes. There were at least eight of them spouting in the distance. The sparkling sun twinkled in the spray as they surfaced. The waters were so still that the sound glided uninterrupted right over the water’s placid surface and onto land. We were listening to the whales talk to each other in surround sound.
Bill Bailey, owner of the M/V Catalyst and proprietor of the tour company, described the whales’ call as a “concussive sigh” that exits their blowhole at 400 mph. How did Erik and I get to this remote island surrounded by whales? We decided to see Alaska from the water – preferably kayaks – so we signed on the week-long Southeast Alaska Natural History Cruise between Juneau and Petersburg run by Bill and Shannon Bailey of Pacific Catalyst II. Their boat, the M/V Catalyst, is a classic wooden vessel built in 1932 that comfortably holds between eight and 12 passengers and four crew members. Kayaks and instruction are provided for all participants, though folks who don’t want to get that low to the water can be skiffed to the various islands, fjords and glaciers visited during the week.
Our first stop was in the Tongass National Forest where we went ashore to find an alder branch to add flavor to our salmon barbecue. We followed a stream head and trail and the forest soared above us. Suddenly we realized what had made this cut into the woods – shadows of gray and snuffly sounds alerted us to the fact we were in grizzly territory!
We quickly hustled back to the dinghy and set crab pots along the way.
The next morning the crab pots yielded eight orange Dungeness crabs and a flat flounder. Heidi Lappetito, the chef, prepared a delicious hot crab dip that night as Captain Craig poured a smooth San Juan Vineyards’ Viognier-Roussanne. Food played an important and satisfying role during our adventure and Heidi tried her darnedest to fatten us up to counterbalance the daily hikes and kayak outings. We’d disgorge from our boats, wet and hungry. Heidi’s baked Brie with caramelized garlic jam on homemade bread followed by barbecued lamb raised by Bill, bathed in a chimichurri marinade (a recipe Heidi picked up in Argentina), had us kissing her feet. Starting each day with French roast coffee, waffles, and homemade raspberry syrup was cause for more adulation.
In the mornings, I rose with the captain and sat in his wheelhouse, hot coffee mug in hand as we skirted our way through foggy wisps draped over iceberg sculptures. Banks of magenta waist-high fireweed punctuated the many shades of forest green on the island edges.
As we chugged into Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm heading for Dawes Glacier 30 miles up the fjord, bald eagles with regal profiles perched on iceberg tips, patiently waiting for salmon to surface.
The sound alerted us first, and as we rounded the bend we were faced with a 33-story high, half-mile wide wall of ice: booming, breaking, calving off. Dawes was active. We did not get too close. We sat across the bay and watched as hairline cracks appeared on the glacier’s face. Then a loud crackling sound and kaboom! A chunk would plunge forward into the water – imagine a skyscraper falling over – the splash was higher than the glacier’s front and then the displaced water would rise up and travel out into the Sound much like a tidal wave. We were really glad not to be in kayaks for this excursion. Minutes later bergs would break the surface in a violent thrust upward and then float away to become part of the moving sculpture garden heading to sea.
There was so much calving action that the captain had to make sure we departed and still had room to maneuver the Catalyst out of the fjord around the behemoth bergs blocking our path. Watching the action was “better than IMAX,” one guest stated.
The sheer size of the scenery as we kayaked up Fords Terror off of Endicott Arm gave me a neck cramp as I craned this way and that to make sure I caught every bird movement, possible mountain goat and rustling of bear in bush. The water we cut our paddles through was jade-green glacier melt. Spilling waterfalls, the yearning cry of arctic terns, the playful splash of Dahl’s porpoises, were the symphonic accompaniment.
Onshore, bushes laden with blueberries (think homemade pie!) distracted us from the pie-size bear scat and other evidence of bear buddies in the bushes. The highest density of brown bears (grizzlies) and bald eagles in the world are found here. Wolves, foxes, martens, beavers and even moose also make this expansive wilderness their home.
Most of our bear viewing was from the Catalyst or the kayaks. When we anchored in a bay in the later afternoon it was a common sighting to see a brown bear mom and her two or three cubs lumbering and snuffling along the estuarine tidal flats at the shore’s edge looking for mussels, clams, oysters.
The crescendo of our trip was the day a pod of humpbacks emerged like a fleet of gray submarines right off the bow – nine whales- all male. We cut the engine and waited. They slowly circled and then one at a time dove as they flipped their tails skyward. They reemerged and this up-and-down tail dive ballet went on for an hour in precise five-minute intervals. Then to everyone’s amazement, an orca family appeared.
Captain Craig had never seen these two whale species together and he has navigated the Southeast Alaskan Inside Passage since 1976. All the while, the humpbacks continued to surface so close that we could peer into their blowholes. It was an epic wildlife display.
Alaska is a vast and temperate green-watered world with a wealth of marine life under its reflective skin. I plan to go back next summer to feast on more of God’s country, which is only a plane and boat ride away.