Soon after booking flights for a hike/packraft trip to the Brooks Range, I broke my foot playing frisbee. Sarah and I scrambled to come up with a Plan B.
We had initially hoped that Dulkara Martig could join us in the Brooks Range. When plans changed, she proposed a sea kayaking trip. I’ve done a little sea kayaking—I even built a wooden CLC kayak when I started my grad program at MIT/WHOI. I was disturbed by the lack of mountains, and figured there would be excellent kayaking opportunities during my time on the east coast. There were … but in classic grad school form I completed 90% of the boat construction before the program started, and that last 10% in the final weeks before driving home to Alaska three years later. Once here, I regretted not including a rudder, banged up the bottom on some rocky landings, and then let the boat rot for ten years before giving it to friends to revive (they did).
My biggest issue with kayaking is that I’m just not that comfortable sitting in the boat for long periods. I’d rather be walking. But with a broken foot, I was excited to try this long trip (150 miles) and see parts of Alaska I wouldn’t see otherwise. Sarah was excited too, especially for the opportunity to visit Valdez, her former home, from the ocean.
I invited friends with leg injuries—Tim Treuer and his torn achilles, Allen Dahl recovering from ACL surgery. No luck.
Greg Mills and Lisl Coady dropped by to pick up The Packraft Handbook and I said, “short notice, but if you want to go kayaking, we are leaving next week.” Greg said it was more notice than usual (he prepped for an arctic ice skating trip with 12 hours notice!). They checked REI’s rental inventory and then signed on.
Dulkara was the only one with real kayak experience (personal and as a NOLS guide), and she supplied a packing list with all the things I wouldn’t have thought of, like heavy meals and a marine radio. We delayed the departure one day waiting for better weather, then drove to Whittier.
We averaged 3 miles/hour in a mix of rain and sun for the next 8 or 9 days. The pace was comfortable. Even with low winds and pretty ideal conditions, I was still pretty uncomfortable wrapping around Granite Point. I can’t really imagine paddling in more exposed waters.
The highlight for me was being able to get close and watch sea mammals and birds. I’ve seen a bunch of otters before, but I haven’t been floating and hanging out while watching them for minutes. That was cool. My favorite birds were a pair of ducks, same species. One duck said, “Chirp chirp chirp chirp. Chirp chirp chirp.” The other duck responded, “Quack.” They gave me a good laugh, like an old married couple with one partner chirping along about the day’s events and the grumpy partner responding with a single quack. Oh, by the way, Sarah and I had our 2nd anniversary a few weeks later. Don’t know why that just popped in my head.
I was surprised by how much marine boat traffic there was. “Marine highway.” Duh. We managed to catch the fishing season opener, which included a symphony of motors through the night. This was kind of terrible, but we also watched an eagle drop half of a salmon on a tree, and Greg and Lisl saw some whales. So that was cool.
Things were much quieter whenever we got off the marine highway. We visited Granite Bay, Ceday Bay, and paddled up Columbia Bay. My biggest regret is probably that we didn’t go further up Columbia Bay. Dulkara wanted to do this, but I was nervous about finding places to camp and the deteriorating weather forecast. My mindset on our overland trips is generally to travel when the conditions are good (“banking miles”) so that we have some flexibility when conditions get bad. We would have been find taking more time in Columbia, but it made me nervous.
One of the icebergs we avoided in Columbia Bay toppled over while we were nearby. Spooky! I got some shaky footage of it:
After setting up our last camp, I got back in the boat with my Ronco Pocket Fisherman (“As Seen on TV!”). We’d been watching fish jump the entire trip and it didn’t take long to snag a pink salmon. But with the fish on the line I couldn’t paddle the boat—I was too concerned about losing the fish or snapping the line. I called back to shore, “Help!” Sarah and Lisl walked down to the water as I hollered to bring a boat. Sarah got her boat, then remembered to go back up for her life vest. Meanwhile I’m just getting pulled along, giving as much slack as possible and trying to tire the fish out. Sarah showed up and used the net (Sarah K. Glaser told us to bring a net!) to grab the fish. We boiled it over a fire, yum.
The rest of the distance to Valdez was uneventful and featured a wonderful tailwind. Our friends Merreley and Tommy helped us with a truck and place to stay, and a handful of Valdez friends joined for dinner. We caught the ferry back to Whittier in the morning as the clear skies turned to rain.
Thanks to Dulkara for motivating the trip and providing expertise and assurance when the water got choppy.
Thanks to Greg and Lisl for being great last-minute trip partners!
Thanks to Sarah Glaser, Heather Thamm, Ben Histand, and Anthony Larson for lending gear.