Alaskan Adventure: Part 2

In the first part of my story a fellow middle school teacher and I set out in June of 2003 seeking peace, solitude, exhilaration, and adventure all in one trip to the wilderness of the Southeastern Alaska rainforests.

A few days after settling into Juneau's cool, damp climate, we ventured out on the next leg of our trip.  We had planned a two-day kayaking and camping excursion with a local guide in Gustavus, a small town that is only accessible by small boat or plane.

When I say “small,” I mean the Gustavus airport consisted of a mobile home-type building and a path cleared in the trees for a landing strip. Our plane seated just six passengers and I had the unique pleasure of riding next to the pilot while my companion Gina tried to keep her lunch down in the back seat. The style of seatbelts and the fact that I could push any button or lever I wanted just by reaching out my hand was unsettling. 

I believe that I held my breath for most of the fifteen-minute flight and I am certain that I did not breathe at all during the takeoff or landing. The plane rattled and jostled while we flew through clouds, which broke every now and then to reveal the emerald forest below. After a white-knuckle flight we glided down until we were close enough to the ground to feel like we needed to stick out our feet Flintstone style and start running when we touched down.

The plane ride was an adventure I had not counted on, but was pleased to have survived. We did however, have huge expectations for the next part of our journey. We hired a local guide through a company called Spirit Walker Expeditions and met with him to discuss our trip. He looked exactly like you’d expect with a full beard and plaid shirt and the standard Alaskan calf-high rubber boots. While we sat at an enormous rough-hewn wooden table, Gary showed us on a wall map where we would put in our kayaks at the Gustavus dock and then our route all the way across the bay to Pleasant Island.

We could tell right away that Gary was a wonderfully balanced and wise spirit. He was just the type of person we needed to lead two rather inexperience kayakers on such an expedition. He was kind and reassuring, and answered our many questions about wildlife. Here are a few of the questions I wanted to ask but didn’t:

Am I going to die?

Does this kayak have a motor?

Can you paddle your kayak and mine too?

Are we there yet?

Getting in the kayak I felt like something like a modern-day Voyageur. We began paddling with gusto and were immediately entranced by the waves, the smell of the water, the ravens screaming to each other, and the eagles peering out into the distance from the pier.

After the first hour, we had just barely become used to navigating the waves and steering the kayak while making sure not to miss all the beauty around us, when Gary said, “I can’t believe it!”

Whether this was his four hundredth whale encounter or his first, his excited whisper and dramatic gesturing made our hearts race. He was pointing out to the middle of the bay and said, “It’s a humpback!”

Gary, our guide, pointing to a whale just outside the harbor.

It was enormous. It was amazing. Gina and I smiled at each other and felt like everything it took to get here had been worth it. The whale was arcing her back getting ready to dive and come our way, so Gary quickly led us in a different direction. He recounted stories of people he’d known that had been tipped over by a passing whale. Some had happy endings.  Others did not.

During our long day of paddling we saw just that one humpback, and this one sighting was a surprise even to Gary who traveled these waters regularly. We did come across several orcas, though. Commonly known as killer whales, they are approximately 27 feet long at their largest and weigh 4 to 6 tons. These whales do not just eat plankton, as the humpbacks do. They eat fish, squid and other sea mammals. Every orca spotting made me feel like a very vulnerable land-loving mammal. Nothing gets your blood pumping like being within striking distance of a huge predator.

As with any inexperienced person in the wild, what looks like just a short distance is usually not. The beach we were pointed at seemed to be floating further out to sea.

As we did start to near Pleasant Island we were paddling through a bed of bullwhip kelp. It was thick, slimy and bizarre. Sea lions can wrap themselves in it to sleep in the water and humans can eat it in survival situations. I took this as a suggestion for hors d’oeuvres. With Gary’s approval, I took a bite and tasted exactly what I expected – the sea. It was crunchy, slippery, salty and probably very nutritious.

It was not long then before we were able to set foot on dry land once again.

Our view from the kayaks approaching Pleasant Island

There was nothing I could do but resign myself to the fact that I was cold, wet, hungry and didn’t care if a dozen or so people happened to be peering at me through binoculars. I almost laughed thinking of some lovely couple hoping to spot a bald eagle and instead, well, you know.

After pulling the kayaks out of the tide’s reach and setting up camp, Gary explained some simple necessities. We would pack everything in airtight canisters to keep all the scents from attracting wildlife. We would choose an agreed-upon spot for bathroom needs and pack out everything we brought in.

After bobbing along in a kayak just 50 feet from a humpback whale, I was in euphoric shock.  I was in awe of nature and my tiny place in the world. And I had to poop.

As I assumed the position behind some dangerously pointy rocks, I was able to relax just enough to relieve myself. Just when I started to feel better about this whole experience, I spotted an enormous cruise ship sailing in the channel. Fantastic.

We enjoyed smoked halibut fettuccini and cranberry bread for dinner. This gourmet food and the utensils to cook to eat it with were all stowed in our kayaks along with our tents and other gear. We then had some free time to roam around and check out every corner of the beach in peace. 

Note 3 things:  Gary, our guide, is doing the dinner dishes behind me. I am happy because I am not doing dishes. And, you can actually see an orca spouting to the left of my head in the distance!

After walking and journaling for a while, Gary called us over to the fire and handed us each a steaming cup of delicious hot chocolate and schnapps. While we sat on a log with cocoa in hand we could hear the orcas slapping their tails on the water and sounding off through their blowholes. It was a hypnotic rhythm of waves and whale sounds.

Then it was off to bed while it was still light, as the sun didn’t set until around 10:30 p.m.

Once in the tent, you might imagine that this was a welcome respite from the day’s activity, but it was not. Before we left, I had foolishly decided to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It was a purely lovely, and at times, a thrilling book about the author’s hike along the Appalachian Trail. 

The problem with this choice was the inclusion of many bear attack stories in the book. That night, I lay in one of the most peaceful spots in the world shaking with terror at every little noise. I was positive that at any moment I would be trampled by a moose, or would feel the cold nose of a giant bear nudging my body just before I was trampled or mauled to death. While my traveling companion slept soundly, I just laid there exhausted, waiting to meet whatever wild animal would find us.

Some might say that these moments define a person. If this is true, I am a huge scaredy cat. I love my own bed, a hot cup of coffee in the morning and without these things I felt useless. Luckily the night did not last forever and I welcomed the sunrise as I never had before. Watching the glimmer of the morning light on the water and hearing the enchanting sounds of a local whale pod going about its business, I hugged my knees and felt so relieved. 

We explored our little island some more and had a hearty breakfast. Before we left Pleasant Island, Gary showed us some of the tidal pools on the beach. At first glance they were just collections of sea anemones, snails, crabs, and barnacles in the divots of rocky outcroppings. As he pointed closely at each of the colors and functions of the creatures it became clear that they were small ecosystems. The eddies and swirls in the water and the tiny life forms were all living out their days on an Alaskan beach unaware that we were marveling at them from above.

It was soon back into the water for us. We powered through the waves and kelp beds once more and narrowly beat a storm back to the Gustavus dock. After hauling our kayaks back to the truck and thanking Gary profusely, we were genuinely eager to see the A-frame cabin we had reserved for the night.

More to come in Part 3, including my total, toddler-style melt-down!

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