This is part 2 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
The current pushed us swiftly along as we made our way down Nellijuan Passage. Everyone was in high spirits because of the decision that was made. We were also just simply having fun. For the first time on a travel day, the zigzagging and crashes had been drastically minimized, reducing the need to fear for your life. We were travelling quite a ways out from shore in order to catch the full push from the current, which was a result of the tidal conditions at that time. The previous travel days we found ourselves only moving 1-2 mph but at that point we were moving near 5 mph. Making things even better was an on-water boat switch between my partner, Steph, and Asa, another student. The switch evened out the boats in terms of weight, resulting in both greater control and power. After a few hours, we had already covered a majority of the distance, making our way back into Derickson Bay. The air became noticeably cooler as we moved closer and closer to the glacier. We continued paddling past the drifting pieces of ice while also observing the majestic waterfalls that sprouted off the nearby cliffs. Initially, we struggled to find a campsite because our initial X (on the map) was still covered in a few feet of snow. Each day we marked our selected end destination with an X on the map. This was determined by evaluating the maps and some previous experience, on the instructor’s part. Initially, the instructors took control of this task, but in the coming days we would relieve them from this role, among others. The glacier seemed to have a large cooling effect on this area, preventing the last few feet of snow from melting away. Some had started to complain while the instructors were formulating a plan. Drifting idly a midst miniature ice bergs in the bay this was obviously not helpful, achieving nothing beyond raising the tension and level of annoyance from the majority of the group members.
We eventually moved on to the other side of the bay and were able to find a campsite with spots for our tents that were absent of snow. Like all other campsites to date, the area was absolutely stunning. A rushing waterfall flowed into a pond a couple hundred yards behind our tents. The cold weather, as well as minimal activity in the kayaks for the past hour or so, had caused a couple members of the group to enter the beginning stages of hypothermia. To combat this, our first priority after unpacking our kayaks was to start up our stoves to boil water and cook a meal. Hypothermia is a disconcerting prospect in the backcountry and something that is to be taken seriously. With a shelter that doesn’t have a regulated temperature or endless dry clothes and food, we had to take the necessary precautions and steps to ensure our well being. Thankfully, with movement and food they were able to warm up before we all headed to bed early, in preparation of our half-mile paddle, to the face of Nellijuan Glacier, the following day.
The tide was heading out as we paddled against it, through the connecting channel, deeper into the area of the bay that housed the glacier. Icebergs, large and small, were plentiful throughout this area, drifting in the open water. These icebergs usually contain most of their mass beneath the surface, which meant that any slight adjustment or nudge could result in them quickly flipping over. Our fear of this happening resulted in us attempting to maintain a “safe” distance from these hazards. Lying on and swimming around these icebergs were a ton of sea lions. There were numerous babies among these families that were quite the sight to behold! Every so often you would see one watching us, with its head barely above the surface, before stealthily slinking back into the cold water. They came up so often, and in a circular pattern, that I swore they were going to attack us! Moving further back into the bay, we finally came within view of the glacier. We were met with a massive wall of ice that marked the end of the bay. It was the first time that I had ever seen a glacier. Not knowing much about them previously, I marveled in the beauty of the portions of blue ice. Blue ice signifies ice without any oxygen. This happens over time as snow and ice continue to compact and compress layers of the glacier. A portion of the ice fell off and crashed into the sea while we were watching, adding even more awe to the moment.
As time passed, we became cold once again, turning around to make our way back to camp. However, we faced a problem upon reaching the small channel that connected us to the main portion of the bay. The tides had switched while we were viewing the glacier and we would now have to paddle against a very strong current if we would want to get back to camp. After the instructors had scouted, we filed into a single file line and began to paddle with all our might against the strong current. We were literally paddling as hard as we could and were barely making any progress. Words of encouragement filled the air as everyone shouted trying to motivate each other to pass this strenuous challenge. We finally made our way out of the channel and into the calmer waters of the main bay. I was most impressed with those who had made their way out in single kayaks, especially one of the girl students. This really showed the grit and determination of the type of people that participated on this expedition. There was no room for weakness.
The glacier was calving throughout the night and into the morning. It is an unreal sound in person, similar to thunder. I had a conversation with April about it and we couldn’t quite figure out what caused it to crash more at night rather than when we were there earlier in the day. We travelled 12 miles during the day, back in the direction we came, to Lighthouse Point, a beach that was located across the water from Applegate Island. For a majority of the day I had the pleasure of being the pace boat. In our pod, we have a pace boat at the front and a sweep boat at the rear. The main duties of these positions are setting an adequate pace and making sure we don’t become too spread out. It was especially fun being pace boat on that day because I was able to lead the group in the crossing of McClure Bay. What are the odds of that? After the crossing, I relinquished my duties and received feedback on my stroke from both Andrew and Steve. My work with them really helped develop my stroke even more. I felt as if I possessed a lot more power and control of the boat compared to earlier, when I was mainly trying to keep up and avoid crashing into other boats.
We arrived at Lighthouse Point’s seemingly endless gravel beach and set up camp before enjoying our first campfire. At the time, we established that this campsite was the best we had found to that point. Of course, that didn’t hold much merit, as we made the same proclamation each day. Behind camp was a fresh water pond being fed by a waterfall gushing fresh snow melt on the far side. And of course there were mountains in every direction you looked. Natural beauty at its finest.
An action packed layover day took place the following day. It was nice to finally have a day with zero travel where we could relax and have some free time to ourselves. During the afternoon, I went on a hike in the area behind the gravel beach with Lucas. This seemed to have become a regular occurrence and it was nice to have a partner who was eager to explore, like myself. Our initial goal was to climb a mountain in the distance, but after realizing that it was much further away than it appeared we decided to just explore the surrounding area. Bear scat and prints were plentiful across the sparsely snow-covered moss and grasses. There were a few places where there were splashes of red, which we figured to be blood from a kill. I was hoping that we would see a bear but it’s probably best we didn’t. Later in the evening, we spent time in the rainforest off the beach exploring our senses. We each found a spot, closed our eyes and listened to Steve guide us as we examined each sense, using the area around us. This time was so peaceful and I felt as if I was part of the land. In case you were wondering, the taste of moss is very bland!
Animal life is plentiful in Prince William Sound. By this point of the trip, we had seen sea otters, sea lions, arctic loons, bald eagles, humpback whales, and a variety of other birds, too many times to count. It was amazing to watch the bald eagles while they were flying, as well as when they were perched high above on a tree. Their way of speaking is very interesting and is not a piercing call, contrary to popular belief. We would point out wildlife to others on shore and on the water with our signal of moose ears. However, the natives never pointed at the bald eagle out of respect, so we didn’t either, gesturing toward the bird with our head or lips. We all became silent, watching the wildlife which was usually watching us. I found that silence truly is golden in the wilderness with happily received interruptions from natural sounds.
The sea and weather conditions were continuing to become worse and worse as we traveled to our next camp at Point Nowell. I had been frustrated with the pace for the first section of our travel that day and the weather was doing little to improve my mood. We pulled into a small bay, attempting to gain protection from the now white-capped waves and formulate a new strategy. A small group went around the jagged rocks, back into the exposed water, to scout a beach we had passed while the rest of us idled in the calm water. After about an hour, a decision was made to head to the beach to wait out the storm. We paddled through the rain and rough waves, water splashing all over us, until landing on shore by means of a surf landing, which is a landing with waves. A group quickly erected our circus tent and I went on a mission to find fresh water. Luckily, I was able to find a small source in the dense forest off the beach. After finally organizing everything, we all piled into the tent to wait out the rain and the rough sea. Initially, some people were in a mild state of hypothermia, so once again there was a big effort to boil water and eat food. Two or three hours later, the sea had become mellower. The instructors gathered together to make a decision on whether or not we should continue. I was wet and miserable, silently hoping that we wouldn’t push on. Alas, we continued on paddling for a few hours before pulling into Eshamy Bay to find a campsite. A few people were impatient at the time it took us to find a camp, the amount of exposure to the rough conditions sure had taken a lot of energy from us. We managed to find a small area that would be doable, tucked deep into the bay. It had a small gravel area where we could place our tents, on the other side of a trickling stream from a pond. About an hour or so later, members of the group came back from the tents to our tarp area soaking wet. What did they do? The trickling stream had turned into a deep creek with the rising tide and we had to find a new way to our tents. The rising tide was also slowly making its way into our tarp area. Utilizing knowledge gleaned from a previous lesson, we attempted to calculate how much more the sea would rise in the last two hours before it reached high tide. We waited and watched until we determined that our gear would be safe from the ever increasing water line. Despite our best estimates, the water continued to rise and I had a good laugh, sadistically watching one of the other group’s tarp anchors, a log, float away in the water, collapsing their tarp. I paid for it later when I slipped and fell on a muddy slope, trying to find a new way to the tents. In the future, we would definitely have to pay more attention to the trickling streams at potential campsites to avoid these camps with “hidden” rivers!
During a meeting the following morning, we learned that one of the students, Parker, would no longer be continuing with us. A boat came by soon after to pick him up as well as one of the single kayaks. Apparently he said he had been having suicidal thoughts and was feeling pretty depressed. His departure was tough for a few but honestly, I was pretty happy about it. Some of his actions and words weakened the group’s morale and outlook. Travelling and living the wilderness is hard enough as it is without the outside factors. To survive and thrive, a group benefits from a tight knit community that has positive responses to adversity. With his departure, our group somehow felt a lot smaller but we intended to continue strengthening our relationships as we continued through the first section of our grand adventure.