This is part 3 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
With the sea calming and the departure of our fellow traveler, we continued upon our journey out of Eshamy Bay towards Point Nowell, our destination for the night. We had tackled a large part of the mileage the previous day, after the storm, so today’s trip would prove to be short and sweet. The short 4 miles soon passed and the majority of us waited on the water, a little ways off from the beach of Point Nowell. A small team had gone to scout the small bay on the other side of the peninsula, for a potentially better campsite. As we sat in our kayaks among the calm waters, we stared through the overcast sky across the bay at Knight Island, wondering what the mountains looked like above the clouds. Upon the return of the scout team, April brought out something quite large from the cockpit of her boat. They had caught a huge salmon! No they hadn’t, but a fisherman in the opposite bay was kind enough to give it to them, also offering use of the water at his cabin, located in the bay. What a treat!
The tide line from the previous high tide forced us off the beach and into the woods to look for locations where we could pitch our tents. As luck would have it, there were already tiny square plots, perfect for camping, directly off the beach. We quickly set up our tents then set about erecting what we dubbed tarp city. Tarp city was a complex, engineered structure. It was the ultimate result of all three student tent groups deciding to set up and connect our tarps together, forming a mega tarp for the mega tonz (our self-chosen expedition nickname). With camp activities complete, I was once again sent on a quest for fresh water with the help of a fellow classmate, Bridget. We climbed through the brush and dense overgrowth behind our tents, gaining and losing elevation as we scoured for any sign of the cabin. Upon reaching the rocky shore of the bay on the opposite side, we were still yet unable to discover even a single clue as to its location. Turning back, we proceeded to search further inland, finding nothing but a sign labeling a protected eagle’s nest, before returning to camp. Steve accompanied us as we took a new route, venturing further down shore from camp. After investigating a weathered and abandoned cabin just off the beach, we found a path that led through the brush to the cabin. What a stunning place to live! Surrounded by beautiful wilderness and having no obligations besides catching fish! While we collected water, we spoke with other members of the family who lived there, discussing their cabin, their large variety of pets (dogs, chickens, roosters and more!) and the state of the salmon run that season, before making our way back to our respective side.
After Andrew demonstrated to all of us how to filet a salmon and a scrumptious dinner for all, we had a discussion about current salmon populations and a class on decision-making. Most days after travel were followed with setting up camp and dinner, ending with the instructors delivering a class on leadership and a group member providing some form of entertainment. We filed into our tents early that night, in order to get some rest for our long 17-mile journey the following morning. As I lay in my tent, I found myself once again thinking about that first big meal back in Palmer (the branch). I was finding myself hungry each day. The two small meals, with a small snack for lunch, had not proved to be enough so far, leaving my mind to constantly think about food. I felt as if many shared this sentiment due to the fact that food was our number one topic of conversation. I was hoping things would improve.
As pace boat, I led the group away from Point Nowell down Dangerous Passage the following morning. Paddling in a solo kayak that day, I quickly became frustrated with my own pace. Lucas, who was also in a single, and a couple other doubles were moving at a slightly faster pace than me, only paddling about half the time so that I would stay in the lead. I was paddling with all I had, but couldn’t seem to be making any headway. This is one of the largest potential frustrations one can have out front as pace boat, because the pacer will try to work harder to maintain a faster speed, eventually resulting in both a physical and psychological battle. I soon relinquished my duties as pace to Lucas and quickly fell to the back of the pack. Moments later, I commented to Andrew how I thought there was something wrong with my stroke. I felt like I had lost a lot of power overnight. He quickly shot down that comment and said that we were travelling at about 7 mph, a lot faster than usual. That made me feel a bit better but it did little to quell my immediate problems as I remained in the back of the pack. Things started to become worse when one of my knees began bothering me. On some days, I had not been able to get comfortable in the cockpit of my kayak, resulting in a feeling of being cramped and pain in my knee. We stopped at a large opening and I stretched my legs as we looked for a group of porpoises that someone had seen surface. No luck. I trailed the sweep boat in the back of the pack, gloomily paddling without conversation or companion. If I was to complete the day’s travel on my own, I would have to withstand the formidable and nagging obstacle. We continued down Dangerous Passage for a couple of hours until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. The pod was halted and I performed an on-water boat switch with Ben, moving from my single kayak into the double. Even though the pain in my knee remained, this transfer drastically improved my mood, due to the fact that I didn’t have to rely on my own power to keep up and I was able to stretch out my legs.
After 17 miles of arduous travel, consisting of a 4-mile crossing and long periods of travelling without breaks, we finally arrived at camp at Whale Bay. In the process, we had paddled through a pristine area, spotting zero boats the whole day and passing multiple waterfalls, fueled by the melting snow. During our last mile, we even had a close encounter with a sea lion bathing in the sun, watching us as we paddled by. Our camp at Whale Bay had no trouble competing with our previous campsites for the title of the most scenic. It almost felt like it couldn’t get any better, with large rocks near the sea that provided viewing opportunities of the bright blue water surrounded by the picturesque snow-capped mountains. Fully decked out in rain gear, Ben and I ventured over to a raging waterfall that landed on the beach, hoping to obtain some fresh water for dinner without taking an unwanted shower. Little moments like these during the day, offered us students a chance to laugh and interact with each other, providing yet another opportunity to develop our ever increasing bond. With each passing day, I felt as if I was becoming more connected to both the individuals and the group as a whole.
We had a couple emotionally charged discussions and a reflection on the day. Many in the group had felt that we had been rushing through each day up to that point. And for what? Yes, we were choosing to make the distances each day, but there always seemed underlying sense of urgency. To go, go, go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, as I too had felt somewhat uncomfortable at certain times, but that’s what I was there for right? The challenge. With each of us having varying levels of comfort and reasons for going on this expedition, where would the line be drawn? We were certainly all glad to be aware of each other’s feelings on this issue, and vowed to be more conscious of it going forward.
Physically and mentally exhausted, we sat on the beach to enjoy the pod of whales breaching the surface a mere few hundred yards away. There was a group of at least 5 humpback whales that kept circling around breaching the surface with the occasional spray from their spout. Soon after, Asa reached into the shallow waters near shore catching a small fish with his bare hands while he was brushing his teeth. How about that for talent? I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this difficult day.
It’s amazing what a difference a day makes. With a good night’s sleep, the body regenerates both physically and mentally, dissipating the stress and fatigue from the previous day. Yesterday, everyone felt tired and strained as we slogged through the 17 miles to our camp at Whale Bay. Today, after a choppy first mile, we made our way into Bainbridge Passage having a jolly good time as we paddled with the current. The sun and everyone’s smiles shone bright as we viewed the countless waterfalls on our right, raging with fresh snow melt, with the beautiful snow capped mountains on our left.
There is much that is written about Alaska, its diversity of wildlife, extreme climate and geography. In Prince William Sound, the summer season usually brings about a large amount of rain. However, that hadn’t been the case for our journey up to that point as we reveled in the seemingly endless days of sunshine. As we changed and developed as a group, the climate changed with us. The large banks of snow off the beach, which we had faced since the outset of our journey, continued to melt in the hot sun as the days became warmer and warmer. The geography of the region is something to behold. Inlets, channels and the open sea go ever which way around the small coastal mountains and numerous glaciers that border its waters.
My boat partner for the day was April, adding even more brightness to this golden day. April was one of, if not the, most skilled kayakers on our trip and she helped me out tremendously throughout the day through one-on-one coaching. By the end of our travel for the day, I had felt like I had used almost no effort with my much improved powerful and efficient stroke. April and I believed that the development of my stroke had taken a turn for the better, contrary to Andrew’s jabs that my lack of fatigue was due to my highly skilled partner. We initially reached our first camp site, 9 miles from Whale Bay, very early in the afternoon due to our quick pace. I prodded the leaders to make the decision to push on, so that we could take advantage of the strong current at our backside in order to cut the mileage for the following day. After much deliberation, they finally agreed and we were off 3 miles to new territory at Hogg Bay. Besides the countless waterfalls, there were also an innumerable amount of bald eagles soaring through the sky. By this point in the trip, we had seen so many bald eagles that when someone spotted one, they would just say J.A.B.E (just another bald eagle). It was not uncommon for us to see over twenty within one day.
The channel opened up to Port Bainbridge, where we were met by another tidewater glacier on our starboard side and a series of small caves on the left. The terrain was definitely changing as we moved closer and closer to the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, now only about 3 miles away. Hogg Bay proved to be yet another beautiful campsite with a large lake and waterfall located behind camp. During our campfire discussion later that night, we were interrupted multiple times by rocks falling from the mountain behind camp. Our first avalanche sighting! I don’t think many people can say they have seen an avalanche, a whale, a glacier and a bald eagle within 24 hours. Things were on the upswing once again as we approached the second half of the kayaking section.
It seemed like the past few days had been somewhat of a constant yo-yo as our daily morale often fluctuated, but overall things were great. There is often not much to complain about in Alaska. The quiet and natural beauty makes for an environment that is drastically more peaceful than civilized areas.
The following day would present itself as another opportunity of many, to test our patience. Our initial plan for the day was to travel 4 miles to the open sea, where we would hope to camp on black sand beaches. As we moved out of Port Bainbridge, south to the Gulf of Alaska, the waves became choppier. For the majority of our travel to that point, we hadn’t faced much exposure, thanks to protection from the coastal mountains. Out in the open, we would lay exposed to the wind and the sea’s potential fury. After sitting idle in the water two separate times, waiting while a scout team moved ahead to judge the conditions, we advanced into the open water. Reaching the open water we were faced with 8 foot swells, bobbing up and down as we paddled perpendicular to the waves. With these swells, we thought it would be necessary to send a scout team to check out the beach. Large swells would likely result in big waves crashing on shore, requiring a surf landing, which if undertaken, would likely be a greater risk than necessary under the circumstances.
April and Andrew set off for the beach, while the rest of us sat in the open water. The sea showed no sign of relenting and we continued to move up and down with each passing swell. As time progressed, a few others and I grew somewhat sea sick. Restless and impatient, we sucked on Lifesavers, hoping to quell our nauseous states as we waited out the scouting duo. The beach turned out to be located much further than it had initially appeared and we ended up waiting 2 hours for their return. Another hour of sitting idly followed, as the leaders struggled to make a decision. At this point in the section, we as students had stepped into our own roles on the leadership team. The leadership team was comprised of three students, who fulfilled the role of leader of the day (LOTD), beach boss and assistant beach boss. The leader of the day main role was to select a route and destination for the day, while also leading the pod in navigation on the water. Upon reaching our destination, the beach boss and their assistant inspected each potential area for possible camping by evaluating potential tent locations and whether or not there was a water source, among other factors. At our final destination, they would choose the location for our tents, tarps, group gear and kayaks. With students being rotated in each day, the roles on the leadership team provided each of us with an opportunity to put our lessons into practice and test our skills.
The beach landing had been determined unsafe, meaning that our only option would be to press on for an additional five miles to a potential campsite in Squirrel Bay. This really demoralized a few of us. Half of us had become sea sick, feeling downright miserable, both mentally and physically, with no favorable solution in sight. The high swells, coupled with the resulting nauseating feelings, had taken a lot out of us and the last thing we wanted to do was paddle another 5 miles. As we paddled towards the potential campsite, tension mounted with a couple heated arguments taking place between the leader of the day and other students. Some of the other students were beginning to lose their composure, after experiencing a day filled with adversity. As we slowly moved behind nearby mountains into protection from the open sea, the swells began to decrease, making travel easier and boosting everyone’s spirits in the process. After a final mile-long crossing, we entered Squirrel Bay, promptly selecting the most conducive area to camping and unloaded our boats on the black sand beaches. What was supposed to be a day of easy travel, resulted in a day long struggle. With Mother Nature at the helm, I was learning that it was tough to predict what could happen on any given day out in the wilds of Alaska.
Nature posed a final challenge before we could retire for the day. Not wanting to disturb the fragile beach grasses, we boldly set our tents at the edge of the previous high tide line. As the tide continued to rise, it became apparent that if we did not move we could find ourselves swimming in our sleep. A quick decision resulted in the relocation of our tents back to the beach grasses. I didn’t think anybody would have minded us disturbing these grasses for a couple nights so that we didn’t have to sleep in the water.
The halfway point of our kayak section had finally come. The morning was filled with assigning new tent groups as well as re-rationing food for the second leg of our trip. With the large expedition sea kayaks, we had the luxury of having a large carry capacity, which meant that we could travel without any outside support. In the afternoon, I took to the forested area behind camp with Lucas. Off on yet another exploratory mission, as we once again tried to climb to the top of a nearby mountain. Like we had discovered at Lighthouse Point, our ambition proved to be too high and we found the brush covered route to be too arduous as we attempted to climb to the top. On the way up, we happened to startle a big porcupine, prompting it to quickly dash off through the brush. At first I had thought it was a small bear and even though I was proven wrong, we stayed on high alert for the rest of our hike.
In the evening, we were given the opportunity to plan the rest of our route. It was very empowering that we had so much input and control over the trip. We could choose one of three unique route options that we had discovered for the remainder of our travel this section. The first was heading up the west side of Knight Island and back through our previously travelled route, Culross Passage, to Whittier. This route was the shortest of the three and we would be covering familiar territory, but it provided the most flexibility for options such as off water exploration, as well as the potential for Independent Student Group Expedition. The Independent Student Group Expedition is a distinct and culminating opportunity of NOLS’ courses. If the instructor’s deem their students to be sufficiently skilled, responsible and prepared, they will grant them the high privilege of travelling alone for a designated number of days.
Another option for the remaining travel was doing a somewhat similar route to the first but heading up the east side of Knight Island. Contrary to the previous option, this route would be much longer and would pass through country previously unseen in our previous travel. The final route involved travelling over to Montague Island, a few miles east of Knight Island, before heading north to Passage Canal. This was the most adventurous of the three options. Not only was it the longest route, but it had the thrill of the island’s historically feared and famed bears. Montague Island is famous for the savage brown bears that roam the mountainous terrain of the island, haunting visitors since the early 1900s. A previous NOLS course that had stopped to camp there was forced to stay on guard throughout the night, waving torches to ward off the bears contemplating an approach to their camp. Safe to say, many did not wish to go to that trouble, and we settled upon the first route because of the flexibility. With the first half of our trip in the books, we were more than ready for our final days of adventure through the beautiful waterways of Prince William Sound.