For seasoned sea kayakers, paddling the Inside Passage, from Bellingham, Wash. to Muir Glacier in the East Arm of Glacier Bay, Alaska, holds the same mystique as backpacking the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail for backpackers. And it takes about just as long.
For those who can’t miss three or four months of work at a time, but would still like to experience this journey, the good news is you can do it in about two weeks by riding the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system for three days and enjoying another seven days paddling around Glacier Bay, an ever-changing body of water that is considered one of the world’s top kayaking destinations.
Two weeks ago, I made this trek with my co-worker and sea kayak instructor Hank Hill. After flying from Bend to Bellingham, we boarded the Alaska State Ferry armed with a cumbersome load of groceries and dry bags full of camping and paddling gear.
We camped outside to avoid the extra cabin charges. This is the way to go for travelers who enjoy waking to pastel sunrises (4 a.m.!) and fresh sea air.
Three days and one early morning ferry transfer later, we set up camp in a mossy rainforest right by the beach at Bartlett Cove in Gustavus (pronounced gus-TAY-vus), the launching point for our kayaking adventure. Misting rain covered our gear, but temperatures were warm, and our spirits were high as we walked the trails back to the National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center to get a quick orientation and pick up our bear canisters.
The Glacier Bay Kayaking Company rented us custom-made, expedition-style Kevlar boats with extra room for the bear canisters. They felt huge compared to the narrow Eddylines Hank and I were used to paddling. The rudders were also Alaska-sized, and controlled with foot pedals to help battle the wind and the currents we’d soon be up against.
We stored our boats for the night, and the gentle mist turned to pounding rain.
I couldn’t sleep that night. In the tent next to mine, Hank was also having a restless night, talking in his sleep, but talking to me, saying things like, “Okay, I guess we’re going now, Laurel” and “Are you ready yet?”
In the morning there was no sign of the storm lifting, but I tried to keep the energy positive, especially since we were in a rain forest, and unending downpour mixed with 30-mile-an-hour winds is part of the rain forest experience, right?
We had to be out of Bartlett Cove by noon to catch the highest point in the tide, which would flood the land bridge between the mainland and Lester Island to the west. I started by organizing our food in a little shack called a bear cache (made to keep food out of the campsite), and paused to make a few sandwiches.
There was one small window in the shack, but no real light, so I kept the door ajar, but had a sick feeling in my stomach. If a bear were to come into the cache, there would be no way out.
I peaked my head out the door, just to allay my irrational fear, only to almost knock noses with a huge mamma bear (a sow), on hind legs on the second step of the cache, looking as if she was about to give a quick rap on the door to pick up her lunch. Three cubs surrounded her in a semi-circle with the same expectant expression.
I grabbed the door, and slammed it as quickly as possible, practically taking off her nose in the process. I waited for her to start shaking the shack and break her way in, all the while saying my last goodbyes to parents and friends. But, ten minutes later, my heart still racing, I peaked out of the shack, and she was gone.
A new weather report was posted on the door of the Visitor Center: storms and high winds for the next 24 hours. Minutes later, a NPS employee rushed out of the Visitor Center and informed us of a small craft warning in Glacier Bay.
We decided to wait a day before departing, and the next morning the clouds cleared completely. We set out for an eight-mile paddle up the bay, against the wind, and inside the swirly currents of the Beardsley Islands, a group of scenic archipelagos just north of Bartlett Cove.
Hank found us a “bear-free” island, a small patch of land north of where we’d planned to strike camp on Kidney Island. We set up our tents, prepared a happy hour of wine and cheese and watched the sun set over the glorious Fairweather Range to the northwest.
Days later, the currents and wind carried us back to Bartlett Cove, where we were greeted again by the sow and her cubs on the beach as we de-rigged our boats. An NPS employee called from above, “Are you guys alright down there? Man, those bears really like you.”
When I do this again, it will be in early June when the days are long and heavy storms are infrequent. If you are interested in paddling Glacier Bay yourself, I’d recommend spending a few days making your way north through the Beardsley Islands, and then hugging the eastern coastline. Paddle up the east arm to Muir Inlet and you’ll eventually reach Muir Glacier, where you can experience the wonder of an ancient glacier calving just yards from your boat. Don’t get too close though; a hefty chunk will surely flip a kayak.
Alaska is basically a country unto itself, and we are lucky as Americans to experience it with so little hassle. And while some full-timers might greet you with a crazed look in their eyes and a diatribe on U.S. politics, Alaskans are generally happy to have us. And while it’s remote, traveling there is a much easier and cost effective alternative to circling the world in search of the earth’s last quiet places.