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Sea Kayaking in Alaska

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“Where’s the Bears?” – Sea Kayaking in Alaska

The initial idea was to go to the Lofoten Islands, off the Norwegian coast on The Arctic Circle. Another idea was Newfoundland, but this seemed a “grey place”. However inspired by a photograph of a sea kayak next to a glacier, Alaska it was. The next problem was to decide how to get there and where to get some boats. Previously we had discussed sawing our boats into three and fitting new bulkheads, which bolt together. This is not as mad as it sounds! American boats tend to be wide, slow and are fitted with rudders, all of which were not to our liking. We were lucky to track down Tom Pogson, who runs a kayak school in Homer, which is about 5 hours drive from Anchorage. He had a number of Nigel Dennis designed Explorers, as we use here, and was prepared to hire them, “if we were of the right sort”. We then had to decide in detail where to go, this meant much reading and tracking down of maps, here we appreciated the advice of Phil Eccles, a level 5 coach who had been out the previous year.

On the phone Tom explained just how big Alaska is and some of the problems we may encounter. The conversation soon moved to the problem of bears. This was clearly going to be a new experience. Simon became increasingly concerned about his aspect of the trip; we even discussed the use of a gun. However we felt that a gun in our inexperienced hands would be more dangerous than the bears! Another solution for myself was to learn to run faster than Simon! In the end we obtained some bear spray and as Simon said “useful on a Saturday night out”

We flew from Heathrow with American Airlines, changed in Chicago and landed 17 hours later in Anchorage, without our bags. These arrived 18 hours later. We soon became aware that it is a country dominated by the motor vehicle and you thought we have poor public transport. We had arranged with Tom to collect the boats from a small town and ex military base, called Whittier, a strange town. You have to use a tunnel to access the town and it was not until 4 years ago that this was opened up to traffic, before then it was train only. We spent two days in Anchorage arranging transport, finding supplies and drinking beer in the near by Blues Bar, that had excellent live music each night.

We took a train to Whittier and followed this by a day walking. When we finally sat in our loaded boats it seemed a relief to be finally off. For the next 8 days we were going to be on our own, exploring Prince William Sound and it seemed to rain for most of that time. Once over our initial mistake of thinking the squares on the map represented kilometres, only to realise they were in miles, after spending longer completing our planned 40Km than we had thought. The scenery was spectacular and the experience of paddling through ice was amazing. The glaciers were breaking up or carving and you could hear their groans as they made their slow way down the mountain. The dampness and cold had started to get to us and our carefully calculated rations were of subsistence level. However Simon’s fishing skills were soon put to good use. All the camping was on gravel beaches and a free standing tent, with a large valence that can have stones placed on it is essential, as is a tarp that can be used with a couple of paddles to make a shelter. The sun never really appeared until the morning we paddled back to Whittier.

After a welcome wash we took the train and then a mini bus to Homer. This is where all American’s head for, as it is the town at the end of the highway and the camp grounds, more like car parks were full of camper vans. These were not the Volkswagen type but resembled a converted coach, in local language a RV, or recreational vehicle. Here we spotted a Range Rover, which appeared small by local standards; it was then we began to understand just how big everything in America is. We also found Fat Olives bar that sold beer from the town’s excellent brewery.

Our second week we experienced sunshine everyday and with more supplies we had a more relaxing time. We headed south along the coast of Kachemak Bay National Park and out into the Pacific Ocean. Here the wild life really started to show itself and on the second day a whale broke surface, swam in front of us and then dived. If this was the last we thought we would see of it, then we were mistaken. As it resurfaced a few minutes later and appeared to be circling in an eddy at the entrance to an inlet, we assumed feeding. Sea otters were regular companions and were great fun to watch, especially as they would sleep lying on their backs and we could drift right up to their sides before waking them. Another regular visitor were eagles, who would perch high above our tent eagerly looking down, almost waiting for us to leave some scrap of food. However it was not until our penultimate day did we encounter our first bear. We had seen plenty of bear “phoo” already and Simon would prod it with a stick – “was it still warm?” However this one was very much warm and alive but it was on the other side of the river, only to cross to our side and then disappear in to the undergrowth. We kept our spray close by that night, but our final shock was to find three sets of prints within 50 metres of the tent the following morning. We returned to Homer and sort solace in Olives Bar.

Going to Alaska was a great experience, arriving at a land locked community and to be asked “You don’t come from around these parts, do you?” eating freshly caught fish and drinking locally brewed beer but it was the magnitude of the landscape I will always remember. This was reinforced by the view from the plane as we flew home. Like visiting any new venue you spend a lot time finding things out. However the effort was worth it and we would love to return. The day after arriving back I flew to Iceland, where my body clock finally caught with me.

Useful Information:

The weather is broadcast over VHF channel 02 on a loop, which is updated twice a day, so there is no 5.30am alarms to catch the early forecast, as there is in this country. The tides are different here; one high water each day is much greater than another. Be warned, one day we found three kayaks floating as the Marie Celeste. These we put in tow and then we found an embarrassed group camped on an island with a flat battery in their VHF radio!

Tom Pogson - Alaska Kayak School

Alaska – Lonely Planet Guide ISBN 1-74059-091-0

Kayaking and Camping in Prince William Sound by Paul Twardock ISBN 1-877900-14-1

Maps by National Geographic scale 1:105,600. Prince William Sound – West (761), Prince William Sound – East (762), Kathemak Bay (763)
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Charts from NOAA Prince William Sound – Western Part (16705) and Gore Point to Anchor Point (16645) these were not really detailed enough for kayaking.