Glacier Bay sea kayak part 1 – Setting off

[Brian – This blog from a 2004 trip has been written up retrospectively from our diaries and photos. Looking back, this trip was particularly memorable and exciting due to us being relatively novice sea kayakers, the wonderful wildlife we encountered (with the humpback whales seen each day taking prime place), but also the presence of grizzly bears and our fear of them whilst we were camping. We were definitely not at the top of the food chain here! Anyway we survived and it was an absolutely amazing trip.]

Hello! This is Martina speaking. I am going to add my own recollection now and again and it will be in pink!

In 2004 our plans came together to head off for a 6 month outdoors trip to North America. Initially we had considered hiking the 2000+ mile Continental Divide Trail to follow up our 1998 Pacific Crest Trail hike. But we changed our mind the winter beforehand and decided instead to do a series of backpacking, sea kayaking and climbing trips. Our plans were flexible but soon coalesced in early 2004 around a month of sea kayaking in southern Alaska.

Click to view in Google Maps

The initial idea for this had come from a book that had caught my eye in Nevisport outdoors shop in Fort William, Scotland about 10 years previously, showing kayakers winding through iceberg dotted waters with glaciated mountains behind. I was sold, bought the book, salivated over the descriptions and pictures and it gathered dust…..

The idea returned and began to make sense now for 2004, as we had plenty of time to be able to make the most of the long journey from Scotland out to Alaska and to visit other exciting looking places in the region, the pacific north west, afterwards. So I planned a kayak expedition for much of June into Glacier Bay National Park, a series of huge remote fjords surrounded by high glaciated mountains. Eventually I was able to arrange the rental of two kayaks and transport in and out of the area – by boat and sea plane. We were all set!

We had done a wee bit of kayaking already: 4 days in Doubtful Sound with a guide, 3 days on the Able Tasman solo, both in New Zealand in 1998. A day trip to Arisaig in Scotland and a 5 day guided trip around Quadra Island, Johnston Straight in British Columbia in 2003. But we hadn’t done any substantial, long solo trips, so this was going to be exciting.

Our communications equipment was non-existent; no mobile phone and no satellite emergency signaling device. We were to rely on good old map and compass, our general outdoors experience and the knowledge that a tourist boat came into the fjords once a day- although that could be maybe 30 miles away from us at times.

Blue line shows our kayaking route

We flew into Juneau, the Alaskan capital, from Las Vegas in late May 2004 and spent a few days around here hiking and food shopping to keep us going for 3 weeks kayaking.

Juneau, Alaska

Near Juneau we hiked up Mount Roberts, a great snow capped hill at 3,800 feet perched above the town – it felt much like a late winter season Scottish ‘Munro’. Views were stunningly panoramic over the coastal fjords and we were accompanied by ravens harassing mountain goats, bald eagles and marmots.

Mt Roberts, Juneau
Visiting Mendenhall glacier near Juneau

Getting to Glacier Bay was a bit convoluted. From Juneau we took a 2 hour boat trip to the tiny community of Gustavus- beautifully scenic in itself with the excitement of seeing a pod of Orcas at close quarters as well as sea lions and otters. From there it was a short bus ride to Bartlett Cove, the Glacier Bay National Park visitor centre where we were to pick up our kayaks and park permits. We attended an informative and mandatory park presentation on bears.

Not that I wasn’t already rather apprehensive about bears! This talk laid down the rules for how to keep the bears safe (i.e. keep them from becoming habituated to people) by avoiding them getting (1) too interested in humans (2) any human food to taste. So the rules were: eat in the intertidal 50m from where you are going to camp and where the tides will clean all food smells and food dropped. Stay near the food. Keep all food in bear-safe plastic containers at all times. Stores the containers 50 m from camp and 50 m from where you have eaten (and above tide). If a bear takes an interest, scare it away.

It was a busy evening packing our 3 weeks of food into 8 cylindrical bear proof cannisters and for the first time attempting to squeeze that and all our camping gear into the 2 kayaks. Luckily it all fitted- just! We pitched the tent nearby and managed a beer and a slideshow talk on local birdlife later on.

1st June Our big day and we were up at 5.30am to pack our kayak and gear onto the tourist boat which was going to drop us off in the wilderness. The boat trip was very beautiful, the scenery breathtaking but we were feeling a bit nervous with fluttering stomachs as we viewed the immense glaciated area we were about to paddle into.

Martina pensively looking out into Glacier Bay,

I was very much bricking it, thinking about bears, thinking about how long it would take a body to drift back from the bay to the visitor centre… We were dropped off at Mouse Cove with cheery good wishes from the first mate at 13:30 with two presents: thermal insulation mugs with the ship’s logo on them and a batch of warm chocolate chip cookies that wafted a lovely sweet scent from their aluminium foil wrapping … lovely enough for me to worry for the next 2 hours (until we ate them) that we were advertising ourselves as bear bait to every grizzly within 10 mile radius. As the boat receded on the horizon, it was just us, water, ice and hundreds of bears…

Boat drop off at Mouse Cove

Next Part 2 and we start paddling….

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