Glacier Bay sea kayak part 4 -Riggs glacier and pick up

We beach the kayaks on silt delta at the foot of Riggs and McBride glaciers. This was a stunningly dramatic place. The two glaciers don’t quite reach sea level anymore but Riggs in particular was impressive: a clean white, blue, one mile wide ice wall!

After pitching the tent and sheltering from the rain, we eventually hiked out towards Riggs glacier over gravel terrain but were stopped by a deep outflow channel from McBride. So instead we hiked to McBride over moraines and alluvial rocks for a close up view. Martina sank into the porridge like “quicksand” of one of the cold glacier run-off streams and got wet up to her hip. After that we beat a retreat back to the tent to warm up!

In the fine grey mud and silt around the bottom of the glacier we saw a lot of wolf tracks that looked quite fresh (given how much it rains here). I was hoping to hear some howling at night but none was forthcoming.

Camp with Riggs glacier behind

Day 11 It drizzled most of the night but the sun came out in the morning as we paddled off north to get right under the nose of Riggs glacier where it meets the sea. The edge of Riggs is currently tidal but we were lucky that a high tide allowed us to paddle right up to it (based on the previous day’s experience we guessed that the silt under the glacier would not have born the weight of a walker but in the kayak, it was impressive to get so close).

Riggs glacier
Riggs glacier

Having enjoyed a good potter around the ice, we turned back south to float down the east side Muir Inlet past an estuary defended by about 1/2 mile of small icebergs.

The water roughened up a bit from there and we were glad to find a sheltered cove below the small hill marked on the map as The Nunatak (a lovely Inuit word meaning “an isolated peak of rock projecting above a surface of inland ice or snow”). Past here we crossed the well named ‘Goose Cove” and passed numerous alluvial gravel river outlets.

Beaching to the south of Forest Creek as the sun came out again and gave us a great opportunity to warm up and dry the clothes and camping gear after a couple of wet days. Luxury!

Lunchtime drying session!

Exploring behind the beach we came across moose tracks and an interesting set of bear prints worn through the thin layer of ground moss leading to a tree with bear scratchings. It must be a common trail for the bears.

The afternoon paddle was shortened by a strong westerly wind, annoyingly pushing waves against the sides of our kayaks and we soon made land (after an impressive 15 miles paddling) to camp at a good pebbly spit between the fjord and a small dried up lagoon. A pair of gulls started aggressively diving at us here We soon discovered that their nest with 3 eggs plus was very close by where we had landed. As well as the eggs, the nest also contained one pebble of similar appearance in size, shape and colour to the eggs. We could only guess why… for camouflage maybe? Once we knew what upset them we happily found another spot to camp a few hundred meters along the spit to leave the gulls in peace, just to discover that slightly further on was a pair of oystercatchers also wearily guarding a nest. But we managed to keep out of either parent’s vicinity and were harassed no further.

We were now nearing two weeks into the trip and started to feel pretty grubby(!) despite the odd cold sea swim. We still had plenty of food but had to start planning our departure. The tourist boat had several potential pick up points and another option we had considered was paddling back to the Park Centre which would have cut our food supply very fine and would have required us to leave the relative shelter of the inlet for more exposed water. Since we had found the sea conditions a challenge in our sheltered part of the Park, we dismissed that last option and decided instead to aim for a pickup point below Mount Wright that was two more paddly days away.

Day 12 Packing up the boats we carefully tiptoed around the nest and thankfully the gull stayed put. We paddled off, rounded our little spit and disturbed a big raft of harelquin ducks who promptly panicked and flew off. They left one duck behind who was immediately attacked by a bald eagle that had been lurking around nearby. The other ducks and we could only watch as the eagle repeatedly swooped on the little bird and it dived under the water for cover. Eventually the eagle flew off, the duck bobbed up and rejoined it’s raft. Plucky duck !

We paddled on and at the mouth of Adams Inlet to the south we met some people- wow! It was a guided group packing up their kayaks after breakfast with five identical double kayaks on the shore. We couldn’t resist paddling in for a chat, our first for over two weeks. I think we kind of ranted at them as they were less interested in talking to us, but hey it was fun meeting others out here anyway.

We took a side trip eastwards into estuary like Adams Inlet and shot along with wind and tide in our favour. About 5 miles in we put ashore on a lovely silty area backed by meadows only to see lots of signs of moose including a beautiful well preserved skull and vertebrae.

We waited for high tide to come in at this pleasant spot with snowy mountains as a backdrop before paddling back out west followed playfully by a harbour seal for about 20 minutes. The wind and waves picked up again as we reached the mouth of Adams Inlet so we stopped to camp on a pebbly beach. We were now within about 5 miles of the Mount Wright pick up point where the tourist boat was expected to appear about 9.30am each morning. So our plan was to get up super early in the morning and hope that the weather calmed down a bit, so that we could paddle there round an exposed coast before tidying our gear up to be collected by the boat. The day had been gray again but we were a little demob happy and looking forward to a shower.

The wind picked up to a gale into the evening and heavy rain came in, so we decided to set an alarm for 4am to check for improvement then….

…it was drizzly and a bit bleak pre-dawn but the wind was now down to a breeze so we decided to pack the gear into the kayaks and get going. Breakers made for a tricky and wet entry into the kayaks but we got in and headed off in a stiff south westerly. Slow progress was made into the waves which heightened as we reached the more exposed point. We spotted Garforth Island off the coast ahead and we hoped that would provide some shelter from the weather when we reached it. Added to the wind we also had a big swell. Brian’s kayak was unceremoniously dropped onto a huge submerged granite boulder by a dip in the swell, the fiberglass groaned and crunched but I stayed upright and at last we finally made it to the lee of the island for a rest from the weather.

Along the rockier final shore we hit choppier conditions again and the sea wasn’t giving us up easily but we finally rounded the headland to run the kayaks up the beach below Mount Wright- made it! Its was a bit of a grim and forbidding place in the dull windy weather but at least it was solid ground. We were hours early for the boat and passed the time with sorting our gear and exploring the beach pebbles and seaweed.

Interesting sea weed…

We eventually heard the faint sound of the boat and it came into view about 9 am- hoorah!

Our pick up arrives!

The boat was of course full of tourists doing a trip around Glacier Bay west arm so we settle in for a relaxing and scenic day out in beautiful scenery with breakfast coffee and cookies! Later that evening at Bartlett Cove we camped (the lodge cost $200), but had that much sought after shower and a Mexican meal with beer. What a great trip.

On the boat back, tired but happy!

Glacier Bay sea kayak part 3 – Day 5 to 10 the East Arm

Day 5 started sunny and the water was calm on the east side of Queen Inlet – great conditions for paddling off. We headed south past another delta before the shoreline steepened to a cliff with snow slopes down to the water level.

Mellow camp at Queen Inlet
Rendu and Queen Inlets -Our annotated Trails Illustrated map shows wildlife sightings inc. lots of whales!

For the first time we noticed intertidal life like starfish, urchins and sea anemone’s in a range of vivid orange, purple and blacks. Passing a feature called ‘Gloomy Knob’ we entered back into the main channel of Glacier Bay and the water got noticeably choppier, but we saw some beautiful mountain goats on the rock slopes just above the water, thankfully oblivious to us passing by quietly.

Mountain goats down near water level

We paddled into Tidal Inlet that day and camped at the south side of the mouth after I went for a short swim earlier in cold but refreshing conditions. I managed to scrape myself on rocks underwater and emerged with blood trickling down my thigh. Martina rushed to bandage me up which was great but I think the main reason was so that the blood wouldn’t attract bears! Still lots of bear signs around the camp…

Big bear claw !

There were strawberries flowering all around (no doubt the bears love the fruit). We paddled along the beach for a bit to fetch water from a stream. At around midnight I was woken by the sound of breaching humpbacks. I watched them for 30 minutes through the open tent door. At one point Brian poked his head out of his sleeping bag and asked me what I was looking at. “Whales” was my reply and he went straight back to sleep.

Day 6 The plan was to paddle out into the east arm of Glacier Bay today past a potentially exposed headland so were pleased to find the water flat and still in the morning. Paddling south east for the first seven miles along the coast, we saw our first sea lions from the kayaks- they are acrobatic creatures compared to harbor seals- almost like they are a dance troupe! Lots more humpback action as well, with one whale doing about 20 fluke slaps on the water in a row. It was almost as if it was floating vertically and continuously slapping- maybe to stun fish?

This is the life!

We reached the headland between the west and east arms of Glacier Bay, Tlingit Point, in the afternoon as the water flattened again and we rounded the nearby Sebree Island on its south side. There was a small bay here and the views were so extensive that we decided to set up camp early on a knoll about 20m above the sea. A dream ‘all time great’ camping location with humpbacks passing by!

Sebree Island camp. Reading, writing and whale watching spot

Day 7 In the morning we watched the tourist boat with interest through our binoculars across ‘Muir Inlet’ to the east about 4 miles away – this was one of our potential pick up spots. Although last nights evening wind had dropped again, the water was still choppy when we were ready to paddle at 10:30 . Conditions were a bit too demanding for us and we only made it a couple of miles to Caroline Point before nipping into a bay to the west to get back on land. We walked a mile to a river to collect fresh drinking water. By the time we were back at the boats, sea conditions were still intimidating.

Martina had a cunning suggestion that we could portage/carry the gear and kayaks about 1/2 a mile across the narrow headland to avoid paddling around this exposed “Point” where the water was bound to be at its roughest. We went for it and it kept us busy for an hour and a half with two carries, but it was hard work! Portage completed, we had a big lunch and once more took to the water…but not for very long. We pitched for the night on the beach at the outlet of ‘Ice Valley’. Saw otter tracks on the beach.

Bear cannisters and our kitchen in the intertidal zone

Day 8 With the wind remaining high the next day we decided to stay put at Ice Valley and go for a hike north up the coast. During our pedestrian exploration we found a huge heavy moose antler and lots of paw prints in the mud: bear, otter, deer and wolf !!!! Despite the rough weather, the day was spent enjoying the raw wildness of the place.

Grizzly was here
Moose too

Day 9 Only got 7.5 miles further up the coast today. Woke up to uninspiring drizzle but calmer seas. After 2.5 hours paddling we landed for a break at Hunter Cove. By that time the wind had picked up again and the waves were pushing us onward (good) but in a way that felt destabilising to the boat (bad) pushing at our stern. The drizzle had materialised into rain and we pitched the tent on the beach for shelter. What had been planned as a lunch stop developed into a cozy afternoon reading and listening to the sounds of the place: humpbacks , oystercatchers, raven calling and the pitter patter of rain on the tent.

For the next day we decided we would set the alarm for 4.30am and if the weather looked good we would head off early to make some progress before the chance of the wind picking up in the afternoon again, as that seemed to be the weather pattern.

Ready to pack the kayaks in the morning

Day 10 Thankfully it was calm if cloudy at dawn and we enjoyed paddling in flat waters again heading steadily northwards up Muir Inlet to see Riggs Glacier where it dips its toe right into the fjord. Passing Wachusett Inlet, a harbor porpoise followed us for a while diving subtly in and out of the water. And finally we encountered our first little icebergs floating by accompanied by a marked dip in the sea temperature.

Rounding Westdahl Point we noticed some interstadial tree stumps on the gravel slopes above. These are the upright remains of trees that have been burried in situ 4000-5000 years ago in deep silt deposits during the previous ice age and have thus been preserved. The silt is now eroding off to reveal these ancient trees again. John Muir saw these when he visited the area in the late 1800’s and recognised their glacial origins.

After a stop to collect more drinking water, the rain started again and we heard a rumble only to see rocks tumbling into the water from the cliff ahead of us- a reminder this is a dynamic environment! This was our cue to turn away east and head across the Muir Inlet for about 1 mile to reach the east shore and the Riggs – McBride glacier junction: two big tongues of ice decending down into the fjord.

Next Part 4, Riggs Glacier and we head back

Glacier Bay sea kayak part 2 – Day 1 to 4 Mouse Cove to Queen Inlet

Day 1 After being dropped off at Blue Mouse Cove we packed our boats and then paddled out into a relatively sheltered fjord area called Hugh Miller Inlet. Hugh Miller appears on a few landmarks named by John Muir, the famous Scottish naturalist. Miller was a 19th century geologist who lived and worked in Cromarty, a town 10 miles from our home on the Black Isle in the highlands of Scotland.

Paddling down the narrow Charpentier Inlet we saw our first distant humpback whale breaching and some curious seals followed us- a good wildlife turn-out to start the trip. We eventually set up camp in the evening between snow patches and bushy willows at the mouth of Scidmore Bay in a still but drizzly foggy evening- what John Muir, Hugh Miller and we would call ‘dreich’ conditions.

The beaches in Glacier Bay are universally very thin strips of flattish gravel squeezed between the line of high tide and impenetrable undergrowth of willow and alder shrubs. This was our first camp. We had been told by the Park staff not to camp near signs of bear. There were signs of bear everywhere! Bear scat, bear paw prints, trees that were scratched… it was immediately apparent that the bears use the thin strip of shore above the tide as their own bear highways to get around! But this was also the only flat, open ground to pitch on so we pitched. I arranged the cooking gear in the intertidal to make dinner, feeling a bit un-nerved from the remoteness of the site and the omnipresence of evidence of bear. At that point Brian came back and casually mentioned that he had spotted a half eaten moose carcass 100 m along the beach. Basically a bear diner. A larder. A snack shack. And we were camped next to it. I felt panic rise but it was too late to shift camp. Somehow I managed to sleep anyway.

Scidmore Bay with calm conditions

Day 2 In the morning we paddled north up Scidmore Bay past small islands and a glacier alluvial fan. We beached at the head of the bay in wind choppy conditions at a short tidal channel. Our plan was to wait for the tide to rise high enough to allow us to paddle through the channel into the main Glacier Bay fjord. Eventually we got impatient though and portaged the gear across about 100m of land to the other side of the channel and a lovely shingle beach with a snowy mountain backdrop.

At the Scidmore tidal channel

Now in Glacier Bay itself we kayaked north for a few miles towards Reid Inlet but encountered uncomfortably choppy conditions, perhaps caused by the ebbing tidal flow out the bay and with a southerly wind against. After an adrenaline fuelled shouted consultation we turned around to the safety of the nearest beach and set up camp in what turned out to be a lovely spot where we were able to dry our gear out. We even made a little fire in the intertidal area.

We dragged the kayaks high up the gravel beach. Tide differences in the bay can be as much as 7.5 meters (25 feet), so at every camp we had to keep an eye on where we left our kayaks and gear to ensure it wouldn’t get swept away by the high tide at night.

Day 3 Our plan was to make the 3 mile crossing of the main Glacier Bay but after the experience of the previous evening we were happy to wait for calm conditions at slack tide. That meant waiting till 2pm for high tide, which gave us time to relax, get our head around the isolation and enjoy the maritime mountain views. When high tide came, the wind was still too high for us so we took an afternoon walk above camp up the nearest hill. This was not a stroll in the park but a well defended scramble through thick undergrowth. The view made it worthwhile though.

Hill walk above camp at Glacier bay

Back at camp we had an early dinner and set off at 18:40 to cross the bay at the slack water of low tide. Despite blue skies there was still a goodly north westerly wind coming down the bay, slapping waves into our side, but we committed to it and paddled hard for the 3 miles. The views during the crossing south to Mt Fairweather were superb and we saw minke whales in the distance. We headed into a cove to camp but found a grizzly already occupying the beach we were aiming for so had to paddled onwards and land on a bit of beach further east, pitch, eat and go to bed.

As I went for the final ablution of the day behind a large boulder, I saw a bear trotting towards us along the beach (from the west, maybe the one we saw earlier). It saw me and kept trotting, full speed. It was a huge adult grizzly. I called over to Brian, we stood high on the beach, shoulder to shoulder, facing the bear. Brian held up his jacket to make himself look bigger. We both shouted at it. The bear stopped, stood up on its hind legs (2.5 to 3 meters tall?) looked at us, went back on all fours and continued to trot towards us. When it got within 10 meters of us it suddenly turned right at angles into the dense vegetation above the beach and was swallowed up by the greenery. We could see bushes shaking and heard twigs breaking: it seemed to make a detour around us. We stayed where we were and watched. The bear went around us in a respectful arch and disappeared to go its own way. Or is it an inquisitive type of bear? Is it just waiting nearby until we have gone to bed? These were the thoughts that came to me and I didn’t sleep much that night.

Day 3 The bear did not return! And we were up early and a hummingbird joined us at breakfast. A very mellow morning paddle took us south east around a headland and into the narrow, 8 miles long Rendu Inlet. The water this day was peacefully flat and the wildlife abundant abundant: white mountain goats on waterside cliffs, seals and minke whale. At one point we had just spotted two grizzlies on the slope above us when a loud splash in the water behind us announced two humpback whales spouting nearby at the same time – fantastic! We headed out to the end of the fjord with lovely waterfalls and glaciers above and then turn back on the other, eastern shore to find a campsite.

It was Brian’s birthday and we had a special Mexican dinner and some Speyside Single Malt I had bought in Juneau. When it was time for bed, humpbacks were spouting as they swam past our beach, singing us into sleep.

Humpbacks migrate north from Mexico or even Hawaii each summer to feed on the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Glacier Bay. Although tourists boats visit the area, many fjords are restricted to non-motorised craft such as our kayaks we hope the wildlife appreciate – we certainly did.

Rendu Inlet

Day 4 It was raining the next morning and we lazed around, reading and writing our diaries. It dried up and we headed out around midday, heading back north into the Queen Inlet. We spotted arctic terns for the first time.

The whales were with us all day – as many as three flukes at a time. Most remarkably we saw a humpback breaching full body i.e. the whole huge whale becoming airborn as it leapt out of the water. All day we heard them roaring, singing and booming. One surfaced 100m from us – Park Rules say you have to keep 500m away from them (basically “don’t chase the whales”) but this one came to US and there was nothing we could do (except hope it was actually aware of our presence and wasn’t going to accidentally leap on top of us next). We rafted up for safety and just then a little black porpoise skimmed by, paying no attention to us either. Amazingly close encounters with the cetation kind.

The huge delta at the head of Queens provided a chance for a break and we eventually camped on the east side at a pretty open gravel area covered in wildflowers – another great day.

Queen Inlet
Rest stop at Queen Inlet

Next Part 3 and the East Arm of Glacier Bay

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….