© 2011 jemma

Survivor – Kenai Fjords

And so it began. Camping in the wilderness in Aialik bay Alaska, a bay within the Kenai fjords.

View Larger Map

Our trip began with an early train ride down to Seward on the Great Alaska Railway. It was early because the train leaves at 6:30am but you have to get there an hour earlier. It is a very scenic trip down the peninsula towards Seward, a small port town south of Anchorage. Along the way we saw bear and moose, a hoary marmot and even swans. Everyone gets excited about swans here, so much so that they even stop trains.

When we arrived in Seward we were picked up by Ron the owner of Backcountry Safaris and taken to our hotel. We were given our rain gear and dry bags and a talk about bear safety. With grizzlies it’s all about playing dead and protecting your vitals. With black bears its all about fighting for your life. Luckily we would only be seeing black bears.

After another sleep in a warm cosy safe hotel that had showers, it was up early again to be picked up by our guide Allen (or as Jess has now named him ‘Master Guide Allen’) and taken to our boat that would take us the two hours – 4hours – to our first camp. On the way out we saw a big pod of orca, grey whale flukes, sea otters, puffins, seals, mountain goats and bears. Oh and some massive glaciers. It was a great taste of what was to come.

We made our way through the ice bergs to our first camp at Arba Cove. Now when you think of camps, you can’t think of grassy fields and picnic tables. These camp sites are on the beach made of stones. The first site was quite small too, so there wasn’t that much room. We had waterfalls, snow, cliffs and a wonderful view of the Aialik Glacier and Pedersen Glacier. Not only a view but the sound of them calving all night long, like thunder throughout the bay.

That night we set up our tents and camp and went for a little paddle around our bay. As we were setting out we saw a big group of Kayaks coming towards our camp site and were worried about them wanting to camp, because there was realistically only one site left. Luckily for us they were just going to be picked up from there and it was fun watching them jump off the rocks into the icy water.

On our little paddle we saw a whale tail and some land otters. They are so cute. We paddled to the waterfalls and into a cave. It was really awesome!

Back at our camp Allen made dinner – a tasty stir fry – and as we were eating and looking at the fabulous view I spotted two other kayaks coming towards the bay. As I was telling the others this Jess said, “don’t worry about the kayaks, worry about the bear coming this way!” Sure enough a black bear had begun to wander up the beach towards our camp, with the kayaks following.

At first we thought the bear was going to swim across the bay, but then it changed its mind and came sauntering back towards us. Now bears apparently have bad eyesight so he couldn’t see us – only perhaps smell our dinner. Allen did the right thing by informing the bear of our whereabouts when it was about 30m away and the bear did the right thing by changing its direction and deciding to climb the cliff behind. It didn’t however need to lay above our camp for hours watching us. I was very happy when it went away.

The next morning it was pouring and freezing cold and we decided to stay put. Despite the weather and a late sleep in, we managed to save the day by meeting new Auzzie friends and going for a rainy day paddle to Aialik Glacier. Allen won’t go to close to the glacier after one of his tour boat captain friends witnessed a massive calving and the wave that followed. I completely agreed. That glacier had been booming all night and wasn’t stopping because we were there.

We paddled through the icebergs to find a good stop to snack – it was a 10 mile round trip – and we watched the glacier do its thing. All around us we had harbour seals popping up near our kayaks (and even stalking us) and sea otters. I don’t think there is a creature in the world as cute as a sea otter. They flap their big flipper feet and lay on their backs cleaning themselves all day long.

The next day we had to move camp. Luckily the rain stopped long enough for us to pack up the tents and kayaks. As we were doing so we turned and saw another bear in camp. So much for my fear!!

Once packed we headed towards our next destination Pedersen Lagoon. We had to make a crossing over Aialik Bay so Allen got on the radio and told the tourist boats to keep an eye out for us. We made it across just in time to sail into the lagoon on high tide – the only time you can make it in. We dragged the boats up on the beach and got out all our stuff at the camp site notorious for bears. I was so looking forward to this.

As we were setting up for lunch, Allen – with a serious face – called a group meeting. Apparently there were signs on the bear bin and on a tree that informed us that there were active habituated bears in the area and to camp here we would have to be prepared to DEFEND our property…with bear spray?

Allen said in his 20 or so years guiding he had never seen a sign like this and we all agreed that we weren’t prepared to defend anything in only a nylon tent. So even though it was late we would head around to the next bay – making it there by 1am. Jess would get his midnight paddle after all.

We couldn’t leave yet as the tide was still coming in, so we again packed up the kayaks ready to head to the glacier to see the stuck icebergs. As we were packing up the kayaks, lo and behold a black bear decided to saunter up the beach towards us. We let it know we were there, and surprise, surprise it DIDN”T CARE! It just kept eating and walking our way. I don’t think we ever packed those kayaks as quick as we did then and we were out of there! The guys however needed to harass the bear for pictures before we left though. All from the safety of their kayaks!

Paddling around the ice bergs was so cool. It was silent, peaceful and we were completely in awe at the power of the glacier. It was HUGE! So were the icebergs we were paddling around and through. Amazing!

On our way out we saw another bear, so we stopped at about 9pm to make dinner. The bean soup didn’t quite work out, and we had to leave because the tide was turning, so the bean soup was pack up, stuffed between my legs in the tiny kayak – it hurt! – and we were out of there iron man/woman style through the waves and the sea otters.

It felt like late afternoon, not almost morning as we made our way to Holgate beach. It felt like we had been paddling for hours and we were all starting to feel tired and over paddling. We passed snow capped mountains and bald eagles as we paddled around the peninsula. As we were nearing the turn into Holgate Arm the swell picked up and tired limbs had to work hard to keep our kayaks paddling around through the massive swell. Allen found an arch and we paddled through it as the light began to fade…some.

We landed on the beach and somehow inspired ourselves to walk up the steep slope to the camp sites on top of the beach, put our tents up and carry up the kayaks. We even were inspired enough to eat dinner and crawl into our tents by 3am. Oh and hear a bear tip toeing around us. 🙂

We woke late the next day and ate breakfast at lunchtime. Our goal for the day was to make it to Holgate Glacier and back. As we were heading out a nice headwind started up and so we were pushing our limbs to the limits for the 10 mile round trip. We pushed our way out in just over 3 hours, the wind was that strong. Jess even got bitten on the elbow by a land otter! Hilarious!! And I got to see the ghostly shape of a harbour seal under the water.

Our favourite parts would have to be getting so close and seeing some massive calvings and paddling through some thick pack ice. Was such good fun!

We ate lunch surrounded by glaciers on a beach near the mighty Holgate Glacier. Not only could we see the big one, but we had a hanging glacier and a smaller glacier merging together to form a rock glacier behind us. All coming down from the mighty Harding icefield.

We got back to camp in just over an hour – thanks to the wind on our backs – and ate our last dinner together. It was a sad moment as we were having too much fun to leave. Although it would be nice to have a shower and use an actual toilet, it was just amazing being out in the wild.

We planned to have one last paddle in the morning before it was time to leave, however it was pouring the next morning and no one was getting up, not even me when I heard a whale in the bay.

The boat came just before lunch and we packed up our stuff and the kayaks ready to leave. On the way back on the boat we were all exhausted, however we were excited to see a humpback mum and he calf moving throughout the bay, a big family of seals on their rocks, puffins and more dall porpoises.

Once back at the hotel we had showers, burritos and went to bed. It was a great trip, one that will be remembered forever and one that helped me get over my fear of bears. Well sort of. 🙂