Going Places: Kayaking Chichagof Island

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Kayaking Chichagof Island
The trip allowed plenty
of time for fishing

Point Adolphous sits on the northern end of the island. Against the horizon were dusky glaciers and taller mountains. I paddled with the big humpies here and listened in with an underwater microphone, or hydrophone. Sounding like grumpy old men one moment, symphonic musicians the next, I enjoyed nothing more on this trip, I think, than this intimate eavesdropping with those whales. The combination of both aural and visual sensation gave a sense of dimension to the encounter.

For the most part, running into people out here was excellent (and when it wasn't it was good). I came upon a moored sailboat one evening with an enormous canvas sign strung between its masts. STOP CLEARCUTTING, it read. The bearded captain appeared and invited me over for an ice-cold pilsner replete with frosted glass. We traded stories and drank good beer and discussed the logging dilemma.

Another evening, approaching camp hungry and tired, I was tossed a couple Dungeness crab from a pair of friendly crabbers out of Gustavus, just across the strait. And when I arrived in Sitka at the end of my trip the outfitters of Archipelago Kayaking Adventures went out of their way to bring a bag of food to me on an outlying island, then trailered my boat and gear from camp (no small feat) onto the ferry. Again, my faith in people who live in wild, remote places was redoubled.

Friendly campers shared delicious Alaskan cuisine along the way

Grizzly or Alaskan brown bears are prevalent on Chichagof. I would spot them ambling along the beach and picking through the seaweed as I paddled by just offshore. Halfway into my trip, the salmon — haute cuisine of the Ursus diet — had yet to appear in the streams. In the meantime, the bears foraged on roots, berries, and among the seaweed washed onto the beach.

A family of four approached my camp one afternoon, but disappeared into the bush when I fired a warning shot. Bugs turned out to be a non-factor; although I'd heard horror stories from my friends, mosquitoes at home in the San Juans Islands of Washington are more of a problem than anything I encountered.

As for the weather, azure skies were a rarity all right, but it didn't take much of a break from the 100-plus-inch annual rainfall to lift the spirit. Even a steady rain can be okay when appreciated in terms of salmon awaiting a freshet to make the final push up their home stream, or the vibrancy of a rain forest (an extremely rare ecosystem, our temperate rain forests originally occupied only one-tenth of 1 percent of the earth's surface!).

Escaping the rain for a quick
bite in a warm, dry tent

The longest stretch of rain I endured was 10 days; with good equipment and a little mental resiliency (and a good traveling library), it wasn't too bad. The tent was the key. You can handle being wet all day in the saddle, but if you couldn't depend on a spot of snug shelter at night you couldn't regenerate your spirit, and it is the spirit, after all, that gets you around the island.

While the circuit of Chichagof was my chief objective, it was its outer coast that held the most appeal, and potentially, the most challenge. Near the end of July I left Elfin Cove in the middle of the 10-day monsoon. Arriving at the quaint fishing port of Pelican I pulled out a slip of paper with the phone number of the owners of Pelican Paddling, a local kayaking outfitter.

The Home for Wayward Kayakers, Debbie and Susan laughingly called their place. Indeed, I thought, housing not only myself in torrential rains but a diehard Japanese kayaker, one marathon racer, and two paying guests, in addition to themselves. Motofumi Yamada was a wiry, determined little Japanese guy who had been out alone for 61 days already. He was about to continue on by rental car aboard the ferry to Skagway and eventually the Yukon River, where he intended to paddle north toward the Arctic Circle. When I asked Moto how long he thought this might take, he struggled to find the words.

"Paddle until too cold", he said finally, crossed his arms in front of his chest and making shivering motions. Lean itinerary, I thought, but more power to him. Leaving Pelican with the monsoon intact, I paddled out among the jagged rocks bordering Lisianski Strait into the wide open Pacific.

"Paddle until too cold" is the estimated travel time to Lisianski

I made a bee-line for the Porcupine Islands, then lost my bearings looking for the hot springs at White Sulfur just beyond. I was carrying charts with a variety of different scales and had already disoriented myself more than once as I switched from one to another, the case this day as I blew right past the little inlet leading to the springs and wandered in tall seas off a gnarly Cape Dearborn.

Circling back, I made my way off a confusing coastline of inlets and lagoons through a stiffening chop. As the weather threatened to close down I spotted a pair of yachts steaming into an inlet just beyond the point ahead. I followed them in and spotted a sailboat moored in a tiny lagoon. Paddling closer, I discovered a gas can lashed high in a tree as a marker, and a trail head that I assumed led to the nearby springs.

Half an hour later I arrived at the springs. I met several other sailors and kayakers here and enjoyed their company for a couple of days. One old fellow named Rick reminded me of David Suzuki. He was an experienced Alaskan kayaker. From Rick I learned that bears had been chewing up kayaks in Glacier Bay recently, looking for food. He told me of some studies done on a bear's olfactory abilities.

Bears will pillage a camp if the food isn't strung up in the trees

In a closely monitored experiment, some 70 hermetically sealed jars were buried in the Alaskan bush in the heart of bear country. When the sites were examined some months later every jar had been exhumed! Up until that time, I had been acting under the assumption that the odor of epoxy and fresh resin in the hold of my kayak would mask any scent of the dried foods stored there. After talking with Rick, though, I hung everything remotely connected with food in a tree each night.

The next day, paddling in deep swell and troublesome seas again off Cape Dearborn, still in the rain, I was looking for the tiny, camouflaged opening in the rocky bluff that is the entrance to Dry Passage. Looking over my shoulder at the big rollers threatening to sluice my boat, I could only pray I had not gotten within the break zone. With a last look behind, I turned on the after-burners to try and reach the notch ahead before the next wave. I scooted to safety in churning soup into a shallow channel. It was dead low tide, not the optimal time to get through the thing, but I left the boat on a bed of eel grass and hunted around for a couple of crab for dinner.

The Myriad Islands are a splatter of tiny islands clustered together off the western coast of Chichagof. Originally one of my target points, as I threaded my way through them I was disappointed by the lack of beaches. Around Vancouver Island, I was blessed with many fine clamshell beaches, but here in the Myriads, as well as much of the western side of Chichagof, I found mostly rocky shorelines. I blew right through the Myriads in righteous weather one day in late September and staged myself for the most exciting passage of the trip.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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