Monday, April 23, 2012

Sea Kayaking: Alaska, Day 1

In honor of National Parks Week (and Earth Day), I'm finally getting around to posting about our big trip to Alaska last summer. We spent 2.5 weeks up there at the end of August and the beginning of September, doing a kayaking trip in Kenai Fjords National Park and a backpacking trip in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

Morning sky over Resurrection Bay
We started our trip with 4 days of sea-kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park. The Kenai Fjords lie at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, about a three hour drive south of Anchorage, and the big draw there is the glaciers -- more than 40 flow from the massive Harding Ice Field down toward the ocean. You can drive to and hike around some of the glaciers, like Exit Glacier, but the best way to see this park is to get out on the water. Most trips start from Seward, and go out through Resurrection Bay and into the smaller bays and lagoons nearby, including Aialik Bay, Cataract Cove, and Northwestern Lagoon.

Unless you're a very experienced sea kayaker, you can't rent kayaks to do your own trip. We went with an outfitter, Kayak Adventures Worldwide, and it was absolutely the right move -- the conditions in the fjords can be unpredictable and even dangerous, and it was reassuring to be with folks who knew the area inside and out. We had two guides on our trip: Dave, the company owner, and Jamie, an experienced guide he was training to lead this particular trip. Both were warm, enthusiastic, and super-knowledgeable.This company works hard to be environmentally aware, and to educate as well as lead fun trips. The night before our trip, we had an orientation meeting, in which we talked about gear and safety, got set with PFDs (hardcore life jackets), spray skirts, etc, and chatted with the guides about what we hoped to see (me: Orcas, Orcas, and did I mention orcas?! Someone went to Sea World a few times too many as an impressionable kid :-)

Aialik Glacier. Notice the bits of ice floating in the bay.
 J. had done a trip with KAW a few years ago, to Aialik Bay.  This time, we went to Northwestern Lagoon, which is farther out in the Fjords. Josh thought both trips were wonderful, but I'm glad we went to Northwestern. Since Aialik is a shorter boat trip from Seward, it's where  most kayaking and tour boat trips go. Crowded isn't quite the right word, but you're certainly not alone . Northwestern, on the other hand, is spectacularly isolated. We were out for four days and didn't see another kayaker.

View from the water taxi, heading into Cataract Cove
Our trip began with a water taxi ride out to Northwestern lagoon. Getting out to the lagoon took about 4 hours o, but that was with stops to look at wildlife (Humpbacks! Puffins! Otters!) and drop off other kayakers in a different location.The boat captain knew so much about the area, and was sure to point out all the sights. We even slowed down at one point to allow Dall's Porpoises to frolic in the wake of the boat, while we laid flat out on the ramp at the back of the boat, mere inches from where they surfaced out of the the water. Dall's Porpoises are a type of porpoise that looks a lot like a miniature orca, and apparently they love playing around slow-moving boats. Unfortunately, the little guys moved so fast I wasn't able to get a good picture of them.

Kayaks pulled up on the beach in Northwestern Lagoon
The water taxi dropped us off at a beach where we would camp for the first two nights of our trip. In the shadow of several glaciers, our camp was stunningly beautiful.  Perhaps the most gorgeous place I've ever camped, though there are some places in the high Sierra that give this site a run for it's money.

Campsite on Northwestern Lagoon
All night, we could hear the crack and thunder of glaciers giving way and tumbling down toward the water. Usually, by the time we looked, we couldn't even see the slide that had made the sound, though. Out in the bay, seals glided by, occasionally popping their heads up to check us out. We called them the spy seals, and as soon as we spotted them, they'd quickly slip back under the water.

Walking across moraine to the foot of a glacier.
  On the first afternoon, after being dropped off by the water taxi, we did a short paddle out to the end of the lagoon, where we could hike to the foot of a glacier. For those of you not up on the geology, a glacier forms when the melting of snow and ice (called ablation) is less than the accumulation over a long period of time (centuries, even). Glaciers are made up of densely impacted ice, which gives them their often turquoise color -- that's the only spectrum of light that can get through the ice.

 Glaciers are not stationary objects. They move, due to the slope of the surface and the pressure of snow and ice above. Sometimes from a distance a glacier will look almost like a river -- you can actually see the pattern of the flow. In addition, glaciers retreat over time, or grow smaller, a process that is rapidly accelerating in the modern world, thanks to global warming. As glaciers move, they pick up gravel and huge boulders from the earth beneath them. This gravel is left in the wake of glaciers as they retreat, in the form a moraine -- gravel and boulders. That's what we're walking across in the photo above.

Nose of the glacier, up close
Although from a distance it had looked like the edge of the ice came right down to the moraine, once we were close, we could see that it was, instead, a high cliff.  Notice the hiker to the left side of the frame, for scale.
After our short exploration, we came back to camp, made dinner, and had a relaxing first evening. This was the view from our first campsite at twilight. Even in late August, and fairly far south in Alaska, darkness comes late, and twilight seems to linger forever.This picture was taken at probably10:30pm.

 The following day, we paddled out into the lagoon and got up close and personal with some calving glaciers. More on that soon!

No comments: