East Arm of Glacier Bay, AK 14 June–12 July 2014

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Jul 17, 2014.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    A few years ago, I cut short an Inside Passage trip that was supposed to end with me paddling through Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska. Although the trip was still awesome, I've always regretted not making it to see the glaciers. To make up for missing them last time I was in Alaska, I flew to Gustavus this summer and spent four weeks solo, paddling the East Arm of Glacier Bay.







    I brought my Feathercraft Klondike with me, an enormous two-seater folding kayak. This was my first time flying with the boat, and by breaking it up into two large duffel bags, it traveled surprisingly easily. Airfare to Gustavus is cheap from Seattle, much more so than taking the ferry would have been. The ferry is certainly a more relaxing mode of transportation, but between sailing time and stopover time in Juneau, it would have an extra week of travel each way.

    Flying the boat did add 150 bucks each way in baggage fees, but that was still cheaper than the ferry or the cost of renting a kayak in Gustavus. You can't fly with bear spray or used camp stoves, but I was able to borrow bear spray from Deb at the Blue Heron bed-and-breakfast in Gustavus, and I bought myself one of those cool MSR reactor stoves, which I had been wanting for some time now anyway. Unfortunately, because I'd never used an LPG stove before, I had no idea how much gas to bring, and I ended up running out of stove fuel three weeks into my four-week paddle. I developed quite the taste for peanut butter...for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.







    The bay itself was beautiful. The mountains came down right to the sea, so there was a descending cascade of white clouds, blue sky, white snow, gray rocks, green trees, gray beach, and blue water. The colors all seemed to match each other very harmoniously.

    Right from the beginning, there were hundreds of sea ducks and sea otters scattered around the small Beardsley Archipelago at the south end of the bay. Because Glacier Bay is a national park, there is a strict limit to the number of motorboats that can be in the bay at any one time, so the birds and animals were not wary like they are on other parts of the Pacific coast. They just bobbed up and down, looking at this strange visitor.

    Continued in next post
     

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  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    I saw 73 birds species on this trip, which is pretty good for this type of environment. Highlights were Black-legged Kittiwakes nesting in a cliffside colony of 2,500, tiny Arctic Terns plunging into the water with soft little splunks, and the hundreds of Tufted Puffins nesting in cliff-top burrows on South Marble Island. The puffins were constantly flying in and out of their little tunnel nests, and often they would fly by my boat to take a gander at me. It was so much fun to see that I spent several days camped in the vicinity, paddling out to visit the puffins' island on different days and at different times. On one visit, I found a single Horned Puffin mixed in with the Tufted flock. Seeing a Horned Puffin had been an ambition of mine since childhood, and now I have finally done it.







    It was a good trip for mammals, too. In addition to the sea otters, there were sea lions, Harbor Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Brown and Black Bears, Moose, and even Mountain Goats, visible through binoculars on the slopes above the bay. Mountain Goats from a kayak—now I really have seen everything!







    There were also glaciers in Glacier Bay, if you can imagine. Some of them only came down to a gravel floodplain near the water, but others actually reached the water and formed icebergs. Paddling among the icebergs was really cool. They were constantly rolling over and collapsing without warning, so I felt a bit like a frog crossing a highway. Well, a slow-moving highway, anyway. The bergs also washed ashore at high tide and sometimes formed a kind of ice maze that I could wander through on foot.

    The tidewater glacier was constantly groaning and cracking and booming as pieces of it shifted and broke and fell. Sometimes it sounded like rumbling thunder, other times like a sharp cannon shot. I saw one enormous iceberg calve off and fall into the sea. Although I braced for a wave, there was none. Perhaps I wasn't close enough: the icebergs formed a protective barrier around the foot of the glacier, and folding kayaks are not noted for their abilities as icebreakers.

    The shore-based glaciers were also cool. I thought I could just walk across the gravel floodplain and touch the ice, but the glaciers were melting so fast they produced great torrents of water that coalesced into streams. These were waist-deep, freezing cold, and rushing at 20 miles an hour, fast enough that I could hear boulders at the bottom banging together. I decided against wading across these streams, and there were so many of them they formed a kind of ring around the glaciers, preventing me from approaching too closely. Both on land and on water, getting to the ice was harder than it looked!

    Continued in next post
     

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  3. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Of course, I tried to time my daily paddling with the tides, riding the flood up into the bay and the ebb back out. To my surprise, however, there was a southward current even during flood tides. Sometimes this current was strong enough that my speed dropped to 1.5 miles per hour—not good news if you've set yourself a 12- or 15-mile day! Although I'm not positive, I suspect the constant current is due to the constant melting of the glaciers. The whole bay is essentially a giant river in some sense. The current made the going up a slow process, but it sure was a welcome boost coming back down.







    In the entire four weeks, I only spoke to other people on one occasion about two weeks in to the trip, when I encountered two rangers patrolling the park by kayak. The cruise ships are limited to two per day, and they only go up the West Arm, and many parts of the East Arm are closed to motor boats altogether. The result is an environment with hardly anyone around. What few kayakers there are tend to be concentrated around the glaciers, so if you want to get off by yourself for a few days or weeks, it's easy to do.

    I saw many amazing things. I saw Red-throated Loons dancing together in unison, wings outstretched and feet paddling furiously to raise their entire bodies out of the water. I saw a youthful Brown Bear at a distance of ten feet (three meters), foraging for mussels at low tide. Gulls and terns sat on icebergs and watched me paddling up while they floated down. I saw the orange crown of an Orange-crowned Warblers (it's harder to do than it sounds), and was attacked by a mother Sooty Grouse defending her chicks.

    I was also attacked by mosquitos and midges, which were present in great numbers in many locations. I only had a worthless all-natural insect repellent, so often I would have to do rain gear just to save my skin from bites. Next time, I would like to bring a headnet and some more robust chemical repellents.








    It rained a lot, of course, but that was made up for by the enormously long days. The sun shone for 19 hours every day, and even when it went below the horizon, it didn't go far. Nights were nothing more than a dim twilight. I didn't see a single star the entire time. Sometimes on rainy days, I would just stay on shore, reading and strolling on the beach rather than deal with packing up and paddling in poor weather. Then again, sometimes on sunny days, I would just stay on shore, reading and strolling on the beach to take advantage of the warm, relaxing rays. With twenty-eight days of travel time, there's never any hurry to do anything.

    I'm not saying I wasn't glad for a shower and a hot sandwich back in Gustavus when it was over. That was the best sandwich I ever ate.

    On the way out, weather grounded all aircraft in Gustavus for several days. I guess the airport does not have all the terminal guidance equipment to bring in planes on foggy days. Deb at the Blue Heron arranged a boat to take me and some other tourists to Juneau so we could intercept our flights there. That was a very Alaskan end to a very beautiful, wild Alaskan trip.

    Alex
     

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  4. JohnAbercrombie

    JohnAbercrombie Paddler

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    Thanks for the trip report and the photos - very enjoyable reading! :big_thumb
     
  5. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Great trip, terrific report, Alex. What a place!

    Did you take two tents? Saw two in one of the photos.

    Sounds like no bear issues.

    How many of those bearproof canisters were required for your food?

    Any big changes in food compared to a two week trip?
     
  6. Dan_Millsip

    Dan_Millsip Paddler & Admin

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    Nice.

    Excellent narrative. Fabulous photos. Looks and sounds like it was a very fulfilling trip. Thanks.
     
  7. mbiraman

    mbiraman Paddler

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    Great report. Looks like an amazing place.
     
  8. greg0rn

    greg0rn Paddler

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    Alex, as usual, very eloquent, descriptive and well documented with the photos. A pleasure to read. Thanks.

    By the way, I like my Klondike, too. Easy, relaxed, safe. I learned how to change its rocker by pushing lower longerons one more notch. It becomes more manoeuvrable.
     
  9. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Thank you all for the kind words. I'm very glad to share photos of such a wonderful, wild place.

    Dave, the second tent was not actually a tent at all but just a rainfly with poles. It rains a lot up there, so I wanted to have a shelter for inclement weather where I could cook and eat food and change into and out of dry clothes. The rainfly was not very well suited for this purpose, because it was too short for me to do anything but crawl into it and sit on the ground. I would like to get a bigger shelter for future long trips.

    I brought five bear barrels, three from home and two loaned to me for free by the rangers. All that was still actually not enough space to carry twenty-eight days' food, so I ended up putting all the canned goods into a dry bag, figuring bears wouldn't be able to see or smell it in there. I find each barrel holds about four person-days worth of food, manufacturers' exaggerated claims notwithstanding.

    Greg, that's a good tip about the boat. I'll try that next big trip I do.

    Alex
     
  10. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Alex, a 10 x 10 tarp with grommets around the perimeter probably more useful than a rainfly. Scrounge some driftwood for supports, most places. Maybe not Glacier Bay!

    Siltarps are really compact and lightweight.
     
  11. datakoll

    datakoll Paddler

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    Max trip report ! Photo composition pleasing. Fluid.

    What did your 4 week gear weigh ? 4 week food ? freeze dried peanut butter ?

    I opted out of going for lack of preparation time. When I leave here, I leave for 2-3 years.

    I was watching weather in Juneau, Juneau the storage area site for extra equipment. And weather there was rain rain. People I spoke with complained...they wanted to move to Winthrop.

    So there you are in the typical online AK photos of 5 tanned topless guys lounging on a warm sunlit beach with those mtns in background.

    Checking your Gustavus weather in Weather Underground..yeah you had sunshine with misty rain while Juneau was drenched for months.

    Maybe you would try getting a piece published ?
     
  12. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Datakoll, thank you for your gracious feedback. I flew up to Gustavus with 4 large bags, each of which weighed between 35 and 50 pounds (15–22 kg). 2 of those bags contained my folding kayak, paddle, dry-suit, life jacket, and other boating gear. The other two contained my clothing and camping equipment, which for Alaska meant rain gear, rubber boots, ordinary but waterproof hiking boots, tarp, large tent, sleeping pad, stove and cookware, and some warming layers.

    The bags meant I had to pay baggage fees both coming and going, which was quite expensive—as much as the airfare itself. For trips of up to two weeks' duration, it would be cheaper to rent a kayak in Gustavus than to fly in a folding boat. For longer trips, the folding boat would be cheaper, assuming of course that you already own one.

    Bringing in your own hardshell by ferry is also possible, but that would again be very expensive. It would also shave several days off your kayaking time. Taking the ferry also introduces the possibility of having a few days' layover in Juneau while you wait for the Gustavus departure, which might be a good or bad thing depending on your schedule and interests.

    The layover could be avoided by chartering a small boat from Juneau to Gustavus, but then you'd be adding yet another expense. Chartering might nonetheless be cheaper than hoteling in Juneau while waiting for the Gustavus ferry. You could, on the other hand, just camp in your tent in or near Juneau while you were waiting, and that would save you money but also add to the inconvenience and hassle.

    So there's a million different permutations, but the takeaway is this: there is no cheap way to do a long kayak trip in Glacier Bay.

    I bought my food in Gustavus. There are two stores: one that sells traditional grocery-store type food, and one that sells natural, organic health food. I shopped at the health food store because it was walking distance from the Blue Heron bed and breakfast where I was staying the first night. The quality of the health food was very high, but so was its price: I spent about $650 USD on food for four weeks. The traditional store would have been cheaper, but the food would not have been of such high quality, and I would have needed to borrow or hire a car to transport it. If I had it to do over, I would probably have shopped at the traditional store.

    As for the topless tanning photos, I have mercifully decided to spare you all from those. Sturgess Island was the only really good place for laying out anyway—it was the only place I found that was totally bug-free. I liked it so much I spent six days there. It wasn't all sunbathing, though; I used Sturgess as a base from which to make forays to the the seabird colonies on South Marble Island, and that was one of the greatest highlights of this trip. I hope you decide to go someday.

    Alex
     
  13. WaterMark

    WaterMark Paddler

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    :big_thumb Great photos and trip report! Thanks for posting them :D

    Very cool to hear about all the birds, especially the puffins. Do you carry a bird book with you?