Kayak Camping in Glacier Bay

Kayak Camping in Glacier Bay

We started our 2-month Alaska-Yukon-Northwest Territories trip by visiting Southeast Alaska. This is how we found ourselves in Prince Rupert, boarding the Alaska Marine Highways System ferry M/V Malaspina at 2:30 am. The ferry ride to Juneau was about 30 hours long, and fortunately the ferry allowed camping on the deck.

We sleepily set up our tent in the middle of the night on the wet deck of the boat (it was raining pretty steadily at this point). We went to bed as two other tents were being set up. But after a rainy night, the two other tent groups packed up and retreated to the dry comfort of the ferry’s cabins, leaving us alone on the “tent deck.” This was a good test for our tent’s water integrity, and it failed. The rain fly had held up admirably but there was at least one hole in the bottom of the tent, where some water leaked in and wetted the bottoms of our sleeping rolls. We managed the water for the rest of the trip with paper towels.

After going past one rainy/fog-covered island after another for the morning and the afternoon, in the evening the weather took a turn for the better and the sky cleared up. It was perfect timing, as we entered the most beautiful part of the journey – a thin passage between tree-covered islands and islets called the Wrangell Narrows.

Along with taking in the scenery, we made use of the ferry’s great facilities – a recliner lounge, some nice showers and a pretty decent cafeteria. Another relatively dry sleep on the deck, and we arrived at Juneau. We really liked Juneau, though we had to spend a decent amount of time there filling our tent with water, identifying leaks, and then repairing them. Here’s what we found:

Next up we had another ferry ride to Gustavus – this one at least did not leave in the middle of the night, but we still had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning for a 5:30 am check-in. Arriving in Gustavus, we were surprised to see just how tiny this town was (we learned the population was about 400). There wasn’t really much around, but we did find a small grocery store and a cute little cafe.

We did an orientation with the National Park Service, where we learned in detail about the intertidal flush (more on this later), and also confirmed, much to our dismay, that we needed to pack out every last scrap of toilet paper that we used. Lisa in particular was quite apprehensive, as this was her first backcountry experience. We then got our bear-proof canisters, packed all of our bags and met up with Leah from the kayak rental company, who reviewed our route with us. We learned that a tidal cut we were planning to take would actually be impassable, as there was no tide high enough during our trip. What this meant is that instead of doing 22 km over two days of paddling, we had to do 25 km in one day of paddling, to get to the same location. And our new route had potential to get very windy.

We were a bit nervous about whether all of our gear would fit into our kayak, and unfortunately it did not. So, we had to cut some of the items we had planned to bring (such as hiking boots, which turned out to be unnecessary anyway) and rearrange one of our larger duffel bags into smaller dry bags. And then, much to our relief, everything fit!

With that, we went for a nice Last Supper at the Glacier Bay Lodge and got to bed early.

Heading Into the Wilderness

The next morning, we woke up way too early again (5:30) to head down to the harbour, where we loaded our kayak and gear onto the boat that would be taking us out to start our adventure. The boat took tourists out daily to explore Glacier Bay, and we were happy to learn that we would get dropped off near the end of the tour, so we got to enjoy a few hours and eat one last non-dehydrated meal. The tour was narrated by a park ranger, and we got to see some puffins, sea otters, seals, mountain goats, and bears.

We also stopped by several glaciers, including Margerie Glacier, which calved while we sat and watched (and listened).

We also stopped at the most beautiful tidewater glacier in the park – Johns Hopkins.

As we approached our drop-off point, we were briefed on the process to unload. It would be hectic, we would get yelled at, and we needed to wear our sandals, as we would most likely climb off the boat into water that would top our rubber boots.

Drop off was exactly as described, and after a whirlwind of moving gear and kayaks, we found ourselves on the beach, alone with a few other kayakers and probably some bears. There was no backing out now! One of the other kayakers, who had already been out for a few days, told us there was a lot of bear activity in the area. In fact, she had encountered a bear that showed a disturbing amount of interest in her…getting into the water, swimming towards her and then following her tracks on shore. This was a worrying start to our trip.

We loaded up our kayak with all of our gear (for the first of MANY times) and launched out into the cove, excited to begin our grand adventure. The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful for Glacier Bay. Once we paddled around the corner of our drop-off point and stopped hearing any man-made sounds other than the rhythmic splish-splash of our paddles in the incredibly calm water, we realized that we had entered a very special place.

It didn’t take long before we heard the breath of a very large animal – humpback whale! We could not see it, as we were surrounded by islands and islets, but we could hear it echoing around us. During our orientation, the ranger suggested banging on the hull of the boat to make noise so the whales would be able to perceive our location on the water’s surface. We stayed close to shore and banged away frantically on our kayak at random intervals to deter any whales from surfacing under our boat and capsizing it.

Soon, we were surrounded by a variety of wildlife – whales and otters and bears, oh my! It was breathtaking, and even more so because when we stopped paddling and just sat in the kayak, we could hear things you’d never hear from a tour boat. We were in a non-motorized area of the bay, and at this point there weren’t even any other paddlers around. So, for this moment we got to be the only members of the audience to the most amazing symphony of natural sounds we’d ever heard. The deep reverberating echo that followed the initial huff of the humpback’s breath, sounding more like the air rushing out of a massive cave than something made by a living animal. The baby gasps of the porpoises as they rushed around the bay. The assorted calls, shrieks, and chirps of a veritable aviary of birds. And did we mention, not a hint of human sounds?

Then, as if on cue, a large grizzly came out of the trees on an island in front of us, no more than 10 m from our boat. Whoa! He snuffled around in the grass, eating something or other, and paid us no heed aside from a couple of disinterested glances. We sat transfixed, barely able to whisper to each other about how incredible this encounter was. We figured this was probably the best bear encounter we would ever experience, but we would soon be proven wrong.

Camping

After paddling around for awhile and trying to visit a number of sea otters (which were unfortunately quite shy), it was time to get off the water and set up camp. We pulled into a little cove that we had been told was a great spot for camping. We were a bit surprised to find that there was little space between the thick forest (where we imagined huge menacing grizzlies were lurking just beyond our line of sight) and the steep rocks leading down to the intertidal zone.

However, we figured we would be able to find something suitable, so we unloaded our kayak and hauled it up the beach (which turned out to be quite the workout). At this point we weren’t entirely confident in identifying the high tide line, and were a bit nervous about waking up to find our kayak had floated away. From the NPS orientation, we knew that if we found moss, we were safe. But alas, this site had no moss to be found, so to be sure we jammed our kayak up into the trees and tied it up.

We had also been warned to avoid setting up camp near berry bushes, bear trails, or places with fresh bear signs. And we had to leave enough room between the tent and the high tide line to let bears pass unimpeded. We wandered around the cove, but everywhere we looked seemed to break one or more of these rules, which certainly meant that we would be attacked by bears in the night. Maybe we were overthinking it, but nowhere seemed to be safe. Finally, after investigating and rejecting at least 5 potential campsites, we found a suitable spot of relatively flat rock.

When we say relatively flat, we mean curved and non-flat, but not terrible. Not wanting to keep looking any more, and certainly not wanting to reload the kayak and go somewhere else, we decided to stay. After setting up the tent, we realized that the bottom of the tent was bent over the rock like a banana, so we piled bags into each end and put our sleeping rolls on top (more comfortable than it sounds).

Because of the shape of the rock, we had to have one tent door facing the woods, and one tent door right at the top of a relatively steep slope running down towards to the water. Bryan took the side facing the woods so that he could protect Lisa if a bear attacked, while Lisa took the side facing the water. This was probably not the best arrangement, because Bryan was terrified of bears coming out of the woods, while Lisa was not too worried about that.  Lisa was worried about rolling down the rock and into the ocean, while Bryan was not worried about that. But that was how we set up, and that is what we worried about.

While we made dinner in the intertidal zone, Bryan was so worried that he kept one hand on the bear spray and looked at the woods at least once every 20 seconds. Every time he looked, he expected to see a large grizzly bearing down on them. We made a lot of noise, talking to our imaginary bear friends every time we walked anywhere, especially if we were going towards the trees. Finally it was time to go to bed, and that was the worst part of all for Bryan. Once in the tent, there was no way to see any approaching bear. So that meant that every flapping of the tent fly in the wind, every scratch of a bird in a tree, every rustle of a leaf was surely a large bear walking over towards us. And we were human-flavoured sausage rolls, lying there helplessly in that very thin and flimsy tent.

We had brought earplugs for the trip, but Lisa wanted to fall asleep listening to all of the soothing sounds of nature. However, those same sounds caused Bryan’s heart to race and a cold sweat to break out on his skin. This happened with each and every single sound he heard. He cannot remember ever having been so scared in his entire life. So, he finally gave in and took some Dramamine to lull himself to sleep. But that was not enough. As much as he wanted to keep his earplugs out so that he could hear some advance warning of an attacking bear, instead he just lay awake for what seemed like hours, constantly feeling like he was going to have a heart attack. Finally, he gave in and popped in his earplugs to allow himself to sleep.

The next morning we got up and were relieved to discover that nothing had been carried away by the tide, and that we hadn’t been visited by any bears during the night. (Bryan had never been so relieved that he was alive when he woke up.) So we walked the 100 yards to our cache of bear canisters, picked them up and trudged down another 100 yards into the intertidal zone to prepare and eat our breakfast.

As we had learned in orientation, we had set up a triangle with at least 100 yards between our spots for a) cooking/eating, b) storing food, and c) setting up our tent. 100 yards doesn’t sound like much, but when repeatedly trudging over rocky and/or slippery surfaces, while carrying assorted bear cans and/or dry bags, wearing big rubber boots, over and over again, it definitely adds up.

After breakfast, it was time for our first intertidal flush experience (of the #2 variety).

Intertidal flush procedure:

  1. Grab roll of toilet paper, small ziploc bag to store used toilet paper, and hand sanitizer
  2. Find a spot which looks like a good natural “flush zone”
  3. Wade into ocean in rubber boots, being careful not to exceed height of boots
  4. Squat down and try to keep your balance while unloading your burden into the flush zone
  5. Try not to worry about your fiance(e) (who is standing not too far away with bear spray in hand, in order to defend you while in this vulnerable position) hearing anything
  6. Wipe and fold up toilet paper to minimize the visual trauma (ziploc bags are clear, after all)
  7. Carefully place toilet paper inside ziploc bag, being sure to avoid contaminating the outside of the bag
  8. Carefully squeeze excess air out of ziploc bag and then seal it, again avoiding contamination
  9. If the ziploc still has space, pass it to your fiance(e) for them to use (we did not have enough bags to have one per person per usage) and hope they will still love you despite what they may see (no matter how hard they try not to see)
  10. If the ziploc is full, put it into a larger ziploc, avoiding contamination, and store in bear canister (NOT the one with the food)
  11. Get the hand sanitizer from your fiance(e), clean your hands and try to forget what just happened
  12. Bonus tip: if you are going second in the same flush zone, do all you can to avoid looking anywhere near the spot your fiance(e) used. Seriously.

Fortunately, except for a mistake violation of #12 by one party, we executed the procedure without any serious hiccups. And we still loved each other.

So having survived our first night and our first real intertidal flush experience, we loaded up our kayak and hit the water, about 3 hours after getting up. Yes, it took 3 hours to break camp and get going in the morning, and that’s without any dawdling or relaxing (but plenty of trudging up and down the beach while hauling gear).

The Bear Necessities

We spent our second day paddling around the same area as the first day, Hugh Miller Inlet, instead of sticking to our original itinerary, which would have required us to move on. Initially we had planned to go all the way to Johns Hopkins inlet, which required significant paddling distances for three days in a row. With this change in plans, we could take it easier for two of the days, and only had the one big day of paddling. We decided on this easier itinerary because we figured it would give us the best chance at having more spectacular wildlife encounters. We were overall more interested in the wildlife than the glaciers, and felt satisfied with our experiences of the glaciers from the tour boat. As a bonus, it would also give us the best chance at still being engaged at the end of the trip.

Paddling around the inlet, we encountered a playful pod of porpoises and a bear that was chomping away in the grass like a dog, along with assorted birds. Unfortunately, we did not get much in the way of otter action.

We set up camp on a beautiful flat grassy area extending off of a very small island. It was the complete opposite of our last campsite – flat, soft, and far away from the trees. It also had a beautiful view. We found some nice patches of moss, so were confident about placing our tent. But they were a significant distance from our landing beach, and we did not want to haul our kayak the extra 75 m it would take to get there. Instead, we found a spot that we were fairly sure would be safe, and tied our kayak up securely. However, we were still nervous enough about the prospect of losing our kayak that we set an alarm for 12:45 am (45 minutes before high tide) to check on things.

We then found ourselves in the extremely unexpected situation of having too much sun in Glacier Bay, and had to set up our rain tarp shelter to provide a bit of shade!

As we were walking back to our tent before bed, we noticed a large grizzly wandering along above the high tide line on the adjacent island. Unfortunately, the tide was so low that our islet was now connected to that island, and the bear was no more than 50 m from our tent! We anxiously stood in place and waited for it to move along, but it was certainly not in any kind of hurry. After at least 20 minutes of waiting in fear, the bear finally moved far enough away that we lost sight of it and were safe to get back to our tent. As you can imagine, we had a bit of a restless sleep. But surprisingly, Bryan was not nearly as terrified as he had been the first night.

After a couple hours of sleep, we woke to our alarm to go check on our kayak. We put on our headlamps, and talked to each other to warn any lurking bears of our approach. This did not do much to ease our worries of bumping into a bear in the dark. Fortunately, our kayak was comfortably clear of the high tide, and we went back to the tent to sleep.

After waking up in the morning, we went to grab our bear cans and then use the intertidal flush. As we headed towards a good flush zone, Lisa saw a large grizzly come out of trees no more than 30 m from us! Ack!! Internally we freaked out, but we stayed relatively calm as the bear basically ignored us and wandered along the treeline, heading in the right direction (away from us). We hurriedly did our flushing, helped along by the bear. Which is to say, seeing a bear that large and that close was more effective than any laxative you could get at a pharmacy. As we were finishing up we saw the bear head down to the intertidal zone. At that point we lost sight of the bear, but we knew that it could be heading right towards us.

We made a beeline for our tent, and quickly packed everything up. We had been planning to launch a bit later, so the tide would be slightly higher. This would have saved us from carrying our kayak so far over the long beach that was covered with fairly large rocks, mussels, and lots of squishy mud. But with the risk of running into the bear looming in our minds, we no longer had this luxury. The nice thing about being under threat of a grizzly bear attack was that we were suddenly and miraculously able to pack up and launch our kayak in record time. That is a second natural property of bears – stimulant. All of our bear-fuelled adrenaline was the probably the equivalent of a 4-pack of Redbull.

Once we were on the water, we breathed a huge sigh of relief at having narrowly escaped the island and its resident bear. Then, as we paddled around the end of the island, we saw the bear right down by the water, feasting on some mussels on a big rock!

Even though we were safe in our kayak, our hearts were still pounding at being so close to a bear, as well as imagining the potential outcome if we had taken much longer to get off that island. If we had taken another 30 minutes to launch, the bear might have come right around the corner and been much too close for comfort! As soon as we stopped paddling and talking, it was so quiet, and we were so close (maybe 8 m), that we could actually hear the bear munching and crunching away at the mussels. After watching it eat for a bit, we got to see it walk up the beach and simultaneously flip over a large rock and pee. Bears just don’t care!

The Glaciers

After our hurried bear send-off, we had about 25 km to paddle. So, we ate breakfast on the kayak, and then set off around the tip of the Gilbert Peninsula. Fortunately, there was no wind or waves to speak of. Unfortunately, we were leaving the non-motorized zone of the park and were now going up the side of cruise ship alley. Ugh.

We had been warned about cruise ship wake in the orientation, so we were a bit nervous. After the first cruise ship passed us, we made sure we were far enough away from shore, and then waited. It took about 10-15 minutes for us to see and hear waves crashing against the shore down the channel from us, and to see what appeared to be menacing whitecaps coming towards us! Five minutes later, we were still sitting there, and finally the wake hit us. The swells were high, but so wide and undulating that we felt no risk in our kayak. And after that, we did not worry any more about being swamped by a monster wake, but we were still careful about each one we encountered.

Our long day of paddling was tiring but still enjoyable, and we were happy we had taken some time prior to this trip to improve our paddling technique (with classes and a practice overnight trip). Our instructor’s sage advice of “push air, don’t pull water” echoed in our heads throughout the day, and kept us from getting sore or overly fatigued even over such a long distance.

Finally, we arrived at our next camping spot right by Reid Glacier, and went through the whole rigamarole of unpacking our kayak and setting up camp (by this point, we were counting down the number of times we had left to do this). We had a few other groups of people with us, but after our close bear encounters we were happy to have greater safety in numbers.

On our fourth day, we took a leisurely paddle up to the Lamplugh Glacier. We marvelled at the size and texture of this tidewater glacier, and took some time to enjoy the cold wind blowing off of it – nature’s AC! (Again, we were shocked that we were more concerned about cooling off in Glacier Bay rather than staying dry and warm – at this point we still had not been rained on at all).

For our last night, we paddled back to Ptarmigan Creek and set up camp with several other groups who were waiting to get picked up the following day. We had finished all the paddling and were relieved to set up camp for the last time!

In these beautiful surroundings, with the passing cruise ships done for the day, we decided to go for a swim in the glacial waters. It was cold, but also refreshingly awesome.

The next morning was leisurely, as we packed up our gear for the last time and prepared to get picked up by the boat. After enjoying the silent still waters and fog and low-lying clouds clinging to the surrounding shores and peaks, our final quiet moments were interrupted by a cruise ship barreling up the channel. The loudspeakers on the deck echoed across the bay, cutting to shreds our enjoyment of the spectacular morning. After that, in a way the spell was broken, and we sat with the other kayakers being picked up with us and prepped our gear.

Finally, the boat arrived and picked us up. It was time for our return to civilization – and it was a harsh one, at that. After being yelled at by the crew during the hasty unloading and reloading of kayak campers on and off the tour boat, we entered a much more grating world than we were prepared for. Our tour boat was crowded with screaming children running up and down the stairs, ignored by their parents as they blocked the passageways and impeded movement about the ship. The adults weren’t much better either; a bunch of them seemed more interested in drinking than in taking in all of the surrounding nature.

As we looked for seats, we felt like aliens in the cacophony surrounding us. It was like we had entered Milton’s Pandemonium, or Dante’s Inferno. These people just didn’t get it. They didn’t know how beautiful the silence of nature was. And we just couldn’t take it. Bryan was especially sensitive and needed to spend significant portions of the return trip on the outside deck, away from the noise. Or at least, as far away as he could get – there was no way to fully escape anywhere on that boat.

We left Glacier Bay happy that the trip had been so spectacular, and even more appreciative of fresh meals, showers and flushing toilets (or even just outhouses)! But we were also sad that our glimpse into pristine natural wilderness was over, at least for now.

We put together a video of some highlights here:

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