Katrina’s journal about her Glacier Bay National Park East Arm Expedition
18 August to 24 August 2019
Since leaving Canada in 2017 following the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency I’ve had it in my mind to make further adventures into North America. I chose Glacier Bay National Park Alaska because of my fascination with glaciers fuelled by my drive down the Icefields Parkway in 2016. I was entranced by the glaciers and equally saddened by the fact that they are receding at a disturbing pace. As an environmentalist I have been alarmed by the climate change I have seen in my lifetime and the impact this is having on our natural world.
I set my sights on an expedition in Glacier Bay National Park for this reason, to visit tide water glaciers. What better way to see the Park than as a kayaker on a leave no trace wilderness expedition. I was privileged to travel with my dear friend and companion Craig, a fellow kayaker from the Patterson Lakes Canoe Club where we’ve been meeting every week with the touring group for a paddle on Port Phillip Bay.
The adventure began as we flew out of Juneau for Gustavus. No sooner were we in the air than the pilot said “Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing”. The crew didn’t have time to get out of their seats, it was the shortest and most exhilarating jet plane flight I’ve taken. The pilot prepared us as we were taxiing on the runway, she said that we’d be flying at the low altitude of 1600 metres. We literally skimmed over the mountain top, the trees were so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. It was an overcast day with plenty of turbulence, the plane was buffeted around but came in for a strong landing.
Gustavus our home for 2 days prior to the adventure and two days following is a small town not accessible by road, but serviced by a ferry and airport. There are no police in town or local government, the locals approximately 400 people are super friendly and courteous, they even stop at Stop signs. The town is centred around Four Corners a cross road intersection. Also the name of our cottage that was located in the same place. A beautiful two storey cabin hosted by Kate. We had the use of bicycles for our stay and rode around exploring all that Gustavus offered. We travelled to the dock where the ferry comes in and watched as Sea lions badgered the fishing charter boats for scraps from their catch. We visited the macabre ruin of a plane accident in 1957, the local library, opportunity shop, but mostly we enjoyed our little cabin comforts making final preparations before the start of our kayak expedition. I could easily see myself living in a place like Gustavus in a small cabin enjoying the friendships and community that small towns like this offer.
Craig and I were thrilled by our luck, this was the last trip for summer and we were the only participants with Sean our guide who led us on an excellent trip up the East Arm of the Bay. Sean had some 10 years experience as a guide in the region. The benefit to us, tapping into his experience was enormous. Sean provided a tour working with the tides rather than against them, camping locations carefully chosen to provide for the safety of us as participants with respect for the local wildlife. It would be his last season as a guide.
On the first day we set off late, leaving the docks at Bartlett Cove at 2:30pm due to the strong wind. We only paddled one and a half hours to our first nights camp on the tip of a small island that was disconnected from the rest of the island at high tide. As we entered our first camping location Sean shouted out ‘People coming in’ as we circumnavigated the small island on foot looking for any animal that might put our stay at risk. We found bear scat and a bear cub skeleton, lots of strawberry vines that were eaten bare but no bears. We had been provided with Bear spray / Capsicum spray for the journey and we would be fortunate not to have to use it.
We set up our tent for the night before joining Sean in the kitchen area. As would be the norm throughout the trip our campsites were at least 100 metres from the kitchen and the bathroom area in the opposite direction to the kitchen. As we unpacked our super lite Helinox chairs Sean looked on disappointingly. He asked where the chairs were when we were looking for extra space in the kayaks at Bartlett Cove. Our combined gear had exploded onto the top deck of both kayaks as we struggled to pack all the necessities for the journey. I admitted sheepishly that I’d mentioned it to Craig at the time that we might need to let the chairs go, however it was decided to keep them on board. Our guides face was of a man unimpressed. Craig suggested we break out the tetra pack of Sauvignon Blanc and we shared a glass with Sean.
It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to life out in the wilderness. Our guide told us we had to toilet below the tide line and leave no trace by collecting our wipes that we use and store them in ziplock bags within another garbage bag and within a special bear canister only for human refuse. Sean educated me on the type of seaweed (known as Rockweed) that he prefers to use instead of paper to clean himself. So when the urge came quickly on the second day I opted for the Rockweed and gave it a good try. Once the shells and refuse caught in it were washed away it worked refreshingly and cleaned well. We set off at the relaxed hour of 10:45am after a short visit from Park Rangers who were camped around the corner. We passed them the day before as we came into make camp. I was just about to remove my top and change when before I knew it there were a group of kayakers upon us. They checked Sean’s permit, talked to us about our journey and were on their way, what a fabulous job I thought.
On our second evening we camped on the tip of a small island in the Beardslee Islands called Christmas Tree (named by our guide) as the trees resembled Christmas Trees. We decorated the trees with our gear drying in the sun. From this vantage point we could see up the West and East Arms of Glacier Bay and across to the Fairweather Ranges huge peaks towering over 4600 metres above us and into the sky. The sunsets only highlighted the beauty of this very special setting.
The two days that we’d been on our journey had surprised me with their beauty and spectacular scenery. I thought the fabulous vistas would only start as we entered the East Arm but I was very wrong. I was thrilled by the beauty and wildlife that the Beardslee Islands offered. We passed rafts of sea otters, loons, seals and other amazing bird life. Sitting at this campsite we were surrounded by sea otters and loons. Whales would be seen as we headed into the East Arm on the following day.
The third day was to be one of several long paddling days with large open water crossings that we managed easily until the wind blew up. We made good speed through to lunch which was our first stop 2 hours in. Heading into the wind we made several more crossings before I asked if we could pull into what appeared to be a nearby beach. It took us at least another hour to get to the beach approximately 3.5 kms away due to battling such strong winds. Sean suggested we wait an hour to see if the wind would abate. Our plan was to camp on Garforth Island a further 9kms away, with only one hour left to make use of the incoming tide. After looking over potential campsites at this stop I was pleased that Craig was as keen to move on as I with his talk about bravado. We were backing each other, trusting our intuition as I know for certain that I did not feel comfortable about camping on this beach for the night. We decided to poke our heads and boats around the corner to determine if we could continue to Garforth Island. I’m certain some of the reasons we wanted to move on were the large bear pit Sean showed us. A bear pit was a large impression dug out of very large rocks where a bear would snooze, cool down and wait for the tide to change before going fishing or fossicking for food. There was bear scat everywhere but fortunately it was not fresh. The camp spot had very large dead branches precariously holding on that looked terribly threatening, something we’d never camp under in Australia. We were also facing a night in a zone closed to overnight campers from May to August 15th due to high bear concentrations. So off we set around the corner and into the wind where it was really blowing. We made very little progress and even though Garforth Island looked like it was just ‘around the corner’ it was possibly a 2 hour paddle given the strong head wind. We decided to head back to Puffin Island, also uncharted territory for Sean, but a site he knew about and had always wanted to camp at. It was a very pleasant spot on the tip of the island with a good vantage point to view the spectacular colours and landscape the East Arm offered up. It was 3.7kms back in a following sea to Puffin Island making our journey about 28kms that day.
Sean was not only our guide but he cooked for us, he had prepared a menu that we would never be wanting more from. I felt as the trip went on that each meal reflected the conditions of the day, for example when it became ice cold in Wachussets Inlet Sean cooked us Chilly for lunch to warm us up, his efforts never went unnoticed.
On our fourth day we set off at 10am in search of water. There was no wind to speak of so we made excellent time to just past Garforth Island. The water clarity was amazing showing many star fish below our kayak. We looked for water along the way and despite seeing some cascading off the mountains as snow melt, it never made it to an accessible location for us to collect until we arrived at Adams Inlet. It was here that an over hanging glacier provided a good stream of water to fill the three dromedaries that Sean brought along for our drinking water. I was surprised that we needed to carry such a large amount of water, each dromedary holding 10 litres, but Sean explained that there was no water accessible in the Beardslee Islands so it was essential to carry.
As we approached Adam’s Inlet the water clarity changed again, it became the colour of a glacier fed lake a brilliant iridescent blue. As we approached our chosen lunch spot I spied a fair coloured 4 legged animal walking along the beach. Sean became immediately excited saying that he thought it might be a Glacier Bear, a bear that he had never seen. I studied the animal with my binoculars, Sean with his monocular. Then Sean said maybe it was a Labrador dog or similar that was out here with people camping out from a boat. I had visions of rescuing a dog lost by campers and vile thoughts of abandoning a poor dog in the wilds of Glacier Bay. Fortunately the animal was a sure footed Mountain goat in the unlikely location of the beach. As Sean and I filled the dromedaries in the glacial stream waters we found some wolf and goat prints leading us to think the goat had been chased down the mountain where they’re more commonly found. Sean thought this goats buddies may have met their demise. Maybe it was our arrival that kept the wolf at bay.
The wind increased again as we moved further into the East Arm with waves broadsiding the kayak. We pulled into Klotz Hill and within a moment of arriving Sean called it quits for the day. Both Craig and I were prepared for more paddling however we were satisfied with our chosen camp for the night. It was a beautifully scenic spot. It even provided a very small sandy beach entry into the sea that allowed Craig to have a quick dip. It’s quite incredible to think he could immerse himself into such cold water that Sean estimated at about 7 degrees. Craig didn’t take his time though, he was out within a few minutes. Encouraged by his efforts I stripped down into my undies and proceeded into the water. I didn’t make it very far, just above my ankles as the pain set in. I’m in awe of any cold water swimmer braving such cold water. The thought of capsizing and the ramifications of such came to the fore. On a crossing possibly miles from the shore capsizing would certainly mean death within 15 minutes unless you had trained and prepared for such cold water temperatures or were wearing a dry suit. I had a wash with some of the famous nearby sea weed and felt better for it after 4 days on the water.
After a beautiful evening sunset we woke to the sounds of light rain on the roof of our tent. I was disappointed because I’d been manifesting warm sunny weather for our journey when the forecast had not been so promising. The weekly forecast from Bartlett Cove was for two days of sun and six of rain. So far we’d been lucky with sun on each day however it was when Sean started complaining about the lack of water as a resource in the park for campers I had an inkling we were done for.
I woke earlier in the morning too, at 12:15am. The nights were always so tranquil, drifting off to sleep was easier than in any place I’ve ever called home. It was this night though that you could easily hear the waves roll across the rocky shoreline until quite late in the evening when the winds finally abated and the stillness crept in. The need to go to the bathroom woke me from my dreams. I heard the sounds of animals in our kitchen knocking over our saucepans looking for food. I had visions of bears or wolves frustratingly rolling our bear canisters of food down the beach and into the bay. I imagined us waking up to find our food canisters had disappeared with the tide, taking our journey with it too. Craig woke up and I told him what I’d heard before he bravely cleared the way for us to quickly leave the tent to go to the bathroom only a short step or two from the tent door. I remembered Sean telling me at the beginning of the expedition that we could always call out to him if need be, but it wasn’t necessary. In the morning light it appeared that all imaginings were just that. The best part about the experience was when Craig held my hand as I felt frightened listening to the sounds of the night. I even thought I’d heard animals walking on the stone path and sniffing around the outside of our tent. I quickly drifted off to sleep again, rest assured that we had no food or smelly cosmetics that might attract a bear into our tent.
We were on the water by 9:20am in a different direction to my preferred destination of McBride Glacier. Sean had used his satellite phone to call the office for a weather update which demanded a change to our itinerary. The forecast was for rain for two days and a storm on the last. Sean recommended we paddle north to the Wachusset Inlet to watch bears salmon fishing in a river. We made it easily to the inlet but suffered in the increasingly cold wet conditions. As we passed Hunter Cove though we were thrilled by a large raft of sea otters some so interested they swam towards our kayaks and into our path to have a good look, curious onlookers just as we were. Sea otter faces are so adorable and full of character.
At our lunch stop in Wachusset Inlet Craig complained, rightfully too, that his chosen option of heading straight to our campsite from our last stop would have been the best for us. The temperature was approximately -1.6º to 1º we were very cold and wet with moods that suited the temperature. I was literally shaking with the cold. It was becoming increasingly apparent that our gear was not suitable for these conditions. Our kayak gear was likely only suitable for a three hour trip on the water on a bad day in Australia. In Alaska on an expedition our kayak gear stood no chance of providing adequate protection, especially as we had not replenished the waterproofing on our wet weather gear. If I was to do further expeditions I would ensure that a dry suit be an essential piece of equipment. In fact I’m surprised that Alaska Mountain Guides don’t insist that their participants hire them to do the expedition.
At Craig’s suggestion we decided it was best to turn around and head to our proposed camp site in Hunter Cove. Craig had put on his Scout cap and I was ultimately thankful for that and the opportunity to warm up and dry off.
We set up camp in the rain and I went to bed in a leaky tent to warm up. It took a long time and Craig’s encouragement to get me up to have a hot drink which helped enormously. Craig looked cold and wet despite wearing the heavy duty rubber outfit that we were provided with for these very conditions. We huddled under a leaky tarp as Sean prepared a noodle curry dinner before we went to bed at 7:30pm for an early start of 5am the following day. Sean said his biggest worry in conditions like this is usually Hypothermia. I asked for the symptoms as I believed that Craig may have been slightly confused. Craig had changed from his wet clothes and left them on his sleeping bag instead of putting them in the vestibule on our huge growing pile of wet gear. Craig tried to brush off any concern I had for him, but maybe it was that bravado showing through again. Sean had some hot water on the boil and filled Craig’s Nalgene bottle which I took to him in the tent. The Nalgene bottle provided enough warmth for his hands to return to normal after looking like pale dried figs since arriving at the cove. I was relieved that he had warmed up.
We didn’t want to get up out of our warm sleeping bags to suffer the cold and rain we’d been listening to all night. We faced wearing clothes that were damp and cold if dry clothes were no longer available. It took us a long 3 hours in the very poor conditions to pack our gear and kayaks so we could catch the outgoing tide to Sebree Island. We tried in vain to dry the bottoms of our (fortunately insulated) camping mats. Our wet gear we ended up stuffing in the largest dry bag we had to deal with when we returned to Gustavus and our little cabin accommodation at Four Corners Cottage. We made do with the clothes we had left, and the rubber gear provided by our guide to protect ourselves from the weather.
Just prior to setting out I changed out of my walking boots and into the gum boots provided to us for use in the kayak. In that moment when I slipped my foot inside I was horrified to find my foot immediately soaked in a pool of water that had collected in the boot that had been upright in the tents vestibule filling slowly throughout the night. I didn’t know in that instance how I’d get through the day of paddling. It took all my strength to keep a reasonable comportment, I’m not even sure that I did, but Craig helped me with a towel, and I tipped the water out of the other boot and tried to dry as much water out of them as I could before placing my feet inside. I felt sabotaged. My feet suffered the most as the weather had chilled, my toes were like little blocks of ice in the poorly insulated gum boots, and there was nothing I could do. They maintained their movement but today some three weeks after the event are still recovering. Craig and Sean had less problems with their extremities. Sean told me he was wearing his wet clothes, he said that this was his life. I referred to him in conversations with Craig as like an Iron man. He was tough, strong and resilient shaped by the conditions he had guided in for ten years.
We finally set off with the forecast for calm but rain and cold. We paddled initially against the tide with a southerly wind. The tide changed and with it the wind came up from the North. It appeared no weather forecaster could anticipate the changes that we experienced in the East Arm. I’d finally made the switch with Craig for an experience at the stern when the wind changed. We were suddenly in another following sea with waves broadsiding the kayak. I hadn’t paddled a sea kayak in conditions like these for about 15 years, I felt increasingly nervous despite Craigs encouragement to just keep paddling. I stepped the kayak closer into shore as we made a large open crossing, my thoughts were not as positive as I would have liked, however with the adrenaline rushing through my body, my temperature rose and thwarted off the icy cold, suddenly I wan’t thinking about my cold feet but keeping us safe.
After some last minute directions from Sean were confirmed we pulled into a small cove immediately after a point in Muir Inlet just across from Sebree Island. I was only too happy to hand the reigns back to Craig who exuded self confidence as he steered the kayak through the East Arm in all conditions. We cut across this final cove to a small beach on Sebree Island, stopping for a quick bite and hot drinks in the wind and rain. We waited an hour and the conditions appeared to improve so we set off around the point and into Sebree Cove. It was only midday. We’d flown down the East arm once the tide and wind had turned. Putting 22 kms behind us in only a few short hours. As we arrived in Sebree Cove we were met by thousands of small birds that made an incredible sound as their wings beat against the sea. Once on shore I watched on as humpback whales breached creating a spectacular but distant display. Unfortunately no amount of encouragement got the two fellows back in the kayaks to join me on a closer whale watching adventure.
It was our last night camping, we’d all but used up our dry clothes except for those saved for the day on the Baranof Wind Catamaran tour up the West Arm. Sean had scheduled a pick up tomorrow approximately 1km across the bay on Sebree Island. Sean didn’t disappoint us for dinner and a surprise admission he shared with me. He said that almost every night he has been on a tour he has visits from a bear, usually around dinner time and sometimes more than one bear. I was surprised and relieved and maybe in a little disbelief as I thought he might be playing with me considering my concern about meeting one of these large animals face to face. Sean cooked up a pudding of hot pan cooked brownies as a treat for dessert. I told him he’d be looking for that chocolate treat in his tent tonight before the bears found it first.
Sean asked us again for an early start of 5am given that we took so long to pack that same morning. We retired early to the warmth of our sleeping bags and the embrace of a hot Nalgene bottle. Up early the next day we were packed in record time impressing Sean with our speed and efficiency. We paddled across the bay and met up with two other groups of young kayakers who had been on the East Arm for 5 days. Surprisingly we had never heard or seen them during that time.
The Baranof Wind Catamaran arrived on time and ran aground dropping down a ladder. We created a long fire line passing up the gear and bear canisters while a group of men including Sean loaded the now 7 kayaks onto the front deck. As the catamaran pulled into the beach the top deck was flooded with onlookers perplexed and some inspired by our adventures on the water. It took less than 15 minutes to finish loading and climb the ladder into the warmth of the boat. On board we were given space by the tourists who were earlier advised that we’d smell. We most certainly did smell and we looked a site too. The bitey insects had had a field day on my face and neck and lower back. I may have looked like I had measles if I left my forehead exposed, but I opted for keeping it under wraps. As I changed into dry clothes in the bathroom I over heard the Ranger on board suggesting the tourists give us space to reestablish ourselves amongst the civilised. It was certainly quite daunting.
Craig and I immediately felt the connection to our environment that we had in the kayak was lost. While Glacier Bay retained it’s awe inspiring beauty the closeness you have to our natural environment, the connection you feel when you’re in a kayak is undeniably so much more important than in a three storey catamaran. We settled into the warmth as the boat carried us inside the West Arm.
It was a foggy morning with occasional light rain however we never did see that storm that was forecast. We passed at least 8 brown bears, the boat stopped which allowed us to watch them play, fish and look for berries. Craig was so taken by the size of the Brown bears that he thanked Sean for keeping us safe on the journey. Craig and I had become lax towards the end of the expedition, we both admitted to not carrying bear spray when going to the toilet some 100 metres from our campsite. I recall feeling suddenly very vulnerable on one such occasion on the second last day.
As the Glaciers came into view from the catamaran I became more excited and then we arrived at Marjorie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. I ran inside from the top deck and said something to Craig like ‘You’d be crazy not to come out and see this’. Craig was feeling disappointed and disconnected. My encouragement if you can call it that worked, Craig came up to the top deck and we enjoyed the immensity of the two glaciers. It was the turning point on our journey where we headed south but not without a short detour to see the spectacular John Hopkins Glacier and Inlet. The sun made its first show at this point adding to its sheer beauty.
We paddled approximately 120 kms over 6 days.
The Necky Nootka double kayak we paddled weighed 45kgs without the 8 bear canisters of food, 2 water dromedaries, cooking equipment, gear and us. I estimate we paddled around 280 kgs each day.
Each night and morning we carried our gear at either high or low tide to above the high tide mark and repacked it the next day before leaving. Nothing was left in the kayaks and the kayaks were also carried up and down the rocky beaches, it was a very physical and tough exercise. I was not prepared for sharing the carriage of a 45 kg boat morning and night, it was very hard yakka.
Alaska Air flight 71 and 77
Speed 500 km/hour
Altitude 1600 metres
Highest mountain enroute 1314 metres
Duration 11 minutes (flying time)