Do you want to experience wild Alaska? Ditch all of humanity for a few days? Enjoy marine life (sea otters, sea lions, whales, starfish)? Love to sea kayak and back country camp? Not afraid of a potential bear encounter? I have a pretty cool trip for ya….but you should be an experienced kayaker and back country explorer.
One of my Life Bus bucket list items was to do an overnight kayak trip in Southeast Alaska – Glacier Bay National Park – Gustavus, Alaska. I had been to Gustavus before and loved the place, but wanted to experience more of the wilderness in the area. After doing a little on-line research, I found a kayak outfitter called Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, made a couple of calls, asked a few questions and started planning!
There are several options for backcountry trips but since we were limited on time, the best adventure for us, was a 3 day 2 nighter in the Beardslee Islands. These series of small islands are located just north of Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park. There are no glaciers to see, but they do offer protected channels and more calm waters – the beach camping is pretty nice too. Once we decided on the dates – late August of 2014 – the kayak was rented!
How did we get to Gustavus? There are a few options….. We decided to be a little adventuresome and take a ferry from Juneau – it’s cheap too, less than 50 bucks for both of us. It’s about a four hour boat ride on the Alaskan Marine Highway. It was a little chilly on deck, but the views were outstanding! We brought snacks and books on board, but they do have a little kitchen with some fairly edible food. You can also take a plane from Juneau on Alaska Air. More expensive and not nearly as much fun!
Once we got to Gustavus, we found a taxi service at the dock and hitched a ride to the Bartlett Cove Campground. The campground is run by the National Park Service and is free, as well as, first come, first served. You also have to go through a bear safety class before they will give you a permit to camp. Sounds like a pain, but you need this class to venture out into the wilderness as well.
After learning how to handle a bear encounter without crapping our pants, we set up camp, and walked over to the Glacier Bay Lodge for a good dinner and glass of vino. This campground is one of my all-time faves. It’s situated on the edge of Bartlett Cove so you are nearly guaranteed to wake up to a whale exhaling from its blowhole, a special sound indeed. If you get there earlier in the season, the shores are lined with bushels of wild strawberries – even better than those you can get at Whole Foods.
The next day we got up at the crack of dawn and loaded our kayak with food and gear. The thing most key for this trip is to plan around the tides. The outfitter will give you a tide schedule. If you don’t follow it, you will miss the window to get back from the Beardlee’s and will be stuck – I don’t even know if you can portage your boat as an option. It would be a long slog and the mud would most likely be so deep you would just sink.
We paddled out of the Cove and into the islands without incident. Camped on two separate shores recommended by the outfiitter – sites where we could get fresh water if we needed it. NO-ONE but us – it was unbelievable. The trees are so tightly bunched that we had no choice but to camp on shore with care not to pitch a tent where a high-tide would ruin the vacation. This is sort of unsettling as when the tides recede, bears (grizzlies) will traverse from one island to the next.
We didn’t see any bears (that we know of) and we didn’t kill each other with impatience crossing the channels in choppy waters. We saw a raft of at least 50 otters, several sea lions swimming along side our kayaks, and tons of starfish as the tides rolled out. Because of the time of year we were there, we missed the whales and sadly, didn’t see any moose.
We were there in late August – pros and cons to that:
- Pros: No crowds AT All – so no issues with the campground, the kayaks and as mentioned, no one but us in the wilderness.
- Cons: It was a little chilly and rained or drizzled the entire time, but we had the right gear and embraced the whole experience. (Invest in some rubber boots – Xtratufs) Wildlife encounters could have been better earlier in the season, but what we did see was incredible.
I love Alaska and always will – looking forward to spending more time exploring….may do a 2 week rafting trip in the area next time around ;-).
The Life Bus