Matt Dickerson in Alaska with seals and sea kayaks near Seward
I was admittedly a little nervous as I set out in a tandem sea kayak, paddling out of the secluded cove where we were staying into the windier waters of Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska. I wasn’t worried about our safety. The 2,000- to 5,000-foot-high ridges and peaks on both sides of us, along with the narrow mouth of the long bay and the shores of the nearby Fox Island, all provided shelter from the 15-knot south wind reported on the morning’s weather service. There was almost no swell, and the chop was quite manageable. And, despite the icy turquoise rivers flowing into the 900-foot-deep waters of the bay directly off numerous glaciers surrounding us, the seas were not nearly as frigid as I had expected thanks to an unusual “blob” of warm water off the Gulf of Alaska. (See www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/news/features/food_chain/index.cfm).
My nervousness had more to do with whether my wife, Deborah, would enjoy the paddle as much as I expected to.
Deborah had only been in a sea-kayak once before, on a one-hour paddle with me around Casco Bay near Freeport, Maine. She’d also been for a few paddles in one of the sit-on-top style kayaks in the Maine lake where my family gathers in the summer. But despite the beautiful coastal and inland scenery, she hadn’t particularly enjoyed those trips. She much prefers paddling about in a canoe. Kayaks are too cramped, awkward to enter and exit, and almost impossible to paddle without getting wet in both the lower and upper body.
But kayaking was the centerpiece of our three-day and two-night stay at the wilderness hostel tellingly named Kayakers’ Cove. So if she didn’t enjoy the paddle, her final weekend in Alaska might end up somewhat disappointing. We were 13 miles by boat from the town of Seward with all its restaurants and tourist attractions. Although we had a gas stove at the hostel, there was no electricity or hot water, no indoor bathroom, and no Internet or cell service. We were there to relax, hike, share conversation, and enjoy the abundance of wild berries that grew along the shores and up the slopes in all directions: low- and high-bush blueberries, crowberries, salmon berries and watermelon berries. And, of course, especially to sea-kayak and experience close-up the marine life in the bay. Deborah really wanted to see a raft of sea otters swim playfully past us while we floated.
With us for the weekend were our youngest son, Peter, my brother Ted, his wife Susie, and his adult sons (my nephews), Brad and Michael — both Middlebury College graduates. It was Ted who had made the reservations for us. We were also joined by our Middlebury friends Louis and Susan Nop and their four offspring: Jake, Olivia, Jack and Will. They had come from Vermont to join us in Alaska for a week. The 13 of us filled all the beds in the big loft room above the kitchen and dining area in the main building of the hostel.
The Nops had not yet arrived on their water taxi when seven of us set out on our first paddle. Deborah sat in the front of my rented tandem kayak. Ted and Susie shared another, and Brad and Michael had the third tandem. Since we were an odd number, Peter — who had done a fair bit of sea-kayaking in Florida on a Boy Scout trip — took a solo kayak.
Many of the more ambitious kayakers who stay at the cove will voyage south down to the tip of the peninsula where Steller sea lions have a regular haul-out. But that is an all-day trip, and it also involves the larger swells and wilder chop on the edge of the open ocean. We chose instead to round the bend to the north and paddle toward the next cove on the bay: Humpy Cove, named after the abundant run of pink salmon (also called humpies) that spawn up a very short stretch of river to a waterfall that pours down from a glacier.
Despite falling mist, the paddle proved beautiful. We meandered along the base of cliffs and steep slopes, some wooded and others covered in rock and scree, pausing now and then to enjoy the views, or to watch a plentiful variety of seabirds including common murres and rhinoceros auklets, horned and tufted puffins, kittiwakes and king eiders, and gulls by the thousands. A harbor seal popped up his head and watched us for a while before disappearing in pursuit of salmon. A bald eagle sat on rocky outcropping 70 yards up the shoreline and ripped apart a salmon. Two thousand feet further up the hillside a pair of wild goats appeared as moving white dots, balancing precariously along the edges of cliffs and steep rocky slopes.
We paddled into one narrow crevice, maybe 10 yards across, where a cold stream tumbled down off the hill into the bay. The water below us was thick with schools of bait fish — herring, I guessed. Now and then around the bay the water would boil with them as some unseen predator came into their school from below and began to chase them. Sometimes we’d see a salmon leap completely out of the water in pursuit. But here the herring seemed safe except for a few of the little brown diving auklets that could disappear underwater in an instant with a little ploosh, and seemed to spend more time under the surface than on the surface — and never took to flight.
When we returned to camp a couple hours later for lunch, Deborah reported that she had really enjoyed the paddle and would be happy to do it again. Her only disappointment was that we didn’t see any sea otters. But everything else about the trip proved enjoyable. She kept relatively dry and comfortable, had enjoyed the unique close-up view of the sea life afforded from the quiet cockpit of a kayak at water level, and had done well with the paddling. (I took more rests than she did, but since I was in the back she couldn’t see all the times that I was resting.)
Over the next day, various members of our party would take short to medium trips in a kayak. The seas in the bay stayed relatively calm. All the Nops got to go out once or twice. Ted and I also took turns paddling each other around to do some fly-fishing. (I landed my first ever salmon from a kayak, and we were able to grill it fresh that night.)
Deborah and I went out one more time, late the second evening between dinner and sunset, accompanied by Ted and Susie. We paddled first along the ledge where we looked at a variety of purple and marble-colored starfish clinging to the rock just below the level of high tide, and then headed out around Hat Island where we accidentally spooked a family of five harbor seals hauled out for the night. Two little pale pups plopped off the rocks into the water and disappeared, while the larger father sat in the water 30 yards away and kept an eye on us.
On the final morning — after a steep hike up the ridge above the timberline where we picked wild blueberries and enjoyed spectacular views looking down on the bay from above and out at distant glaciers across the bay — as we waited for the water taxi to come and pick us up we talked about what we might do differently if we were to take another trip to Resurrection Bay. But whatever we did or didn’t do, sea-kayaking among the seals and puffins would stay on the to-do list. We’d just work a little harder next time to find some sea otters.