We thought a slight adjustment in our course would give us a better view of the orcas breaching in the distance. They must have thought the same thing. In a matter of minutes they had halved the distance between us. And then halved it again. We stayed our course, yet our cadence increased with our heart rate. The family of three killer whales, one huge adult and two smaller youth, surfaced again twice as close as the last time. We could see their eyes and their dorsal fins soar into the sky with each breach. Suddenly our 20-foot double kayak seemed like a pool toy that had drifted way too far into the deep end. They surfaced again, only this time the adult’s dorsal wasn’t a triangle, but a thin black line from our perspective. She was coming right at us! There was nothing we could do. Dumbfounded by what was happening, we just watched in amazement as this six-thousand pound animal made a hard left toward our boat. Minutes later they breached about a half mile away. We were electric with adrenaline, having just been bluff charged by an orca.
The rest of our crew watched the whole thing play out from a healthy distance. We were in the middle of crossing another bay which put us way out in open water. Actually the six of us were in the middle of crossing Alaska’s Prince William Sound on a week-long kayaking adventure. This put us way out in one of the biggest stretches of marine wilderness in North America. From here it was about 65 miles to Valdez, the last and only harbor town we’d come across after leaving Whittier 50 miles ago.
The hundred mile paddle across PWS is a rite of passage for Alaska kayakers. Like most big adventures in AK, it’s a daunting proposition to launch into what locals refer to as both beautiful and terrifying. At its best, you can paddle in a t-shirt and shorts, stopping for a lunch break swim on a sandy beach. Otherwise it can bring weather that would put the smack down on the toughest steel-clad fishing boats. It’s good that we’ve spent most of our lives being hounded by the weather in mountain ranges around the world. We have been spanked enough times to know when to run for cover. But pissed off 20-foot whales with big teeth that swim 35 knots?
Even with the daily arguments on whether the tide was coming in or going out, it’s not to say our team lacked experience. Brad works as an arborist in Anchorage and can get a rope up in any tree you point to (yes, we tested him on this). Heather is a nutritionist and personal trainer who magically fills any container you give her with blueberries. And we even had two doctors on this expedition; researchers from Seattle, both Allie and Sam will probably save us all from a litany of horrible diseases in the future. Allie also mixes the world’s best gin and tonics. Most important, everyone on this crew knows the first rule of any remote adventure: nobody gets hurt.
We had all gotten together for this week-long endeavor in mid-July. The PWS is one place where it can rain for weeks at a time. On the one hand it makes for some spectacular old growth temperate rain forests. On the other it makes for some cold, wet misery when drawn out for six days. As luck would have it, we came prepared to do battle with the elements and spent most of our days paddling in t-shirts and flip flops. Two days out of the 10 brought cooler temps and light rain. The rest were 70 degrees and sunny. We swam nearly every day.
Sea kayaking is more like car camping than backpacking. You can put quite a bit of weight in a kayak before noticing the effort on your paddle strokes. But you do pay the price on the beach, when you have to move that boat out of surf and above the rocks. We wrapped up each day shuttling loads of gear, groceries and IPA into the tree line just off the beach.
The team really started to come together after a couple days, swiftly emptying the kayaks and establishing camp in less than an hour. Then everyone got going on their designated camp chore for the evening (beverage in hand of course). There were tents to set up, wood to gather, dinner to cook, cocktails to mix and water to filter. After dinner entertainment alternated between dance parties and seeing what was on the wilderness channel (usually camp fire and fishing boats).
About half way to Valdez, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the commercial fishing season. Dozens of seiners jockeyed for position in the sound, dropping nets and circling around to haul in their catch of salmon. Watching them work their strategies and cut each other off (or drop nets around each other) became a favorite past time.
We took a short detour into Shoup Bay for our final night out. The namesake glacier tumbles down out of the mountains and drops ice right into a lagoon. It was a glorious night, full of sunshine, good company and a pair of seals knocking each other from the ice flows. We polished off the beer supply and toasted a job well done.
When we awoke, dark clouds hung low over the jagged ice of Shoup Glacier and a damp chill hung in the air. Our seemingly bottomless well of weather karma had finally run dry. Our crew paddled from the protection of Shoup Bay out into a 30 knot wind howling into Port Valdez. We were appreciative of the tailwind, covering the 12 miles into town in under two hours, but it was close to being too much of a good thing.
Staying out in the channel helped position our boats to ideally ride the wind driven waves. Each of us white knuckled our boats into port, nearly running into an enormous sea lion as we surfed up onto shore. In standard team fashion, we got our kayaks and gear situated for tomorrow’s sailing at the ferry terminal about 300 yards away (yes we carried the kayaks).
Burgers and beers at The Fat Mermaid were next on the program. Then some fishermen told us about another good bar. It was Friday night in Valdez and we were just getting started.