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Packrafting the Kenai Fjords
from Seward to Seldovia - September 2004

Click on the picture for a map of our route.

When our food box didn't show up in Valdez, we thought we just might change our plans entirely, and try something crazy. So we decided to take the ferry to Seward and then travel the outer coast to Seldovia, using our packrafts to cross the fjords, and hiking over passes on the steep headlands. We took 3 weeks for the 166 mile trip, and used our extra time to fish and gather food along the way, and to spend a week camping out at Gore Point. It was an awesome trip. We had the most adventures here of any of our trips this summer, including almost losing my raft, being attacked by a bear, midnight paddling, battles with rockfish, scrambling in crevasses, and foraging for Granny Bunt's Complete Bakery Mix. Read journal entries and pictures below.

Journal - Page 1

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9/3/04 - day 1

Slowly up to the gravel storm

This journey began last night, after a furious round of errands in Seward, and a very nice meal of crab pasta at a Seward restaurant. We bought a lot more food, mostly in the form of olive oil. Our route is longer than originally planned, sketchier than originally planned, and may involve waiting on the weather. So we needed more food, but since we plan to combine this trip with our survival trip, we kept it to staples, and didn't buy enough.

It was almost dark by the time we made it out of Seward, and we were tired already from waking up at 4:30 to catch the ferry. We barely did catch it despite that, since it stopped several miles out of town at the container docks, rather than at the ferry dock itself.

We headed out of town with heavy packs, hitching a ride out to the trailhead. We walked in the dark, ignoring the evening phantoms of imagination that jump out from the trees. It was only one mile of an easy trail, until the log crossing at a washed out bridge. I was rewarded for my crawling scoot high over a darkened river by a dry shelter to camp in on the other side.

And then we were lazy. We made up for two nights of little sleep (which was largely our fault for watching TV in the hotel room) by lounging as late as we wanted to. And we made up for our logistical rush of yesterday by taking our time in organizing this morning, dumping out and counting all of the food, and cooking up the hedgehog mushrooms we'd been carrying since before Valdez. They were a bit mashed, but with oil, pepper, onions and rice they still tasted very good.

Finally we had to leave the civilized comforts of shelter and trail and head for the bushwhack across our peninsula. Up is hard. Our bodies groaned under the newly heavy packs as we inched our way slowly up to the pass. There were a couple steep and scary scrambles getting up onto the ridge, but then travel was ok from there. Huckleberries seem to be worth eating again around here, and the brightening sun started drying the rain off all the bushes.

We hit the alpine without getting stuck in very much alder, and the alpine was both beautiful and slippery. At the end of the bay we could see the buildings of Seward. Across the bay, mountains and glaciers stood out brightly under a sea of dramatic clouds and over a sea of dark blue green with whitecaps and boat wakes.

But we still had more climbing to do. Up to the much retreated glacier and around it to the pass. We climbed slowly under our gruntingly heavy loads, and were all too happy to fling the packs off at any excuse for a break.

We made our way across the many little streams of the glacier, and watched goats far away on the hillside. The rock was a loose and crumbling slate, and the mica grains within it made each rock shine . When the sun shone on a dry patch of rock, it lit up in a brilliantly glowing path.

The clouds came in patches, but the sun shone on us most of the day. And the wind blew. It howled and swirled, gusting in many different directions, and kicking up clouds of dust along the slope. We were dressed for the cold, despite the sun, and when a good gust came I felt I'd almost blow over. Coming down the ridge from the pass, the gusts were strong enough to pick up the small gravel on the ground and pelt us with it, stinging our legs and forcing us to cover our eyes until the gust had passed.

We're camped among a few alder in a meadow, everything tightened down against the wind, and our gear serving as windblocks in the holes. Including the food. We had an encounter with a very fat black bear in this meadow, who lumbered off when he saw us. We decided he'd be more likely to steal unsecured food (no good trees here) than to bother us, so we're defending it.

9/4/04 - day 2

The Iceberg Escape

Up until the iceberg escape, our day was relatively ordinary. Last night was marked by an ever increasing wind that led us to don first fleece, then raingear, and finally to don foam hats and make a midnight repair to the shelter before we could sleep. With all of this, we got little sleep through thte howling hours of dark, and caught up some in the morning. We didn't stir until almost 10:00.

The bushwhack down the mountainside was much easier than it could have been, with meadows of wind-whipped seasick grass, and forests of young alder which were relatively free of other growth. The sky was sunny and clear, but the wind was howling offshore. The slope where we'd been pelted by gravel gusts yesterday blew a continuous plume of gravel and dust today.

The wind screamed through the trees, flopped my hat over my eyes, and blew a rain of sand from our beach towards the iceberg-strewn lake. We planned to follow the lake to the beach. The lake ran alongside Bear Glacier almost all the way to the ocean. It was thick with icebergs, drifting in mazes and puzzles, small and large, towering over the water in bizarre melting shapes. The wind whipped over the surface, racing towards the ocean and piling the milky lake into barely breaking waves.

We were setting up to raft down to the sea, thankful that the wind was with us rather than against us. I kept all my small and light gear stuffed into my pack or my Ursack, worried it would blow away in the gale. Usually our rafts are anchored to our packs and paddles by a string, which keeps them from floating or blowing away. But today Hig and I planned to switch packs for the paddle, and I hadn't gotten to securing my raft to his pack yet. It was weighed down instead by a heavy Ursack of food.

With one large gust, the raft was tipped up, the bag of food was dumped out, and the raft and the inflation bag (which was inside the raft) took flight into the glacial lake. Hig ran into the lake after it until the bottom dropped away from under him and he swam a few strokes in the icy water. But it was to no avail. The inflation bag was sedately floating out away from us, but the mostly inflated raft caught the wind like a sail.

It tumbled down the lake, flipping on end, rolling over, and then flipping on end again. It was racing away towards the great pile of icebergs, far faster than we could possibly catch up to it. But we had to try. I jumped in the other raft to chase it, while Hig left to bushwhack around. We yelled vague instructions to meet on the beach, and I was off.

I could see the raft far off ahead of me each time it flipped up in its tumble, but I was quickly losing ground. I easily grabbed the inflation bag just offshore, and then paddled like hell in the direction of the flying raft. As I paddled, my hastily tied life vest string came too loose, and my coat unzipped, threatening to expel my thermarest to be caught by the wind as well. I didn't want to stop to fix it, for fear I'd lose sight of the raft, so I just paddled on, hoping not to fall into the icy lake.

But I couldn't keep up with the raft, and I lost sight of it as it headed towards a very large grounded iceberg. I stopped for a minute to fix my life vest, then followed the wind into the pile of icebergs where I'd seen the raft disappear. By this point in the lake the wavers were sizeable, and I rode up and down with the swells, surfing my way towards the bergs. I was still paddling fast, but the wind was pushing me even faster.

I couldn't make any headway against the wind, and not much headway sideways to it. I wanted to follow the wind to my raft, but the wall of icebergs ahead was starting to worry me. I could see waves crashing against the icebergs ahead of me, and I wondered if my gap through the ice would lead me all the way to the big berg, and what I would do if there wasn't a way out on the other side.

I snuck through a pair of small bergs in a channel that must have been on top of the large berg. I felt my raft scrape bottom on the ice as I came through. And there was no raft fetched up against that big berg. I was starting to lose hope. From there, I was in a maze. I didn't know which way around my raft had gone, and I didn't want to try anywhere I couldn't get out of. So I took my best guess, making my way downwind through the maze, desperately glancing at every dark spot on the bergs. None of these spots were turquoise. I fetched up against an island, but a search of its shores revealed a similar lack of turquoise shapes.

I was getting very discouraged at this point. I had almost lost the seat of Hig's raft to the wind when it came detached on the island shore, but I stuffed it back in again and continued down towards the beach.

I wasn't paddling fast anymore, just trying to follow the wind and looking around where I could. But there were too many degrees of freedom at that point, and I didn't know where the raft might be. The wind brought me through icebergs to a channel, where I portaged across a few feet of gravel and headed for the beach. I figured there might be some chance the raft would wash up on the beach ridge, but mostly that was where I was supposed to meet Hig. I climbed to a good spot to look out over the channel (since Hig couldn't actually cross on foot to where I was) and waited.

Nothing happened. I felt glum and depressed in my sunny and beautiful spot, contemplating a very unwelcome return to Seward. At least it was possible to return on foot from here. I waited a bit longer and then ate a few granola bars, figuring we had no reason now to save them. Hig still wasn't anywhere to be seen, and I started to worry he may have gotten in trouble at a cliff on the bushwhack.

But I figured it was probably just that bushwhacking was slow, and I decided I had to make one more attempt to find the raft. So I wandered way down the beach, back along the channel to the end of the lake, and poked around the shore. I had nothing to show for it but a larger rip in my rain paints knee, and a basketball in pretty good shape.

As I walked back, holding the basketball, I watched a sea lion swim along the coast as the surf crashed against it, completely oblivious to Hig hollering and chasing along behind me. It turns out he had found the raft, washed into the front yard of a cabin along the lake, far to the left of where I'd been. He said he might not have even seen it if he hadn't been curious about the cabin already. So he had managed to cross the channel after all, and had been looking for me.

I was both very surprised and highly relieved. And we were pooped. We wandered down the beach a mile or so to a fire, hot wild greens and beach peas, and bed. Hot oil adds a nice flavor to wild greens. My raft, newly christened the Iceberg Escape, is tied down outside and ready to take me into the ocean tomorrow if the wind and waves allow it. I'm so happy not to have lost it, and very happy not to have to turn back.

9/5/04 - day 3

Mostly by sea

It was an interesting launch this morning, off the beach at Bear Glacier, and into the surf. The waves weren't huge, but each definitely crested and crashed against the shore. We'd never really launched into surf before, and it seemed like the only way to do it was to wade out into the sea and try to catch a gap between the waves. It was easy enough to get off the beach this way, but off the beach is not out of the surf zone. I had two more waves to contend with before I could get out, and the second was rearing up in its curl in front of me, ready to break. Television images of Navy Seal rafts flipping in the surf ran through my head. I leaned into it, and escaped with only a big splash in the face. Hig was luckier, and ended up with a smaller wave set on his way out.

The wind had died down a lot since yesterday, and the waves we surfed along the headland were nothing to worry much about. The sun was out again, marking the steep cliffs and sea spires with sharp shadows. Spires and arches ringed the cliffs of Bear Glacier point like lost children, kinking crazily on their way to the sky, and occasionally topped by improbable forests. The sea gurgled and roared in the caves, as the waves focused in to the cracks. Cormorants flew out from their cave roosts, and flapped across the water, struggling to take off and escape from these strange disturbing creatures in little blue rafts.

We had only a short pass over the headland today - a thousand feet and a couple of miles across to Aialik Bay. The surf on our landing beach was small and easy. The sun dried our gear as it lay on the gravel, and we filled water bottles from the spring that dribbled down the rocks above us.

If only the way up were so pleasant. Where the spruce was thick, the forest was beautiful. Everywhere else it was a mess of devil's club and salmonberries, with a few huckleberries mixed in, all draped over a base of rotting logs. In other words, it was generally annoying, and steeper than I expected it to be. But all of sudden we popped over a steep spot and found ourselves almost even with the pass. We could see back to our cluster of sea spires and across the bay, and forward to the glaciers in Holgate Arm. The wind was only a slight breeze in our faces, and the water of Aialik Bay looked calm. After the slog up, I expected the worst for the bushwhack down the other side. But the worst that we hit was some steep talus. Avalanches do a number on that slope, and we followed a cobble gully all the way down to the ocean's edge, skipping vegetation altogether.

We paddled out in the calm water of Coleman Bay, skirting the cliffs and watching the slow swell crash and gurgle into the narrow spots and caves. We didn't see the Aialik Ranger Station where the map marked it, but we had no need of rangers, and may not have gone close enough to shore to see it.

We made our long crossing across Aialik Bay in the almost dead calm, and washed up on Holgate Head, a bit colder and hungrier, with cramped up legs. I've been taking Hig's pack in the raft, since I weigh less and can paddle faster, but that big heavy pack doesn't allow much moving around. I shouldn't make him carry so much.

It was already 7:30 by the time we got going again, and the long paddle across Holgate Arm to Quicksand Cove didn't seem either appealing or likely to be completed in the light. So I decided to head up into Holgate to camp. There's a park service cabin marked on the map in Holgate, a bit out of our way up the arm. I was tempted to crash it, but I figured we'd camp sooner if there was a good spot first. There wasn't.

I'm sitting with my back warmed by a propane heater, enjoying my memories of the bowl of Top Ramen I just ate. This cabin seems to get a fair amount of traffic, judging by the log book, but I doubt we'll be either caught or booted here in September. The cabin is large and well equipped, with table, bunks, and a lot of cooking gear. Unfortunately, without a woodstove (which I expected from the cabins in Southeast) we couldn't cook our meal or any of the mushrooms and sorrel we'd gathered. But we did manage to dip into some of the extra food people left here, scarfing the can of mandarin oranges and making Top Ramen on the propane heater. I'm trying to heat water for cocoa there now.

9/6/04 - day 4

Something about adventure

It's 12:30 AM, and a lot has happened today. We've seen a bunch of bears and been attacked by one, done a 3 hour ocean crossing in the dark, seen awesome glaciers and beautiful alpine lakes, scrambled over the steep boulders, and even ran into a bunch of tourists.

The weather this morning was beautiful - sunny, clear and calm. As long as the sun was up, our adventures occurred under beautiful bright sunlight. Since we crashed the Holgate Cabin last night, we were able to wake up to a warm room and have hot chai, looking at the morning light on the glaciers across the bay. Hig found the cabin depressing, but I thought the convenience was mildly nice. The resident black bears were browsing in the huckleberry patch surrounding the cabin, and I made a lot of noise as I went to the outhouse. It seemed to send them both scurrying a bit away, but not far. I got a good view of one head poking out above the bushes.

We paddled back out Holgate Arm in the morning sun amidst tiny icebergs. We got so close to really seeing a tidewater glacier, but we left it still miles away, with a promise to go see McCarthy Glacier later in the trip. Down the coast to McMullen Cove the trip was uneventful. We watched the sea stars reappear as we left the glacial water, pondered why all the mussels were so small, and were entertained by the swells crashing into the rocks. The tourists in McMullen Cove were there on a motorboat out of Seward, sitting on the beach. We'd seen their campfire miles away, and we paddled to shore briefly to say hi.

The route up to the pass was even marked at Holgate Cabin. It was a long gully of boulder talus, with a few huckleberry bushes mixed in. As I muscled my way up over chest-high boulders I was both happy to be as strong as I am, and annoyed at the great number of boulders. But boulders are still nicer than a bushwhack, and the huckleberries were tasty. Judging by the scat, the bears agreed with me.

Up in the pass was a small lake, and just beyond it lay a large one. The map was at least correct about that much, but beyond the lakes existence it was ignorant. The lake was beautiful, alpine, clear and turquoise, with steep talus most of the way around, including the supposedly nice flat side shown on the map.

We made our way slowly around in the hot sun, scrambling over boulders and pausing for photography. The bear had a smarter plan. We saw it swimming out in the middle of the lake, and it slowly approached our shore a s we took its picture. We could see its whole body in the clear water, and it didn't really seem to be using its back legs at all for swimming. It ended up swimming across the lake away from us, but I'm not sure if we were the cause. It looked at us a few times but didn't seem to notice, and it did come to our shore at an unclimbable cliff.

The way down from the lake was lumpy with polished granite boulders, jutting out above the low wet meadows. It was beautiful. All the alpine was beautiful. We dropped quickly from the alpine into a nice forest of hemlock and huckleberry, where we hit a salmon stream, complete with rotting salmon swimming up it, rotting salmon laying on the bottom, and rotting salmon dismembered on the banks. The dismemberers had made a nice trail through the woods, and we were cruising along it. We'd decided to push to get to the ocean, even though it was just past 7:30 and not long to darkness. The bear trail provided easy and fast walking. Until the bear attacked.

We were cruising along the trail, carrying on a loud discussion about the "trail creatures", and why the trail went where it did, generally acting quite obvious and unsurprising. The whole encounter probably lasted about 5 seconds. We heard heavy running footsteps coming down the trail ahead of us, and within a second or two, the bear was there. I was fumbling with my bear spray, but didn't have nearly enough time to get it out. The next thing I perceived was the bear whomping my belly, probably with a paw, though it was too fast to see. Hig was a bit behind me on the trail and we were both yelling loudly now. I didn't want my belly bitten off, and I was still struggling to get to my bear spray or to get a good grip on my ice axe to whack him. So I turned my back to the bear as he knocked me over, and then promptly made his escape the way he had come.

"Are you ok?" Hig asked. "I think so." Aside from a little bruise and a scratch that didn't break the skin, I was. "I think we surprised a trail creature." "What is it doing?" The bear was making huffing, whining and scrabbling noises up ahead of us. "I think it's climbed a tree." Sure enough, it had. We started circling around it, bear spray in hand. It was obviously afraid of us. As we came into view it started whining more loudly, trying to scrabble onto yet a higher branch that looked like a pretty small perch for a full grown black bear. It was impossible to be scared of such a pitiful sight. We stopped to take its picture before heading on around it.

In the tidal flats a little ways down we saw another black bear, who ran away. Camping in this valley had started to seem like a less and less good idea, and despite the growing dark we decided to push on to the ocean and out to the moraine islands in the middle of the bay. We blew up our rafts and followed the dropping tide down a long winding slough, past granite cliffs and over the ghostly forms of dead pink salmon.

As we got to the beach we saw another black bear, walking along the coast, bringing us up to a grand total of six for the day. Though I suspect that the bear at the lake and the one that attacked me may have been the same creature.

After the end of the point, we were paddling into darkness. The crossing to the islands shouldn't be far, but we couldn't see them. We thought we could, at one point, but it was only hills on the other side of the bay. Northern lights lit up the sky to our right, the moon had not yet risen, and sparkles of phosphorescence glowed with every paddle stroke.

The current was pushing us out the bay, but not so strongly that we couldn't fight it. Our main problem was that Hig's raft was rapidly leaking. He was falling more and more behind as his raft got less efficient, and arguing that he'd be ok for the crossing. We finally decided to try blowing his raft up. I flipped over and scooted out over the end of my raft towards his valve, while Hig held the rafts together. It turned out that a pack strap was caught on the valve, and it leaked far more slowly once I removed its pull. I puffed the boat up tight again without much trouble in the calm seas. We were good to go, though I couldn't do anything about the leaks in the bottom that were making Hig sit in a pool of water. The Iceberg Escape performed admirably.

But we still didn't know were we were going. We knew we could get to the other side, but not where the islands were. It was really dark now, and the phosphorescence sparkled impressively off our paddles. The Northern Lights had faded, but we could see all the stars overhead.

We were fighting the outgoing tidal current and trying to cut further up the bay. We couldn't see anything there, but when we stopped paddling, we could hear surf breaking over something shallow. It must be the islands.

We kept paddling, and suddenly we could see rocks. A whole forest of them, sticking eerily out of the water among the breaking waves. We found a passage around the breakers, and started paddling along the back side, looking for a good campable island. Island, however, would be a strong term for those mostly submerged moraines. We paddled over shallow cobbles, alongside ridges of slightly less shallow cobbles, not nearly high enough to escape the tides. We made one fruitless stop on land before paddling to the point - the spit sticking out from the other shore which ended in the islands. We camped at the top of the beach in sand and driftwood, watching the blindingly bright rise of the half moon as we set up. It was 12:30 AM and hours past dark when we finally crawled into bed.


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Last modified: 10/08/2004