Visitor Use Monitoring in Kelp Bay


SourDough News | September 26, 2012


Paul & Nate crossing Kelp Bay. Photo by Jen Mac Donald.
Paul & Nate crossing Kelp Bay. Photo by Jen Mac Donald.

Day 1 - Unmarked trail on Pond Island. Photo by Jen Mac Donald.
Day1 - Unmarked trail on Pond Island. Photo by Jen Mac Donald.

Day 1—looks promising, with few clouds and a light wind from the north. It’s May 2012, and I’m joining the Sitka Ranger District’s natural resource specialist Jen Mac Donald, intern Paul Baker and seasonal  Nate Fusselman to conduct Visitor Use Monitoring. We paddle west across Kelp Bay on Baranof Island, and then south along the shoreline to scout for signs of past visitor activity and possible new destinations for visitors.  By the looks of the water spouts across the way, we anticipate some humpback activity near the shore of our next destination, Pond Island. They move along in their unhurried way, feeding as they go. They are gone by the time we reach the island, but we will spend a lot of time with these giant, docile neighbors in the days ahead.

There is something special about slowly paddling back into a quiet, isolated salt chuck, endeavoring not to disturb this pristine environment while keeping your eyes and ears open for bear activity. Heh bear, heh bear! It’s now time to load the guns, put on the hard hats and hit the trail. We hike up a well-used, muddy trail to the “ponds” of Pond Island, and are treated to two beautiful, lily-filled lakes.  We discuss whether this site could be a good option as a trail destination for small tour companies.  

Back on the water, we enter the narrows at the south end of Pond Island and get a quick, free ride eastward on the outgoing tide.  Along the way, a recently used campsite is found with many cut stumps and trash left behind.  It’s disappointing to see such disregard for national forest lands.  The plan was to go around the island, but a north wind coming down Chatham Strait makes this route difficult. Backtracking around the south end of the island, we paddle against the current this time, then up the west shore and eventually home to our camp for a late dinner.

Day 2—our destination is the Middle Arm of Kelp Bay. As we set off across the bay on glassy water with a high overcast sky, the humpback whales are making their presence well known with lots of spouting activity and flipper waves. When we bring our attention back to the forest, Jen spots what looks like a bull’s eye on the shore, It turns out to be graffiti painted on a rock, but no other activity can be found in the area. As we continue back into the arm of this magical waterway, the solitude is rarely broken by any kind of human activity. At the outfall to a creek, we chat with a fishing guide tending his skiff on the tidal flats. These fishing guides use only conservation wise catch and release techniques to insure a good sport stock for future generations. Could this area support other recreation activities without spoiling the experience for these fishermen?

As we head back out of Middle Arm, we watch some distant whale spouts to determine their direction of travel and adjust our route to stay clear of their feeding path. As soon as we exit the arm we are greeted with a strong, broadside wind and rising swell which makes us paddle hard for our island camp and dinner. We stop halfway across the bay to chat with another fishing guide who operates on the national forest, but today has three clients on board for some salt water fishing. Nine hours after leaving camp, we wearily carry our boats back up the beach, tie them off above the high water line and prepare a much anticipated meal.

Day 3—our day to investigate South Arm, the most spectacular area of Kelp Bay. Paul and Nate travel the south shore with its intricate system of small bays and islands while Jen and I travel the dramatic fiord-like north shore. Going west into the arm, we all enjoy a light tailwind. The north shore is characterized by steep slopes with many slide chutes that start at sea level and rise to 2,500-foot-plus elevations. At the lower elevations, the slide chutes are choked with thick berry bushes, and higher, they are composed of mostly rock.  Even on such a wind driven, rainy day one can see why this estuary of the Glacial and Clear Rivers is a popular destination for wildlife viewing, sightseeing and fishing. The weather causes the others to turn back early, so Jen and I reluctantly launch the kayak in anticipation of a hard paddle against the wind for our return to camp. We stay tucked in against the southern shore as long as possible, knowing that we will eventually have to head straight into this easterly wind to get back. But luck is with us! The wind dies and we have a leisurely paddle back across the bay to camp and begin preparing for our flight back to Sitka tomorrow.

By Frank Barnes, Information Receptionist, Sitka Ranger District