Seeing Blackstone Bay through My Ears: Day 1
SourDough News | November 8, 2012
Willard Island. Courtesy of Travis Shinabarger.
In cooperation with the Glacier Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest, Challenge Alaska has, for several summers, offered a yearly sea kayaking adventure in Prince William Sound to persons with different disabilities. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of participating in my fourth such trip with Challenge. This sea kayaking adventure to Willard Island in Blackstone Bay provided splendid opportunities, not only to see the natural wonders of this unique part of Alaska, but also to experience them with the other senses.
Having made the approximately one-hour drive from Anchorage to Whittier, we were greeted by strong gusts of wind, which whipped the waters of western Prince William Sound into foaming whitecaps. Once everyone in our party was fitted with life-vests and other paddling gear, there was enough time for espresso and something to eat before loading onto the 40-foot vessel (The Kayak Chief) operated by Lazy Otter Charters, which would transport us to Willard Island. This particular boat was equipped with a loading ramp, which allowed greater ease of access for persons using wheelchairs or other mobility devices. During the rather choppy boat ride, we encountered a pod of orcas on the port (or left side) of the vessel. Since the whales did not follow us, or ride our bow-wave, I guessed that they were more interested in feasting on the abundant silver salmon than taking advantage of photo opportunities. I imagined what it would be like to paddle among these powerful creatures, and to have a kayaker’s-eye view of them.
Once we unloaded all of our gear and set up camp, I spent some time getting acquainted with our camp site. The trails in our area were well enough defined that using my white cane to find the trail edge and locate rocks or other obstacles was no problem at all.
Investigating some of the local flora of the area, I was able to notice the contrast between the different plant communities. Just above where the previous high tide deposited piles of strong-smelling seaweed, I found patches of beach greens mixed with coastal fireweed and sour dock. All of these are low-growing ground-cover plants.
Walking a bit further inland, I entered a zone of tall thick-stemmed beach grasses. Among these grasses, were shrubby alders and willows. I noticed that the alders had a pleasant fragrance.
Just beyond these, the towering forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock loomed in its majestic beauty. It was a joy to hear the frequent wind gusts sing through the treetops, as if in response to the calls of numerous songbirds. In the fragrant shade of these temperate rainforest trees grew tall Sitka alders, huckleberry and blueberry shrubs, along with countless ferns, mosses and herbaceous plants.
In addition to our party of twelve kayakers, our camp site also hosted a family of bald eagles. We noted that the parents were engaged in encouraging their offspring to fly, and eventually leave the nest. Often hearing calls from these noble raptors, I wasn’t sure if they were cheers of encouragement from the parents, or cries of protest from the juveniles, who had not yet mastered the art of flight. Throughout our stay, we were privileged to both see and hear this example of eagle parenting.
Although the next day dawned sunny, the wind was still considerable. By mid afternoon, the wind subsided enough for us to launch our kayaks, and paddle some eight miles along the Shore of Willard Island. Leaving camp shortly after high tide, we paddled with the current, but into the wind. With the wind against us, we bounced and bumped over small whitecaps. It was exhilarating to feel the cold, windblown sea spray on my face. Contrary to more open portions of Prince William Sound, there were no swells to speak of, other than those generated by different vessels which we encountered. Crossing the wakes of these vessels, the kayaks seemed to dance as they rose and then dipped with each swell. We greeted these swells with whoops and shouts of delight. After several hours of paddling into the wind, we located a suitable beach for our rest stop and lunch. At this point, our three attendant forest rangers led an informative discussion about taking winds and tides into consideration when planning a day on the water. Later, on our return to camp, we noted the tide had turned, so that it was pushing us homeward, just as it pushed us away from camp on our earlier departure. The wind, which had diminished to a light breeze, was also at our backs. What a different sensation this was, having both wind and current behind us. Paddling silently, we glided through the water as if through silk. This was a wonderful finish to our eight-mile excursion.
After a well-deserved evening meal, it was a pleasure to serenade my companions with Scottish and Irish tunes on my tin whistle. The crackle of a warm fire and whisper of sea waves made an excellent accompaniment to the music.
By Charles Rogge, Participant, Glacier Ranger District and Challenge Alaska Sea Kayaking Adventure on the Chugach National Forest