Club Expedition to Alaska 2010
(Crossing Prince William Sound form West to East) – “Awesome”

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Club Expedition to Alaska 2010 (Crossing Prince William Sound form West to East) – “Awesome”

Ever since the clubs first expedition to Alaska in 2008 a group of us had been planning to return in order to cross from Whittier to Valdez using sea kayaks hired from Tom Pogsons Alaskan Kayak School based in Homer.   8 of us completed the journey returning on the Alaskan State Ferry to Whittier on the 29th August.  The group encountered 9 black bears, a humpback whale, Northern (Steller) Sea Lions, numerous harbour seals, sea otters and bald headed eagles.  We nearly got trapped in the ice of Columbia Glacier and paddled through the inner lagoon of Shoup Glacier. 

Brian Green, Theo Gaussen, Frankie Annan, Ian Bell, Mike Alter, Chris Franks, Kirk Williams and Keith Steer

The Flight out - getting to Whittier
We had all booked flights at various times and prices so the plan was to meet up in Seattle for the connecting flight into Anchorage.  As the Alaskan Airlines flight made its final approach the strong gusty winds and waterlogged Arctic tundra below hinted at the reported 40 days of rain and poor summer so far.  It was one of the bumpiest landings I had ever encountered.

We soon all met up in the terminal and headed for the hire cars and headed off to our Motel 6 accommodation for the night.  Some of the team decided to head out later that night to find a bite to eat (about 1am) and did not tell the others!

In the morning we enjoyed our complimentary cup of coffee and headed off to seek provisions at Fred Meyers (famous Alaskan Supermarket).  While some of us took our dietary requirements seriously (Cheesy Broccoli and pasta X 12 days supply) others were more concerned with checking out the pink riffle and ammo and latest camping gadgets for sale in the non-food section of the store.

After an eggs based breakfast (fast food), more coffee and the purchase of lunch (2 x 2ft sandwiches) we headed for our final stop, an REI outdoor store to check out more outdoor gear.  The two hire cars were now packed to the brim and we headed out of town for the tunnel under Portage glacier and our launching spot, Whittier.

 More Photos – getting to Whittier…….

Day One – Whittier to Squirrel Point

“Somebody pinch me, I’m in Alaska and I am about to head off on the trip of a lifetime!”

That was the thought as I woke up in the hotel at the beginning of a rather hectic first day after such a long flight. Eager to get going, the four excited paddlers in my room had to wait for the party animals from next door to poke their weary heads out of bed before we headed off to a supermarket to get breakfast and then begin the biggest supermarket trolley dash you have ever seen to ensure that we all had enough food for the two weeks away. This trolley dash was made all the harder by the fact that 1) It was a new supermarket layout and we didn’t know where items where, 2) It was full of brands that were unknown, 3) Being the organised lot that we are we hadn’t set menus in advance (accept for Keith and Kirk who looked like they were going to live on cheesy broccoli or cheesy potato!) 4) In my case they didn’t have that most useful of things when it comes to shopping, someone to do it for you!

Fully stocked it was off to that most important of places, the outfitters, to stock up on those last minute essential such as new boots, a map and other various odds n sods. Alas, all too quickly we had to leave the REI emporium and head to Whittier to collect our boats and kit from Tom at 12 noon.

The drive to Whittier is great, but we missed the tunnel slot, it’s a one way tunnel, so we ate the two foot sandwiches in the car park (not each mind). Into Whittier, meet Tom, collect boats and kit, check with ferry to ensure that we can get back ok – “No probs, just turn up” is the answer, pay launch fee (what’s that about?) pack boats before we get too wet as it started to rain and head off into the wild!

Just out of the harbour, we ran into a small group heading back in being led by a rather gorgeous, in Theo’s eyes, kayak guide. Awesome!

We are now on the shake down paddle, it’s a quick few hours to the probable campsite and we can still go back if we have forgotten anything. My seat is uncomfortable, but I am hoping that time at first camp will sort it out and for now it’s time to sit back and settle into the rhythm of the trip.

Arriving at Squirrel point, this is the first time camping in bear country for most of us, and we are a bit wary of how to proceed. Just remember the guidance, talk quietly and stand firm if it’s a black bear, play dead until it leaves you alone if it’s a brown bear. We land and the first timers are surprised to see a rather nice cabin ($10k fine for using without permission), composting toilet in its own hut and tent platforms spread out amongst the forest – these, along with the connecting boardwalks help minimise the human impact in the fragile environment.

A first meal under the tarp is soon followed by sorting of foods, apart from for Keith and Kirk who have a very simple menu, and then checking / fitting boats ahead of creating the bear cache. You are supposed to hang food 5m above the ground, but with 12 days food for 8 people this is hard, if not impossible. So we placed all foods in multiple zip-locked bags and then dry bags to hide the scent, moved it away from the tents and hide it under the tarp with pots and pans on top to scare away any bears (or at least provide an alarm).

Off to bed with a hunger to get under way in the morning – I must admit to being kept awake by any unexplained noise in the night.

Mike Alter. More Photos of day 1…….

Day Two – Squirrel Point to Culross Passage
Waking up in the tent platform in the woods, thankful to have survived the night with no bear encounters (it was me thrashing around in the bushes
after falling off the boardwalk!). I have to admit to some feelings of trepidation, at the beginning of our first full day. Challenge number 1 – get breakfast eaten and the boat packed and not be the last on the water! Then as we are about to launch, Keith warns us of the wind forecast and more nerves kick in.

 So we head away from Squirrel Point into some swell and wind to begin the journey to see Blackstone Glacier. As we pass Decision point I see my first Alaskan Glacier – wow!  I suddenly stop thinking about the uncomfortable back rest, wind and waves and start to feel excited. Then the wind really picks up and the paddle into Blackstone becomes a battle.  After what feels like forever, slogging into wind and waves, a retreat is called. (The thought, is this a holiday? did cross my mind) We return with a following wind (much easier journey) to a sunny beach in a sheltered position for elevenses, then a sunny lunch watching the white caps gradually disappear.

As the wind dropped we headed off again, paddling for the point we could see ahead of us.  The wind was less now but still enough to test our boat handling.  A quick stop at Surprise cove before setting out again to get around in Culross Passage and our campsite for the night.  I could now relax into my comfort zone, chopping and cooking. 

Frankie Annan. More Photos of day 2…….

Day Three – Culross Passage to East Flank Island

With less wind that the previous day and a good forecast we set of from our campsite at a
headland called Peter, close to north end of Culross passage.   Once clear of the bay we headed straight out for our first and longest open crossing of the trip so far. We Headed for Esther point, which was the south west point of Esther Island.  This involved crossing an area of the sound known as Wells passage, which is one of the main shipping routes for the Alaska sea highway and the many cruise ships heading towards the glaciers, so we kept closes together and with one eye out for shipping of we went. The crossing turns out to be uneventful and relatively smooth.

Once across we spent most of the rest of the day paddling along the south of Esther Island having the now mandatory stops for collecting of water, elevenses and lunch. As we did we encountered many local fishermen and had to weave around their nets. Brian made conversation with one and has promised to send him copies of the photos he took of him working. We also saw our first black bear on the beach as we where looking for suitable landings, as well as otters and sea lions.   At the east side of Esther Island is Esther passage, a channel used by cruise boats heading to the glaciers in College Fiord. As we started our crossing of the wider south end of the passage we saw a boat that was known to those who were on the 2008 trip. The “Klondike Express” which does daily trips from Whittier to the Glaciers. This is the boat in some of those 2008 photos that looks like a toy in front of the glacier. As it approached it sounded its horn to make us aware it was passing us.  We continued on to the east side of the channel and to an island called East Flank.  This had an excellent camp site with magnificent views in all directions. As it was still relatively early Brian, Chris, Kirk went for an afternoon paddle exploring some more of the coastline whilst the rest of us sunbathed and relaxed in the extremely hot afternoon sun. This was the hottest day of the trip and we had to keep reminding ourselves we were in Alaska, not Greece.

Ian Bell. More Photos of day 3…….

Day Four – East Flank Island to Fairmount Island
Leaving a very nice campsite at East Flank, we continued around the coast – some of us had paddled the first half already the night before in fact, but it was worth doing twice….  Crossing between a few of the islands, our first (and last) whale was spotted (a humpback whale that rolled over and dived away into the distance.  My trusty Spork (fork, knife and spoon in one) which had remained balanced on my day hatch for most of the day, was lost to the deep as I attempted to put it away.  Having three pieces of cutlery in one isn’t an advantage when you lose all of them at once. 

We followed round the island past large numbers of fishing boats using large, flat nets attached to the shore to trap fish in the tide, and searched for the ideal campsite, eventually finding a good beach on one of the small islands.  It was an island at high water anyway, separated by a tidal rapid of sorts, which proved to be rather shallow.  I didn’t run aground on it however – I merely stopped in the middle to see just how shallow it was, whilst paddling upstream…..  Another day of warm sunshine, which started off misty, and perfect flat calm conditions once again.

Chris Franks. More Photos of day 4…….

Day Five – Fairmount Island to Flent Point (via South Side of Glacier Island)
The Day started windy and grey as we crossed over to Glacier Island. The plan was to paddle along the south side of the Island which looks directly out to the Pacific. We then picked up a couple of inquisitive friends as some sea lions started to play around and then with our boats. They kept crossing under our boats hitting them on the hull and popping up right next to us. Coming round the corner we were greeted by some puffins hiding in some caves before finding a whole beach full of Stella sea Lions. Keith got too close and soon found himself with a wall of barking Sea Lions in front of him and had to make a hasty retreat!

After investigating a blow hole we then saw our first Iceberg which had come of Columbia glacier. After paddling thought the Ice we crossed over to Flent point and found a camping spot on to stony beach. We had to clear a tent platform using our feet and pitched on top of the stones.  Boats, buried tent pegs and stones were used as anchor points but with thermarests, these dry and free draining campsites are very comfortable.  This is where we experienced our first night camped next to the Ice and spent the evening watching Icebergs and Sea Otters floating by.  The sound of ice crashing and breaking up continued throughout the night.

Theo Gaussen. More Photos of day 5…….

Day Six – Flent Point to Columbia glacier Terminal Moraine

After a night of rumblings and large cracks as the ice flows outside our tents moved with the currents and lumps of ice the size of houses cracked and split under their own weight at the tide left them high and dry on the beach we packed up putting all our spare clothes on to paddle through the ice towards the Columbia glacier terminal moraine.

As we followed the left hand shore towards the glacier the ice became thicker and we wondered if we would get through.  After an hour or so we found a small cover with running water and decided to pull in for elevenses (it was only 10.00am!) and fill up with water as this may be in short supply on the gravels of the moraine.  As we neared the old moraine ridge the ice became a solid wall, it was clear we were going no further.  All of the ice carved from the 2km wide glacier had backed up against the moraine ridge and only on high tide did some of the blocks have sufficient depth to flow over the ridge which formed the lagoon and on out to sea.  We decided to explore the surreal landscape and head up over the massive mounds of debris to try and catch a glimpse of the mighty Columbia glacier.

From a high point several members posed for photographs with a sea of ice as a backdrop.  The Columbia glacier has retreated an incredible 9 miles since 1980.  After a while watching the distant ice front we returned to the moraine and decided to camp next to an esker (fossil blocked stream bed which ran underneath the ice and is now visible as a sinuous ridge of fine glacier deposits.  Frankie was feeling the cold but agreed to the idea despite the prospect of another cold night; the cold air falls down the surface of the glacier and is know as a katabatic wind.

We were a little worried as the area was frequented by bears and our stash of food (triple sealed in air tight bags) might prove of interest to them in the night.  In the end we were not troubled and slept well on the very flat campsite.  

Brian Green. More Photos of day 6…….

Day Seven – Columbia glacier Terminal Moraine to Long Point (via Long Bay and Schrader Island)
 After a cold night (the enormous Columbia glacier creates a strong katabatic wind – the heavier, colder air rolls down the length of the glacier) we woke to a glorious morning (strong sun and mist over the water) to paddle out among the ice flows heading round the corner to Long Bay.  We paddled past some grounded pieces of ice.  These towered over us and creaked and strained under their own weight.

In long bay we passed several sea otters and headed across a small bay to find water.  As we closed on a small stream we saw our first black bear.  As we landed he scampered off into the under growth.  As we filled our water bottles we found numerous signs of his alfresco dinning, piles of bear poo, discarded salmon heads and bones and the flattened vegetation surrounding the stream.  We had elevenses (now a daily highlight) and chatted about the mornings paddle.  However, we kept at least one eye nervously on the shrubs behind in case our friend returned.

We explored the rest of the bay, creeping up on every stream mouth, in the hope of seeing more bears but were unsuccessful.  We landed on Schrader Island to dry off in the afternoon sun displacing the local inhabitants, several sea otters.  They happily played and fished around us until we headed off to find a campsite on Long point. This was a long, stony beach with just enough room for a line of tents above the high tide mark.  Again we excavated tent platforms in the shingle.  Later that night the tide came to within a few centimetres of our tent door.  This was extremely worrying as we were at the top of the beach and we were returning towards springs.

 Keith Steer. More Photos…….

Day Eight –Long Point to Elf Point
This turned out to be a very interesting day.  Upon rounding Long point we headed over to where a stream flowed over the beach to fill up with water for the day.  Two black bears were wandering around the river delta, fishing for salmon. We watched for a while before they wandered into the undergrowth at the back of the beach.  We landed our kayaks and started to fill our water bottles.  One of the bears then began to wander towards us following the stream picking up several salmon on the way.  This was our first on land encounter and we nervously held our ground.  The bear came to within 50m before lumbering off behind some isolated ice blocks

We headed back past our campsite at Flent Point and paddled out into the bay to cross the ice flows which seem thicker that normal.  After a mile or so the ice became thicker and thicker and we needed to follow each other single file. Near the middle we wondered if we were ever going to get through, the Bergy bits had to be prised apart by the lead kayak and currents and wind could have meant that we would become trapped in the moving sea of ice.  After several nervous moments Ian thought he could see a way through to more open water.  Before long the ice thinned and we could paddle to Elf point, our intended campsite for the evening.  This was a steep stony beach with a floor of pine needles under trees at the top of the beach; this would make for a more comfortable night than the usual bed of pebbles.    Kirk Williams.

Seeing as the day had been so good so far, the crossing of the ice was fantastic, and we weren’t all in the mood for sunbathing, three paddlers ensured they had a spare tent and food to last the day, and then headed off back to Columbia glacier via the East flank of Heather Island. As we paddled up to the terminal moraine, the weather could not have been more different to our first approach, I had my sunnies on, and it was amazing how little ice there was compared to our morning escapades.

Reaching the edge of the ice, even though 8 miles from the glacier on a moraine dam that is 5 miles wide, the glacial melt could be seen acting as a river and we had to use river skills such as ferry gliding from behind grounded ice berg to grounded ice berg to make our way in, where we met with an amazing view of the sea of ice behind the dam and a group of tourists who had been power boated out from Valdez for a couple of hours sea kayaking and lunch at the margin of water and ice. The guide said our trip sounded “Awesome”, but I’m not sure if that short paddle and lunch was worth $230 each – ouch!

A quick brew stop, Hershey chocolate tastes of vomit, and its back to meet the others and catch up on the last of the suns rays.

Mike Alter. More Photos of Day 8…….

Day Nine – Elf Point to Sawmill Bay
“Get In!!!!!!”

Was the shout from Keith to Kirk, Brian and myself as we paddled around the point. Although in the eddy behind the reef, we would soon be head on into the full flow of the ebbing tide as it surged around one of the crux points of the trip so it was sensible to follow the advice.

Careful planning had been necessary to ensure that there was a good weather window as we rounded the point, as had been the case at several other key points. The geography of Prince William Sound ensured that the point was exposed to the full fury of any Pacific swells coming from the south west, and there were no landings for 10miles as we began the entry into Valdez Arm. Fortunately, the weather goods were kind and we breezed into the sound, but all too soon we found ourselves battling into a head wind to make our way towards Sawmill bay, our camp for the night.

With no landings for the first 10 miles, we were headed for Surprise Falls, and what a surprise it was as the falls were not visible until the very last minute.  Just as we got there a Bald Headed Eagle soared off on its powerful wings to hunt for its prey. Once there it was time for lunch, but I must admit to expecting to see a bear at any moment due to the vast number of salmon patiently waiting at the bottom of the falls for the tide to come in and make their ascent upstream that much easier.

It was then off to Sawmill Bay where there was an official campsite for the night, and some used the opportunity of warmer water to go for a swim – avert your eyes Frankie. We all decided not to use the tent platform, there were a lot of midge in the woodland near the platforms, and instead decided to camp beside the metal bear cache, near the waters edge.  The evening was full of the sound of salmon jumping out of the water and sploshing back in or jumping out of the water and landing with a thud on the shingle beach.

Mike Alter. More Photos…….

Day Ten – Sawmill Bay to Jack Bay
Another early morning escape from the midges, saw us stop briefly to top up the water
supplies across from the campsite, before heading off to cross a busy waterway, but as someone pointed out not quite as busy as the English Channel! Still that ferry is pretty big, Ian’s wish to see an oil tanker navigate the Valdez narrows wasn’t granted on this occasion either. Once in Sawmill bay, time once again to stealthily paddle along the shoreline looking for bears, once again Keith spotted and led the silent approach to watch to 2 black bears feasting on the Salmon. Lots of bald eagles to see here too, amazing how quickly you just expect to see Kittiwakes, Eagles, sea otters and sea lions, no Puffins after Glacier Island though.

After exploring some of Jack Bay, thoughts turned to the campsite for some as the wind picked up and the rain started. Chris, Keith, Ian and I headed off to find the campsite, as the only person with a complete tent that meant first choice of camping spot, as well as some modelling for Keith. The most interesting latrine of the trip!

Frankie Annan. More Photos…….

Wanting to paddle further and explore the bay, those not heading to an early campsite surfed towards its upper reaches. There we were met with a bed of reeds, but a channel of water heading further inland kept calling us ever onwards.

Wary of being stranded by an ebbing tide, we headed up through the swamp, ducking under trees and keeping an ever open eye for bear sign. Alas we didn’t see any, and all too soon it was return or risk being stranded. Reaching the bay it was a slog against the wind, lightened by a trip under a waterfall – which ruined the sharks’ feather – and the exploration of a tunnel. Then we had to find the campsite, hmmm, now which densely wooded part of the bay had they decided to land on????????

Day Eleven – Jack Bay to Shoup Bay
Leaving Jack bay, we stopped at a small waterfall to refill water bottles.  This time we did not land, we used Brian, who was sat in his boat filling the bottles from a small waterfall, as we passed them to him. Once around the point we were in the Valdez Narrows.  This section of the sound, as its name suggests, is
narrow but also a point where all the tankers heading for Valdez must pass though.  It is only a mile wide but divided by a central rock island. We paddled up the east side of the narrows close to the shore until we could turn west and paddle directly to the middle rock and view the light on it. All the time we kept an eye out for shipping and ferries.  However, all we saw were local fishing boats and not one of the 300 foot oil tanks.

From Middle Rock we crossed to the west shore for Elevenses and chose to land on a beach between two spectacular waterfalls. It had started to rain at this point so we set up stoves and stood huddled together under a rock overhang for shelter. As we had our drinks and snacks Mike suddenly said there’s a Bear. With some disbelief we reached for our cameras and all gazed across the stream trying to grab a glimpse of the bear. We didn’t see anything until Mike pointed out to us that it had crossed stream and was on the beach heading  for us now only about ten yards away. As most of us tried to get photos Keith jumped up to run to for his boat (his excuse was supposedly to get his camera from his boat). With his movement the bear suddenly realised we were there and doing a back flip quickly ran off back up the rock cliff next to the waterfall.

Having left the waterfall we carried on northward towards Shoup Bay which is a State Marine Park, with camping area and hunting cabins but also the glacier we hoped to visit. It was now raining as we arrived in Soup Bay.  It was also colder than recent days, especially as we drew nearer to the glacier.  We found the first cabin, but not exactly as shown on map so we carried on a short distance to find the channel into the lagoon formed by an old moraine.   At this point of the tide it was not possible to paddle up it, so we landed and did a bit of exploring from the bank returning just as tide was about to lift our boats away.   Having to wait a few hours for the tide we paddle back to shelter by cabin and to have lunch.

After chatting to a group that had stayed the night in the cabin we returned to run the channel into the lagoon on a rising tide.  We quickly identified a suitable camping spot before spending the afternoon paddling across to Shoup Glacier taking those once in a lifetime type photos.  We paddled back past Kittiwake Island and returned to set up camp before cold and tiredness set in. The evening was spent using the shelter of the cabin while we cooked our food.  We settled into our tents for the night as we would require an early start to catch tide out of the lagoon the next day.  We were worried that the channel would become a full-on white water trip or become too shallow to pass over any rock safely. Unlike the bothies in Scotland we were not supposed to use these cabins without a permit, except in extreme emergencies or you face a fine of $1000. The bill is on the way to Brian as I write this.

Ian Bell. More Photos…….

Day Twelve – Shoup Bay to Valdez
The final day…..

The day dawned as grey and murky as the two before it - earlier than usual, as we had to catch enough water in the channel out of the Shoup Glacier lagoon to avoid hitting the bottom.  Luckily, the reconnaissance mission the night before by Ian, Mike and I had paid off, and we all escaped into the open sea without problem.  Fog banks had descended on the valley overnight, and although visibility was a bit limited, we set out, hugging the north bank of Port Valdez.  Brian continued to hug it, even when the rest of the group was about half a mile out, but the scenery at close quarters was fabulous, so we let him off.  More murkiness followed, broken up by an old mine working which we paused to examine.  We stopped in the pouring rain to ensure that our food calculations had been correct to the nearest crumb, and that we should arrive back in Valdez with no food at all.  For the record, Salami is not too good after two weeks in the back of a kayak, and even Theo proclaimed it to ‘taste a bit funny’.

Continuing, we encountered a fishing competition just outside Valdez – the sheer number of boats was unbelievable, as was the number of jumping salmon - some even jumping over the kayaks as we paddled along.  Landing on a beach in Valdez, we walked up back into habitation to find accommodation, ferry tickets and such like, a few staying to guard the boats.  Eventually, we found a few hotel rooms just near the beach, and took them up, leaving the boats outside.  Much fried food followed, and we began to realise just why there were so many err… ‘heavy boned’ people around America.  However, any food is good after two weeks of pasta and rice, so no complaints. 

Wet gear was draped over every possible immovable object in the hotel rooms.  Even the curtains were replaced by Terra Nova footprints, and water dripped everywhere.  After a good meal, a few ventured out into the local bars, having been assured by the ferryman that we could be sure of a fight in one particular location.  We investigated the matter, and sure enough, a nice local chap who resembled Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in the film, but with no hair, obliged after about two minutes.  He said he’d like to rip Brian’s head off, but the live music was good, so we decided to stay.  Anyway, proceedings went on into the morning, and we managed a couple of hours kip before getting up at 5 the next morning….

Chris Franks. More Photos…….

The Trip Home (via Chicago)
The long journey home began with an early start.  Our hotel room decided to get up at 5am to beat the others in staggering the boats the half mile to the Ferry terminal (we had been out the night before till 4am). With Keith having left his passport in the hire car in Whittier some negotiation was needed go get him though the strict American security checks otherwise it was a long paddle home! With all of us aboard we were treated to some awesome scenery from a different perspective as we travelled back the way we came, just slightly faster!

With us all back in Whittier we sorted all the boats and kit out before treating ourselves to a root beer soda float which was found to be quite disgusting! We then drove back to Anchorage and took an overnight flight to Chicago. With a whole day to kill in Chicago we decided to take to the train into town and explore the city. The day revolved round food (for me anyway) with brunch, Ice cream, fries and pancakes all been enjoyed. We also walked down to the Navy Pier and enjoyed looking back at the city before walking past all the sky scrapers before getting the train back to the Airport. Another long night flight brought us back to Manchester Airport before being transferred to Liverpool Marina. AWESOME!

Theo G. More Photos…….

We hope to return in 2012 to explore Knight Island and the glaciers to the South of Whittier.

Brian Green, Theo Gaussen, Chris Franks, Mike Alter, Frankie Annan, Keith Steer, Kirk Williams  and Ian Bell

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