Alaskan Adventure ~First Report~ May 2 to June 14, 2000
Traveling again seems a logical progression in our lives. Employed people take vacations. Traveling takes time. For us, this means quitting our job and heading out.
We are in Alaska until we see the northern lights, probably until the end of September. Heading back we’ll hit Banff and the NW-US, Texas for Thanksgiving and Florida for Christmas. NYC for NYE?? Who knows? The final destination is Tennessee where we will laugh about getting serious and growing up.
We left in a bit of a rush as we had trouble with our storage company. The Mystery Machine was full of junk. We thought we’d have space and time to sort pictures and finish other projects. Week one we mailed 170 pounds of stuff to our understanding parents. We even had our scanner/fax/printer with us!?
Diving into free camping early, we slept in our van just south of Vandenburg, CA. This was our initial introduction into van camping-we have become proficient. We laughed, this is luxury for us. We had a tent, station wagon and motorcycle on previous journeys.
Our ferry tickets for the inside passage started in Prince Rupert Canada on May 16. Lacking the nervousness we experienced previously, we did have some tension just trying to get everything together. Our friends, church and work sites were generous and loving as we were left. We were off on a whirlwind.
A quick stop in Monterey for breakfast with friends and a trip to the Aquarium (EXCELLENT) before heading to San Francisco to see friends. Over the weekend we checked out the Castro and Haight streets. We also had dinner with friends we met Dali, China. We raced to Bend, OR where we spent a couple of days catching up with friends. While in Bend we began the never-ending task of putting the MM in order.
At the Canadian border we failed the 50 questions: “Do you have a gun?” –yes, “Alcohol”- yes, “Cash”- not much; anyway, they let us through.
Vancouver is the Singapore of the NW-a nice (clean but not much soul) city where we rode our bikes and ate excellent food. We stayed at the Jericho Beach YHA-recommended.
Leaving Vancouver with 2 days to make it to Prince Rupert put us in a race against vast open spaces. Straight highways do not make the shortest paths. Day one-12 hours driving to cover 300 miles of magnificent valleys and rivers. Along the road we saw a herd of bighorn sheep and a few black bears. The bears looked like jet-black balls of fur.
Day 2-12 hours driving to cover etc. etc. This time we added another animal-the mosquito! The size alone bumps it up from insect to animal classification.
Prince Rupert is a pleasant coastal village. Over halibut and chips we met two forestry guys that felt the logging practices in British Columbia are pretty good by world standards. Logging is big news in this part of the world. Tree huggers and loggers clash. The problem with logging is that roads are created that enable overuse of the resource. One of the forestry workers made the point that by logging, you enhance habitat for many of the larger animals such as deer, moose, and bear. He noted that old growth forests do not supply forage in large abundance. This view is supported by the fact that there are more deer in the lower 48 of the US then there EVER were. We ascribed to Buddha’s middle way-leave some old growth to maintain special habitat for the creatures that require it.
Check in time for the ferry was 4 am so everyone slept in his or her vans/RVs in line. The excitement was thick as people buzzed about talking of their plans. We met our first traveling friends while waiting. Jason and Allison are from Australia and spent this previous winter working at a ski resort in Canada. They are traveling in a van type RV and their first two stops coincided with ours. We decided to hang out together. This is logical as our mode of transport puts us in the same level on the pecking order-backpacker, bicycler, motorbike, car, VAN (yeah!), truck camper, RV, RV pulling boat.
The Alaska ferry is often called the poor man’s cruise. The ferry travels from Prince Rupert to Haines with stops along the way. You can get on and off or go straight through. For $600 USD we made 3 stops and took our van along. There are cabins available at a reasonable price. Alternatively, you can sleep in one of the lounges or set your tent up on the upper deck “solarium”. Most backpackers chose the solarium, a covered and heated area strewn with lounge chairs. The food on the ferry is cafeteria-style, and of roadside diner quality. There are reading rooms, videos, play areas for the kids and FREE HOT SHOWERS (head for the handicapped ones).
The scenery is good as you make your way along the tree-covered islands with snow- capped mountains. The Forest Service prefers to clear-cut timber in areas you can’t see from the ferry and Cruise ships. Bears can be seen foraging on the beaches, and the occasional dolphin or Orca sighting gets everyone’s interest. To see most glaciers you have to take a tour.
Many people take 2 days to ride the entire way. We opted for stops in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, and Haines. Our schedule was such that we traveled during the day only. The cost to ride is the same with or without stops.
The inside passage covered in rainforest and, surprise, it was raining on our first ferry stop. The four of us spent several hours at the forest service office gathering maps and information. They even told us the great free camps around. Our fishing licenses put us back $100 each – OUCH!! We were off to catch our first meal. Mel caught fish number 1, 2, and 3 of the trip and we had them for dinner. A nearby Bald Eagle was eating one too.
Ketchikan is the first town the ferry stops in the USA. Nearby are many islands to explore and Park Service cabins to stay in. We decided to put the boat to use, and with Jason and Allison, we headed off to the nearby Jordan Lake. It was drizzling pretty much the whole time, but it had already become apparent that it is fruitless to wait on the weather around here. The weather changes from sunny to rainy to windy in the space of 20 minutes. If you want to get anywhere, you just put your head down and GO!
The ride out to Jordan Lake was great. The seas were calm and we made good time. We portaged the boat around some falls and were hiking in within an hour or two of setting out. We found the cabin and settled in nicely. A johnboat was there for use with the cabin and we headed off to catch some trout. We found the mouth of a river emptying into the lake and trout rolling everywhere. We had to replace our treble hooks with single ones and bend back the barbs because it was too easy to catch them. We hooked mostly Dolly Varden with a few rainbows. We lost one steelhead that we were never able to see, as it was too big!
We spent two nights dining on trout and paddling around the island before heading back to Ketchikan for the next leg of the journey. The ride started uneventfully as the skies were partly cloudy with the sun peeking out and some minor showers. We were making good time on the way back when the wind picked up and things got interesting. We were taking spray over the bow and negotiating the waves pretty well. The boat was loaded with 4 of us with all our gear, right at the maximum capacity. We were doing well, if not a bit cold when a boat went by and the wake caught us napping. The boat wake was directly opposite the waves from the sea and we took water over the bow when they met.
The boat quickly swamped and we improvised a bailer out of a water jug. Things were a little tense as we were bailing and trying to make shore, now heavier and contending with the waves from the sea and the remaining boat wake. As you can tell we made it back a little soggier for the effort. Allison said afterward that she knew it was a problem when I (Rob) used an expletive to register my opinion about water coming over the bow.
Each ride on the ferry was eagerly anticipated as it provided an opportunity for an unlimited HOT shower. This was always the first order of business once we boarded. On this ride we met John and Angelica, two long-term Alaska residents and retired schoolteachers. They were fun to talk with and shared many stories of the years they and their children traveled around Alaska over the summer. They invited us over to their house once we got settled in.
We were greeted with the usual weather, cold and rainy. We went over to see some pre-history petroglyphs and were invited in to John and Angelica’s for dinner. Dinner was great and we had the chance to hear more about Alaska and dine on some home cooking. The night ended after a series of games of Mexican dominoes. Their hospitality was an introduction to that of the people who live in these parts. John gave us a Salmon rod to use for a little fishing. We managed to get some troll fishing in, but lost the fish from the one strike we had.
We bid farewell to Jason and Allison as our paths were diverging. We will probably meet up for some hiking and such up in the mainland. Having a few days in town we set about exploring the museum and the surrounding countryside. The museum had some great lodge pole carvings from an original Tlingit lodge. Re-creations are in the exhibit on Chief Shakes Island.
Wrangell Island is pretty big, with a lot of roads created for logging. We camped on the backside of the island and one night while searching for a campsite we met Jim and Marilyn. They both live in Wrangell and have been building a magnificent house overlooking the water. While we were talking, a humpback whale was blowing out in the channel.
Jim has framed the exterior of the entire house and built a huge detached two cars plus garage. He hasn’t borrowed a cent, and just keeps plugging away at it. He offered to let us park and camp at his house and we took the opportunity to put the Mystery machine in “DRY-dock” for some needed organization. The use of a portable electric heater gave us our first warm nights sleep in a long time. We spent the night there and got to talk with Jim about their live in Alaska. The next day we parted and they sent us on our way with some smoked salmon and a big box of shrimp! We also had a chance to visit with a salmon fisherman on the boat Pacifica who wintered in Costa Mesa. Small world. Next stop Juneau.
We spent the first few days in Juneau cycling around town and gearing up for Glacier Bay. We went on one fantastic hike up the trail on the west side of the Mendenhall Glacier (one of Alaska’s many drive in glaciers). Juneau proved to be an interesting city with a great museum and lot of character. Like San Francisco the city rises steeply above the waterfront where up to 6 cruise ships dock each day. They deposit up to 12,000 tourists a day on a city with only 30,000 inhabitants!
Wow, we are here. This place is one of the big reasons we brought the boat. We took the ferry over and did our orientation to life among the wild beasties. After a good nights sleep we set off with our inflatable boat for some Glacier Exploration. Our goal was to make it as far in as the McBride Glacier in the Muir Inlet.
We spent 8 spectacular days motoring about Glacier Bay. We camped on islands and beaches along the way up the Muir Inlet and saw loads of animals. We camped our first night on Leland Island. After a day of patching the boat, we headed out for some animal watching at the nearby South Marble Island. Here we saw all the Stellar Sea Lions we could hear all night at our campsite. As evening came on we could see a black bear across the way walking the beach for food.
At first the sea lions could care less about us. We cut the motor about ¼ miles away and paddled in past the bird rookery. We stayed there for about half an hour when they finally took notice. Two packs of about 15 animals came out to the boat. As they came their heads were held high out of the water as if they were all saying, over and over, “hey, what’s that?” At this point I (Rob) was getting nervous, as they were HUGE, much bigger than our 12’ inflatable. We hung around as they checked us out. After about 10 minutes they were all around the boat and acting very interested, if not agitated. When they started coming up within reach of us and veering off, we figured it was time to leave.
From there we went to a beach on the mainland near Garforth Island. We had set up camp and watched the tide go out (they have 30’ tides in glacier bay) stranding our boat. What else was there to do, but have some tea? After our tea, we figured it was time to catch some fish and got the rods together to catch some Dolly Varden trout in a nearby stream. As we approached the stream, we saw a 400+ lb BROWN BEAR. He was about 100 yards away when we simultaneously saw each other. We put up our arms and said HEY BEAR (Just like they told us to). He looked at us briefly and walked off into the forest. He was really not interested in us, but we thought maybe we should leave this beach.
We started walking the half mile back to our camp and came to the realization that bears were everywhere, and it made no sense to leave as wherever we went there would be another bear anyway. Well right about the time we reached the conclusion to stay, we approached our camp and found….. ANOTHER BEAR.
This one was a Black bear, and a big one at that. We were much closer when we saw each other, about 20 yards. We did the HEY BEAR routine and he could care less. He looked at our bear cans (canisters used to store food so the bear cannot get to it) and continued sniffing around our camp. We kept up the HEY BEAR, waving our arms and he looked at us and started walking along the tree line, not directly at us, but getting closer still. What’s more, unlike the Brown bear, this one could care less that we were there. After what seemed an eternity, he turned and sauntered into the woods.
We decided to move our camp.
It was late (about 9pm) but since it didn’t get dark until 11 or so, we had time to break down our camp and move over to Garforth Island at the mouth of Muir Inlet. Here we set up our base camp for exploring the inlet and glaciers. It provided a safe distance to watch our friend the Brown (Grizzly) Bear forage on the beach each night.
The next day we took the boat up to the McBride Glacier. This was a 30 mile round trip in the boat, and pretty much all we had fuel for. The ride started out beautifully. Our luck with the weather was holding out as we made our way up the Muir Inlet. We passed Adams inlet with little trouble and continued on past spectacular scenery. Once we made the next inlet, things got a little rough as the two tides came together, but Mel was at the wheel with a steady hand.
Our new GPS came in handy as we worked to find the best way to stow gear and ourselves to achieve maximum speed. We got up to about 12 mph at our optimum. We made it up to the Glacier and found exactly what we wanted. A glacier all to ourselves on a beautiful day.
The McBride Glacier is set in a small inlet with a narrow channel. Ice from the glacier filled the lagoon, providing a nice snoozing place for Harbor Seals. They were out that day, and we saw about 10-15 of them with some pups thrown in.
The tide was coming in. This caused the ice to swirl around the lagoon as if it was a seal carousel. We got lots of great pictures as the seals floated by our spot on the beach. As the weather was fabulous, the glacier was very active. We spent most of the day watching the glacier calve into the bay. Huge pieces were falling off and sending waves out that kept us from approaching the face of the glacier. As we were leaving, the tide turned and all the ice was flushed out of the lagoon into Muir Inlet.
The ride back was somewhat eventful, as we now had to dodge all the ice that had come out of the lagoon. Capt Mel handled this well, and we only had a white knuckle ride past one of the inlets due to standing waves coming from the colliding currents. Just as we were halfway through, the afternoon wind started and we had to navigate choppy seas to make it back to Garforth Is. As usual, once we made it back, the wind stopped and the seas returned to completely calm.
Low on fuel we decided to leave the next day. On the way we made another attempt at S. Marble Island for some more sea lion viewing but the wind picked up forcing us back to shore (which was now about 2 miles away). Fortunately we were in a following sea so the ride was better than otherwise.
We decided to stop for lunch and some water so we headed for the mainland at Beartrack Cove. The beach here was pretty good by Glacier Bay standards, though we did manage to find some nasty barnacles. Those combined with moving a loaded inflatable boat over them spelled near disaster.
The tide was running out while we ate, so when we were ready to go, the boat had to be moved back to the water. While doing this we tore a huge hole in one of the pontoons. That section of the boat instantly deflated, leaving us at our newest campsite. The place was nice, but when you have your mind set on getting out, delays are disheartening.
We patched the boat and had to wait 24 hrs for the patch to dry so we made the best of our being castaways. We did our Tai Chi, some fishing, and tried to do some hiking – that is until we found the nearby claw markings on some trees from the resident bear. From that point on we stuck to our beach.
The next day we had to wait for an outgoing tide (as a precaution for our low fuel) before heading on. We were ready to go and were excited as we loaded our newly patched boat. The motor was cranked and I made one last look at out patched side… there was still a leak!!! Since the hole was so big, I figured the patch must have started leaking. We were discouraged to say the least. We unloaded the boat and let the tide go out exposing it on the beach.
We set up our camp again and went down to inspect the damage. We turned the boat over to find the leak was tiny and in another place. It took us no time to figure that we should just LEAVE. The camp was re-packed in no time and we were off around 6pm. The ride back found the weather starting to run out on us. We were catching some wind and light rain as we made our way AROUND (ask us about this some day) the Beardslee Islands. Mel was at the wheel again as we stuck close to shore all the way back. We had a couple of eventful current crossings, but made it back in time for dinner. We treated ourselves at the Glacier Bay lodge.
We spent another couple days checking out the lodge area before heading back to Juneau. We spent 7 nights out in the Bay, and a few more at the park. The weather was great, the scenery incredible. Our boat was good, but the area is hard on an inflatable. In addition, much of the bay is off limits to motorized watercraft. If we had it to do over, we would go in a sea kayak. You have to do all the work, but you don’t have to worry about running out of gas.
Glacier bay was a special place for us. There is so much wildlife to see there. Though you will have a lot of time to yourself, there was hardly a day we didn’t see someone go by in a boat or kayak. Early June seems like a good time to go. Maybe we got lucky with the weather, but many of the locals said there is often good weather around that time.
Those of you interested in going but not necessarily camping will find the lodge a great place to see it all. They run daily sightseeing boats that explore different arms of the bay each day. If any of you are interested in working there, there are lots of jobs for college age people, chef’s and the like each summer. The seasonal jobs come with lodging and pay, but the real benefit is free use of the lodges kayaks and low cost drop-offs by the lodges’ boats to all points in Glacier Bay.
We made it back to Juneau on the ninth of June. We spent a few more days exploring the area before catching the ferry for the ride up to Haines and the next part of our adventure. We really enjoyed the Southeast, though the weather was unpredictable and often raining. Like the locals we learned to go with the flow, and not wait on the weather to have a good time. We met lots of friendly people who helped us out with advice, home cooked meals, and a dry place to sleep when we needed them. If you ever head up this way, be sure to take a few nights off the ferry. Each town has something to offer, even for a day or two.
Hope all is well your way.
Mel and Rob Gunter
Copyright © 2002 by Robert and Melissa Gunter. All rights reserved.