We're standing in a field of rocks in a dense fog, surrounded by icebergs stranded at low tide. This is the terminal moraine of Alaska's Columbia Glacier — the rocky debris that was left when the glacier retreated — and it looks like the moon, all gray and black and icy and bleak. Wearing oversize rubber boots, I steady myself on the small, slick rocks as my traveling companions in brightly colored rain gear start to offload our kayaks from the small water taxi that dropped us here.
The four of us were about to embark on a five-day adventure, paddling 57 miles in nearly constant rain through Columbia Bay and Prince William Sound to the Port of Valdez. The trip, organized by Valdez-based Anadyr Adventures, took us to sheltered bays, short sections of choppy water and the bigger swells of the Valdez Arm, then out rapids formed by the retreating tide through narrow inlets.
We feasted on meals cooked by our guide, Josh McDonald, and we camped one night near the face of a groaning glacier. We saw orcas, sea lions, otters and seals, and we spotted bald eagles, perched high on Sitka spruce and jagged cliffs, looking for prey. The land was vast, wild and remote, and every day, around every corner, ever more extraordinary sights awaited us.
None of us had sea-kayaked before, so our first hours with McDonald were spent discussing water safety, efficient paddling and getting in and out of the boats without capsizing. We also learned how to pack and seal five days of gear into tiny high-tech "dry bags," and how to attach a spray skirt, a water-repellent cover that keeps the kayak cockpit and the paddler dry.
We started our trip where the tip of the Columbia Glacier was located 30 years ago. Today the glacier is 10 miles from that point, having retreated off the moraine into deep water. Columbia is the second-largest tidewater glacier in Alaska at nearly 400 square miles, McDonald said, but it's also one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, flowing at the rate of 60 to 80 feet per day.
As we launched our kayaks, growlers — small icebergs — tipped and rolled in the bay. McDonald cautioned us to keep a safe distance from them; only 10 percent of their mass is visible above the water. It was 48 degrees and raining, and their blue ice was sculpted smooth by the water into whimsical shapes and sizes — birds, ships. We were like dumbfounded kids, happily splashing around the bergs and through the strong currents with our spastic day-one paddling, trying to comprehend the awesome spectacle around us.
We had the proper gear to stay mostly dry, covered head to toe in rubber and Gore-Tex, though we did get cold feet — literally — the nearer we were to glacial streams. McDonald had his own kayak while we four paired up in bigger kayaks, spending the first day trying to paddle in each other's rhythm. Tough going, but we managed it eventually. We all happily admitted early on that we loved break time, when we floated in a little pod in the wide open sea and McDonald pulled out gorp, chocolate, banana bread and other snacks from the dry bag at his feet for us to munch on.
On our very first day, we finished a break adjacent to Heather Island, admiring its old-growth forest, which survived because it sits south of Columbia Glacier's farthest reach. I was still struggling to match my partner's paddling rhythm and steer with the little foot pedals in my bulky rubber boots when we heard the huge blow and splash of a whale surfacing.
"Orca!" McDonald yelled. Three whales were breaching and diving about 60 yards from our boats. Then McDonald yelled, "They're coming right at us!" He was clearly excited by the prospect, as was my boat mate Donna Lawlor, and our fellow paddlers Kym Littleton and Karen To, who sat transfixed watching the huge backs and fins go in and out of the water straight toward us. I started getting nervous, feeling like a very small pea before a very great giant. Then just as quickly as they'd surfaced, the orcas veered off and headed north toward the glacier.
On that first day and every day after, we saw seals, otters, sea lions and countless eagles. We saw cliffs where hundreds of purple and yellow starfish hung off the seaweed and rocks at low tide. There were waterfalls that looked 20 stories high, and glacial moraines that stretched for miles. Some days the water looked milky green and almost emerald-like; other days it was an icy gray. This far north in the summer, the sunset took place around 11 p.m., but it never got dark.
After paddling 16 miles the second day, we spent two days in Sawmill Bay, cruising its flat waters and exploring Stellar Creek where bear feed on spawning salmon. We didn't see any bears, but signs of them were everywhere: paw prints and crude paths through long green marsh grass crushed by their weight, and large areas completely flattened where they'd taken fish to eat. At night, we packed our food and belongings into bear-proof containers, so that they wouldn't be lured to our campsites by the smell.
The fourth day we headed to Shoup Bay, through the rough seas of the Valdez Arm and Narrows, crossing into a large calm body of water, and then up a narrow inlet only accessible at high tide. Once there, we were greeted by the cacophony of 20,000 nesting black-legged gulls called kittiwakes. Beyond that was the huge blue face of Shoup Glacier, which stretches miles to the interior. It was incredible, and we camped a half-mile from its face, listening to the glacier groan and creak all night.
Unless you're an experienced kayaker and know how to read maps and tide charts, a guide on a trip like this is a must. McDonald not only cooked us spectacular meals and set up a shared screen mess tent nightly; he also guided us expertly around the sound. He knew which bays were best for camping, what time we had to enter and leave based on the tides, and when we would experience choppy water in the ocean, based on the prevailing winds. Another outfitter based in Valdez, Pangaea Adventures, offers similar trips.
The type of trip we took caters to the novice, but experience camping out is helpful. Anadyr supplies the food and basic equipment, but you pack and transport it and set up and break down your campsite. Along with route planning, the guides cook and clean up after every meal. McDonald cooked a variety of fresh food — shrimp, broccoli and mushrooms with rigatoni, or salmon with asparagus and couscous. There was even French press coffee for breakfast. Not your typical freeze-dried backpacker swill, for sure.
After five days we paddled into the port of Valdez, surrounded by fishing boats and mountains. We were tired, but completely dazzled by the spectacle of all we had seen. It was our first trip to Alaska, but we feel certain we'll be back.