From the Field: Exploring Southeast Alaska in April
By Erin Fulton - Expedition Leader on the Wilderness Explorer
April in Southeast Alaska is a special experience, and not for the fair-weather adventurer. Cruising early in the season feels like having the place to ourselves. Aside from the occasional fishing boat, or Alaska state ferry, the only other company we have out on the water are of the finned, furry, or feathered variety. On the other hand, spring in southeast also means the last of the blustery winter weather is blowing itself out. Going from sunshine to fat snowflakes and a gusty gale isn't unheard of. But that's what rain gear and rubber boots are for, right?
This past week was a prime example of an April sailing. Our first day out in Neka Bay led brought us some gusty weather that was better served for skiff tours and bushwhacks than a Kayak 101 - so our intrepid Explorers did just that and were amply rewarded! Numerous petite harbor porpoise was curious to see what on earth our skiff was exactly and followed along after the skiff as it made its way along the rocky shoreline. Bushwhackers were put through their paces crawling over and under massive fallen spruce trees, seeing up close the massive presence of the towering spruce and hemlock, and the tiny wonders to be found amid the moss, lichens, and ferns.
Our itinerary this season also brings the boat into port - this week in Haines we were the first ship to arrive for the season, and the town offered us a warm welcome. Some of us picked up bikes (even some e-bikes too) to put some real miles under our wheels to drive along the beautiful coast road running along Lynn Canal. Others took to the trails to enjoy the walks and haunts of the locals. Others still took an easy stroll through town, enjoying the local flavor and flair of the artistic community.
Mid-week gave us some calmer weather in the hidden bays along Chichagof Island, allowing us to get out paddling in addition to our skiffs and land exploration. Paddlers got to see up close the intertidal life of the rocky shore with ochre and leather sea stars, green sea urchin, even some sea cucumbers amid the barnacles and purple mussels. This brief reprieve wasn't to last though. Winter still had a bit of wind left. But we've always got another trick up our sleeve. As luck would have it, there was an open permit available for beautiful Glacier Bay National Park. We braved the waves and headed north into the park, where the air was chillier, but the wind much more subdued.
It seemed that we weren't the only ones who wanted to enjoy their time in Glacier Bay! No sign of other cruise ships, but plenty of signs of life. A beautiful dark brown Coastal Brown Bear munched on grasses along shore as we sipped out morning coffee. Paddlers skimmed along one shoreline of Tidal Inlet while two humpback whales cruised along the other. Skiffs saw over a dozen mountain goats dancing along the rocky slopes and bushwhackers explored into forests with moss growing half a foot thick.
Our final day of the trip, and in the park, had a morning with myriad glaciers, icebergs, curious harbor seals and more sea otters and pups than you could shake a paddle at. But most spectacularly, as we were making our final cruise south and out of the bay, one of the most elusive and iconic creatures made an appearance: a pod of over a dozen orca came cruising by. Males with their six-foot-tall dorsal fins cruised along the outside of the group, acting as escorts and bodyguards, while females and calves swam and played in between. All with the backdrop of the ice- and snow-covered peaks of Glacier Bay National Park.
There were many twists and turns with what the weather through at us this past week, but the serenity of cruising with no other ships around, and the local life that came to say 'hi' made all the wind gusts and rain drops worthwhile.