Posted Tuesday, June, 21, 2011 by Olivia and Kiel
Like taking a car out for that inaugural drive or clicking into a pair of skis for the first run, our first day out in our Nootka created a feverish energy in both of us. This morning’s maiden voyage wasn’t merely a joyride in a new toy—we were testing what was to be our home, our transport, and our lifeline for an extended expedition in the Southeast Alaskan wilderness.
And there was no better setting for such an auspicious event than a glorious spring day in Berner’s Bay. Thirty-nine miles north of Juneau where road turns to wilderness on the east side of Lynn Canal, the Berner’s Bay Marine Refuge is a dynamic meeting of saltwater and fresh, ocean and forest, surrounded by craggily impressive peaks leading off to Glacier Bay and the Juneau ice field. A too awesome to be true feast for the eyes at any moment, the bay explodes with life every spring with the annual running of the eulachon (pronounced “hooligan”) that prompts massive feeding up the food chain from scoters to humpbacks. One of Olivia’s favorite places in the world, initiating our boat at Berner’s was like going on a first date to Paris.
Getting the boat configured from bubble wrap to sea-readiness didn’t take long, and our friends waited patiently with late morning libations and gear tinkering of their own. Juneau has an incredible outdoors community, aggressive but humble, made up of athletes that inspire dreams of epic expeditions while casually teaching all of the tricks and fundamentals to make them possible. Our partners this morning were of the highest caliber, and while we had the only new boat, it was many of our first trip of 2011 and we all paddled out at a hard-to-maintain physical pace.
Headed for Petroglyph Beach, eleven miles from our launch point, we were met first by harbor seals at the tapered exit from Echo Cove. It was on. The next three hours we had various shorebirds in flocks, pairs and solo (we should disclose now, in Blog 2, that we are not birders—we love ‘em, but we don’t count them or geek out over identifications—apologies to all the bird nerds out there. . . ), ever imposing stellar sea lions, and eagles a plenty as we kept the coast close on our right. It was a good scene.
Dipping into the calm cold water, our paddles moved us with ease, and though we were not the most experienced kayakers in the group, we inadvertently struck out to the head of our group, the others paddling singles. It just happened, as the easy balance of the boat just happened. It was big enough to be stable but light enough to be quick. Learning the finer points of navigating reefs and rocks proved fun as the boat narrowly emerged unscathed from one cove to the next—undoubtedly finding nimbleness will be an ongoing process, but it was a pretty smooth first run.
We hit the beach after about three hours on the water and brunched on a satisfying if random feast. Courses out of order and confounding beverage pairings, we savored it all from one of those unimprovable slices of earth with unimprovable company, and just loved the day.
The return route involved a wider course to hit Point Bridget, a locale known for whale activity. Three groups of humpbacks, the closest at 200 meters, the furthest over a mile away, framed our team as the sun began its decline and our out of shape bodies grew tired. For something so big to be so graceful is a truly awesome expression of the animal kingdom. Only being with the humpbacks at water level can bring that feeling so profoundly. At that moment it was good to be back in the water after a winter on land, and better still to have a summer of such moments floating, unknown, ahead of us.
Paddling home we played the tides right and enjoyed help from below while a headwind evened things out. After many hours at the bow Olivia’s back seized up severely, an incident that will now be part of our story, one that will be expounded on and lived through as this larger expedition gets underway. At this point, as spring days grow in length and light, that expedition is within sight, and in some ways has already begun. The boat feels good, Southeast AK is every bit the fantasy world that founded this journey in our minds, and now we look forward to going from first put-in to a greater launch.