After a very long flight from Vienna via Toronto and Vancouver with spectacular views of the Saint Elias Range we arrived in Whitehorse. It was easy to rent a Canadian canoe and arrange transport to Quiet Lake, the starting point of our paddling trip. (By the way, a very recommendable company are Canoe People Ltd. – they also run an office in Carmacks, where you can easily return your canoe after the trip.)
Getting dropped off at Quiet Lake gave us a little uneasy feeling. For the next 360 kilometers we'd be completely on our own. Big Salmon River is fed by three lakes: Quiet Lake, with almost 40 km length the largest, the small idyllic Sandy Lake and the beautiful Big Salmon Lake.
About 6 kilometers after Big Salmon Lake we reached the crux section of the river – a huge log jam. But as the current was slow, we had no problems navigating our canoe through the maze of driftwoods.
The next couple of days were a marvelous relaxing trip down the sometimes lazy meandering, sometimes fast flowing river. We saw many beavers, which had created little lakes with their dams, we saw moose, various kind of ducks, terns and many bald eagles along the riverbank.
Six days later, after 240 km paddling we reached Big Salmon Village, an abandoned gold rush village where Big Salmon River flows into the Yukon river. On the fast flowing Yukon river, it took us only two more days for the last 120 km to Carmacks, where we returned our Canadian and took the bus back to Whitehorse.
Kluane National Park covers an area of 21,980 square kilometers. The park's mountains are part of the Wrangell–St. Elias chain including Mount Logan (5.959m) Canada's highest peak. Kluane and its American counterpart, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, were jointly declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. Most of the park is covered with ice, the park has the most extensive non-polar ice fields in the world. With respect to these giant expanses our 4 days and 83 km long trekking tour only covered the outermost regions of the park.
We followed the so called Cottonwood Trail and started at the Mush Lake road on the southern end of Lake Dezadeash. On the first day the weather was not so good and we reached Dalton Pass in heavy rain. There is lots of bear activity in the Dalton Range and we saw fresh bear tracks all over the place. It didn't take long until we encountered our first grizzlies. They were trotting by at more than hundred meters distance and didn't take any notice of us. But still, seeing these giant animals, while being on foot with no possible shelter around, has quite an intimidating aspect.
The next day we descended into Cottonwood Valley, a particularly pleasant U-shaped valley named after its groves of balsam poplar trees. We set up our camp in the vast meadows. The only disadvantage of this nice camp spot was, that water was hard to find and it took me almost an hour to thrust my way through the dense thicket to reach Cottonwood Creek.
Following the meadow we finally turned east, had to cross several creeks and rivers, until we reached the shores of Louise Lake. We camped directly on the lakeside shore and marveled at the outstanding reflections on the lake. This was maybe the nicest camping spot of the whole trip.
Reaching Glacier Bay National Park is not so easy. The nearest "town" is Gustavus with less than 400 year round residents. There are no roads to Gustavus and though it's situated on a peninsula, it is not reachable overland. So you can either take a ferry from Juneau or, which is definitely more exciting, charter a plane. Very reliable is Alaska Mountain Flying Service located in Haines, where we chartered a Cessna to fly us to Gustavus. The flight itself along Davidson glacier and over Adams Inlet was definitely worth it.
Approximately 10 miles from Gustavus lies Bartlett Cove, the park's headquarters. This part of the bay is covered with dense temperate rain forest, so it's hardly surprising that we experienced lots of rain there. In Bartlett Cove we rented a sea kayak, paddles, live vests and the most important equipment: rubber boots! We also arranged a "drop off" from the daily tour boat the "Spirit of Adventure" the following day.
The next day started early. At 6:30 in the morning we were already tying our sea kayak to the deck of the Spirit of Adventure. The tour boat took us far into the marine wilderness of glacier bay. Already from the tour boat we saw a lot of wildlife: a school of killer whales, a colony of sea lions and black bears on the shore. After some hours cruise we reached Queen Inlet, our drop off point. Quickly we unloaded our kayak and gear to the shore and waved the leaving Spirit of Adventure goodbye. The next six days we'd be completely on our own. We noted the GPS coordinates to ensure finding our way back and started paddling.
The weather was cold and rainy. We crossed Queen Inlet paddling along the shore of Composite Island, giving us view to Carrol Glacier, a first glimpse of the huge tidewater glaciers in Glacier Bay. We continued westward, crossing Rendu Inlet. A quick lunch in the rain was not very comfortable. Following the coast line we continued toward Russel Island. Along the steep coast it turned out difficult to find a place to camp for the night. Finally we found a flat area to pitch our tent, almost too flat considering that the variation between low and high tide can be as much as 8 meters height difference. The meadow was full of washed up shells and driftwood, we had to walk several hundred meters inland to ensure that a high tide couldn't reach our tent.
When we had pitched our tent I explored the area. There were strawberries growing and I found tracks in the grass obviously originating from some large animal. Not the ideal conditions to stay overnight, but it was late already, we were both tired and it had taken us quite some time to find a possible camp spot in the first place. So we decided to stay. We were already brushing our teeth, ready to crawl in our sleeping bags, when I turned around and seemingly out of nowhere a grizzly was standing in front of us. Not more than maybe 25 meters away from our tent it stood and watched us curiously. We quickly stowed away all the gear that might attract it and I started talking to the bear making myself tall by raising my arms – just to make sure it wouldn't mistake us for prey.
As the bear made a relaxed, almost friendly impression and started feeding on the strawberries around, we also calmed down. Obviously we couldn't stay there overnight and we cautiously started breaking down our camp. We carried our gear to the shoreline, always carefully avoiding to get too close to the bear, which was still grazing directly between the shore and our camping spot. When we returned from the beach to fetch the next load of gear, the bear stood up on its hind legs taking our scent and as if recognizing us continued feeding peacefully. When we finally had packed our kayak a second grizzly noisily broke out of the underwoods. We slipped into our kayak and paddled away into the darkness.
We continued north and it was already 1 am until we again found a suitable place to camp. The next morning it was bucketing down and we stayed in our tent until noon. When we finally carried our boat and gear to the shore and started packing we could not find our paddles. We suddenly realized that we had forgotten them on the beach the night before and the high tide had washed them away. To become aware that we now had stranded in the wilderness and with no paddles hardly had a chance to return to our pick up location, gave as a bigger shock than the grizzly encounter the evening before. But we were lucky! Less than an hour later we had found both our paddles washed up on the beach in the next cove.
We continued paddling, crossed Tarr Inlet and entered into Johns Hopkins Inlet. We passed Lamplugh Glacier and despite the bad weather conditions we advanced further. Johns Hopkins Glacier calves such volumes of ice that the inlet is always full of floating ice floes. It was still raining and with every couple of meters further in the temperature seemed to drop. With the incoming tide the ice got packed and we ran the risk of getting trapped – so we decided to turn back.
Crossing Johns Hopkins Inlet we paddled back to Lamplugh Glacier and found a nice camp spot next to the glacier. The next day the weather cleared up and we had a chance to dry our clothes in the sun. We paddled along the glacier terminus, an impressive wall of ice and then continued south east. When looking back we could see Grand Pacific Glacier, the largest Glacier in the area, at the end of Tarr Inlet. When we crossed Reid Inlet we had nice views of Reid Glacier.
A small channel connects the main estuary with the end of Scidmore Bay. At high tide it is possible to paddle into Scidmore Bay using this passage. It took us quite some time to find the channel and we had to wait until the tide was high enough so the passage became navigable. Compared to the rest of Glacier Bay, Scidmore Bay seems to be a different world. The glaciers are high up in the mountains, the climate is much milder and there is much more vegetation than in the barren glacier formed landscape of Tarr and Johns Hopkins Inlet.
It was already evening when we entered Scidmore Bay, the sun was setting and the water was totally calm. From time to time harbor seals popped their heads out of the water, watching us curiously. We enjoyed the tranquil of the bay, when we suddenly heard a blowing sound right behind us. Our first encounter with a humpback whale. We found a nice spot to camp directly on the sandy beach. It was already completely dark and we were sitting at our camp fire on the beach when we heard a herd of humpback whales swimming into the bay. We listened to their sounds until late in the night.
On the next day, the herd of humpback whales was still there. It was an amazing feeling to paddle directly among these giant creatures. Sometimes they would lay on a side and slap with their large front flippers on the water surface as if waving to us. One was breaching completely out of the water straight in front of our boat, a truly spectacular sight!
We spent hours among the whales until we continued paddling south into Hugh Miller Inlet. We went round Gilbert Peninsula and crossed the main estuary at the height of Blue Mouse Cove. Crossing large channels like the west arm of Glacier Bay with a small boat like our sea kayak can be quite dangerous. You don't want to be surprised by bad weather while on open sea. It took us almost two hours to cross the estuary.
On our last day we tried to make a land excursion. Our first attempt to move inland failed as we could not penetrate the thicket. On our second attempt we put on our rubber boots and followed a creek, directly walking in the river bed. While we followed the creek for some hours we found many signs of bear activity: huge grizzly footprints, lots of bear droppings and many salmon skeletons – leftovers from last autumn's salmon feast.
On the day of our pick up it was raining again. The Spirit of Adventure came on time. We completed the boat tour with nice views of Margerie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier. Back in Bartlett Cove we had to wait a day for better weather conditions to fly back to Haines.