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A Day on the Water: Kayaking Bartlett Cove

by Matt Strickland

Alaska’s Southeast has always meant something special to me - a place to visit family, a place to escape the congestion of the Lower 48. To my friends who have never had the chance to visit, Alaska is almost an imaginary place where people travel by dogsled and it snows all the time. I try to tell them that that’s not the way it is, that if they only knew, the would go and probably never leave.

To me, Alaska offers an experience extremely difficult to match. It is a place of majestic mountains and seas of green, a place where the scenery is almost beyond explanation. For those lucky enough to live there, these things go unsaid; they are simply appreciated and enjoyed. On a recent trip I was reminded of the Southeast’s wonder, and as I sit down to write, my memories remain strong.

Bartlett Cove: Our day began shortly before nine with the smiling face of our outfitter and a host of fellow kayakers ready to escape to the sanctuary of the water since the no-see-ums were out in full force. We were thoroughly outfitted and instructed on the do’s and don’ts of the two-man fiberglass sea kayaks. After a quick but sufficient lesson on tides and map reading, we raced for paddles and loaded our boats.

Our starting point, Bartlett Cove, is fifty feet from the boat dock at the Glacier Bay Lodge. The lodge serves as the staging area for Glacier Bay National Park and is close to Gustavus, a quaint community of friendly people, many of whom summer in the area and winter elsewhere.

Once we were afloat, it was pure heaven, with calm water, an overcast sky, and a gentle breeze. When the weather isn’t stormy, Bartlett Cove could be mistaken for a lake as the water is perfectly flat and protected, a prime spot for relative novices like us.

The way the tides were, we either had time to paddle along the Gustavus shoreline or we could cross the open water and paddle around the southwestern tip of Lester Island. Remembering from the morning’s briefing that a dead whale had been towed onto the beach at Point Gustavus a year earlier and was still there, in some fashion, for viewing, we decided to save our noses and set a course for Lester.

Lester Island proved a wonderful choice. For two kids from California, the sight of land uninhabited by houses isn’t an everyday occurrence. We paddled slowly, varying our distance between the water and the shore. Seals popped their heads out from below the surface, only taking brief glances to see what we were up to, then returning to the depths below. Otters floated amongst the kelp. They twisted and turned, rolling over one another. Our presence didn’t seem to bother them in the least. Our eyes ventured in all directions and it wasn’t long before our gaze was torn between the water and the land, with its wonderful mix of spruce, hemlocks and alders. Cries from above directed our attention to a bald eagle, drifting through the air with its eyes fixed on the surface below.

At the edge of the cove we looked out over Icy Strait and marveled at the openness and quiet of such a vast expanse, with tree-lined shores backed by snowcapped peaks. Without another craft in sight, we just bobbed on the surface and tried to take it all in, alone in the midst of silence. We kept our ears tuned for spouts and scanned the water for faint hints of rising mist. This area, we were told, would be our best chance for seeing whales, but the gentle giants never appeared.

As things worked out, our timing was perfect. We had just enough time to retrace our course and catch the tide through the narrow passage into the Beardslee Islands. Though it meant paddling back past the Glacier Bay boat dock, we were not about to miss the chance to see this area.

For a short while, the tide eased our workload and the sun broke through. Sticking close to shore treated us to a view of the ocean floor through the crystal clear water. We saw large rocks and boulders smoothed by time, covered with barnacles and kelp.

Passage to the Bearslees: The narrow passage that allows access to the Beardslee Island chain is not as easy as it looks. Entirely void of water when the tide is low, the passage has a shallow bottom and jagged rocks rule as the tide pushes through. Fortunately for us, we trailed a pair of veterans. They fished as they drifted along, casually maneuvering throughout he maze, stopping periodically to wait for the water to allow passage.

With the rising tide, the narrow section of muddy rocks becomes covered in water deep enough to float through. The strength of the tidal push made it possible to just go along for the ride; we needed paddles only for minor heading changes. We could not have been farther than twenty feet from either shore the entire way.

It took about fifteen minutes to get through the passage. And if we thought things were quiet before, they were almost silent at this point. Even a dip of the paddle seemed too loud a disturbance. Wind vanished, as the narrow waterways twisted between the land and the trees.

The proximity to land would have to be the second most remarkable thing in this section, next to the quiet. Here the search for life on the water turned to a search for life on land. Anything seemed possible - moose, bear.

As we floated along, following twists in the direction of the Bartlett River, we were again escorted by seals busy with their own pursuits, primarily lunch, if I had to guess. Venturing a short distance up the Bartlett River, we were treated to more eagles and a family of scoters. The similarities in the terrain had us paying close attention to our map, as we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves by getting lost.

As the kayak glided across the surface, on course for the Glacier Bay dock, we couldn’t help but reflect on the peacefulness of the place. It had brought all of our senses to life and left us with a true appreciation for the scenery viewed from the sanctuary of the water. Incredible, I’d have to say, is the only way to describe it.

We closed the day from the deck at the Glacier Bay Lodge. The sun had cleared what remained of the clouds. The Fairweather Range glistened in the distance. What a truly wonderful experience.


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Recipe: Norma's Beer Batter Halibut

Pancake Mix
Alaskan Amber
Mrs. Dash
Olive Oil

Mix up pancake batter and Alaskan Amber to thicker than pancake batter
Add: Mrs. Dash generously to the batter

Wash, dry and chop up Halibut to bite size pieces

Add the halibut to the batter all at once and rotate so all pieces are adequately covered.

Heat olive oil - when it's very hot - dip in halibut so that the top of the oil is completely covered with halibut pieces, let cook until brown on all sides. Careful not to get the oil too hot or the outside will fry and the inside will be raw.

This was a favorite with my kids and still is.


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From Juneau to Petersburg

By Det Vandering

We flew into Juneau by jet. No problem, direct nonstop out of Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport. With me was my friend of many years and his eleven year-old granddaughter Ashley who he was raising since she became an orphan at the age of two. For a couple old geezers it was quite a delightful and vitalizing to be around such a bright, alert child, especially as thrilled and eager as she was to visit Alaska.

We joined the boat which had been provisioned and was ready to go. We got underway around noon and headed down Gastineau Channel under the clear, blue early July sky. My, that cool air felt fresh and good after the Southland!

Our captain was very experienced and good good-natured and quite willing to share his knowledge and stories of the area. After about an hour our boat crossed Taku Inlet and within minutes we encountered our first whale. The first sign was a puff of vapor, like a puff of steam seeming to come directly from the water off to the left and a little ahead of us - maybe 200 yards or so.

“Watch now and you’ll soon see a humpback whale” said our skipper.

Sure enough, there was soon another puff of vapor and some turbulence in the water and a glistening black hump with a short dorsal fin surfaced. “Keep you eye on that.” said our skipper.

The hump grew in until it was about size a large automobile roof before curling almost into a ball and began lifting above the water’s surface. We were awestruck! A huge glistening nearly black whale’s tale lifted majestically and gracefully several feet above the waves with water dripping off the trailing edges. Our first whale sighting! My friend’ s granddaughter was hoping all around the boat excitedly shouting, “A whale! A whale! I can’t believe I just saw a whale!”

Everyone rushed to grab their cameras, but the whale slipped quietly beneath the surface before we could get a shot. “Don’t worry,” said our captain. “You’ll see plenty more whales.”

And we did. Within minutes we saw more puffs of steam ahead, behind and to both sides. Evidently we were traveling with a group of whales slowing moving down Stephen's Passage. We had many opportunities to get photographs. So many in fact that we passed over many opportunities just to be ready for ‘that perfect shot’.

We also saw many Dall porpoises who liked to cavort just ahead of out boat’s bow and darted from side to side ahead of us and sometimes swimming completely under the boat to emerge leaping out of the water on the opposite side. It was obvious they were enjoying themselves and having a grand old time riding our bow wave.

We anchored up the first night in “No Name Cove” just inside Holkam Bay. We had the place to ourselves and watched a bear turning over rocks on the beach as we ate our evening meal on the back deck on just about the most perfect evening you could ever imagine. Curious seals swam around our boat to check us out. Later we rowed ashore to walk about a bit and let Ashley play and crawl around over a beached iceberg stranded on the nearby shore. She was thrilled and so were we.

Next day we got up bright and early and headed up Tracy Arm to Sawyer Glacier. Words simply can not describe the awesome scenery in this place - you just have to see it for yourself to believe it. Near the glaciers we threaded carefully through floating ice to approach within about a quarter mile of the face of Sawyer. Our skipper thought it prudent not to enter the closely packed ice grinding together closer than that - and I felt the same way. We were close enough. We took lot’s of photos of seals hauled out on the ice floes before turning around and heading out the fjord.

We spent another gorgeous day exploring the lower end of Stephen's Passage before heading for our anchorage just behind Cape Fanshaw for the evening. Next day we entered Frederick Sound and explored Thomas Bay up to a small fjord aptly named ‘Scenery Cove”. We later arrived in the Fishing Village of Petersburg on Mitkof Island where we tied up for the night, and where we visited with some friends of mine living there. My friends have two daughters near Ashley’s age and the three girls were soon excitedly comparing notes and becoming fast friends. When we got ready to head back to the boat Ashley begged to be left behind with her new friends. After talking with my Petersburg friends and thinking about it a little Ashley’s grandfather reluctantly agreed and we returned to the boat without Ashley.

We later discovered that visit became the supreme highlight of Ashley’s Alaska trip, and being able to spend time with girls her own age was the best thing that could happen. She got to spend several days doing new things with new friends in a strange and new place that she never would have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I understand she still keeps in touch with her Petersburg friends.

The return trip to Juneau is another tale with it’s own adventures, but for another time. After arriving back there my friend and I separated with me headed one way and him heading south again via Petersburg to pick up his granddaughter and head on home from there. Whenever we’re together since then, the Alaska trip is all he wants to talk about.

Perfect weather, good friends, good food and grand experiences. Who can ask for more?