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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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