Point Adolphus, Alaska 2015
"A knife blade slicing through the mirror like surface pushing the low riding sleek boat through the water. Amazing how this abundant hazard slows humans but only speeds a kayak. To the left and right of you, whales releasing their steam like exhalation as a tribute to the boat. Thin gnarled trees bow before your passing a salmon followed by a sea lion jump to the rear of you. This is stunning. This is Alaska." (All credit for that brilliant paragraph to child number 2.) As long as I can remember, I have loved watching whales. The occasional glimpse of the resident orcas in Puget Sound was magical. On school trips aboard the University of Washington's Snow Goose, I dreamed of being a marine biologist. My favourite weekend away as a child was a drive to Vancouver to see the Beluga whales at the aquarium in Stanley Park. A move to Colorado and a bad high school biology teacher convinced me to go down different path but I neverstopped dreaming of whales.
Sometime in the early 1990s when I moved back from London, I bought a book called Where the Whales Are and one trip really caught my attention -- a kayaking trip in Alaska . There would be no disturbance to the whales the way there is in a large boat out searching for them and sitting over them with engines running. I would be able to experience the whales from water level. The only problem was that I had never been in a kayak and couldn't even remember the last time I was in a boat. I found a shop in the Chicago suburbs where a man named Andy told me what I needed to know. I bought some water proof clothes, and I fell madly in love with paddling. It took me several years before I saved up enough money for the trip but by then we had logged hundreds of miles kayaking in the pacific northwest - after work on lake union and on weekends in the San Juans. One passion had lead to another and both continue to feed my soul many years later. I am so grateful that my husband has been willing to embrace my passion, put aside his preference for a golf holiday and follow me from time to time into the north country. The boys find a sense of freedom on the beach I don't see in them anywhere else and as they stood on the shore this week watching the whales play in the kelp, I saw the wonder cross their faces. Of all the places we have travelled, it is only this trip that comes up again on to everyone's list to repeat.
It starts slowly in January. Remember when we went to Alaska and I made the tools from the bones I found? Remember how the whales breached? What about that wonderful apple cider? And the halibut caddy gantry at the Inn? By March, the question slips from someone's lips whether it is too late to plan another trip to Alaska, whether Spirit Walker can possibly fit us in for a few days, how can we carve time out of our schedule. And then we are away and winging our way North.
This time when the conversation began, my parents decided to join us. While we were thrilled they wanted to come and share our favourite trip with us, I was worried that three nights of camping might be too much but I didn't want to give up the magic of camping on Chicagof Island and waking to whale song. Stephen at Spirit Walker came up with a great compromise for us, arranging two nights of camping and two at the guest house at the Hobbit Hole. The end result was a wonderful trip that met everyone's needs -- from boys on the beach to beers from the creek. We hiked, scrambled, swam (!), paddled, relaxed, fished, and went tide pooling. Sea otters lazed along and waved from the kelp, sea lions escorted us like the praetorian guard through Mosquito Passage, bald eagles watched us to make sure we didn't have fish worth stealing. And of course...the whales.
Taking people on your favourite holiday can be difficult. There is an unspoken pressure for the trip to live up to everything you've ever said about it. Every time we talked about the trip, what to pack, the itinerary what to expect, I tried to play down the wonder of it all. This trip looms large in everyone's imagination and how terrible it would be to get there and find that all the wonder had been washed away with the coming of the teen years. What if the weather was horrible? What if my children were vile? What if there were no whales? But the whales did come, the children were engaged and helpful, and there was only one drizzly day. I was relieved that the trip more than lived up to the billing I had given it over the years and thrilled that none of the magic was gone for the boys. Keith took Sarah over to Pinta Cove with one of the kayaks and the camping equipment first and then the rest of us followed with the other boats and our personal gear. A couple of bald eagles were perched on a pillar of the new dock to see us off and it was a quick run over, passing a couple of sea otters on the way.
The boys excelled at getting their tent up with little help and the entire camp was set up in under an hour. Someone accused me of going glamping because we had guides who were provisioning everything. Given that our baggage for four states, two camps, and loads of different activities, plus books we all needed for summer study, was already near the weight limit, having to take tents and stoves would have been too much. And maybe it was glamping because we had wine. Whatever you call it, being off the grid with nothing to watch but wildlife and rocks works. Our days had a wonderful rhythm to them - coffee and breakfast on the beach (nothing beats camp stove pancakes), paddling on mirror smooth water, lunch on the beach (smoked salmon, hummus, fresh veg, and cookies), and then splitting up for the afternoon to walk along the beach, read or fish. It was the perfect balance of time together and flexibility to do what one wanted.
I was impressed by how much Iain's paddling has come on over the past couple of years. His stroke was long and even and he was up for as many hours on the water as I was. We had a great paddle one morning from Pinta Cove, around Point Adolphus to Main Beach. A sea otter was hanging out in the kelp and let us get within 20m of it. Photos of a sea otter were the top of my list for this trip as they are Hamish's favourite and they have always been that little bit too fleeting a glimpse.
A group of five humpbacks was seemingly in residence during our entire stay in Pinta Cove. They swam from Point Adolphus, past our beach to the next inlet and back in a pattern so regular Peter was setting his watch by them. Every evening they would stop in the kelp 150m off our point. They would spend about twenty minutes diving and feeding. There were a couple of times that one of them seemed to be just floating there and occasionally rolling around. It wasn't much to photograph but it was interesting to observer this logging behaviour as the whale rested. There was also one whale in the shallow next cove who spent an hour one evening lobtailing, the sound of his trial hitting the water filled the area like a hard rock drummer playing an arena show solo. We were also treated to a couple glimpses of an Orca with a calf out in the middle of Icy Strait. I did wonder if the reason the humpbacks were staying together in a pod was that the orcas were about but the humpback calves seemed too mature for the orcas to be a problem.
Peter and my father tried without success to catch one of the jacks jumping right off the beach. They tried from the beach, they tried from the rocky point, they tried in the early morning and the late evening. All to no avail. But I'm not sure catching was really the purpose of the exercise. A justification for buying a new salt water fly rod and a chance to hang out and commune with nature is the more likely reason. Both boys had a go with the new rod as well. Watching Hamish's casting, I look forward to getting him back on the chalk streams at home this autumn and seeing what he catches.
On our one rainy day, we had an easy two mile hike through the rain forest to the Forest Service shelter and up to the muskeg -- a great name for one of those bogs that feels like you are walking on a waterbed. The nearby pond was nearly choked with lily pads and, while we didn't see the beavers, there was a great beaver dam. We walked back along the beach and stopped at the stream to refill the water bottles. I thought sweet water was an expression of my mother's until I tried the water in Alaska. Hamish found a camera that had been washed ashore by the tide. I'm not sure how long it had been bouncing around since someone lost it but Nikon should be well pleased that their small point and shoots can sustain that kind of abuse and still work after being found in a tide pool. The afternoon was filled with more tide-pooling and rock tower building. It is amazing how engrossing watching the tide knock down rocks is. Watching the inexorable rise of the tide over the rocks was far better and any rerun of NCIS could ever be.