Thursday, August 11, 2011


I blink a bit when I step from the dark bunkhouse into the early light, the first sunny morning since I’ve been in Alaska. In the parking lot, trunk open, is a huge mint green Chevy Suburban waiting to be loaded with our gear;  bulging duffel bags, PFD’s (personal flotation devices), buckets and a rifle, all topped with the huge shrimp basket, rope and float.

The town of Whittier, about 22 miles to the south, is our point of departure for Prince William Sound. But first we head south on Seward Highway to pick up our kayaks and a roof rack for the boat. We turn off the highway at a Forest Service storage building tucked into the woods where we load three sleek yellow kayaks on a trailer, hitch it to the Suburban and get back on the highway towards the Portage Glacier Highway and the 2.5 mile tunnel through Maynard Mountain.

Maynard Mountain is not the kind of mountain you can go around. On its inland side more mountains crowd and shove it to the coast, where it plunges right into the Turnagain Arm. On the other side in Whittier is a safe and protected harbor, and during WWII that was reason enough to blast through the mountain and construct a tunnel for the Alaska Railroad.

 Luckily for me in 2000 the tunnel was modified to allow for car traffic. Modified, not enlarged. Southbound cars now share the tunnel with northbound cars, and of course, the trains, which trump all other traffic and barrel through the tunnel on the recessed tracks. This makes for complicated scheduling, but we arrive at the entrance with a minute to spare so avoid waiting ½ hour or more in the standby lot for the next southbound time slot.

I’m told there’s a saying, “it’s always sh--tier in Whittier, but it’s still beautiful and sunny as we emerge from the tunnel. That, however, turns out to be the problem. After days of overcast, the warm sun hitting the cold snow fields that drape over the mountains which rim the small town has sent a fierce wind down their slopes making navigation tricky and generating a small craft warning.
The neat silver Dora Keen is tucked tightly into its berth in the densely populated marina behind the breakwater. I’m disappointed to hear that it is not certain that we’ll be able to head out into the fiords today because of the wind. Tim has a scheduled pick up of trail crew that has been slogging it out in rain for a week, so he maneuvers the DK carefully out of the harbor to meet them and at the same time he will assess the situation. Barbara and I wait for his return at The Lazy Otter Cafe, a little coffee shop among the half a dozen businesses overlooking above the docks. Barbara is also an artist, working mostly in clay, so we have a lot to talk about.

After a bit we head to the fueling station to meet Tim and assist the returning rangers in unloading their gear. It’s still very rough in the harbor, but Tim manages to fuel up and navigate the Dora Keen back into her berth, careful not to jostle the dozens of boats in the choppy water. He and Barbara get to work assembling the kayak rack on the boat’s roof above an inflatable raft already in place. I help as best I can, with shaky land legs and no knowledge of how these things work. Optimistically we load our gear into the boat and hoist the kayaks on to the rack. 

Barbara has anticipated that we’d want lunch on the boat, so we tuck into trays of sushi that she picked up while at the market. As we eat, we slowly realize that it’s not our imaginations, the wind really is dropping.  And so we are off. Contrary to the usual rules of navigation the rough harbor gives way to into increasingly calmer waters as we enter the mountain-rimmed and aqua blue waters of Port Wells, up the Barry Arm and swing a tight left into Harriman Fiord.

If the outline of the waters of Prince William Sound suggest the shape of a crab, Harriman Fiord would be the left claw, reaching in its craggy way into the Chugach Mountains, which rise in tiers either side, increasing immense and snow frosted. Here is my first good look at the glaciers which grind from the slopes and crash into the fiord.  As we round Point Doran, Coxe, Barry and Cascade Glaciers are visible emptying into the cove opposite. We head in the opposite direction, into Harriman Fiord and towards a camping spot Tim and Barbara had planned as a good spot to set up our tents on our first night. 

As we approach the spot, we can make out two tents already set up on the gravely beach. We don’t want to crowd them, so Barbara volunteers to survey the area northeast of their camps to see if there somewhere else we can set up our tents. She and Tim guide one of the kayaks out of the rack on the roof and into the water. She deftly slides into her cockpit from the swim step already crowded by two huge 225 Hp outboard motors and a smaller Tohatsu model for use with the inflatable. I have no idea how I will manage that maneuver without slipping into the icy water, but try not to worry about it for now.  

She returns with a report of a few potential camping spots and strong swells near shore. Barbara and Tim confer, the first of many such conferences they will have over itineraries, maps, tides and weather.  Because of a possible rough landing and the delay getting out of the harbor they decide it’s a bit late to pull the kayaks from the roof, load them with all our gear and set up camp on the beach. We will sleep on the boat and set up camp in the morning. That’s ok with me, I already love the Dora Keen and am in no hurry to disembark. 

Tim heads to the opposite side of the fiord, using the boat’s sonar to navigate over a submerged morraine at the entrance to the sheltered Serpentine Cove. Here is where I get my first lesson in the importance of respecting the fiords dramatic tides, which can range over 15 feet.  Tim circles our anchor spot, testing the anchor, making sure there is enough slack for high tide and not so much that it will drift aground at low. Eventually he is satisfied and he and Barbara set up the cook stove on the bow to make dinner, after which I sit on a bear can to do a watercolor of one of the mountains that surround us. Although the sun would not set for hours, its light was soon blocked by Mt. Doran across the fiord and we settle into twilight, except for the summits on our side, still glowing with golden sunlight. Eventually that too fades and I climb into the cozy v-berth at the bow of DK and fall asleep to the sound of gurgling water and hollow metallic clanging from the hull, pulling the hood of my sleeping bag tight around my head to ward off the night chill.

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