I learned to sea kayak in Alaska, on the waters of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Kodiak Island. From glass smooth surfaces that mimicked a tranquil mountain lake to ragged-peaked and wind-whipped waves of an angry, tempestuous sea, I experienced many magical, exhilarating moments – and some humbling ones as well – all from the cockpit of my kayak.
If I had to categorize those experiences, I’d put them into three broad categories:
Wildlife, weather and wonderment! No doubt kayak adventure stories may be prone to the same exponential growth in exaggeration as do tall fishing tales. Yet for a devoted kayaker, novice or seasoned, sharing personal experiences weaves together the imagination of the teller and the listener to create an exciting, colorful tapestry of tales with each new, embellished rendition.
I’ve felt the bump of a young sea lion against the bottom of my boat and stared down the red, barrel-mouthed maw of a bull as he exploded out of the water inches from a stringer of fish hanging over the side of my kayak. However, any Kodiak wildlife story worth telling must start with an encounter – or two – with one of Alaska’s gigantic coastal brown bears.
As a kayaker, I’ve only shared two, too-close quarter situations with the mighty and magnificent bruins. Going ashore while kayaking in bear country is not without a major dose of trepidation – and at least tossing a healthy amount of caution to the wind.
Kaflia’s inner bay looks and feels more like a mountain lake than a fjord-like pocket of the North Pacific nestled into waters of the Shelikof Straits separating the mainland from Kodiak Island. It’s part of the Katmai Peninsula, and roughly 50 air miles south of the internationally-famous bear viewing area at McNeal River. Steep, lush, stream-flowing valleys provide unlimited cover for the hundreds of the gigantic coastal brown bears living there.
I had beached my kayak about 20 yards from the mouth of a shallow stream flowing out from an upper set of lakes a couple of hundred yards farther up the narrow valley – a popular destinations for fly-in bear viewing parties. A smattering of returning salmon, their dorsal fins slicing the surface of the scant mid-August stream flow, seemed to crawl more than swim against the shallow current. Walking a well-used trail (NOT worn deep by boot soles I might add) along the river bank, and stepping over several fresh piles of bear scat as I headed up to the first upper lake, I began talking loudly and rustling branches every step of the way.
Glassing the slopes for bears and seeing none, I quickly returned back downstream, continuing my one-sided conversation with an unseen “Mr. Bear” that I just sensed had to be within earshot. While fording the river, I paused midstream near the mouth, its shallow flow barely washing up over my toes. I turned to look back up the valley one last time, and then stepped lively along the gravelly shore to my kayak.
As I reached down into my cockpit to retrieve my spray skirt, I heard a sharp CLACK, like the sound a bowling ball makes when it hits another at the end of the ball return – or, more precisely, when a boulder is dislodged in a stream and rolls against another! I turned to see a young bear standing in the same exact spot I had occupied just a few seconds earlier. He had to have been in the bushes a few yards of me all the while!
I kept one eye on the big fur ball as I hurriedly pushed back out onto the water. I spent the next few minutes bobbing in the slight swell lapping at the shoreline as I watched him swipe at the salmon swishing past his paws. A magical encounter and a reminder as to whose home into which I had made myself a self-invited guest..
It was during this same trip that I had a yet another most incredible bear experience – this time it was the sheer number of encounters, without much of a threat, that was so awesome.
I was guiding my bear-viewing-by-kayak trip; manning the rear cockpit in a double while my client fired away roll upon roll of film from the bow. “You tell me what shots you want and I’ll get us into position” I assured him as we maneuvered across the shallow bay at low tide.
As we approached the upper limits of water, we could see bears scattered along the shoreline, a couple of dozen were working the beach for clams or lying alongside narrow rivulets of fresh water etching shallow channels in the delta silt as they snaked their meandering way down into the bay. A few larger stream fingers became corridors for salmon staging themselves for the surge upstream as the tide changed back.
Ahead of us, three inquisitive cubs settled into a cushy clump of greenery atop a sandy berm a few feet up from the beach – a perfect vantage point to observe the strange pod floating just off shore. Nearby a huge sow lounged in the gravel alongside a narrow stream of outflowing fresh water, snatching up the occasional salmon unlucky enough to swim within the effortless slap of her massive, raking claw. Other bears scooped gigantic paws of sand away seeking burrowed clams while still others ambled lazily along the beach. We counted over thirty bruins along that hundred yard stretch of black, volcanic Katmai sand. It was the largest concentration of bears I had ever witnessed.
My client lowered his cannon-barreled telephoto lens to see just how close to dry land we had drifted. “Bears won’t come out this far from shore will they?” he asked. “Naw,” I said with a ‘trust me, I’m the guide’ air. I looked down at the sparkling clear water, now only about 12″ deep, and saw that the entire sandy bottom, for as far as I could see in all directions, was an overlapping mosaic of fresh, frying-pan-sized paw prints. My hurried and determined back paddle was particularly effective that day.
Anyone who’s spent time on waters shared by whales quickly learns that it’s best to let them come to you rather than trying to chase them down. Over the years I have enjoyed sightings of a few orcas, scores of humpbacks, a huge fin whale and even a Minke, all from the cockpit of my kayak.
Humpbacks, very common in Alaska’s waters, frequently feed very close to the cliffs near the city of Kodiak. It’s a wonderful place to watch a whale breach while you’re bobbing in a kayak a hundred yards away or less – indescribably breathtaking.
While feeding, whales tend to surface in a somewhat predictable pattern: watch where they rise, count as they go back down, learn the rhythm as they repeat their routine.
So it was one afternoon as I paddled leisurely behind an adult humpback cruising along about a half mile off shore. I was able to anticipate each surfacing, camera at the ready. The casualness of this shared encounter got the better of me as I began to approach closer and closer to where I anticipated his resurfacing.
As he dropped out of sight and failed to come back up at the designated count, I thought perhaps he was going to resurface one last time before doing the stand-up tail waving dive for the deep. I hurried along a likely course for about one hundred yards and stopped. He could come up anywhere – or not at all.
Suddenly I heard a fizzing sound as millions of tine bubbles percolated to the surface, like Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. I was dead center in a huge, circular, effervescing patch at least fifty feet in diameter around my kayak. The potential for a dunking seemed to be rising exponentially as I hurriedly checked my spray skirt, tugged at the zipper on my PFD and curled my fingers firmly around my paddle shaft. I gave my paddle a firm thrust and surged backwards hoping to get clear of the column before it consumed me.
Just as my bow slid past the outer ring of ever-expanding circle of bubbles, the ocean in the eye of this effervescent circle bellowed upward, the rising dome of water flowing down in shimmering sheets off the glistening hump on the back of a mountainous whale. It rose silently, gracefully – and then floated motionless like a trident submarine surfacing from the depths.
Its dark, dish-plate-sized eye seemed to stare me down for a second before it slid silently back down into the slate-gray waters as effortlessly as it had arisen. I never saw it again.
One summer afternoon, on a promisingly calm, sunny day, a darkening vail of rain appeared at the outer edge of the bay in which we were paddling. It was on of those isolated clouds that dumps its burden of moisture within its shadows when there’s a bright, sunny seascape all around.
As I looked at the shower through binoculars I noticed something peculiar. The edge of the rain was falling absolutely vertical and in a line as straight and smooth as a stage curtain. You could see the distinct, defined boundary of rain etching a line along the surface.
I drew hard on my paddle and hurried up to its outer edge. Indeed, there was a defined, vertical wall of water, a curtain of drops – like water pouring over a lineal straight edge of a fountain. I glided up to within arm’s reach of the rain and coasted to a stop with my kayak parallel to the face of the “wall”.
Reaching out with my arm I passed my hand into the curtain of rain and felt it’s gentle, tickling wetness against my skin. It was an incredibly magical moment to not only see this phenomenon but to actually touch it as well. It’s one of the most lasting and vivid memories of rain I have.
It was just a year later while coming back from a day-long paddle around the outer islands that I experienced the dark side of this same ocean.
The outer waters were a smooth, gentle rolling swell as I passed along the islands about five miles off shore. The trip back would involve a long crossing to a mid island and then a shorter one back in through islands, rocks and channels to the beach near my house where I had started my paddle that morning. Twelve miles into it and just two more to go, I was a bit tired and eager to set foot on land again.
As I pushed off from the outermost tip of the far island and crossed into the wide channel, the sea and winds went from dead calm to an annoying breeze and roughness within about fifteen minutes. As I closed the distance to the mid island, it got even worse.
By the time I rounded the middle island the seas were stacking to three or four feet with horsetails of angry white spray and foam ripping off nearly every wave peak. I had two choices: return to the mid island and wait out the impending storm for perhaps a few hours – or even days; or focus on a steadfast and admittedly exhilarating and wet bucking-bronco ride back to the sanctuary of the innermost islands and near-town channel. I readjusted my PFD, sprayskirt and hooded spray jacket and braced myself into my cockpit and paddled on.
My plan was to use the wind to ferry drift/paddle from channel buoy to buoy until I did the three-quarter mile crossing into the protection from the winds. Half way to the first buoy my progress was slow but determined and I felt confident. As I raised my hood to get a sight bearing on the next buoy I heard a faint roar above me. I cranked my head sideways as much as I dared and saw the swirling blades of a Coast Guard helicopter just over my right shoulder. I raised my hand and gave a thumb’s up to the two orange helmets appearing out the open hatch. I was a member of the local SAR team so figured the crew knew who I was. I pointed towards the buoy and channel opening beyond and hunkered back down to paddle.
About twenty minutes later the copter reappeared and I pumped my paddle up and down over my head signaling my safe arrival within the islands. Later that evening water was dead calm again – but could have stayed gnarly for another week – such is the dual personality and the “black” magic of the Pacific.
Such wildlife and weather stories are common in Alaska, it’s the nature of the beast! However, it’s the beauty of its natural phenomena that sets this enchanted paddling destination apart from most others. Those are special, magical sights – and while many occur during the day, the depth and breadth of their ethereal spirit comes forth on special, almost surreal, nights.
On still, starry evenings where water is undisturbed by any perceivable motion and the sky sparkles in clarity, the entire visual universe is unveiled in a canopy of stars, each reflected speck for twinkling speck upon the mirrored ocean below. There is no horizon, just an endless field of starlight radiating from every point in the sky – and from the sea below. You are no longer floating, you are flying, adrift in the stars that completely caress you from what seems like every direction. You have become a sky paddler caressed by the night’s magic.
Full moons take it to yet another surreal level. Cold ocean water tends to be clearer in winter allowing sharpened views of the sea floor twenty to thirty feet down at times. When moonlight shines down through such water its glow reflects off of the white shell sand bottoms, the light-colored rocks and myriad creamy-white critters including clusters of sea anemones. The hydra-like anemones, their bulbous bodies and wavy tentacles aglow and swaying in the currents, perform a heavenly sea ballet against the darker backgrounds. Moonlight above, on and below the water’s surface is magical beyond description
Yet for all the moon’s glorious glimmering beauty, nothing is more spectacularly graceful than a flowing ribbon of sparkling lights tumbling through the water. Created by nearly microscopic photo-luminescent organisms, these glittering globs of light are the most incredible sight this kayaker has ever enjoyed.
Photoluminescence is generated by agitating water teeming with these tiny glowing creatures. A sweep of a paddle blade or even just the bow wake of your kayak churns up the water, tumbling these tiny organisms into brilliant, swirling worms of glowing light. Magically, our paddle or hand becomes Tinkerbell’s wand, as it sweeps across the surface of the dark water creating waves of glowing, flowing streams of light.
Northern Lights might be the command performance of the northern skies, but photoluminescence reigns as the premiere spectacle put on by the ocean!
The magic of kayaking comes mostly from within, whether it’s a remote glacial bay in Alaska, a reservoir in the midwest or even a small country pond. The kayak is the vehicle, the paddle is the motor, but the mind remains the driving force of all that’s truly magical.
On land they are Jabba the Hutt impersonators from the Star Wars film sagas. When seen swimming under water, it’s as though a graceful, fur-covered refrigerator has suddenly become a star in a water ballet. Yes, the Steller Sea Lion is a beast of beauty to behold – unless you are uncomfortably close in a kayak.
First and foremost, we are talking about the Steller sea lion, a stellar member of the family that includes cuddly seals, flesh-ripping sea wolves and lumbering, proboscis swaying sea elephants. Size-wise, the Steller sea lion is as much bigger than the common California sea lion (often seen hanging around the docks in San Francisco) as those west coast creatures are to common seals (harbor, spotted, etc.). Clearly the sea lions of the north Pacific are a potential water hazard that’s always on the move and occasionally up to the challenge of proprietorship as to whose chunk of ocean it is at any one time.
Sea lions that hang out in marinas and harbor areas are said to habitualized. That is, they are used to being around humans and their noises and movements. Whether sunning on a marker buoy or commandeering a section of dock, the habitualized sea lion is the most approachable. That said, it must be understood that these guys are still absolutely wild!
Most skippers will whip past a colony of sunning sea lions as fast as reduced wake speeds will allow, the animals rarely lifting so much as an eyebrow. Try to quietly drift up to that same group in a kayak and all heck can break loose. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it?
My theory is that the sea lion is used to the noise, the direct approach and the lack of interest as normal. The stealth-like approach of a small, hard-to-see-craft, however, may signal caution to the wary sea lion. Some have pointed out that this is recessive instinctual behavior back to the days when they were hunted by kayakers. I personally doubt it. I think it’s more the out-of-the-ordinary movement that disturbs them. In fact, we used to chatter and paddle normally right up to snoozing sea lion cows as though we were visiting neighbors – causing nary a grunt of disapproval.
Once those sea lions move out to coastal rookeries and hauling out areas, it’s another story. Sentries at the edges of haul-out rocks or beaches are quick to raise a ruckus if something unknown – even another group’s sea lion – comes in too close.
We are taught, as respectful wards of nature, not to approach animals too closely. That works in parks and other bordered areas of defined wildlife colonies. However, the further into the wilderness realm we travel the more often are we going to experience close encounters of the surprised kind! It’s not uncommon for seals and their larger kin to approach boats to see what’s going on.
Seals are known to frolic under a kayak, arching from side to side under the boat, paddle tip to paddle tip. Sea lions are more likely to follow behind, giving themselves away with frequent blasts of air from their nostrils as they surface a few yards behind your boat. The cows in a harem quite often will drop into the water from their dockside rest and follow kayakers for miles – always staying just a little behind the stern as one cruises through the water.
The younger ones can play the aggressor by charging the boat and then dropping away like an attack aircraft suddenly remembering it’s out of ammo! What young bulls do like to do is somersault right under the boat and bump the keel with their backside. It’s kind of cool, doesn’t cause too much anxiety in the paddler and probably makes the young sea lion feel pretty macho. I’ve had harder “bumps” from a submerged log.
It’s very easy to approach sleeping sea lions as they tend to buddy up and snooze right on the surface. I literally came nose to nose with one dozing in a kelp bed. I eased my boat back slowly and quietly thinking how I’d otherwise do CPR on a sea lion I had just startled into cardiac arrest. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. You can be quietly paddling along when the water off the bow erupts in an explosive shower as a 50-gallon drum-sized sea lion bursts through the surface, mouth wide open, fanged teeth flashing like unsheathed knife blades!
Yea, it’s scary – especially when you are looking down the huge, bright red throat of an angry sea lion. I was kayaking with a family once when that very thing happened… the mother of the group said “Wow, what a great trip, but I wish we would have seen a sea lion at least once.” As if right on cue, a huge bull burst through the surface, barely six feet from my client.
The most caution should be taken while fishing from a kayak. I found this out absent-mindedly one afternoon. I had caught and kept a stringer of good-sized rock bass. I had them attached to a chain stringer which was, in turn, clipped to a deck ring on my kayak.
I was ready to call it a day and had just raised the stringer out of the water to let it drain before splaying the fish out across my back deck. As the last fish parted from the water, a huge sea lion rose up right behind it like a submarine coming to the surface. Apparently it had eyed the captive school of rock bass and figured on an easy meal.
Encounters are going to happen whenever and where ever we share the planet with other creatures and critters. Avoidance is the preferred action but sometimes those critters may be just as curious as we are – it’s a big ocean out there that can become mighty cramped and full of surprises at times. Learn where haul-outs might be; learn what behavior animals might be performing at certain times of day and be especially keen on how animals might change their behavior if provoked or scared.
I don’t want some 1,200 pound ice box with teeth the size of a tiger becoming defensively startled by me being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, that’s part of the “awe” that makes our sport so breathtaking and special. Always – be safe out there!
The bald eagle, appearing as big and stout as a fire hydrant, stood statuesque atop a kelp-covered rock at water’s edge. “I’ll get as close as I dare so have your camera ready,” I said to my client as I maneuvered our double towards this magnificent, white-capped baldy – the only one we’d seen in two hours of touring among the islands just off of the city of Kodiak, Alaska.
The bird stood unmoving; unconcerned as I eased the boat around so my passenger could get a clear, steady shot. As we approached, it raised its shoulders slightly. “Better take it soon,” I warned, “he’s getting ready to fly!”
She raised her bazooka lens and studied the image in her viewfinder. “What a magnificently beautiful creature,” she said. The eagle fidgeted once more so again I suggested she take her shot.
As she readied her finger over the shutter button, she continued to praise the sight before her. “It’s so noble, so digni – “, her sudden gasp chopped off the last syllable. That huge, powerful bird was stretched to full standing height, its wings out slightly from its massive body as it leaned forward. Several yards of thick, whitish liquid spurted out through its tail feathers like a plug had just been dislodged from a high-pressure fire hose!
“Oh my God!” cried the woman as she slowly lowered her camera. “That was utterly disgusting!” she said as she turned to me with a ghostly expression on her face.
Welcome to one of the more unglamorous aspects of birding from a kayak you don’t often read about. It’s natural behavior such as this that truly makes kayak birding one of the many revealing lessons we learn as perpetual students in Nature’s classroom.
One of those lessons learned from years of birding from a kayak is that birds tend to relieve themselves of excessive, expendable weight upon taking off – particularly when suddenly provoked. Seagulls are especially prone to this practice, sometimes coupling need with mischievous opportunity – and often uncanny accuracy.
One afternoon as I approached a small sea lion rookery I failed to notice that my route took me right under a narrow ledge high atop a rocky outcropping at water’s edge. The perch afforded chicken-sized glaucous-winged gulls that roosted there a panoramic view of the bay and surrounding shoreline below. It also provided a perfect vantage point to spot encroaching kayakers.
Seagulls are the dive-bombers supreme of the avian marine environment. I quickly veered away from the base of the cliff the moment I caught a glimpse of the feathery squadron perched overhead. Do you think, perhaps, you can out-distance a flying gull? Me neither. Nor can you out-maneuver them. Under attack, you can only make like a turtle and draw your head down within the collar of your splash jacket and hope for failed accuracy.
I had covered only about 30 yards when I heard it – a distinct ‘snap’ on the surface of the glass-smooth water.
Splat! Splat-Splat! Splat-a-splat-a-splat-a! SPLAT!
The sound of a frenzied attack on a sheet of bubble wrap ripped across the water. It was followed by the sound I had dreaded most – a series of hollow smacks as fresh, hot, juicy globs of sea gull doo-doo drummed off my back deck.
In an instant the squadron veered off, returned to base. Mission accomplished! I had to decide whether to go ashore and do a quick rinse while it was still soft and fresh, or wait until I got home and try to remember where I put that old paint scrapper!
Another strafing run involved my paddling partner, Val. We launched our kayaks beneath overcast skies and headed to an offshore black-legged kittiwake (a smallish gull-like sea bird) and puffin rookery.
Val had just eased to within a few yards of the rock wall when the sun broke through and exploded in brilliance. As it did, within a matter of a very few fleeting seconds -and in one fluid motion – she reached for her sunglasses hanging from a lanyard around her neck, swung them up, and perched them on her nose. The very next instant as she looked up to witness a swarm of kittiwakes sweeping down off the rocks – ker-SPLAT! – a kittiwake scored a bull’s eye directly in the center of the lens of her sunglasses! Makes me think that perhaps goggles should be de rigueur kayak birding gear? That startle reflex that causes most birds to “lose it” can sometimes threaten kayakers as well.
Some of the best birding in the entire Midwest occurs throughout the pools behind the dams on the upper Mississippi River, along side channels, the marshes and backwater estuaries. The varieties of waterfowl, stilt-legs/peepers and other riparian species number in the several hundreds. For a kayaker, the opportunities are nearly endless.
Hiking a trail along the edge of a large estuary, I had often spotted a small flock of Sandhill Cranes on the far shore. I decided to see if I could observe them from the vantage point offered in a kayak. I launched about a half mile from where I had hoped to get a closer, protected view of these tall, stately – and very unapproachable birds.
I could cut my distance in half by pushing through thick clusters of floating grass mats to reach what I figured would be a good viewing point – within about 40 yards from where the small flock would probably be hanging out.
That “shortcut” quickly digressed into a drag fest through a dense tangle of grasses, rushes and reeds. I found myself using my paddle as a pole in order to make any forward progress at all. I slowly and quietly nudged my kayak along a shallow sliver of water that snaked through the never-ending wall of growth.
After about thirty yards I detected a brightness beyond the shadows immediately ahead – a clearing! I planted my paddle against a root clump, gave an extra hard shove and burst out onto a sun-drenched, matted island of grass.
Whomp! Whomp! WHOMP! A brown blur exploded directly in front of me. Fragments of rushes and reeds whirled all about in a cyclonic cloud as a frenzied flurry of feathers and legs erupted skyward. I had found the flock of Sandhills! I had launched my bow out through the rushes and right between the legs of one of the four birds cloistered atop that reed mat.
It was exhilarating! It was also somewhat messy (that sudden flight/fright reflex thing). And it gave me a moment of concern for my own bodily reaction to the suddenness of it all.
Most kayak birding moments are much more satisfying. One evening, paddling in the darkening twilight hours of the North Pacific, a buddy and I encountered a dark object trailing a narrow “V” in the dark surface of the water. A tidal current edging around a wayward bulb of bull kelp perhaps? Or was it something swimming? We closed to within about ten feet of each other and positioned it between us. It didn’t sway or dive, but rather kept on a steady course for several more yards. We then saw it’s water trail veer casually to the right, directly on an intercepting course with my bow. I let the boat glide and waited.
Splash! Thump! Whatever it was, it sounded like it had popped from the water and landed squarely upon my deck – still in the darkness beyond the reach of my eyes.
After a few seconds I began to hear the faint pitter-patter of something coming towards me along the deck. A puffin chick slowly waddled into view. It stopped about a foot forward of the coaming and stared back at me. Young puffin stay in their cliff side burrows until almost fully grown. They have none of the full brilliant beak colors of their parents, either a tufted or horned puffin. They really are butt ugly! After several moments of being pleasantly amused, we watched it as it turned, slid down the deck, plopped into the ocean and swam off into the night.
Sometimes it’s the elements that provide the memories. During an Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Kodiak, I volunteered to inventory the outer shoreline of the islands skirting the downtown harbor area. It has to be pretty darn cold for sea ice to form. The waters at the heads of bays often become the first to ice over. The tide goes out and pulls the ice with it – great to scope out the shoreline but bad if that ice comes back in on the next tide entrapping you behind surface sheets thick enough to gouge the heck out of your gel coat – if you can break through at all.
Heeding that concern, I decided to head to the seaward islands where I knew there were an abundance of overwintering birds. So engrossed in recording these sightings I didn’t pay much attention to the cold until I reached down to retrieve my binoculars hanging around my neck. They were held fast against my chest, frozen to my PFD! I then realized that my entire boat was beginning to glaze over in a coat of ice. I managed to get back ashore with my deck being about 1/4″ thicker than when I left.
There are countless more interesting encounters to share about birding. Whether it’s being witness to rare sighting of a North Pacific Auklet or sharing the water with a common Prairie River Pelican, birding from a kayak will always have its good, bad and even ugly moments. And, they will all surely be memorable.
IN REGARD TO WILDLIFE: The abundance of marine/shoreline wildlife in Alaska results in sharing many areas with those animals as you pass. The incidents cited in these stories occurred in areas where humans and wildlife shared the water on a regular basis. All of these observations were being conducted with binoculars and/or telephoto lenses. Also it is important to know that some animals are equally curious and will approach a paddler. Always respect wildlife and use good sense when being an active guest while sharing those waters.
Living within 600 miles of the Arctic Circle on an island in the North Pacific Ocean inspired me to challenge myself to try to kayak at least one day out of every month – all year long. Thankfully the warming influences of the Japanese Current maintains mostly moderate winter weather on Kodiak Island, and several years in a row I was able to keep my appointment even in the wintry waters off its shores.
Sometimes, while bobbing contently on a passing swell, I could still see myself paddling through the icy crusts of northern Minnesota lakes. I recall crisp autumn mornings when an early frost managed to flash freeze the stilled surfaces letting me play ice breaker with the bow of my scratched and dented Alumicraft canoe as I crush-cruised around a frozen-topped inlet.
My first stand-off with ice as a kayaker happened one Saturday, in Anchorage, in May! Having just formed my Wavetamer kayak business selling Feathercrafts, my partner and I eagerly hurried down to a lagoon on the southwestern edge of downtown. It was a balmy 50° morning as we entered the park only to see a solid, inch-thick sheet of ice covering all but a narrow ring of open water along the shoreline.
As a safety boat for the anticipated open-water demo session, we had hauled my canoe along. Fortunately the morning sun and a light breeze coming in over Cook Inlet jostled the ice enough that it started to break up in huge, running fractures. We climbed in the canoe and with me leaning out over the bow, whacking the ice with a double-bladed axe, we hacked out a narrow paddling route through the ice.
It wasn’t too many years later that I found myself paddling out into the ice-choked waters of East Sound along the western reaches of Kenai Fjords National Park. Sheets of ice were being pushed around by winds coming up this narrow arm in Prince William Sound. Looming about fifty yards from shore was a massively array of crystalline ice – delicately structured like a frozen chandelier – glistening as sunlight bounced irratically throughout its maze of watery capillaries. In the otherwise stillness, I could hear a fluid tinkling, like water lacing through a wind chime -the gigantic, but delicate structure, seemed alive.
I slowly dipped my paddle and pulled gently, inching my kayak closer. It was as if I had sprung a trip wire. I heard a muffled, but distinct “crack” and watched drop-jawed as the entire structure started to collapse on itself – like an imploded high-rise apartment building being demolished. This looming structure of ice hissed as it pushed out it’s last pockets of air, crumbling down onto the surface of the bay. Within seconds, this “breathing”, pulsating, glittering jewel box of ice was a floating raft of lifeless slush.
A serious challenge of winter ocean paddling is trying to second guess the tides – not so much their clockwork regularity, but what they move around as they ebb and flow. Sometimes larger bays give up their ice in expansive raft-like fragments formed in smaller coves. Freshwater streams start draining water from the spring thaw down into the bays, casting their lighter fresh water out over the top of languid and heavier salty sea water. Since the temperatures are already dancing plus and minus a few degrees of 32, it doesn’t take much of a temperature drop, especially in late afternoon, for a glaze to form over otherwise “open” water.
Tides and winds can pull huge floating ice shelves out to the mouths of bays leaving the inner waters clear for paddling. The tides and winds reverse, pushing those thicker rafts of ice back up towards the head of the same bay, sometimes blocking the entrance or direct routes from one shore to the other.
Approaching one such sheet, I used a standard canoe ice breaking trick and bucked the kayak, yawing it forward, breaking away little bites as I went. As the ice got thicker I noticed tiny flecks of gleaming white ice in the bow wake as it bobbed past the cockpit. I quickly realized that it was not ice at all – but little chips of gelcoat being gnawed off my bow by icy teeth. It was a good omen. I turned to see the ice behind me closing like a zipper behind me. That in itself is yet another hazard of winter ice paddling. (Ice breaking is one of the reason so many kayakers in northern ice climates sometimes re-enforce their bow keels with a thin bumper/scratch strip of fiberglass matting).
Minnesota winters can be much harsher than Kodiak’s so my canoe venturing has been limited to the backwaters of the Mississippi winter during the shoulder season before spring. Quite, slow-moving sections of rivers tend to freeze early, thaw late. Pushing that envelope a bit, paddling while ice still clings to the banks, means its almost certain that a canoer is likely to encounter a frozen slough at the end of an open side channel.
It’s fairly easy to paddle through thin ice, it’s usually the noise that you notice and not the reduction in glide. Thicker ice, however, tends to reveal itself by the resistance to the paddle tip poking through a harder crust and the now noticeable crunch sound coming from beneath the bow. Confidence seems to build with every forward stroke until that point where your kayak does, indeed, try to bite off more than it can chew.
Not wanting to see a repeat performance of the gelcoat flake flotilla, a prudent paddle has to know when ice “breaking” surrenders to ice “retreat”. I learned how to back paddle from more than a few occasions where the only way back out through a freezing over watercourse was a deftly-placed reverse stroke as the surface solidified around me as I passed.
Proper dress, emergency supplies and a mental refresher course in techniques all play into winter paddling venturing with ice. And as always: Be safe and have fun out there!
The following story is based upon a conversation with a wilderness lodge owner in Kodiak, Alaska. Dieter escaped from East Germany with a friend in a double Klepper folding kayak out across a section of the Baltic Sea. This is his story of paddling to freedom…
Dieter was drenched by each wave washing over the deck as the bow sliced through the chilling waters of the Baltic. He was sick and was repeatedly vomiting over the side of the Klepper kayak; his stomach was as turbulent as the northern waters he and his partner were battling. They pushed the kayak through the darkness, putting miles between them and the coastline patrolled by the East Germans. He grabbed his paddle and mustered enough strength to pull the wooden blade through the icy black water for a few more agonizing strokes before his stomach erupted again. Dieter was paying the price of freedom…
Two Germanys emerged after WWII. The free West Germany and its Cold War rival, the communist controlled East German (German Democratic Republic-GDR). A portion of both Germanys’ northern border is the Baltic Sea. It posed a significant barrier to freedom when Cold War security measures included the coastline east of the river that demarked the border between the two countries. Fortifications, known as the “Blue Border” of the GDR covered the coast near the West German border. Watchtowers, fences and walls stood sentry near marshes. High-speed Patrol boats (Dieter referred to them as wolf packs, a name given to the German U-boats that attacked allied ships crossing the Atlantic) stalked the shoreline ready to pounce on any suspect craft found in East German waters.
Other stretches of the coast were covered by security patrols all the way to the Polish border. Even some island had security controls imposed upon them. Anyone attempting an escape by sea, like all other forms of seeking freedom, did so against nearly insurmountable, life-threatening odds.
Dieter was well aware of the escape efforts that had been attempted for many years – those that succeeded as well as those that sadly failed. Desperation drove potential escapees to try every means possible including: tunnels, secret compartments in vehicles, make-shift raft river crossings, hot air balloons, open sea routes and countless attempts on foot. His first effort was a scheme to escape across the border by sneaking aboard one of the many trains crossing the border into West Germany.
His plan was simple: Under the cover of the dark of night climb he would climb up into the open-topped water tank at a railroad watering stop just inside the border. Spending hours in icy-cold, chest deep water, he would wait for a train to stop so he could climb onto the undercarriage of a car and ride it across to freedom. Waiting hours for an approaching train was risky on several accounts, the least of which was dying from hypothermia.
The East Germans were onto most of the escape tactics and foiled many before they could even be attempted. Such was the case for Dieter. On many occasions he spent long, cold nights in the water tank waiting for trains that never arrived. The Germans would randomly change the routings to other crossings at the very last minute possible. Dieter finally decided to come up with another escape plan. He would kayak out onto the Baltic Sea and paddle to the free coastlines of West Germany or Denmark – or die trying!
All activity along the Baltic Blue Border was severely limited and monitored via 27 watchtowers and patrols with high-powered searchlights. Fugitives were reported to high-speed powerboats patrolling the waters, ready to intercept any escapees. Those who did manage to flee from the beaches had several options for freedom: hit the Danish coast somewhere along Falster Island, reach the coastal area of West Germany at the head of the Bay of Mecklenberg, be rescued by a Danish light vessel (basically a ship designed as an ocean-going light house) or hopefully be picked up by friendly freighters enroute along sea lanes in international waters.
Dieter’s plan was simple and extremely risky. He would use a two-person folding kayak and paddle out from East Germany and then back in to West Germany and freedom.
Procuring any kind of watercraft would create instant suspicion for a person living near the coast as Dieter did. He decided to travel far inland, to southern East Germany, to pick up a boat and necessary gear. Back at his apartment, he began a regime of training that included tying a brick to the blade of each kayak paddle and going through the paddling motions every chance he had. The weight training would hopefully give him and his partner the stamina and endurance needed to make the long and dangerous trip.
They would have to debark far to the east of the highly fortified and patrolled border junction at the northern coastline. They would have to venture far out into the Baltic to avoid all coastal activity. And they would have to complete their escape route completely under the cover of night.
Dieter didn’t have much detail to share about the actual night of the escape. They knew their freedom and lives depended upon succeeding. I got the impression that neither Dieter nor his paddling partner had any intentions of giving up or turning back. The only details of the actual trip still fresh in Dieter’s mind were those of him being violently sick during the last half of the ordeal. He was so ill that his partner had to do most of the paddling.
I don’t recall where they finally pulled to shore, but it was on a free beach! Dieter remembers retracing his route on a chart and figures they covered about 80 miles in twelve hours. That converts to just over 6.5 miles per hour – steady! That’s quite a feat in a not-so-sleek Klepper. The race for freedom is usually always fueled by adrenalin.
According to some of the websites I reviewed for background info on the GDR’s border restrictions it is estimated that nearly 200 people died in escape attempts via the Baltic Sea. Dieter and his fellow kayaker were among the lucky ones who made it!
More information on the East/West German borders from 1949-1990, including enforcement along the Baltic Sea and other rivers, is available at the following Wikipedia link: wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_German_border#East_Germany.27s_sea_border