On Thursday morning, we lay in the tent listening to the rain coming and going. It eased off, then stopped, and I took the opportunity to get up, drop the food bags, and wander along the beach. Suddenly, a glint of sun through a gap in the clouds cast a shadow in front of me and this presaged a transition to glorious weather for the rest of the day. We put on and headed south west up the Fiord, pausing to chat to the occupants of the tent we’d spotted last night. Surprise Glacier continued to creak and crash, but as sound was taking 10-15 seconds to reach us, we never saw any ice fall. As we paddled on through almost flat calm, the curve of the fiord revealed the mile-wide snout of the Harriman glacier.
Heading SW up Harriman Fiord – the glacier face is a mile or so wide
However, we saw no ice floating ahead of us, and it was apparent that the bigger glacier was not actively calving. We paused for a snack and to take stock. We knew that if we waited until tomorrow morning to head down Barry Arm, we would have a strong tide against us (though we could probably eddy hop against this), but if we paddled all the way to Harriman Glacier snout, we would undoubtedly have to camp again within Harriman Fiord. As Surprise Glacier seemed more active, we decided to turn back and paddle up Surprise Inlet, then see how far out of the fiord we could get in a long day today.
Paddling towards Surprise Glacier which was calving noisily (Photo: Mary)
Turning the point into Surprise Inlet, we were still 3 km from the glacier face. Now there were icebergs to paddle among, and the reason for Cataract Glacier’s name became very apparent as a huge meltwater stream cascaded down beside and below it. Although we’d still not seen any large icefall from the glacier, the booms and crashes continued, and we kept a safe distance back from potentially large waves, paddling across the inlet to the north side before heading back between scattered lumps of ice.
Paddling away from Surprise Inlet dodging icebergs
Many long and steep streams were falling from the glaciers high above on the SE side of Mount Muir making this a spectacular stretch of paddling, all the more impressive owing to the vastly improved weather which enabled us to see the scenery !
Ann and Pete on our way back down Harriman Fiord (Photo: Mary)
We headed along, passing a couple of bays, one dotted with icebergs, and the second opening on to the extremely dirty snout of Serpentine glacier. We paused for lunch at the east tip of this bay for a late lunch stop. There were a couple of areas of the sea where bubbles constantly rose to the surface from the sea bed. I’m not sure what gas was being emitted here, or how it came to be here, but wading out and testing the bubbles with a lighter showed that the gas was not inflammable.
Andy threading between icebergs, Harriman Fiord (Photo: Mary)
From this point, we crossed to Point Doran (a little over 5km), picking up some tidal assistance, and seeing many groups of otters with kits in the water (at one point I could see six groups, one of which contained eight individuals). We were just congratulating ourselves on our timing and expecting to pick up an even faster tide down Barry Arm as we reached the shallows at Point Doran. However, it became apparent that the tide here didn’t quite conform to our expected timings – the assistance we had been getting was from the eddy on the end of the incoming tide and in Barry Arm the flow was still against us in two or three narrow streams, though mostly it seemed slack. We headed across to the east shore and paddled along this, intending to camp at least past the narrower part of the channel, to avoid an adverse tide tomorrow. We found a good beach another 5km on, Not all that far short of Pakenham Point, which was to have been our camp not tonight, but tomorrow night, so we were now well ahead of schedule, though it had been a long day. A noticeable feature of this campsite (and quite a lot of the coast west of Port Wells and College Fiord) was the line of dead trees right next to the beach. All of these look a similar age, and it became apparent with a bit of thought that all these are 52 years old. On March 29th 1964, the area was hit by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake (the second biggest on record anywhere) which produced changes in level of up to eight metres. All along this coast, the level seems to have dropped by a metre or so, flooding the roots of those trees nearest the shore with salt water and killing them.
During the latter part of the day, I had harvested a lump of ice into a ziplock bag, and now enjoyed the view back up Barry Arm whilst drinking whiskey on the rocks of freshly calved glacier ice.
Andy taking in the view whilst drinking whiskey over freshly calved glacier ice, Barry Arm
Friday morning after our long previous day, we were not off too early, but were soon passing over the tidal flat below a sizeable river. This provided one or two very shallow spots (John had to back out and try another route) but mostly we found a route through and any incoming tide was slowed enough not to impede our progress. A series of small headlands culminated in a spit with many birds, where we could round the corner into Port Wells.
Coming out of Barry Arm into Port Wells
With the sun shining brightly from the direction of the more open Sound, this was a pleasant place to linger, watch the birds and take photos.
Andy just after the exit from Barry Arm (Photo: Mary)
We decided that perhaps an even better view would be had from Pakenham Point (our original planned destination and camp for tonight) and paddled across the short stretch of water to reach this.
From Pakenham Point we had a distant view of the huge Harvard Glacier
Our route next was to reach Esther Passage, whose entrance lies on the SE side of Port Wells. We were also on the lookout for a source of fresh water. A stream is shown on the map just south of Golden, so we started our crossing aiming roughly for this. The big glacial valley we could see ahead was occupied by Davis Lake, but the river from this was behind an island, and we were hoping not to have to paddle the extra distance up behind this to find water.
Crossing College Fiord toward the glacial valley of Davis Lake
Before we’d started our crossing we’d seen the first of several huge prison ships heading up College Fiord and reflected that for cruise passengers, even with wildlife head-butting their boat, they were a more distant view than we often got from our kayaks. As we reached the far side of College Fiord, the outflow of the valley was far from obvious, but eventually we found a little waterfall crashing out of the trees. Landing was little problematical, as there was not much in the way of beach (and the tide was rising). Most got out and tied boats up, still afloat. I found a little beach a little further up the coast, hauled out, and scrambled along to join the others. We spent some time here pumping water through filters before heading down the coast looking for the entrance to Esther Passage. A bit of rock-hopping was to be had on the way, and we picked a beach just at the entrance, facing north, with a fine view back over our route here. The Trails illustrated map suggests a spot right on the point at the north side of the Passage entrance, but this had not looked particularly attractive as we’d passed.
Looking back to Barry Arm from camp on Esther Island
Our earlier stop for water was now proved a little superfluous, as the site we’d picked had a sizeable stream. Indeed, I’d paddled into this (under and over some interesting sweepers) to get behind the beach for an easier haul out. Mary, always obsessively wanting to be rid of sweat and grime, found this entertainingly cold for a (very swift) bath, but would not permit photographs (or video). We easily got a fire going here, so toasted treats were on the menu.
Toasting Marshmallows on the beach, Esther Island
We dithered considerably over a site to hang food, until I found that I could climb up and traverse to the back of a dead tree, where (when my foot didn’t break through into space between the roots) I could throw the line over a branch of a live tree overhanging the beach. This gave us one of our more convincingly bear-resistant hangs.
One of our better bear-avoiding food hangs, Esther Island
Saturday morning dawned bright, but with a bit of cloud, and some breeze. We put on and headed east, then south east, noticing quite a bit of traffic through the passage (another weekend) including a couple of jet skiers as well as numerous of the fast boats used by sport fishermen. For the most part these gave us a wide berth and we had little trouble with wakes.
John, Mary and Pete paddling down Esther Passage
We paused for lunch on the SW shore about halfway along the Passage. Whilst there, the “Klondike Express” (a big tourist boat) went past at speed, kicking up such a huge wake that our boats (fortunately tied on) were tossed about with water sloshed into the cockpits. Given the amount of traffic, I suppose it was fortunate that this was the only boat we saw driven in such a cavalier and inconsiderate fashion – in general we were pleasantly surprised at how many boats gave us a wide berth or slowed down whilst passing. As we reached the wider part of the passage, we knew we wanted to be on the east side, so set off to cross towards a small headland. I was keen to avoid mid-channel where the traffic passed, so took a slightly divergent route closer towards the shore. I noticed some splashing just off a beach to my left and steered a little more offshore. I was surprised by a big gasp of breath just behind me and wondered if I’d encountered a whale, but as I looked around, a head surfaced and took another breath. This was a lot bigger than the seals we are familiar with at home, but clearly not a cetacean. As the group came back together, this turned out to be a sea lion hunting along the shore, and popped up several more times, usually just a short way ahead of us. This last section of coast proved to be quite rocky with no landings or streams, and after we made the short crossing to East Flank Island, Mary was worried that we were a bit short of water, as she’d not been very successful in filtering water at the previous camp.
Evening view back up Esther Passage from East Flank Island
After camp was set up, we got back into our boats and crossed back to the mainland to find a small stream shown on the map, maybe a kilometre away. This proved elusive at first, and we got almost to the corner into Squaw Bay before being certain that we had missed it. On returning, we found it coming down a waterfall hidden in a corner at the back of a bay. Below it was a pool absolutely seething with big King Salmon. This felt like a place where we were quite likely to encounter a bear as it was nearing dusk, so we were very nervous. When the filter proved not to be working well again (we realised it needed cleaning rather more often than we’d expected), we beat a retreat back to the camp.
Sunset from East Flank Island on our first night there
There is a page of additional notes for this trip. covering outfitting, watertaxi, maps, charts, tides, etc.