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Section 6: Paddling the Gulf of Alaska

The best place to begin is by expressing gratitude for safe passage along this section of the trip, which took us from The Visitor Center in Glacier Bay National Park ("The Vis") 181 Nautical Miles and 8 days -- including one day stuck on shore -- through the Gulf of Alaska to Yakutat, Alaska. The north most town of our trip. We still have 37 days of travel ahead, but this is a major milestone for us.

Spectacular views despite overcast conditions

We started July 18th at the campsite in Glacier Bay. With Ken, we wandered over to the Lodge to enjoy a final trip breakfast together. It was also an All You Can Eat Buffet Breakfast, so trust we loaded up like only two expeditioners can (Judy & Greg, you know how we do!).

After saying our goodbyes, we hustled around packing our boats and last-minute device charging and taking care of all the Faff involved in leaving a town. We'd finished breakfast by 9am, but we're only ready to leave by 1pm. Our objective of paddling 25 NM to Taylor Island was looking out of reach. Tough way to start.

Always remember to hug your kayak

And then we got lucky. After crossing Sitakaday Narrows on a flooding tide, pushing us up into Glacier Bay, we exited at slack and were greeted to a fast ebb current through Inian and North Passages. We were moving very fast. We decided to push on, and made it to Taylor Island at about 6pm, giving us an average speed of faster than 4 knots. Incredible. There was one hiccup through. At our intended beach on Taylor Island, we saw a Grizzly Bear. We decided to move on, given the beach was already occupied, and found ourself a Grotto (cave) to sleep in. Super cool but not safe in most conditions. We had low swell and a low-high tide, and saw a lot of dry beach, so we decided to go for it.

When it began to rain, having a big dry space was much appreciated

The next day, July 19th, we rounded Cape Spencer at close to Slack and paddled on to Palma Bay. We'd expected this day to be 25 NM, but it ended up being closer to 30 NM. We hugged the mainland inside of some rocks, as recommended by our new friend Greg from Gustavus. This sneak saved us some time and protected us from the swell in the open ocean. As it turns out, this stretch is mostly a blur for me, I was pretty nervous about entering the Gulf.

Calm waters in the Kelp Beds around Cape Spencer

Palma Bay, around Kaknau Creek, is rumored to have hot springs. Supposedly, you just walk around in the sand until you find a warm spot and dig it up. We had two people tell us this. However, we didn't find the hotsprings. They are known to move around, but we'd like to believe it's an inside joke to have the uninitiated tromp around the beach barefoot looking silly. No hot springs for us.

A super cool arch we saw on our way to Palma Bay

July 20th was a big day for two reasons. First, we entered the Gulf of Alaska and left behind any shelter from the open ocean. Second, our goal was to get to Lituya Bay. I (Sanesh) am terrified of Lituya Bay, thanks to a book (The Wave) recommended to me by a "friend" after she saw it was on our route. Home of the world's largest wave at over 1700 ft (caused by a landslide, which you can see when you enter the bay) Lituya was described to me by a local fisherman as "the safest harbour ever, until it isn't." Over the course of the day we also lost VHF weather, meaning we also lost the ability to call the Coast Guard. AND our Garmin weather forecast stopped working. Not great. Thankfully, Jordan stepped up and has been providing excellent weather forecast data for us via InReach. Alas, the paddle itself was quite good. We took two breaks, the first of which was on a steep beach which sucked to launch & land from. We were gifted some fantastic weather and seas, including a really special opportunity to see the La Perouse Glacier.

‘Per(o)using’ around one of the coolest glaziers we’ve seen so far!

Despite getting up at 5:30AM and having a fast morning, we were running late. Lituya Bay is also notorious for it's challenging entrance/exit narrows, which is recommended to only be attempted at Slack Tide. That meant arriving at 4:51PM. We were at least an hour behind, thanks to our awe at La Perouse, getting stuck in dumpy surf, and me (Sanesh) just being tired. Approaching Lituya, we didn't really know what to do. Land on the South Beach in dumpy (dangerous and uncomfortable) surf? Another hour in the boats to the North Beach and hope it was better? We decided to attempt to enter Lituya against a 1 knot ebb current pushing us out. And, believe it or not, it worked! We fought the current for a about 100 meters, and we're greeted to a calm bay totally sheltered from swell, with excellent (albeit a little buggy) camping. The scariest thing of the day were the sea lions that chased us as we approached. Lituya Bay.

A beautiful night in Lituya Bay

And here's where things get extra interesting. After Lituya Bay, the only person we know of who has paddled it is Freya Hoffmeister. She's an incredible paddler. In this next stretch of the Gulf of Alaska, from Lituya Bay to Yakutat, she writes about using the boat as her bathroom due to unlandable beaches. There aren't any more sheltered bays in this stretch, making for few places to safely land ourselves strapped to our 200lb fiberglass missiles in waves. Nathan had an idea though, landing in river mouths which dissipate swell energy more gradually and deeper, thereby reducing danger of landing. We went from Lituya Bay to Cape Fairweather -- which, as it turns out, has a very nice beach to land on at low tide, then to "some unnamed River south of Dry Bay," then to "Italio River where Fiona from Juneau said there was a cabin" to Yakutat.

Paddling from Cape Fairweather to Dry Bay felt like purgatory, with a hauntingly beautiful endless coastline of trees and beach, totally socked on by clouds and fog. This was day 98 of the trip, and we finally did it. We began to use our paddle floats to help us pee from the boats. It works well. Freya, if you're reading this, we understand now.

Endless coastlines and endless fog

The weather also deteriorated, and though it was still safe, it was wet and foggy. The weather deteriorated overnight, causing us to get stuck in Dry Bay for a day due to fog (thank you to the friends who helped with getting us weather data!). Dry Bay was a little erie, there were people driving ATVs around on the other side of the river, but we were unable to make contact. Based on information from a Park Ranger (received via InReach), there are Tlingit fishing camps here. It was strange to be so close to people, and yet be do disconnected (also with VHF not working). We spent our time here on a Sand Dune that sits on the ocean-side of a 50ft wide meandering tidal river, with a big fire, huddled under our tarp or in the tent. It was a little frustrating at first to get stuck here for a day, but we needed the rest. It felt really good to sleep for 10 hours.

Playing in the Dry Bay fog on a rest day
Playing in the Dry Bay Fog on a rest day

Paddling to Italio River, our next stop where we'd heard of a Cabin, was similarly long, monotonous, and beautiful. Thankfully, by this point the beaches were looking relatively flat, making them landable at low tide in swell. However, surf landings take time. You have to paddle in shore, get wet, and then paddle back off shore. And maybe you lose a water bottle along the way that you have to go retrieve. This can often take upwards of 30 minutes. For efficiencies sake, we settled into a routine of one stop a day, at lunch time, bracketed by up to 6 hours in the boat in a single stretch. It really felt like the last 100 days of paddling had been preparing us for this section.

Just south of Italio, we found another meandering river we could have easily landed at a mile or so south. However, the temptation of a cabin was hard to resist, so we pushed on. Spotting the Italio River was very challenging, it's a small river only about 50ft across, and the beaches were very hard to read from our low kayak vantage point. The only real indication we had was a group of seabirds sitting on the sand that didn't quite look like what we were expecting to see based on the contours of the sand. We went for it, and got lucky. We broke through the surf, right into the river mouth. The river shallowed quickly, meaning we couldn't paddle up it. We got out of the boats and went for a walk, which ended up being more than 30 minutes. We found a couple of semi-abandoned fishing cabins on the river, but nothing we could stay in. We reached out to Fiona via InReach, and within 30 minutes she was able to point us in the right direction. About a half-mile inland of where we'd landed, was the cabin. A log cabin with a green roof, for easy visibility, of course. A third round of incredible ground support from friends, old and new. Ultimately, we decided to stay on the beach to help us get on the water faster the following morning.

The weather cleared up in the evening, making for beautiful Italio River camping

From Italio River, our goal was to make it to a Surf Shack on Cannon Beach Fiona told us about, about 12 miles southeast of Yakutat. When we woke up in the morning, the fog had built and we briefly debated not leaving. We decided, however, that given the forecast and sea state we could try to paddle, and worst case we could turn around and return to the Italio River. As we paddled towards Dangerous River, the fog built. Fog around river mouths is typical, due to the cold river water causing the condensation of humidity. It is, however, quite terrifying. As previously mentioned, the river outflows cause waves to break far off shore. Here we could hear the waves, but we couldn't see them in the <100ft visibility. We decided to keep going, ensuring that we kept the sound of breaking waves on our right and following a SW heading that put us in the open ocean but also around the river. When it sounded like the worst of it was behind us, we gently paddled back inland, ever attentive. We saw the coastline peaking our of the fog. We'd made it around Dangerous River safely, in pea soup fog. Awesome. We paddled on.

As we approached lunch we were also approaching the Situk River outflow. It became immediately apparent that the Situk outflow was much bigger than the other rivers. We decided to follow a similar strategy as before, hugging the coast and looking for a line through directly to the smallest breakers. There was a little surfing and a whole lot of whitewash -- I did lose my water bottle, and went back to recover it -- but we made it. We also, to our surprise, saw people! There were a few fishermen setting up nets in the river. We shouldn't really have been surprised, the Tlingit have been fishing here for 1000s of years, just as they have been in Dry Bay. At this point it was 1pm, only a few miles from the Surf Shack. We were also only 10 miles & 3.5 hours from Monti Bay - the bay that houses Yakutat. The weather was beautiful, overcast but bright without rain. So we sent it. And after a 30 mile day, we landed on Khantaak Island, just 2 miles out of Yakutat at 5:30 PM on July 25th. We'd exited the Gulf of Alaska.

And on July 26th, Day 102 of our trip, at 8am, we landed in Yakutat. At Leonard's Landing specifically -- thanks to Freya's recommendation -- to get ready for the next section of our trip.

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