Trip Stories: Five Buddies Paddle

In the third week of August 2004, a plan was hatched by five buddies to paddle kayaks in South Eastern Alaska. We were on a fabulous kayaking trip in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, paddling from the island of Barra in the north to Mingulay and Barra Head in the south. On our return journey to Barra the plan was cooked: our intrepid team of 4 Scots and an American would travel to Alaska to see if we could find the same level of independent travel by kayak. Unlike the USA, Scotland has no trespass laws, fussing park wardens and DNR officials allocating camp sites which must be pre-booked. You may travel freely to any island, land on any beach and camp on any good looking site. That makes it very easy to commit to paddling in areas where the weather might turn against you and require a couple of days of down time. If you’re paddling on the open sea on a DNR time schedule, you run the risk of weighing movement decisions on the need to keep to the schedule rather than the prevailing weather conditions.

Our plan had only one flaw; nobody in our team had ever been to Alaska. (actually, Bob had been there once on a cruise ship but felt that wasn’t relevant!) It would be impossible to bring our own boats, so that meant finding an outfitter near the areas we wanted to paddle in. Unfortunately, most of the outfitters are located close to the “golden trail” of the cruise ship lines, offering dual kayaks to folks on the ships for day excursions and occasional expeditions. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck with an outfitter who was too far away from the Pacific or who wanted to give us tests (which we would of course pay for) to gauge our competence. We finally came across South Passage Outfitters, located in Gull Cove off Icy Strait. These guys had good sea kayaks, were pretty close to the action on the Pacific and seemed to fit our idea of an outfitter who would respect our wishes to be independent on the water. After a few phone calls we decided that the two American residents (Bob and Sandy) would head up to Alaska and blaze a trail for the big trip proposed for 2006. This is a description of that trip.

June 4th 2005
I felt right at home with the rain beating down on us as we left our motel in Juneau for the float plane we chartered to Gull Cove. You could just see the mountains through the mist.

A wet day in Juneau....could be Fort William in Scotland
Our bush pilot Butch assured us that the weather was very good about 10 miles further west. Sure enough, once we were airborne, it took no time at all before the clouds dispersed and we had lovely sunny views.

Loading up the Cessna for the 40 mile hop to Gull Cove
Once we landed at Gull Cove, the full beauty of the place we had studied extensively in charts and topo maps became apparent. The cove has great views over Icy Strait to the massive Fairweather range. Even without these gorgeous snowy mountains, the view was breathtaking.

Looking across Icy Straight from Gull Cove
We met our hosts Dennis and Peg Montgomery, daughter Annie and two dogs on the dock and quickly moved the gear to shore. We were immediately comfortable in the very relaxed atmosphere these guys generate. We quickly went from brief introductions to the kayaks because our trip plans hinged heavily on the seaworthiness and comfort of the boats. When we saw a fine array of good condition Eddyline fiberglass boats, our last anxieties about the trip finally lifted and we began to get very excited about the paddling prospects for the week ahead. After a short exploratory paddle, we confirmed that the boats would do the business and pronounced ourselves pleased with the situation.
Dennis and Peg have a range of accommodation options. We chose their Yurt because it was cheaper than a cabin, but also because it seemed to be more in line with our next week of tented accommodation. So two tired boys moved their stuff into the Yurt, and in less than an hour had cooked a meal, drank some whisky and gone to bed. Our heads hit the pillow and we were out like a light.

Bob inside the Montgomerry’s Yurt

June 5th
Next day dawned fine (at 3.00am!) and we packed the boats in earnest for the trip ahead. Our first day involved some passages which looked fairly serious on the chart, with tide rips and tidal currents of 8kn on the ebb and 5kn on the flood. Our timing was of course less than perfect. We had booked our trip on the basis of family and work commitments instead of the tides we would encounter. So it was that we launched against a spring tide at low water against what would be a 5kn current at the channel’s narrowest point. We could have avoided this by waiting until 4.00pm that afternoon when the tide turned, but we were anxious to get away for our first day. Dennis gave us a last bit of local
knowledge regarding the rips around the Inian Islands (our target for the night’s camp) and we were off.
We had barely been on the water for two hours when we saw our first sea otters and two Hump Backed whales. When you’ve never seen one of these monsters, it’s a truly memorable experience. I can still hear those marvelous blow hole sounds. A nearby Sea Lion didn’t seem to be quite so impressed with all the barking and moaning he was doing. We continued towards the South Passage of Icy Strait which we could see was running substantially faster than surrounding waters. An easy ferry glide across with nothing more than a few boils took care of the current. We were on the Inian’s. One of our definite “must get to’s” of the trip. Dennis had told us of a hiking trail up the unlikely looking steep sides of the surrounding 2000 foot hills. The views from the top of the Fairweather range were apparently excellent, so we exchanged dry suits for shorts and T-shirt and headed up the hill. Our fitness and stamina training really began to show its measure on the vertical hike up the hill. Bob and I had done less physical training for this trip than any other we had gone on, but a few puffs and grunts later we got into the swing of things and started making good time upwards. The trail is not used that much, so it was a bit of a fight with the undergrowth (and overgrowth).

A wrong turning, a fairly useless map and a macho attitude soon had us staring at 300 feet of uphill trouble in the form of Devil’s Claw and other nasty jaggies that tore our skin in our attempt to maintain upward (if by now trail-less) progress. Somehow shorts and a T-shirt didn’t give us the protection we needed. After an eternity, we arrived at the top of the “rough” section, scraped and bruised. Our enthusiasm for the hike and its fabled views had now diminished, but we still wanted to get there. Half an hour later, we saw the top of the hill emerge from the vegetation. It seemed to laugh at us from 300 feet above. I looked at Bob, he looked at me and we both said “stuff it” (or something like that) and headed back down after exploring the
The trail through the trees on the Inian Islands
top of the ridge we had just climbed. The descent was almost as tortuous as the way up, but this time we at least managed to stay on the trail. All in all, it was worthwhile getting out of the boats and gaining some altitude.






A Fine View……with the cuts to prove it

We made our first camp and had our first “on holiday” dram from the bottle of Balvenie Scotch Whisky and retired happy and content with our cuts and sunburn testifying to the activities of the day. It’s grand when a plan comes together.

First Camp on “Magic Beach” on Inian Island at around 9.30pm

June 6th
Our easy days were now behind us if we were to have any chance of bagging a few days on the outer islands on the Pacific Ocean. We were fully 40 miles from where we expected to begin our 35 mile trip up the Pacific side of Yakobi Island. The weather was holding fine and although the wind was going to be in our faces for most of the next two days, we looked forward to getting on with it. Our first problem was escaping the tidal streams surrounding the Inian Islands. In true Scottish style, we decided to battle up the eddy on the flood and power our way out through the worst of it once we had established a bit of speed. This usually works fine, although it can give a very committing paddle for half an hour or so. We scurried up the inside of the flood stream on the North Inian Passage, impressed by the power of this “river on the sea”, only to find it was a dead end with no eddy to take and way too much ocean coming towards us to seriously commit to pushing up through it. So to Plan B. This was basically more of the same, but in the South Passage where the currents are not quite so fast and the chart showed a likely eddy channel. We ferried across the tidal stream on the South side which was a bit more exciting this time with boils and rips galore. As soon as we had fought our way up to the proposed exit point however, we noted disappointingly that our top speed in the boats was a little slower than the 5kn current we were trying to break out of. Going further into the channel was not a great option because of the overfalls we could see and some spectacular skerries hitting a guard rock we had no intention of getting to know better. We had no option. We made a bow entry into the current, did a classic lean turn and let the current take us back downstream to a bay we had noticed on the ferry over. We did as all sensible paddlers should and waited for slack water. We noted that we shouldn’t be late for slack however since the 8kn ebb would likely give us a bit more in the way of overfall trouble. After an hour, we slid through the gap with none of the earlier drama. We were on the open Pacific for the first time on the trip although this was to be short lived since our proposed passage took us behind a couple of islands to give some shelter from the intensifying South Westerly we were about to battle.

Battling against the tide: Inian Islands …photo Bob Aiken

Our route now took us south and east through a couple of shady channels and around the eastern point of Three Hump Island. The direct route to our destination for the evening would have knocked 4 miles of the trip, but with the wind picking up we didn’t want to be too far out at sea with no chance for a rest for several hours. The slow route proved to be every bit as slow as we had felt it might be. We moved at less than 2mph for the best part of 3 hours before rounding the point into Lisianski Inlet. With the wind and tide now helping us along, we spotted an ideal opportunity for a bit of fun with the waves. Several small islands were creating small skerries and minor races in the channels between them. We moved inside the zone where the surf was breaking and timed our passage through the 50 foot channel. I never seem to breathe on these little exercises. I’m always looking for the big erratic wave that’s going to come round the corner and wipe me out. I survived intact, but Bob had the joy of a face full of surf just as he started through. My laughter seemed to fall on deaf ears….

Looking North from our entry point into the Pacific

The view North from Lisianski Inlet

We made camp on a gorgeous beach just inside Lisianski Inlet. Fetching wood for the fire was literally stretching out your arm and picking some more of the ground. There was firewood everywhere.

Relaxing with our friend "The Balvenie" at Lisianski Inlet…photo Bob Aiken

After a great sleep, morning came around way too quickly. We had at least become accustomed to it being light at 3.00am and not having to get up. It was difficult to stay in bed much beyond 6.00am though. We packed up and got underway early. This was going to be the longest paddle so far, much of it against the tide and wind, so we wanted to get going while we still had the flood to help us. That of course meant launching close to low tide, which means carrying your very heavy boat a long way before getting going. There’s not much about sea kayaking that gets old, but humping your fully loaded boat over slippery rocks and mud gets the prize for being a pain.

Paddling Down Lisianski Inlet

The views down this long open sea loch just got better and better. I was amazed at how much the scenery reminded me of my native Scotland.

Continuing the passage through Lisianski Inlet. Note eagle on rock

Lisianski Inlet becomes Lisianski Straight about 10 miles from its mouth on the ocean. The straight is a peculiar channel, no more than a mile wide where tides ebb and flood in the same direction and because it’s hemmed in by steep sided 5,000 foot mountains, it has seemingly perpetual winds caused by the chimney effect. In June and May you will also be treated to catabatic winds caused by the interaction of sun and snow on the high peaks. We experienced 20mph to 30mph winds with severe gusts for a stretch of nearly 8 miles. Once we had cleared the tall hills at the head of Stag Bay the wind seemed to fade to an easier (!) 15mph or so. When we eventually reached the Pacific and pointed our kayaks at Japan, we had been paddling for 12 hours for a mere 22 mile gain. That’s not fast by anyone’s standards, but after the huge effort to get there, we were very tired boys by the time we pulled up on shore.
A slow swell was running on the ocean. I had never felt anything with quite this wavelength before. The long slopes gave the odd sensation of climbing a long hill on one side and descending on the other side. Even the Atlantic rollers back in Scotland did not seem to generate this illusion. We camped on a white sanded island in the Palm Tree Islands group in Islas Bay. The island did not at first seem to have any flat spots for a tent, but after much engineering and excavation, we found one of the comfiest spots of the whole trip. This near perfect island had great views of ocean and mountain, abundant firewood but no water. Our supplies were getting critically low, so we decided to make a water hunt the priority for the next morning.

Dodging the wind on Lisianski Straight

Finally reaching the Pacific at the head of Lisianski Straight

The view north from our camp in Islas Bay to hills on Yakobi Island at the head of Lisianski Straight, and the view south through what would be tomorrow’s “No Go area” with 12 foot seas and monster skerries

Water was duly found the next morning and we continued our paddle south past the fabulous Porcupine Islands to Bertha Bay and our intended lunch spot at White Sulphur Springs. This is a wonderful spot with a 100°F hot pool. The view from the tub is unbeatable…surf, sandy beaches, mountains, blue skies….

White Sulphur Springs from the outside……………….. Photos…Bob Aiken

And the inside……

We stayed in the pool for about an hour then looked around the rest of the site which boasts a small, comfortable bothy which can be booked through the State Park Service.

When we finally began to look back out to sea there had been a bit of a change. Our slow, calm swell had been replaced by a much more aggressive one, spewing skerries and lots of open water surf. We got back in the boats and began the paddle back. We had originally intended to paddle the west coast of Yakobi Island but had reconsidered the previous night because of a worsening weather forecast. We would probably need two days to get back to the top of Yakobi which would make us late for our flights home. The next two hours confirmed that decision as the right one. Our paddle back to Lisianski was in 12 foot seas with 20 foot erratics. Each headland presented its own unique set of problems. Bob disappeared from view behind one great roller after another and we were treated to a view of the sky for five seconds followed by a view of the next wall of water coming our way for the next five. We still had questions about the sea worthiness of our rental boats. They were all answered in this period. I wouldn’t say it was a dry ride – we were both frequently whacked square on the chest by breakers, but the boats handled it all in their stride. Funnily enough there are no pictures of this bit….

We finally got a nice following sea to push us back to Yakobi Island. It would have been a rush had we not just experienced the awakening of the big sea. Adrenaline is a marvelous drug. All of our aches and pains seemed to disappear for about 2 hours after that period. They all returned of course, but by the time we landed at our camp site, we instantly aneathsitised them with a dram from our second bottle of Scotch, this time a fine Bowmore from the island of Islay in southwest Scotland.

As we lounged around the fire that night it dawned on us that we were on the way home and that we’d be in an airport lounge three days from now. We were a bit stunned that something which took so long to plan was in actual fact all over bar the return leg to the outfitters. More whisky was consumed to elevate our spirits and keep thoughts away from the dreaded world of work. We still had two days on the water, hadn’t met a soul and were determined to get the most out of what we had left.

The next day dawned gloriously sunny (like every other day we were out there) and we chuckled yet again at the useless wet weather gear we had brought with us. It’s supposed to rain in Alaska. This was heaven. We pulled up Lisianski with the tide and wind in our favor this time. We made 5 kn in perfect weather and flew through the tide races at Miner Island. After that it was back up the long straight to the open Pacific again, but this time we had the view of the Fairweather Range full frontal. We watched eagles bickering with each other and stealing catches from younger birds. I had always regarded the eagle as a class act, aloof in many ways from lesser birds. I changed my mind when I say the hustle tactics they employ when they’re there in numbers.

Finally we reached our campsite of two days ago and stopped for a break. We intended to cross the next section directly instead of going around islands and thought we’d fuel up for the longer crossing. A long swell kicked us across in no time and before long we had given up the sanctity of a life on the ocean for the “hectic” lifestyle that is found in the fishing village of Elfin Cove. Suitably re-supplied, our brush with civilization turned us quickly round to find a campsite for one more night in the open. Our last was perhaps the best of the trip with magnificent views of the mountains. When we left in the morning it was with a heavy heart. The journey was over. We had one more bit of fun with the tide race off the Inians and it was done.

That view from our last camp site………

All too soon we were back at base camp telling Dennis and Peg about our trip. Our plan to scout the area for a longer trip was definitely a success…we will be returning next year to round Yakobi Island. We rounded the thing off with a fabulous fish meal cooked by Peg and slept the sleep of the dead in the Yurt. All in all, a perfect trip.
South Passage Outfitters

This note would not be complete without a word or two about our outfitters. Dennis and Peg made us feel enormously welcome. They are very genuine people with an outlook on life which is refreshing. Their desire to have independent people stay with them or rent their gear, tied in perfectly with our need to have someone who could give us local knowledge about tricky tides but sense our desire to discover things for ourselves with only a chart for a guide. We stayed with them for two days and got to know the family pretty well. We’ll definitely be back next year. After that, I could certainly see Gull Cove featuring high in my holiday plans in future.

Sandy Templeton
151 South Shore Court
Chanhassen MN 55317



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