Family Afloat: Seakayaking in Prince William Sound

by Doug O’Harra

It drizzled through the late afternoon. The surface of Culross Passage in Prince William Sound gleamed with the color of green slate. A few fishing boats had roared down the narrow channel earlier, but the only motion in sight seemed to be the countless dimples made by raindrops on ocean surface.

Ariana and Thomas dress for the weather and bugs on Applegate Island
Ariana and Thomas on Applegate Island
Photo by Doug O’Harra

As I paddled the three-person Feathercraft kayak into very slight breeze, I could see the opening into misty Nellie Juan fjord over the yellow rain hoods of 3-year-old Ariana in the middle seat and 8-year-old Thomas at the bow.

Just a mile or two more and we’d be at the first camp of a 10-day trip deep into the wilderness of western Sound — a maze of spruce-shrouded channels, bays and islands. But the last potty stop was four hours behind us. More than one kind of liquid accident was possible with stubborn Ariana in the jump seat of a kayak. I knew time was short.

“We’re almost there,” I said, stroking harder. “Just past that island, through that opening.”

My wife, Helen, keeping pace in the smaller boat, glanced over, probably wondering the same thing. Could Ariana hold it? Could we?

That was the moment when a harbor seal head popped from the surface about 15 yards ahead of the kayaks and stared us down with big, round eyes.

Bathroom issues forgotten, the exhaustion and rain of a long traveling day burned away like fog under sunshine.

For a couple of minutes, we just drifted, amazed, face to face with an intelligent marine mammal that has the girth of a small bear and the agility of a seal. Then, with a whispering swirl, the brown head sank from sight.

“That’s a seal!” “No it’s a sea lion!” “Where did it go?” “Where’s he now?”

We reluctantly began paddling again, only to discover our pinniped companion was trailing about 20 yards back, peeping from our wake like a brown-eared periscope.

“Does he like us?” exclaimed Ariana, twisting in her seat to catch his eye. “Is he our friend?”

The exhilaration from the encounter carried us another 40 minutes to an empty beach on Applegate Island and warmed us while we pitched tarps and set up the tent in building rain.

But best of all, Ariana held it to the beach.

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Traveling by seakayak with your children through the protected waters of western Prince William Sound during the mild weather of early summer may be one of the most extraordinary family adventures possible. For the past six years, the four of us have taken 10-day to two-week jaunts that have ranged from animal-watching paradise to iceberg delight to bug hell. That trip, in 2004, up and down Port Nellie Juan, was no exception.

Ariana happy in sunshine aboard Brook Whip
Ariana happy in sunshine
Photo by Doug O’Harra

Spending 24-7 with your children in a marine wilderness amplifies all the usual joys and pains of a family outing to the extreme. Take pee breaks, for instance. Paddling fast to shore, grounding, scrambling into the surf, hoisting a squirming child from a rocking seat, and then hustling up slippery, barnacle-encrusted cobble to level ground requires a bit more effort than pulling over to the highway shoulder and saying, “Try those bushes.”

And sometimes, Ariana just didn’t make it. “I listened to my body, Daddy,” she would explain without a twinge of regret. You can be sure that washing out urine-soaked polypropylene in the receding tide with black flies crawling on your eyelids is no cold beer in the backyard either.

Still, dinners and lunches were mostly no different from those on any other campout. While Thomas, Helen and I scarfed down various rice surprises, augmented by fish on lucky days, Ariana never strayed from her regimen of gorp, cheese and Pop Tarts. While Thomas, now a salty veteran, was able to carry out chores and tie knots, Ariana often played the role of annoyed ingenue, indignant at the shabby service. Some days, it was like Helen and I were guides for a billionaire client.

A cranky kid after a day of kayaking in the rain
Shabby service at camp
Photo by Doug O’Harra

We drew the line at whining. In a brilliant stroke of insight, I realized one night that a crying fit sounded just like a predator call — a hunter’s imitation of a wounded animal. “Ariana! Do you want to attract a bear?” became the most effective tantrum quencher ever imagined. She caught on, of course, and it turned into a joke. But while it lasted — instant silence.

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For us, that particular trip climaxed several years of paddling apprenticeship that began with canoeing in Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area about 75 miles northwest of Anchorage in the Susitna River Valley. Our first family trip to the Sound took us to Surprise Cove State Marine Park, where we camped on a tent platform for five days and explored pondlike lagoons in slow, stable, plastic Perception America boats that each seat one adult and one child in large cockpits.

We advanced to a seven-day trip to Culross Passage, followed by more ambitious excursions into Blackstone and Resurrection bays in the 17-foot, 10-inch Feathercraft Klondike, another exceptionally stable craft with internal air bladders and a high-tech fabric skin over a flexible frame.

We evolved rules: Always wear flotation, admire white-capping waves from shore and maroon the kids under the trusty blue tarp during downpours.

And never, never, never leave home without no-see-um netting and a case of mosquito coils.

After I took the Alaska Mountain Safety Center’s kayak class, we began practicing self-rescues in cold water until our teeth chattered. We accumulated the necessary emergency gear: marine radio, flares, strobes, floats, fire starter, signal mirror, whistles, space blankets. Even Thomas started drilling self-rescue in the ocean, although he couldn’t actually capsize our wide boats and had to dive over the side first.

The summer of 2004, the payoff seemed to be one encounter with wildlife after another. Chittering bald eagles and cackling crows woke us in the mornings, making like the soundtrack to a jungle movie.

Both kids are tired after crossing Port Nellie Juan in the rain
After crossing Port Nellie Juan
Photo by Doug O’Harra

On our trip out from Whittier to the top of Culross aboard Epic Charters’ Fera Mare, a solitary humpback whale offered repeated views of its massive flukes in Wells Passage. During travel days, we spied sea otters and harbor seals.

Once, three sea lions tailed us, and we saw several black bears ambling along through the brush. One peered from the tall grass on the beach near Blue Fiord, startling us when we approached to take a lunch break. The bear studied us, then meandered uphill without any visible concern.

“Let’s go to another beach,” I said.

“Why?” Ariana asked. “I want to go here.”

“That’s the bear’s beach, Ariana,” Thomas said.

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Our itinerary took us down Culross, across Port Nellie Juan to the ruins of an old cannery, and then farther south to the glacial moraine at the head of Derickson Bay, one of the most popular destinations in the western Sound.

Ariana and Thomas taste ice from Nellie Juan glacier
Ripe Nellie Juan glacier ice

One day we visited the ice age by paddling into the inner bay off Nellie Juan Glacier down a channel that reverses direction with the rising or falling tides. A torrent of icy wind poured off the glacier, shifting icebergs that had melted into weird, fluted sculptures that the kids thought resembled dinosaurs and whales and strange beasts.

Two days later, we found white-sand beaches created by the region’s crumbling granite intrusions. We met another Anchorage family camping from a 25-foot boat and went out while they pulled pots with palm-size shrimp from 400 feet down. It was so hot, we had to slather on the sunblock, especially when Ariana kept shedding her bathing suit to run into the sea.

The return trip cruised deeper into Nellie Juan, giving us a peek into 10-mile-deep King’s Bay (which we later explored on another trip the following year.) We then paddled back up Nellie Juan and ended the trip with a two-night rest at the bottom of Culross Passage, where we were picked up by Brook Whip of Epic Charters on July 13.

Nellie Juan Glacier
Nellie Juan Glacier
Photo by Doug O’Harra

We did have one day with a real rain forest blast. But that just let Thomas learn he was already smarter than his dad.

We had pulled into camp without enough water for dinner. Despite a downpour, there was no creek in sight. I filtered a bottle of pond water in the woods, then had to spit out my first big gulp because it was brackish swill with a distinct salty bouquet. With the rain falling harder, I paddled farther away, sort of amazed at the predicament: How could there be no fresh water in drenching rain?

I finally backtracked a mile to a creek and returned to camp an hour later with 3 gallons of filtered water. To my surprise, dinner was done and water bottles full.

Thomas had noticed the stream pouring off the tarp and filled all the pots.

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Ariana and Thomas loved this old buired tree
Relaxing on the beach
Photo by Doug O’Harra

At the end of the journey, we pulled up at a spit at the base of Culross Island, a large, popular campsite with smooth rock beaches facing east and west. (The site will eventually become private Native-owned land, according to officials with the U.S. Forest Service.) Another party had staked out under trees, leaving each morning in an aluminum boat and returning each night. So we were alone during our last full day.

We swam. We hunted treasures such as crab shells and sea stars and striped limpets. We practiced skipping rocks. We explored a bear trail (with fresh scat) leading to a pond. We found a bear’s pelvis and femur in the surf.

Then we explored the islet at the spit’s southern end, a dim, mossy grove of huge trees over mounds and ferns. With trunks rising like columns into sunbeams, such a place surely inspired the architecture of the cathedral.

But to our dismay, we found soggy toilet paper and human feces on the ground, often in clearings once used as campsites. Other trash lay scattered along the trail.

Deep Water Bay in Prince William Sound
Doug O’Harra with Ariana and Thomas
in Deep Water Bay, Prince William Sound
Photo by Helen O’Harra

After nine days of wilderness, we had stumbled across civilization at its foulest.

“This is worse than desecrating a church,” I told the kids. “We’re going to clean this up.”

Armed with a garbage bag and driftwood sticks to use as makeshift tweezers, the four of us worked the grove bit by bit. Soon Ariana and Thomas were running ahead, calling out “Here’s more!” and “There’s toilet paper!” and “I found some here!”

Our end of the spit was clean when we finished, completing the adventure in a way that paid something back.

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