Kayaking with Grizzlies

A slightly sideways account of one of the most beautiful places on Earth

Floating in the fog and rain

Floating in the never-ending fog and rain.

Endless and infinite drizzle, looping through rain, then back to drizzle again, then rain. More drizzle. It’s that extra special peerless weather that makes the Gulf of Alaska dream of moving to the Caribbean, and I wonder if perhaps I should put in for a tropical transfer. Well, no. I’m chilled and dripping on the outside, absolutely dripping. But really, I’m not unhappy, not at all. I am still dry on the inside, mostly in my head where I tell myself it matters. And after twenty consecutive day of paddling and camping in Glacier Bay National Park, I’m entitled if I want, to let this bottomless ancient grey and drizzly white light speak in appropriate monotones for my current mood.

The grey mood won’t last. I simply miss my wife and my dog. I want fresh fruit. I want to be dry. No, I want to be desiccated. I want creature comforts. Mind you, there is nothing cozier than a warm tent on a rainy day, but do I really have to drip, drip, drip, drip while I eat in the rain tonight? Again? Well, everyone laughed when I strapped a large cheerfully-striped golf umbrella to my sea kayak, but let me tell you, that umbrella and I have a real understanding. On nights like this, it speaks to me in soothing warm murmurs of dry southern climes.

The thin line

The Thin Line. Icebergs separate the otherwise infinite and identical white sky and white water. This is when sea kayaking gets really interesting. Photographed during my Artist in Residency at Glacier Bay National Park. For funding my stay, I am grateful to the National Park Service, Alaska Geographic, and the Voices of the Wilderness program.

A Calm Evening

In contrast, it doesn’t get much nicer than a calm evening on Scidmore Bay. I enjoyed a quiet supper with this spectacular view, while the occasional harbor seal popped up out of the water to see who was visiting. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

The perpetual rain ebbs for a microsecond, and the water is smooth and calm as I nose the sea kayak out of a temperamental, foggy, and quite stunning bay. I smell a sweet perfume reminiscent of chocolate food cravings, but I know it’s really from the blooming cotton woods which are sending armadas of white seeds onto the water. A pretty fish grabs at one, perhaps mistaking the floating white for a mosquito, and then like dominos the rest of the scenery starts to go cliché. An elegant harbor porpoise pops up across my bow while an eagle soars overhead, and a 13,000 foot peak in a “blue-and-white-print glacier-skirt” briefly emerges from the mist. A shaft of yellow light comes down from the sky, a rainbow glows, and angels sing.

But the white glacier, the white sky, and the white seeds all merge and then everything disappears again into the foggy white. The water turns white. Everything is white. It’s all white. Too much. My senses get a bit overwhelmed and cry uncle. There’s a sharp pain from my bruised and shriveled fingers that have gripped a wet paddle for way, way too many days. Bah. That sting brings me back down to earth or water or wherever I am in this fog. I might be lost in the white.

Or not.

Or maybe I don’t really care. After the better part of a month out here, I have no idea what day of the week it is, and I don’t want to know. Time is measured only in units of food. Is it time to eat? (Yes!)  How many more days can I survive on tortillas? (Not many.) Can I make those cookies last longer? (Mmm, fig newtons.)

Oh, and the tide. Time is measured by the tide, how could I forget? High and low, twice a day, always, never ending, exposing colorful bands of blue mussels, yellow rock kelp, and green algae and then swallowing them all up again six hours later. Time in Glacier Bay is low or high, hungry or full, and my watch is otherwise irrelevant. It’s a good Zen state of living nowhere but the present, and I love it.

But still, this is day twenty, and I miss my wife and my dog. And I’m dripping.

Bald Eagle

An eagle takes off from one of the many small islands that dot Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

The Lamplugh Glacier

The Lamplugh Glacier. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

I spent the previous night camped by a deep and resonant and gorgeous waterfall. All night I heard a single bass note rise from the falls, the drone around which a hundred Gregorian monks chanted in my mind. I was mesmerized by the singers until the wee hours when I wished they’d pipe down just a little. I like waterfalls, but I couldn’t hear the bears and I couldn’t hear the waves. The waves tell me when the tide is high.

kayak at low tide

Abandoned by the tide. Glacier Bay National Park.

Life is the tide, and I live by the tide. If you’ve kayaked in Glacier Bay, then you know what I mean. You paddle with the direction of the tide. You carry your kayak twenty feet above the water to escape the tide. You eat at low tide, knowing the smells of your dehydrated meal will soon wash away, protecting you from the super-nosed bears that can no doubt sniff your reconstituted alfredo sauce for hundreds of miles in every direction. It’s insane how your life is ruled by these huge 15, 18, and then 22-foot high tides. So, I let the waterfall monks keep singing, and for my part, I worry that I might not have put my kayak and tent high enough above the waterline.

Waiting in my dreams for a fifty-foot tide, I wake and remember how lonely it can be in the middle of the night in the wilderness. I idly wonder if my dog would fit in the kayak and keep me company. Yes, that would be nice, until the 60 pounds of enthusiastic fur ball saw one of the ubiquitous bears, or seals, or the icy water. We’d probably tip, and that’s problematic with the blue and black and white icebergs that keep floating by in the fog. It’s probably hard to swim with icebergs.

Pushing through the drizzle, I find a good looking beach for camp, and spot a wild strawberry. Oh my. Fresh fruit. Oh my, oh my. Time stops, in accordance with the magnitude of this event. I look closely and find that my ideal campsite is an entire field of nickel-sized strawberries, just above the high tide and mixed with mussel shells washed up by huge storm surges. Nice little dots of red, almost perfectly ripe, all lying on fields of trifoliate green and mussel blue. Well, I’ll have to pick the patch clean in order to set up the tent. It would be a crime to lay down on them all. And then a thought crosses my mind. Don’t bears like strawberries? I’m briefly distracted and glance up and down the beach, but this almost-ripe exquisitely-shaped strawberry could not look more delicious. So I’ll just eat them all and thereby cleverly avoid violating the 11th commandment: “thou shall not lie down on a grizzly’s food cache.” Oh my.

Wild Strawberry

Wild strawberry on blue mussel shell. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. After twenty consecutive days of sea kayaking, this almost-ripe wild strawberry could not have looked more delicious. A close inspection of one of the strawberry pips on the lower right reveals a little surprise.

Black Bear

A black bear scrunches up his eyes, wrinkles his nose, and eats some barnacles in the intertidal zone at Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Although he's a very healthy looking bear, eating barnacles seems a bit desperate and more than a little crunchy. He quickly moved on to other food.

Photobomb with demon from hell

Photobomb! A crop from a larger photo showing a demon from hell.

It pours while I eat, and though my umbrella holds its end of the bargain, I retire to a good book in a slightly damp tent. It’s the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo at 1,243 pages of shameless revenge and retribution. That guy is ruthless, kind of like me with the black flies, which were sent directly to my tent in thick swarms by demons from hell. I am certain of this. Daily, I have to remind myself that the black flies are an important part of a healthy (but annoying) and intact (but very annoying) ecosystem. The estimable Count may personify reprisals, but my tent now personifies Jackson Pollock. It’s the ruthless aftermath of my genocidal revenge invoked by my hand slapping frantically at the walls to forever eliminate that nighttime bzzz, bzzzzzzzzzzzz.        Bzz.         Bzzz.        Little splats of red here, little splats of black there.

Bitten too many times, my hands have ballooned into cartoon caricatures. I learn to wear gloves all day, even in warm weather, and most especially when I’m standing still to photograph the stunning scenery. The little flies crawl up my sleeves and bite the wrists, and soon I’m wearing my paddling jacket and battening down the neoprene wrist cuffs. The flies attack my neck, finding any fractional flaw in my head net; and though I’d rather die than wear a suffocating tie in the workaday world, out here in reality, I ruthlessly choke myself with a neoprene neck cuff. For protection, I live and roast in my black rubberized rain gear and knee-high rubber wading boots. For good measure I add a stylishly-yellow rubberized rain hat, and though I don’t have a mirror, I know I look great. Wilderness chic, that’s me. For twenty days, rain or shine, I’ve stewed in fashionable yellow and black rubber enjoying my own personal clam bake, but I am saved from the demon swarms.

Lupines

Lupines over the unbelievably blue water of the West Arm of Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Very fine glacier silt (or flour) in the water makes the mid-day ocean turn an electric blue that is more commonly associated with the Caribbean. The color is incredible to see in Alaska. The floating white dots are icebergs from the Johns Hopkins and Margerie glaciers.

Indian Paintbrush

A slowly unfolding Indian Paintbrush flower, one of many gorgeous flowers that grace the beaches of Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

My artwork suffers. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful here, and I suffer. Fields of gorgeous paintbrush, parsnip, fireweed, and lupines line the beaches. Glaciers cascade off of improbable peaks. The world shouts in superlatives and Gregorian chants. But once you are discovered by the evil minions of hell, all photography involves a crazy dance where you wave your hand in front of the camera to scare the thick coating of pests off of the lens, then jump back and quickly release the shutter before doing a wild pirouette to keep the flies from chewing off anything that slipped out from under the chic rubber suit. Yes, the Gulf of Alaska is awesome.

Eagle with salmon.

I watched this eagle crash and cartwheel into the ocean. I thought he was injured when he didn’t move for a minute, so I paddled closer in my sea kayak, and he started swimming towards shore using his wings as oars (whoa). His problem? He couldn't fly with such a big salmon. I watched him devour the whole thing, just a few feet away. Pretty amazing.

glacier ice

A close up of amazing patterns in glacier ice. The white is from bubbles trapped in the ice while the blue is from reflected sky and the ice itself. The gold and black are reflected light from early morning shadows and a golden sunrise in the Fairweather Mountains of Alaska.

No, no, I really do love it, absolutely love it here, and this is my umpteenth time poking around the northern wilderness. My family has known for years that I tend towards an off-color shade of slightly crazy with a dash of adventure. As I sleep on my strawberry patch, I simply confirm that fact for any outside observers, like the bear that walks a few feet away.

Yeah, it’s raining too hard for either the bear or for me to care, and besides, he has his goals and I have mine. Grizzlies were not sent to me by Beelzebub or The Count or anyone else. Out here, they simply want their food, and please don’t stand in their way. To the grizzly, I’m a curiosity. This is a natural, unspoiled, wild, beautiful, intact, and bzzzz, an occasionally annoying ecosystem. In this true wilderness, the bears don’t see me as part of the grand equation. No one has taught them about camper food or dumpster diving or trashcan mauling. Their food is salmon and in the roots and the berries and, oh look berries… No, oops, no, there are absolutely no strawberries remaining here my friend. Move along.

Grizzly on Patrol

A grizzly on beach patrol, looking a little like a sasquatch. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

So he saunters onwards toward the water, intent on his goal of swimming elsewhere. It’s a marvel. The water is 32.0001 degrees at the warmest, I swear. There are chunks of floating blue ice. It’s still pouring freezing rain, and this guy just walks in and heads a mile offshore.

Swimming Grizzly

A swimming grizzly. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

For several hours I paddle along and watch this grizzly swim marathon distances from island to island. He struggles against the swirling tidal currents and battles one of the roughest oceans and rainiest days that I’ve seen in three weeks of kayaking through this wilderness. He would climb out of the water, shake vigorously, and then pant for a while, utterly exhausted. After a few more shakes he would meander through the intertidal zone of the island, flipping over big rocks looking for rotting fish and other tasty treats. This is the grizzly’s own personal colorful intertidal slightly-decomposing food bowl. It’s his place of happiness.

Shake that booty

Shake that booty. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Grizzly flipping rocks

At first I couldn’t figure out why some rocks in the intertidal zone don’t have barnacles, and then I saw the grizzlies flipping them while looking for food. After a flip, the barnacle-free bottom is now on top. These guys could flip a Volkswagen if they thought a fish was hiding under there. He looks cute, but this bear is about seven or eight feet tall when standing. Notice the blue mussels coating the beach.

The bear is evidently satisfied with life, but like an artist, the blue mussels on the beach must suffer. They coat the coast, and every intertidal step taken by the grizzly is a crustacean colony crisis event. The crunch is horrible, and from my own island landings, I know how hard it is to avoid stepping on these ubiquitous purple-blue shells. The bear has become Godzilla stomping through intertidal civilization, but this is no angry outing in Tokyo. This is just a daily routine for our hero, and he knows exactly where the best on-ramps and off-ramps are for each island in his territory. So three more loud crunches, and he’s paddling, keeping his head above water again.

Yeah, I’m kayaking with grizzlies. Huh. Cool. No one’s going to believe this. Well, no matter, because it has stopped raining, and I too am in my place of beautiful happiness.

Fairweather Range

Johns Hopkins Inlet, icebergs, and the peaks of the Fairweather Range, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Ice Cave

Ice cave. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. I'm not entirely silly and photographed this from the entrance; ice caves are notoriously unstable.

Glacier seracs and Mt. Cooper

Alpenglow on Mt. Cooper with the seracs (ice towers) of the Lamplugh Glacier in the foreground. Photographed during my Artist in Residency at Glacier Bay National Park. For funding my stay, I am grateful to the National Park Service, Alaska Geographic, and the Voices of the Wilderness program.

                    
                    

Acknowledgments: Many, many thanks to Barb Bruno and Gus Martinez for their organizational support at Glacier Bay National Park, and to the many rangers without whom the trip could not have been successful, most especially Linsey Dusin, Amy Brodbeck, and John Buchheit. Special thanks also to Alaska Geographic for their financial support and to Barbara Lydon at the forest service for creating Voices of the Wilderness, a truly wonderful artist in residency program.