Baranof Island 2003

It being my all time favorite place to kayak I returned yet again, this time with my partner Brenda, to beautiful Sitka Sound and the rugged coast of Western Baranof Island. I guess I keep returning here because of the coastline’s stunning natural beauty. A coastline that is buffered by hundreds of bays and smaller islands that can provide the kayaker shelter from the full force of the ocean and then, when the ocean allows, be able to paddle out and into the immense power of the open Pacific.

After arriving at the AMH Ferry dock at Sitka we loaded our kayaks with four weeks of food and supplies and made our way to our first camp on Gavanski Island. The following morning after a leisurely breakfast we set out again across the open waters of Sitka Sound to Kruzof Island. Camp was made by Fred’s Creek under the prominent volcano Mount Edgecumbe and we spent the next several days beach combing along the volcanic rocks and tide pools. On our last evening on Kruzof Island we enjoyed watching the Fourth of July fireworks display in the distance over the city of Sitka.

An early morning crossing of the sound brought us to the Chaichei Islands where we ran into Scott, an old kayaking acquaintance from Sitka, free diving in a quiet lagoon. As he quite rightly pointed out, there is as much to see here below the waves as above. We chatted with him for awhile before camping on a nearby island. The next day we enjoyed exploring the tangle of tiny islands off the coast of Sitka and came very close to a Minke Whale. After stopping briefly in Sitka for a snack we continued along the coast to camp at Pirate Cove. This lovely cove with a white sand beach is the perfect place to wait for the seas to calm before going “outside” on the west coast of Baranof Island. Locals had made it their hang out and party spot and had created a huge hammock in the trees with ropes and discarded purse seine fishing net. What fun!

In the late evening the seas finally flattened out and Brenda and I went out around Povorotny Point and in behind the protection, not that it was really needed, of the Taigud Islands. The sunset over Mount Edgecumbe made our paddle to Goddard Hot Springs all the more sublime. We arrived at the hot springs late that night and enjoyed a moonlight soak before crawling in the tent.

Goddard Hot Springs are noted in the journals of some of the earliest western explorers who sailed north along this coast. They have long been reputed to be healing springs and have been used since time immemorial by the Tlingit people of the area. At the turn of the century a three story hotel and spa was built there but was eventually torn down, the foundation and chimney are still visible. Today the city of Sitka owns the property and maintains 2 modern cedar bathhouses for recreational use. The view from the tubs of the surrounding bay and ocean was well worth the effort to get here, soaking away our aches and pains after a week of kayaking and camping, priceless!

After soaking in the hot springs long enough to become all pruney and soft as a noodle we set off to explorer Biorka and the outer Necker Islands. We found a lovely white sand beach situated between Ataku and Tava Islands that had protected coves on either side. It was an ideal place for our base camp to explore the surrounding area.

We went for a walk behind our camp on Tava Island and found this fine specimen of the Western Coralroot that is a member of the Orchid family and there was a secluded lagoon on the south end of Ataku Island that was covered in an amazing variety of intertidal species. The warm waters of the Pacific make these islands hospitable to a rich array of terrestrial and marine life that kept us busy trying to identify many species that were completely new to us. Later in the afternoon six kayakers from Washington State arrived and it was great fun to have some company on the island, often we can go for weeks on the outer coast and not see a another person.

Our objective for the outside waters of Baranof Island was to explorer the coastline of Biorka Island and the Necker Islands then paddle the length of both of the Crawfish Inlets. We would return through the lagoon between Lodge and Rakof Islands, Windy Passage, Hot Springs Bay and on into Sitka Sound. All total our expedition to Sitka Sound and Western Baranof Island took us twenty five days and over one hundred and eighty miles to complete.

The US military left their mark on Sitka Sound during World War Two and one afternoon we took a hike to the top of a nearby island to investigate this bunker that was used to direct canon fire from nearby Biorka Island. During the war the defense of this strategic port was put on the fast track for completion by the military however by the time that all the fortifications had been completed Japan had surrendered and the war was over.

I’m sure the scenery was the last thing on the minds of the people who built the fire control bunker but the view of the surrounding islands is breathtaking. We vowed to return someday and stay awhile, a small wood stove and some folding camp chairs could make it quite livable.

The weather was calm and the ocean beckoned, the time to go out around Biorka Island was at hand. We enjoyed the calm waters of Sitka Sound and the distant view of Mount Edgecumbe on Kruzof Island as we headed toward the Gulf of Alaska.

We made a brief stop on the beach at Little Biorka to slip on our wetsuits before launching into the big waves. The ocean swells were six to eight feet and a late morning fog had developed just off shore forcing us to stay close to the rocks and cliffs of the island. The reverberating waves colliding into the oncoming swells stacked up in some areas to give us quite a thrilling ride. Once we had weaved our way through the rocks, kelp and surf back into the protected waters on the south side of the island we were then able to marvel at the myriad forms of life in the tidal pools and lagoons on our way back to camp. That evening to celebrate their success fishing our new friends invited us over to their camp for a delicious Rockfish Thai food dinner and we raised our cups to a great day all around!

We traveled up the steep sided West Crawfish Inlet to make camp at the very end at Shamrock Bay. Everything was going well until around midnight when we could feel waves lapping against the side of the tent! Guess we had misjudged how high the tide might come, so in the dark with our headlamps on we hacked our way into the forest with a machete to set up the tent, again, this time well above the high tide line. Oh well live and learn.
Our next camp was on Lodge Island and it was quite clear we were not alone; a “bear stomp” by the nearby stream had erased any doubt. I add this picture because it is a small mystery of bear behavior. No one knows exactly why bears deliberately make these marks on the forest floor. It must communicate something, perhaps to other bears, but what?

After another good long soak in the healing waters at Goddard Hot Springs we headed back around Povorotny Point and back into the calmer waters of Sitka Sound. We had a nice tail wind and the GPS said we were making seven miles an hour so we got back to Pirate Cove in no time. The following day we meandered through the chain of offshore islands back to Sitka and up into Silver Bay to camp on a tiny island.

From the end of Silver Bay we hiked the four mile trail over to Redoubt Lake that was covered with more bear scat that I have ever seen in my life. Was the trail that convenient for them to travel on or were they trying to make a statement, I don’t know, but there were salmon in the stream that paralleled the trail and that meant we had to watch out for more than what was under foot.
After several days at the end of Silver Bay we headed back to Sitka to celebrate Brenda’s birthday and savor the pleasures of civilization. Sitka is my favorite little town in Alaska and its always great fun to poke around to see what’s new and different. We did some shopping, hit a few restaurants and hiked a few of the local trails, and then I followed Brenda back to the ferry dock to for her return home. After getting Brenda and her kayak safely aboard the ferry I paddled north towards the next big leg of my journey that summer, Western Chichagof Island.

“Believe me, my young friend; there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” - Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willows