Chichagof Island 2003

The desire to explore Western Chichagof Island from Sitka to Pelican had been calling me with a siren’s song for over a decade. I knew it would offer everything I could want in true wilderness kayaking experience. It has a vast and remote coastline, visited by few, that is for the most part a pristine ecosystem. But what most captured my imagination was the complexity of the geography, a labyrinth of mountainous fjords, bays and islands that would require my complete attention to navigate successfully. The summer of 2003 came with a brand new rotomolded kayak and, just as important, the free time away from work to take this challenge on.

Brenda and I had arrived in Sitka Alaska at the beginning of august after our expedition to Western Baranof Island. We spent the next few days together resting up and taking in the sights before she returned to work and I headed towards Western Chichagof. Sitka is a delightful coastal town with a rich history and culture and we enjoyed visiting the museum and points of historical interest. We also sampled the fair at a number of local restaurants but the meal that stands out by far was the dinner at Ludvig’s Bistro on Katlian Street. 

Early in the morning Brenda and I headed down to the dock where our kayaks were moored, in my hall bag was thirty days worth of food all repackaged to keep it dry and survive the journey. It was going to take awhile to figure out how it would all fit, I had never tried to cram this much food in a single kayak before. In the end I did manage to get all the food in but a few luxuries, like my extra socks, had to be sacrificed. After getting Brenda and her kayak on the AMH Ferry safely I headed northwest across Sitka Sound under Mount Edgecumbe to make my first camp on Kruzof Island.

At the entrance to Krestof Sound I stopped at a large sea cave to snack and stretch my legs, on a rainy day it would have been a nice place to camp, anxious to make time I continued on. Marbled Murrelets kept me company as I made my way down Krestof Sound then through the shallow passage at Sukoi Inlet and into Salisbury Sound. In the early morning of the following day I crossed Salisbury Sound in light winds and three foot swells to the very south end of Chichagof Island. I could hear the booming of large waves pounding the outside coastline so I made my camp in a protected bay under the Khaz Peninsula to wait for the sea to calm and allow me to continue.

The challenge that lay before me was substantial; the Khaz Peninsula is an eighteen mile long steep sided mountain that is battered by the full force of the ocean. There is but one stopover along the entire route and that is on Klokachef Island otherwise there is no protection no place to land and the Gulf of Alaska gives no quarter.

I had paddled on the open ocean many times before but never this long or this exposed however I did have plenty of food and time on my side. I was more than willing to wait for the ocean to settle down and the winds to calm before I committed to a launch.
After a couple of days I got my chance, so I said a prayer placed a feather on the bow of my kayak for good luck and paddled off. In no time I could feel the rise of deep ocean swells under my hull and the surface of the water was white with foam. The wind was calm and the swells were six to eight feet coming from the southwest, all good, but close to shore the waves collided into the steep sided mountain causing large standing waves and heavy surf. I decided to stay well off shore, almost a mile, to avoid that turbulent water near the rocks.
Once I was past Klokachef Island I knew I was totally committed and pushed on, though the wind had picked up some and the ocean had became choppy, now was not the time to reconsider. Paddle hard and make northerly that was the mantra.

Seven and a half hours after leaving shore and slightly sea sick, I was glad to be around Khaz head and back in protected waters. At the first beach I stopped just to feel dry land under my feet and rest my back. While walking along the beach I found a small emerald colored Japanese glass fishing float, to my mind a gift from the sea.

I set up camp on Baird Island and began exploring the surrounding inlets and coves. Slocum Arm, protected by the Khaz Peninsula, was flat and calm; the only waves there were made by Sea Lions jumping into the water. I went looking for fresh water in Waterfall Cove but had to back away when three rambunctious juvenile Brown Bears ran down the river towards me playing swat the salmon. Other excursions from Baird Island were made to Ford Arm and Ramp Island that appeared to me to never have seen so much as a single human footprint. Luckily for all of us Western Chichagof Island was protected in 1980 by the US Congress when it designated 265,286 acres as the West Chichagof–Yakobi Wilderness. 

Moving camp to an island in Smooth Channel allowed access to the dozens of other small islands between Ogden Passage and Khaz Bay. For several days the temporarily becalmed ocean gave me the opportunity to explore this complex cluster of micro Islands that stretched outwards towards the sea. The Sea Otters watched me warily as I meandered towards the Granite Islands exploring the lagoons and kelp forests that are their home.
In the other direction from camp was the entrance to three interconnected saltwater lakes that were guarded by a strong tidal flow and a group of rather territorial Sea Lions. I had to be patent and wait for the tide to be running in the right direction to be able to rush past “the guards” and into Klag Bay. Special care had to be taken as well to be able to weave my way through the narrow passages into Lake Anna and Sister Lake and then to catch the outgoing tide that would take me back to camp in time for dinner.

In the upper end of Klag Bay I found the remains of the abandoned gold mining town of Chichagof. Established about 1905 the settlement included a general store, a stamp mill, living quarters and a wharf. Now long abandoned only a few of the buildings remain fully intact but the few that are still standing can be fun to explore and a dry place wait out a rainstorm. 

The several days I spent in the Myriad Islands was enchanting, I could have easily spent a week or more meandering among the dozens of small islands. Once I paddled up to two deer that were swimming from one island to the next, at first they hesitated and glanced back but when I veered off they continued on their way. I had never really thought of deer as ocean swimmers but they were fairly good at it.  From my campsite facing the ocean I could hear several dozen Sea Lions bellowing on the hall out at White Sisters Rocks several miles off shore. Their deep booming voices would carry over the sound of hundreds of birds and crashing surf. What a paradise!

The sky was sunny and the Ocean was calm, rare to have both on the Gulf of Alaska. So I decided to stay on the outside waters and paddle around the west side of Herbert Graves and Hogan Islands then through Imperial Passage and into Portlock Harbor. The geology of the islands is made of unusual vertical slabs of rock that gave the appearance of traveling past a huge shelf full of books. Sea lions darted inches under my hull in the tide pools as I past Hogan Island, arriving at last in the calm waters of Portlock Harbor I was relived to no longer be the focus of their attention and sport. I spent the next several days exploring the perimeter and outlying bays of Portlock Harbor before continuing North.

I drifted in behind Hill Island and through Dry Pass into twelve foot waves that I later learned was a small craft advisory. The waves really began to stack up going around Post Island while heading into Bertha Bay. My kayak bucked and lurched until I was able to get around the point and surf my way into the tiny narrow inlet at White Sulphur Hot Springs. After making camp I went to soothe my aching body and frayed nerves in the springs. At White Sulphur you have your pick of indoor or outdoor springs, the outdoor spring being by far the hottest.

There were several groups of kayakers there at White Sulphur, some had rented the cabin and some were camping nearby in tents, all of whom had arrived via the ferry stop at Pelican. The vibe at the springs was festive and clothes optional. There are several short trails through the forest and the beach combing is terrific. During their spring migration the Gray Whales feed in Bertha Bay under the full view of the bathers. I can, without reservation, say that White Sulphur Hot Springs has been my all time favorite kayaking destination in Alaska and has been for many years.

The journey into the town of Pelican was uneventful, thankfully, the seas had calmed and the view down the coast all the way to Mount Fairweather was amazing. To avoid the chop and serf I went well out and around Point Urey before heading into Lisianski Strait. Important also is timing the tide so as to ride the incoming surge through the narrow passages to Pelican.

After twenty five days and two hundred and twenty one miles I pulled up on the small beach in front of Pelican Alaska a few days ahead of schedule. After securing a room at the local inn a walk down the boardwalk to Rosie's Bar and Grill for dinner and drinks was in order. There I met several of the kayakers that I had met at the hot springs and over burgers and beers we had great fun telling our tales of grand adventure on the outer coast of Chichagof Island. 
“The sound of water says what I think” - Chuang Tzu