Like mythical Shangri-La, awaiting the rare visitor from the outside world, Goulding Lakes lay guarded behind a wall of high mountains in the center of Chichagof Island. Part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness the serene beauty of Goulding Lakes was protected as much by its remoteness as its wilderness status. Just getting to the lakes required caching a bi-monthly ferry to the small fishing community of Pelican, kayaking out and around on the Gulf of Alaska through a maze of small islands and channels to Goulding Harbor, a small coastal backwater that was just the beginning of a little known passage into this group of supremely beautiful alpine lakes.
Arriving in Pelican too late to catch the outgoing tide we decided to spend the night and have dinner at The Pelican Bar and Grill. It has always been a pleasure to stay in this charming pedestrian oriented community and after our meal we went for a stroll along the boardwalk that is the town’s main thoroughfare.
The next morning we slipped out of town at the top of the tide to catch the surge out through Lisianski Strait. We stopped for lunch at the dock of the long abandoned Bohemian Mine, a pleasant spot with a Forest Service shelter to get out of the rain, but did not linger as we wanted to get to the end of the narrow passage before the tide changed. Arriving at Point Urey at the bottom of the tide we were relieved to find that the sea was calm and would allow us to continue. Large incoming ocean swells from the gulf colliding with an outgoing tidal surge from the strait can potentially make this rocky headland dangerous in the extreme.
The western or “outer” coast of the Chichagof-Yakobi wilderness is one of my all time favorite places to kayak. Remote and undisturbed the wildlife is super abundant both above and below the waves and signs of human use or settlement are extremely rare, seeing another person even more so. But what makes this area so great for sea kayaking is the topography, thousands of inlets, islands, islets and rocks form a barrier of protection and safe harbor from the full force of the Gulf of Alaska.
Nature has also blessed this area with a natural hot spring, perfect for reliving sore paddling muscles. White Sulphur Hot Springs has a stunning view of the ocean from two seaside pools one in an enclosed shelter and the other, even hotter, outside. If you are there in June you can watch the Pacific Gray Whales pass by on their yearly migration from the comfort of the springs. We spent several days there soaking, hiking, beach combing and kayaking with the whales in nearby Bertha Bay.
At high tide we through the Dry Pass channel to enter into the protected waters of Goulding Harbor. After navigating the winding channels to far end of the inlet we made camp at the mouth of the Goulding River next to a small sedge grass covered delta. A rare feature on the otherwise rocky coastline the sedge meadows are a favorite forage of the exceptionally large Coastal Brown Bears and in the early morning hours several could be seen grazing in the area at one time. Yikes!
After locating the trail head, and much discussion, we located our base camp and cook site as far from bear trails and activity as possible. Once settled we began scouting the trail taking note of the various obstacles that might hinder us in portaging our kayaks and gear to the first lake. To reduce weight to a minimum we decided to take only what we would absolute need and leave our large 3 person tent and the bulk of our provisions at our sea level camp.
Carrying the kayaks up the trail to the first lake was no easy task as the trail was narrow and winding with numerous blow downs and washouts. Negotiating the kayaks over this narrow log bridge suspended over a raging cataract was especially challenging but with hard work and careful footwork we managed to get both kayaks up to the first lake before finally returning to base camp that evening.
Next we hauled our camping gear and provisions up the trail and loaded our kayaks for the short paddle across the first lake. On the far shore we found no sign of a trail what so ever, so this final portage into the upper lakes had to be scouted and flagged first before the kayaks could be dragged up and over the high pass.
The terrain was steep but thankfully the floor of the dense rainforest was blanketed in a thick covering of moss and lichens making it easy to slide the kayaks up and over the rocks and downed timber. At the top of the pass the trees thinned out and we caught a glimpse back towards the first lake before beginning the decent to the upper lakes.
With the heavy lifting behind us we could now easily pass from one lake to another through a series of narrow connecting channels. The weather cooperated and we were treated to rare views of the interior mountains of Chichagof Island.
Miraculously, despite all the obstacles, we had arrived in time to use the reservations we had made for the Forest Service cabin located just above a pebble strewn beach on Otter Lake. Centrally located the cabin proved to be an excellent base to explore and enjoy the surrounding area. Somewhat exhausted from the trek over the pass we spent the first morning relaxing in the sun and writing in our journals.
The lakes were known for good fishing and we wasted no time in wetting a line as we explored the perimeter of each lake. If you plan a visit be sure and pay special attention to the mouth of any incoming stream no matter how small as those areas are the most likely to attract Cutthroat and Dolly Varden trout. The lakes are within to the subalpine zone and several of the tiny islands were adorned with miniature forests that despite their small size were hundreds of years old.
The return trip was just as arduous and after several more days of portaging kayaks and gear we took a rest day at our ocean side base camp. Thankfully the bears had been kind to us and left our camp alone while we were gone, tent still in one piece, food still hanging in the tree. Paddling back along the outer coast we stopped again at White Sulphur Hot Springs to soak our weary bones and reflect on all we had seen. Long abandoned by it owner this old trapper’s cabin, located in a nearby cove, was a welcome refuge from the wind and rain.
“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.” - James Hilton from Lost Horizon