Point Couverden to Saint James Bay 2016

Its official, May is the new June, and as winter loosened its grip even earlier this spring the plants and animals of the southeastern Alaskan rainforest were beginning to adjust to a warming environment, how much so we had been interested to see. What species would possibly benefit from a milder winter and which ones might have difficulty? This year’s sea kayaking expedition from Point Couverden to Saint James Bay, west of Juneau Alaska, took us through a verity of coastal features that allowed us to observe how the myriad of life forms in the intertidal, estuarine and near shore rainforest were coping with this new change in climate.

To save time we chartered a boat to drop us off on a small cluster of connected islands located on the eastern side of the Couverden archipelago. We set up our base camp in the woods adjacent a well protected beach and from this central location we were able to explore the surrounding islands and bays unencumbered by the additional weight of our camping gear.

The Couverden Islands are, geologically speaking, the trailing end of the Chilkat Mountains as they plunge into the sea. Located at the crossroads of three major fjords, Chatham Strait to the south, Icy Strait from the west and Lynn Canal stretching northward, their outer shores are beset by strong tides and weather systems. But their inside waters, protected by outlying rocks and islands, were often quite calm and serine, perfect for closely observing the natural world from a kayak.

Our first outing was to explore a series of smaller islands that bordered the western edge of Lynn Canal. Alaskan maps and charts are often limited in feature names so we decided to call this group of islands the “Lynn Islands” and numbered them 1 through 9 on our map. As we approached “Lynn Island # 5” we were impressed by its steep sides and wave sculpted features.

Our seashore observations were not entirely without purpose, we had been asked to conduct a survey of sea star health for UCSC’s Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring group. Sea star populations have had a significant decline in the Northwest due to a mysterious wasting disease. A calm sea and an extremely low tidal cycle allowed us to document the health of a verity species of sea stars. Thankfully the vast majority we observed were in good health, like this Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides).

Throughout the week fair winds and calm seas continued and allowed us to explore the coastlines of Couverden, Ansley & Entrance islands. The area was rich in wildlife both above and below the waves. The islands strategic location made the surrounding protected waters an attractive stopover for migratory birds. Deer, moose and brown bear were observed in shoreline sedge meadows. Humpback whales were often seen in the adjoining bays and channels. And the extensive intertidal areas surrounding the islands were home to many species that we had not had the opportunity to observe before.

While exploring the lagoon in the center of Couverden Island Brenda exclaimed that “a three foot long sea centipede just surfaced next to my kayak”. She tried briefly to describe it but it did not sound like anything I had seen before, too bad I thought we’ll probably never see that again. Surprisingly however in circling the lagoon we were able to observe several dozen more surfacing and diving in the shallow waters. Oddly enough though, when we returned to camp we were unable to find anything in our guidebook that resembled what we had seen. Needless to say this became the topic of much idle speculation during the rest of the expedition. It wasn’t until we returned home and sought advice from several experts that we learned it was a Polychaeta called the Giant Clam Worm (Alitta brandti). What a fascinating creature!

Much as we enjoyed our week in the Couverdens fair winds and a favorable tide enticed us to pick up camp and continue north along the western shores of Lynn Canal. Along the way the exceptionally clear skies afforded us grand views of the Coast Mountains to the east. Even the resident Eagles seemed to be enchanted by their towering pinnacles.

Broad sandy beaches became more common, enticing us to stop rest and explore upland. We eventually decided on an elevated sandbar under Mount Golub to make camp and spend the night.  Next morning, when we were packing up to leave, the surrounding scenery made us wish we could have stayed a little longer.

Large cruise ships would pass us by on their way down from Skagway. Our camp food on long expeditions can be rather “basic” so we tortured ourselves by speculating what gourmet delicacies their passengers might be dinning on.

Arriving at Saint James Bay we set up another centrally located camp and spent the next several days exploring its coastlines and estuaries. Protected from the strong north-south winds of the fjord it proved to be another great location to survey sea stars and take in the surrounding scenery.


On the northeastern side of the bay we hiked a short trail that crossed over to Boat Harbor, a deep lagoon that is a popular refuge for small boats fishing in Lynn Canal. Along the way we spied this rare and beautiful Calypso Orchid growing in the shadowed rainforest, perhaps another beneficiary of the warmer spring weather.

During high tides we paddled as far as we could up into the river estuaries to watch groups of migratory birds feed in the muddy shallows. Farther up, as the river channels narrowed, we found ourselves surrounded by a perfusion of fragrant wildflowers that had just begun to emerge in upper sedges meadows.

After leaving Saint James bay we backtracked a little to a rocky point called the Lynn Sisters to make camp near the shortest and least exposed crossing when returning to Juneau.

We listened to the weather forecast to pick the best day and time to cross Lynn Canal. The serene setting of our early morning launch seemed to promise an easy passage, but it was not to be. Half way across the wind and waves picked up and once again reminded us of the folly of trying to predict the weather in southeast Alaska. 

“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get” -Mark Twain