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2014 Prince William Sound, Alaska

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David Mercer and I recently returned from a 12 day kayak camping trip to explore Prince William Sound, Alaska from Valdez to Whittier. We will each be adding content to this thread in an effort to help you gain a better understanding of PWS and the beauty we discovered.

I will also be weaving into the story how the adventure impacted my view of kayak camping, trip planning and paddling in Alaska. David and I began planning this trip months in advance. In many ways it would greatly exceed any trips we have previously completed. We would discover the journey would test our processes, gear and resolve.

Now, let’s begin……

We arrived safely in Anchorage on July 4, 2014 and added content to our gear bags with a visit to the REI store the following day. Our team of five paddlers assembled on July 6 to test pack the rental boats and finalize our planning. We identified a journey of at least 130 miles which would span 12 days. It was to be the longest trip to date for each of us.

On the morning of July 7, we began the drive from Anchorage to Whittier along Turnagain Arm. Here is where my camera would begin to document our trip with over 600 photos. Luckily for the gentle reader, I will not be posting all my photos!

Our drive would pass by the Begich,Boggs Visitor Center located in Girdwood which is partially visible in the lower right corner. When the building was originally built, it had a fine view of the Portage glacier which has now receded and is no longer visible from the Center.

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Along the way we viewed a mother moose and her two young calves.

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We also encountered some of the humor and independent nature of Alaskans.

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We are lined up waiting to enter the 2.5 mile long tunnel to Whittier.

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Our kayaks arrived in Whittier with the Begich Tower in the background. The Tower is where most of the year round residents of Whittier live.

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Large water flow off the Whittier glacier behind the Begich Tower.

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David is happy in spite of the dreary weather. The locals have a saying, “The Weather is Shittier in Whittier!”

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The Chenega, a high speed ferry from Whittier to Valdez, is ready and waiting for our arrival.

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From the deck of the Chenega, you see many glaciers in the trip to Valdez.

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I was able to see several of our proposed camping sites during the trip, such as Axel Lind and the Dutch Group.

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The beauty of the Chugach mountain range was breathtaking.

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The entrance to Sawmill Bay is at the center of this photo. That was proposed to be our second camping site. However, Mother Nature had other ideas for us when she delivered up a large storm with gale force winds. More on that later in the story!

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Our happy team plus one arrives at the B&B in Valdez on July 7 where we would spend the night prior to an early launch the next morning. The team members are: Ryan, Michael, Ryan’s son Griffin, David, Warren and Beth. Ryan’s wife Sherrill, who took the photo, accompanied us to Valdez. She and Griffin would return to Whittier the next day.

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A celebration meal at Oldtown Burgers in Valdez took place on July 7. Note the heavily overcast sky. That would be a frequent occurrence during our travels which made for pleasant paddling in a dry suit.

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Packing the boats at the launch site. Note all the Ikea bags!

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Two views from the launch site. The oil storage tanks that hold the oil coming from the North Slope and a small portion of the Valdez fishing fleet.

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David proclaiming, “I am ready”!

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The 2014 Prince William Sound Paddling Team Photograph. None of us could have imagined at that time how much we would enjoy each other’s company and how much the trip would enhance our lives.

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To be continued………………

Warren

Edited by Warren

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Excellent start to the ongoing trip report! One question: when did David creep into my back yard, peel the polar bears off my boat, and transport it to Alaska?!

pru

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And the story continues...............

We paddle by a portion of the Valdez fishing fleet as we head to Shoup Bay.

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For me, a bald eagle sighting signifies good luck and a reminded that I need to focus my skills on providing protection for the team. Throughout the trip I saw bald eagles every day.

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Our team traveled well on the water, and took advantage of stretch and bio breaks as needed.

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We also had a very good sense of group awareness as we frequently looked around and checked in on each other.

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Ryan was looking carefully at my reaction as I rounded a bend and saw Shoup Glacier for the first time. Wow!

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The Shoup Glacier resides within the Shoup Bay State Marine Park.

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We arrive at our camp site

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Ryan had made a reservation for our team to use the Moraine Cabin for our first night.

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The view from the Moraine cabin and one of my favorite pictures.

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The cabin would provide an excellent shelter. It even had an outhouse.

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Shoup Bay is also home to a Kittiwake Rookery with hundreds of nests.

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A picture of the Kittiwakes with the glacier in the background. Another one of my favorite photographs.

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We noticed a large hole in the face of the glacier and proceeded to investigate.

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Turned out the hole was created by a large and fast moving river that flowed into Shoup Bay from the glacier. Amazing!

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We landed on the shore and walked over to take a closer look. The glacial ice contained vivid blue colors.

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We ready the boats for departure wearing our insect head nets. We encountered many no-see-ums and black flies at Shoup Bay. A good insect head net is an essential piece of gear in Alaska.

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The water in Shoup Bay contained sediment from the river flowing out of the glacier and was an amazing shade of blue/grey.

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Next up, Mother Nature takes an interest in our activities................

Warren

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Edited by Warren

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NSPN Community,

Between sections of this story, I plan to jump in with a few behind the scenes comments to help communicate many of the very special feelings and events that were occurring as well as future plans.

Clearly, Alaska can be a land of extremes. The state license plate calls Alaska, “The Last Frontier”. Although kayaking in Alaska and Prince William Sound is not for everyone, I believe it is truly a kayaker’s paradise. It combines awe inspiring landscape, abundant wildlife and very few people. With proper planning and execution a kayaker can achieve the balance between safety, comfort and fun. This trip accomplished that goal.

I am excited about telling this story for two reasons;
1. We know the trip was very special and our experiences need to be told to help others learn about PWS.
2. I seek to return to Prince William Sound next year and explore additional sections. I hope one or two paddlers from NSPN will seek to join in on the 2015 trip and work with me to learn how to kayak PWS with safety and style.

Warren

Edited by Warren

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How nice to have a continuing saga to read! Amazing!

pru

Yes, but no scary cliffhangers.

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NSPN Community,

For those who might be planning a kayak camping trip to Prince William Sound, the attached document regarding the Alaska State Marine Parks might be helpful.

Alaska State Marine Parks.doc

Also, to prepare yourself for the next installment in the story, it might be helpful to review the attached Draft Trip Plan for Days 3 and 4. Like all good draft plans, flexibility is needed to adjust for weather. We would discover the importance of that rule and work together for our group safety in the next installment.

Alaska Trip Rev2.pdf

Hey Kate, thank you for reading along! I may never achieve your skill in kayak expeditioning, but at least I no longer see myself as a "wannabe". I am still very much a work-in-progress, but I am getting out there and getting it done!

Warren

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Warren,

DId you end up kayaking the routes that you had planned and was the camping spots as expected? With the extra daylight do you take side trips or do anything to take advantage of the long days?

I noticed the head nets, were they for black flies for mosquitoes?

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Jason,

We definitely made modifications in the draft trip plan. All for the better! As further installments in the story are introduced, the modifications will be evident.

Camp site within the center of PWS are different from the edges. There is no reference document which can guide you, especially when the tidal range approaches 16 feet. Our trip was planned for the period when the moon was in perigee and the tidal range near peak.

Camping in PWS has extra concerns that need to be factored into the activities performed each day. You need to locate and filter water, prepare bear hangs, erect tarps over tents and prepare the group shelter for bug management, etc. Most of my days would begin at 5:30AM and end at 11:30PM. Darkness would occur from 1:30PM to 4:30PM. So I would not need to work during darkness. The important piece to remember is you are working out straight for 18 hours with approximately 6 hours of sleep. A great deal of the time was spent with land based activities. Also, when you are on the water paddling, you are in a world of sensory overload with so much to see. You need to take time to observe your world. The geology alone is stunning!

I saw very few mosquitoes. It was mostly black flies and no-see-ems. You need a well planned bug management program since you can not be selective in your camp sites in the center section. You have to take what you get which could be a camp site next to a lagoon. We had three of the 11 camp sites filled with bugs. Actually, we felt that was damn good!

Also, many of the camp sites are not "preconstructed", they are "wilderness" in design. So you cram in multiple tents and appreciate the value of ear plugs. You also need to be very careful with selecting a potential site that is frequented by bears. All these challenges can add up to a long day if you also plan to cover miles. It is a delicate balancing act at times and well worth the effort.

Hope this helps.

Warren

Edited by Warren

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Warren - I watched the posting traffic regarding preparation for your trip with great interest (and a bit of jealously.....), as paddling/hiking/camping in Alaska is most certainly on my wish list. I then sat through the period of radio silence whilst you were on your journey with utter impatience, knowing that your trip report would be fantastic. You are exceeding my expectations - phenomenal photos and commentary. Congrats on the success of your trip, and many thanks for sharing.

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I'm enjoying the adventure so far! Looking forward to the next installment.

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Warren:

Glad you and David had a good journey...well much better than a good journey from the reports so far. I was wondering if the distances mentioned are statute or nautical miles and whether the guide ever felt the need to exercise his veto power over what was proposed to be done or not done.

On most trips I find once I'm on the water I can relax and it is the ashore tasks and risks which causes the most anxiety. I gather it was similar for you and David from the comments so far.

Ed Lawson

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Great report and thanks for sharing. I am planning Alaska kayaking trip in next 3-4 years and this is really helpful.

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Note: One of our gentle readers reminded me that a software program exists that can reset pictures to align with the horizon. Sadly my PC is not currently equipped with the software. I am in the process of acquiring the item and hope to have it operational soon.

Now back to the story and the race to Elf Point………..

Those who follow my adventures remember that Mother Nature has a habit of noticing when I am out on the water and frequently throws me a curve ball just to see my reaction. Apparently, she saw me preparing to leave Shoup Bay. The weather forecast was predicting a good size storm that would blow through the Sound with gale force winds at up to 55 knots. We all know it is not easy to hide from gale force winds unless you happen to find a mountain to hide behind. The mountain we sought was on Point Freemantle some 25+ miles away. Could we make it safely around the hazardous Point and on to Elf Point in time? Ryan went into high alert mode and I could sense how critical decision making would flow over the next several hours. We would take it one step at a time.

As we paddled from Valdez Bay to Valdez Narrows we would pass by several waterfalls flowing off the mountains.

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We saw a water taxi bring passengers back to Valdez from Columbia Bay.

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That day the ships were setting their nets to gather pink salmon.

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We would paddle by the entrance to Sawmill Bay since that camp site would not offer the protection we sought.

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The fishing fleet was fully engaged as they rushed to collect the salmon prior to the storm. A large tender ship was within the fleet to off-load their cargo.

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A brief rest was taken on one of the pocket beaches in the Narrows as we reassessed the status of the team. We were all good-to-go!

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My camera went securely into my PFD and I went into high alert mode leaving the Valdez Narrows and entering into Valdez Arm. Over the course of our trip we would pass through five separate NOAA weather forecast zones each a little different due to the mountain formations. That did not include the glacial fiords which seemed to have their own weather pattern.

We arrived at Elf Point well after 9:00PM and began the process of setting up our tents and tarps.

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The group shelter/kitchen was located away from the tents.

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The bear hangs were set near the group shelter.

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The boats were secured for the night.

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An eagle overlooked our camp site.

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A water collection tarp was set out.

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Storm cags, rain pants, waterproof boots were essential gear.

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We would forego dinner in place of sleep as we turned in around 11:30PM. It had been a full day, and we could feel the shelter from the wind. We had performed well as a team. The following day would be a day of rest. We hunkered down for a day and a half as the storm headed inland.

As the storm cleared, we could see large ice bergs in the three mile crossing to Glacier Island. They had been blown out of Columbia Bay.

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Next up…………Paddling in an Ice Berg Playground…………

Warren

Edited by Warren

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It was around this time that I got a concerned email from David's wife Donna asking me if I had been keeping tabs on David's SPOT broadcasts. I said I had, but hadn't looked at the website that day. When I looked, I noticed that David had been off the grid for many hours after having regular checkins up till then. Donna and I began speculating about the cause of this and I decided to check the weather. I saw that there was significant weather in the area and we concluded that it was interfering with the SPOT broadcasts. Around 11 pm, much to our delight, David appeared back on the grid and Donna was relieved to be able to get a good night's sleep. However, the next day brought very sporadic checkins with the locator showing up in random places on both the land and water all over the area. Donna and I came up with all the kinds of scenarios that would cause David and his SPOT to show up in the random locations. Our favorite one was that the group had finally met the dreaded bears, the object of lots of dicsussion prior to the trip. The random broadcasts were not the weather, but the group being pursued by the bears and running and paddling for their lives! Once the weather settled, the checkins went back to their regular pattern. We watched the group's progress as they took to the water again, and Donna could breathe a little easier!

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........ the next day brought very sporadic checkins with the locator showing up in random places on both the land and water all over the area.

Surprised that SPOT would be sporadic/erratic. You would think that one could rely on satellite communications when you might need them most, as (potentially) in the storm mentioned here?

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Surprised that SPOT would be sporadic/erratic.

Given its an inexpensive consumer grade device, its surprising it works as well as it does is another way of looking at it. There are so many things that can make any radio transmission iffy let alone correct transmission all the timing and data needed for this application that it should be expected to go a little "haywire" for time to time in periods of unusual weather and electromagnetic episodes.

Ed Lawson

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Folks,

I returned from the Alaska trip and had less than 24 hours before leaving for a business trip. I plan on addding some to the developing narrative on the weekend. In the meantime I've loved following the thread. Warren you're dong a great job at capturing our journey.

It was a wonderful trip with much to take in and learn.

In all candor I should point out that some of the SPOTs perceived errors were in fact user induced. I'll explain later.

David

PS: Pru, I don't think there was a day that I didn't think of you as I settled into my white and green cetus sans the bear.

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I can imagine the gentle reading must be thinking this is going to be a very long trip report. Not to worry, I will pick up speed as the journey continues!

We had weathered a classic PWS storm and in many ways it could have been a lot worse. Some low pressure systems stall over the Sound and heavy rains can continue for 5 or 6 days. We had less than 48 hours of rain. During that time we learned how critical gear can fail.

For me, kayak camping is a passion and I am always seeking places around the world where I am challenged to succeed. Alaska, and specifically PWS, is very special since it is the northern most reach of the temperate rain forest. The rains can be heavy and prolonged and yet you can be within a few miles of the freezing cold water and air from glaciers in the fiords. Moisture management and body temperature control is critical and very complicated to manage, but the rewards are worth the effort.

We had spent time at Elf Point bonding together as a team but now it was time to get back in our boats and experience something very special.

David paddling past Heather Island on his way to the Ice Berg Fields.

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Our first sighting of the ice berg field in Columbia Bay.

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Columbia Bay with a view of a portion of the glacier in the background.

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David as he paddles to a get a closer look.

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Beth getting a closer look.

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Buddies getting a closer look.

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Bergs and David.

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Some of the ice bergs were covered with silt but others were the most amazing clear blue color. My camera does not do justice to the beauty we saw. The ice is amazing.

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Photo op time!

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Buddies and Bergs.

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It was now time to leave Elf Point and begin exploring the center of PWS. For me, that is where the “crown jewels” reside. An area that is visited by very few paddlers and where the wildlife is abundant. It was the main reason why I came to Alaska.

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We would need to complete a 3 mile crossing to Glacier Island which is located in the left side of the photo and covered in fog. We hoped to paddle along the south side of the island, but would need to observe the sea state during the crossing. The storm had kicked up the seas, but now they seemed quiet and inviting. Time would tell.

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The eagle was back and that was a good sign for me. I sensed Mother Nature had been pleased with our efforts and now we would be rewarded.

Next up…….. Glacier Island and the rewards are many……………….

Warren and a selfie

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Edited by Warren

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NSPN Community,

Hey David, good to hear your business trip is going well and you will be back this weekend!

Let me take a moment and step out of the storyline to talk about group safety. The Spot device was a very helpful safety tool and I know the loved ones we left behind were enjoying the opportunity to follow us along on our journey. Please also remember we had built into the plan additional safety measures. Ryan was carrying a satillite phone with buddies who could bring a high speed rescue boat for emergency evacuation 24/7. We each, of course, carried VHF radios with the ability to call in a mayday. As a team we took our group safety very serious.

Even though emergency evac was available at any time, I sensed that David and I saw ourselves as proud NSPN paddlers who would be successful and complete our journey!

Warren

Edited by Warren

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The latest installment...A great way to start the day!

But a question: you said that you'd learned during the storm how critical equipment can fail. Could you say more about this?

pru

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