Sitka to Hoonah
Nathaniel Stephens | Photography by Daniel Fox
Seven years ago while paddling the same stretch of coast —what is now the outer coast of southeast Alaska, I was sure they had been dashed on the rocks. Paddling with a somewhat unwitting companion in late September we ran between storms and dodged huge booming surf on offshore reefs, always on the lookout for protected water and fearful of trying to land anywhere on the exposed coast. I imagined small wooden boats with naïve foreigners to be no match for such a place. As for our motley crew of two—we successfully made the trip from Sitka to Hoonah that year, but my fellow paddler refused to ever kayak with me again.
Since then “Sitka to Hoonah” had loomed in my mind as the ultimate Southeast Alaska kayak adventure. Away from the famous glaciers, cruise ships, and protected waters of Alaska’s fjords, it offered a true wilderness trip, with all the wild conditions the northern Pacific had to offer. This summer, I made plans to return with the photographer Daniel Fox, and Debbie Hingst, my friend and former kayak student. Debbie found kayaking later in life, but pursued it with the same determination that served her as a bush pilot and public health nurse in the Alaskan bush. She had progressed well and was keen to push her limits.
Our journey would cover 140 miles in 11 days, with shuttle logistics on both ends provided by the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway, the main source of transportation for people in this part of the world. We’d thread a course through islands large and small, following the outer coast of Chichagof and Yakobi Islands north to Cross Sound, then head into the inner waters of Icy Strait, before arriving in the native Tlingit village of Hoonah.
“Sitka to Hoonah” had loomed in my mind as the ultimate Southeast Alaska kayak adventure. Away from the famous glaciers, cruise ships, and protected waters of Alaska’s fjords, it offered a true wilderness trip, with all the wild conditions the northern Pacific had to offer.
A minke whale surfaced just a few feet from our kayaks and loons, murrelets and guillemots were constant companions. We took advantage of meager swell and light winds to paddle inside dramatic sea caves and arches. We found a blowhole spouting from a crack in the cliffs and squeezed our boats in close enough for a cooling pummeling from nature’s fire hose.
As we reached Cross Sound and started to make our way towards the inner waters humpback whales joined us. The strong currents generated by the huge tidal exchanges in this part of the world bring in phytoplankton and zooplankton from the Gulf of Alaska. They in turn draw in huge numbers of small silvery fish: herring, capelin, and sandlance. We knew when we paddled over a school of capelin in particular. Strangely, the little silver fishes give off the unmistakable odor of cucumbers. Drawn by the huge schools of baitfish, humpback whales spend the summer at this very productive buffet, gorging in preparation for the return to winter breeding grounds in Hawaii. The sounds of breeching in the distance, tail slapping, lunge feeding and just plain breathing would become the soundtrack for the second half of the trip.
Food was everywhere. August is prime harvest time in the north, and subsistence-minded kayakers can do quite well. We supplemented our meals with edible mushrooms and berries, and foraged in the inter-tidal zone for limpets. A lure trailed on a hand-line from the kayaks provided a tasty black rockfish whenever it went into the water. In the evenings we stretched out on perfect gravel beaches by a small fire and watched the sky, now just starting to really darken after the longs days of the northern summer, in hopes of seeing aurora borealis.
On the final night of our journey a brilliant sunset lit up the Fairweather Mountains above Icy Strait. From our camp, nestled in a patch of ripe strawberries and nagoonberries, we gazed out at the glassy ocean shimmering gold and pink. We reminisced on how perfectly the trip had gone in every way. As if on cue, a rare pod of orcas passed by, huge dorsal fins arcing up and down beneath the sunset. My thoughts returned to the 18th century Russian sailors. Maybe nothing bad happened to them- no crushing waves, no deadly rip currents, no unwelcoming natives. Maybe they just fell in love with this place and decided life on shore in this bountiful land was way better than the ship. If so, who could blame them?
See videos from the journey here.
Photographer, storyteller, filmmaker, kayaker, scuba diver, horseback rider & founder of the Wild image Project, Fox is an explorer who uses his narrative to inspire the public to reconnect with the wilderness. Sometimes philosophical, sometimes poetic, his stories, his photos and his videos capture the viewers through all their senses, leaving them sifting through their memories and remembering their own moments when they felt connected.
He writes about conservation, exploration and about the complexity of Man’s relationship with nature (Blog). You can find him on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google +. He publishes his videos on Vimeo and YouTube. His photography portfolio is available on Behance.
Nathaniel Stephens has for many years pursued a life as wilderness guide, outdoor instructor, adventurer,and itinerant dirtbag, leading trips and teaching courses around the world. He makes his home in Juneau, Alaska, base of operations for his fledgling company, Narwhal Adventures.
Find out more via his website www.nathaniel-stephens.blogspot.com