Valdez to Whittier

  • Looking south

    Looking south

  • looking north

    looking north

A self-supported trip created by StrayedAfar

Trip Overview

I took the state ferry Aurora from Whittier to Valdez on the 18th. It was the nicest day of the trip and a beautiful 5 1/2 hour ride. Orcas and Dalls porpoise, the only ones that I saw on the trip, and humpback whales were spotted, but not close to the ship. In Valdez, I had to go about 400 yards to get to a beach that I could use to launch the kayak. My cart for the kayak made it immensely easier, but it was still more work that I expected.

The 8 mile (12 km) paddle to Shoup Bay, on the west side of Valdez Arm, took about 3 hours. It was the first paddle with my new Kokatat dry suit- a huge improvement over my previous 25 year old dry suit! The night’s campsite was a long spit of land at the mouth of the bay. I was near the end; the end was being used by gulls, Arctic terns, surf scoters and oyster catchers. It was a delightful night listening to the non stop calls of the birds, especially the always very vocal oyster catchers. They were still sorting out mating and territorial issues.

The 19th started out nice, but got more challenging as I worked my way out of Valdez Arm. Once I passed Potato Point, the swell from the main part of Prince William Sound created about 4 foot (1.25 meter) waves. From Potato Point to Sawmill Bay is about 3 miles (4 km), it was the most challenging seas that I paddled through on the trip. About half way to Sawmill Bay, I saw a whale blow right next to the vertical cliffs a couple hundred yards (meters) ahead of me, which was very surprising. I’d been seeing sea lions every 30 to 45 minutes as I paddled, but was not expecting any whales. Due to the rough conditions, I wanted to keep moving for better control of my kayak. And it was way too rough for taking pics. The whale, and likely a calf, surfaced several times, and mostly I saw the tail. The tail was always perpendicular to the water surface- the female whale must have been rubbing against the cliff. It was most likely a minke whale based on the size and shape of the tail. I hit my paddle against my kayak a number of times just to ensure she knew I was passing by- I was concerned that she might surface so close to my kayak, or under it, that I would be capsized. I ended that day on a very nice beach with a large waterfall. 14.5 miles (23 km) and 6 hours on the water, off and on rain for most of the day.

On the 20th I paddled around Point Freemantle, to the east of Heather Island and camped on a small island just to the north of Heather Island. The waves were not quite as large as the previous day, but it was another day that a dry suit was much appreciated. More periods of light rain during the day. I saw lots of sea lions again, none of which bothered me. I covered another 14.5 miles (23 km) during 6 ½ hours on the water.

The island campsite had an excellent view up Columbia Bay. There were large numbers of herring gulls on that island, as well as on a smaller island to the north. They were all busy making nests so there was a steady flow of birds from the smaller island coming to my island to get moss. Plus the usual collection of sea otters, oyster catchers and Harlequin ducks.

In the morning I noticed what appeared to be the wet prints of a small bear that had swam to my island at high tide during the night. That was to be my only bear “sighting” for the entire trip, which is very surprising. There used to be a lot of black bears in the Sound but they have been heavily hunted; the state is doing a very poor job of regulating how many bears are being killed.

The weather on the 21st was decent, mid level clouds, not much rain and very little wind. I paddled up Columbia Bay, which forms a “T” with Columbia Glacier in the right arm. I only paddled a few miles and I was around ice chunks for the rest of the day. There was a very nice stretch of open water along the eastern shore so it was easy paddling most of the time. Although I did have a few places where I weaved and pushed through table size pieces of ice. Columbia Glacier has been one of the fastest receding glaciers in Alaska and the change has been stunning. About a quarter of the face of the glacier is no longer in the water, although the portion in the water still calves some house sized bergs.

I saw 4 other kayakers doing a 4 day trip in Columbia Bay and toward Glacier Island. It was nice to chat with them- one gal was from Anchorage, the other 3 were from Montana.

I saw 100-200 harbor seals during the day- they have their pups on the ice chunks. Like sea otter pups, the very young seals were sometimes grabbed by their mom and dragged underwater when they saw me. There were some sea otters up there, but fewer than expected. The shell fish probably haven’t had enough time to get established yet.

That night I camped near the “T” of Columbia Bay with a good view to the east, looking at Columbia Glacier. There were some mountain goats above my camp.

My phone died during the day- I’d been having some issues with keeping the battery charged- so I couldn’t track my mileage anymore. Or get a marine weather forecast. The last half of the trip I was expecting to have a cell signal most of the time. I was back to using 25 year old maps on waterproof paper.

May 22nd found me paddling up the western arm of Columbia Bay in delightful morning weather with glassy water. That arm had far less ice since only 2 of the glaciers at the head of the arm are in the ocean. The ice chunks in the water were smaller, “growler” size pieces. I was very surprised to see a kingfisher in that arm. Clouds moved in as the day wore on- it was the last of the blues skies for the trip. As I left the west arm, the geology on the west side of Columbia Bay was very interesting- lots of multicolored stripes in the glacier scoured rocks. It would be a great area to do some hiking! As I worked my way southward, there were large numbers of Harlequins and sea otters along the way, as well as some of the other common birds. I camped that night on the west side of the moraine that extends over to the north end of Heather Island- the moraine that blocks large bergs from leaving the bay, especially at low tides. (The tidal range is 12 feet, 4 meters.) It was an excellent beach, complete with a bunch of river otter tracks. Plus I saw a porcupine when I was looking for a stream for drinking water. Several river otters joined the sea otters in dining in the shallow waters of the moraine. I could hear them crunching clams during the night, as well as hearing the bergs caught on the moraine breaking into smaller pieces.

The next morning was cloudy, but wonderfully calm. A lot of ice had come down the arm overnight so there was more or less continuous ice all the way to the mouth of the bay. A few of the bigger bergs were excellent photo subjects- glacial ice is simply amazing in the colors and textures!

Columbia Bay was a fantastic place to visit and I’ll certainly be heading back there again. There were lots of birds, sea otters, harbor seals and excellent scenery to take in.

The next large bay that I paddled past was Long Bay. I’d barely begun the crossing, about 2.4 miles (4 km) when I noticed a humpback whale a short distance away doing short, shallow dives. I watched it for a bit, and then it stopped diving and took a nap. It would flex its body every 2 minutes or so to exhale and take a breath. After about 10 minutes the excitement of watching a sleeping whale was gone. Since I’d just watched it feeding, I guessed that it might be sleeping for a while so I continued on my way. Farther up the bay there were several humpbacks breaching, tail slapping and putting on a good show. Too bad they weren’t closer but I watched the action for a few minutes through my binoculars and then they ended the show.

Then I had about an hour of challenging paddling in the water west and north of Glacier Island. The swell from the main part of the Sound, combined with currents and tides makes this area well known for choppy seas.

I then passed to the north of Fairmont Island. I had been debating whether to go up Unakwik Bay, which is a full day’s paddle to the head of the bay, or to head back to Whittier. The skies were looking increasingly gray and heavy with rain so I crossed the mouth of Unakwik Bay and camped on the south side of Olsen Island. I’d camped on the west side of Olsen in the past, but decided to check out a new beach. It had lots of deer tracks, a small stream and nice rounded gravel so it was a great place to spend the night.

The morning of the 24th was once again very calm. As I left Olsen Island I passed through another area very popular with sea otters- there must have been at least 50 adults, and many were moms with young pups on their bellies. The rain began as I left Olsen Island. Little did I know that it would rain about 95% of the next 5 days, all the way to Whittier. Due to the constant rain, I also stopped taking pictures.

I opted to do some large crossing in the very calm conditions- the south side of Kiniklik Island to Eaglek Island, to Axel Lind to the Dutch Group, where I had lunch in the steady rain under a rock outcrop. Then it was another large crossing to Perry Island with increasing winds coming down Port Wells. I camped at the northwest point on Perry Island, on a small beach in a small bay. A Motel 5 type of beach- a very narrow “beach” above the tide line, but good gravel for landing the boat. A pair of surprisingly tolerant common mergansers were willing to share the small bay with me. It rained almost all night and the winds were light.

The next morning started with a 3.8 miles (6 km) crossing of Perry Passage. The winds were 5-10 knots coming from the north, down Wells Passage. After a few stops along the north side of Applegate Island, I crossed Culross Passage. The winds and waves were steadily increasing. Of course it was raining.

I did 2 more short stops before trying to cross Cochrane Bay. That crossing is frequently challenging since Wells Passage is directly to the north so the waves can be quite steep due to the longer fetch. And steep waves directly on the beam of my kayak were found in abundance after I’d only gone a short distance. They were starting to break over the top of my boat so I turned around and went back to the east shore of Cochrane Bay. I headed south into the bay, downwind, to get a better angle on the waves before I tried to cross again. Although it was a longer crossing, it was much safer since I could turn the bow of my boat into the larger sets of waves.

Once I got to Surprise Cove State Marine Park, I opted to camp on the exposed north beach near Cochrane Point rather than in the camp ground inside the bay. There are always power boats anchored in the bay and I’m sure there were quite a few with the strong north winds. More than a few power boaters carry noisy generators. Not what I wanted to deal with.

The winds picked up a lot that evening (up to 20 to 25 knots) and the waves were in the 6 foot (2 meter) range and breaking constantly. I clearly was not going anywhere until the winds died down! I spent the entire day on shore on the 26th waiting for better weather. I was entertained by several Wilson’s warblers and a yellow rumped warbler that actually came into my cooking shelter several times as it was searching for insects. I also found a pair of antlers that a blacktail deer had shed in the previous winter.

The morning of the 27th was much better, but not ideal. I swamped my kayak in the waves the first time I tried to launch. After pumping out a bunch of water, which took 10 or 15 minutes, I waded into the waves to get launched. (Great to have that dry suit!) After about an hour of paddling, I reached calmer seas, away from the waves coming down Wells Passage. The rest of the paddle into Whittier was routine, I even had a bit of a tail wind and trailing seas so that was nice; although it did rain the entire time.

All in all, a good trip. I accomplished my 2 main goals- paddle from Valdez to Whittier and explore Columbia Bay. Lots of good wildlife viewing and tons of birds since some of the migratory birds were still passing through the Sound.

Gear Notes

Perception Sea Lion plastic kayak

Trip Details

  • Trip Dates: 5/18/2023-5/27/2023
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: Open Water/Ocean

Trip Location