The Inside Passage stretches from Seattle, Washington to Skagway Alaska. Many consider it the sea kayaking equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, though it doesn’t offer the support that the most famous of all trails offers. This summer I was able to paddle the Alaska section, from Ketchikan to Skagway, having paddled the British Columbia Section previously in 2006. A friend joined me on this trip, Sarah Greenwood, who has an extensive paddling resume herself, having taught for both the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound. We actually met in 2006 on our NOLS instructor course, paddling in British Columbia. This trip from Ketchikan to Skagway took us 18 days (3 of them rest days) to paddle the nearly 350 miles of ruggedly beautiful Alaskan coastline.
Planning a trip like this is a truly monstrous undertaking. Simply getting myself and all of the gear across the country and to the ferry that would take me to the put-in was an epic journey in itself, but probably my biggest fear while prepping for this trip was the thought of bears.
Bears are always a concern, but some of the areas we would be paddling through have significantly high bear populations. I don’t mind bears – they are generally very timid, but on this trip we would be dealing with coastal brown bears. Technically, grizzly bears and brown bears are both members of the same species, Ursus arctos, and to the casual observer they certainly appear similar, but grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies, known as Ursus arctos horriblis although the taxonomy is much debated (as taxonomy tends to be). The coastal brown bear’s rich diet of spawning salmon allows it to grow to a robust 1,500 pounds, compared to the grizzly’s comparatively featherweight 800 pounds. Both are fearsome animals, but the brown bear has a reputation for being slightly more aggressive.
I did tons of research before going and contacted a number of kayaking instructors that I know from the NOLS to see what they do regarding bears and sea kayaking in that part of the country. As it turns out, NOLS isn’t too worried about coastal browns because they usually stay away from the prime brown bear habitats, sticking to areas populated with black bears instead.
All of our food would be stored first in plastic bags and then inside dry bags (bear canisters don’t work in kayaks). The problem was that there was so much of it – 80 pounds or so for the two of us. When Sarah and I talked about this we realized that hanging 80 pounds of food would be incredibly difficult (we later realized that the trees along the coast weren’t suitable for hanging). We decided to do what NOLS does, which is leave the food inside the kayaks. This would keep little critters away, and we would just have to remain very cautious and aware in case of larger critters.
Both of us carried bear spray, and we were both exceptinally careful about odoriferous items in the tent. Oddly, one evening while comparing our cans of bear spray I realized that my ‘American’ bear spray was 2% capsaicin, while her ‘Canadian’ spray was only 1%.
We saw the occasional bear print, and even camped one night about ten feet from bear scat, although it was fairly old. Sarah and I saw three bears walking along the coast while we were paddling – two black bears and one brown. Even with the bears present we were never especially concerned and never had any interactions with them. You feel very safe when you see a bear standing on the shore, and you are just paddling by. From a distance they seem more like teddy bears – albeit big ones – than potentially ferocious predators.
Until that night.
Sarah and I had come ashore around 4:00 pm on an amazing sunny day. We had taken the opportunity to lay some clothes out to dry while the sun was still shining and Sarah cooked an amazing dinner. The kayaks were about ten feet from a large rock outcropping and tied to a tree in case of a storm surge. The tent was at the same height vertically up the beach, but about 30 feet away. One door of the tent was facing the water, and the other faced the trees about ten feet from the beach. Sarah slept next to me in her sleeping bag. I had been listening to my iPod, but the battery died, so I switched to a book. Around 8:24 pm I heard something moving through the forest behind our tent. Branches were snapping, and since it was still completely light out, I poked my head outside the back door of the tent but could see nothing moving.
The woods are a funny thing. When you are lying in your tent – particularly in the dark – a raccoon making its way through the forest sounds like a charging brontosaurus. The smallest of animals can make the biggest of noises, and knowing this, I put my fears aside.
The sounds continued to come and go and Sarah remained peacefully asleep while I tried my best to read. Another sound reverberated through the forest and I had to reassure myself with another peek out the tent. I carefully unzipped the back door, poked my head out, and found myself gazing into the eyes of a very large – and truly quite beautiful – brown bear. I inched slowly back into the tent and Sarah roused immediately, undoubtedly sensing the change of energy in our tightly confined space. As her eyes blinked open, she looked to me and in a voice laden with worry asked, “What?” As calmly as I could, I told her that a brown bear was perched atop my kayak.
My kayak was closest to the tent, while Sarah’s lay about two feet from mine. The cockpit cover of her kayak was off; the bear’s rear legs were planted on the ground, and his front paws rested on the stern hatch cover of my kayak. Sarah’s kayak lay between his front and rear paws, dwarfed by his massive, hulking body. This bear was enormous, easily 1,400 pounds and with his front paws on my kayak and his furry face held aloft, his head towered a good eight feet above the ground. He stared down at me with a look of what seemed more like curiosity than aggression.
I climbed out of the back door of the tent, and Sarah exited through the front door. Clutching our bear sprays with the caps still on, we began yelling for him to go away. For thirty seconds we shouted, and for thirty seconds he simply stared at us. Realizing I was standing on a beach littered with rocks, I picked a softball sized rock and threw it in his direction. I have no throwing arm and missed, but finally he began to back away. The giant bear lumbered toward the rock outcropping while Sarah and I continued to shout at the top of our lungs. I threw another rock, and he moved a few more feet away. In this tense moment, Sarah told me to be careful not to hit her boat with a rock, which at the time seemed like a hilarious thing to be concerned about. A moment later I threw a third and final rock in his direction and he very gracefully climbed the rocks and bounded into the woods.
I can only explain the befuddled expression on the bear’s face as similar to my dog when I tell her to leave the kitchen when we are about to eat dinner – “What? What did I do? Okay, Ill go.”
Sarah and I decided to follow the bear’s lead and leave quickly. We were both barefoot on a rocky beach and as we packed up – still yelling for the bear to stay away, I managed to put a hole in the dry bag that my sleeping bag goes into. In my haste (can you blame me) I was a little aggressive and the zipper pull went right through the thick silicone treated nylon. The kayaks were tied to a tree in the forest that the bear had retreated to, but there was no way I was going in there and opted to just sever the rope with the knife on my PFD. That was the first time I made use of my knife for anything more serious than opening a post-paddle beer. I slid my unloaded plastic touring kayak down the rocks thirty feet to the shore, and then we carried Sarah’s more delicate kevlar/fiberglass boat. Within thirty minutes, we were on the water. It may sound like a long time, but on a typical morning it would generally take us around 90 minutes to load the boats and set out. After ninety minutes of paddling, we found another beach to set up camp. The new location was less than ideal, it was extremely rocky and uncomfortable, but would have to do. With what remained of our ropes, we tied the boats at the shoreline, removing only what we absolutely needed. By the time the sun set, we were just crawling into our sleeping bags. On high alert, I thought I heard a noise at one point in the night and lifted my head to listen carefully; my slight movement alone was enough to wake Sarah. I reassured her it was nothing and we both managed to drift off to sleep, as the adrenaline of the evening waned and was replaced by exhaustion.
Paddling away from the beach the next day, we spotted the same bear several beaches north searching for his dinner. I thought back on our experience of the previous day and came to some realizations. The bear was resting his paws on the hatch of my kayak which contained all of my food, and he had walked over Sarah’s kayak, stepping in the cockpit and popping off her cockpit cover, which also contained food. I realized then what drew him in. Juneau was only one day’s paddle away, the longest uninterrupted section of the entire trip, which meant that we had accumulated a lot of garbage, both food garbage and food packaging. All the garbage was contained in plastic bags sealed inside a dry bag stored in the stern compartment of my kayak, the very spot that he had rested his paws on. Had we given him another thirty seconds to sniff his way to the garbage, I have no doubt that he would have located it and done his best to reach it. He almost certainly would have destroyed the stern hatch cover and ended our trip early. Looking back, it seemed fortuitous that my iPod ran out of battery – had it not, I would never have heard the bear and our trip very likely would have been over much too soon.
We dumped our garbage the next day in Juneau, and for the remainder of the trip were naturally much more concerned about bears than we had been at the beginning of the trip. Some long distance paddlers will dump their food garbage during crossings in open water, considering it ‘composting in the sea’. Though this is against Leave-No-Trace principles, it is biodegradable and wouldn’t have realistically done much environmental harm. If it had been two days to Juneau I might have done it, but we still would have had other garbage on board.
In retrospect, there is little we could have done differently and as encounters with large brown bears go, this was a rather good one. We got to see an amazing animal up close, and no one – bear or human – got hurt. The experience has made us ever more vigilant about bear safety, and caused us to bypass several of what would have been wonderful campsites because of signs of bear activity, although we didn’t spot a single bear for the remainder of the trip. While Sarah and I paddled north, and lay awake in our sleeping bags at night, our bear encounter continued to run through our minds.