This Steller sea lion was no different from any of the hundreds of others that I had encountered already on my 1,200-mile Inside Passage kayaking adventure. I would typically first spot one a few boat lengths away with just its head poking out above the water’s surface. With only a head to judge size, it can sometime be difficult to estimate just how large these creatures can actually be. Usually, once you are spotted, they keep their eyes trained on you for a few seconds to determine what you are and if you pose a threat. Sometimes one of the bolder males will allow you to approach within a couple of boat lengths but usually they just quietly duck out of site and pop up a minute later a bit further away.
By this point, I was 60 days into my trip and had pretty much quit paying too much attention to these smelly and furry creatures so the one right out in front of me in Alaska’s Stephens Passage was nothing special. As I approached, I thought he had seen me and just ducked out of sight but I was wrong, he had no idea that I or anything else was around. As I moved toward the spot where I had last seen him, his head popped up out of the water barely a foot from my right hand. Not only that, but he was facing away from me with no clue that anything, particularly a human, was anywhere around. Suddenly, as my hand and paddle moved forward to take a stroke, he saw me and his head snapped around with a look of unbelievable fright in his big black eyes. That’s when it happened – this huge Steller sea lion, weighing probably 800 pounds, came flying out of the water to a point where nearly his entire body was in the air. As he rose from the surface he spun halfway around into a kind of backwards dive trying to get away from me as fast as he could. He landed with an enormous splash just a few feet from my boat and was instantly gone beneath the waves.
I had camped on the gravelly shore of Whitney Island in Stephens Passage the night before. The air was unusually calm this evening allowing the sounds of dozens of Humpback Whales breathing to reach me unobstructed by wind or waves. As I sat in camp preparing dinner and filling in my journal, I could hear their characteristic loud blowing sounds as they traveled about searching for food, but it was after dark in the middle of the night that the real magic started. In the complete darkness, I could clearly hear a few of them slowly inhaling and exhaling as they rested calmly at the surface. I had never heard them breathing before in this slow rhythmic way which was so foreign to the sounds one normally associate with these huge animals. This slow breathing went on all night bringing to my mind the reality that I was sleeping along with, and just feet from, some of the largest creatures on this planet.
Interesting wildlife encounters were not limited to fellow creatures living in the sea. Some of the more dangerous ones happened right in camp when my guard was down. One evening while camped just south of the Alaskan border, on the shore of Chatham Sound, I was sitting at the top of the beach preparing dinner. My peaceful afternoon was rudely interrupted by a loud crashing sound advancing quickly toward me from the woods right behind where I was sitting. I scrambled to reach my pepper spray with images of what I was likely to be facing racing through my head, when all of a sudden it emerged from the dark forest – a soaking wet and terrified white-tailed deer. The deer completely ignored me and proceeded to run straight out into the water off the beach and bound through the shallows parallel to the beach for maybe 200 feet before returning to shore and heading back into the woods. My relief was short lived as I instantly realized that no dear would do such a thing unless it was desperate to escape some predator intent on having it for dinner. My guard was now fully up anticipating what would next emerge from the forest.
After waiting fifteen minutes or so with pepper spray in hand and camera at the ready – nothing. The deer was long gone, and I had other things to do, so I sat down to fill in my journal with what had just happened. With the pepper spray and camera now put aside and my guard relaxed, what happened next really took me by surprise. Without a sound, a large Wolf emerged from the bushes and ran straight up to within ten feet of me as I sat un-menacingly on the beach. I think the wolf was much more scared of me than I was of him because as soon as he saw me, and our eyes briefly met, he turned in his tracks and headed back into the brush from where he had emerged. It was all over in seconds with the only proof of my wily encounter, a set of huge canine footprints in the sand.
Another interesting campsite encounter happened a few days later on a beach just north of Ketchikan on the shore of Clarence Strait. As I was packing up my gear in the morning and getting ready to launch I spotted a pair of black bears walking down the beach heading in my direction. They were clearly black and not brown bears so I wasn’t too concerned but I still did not want to get too close to them. As I continued to pack up my things with new found vigor, I started a one way, high volume, conversation with them just to make sure they knew I was on their beach. They would look up from time to time with curious stares, but they mostly kept about their business, searching for edible snacks underneath the beach logs that lined the shore. By the time I had gotten my kayak and all my gear down to the water’s edge they had reached the spot where my tent had been pitched and were busying themselves sniffing all the apparently wonderful smells that a kayak camper invariably leaves behind.
It seemed that no matter where I paddled or camped along the Inside Passage wildlife was all around me. The seas delivered orca, humpback, otter and dolphin to with a few yards of my boat as I paddled north. The rocky shoreline and beaches revealed black and brown bear, Steller and California sea lion, harbor seal, and deer. The skies and sea surface served up countless species of birds such as eagle, geese, loon, gull, tern, oystercatcher, murre, guillemot, murrelet, crow, and raven.
After seventy days of paddling, most of my fondest memories of the trip that have stuck with me, are the ones of the incredible wildlife that I encountered along my journey.
Outdoor adventure has been a big part of who I am for most of my life. I first started backpacking and canoeing when I was eleven years old and became instantly enthralled by the joys of wilderness travel. My excursions have taken me to every corner of North America exploring remote wilderness areas on foot, canoe, raft, river kayak, and sea kayak. For the past thirty years I have enjoyed the many wonders of sea kayaking, focusing most of my travels in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. The Inside Passage, that amazing water route from Washington to Alaska, has become my favorite wilderness area to explore and my new second home. For twenty four years I owned and operated a canoeing, kayaking and backpacking shop in my hometown of New Orleans Louisiana. I am now sixty years old, retired, and trying to get as much wilderness travel in as I can while I can still get around.