Wildlife Encounters: Kayaking the Inside Passage
I was two days out of Shearwater, BC and paddling my kayak north through the maze of channels along the west coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska that form the famous Inside Passage. My route at this point had deviated from the common path taken by most commercial and recreational boaters and I was in deep wilderness. I had been paddling for 38 days since leaving Bellingham, WA and it would be another 10 days before I reached Prince Rupert, BC. It would still be another 41 days before my trip would end in Skagway, AK after paddling 1,300 miles (2,080 km). I was in a groove, making good time, and everything was going well, maybe too well. This day had been a particularly good day for spotting wildlife. Besides the Bald Eagles and Steller Sea Lions that were now common, a pod of Orcas had passed close by and a Humpback Whale surfaced 50 feet (15 meters) from my boat. The day was getting late and it was time to start looking for a place to land. The spot that I chose to camp this evening was at the western end of Higgins Passage on the shoreline of Price Island (Coordinates: 52°28.519 N x 128°45.328 W). Sea swells rolling in from some distant storm in the Pacific were crashing onto a group of small islets that created a calm lagoon in front of my campsite. I could not have found a more remote location in all of British Columbia to spend the night. I had not seen another person or even a boat for the last two days. If it were not for the vapor trails of commercial airliners passing silently 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) overhead, I might have thought that I was the last person on earth. After weeks of paddling and camping I had established a routine for setting up camp, fixing dinner, and doing daily chores. After landing on this day, I unloaded my boat, changed into dry clothes, and set up my tent in the woods. I found a large tree about 30 paces from my campsite and threw a long rope over one of its branches that would be used later to hang my food cache. It was time to start fixing dinner. I set up my kitchen on a gravel beach that would be underwater at high tide. I tried to do this whenever possible so that any food smells that I might leave behind from cooking would be erased. My alcohol stove was burning silently and a pot of water was heating up for coffee and to re-hydrate my dinner. While I waited for the water to boil, I sat quietly on the beach filling in my journal with the events of the day. After mentioning the Humpback Whales and pod of Orcas that I had spotted earlier in the day, the last words that I wrote were, “It looks like bear territory”. That was when my quiet evening ended. I spotted something swimming through the calm water in front of my campsite and heading for the beach where I was sitting. The big round ears told me that it was not a sea lion or river otter which by now I was accustomed to seeing on a daily basis. Instantly I realized it was a bear – a Brown Bear! I grabbed my pepper spray and camera and jumped to my feet. I started yelling at the bear in a stern voice, “Get out of here bear”, as I took a few steps toward it. The bear apparently had no idea that I was there because I think I scared him, as he immediately took off running toward the tree line. Right before he reached the trees, he stopped for a moment to take a look at me. That is when I snapped his picture. With the picture taken, I immediately went into “crazy-man mode” and attempted to scare the bear off with continuous volleys of, “Get out of here bear” as I moved slowly in his direction. (Note: If this would have been a Brown Bear mother with cubs, I would not have acted aggressively like this, opting instead to remain calm, quiet, and non-threatening.)
I tried to put on a brave face but my heart was beating so hard that it felt like I had just run a marathon. I amazed myself though, and stayed calm and in control of my emotions the whole time.
After the bear disappeared into the woods, I went on high alert. I kept looking to see if he was still around. That’s when I spotted him standing on his hind legs looking down at me from a small hill up in the forest. I again started walking toward him yelling and waving my arms the whole time. He dropped down onto all fours and quickly ran off into the thick woods. My idea was to make him think that I was not scared of him and that hopefully he would leave me alone. My amateur animal psychology must have worked because I did not see him again. I did not know this at the time and went into full bear avoidance mode for the rest of the evening. Sleeping up in the trees where I had set up my tent was now out of the question. I took down my tent and retrieved the rope I had set up to hang my food cache. There was a small cliff at the top of the beach where I could set up for the night and be protected on at least one side. I did not set up my tent opting instead for just a tarp in case it started raining. To keep from being too vulnerable, I stayed dressed and just wrapped my sleeping bag around me. I spent the few hours of darkness like this only half asleep. The bear did not return. That was the only really dramatic animal encounter that I faced on my 2012 Inside Passage trip. Most of the creatures that I ran into were much less threatening and only afforded unique photo opportunities. On day 69 when I was approaching Cape Fanshaw at the intersection of Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage I had some Humpback Whales put on a show for me. I was paddling between the rocky shoreline and a line of Bull Kelp that formed a continuous band about 100 yards (91 meters) off-shore. Humpback Whales were apparently feeding along the outer edge of the kelp bed and repeatedly surfaced with mounds of kelp piled onto their backs. I had never seen this behavior before and was unaware that Humpbacks would move through thick beds of kelp in this manner. Another thing that the Humpbacks were doing was to make a really unusual sound while they were underwater in the kelp. This sound was clearly and loudly audible on the surface. The best way that I can describe the sound is that of a race car spinning its wheels at the start of a race. The sound would last for about five seconds then be repeated again thirty seconds later. Besides bears and whales, I spotted numerous colonies of Stellar Sea Lions and Harbor Seals perched on smooth rocky islets. Bald Eagles, Harlequin Ducks, Oystercatchers, Loons, and Gulls filled the sea surface and skies. Sea stars, urchins, and anemones covered the shoreline rocks exposed by low tide. River Otters, minks, and weasels made almost daily appearances and I even had three deer walk right into my camp one evening. The Inside Passage is a great place for any wildlife lover to go exploring and view an incredible variety of wild animals in their natural environment. Whether you cover the entire route, or just pick a section of it to paddle, you are guaranteed to spot lots of interesting wildlife along the way.
by Denis Dwyer
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.