Alaska for Beginners : How First-Time Visitors Can Get the Most out of a Visit to America's Last Frontier

By Gorman, Stephen | The World and I, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Alaska for Beginners : How First-Time Visitors Can Get the Most out of a Visit to America's Last Frontier


Gorman, Stephen, The World and I


I stop paddling, and the kayak glides across the silky smooth surface of the fjord. Reaching down into the water with outstretched hands, I feel the cold black ocean rush between my fingers until the little vessel loses momentum and gradually slides to a halt. Just then, only a few yards away to my left, a seal pops to the surface and stares at me, looking for all the world like a big black Labrador retriever. The seal swims to-and-fro for a minute, trying to figure me out, and then vanishes.

Leaning against the backrest, I stretch my shoulder muscles and look up and around at the bright ring of snowcapped mountains chiseling the flawless blue sky. One of the peaks blocks the morning sunlight, tossing a long dark shadow across Jackpot Bay in the glacier-carved heart of Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Paddling forward again, I break out from the shadow of the mountain and enter a vast pool of dazzling light. Half a mile off to my right, a veterinarian from Long Island paddles toward a little island where she hopes to photograph a bald eagle sitting in the top of a tall tree. Half a mile to my left, an electrical engineer from California and his wife stroke their tandem kayak toward a meadow of lush wildflowers.

Back where I launched, a woman with an impish grin, a self-described Cheese Head (a Green Bay Packers fan) who works at the Natural History Museum of Milwaukee, sits in a comfortable folding chair on the stern deck of our little vessel, the Babkin, where she contentedly jigs for halibut while sipping on a breakfast beer. Fishing for halibut is something she'd always wanted to try, she had told me as I got in my kayak, but she'd had no idea she'd have the chance to on this trip.

Atop the flying bridge, her blonde hair cascading down to her shoulders, is our captain, Alexandra von Wichman. When she sees me looking back over my shoulder, she waves and flashes a megawatt smile that brightens my morning from two hundred yards away.

Pointing the bow toward the mouth of a stream rushing out of the forest, I cruise over to where the little river tumbles over a waterfall and splashes into the sea. As I paddle, the bottom gradually reaches up for my kayak's hull. Suddenly I can see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of long oval shapes suspended beneath the surface.

These pink and silver salmon are staging at the base of the falls, waiting for the tide to rise and carry them over the cascade blocking their way to their spawning grounds upstream. While some are still full of vitality, others lie dead or dying on the shore or are strewn along the bottom. Some, still alive but with their life cycle complete, fin feebly through the shallows, literally decomposing before my eyes in the swirls of gentle current.

The shadow of my kayak passes over squadrons of fish still among the living that dart away in panic. Not wishing to interfere with their long and ultimately fatal journey, I nestle the boat into a little eddy up against the shore where I can watch the fish without adding to their stress. Eventually the other kayakers paddle over and join me. We exchange a few words about the fish, the eagle, and the seal, then watch as the salmon try to hurl themselves up the silvery ribbons of water.

I notice that we are no longer alone with the fish. Not thirty yards away a big black bear has silently, magically, appeared from the forest. Focusing on the fish, it ambles into the stream and scoops a salmon from the water, strips the rich meat from the bone, and then scoops another. Fortunately, the gentle breeze is wafting from the bear's direction; since we remain perfectly still, it never sees us.

Eventually the bear tires of the game or is full, for it vanishes back into the spruce and hemlock. When it is gone, we kayakers share smiles and a few words of appreciation for the unexpected visit.

We were unknown to one another until yesterday, strangers thrown together on a twelve-day Alaskan journey. …

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