Kayaking Glacier Bay
Put your boat in the water at the Park Service dock in Bartlett Cove, stow your gear aboard, and start paddling. You are already in Beardslee Island waters. After a few minutes of paddling, the initial adrenaline rush of finally getting started wears off, and you can look around.
The island forming the opposite shore of Bartlett Cove, directly to the north, is Lester Island, largest of the group. The route leads northeast, around the east end of Lester Island. If possible, plan to paddle the channel between the island and mainland during slack water at high tide. This will give you a reasonable amount of time before strong currents affect the channel. If you wait too long after slack water, when the tide is ebbing, this channel will go dry. If you are in the middle when this happens, it will mean a long wait for the water to return.
At 0.5 mile from the dock, you pass Lagoon Island on your right. You round the east end of Lester Island 1 mile after Lagoon. Now a cove, some 0.5 mile deep, opens up on your right. The Bartlett River enters here. Two small islands, which are not wooded as is the shore of the cove behind them, occupy the center of the bay. Unfortunately, much of this cove turns to mud at low tide, except for the Bartlett River channel.
The route leads northwest from the cove, passing between an east point of Lester Island some 0.7 mile ahead and an opposing mainland point several hundred yards away to the east. Just past the points, a narrow waterway leading eastward is shown on your chart. Rising land has dried out this passage, and the former island on your right is now a peninsula.
Watch for black oyster catchers here, working along the shore on your left. Lester Island does not offer favorable campsites along this shore. Even if a spot looks good at high tide, the gently sloping, muddy bottom could make a long hike necessary when the tide is out.
Continue northwest heading from the dry passage, and paddle near a point of mainland to the east in 0.5 mile. Soon you pass on your left a channel that separates Lester and the neighboring island to the north, but which is only bare rocks and mud at low tide. Leaving Lester Island behind, you head due north opposite a small, 0.5-mile-long island on the west. From the 0.5-mile-long island, a paddle of 2.7 miles heading just east of north will take you near the center of Hutchins Bay. Here, glacial gouging resulted in the deepest water in the Beardslee group, just over 200 feet deep. The bottom at that depth is shown on charts as being rocky, suggesting that it may be bedrock, and not overlain with the glacial till and silt that form the Beardslee Islands themselves.
From the center of Hutchins Bay, to your right (east) is a half-mile-long, rounded cove, with a sizable stream running through it. The terrain forming the drainage area for this stream is nearly flat; lakes lie along the stream course inland 1.5 miles from the mouth. This is an area favored by black bears. These animals are commonly seen along the mainland shore, as well as on the islands.
To the north is a 2-mile-long fiord-like cove that is 0.5 mile wide at the mouth but quickly narrows to a few hundred yards. A lake lies in the center of the peninsula forming the west side of this cove. Its outlet stream empties a quarter mile east of the southern end of the peninsula. On topo map Juneau (C-6) the topo survey mark SOLE is located on the southwest point of the peninsula.
Kidney Island forms the southwest shore of Hutchins Bay, and provides several good camping spots from its midriff northward along the east, north, and west shores. Any grassy spot with a view northeast into the Bay Park Wilderness is a good bet. Be sure to select a steeply sloping beach where you will be able to easily return to the water at low tide.
From the north point of Kidney Island, head north, and follow the main land shore. Soon Link Island will be on your left (west). There are several good campsites on both the east and west sides of Link; sunset views over nearby wooded islands are an added bonus on the west side. Between Link and the mainland are rocks in the middle of the channel that are laid bare at low tide. Paddle 2 miles north, past two distinct coves along the north shore that penetrate the forest a half mile. Your route will curve west around the north end of Link Island.
Just a few years ago, there was a choice of two routes at this location. This choice is probably shown on your chart. Northwest 0.5 mile from the north end of Link Island, a narrow passage is shown as leading north into Beartrack Cove. Unfortunately, this channel is no longer passable. Rising land has drained this passage, even at high tide. If you want the option of paddling into Beartrack Cove, this is a good place to start.
If you don't want to enter Beartrack Cove, head west around the north end of Link Island; then paddle 2 miles southwest to reach the center of the midriff cluster. The western midriff islands of the Beardslee group are made up of nine islands separated by narrow channels. Years ago, the Beardslee family operated a commercial fox farm on the larger island in the center of the cluster. There is little left of this enterprise except a few pilings in a south-shore cove. The fox farm location is shown on topo map Juneau (B-6), but you have little hope of reaching it because of the substantial undergrowth.
The midriff cluster is an excellent place to explore. The channels are narrow, and there are lots of coves through which to paddle. The rapid uplift of the area has caused a nuisance, however. Extensive mud flats are uncovered at low tide. Make sure you are not stranded on a mud flat with the tide ebbing. There is an excellent campsite on the west end of the northernmost islet in this group just south of the survey marked SWIM on the topo map. Here a startling view of the awesome Fairweather Range will delight the paddler. A sunset from this spot is memorable.
Southwest of this cluster is the Beardslee Entrance, a channel of the main bay with strong currents. Few paddlers visit sizable Strawberry island, which separates Beardslee Entrance from Sitakaday Narrows. An open crossing of more than a mile is required to reach Strawberry. Unless you are an experienced kayaker or in a capable group, it may be better not to venture to Strawberry Island. Before you go, check for wildlife closures.
From the midriff islands, paddle 1.5 miles southeast to Spider Island, which, at about 0.2 mile long, is the largest of a group of five or six islets. Pass close to Eider Island, 0.7 mile south of Spider (20 miles from Bartlett Cove). Spider, Eider and other islets in this area are frequented by hundreds of sea birds, so do not go ashore on these islands. You may also see concentrations of seals on the rocks in this vicinity. The Park Service closes the area in the vicinity of Spider Island in deference to the seals. Be sure to check closures in effect at the time you plan to paddle. Continue 0.5 mile due south of Eider towards the north shore of a 2-mile-long, unnamed island. Paddle west around that island, through the channel between it and Young Island.
Paddling southeast through this channel leads you into fascinating, calm Secret Bay. This is another excellent area to explore at leisure. Waters are very protected, and currents are light except in the channels during times of midflow. The best campsites can be found here, as at other spots in Glacier Bay, by searching in suitable areas that have three or four fathoms of depth close to the shore. Such sites ensure that you will be able to come and go with your boat, without wading through acres of mud as the tide goes out. Several good campsites await you in this bay.
From idyllic Secret Bay, you could return to Bartlett Cove by paddling east along the north shore of Lester Island, turning south around its east end, and entering Bartlett Cove by the same route on which you set out. From there it is a 1-mile paddle to the Park Service dock. Just remember that this is a high-tide-only route.
A more adventuresome route leads southeast between Lester and Young Islands. Passable at high tide only, this channel opens out into the large expanse of Glacier Bay just south of Sitakaday Narrows. Strong currents are the rule in the Narrows, so stay close to shore. Some kelp patches offer limited wave protection. From the west end of this channel, paddle east-southeast along the shore of Lester Island; within 1 mile you round a point (27.5 miles from the start) and enter the more placid waters of Bartlett Cove. From the south point of Lester Island it is a 1.5-mile paddle east to the Park Service dock.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication