Kenai Wilderness Cabin

Surprise Encounters
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We've brought a single Klepper as well as the double and on our fourth day, Dave and I go on separate adventures. He follows the east shore while I head west toward an unnamed, 900-foot waterfall. It's a gray, still, foggy day and an almost invisible mist settles upon me. The arm has a peaceful, surreal feel to it. Even the birds are quiet.

I'm nearly halfway across when I notice the fall's deep, throbbing song. It reminds me of the rhythmic rumblings of a distant freight train or faraway thunderstorm. Looking through binoculars I see whitewater sheets cascading through a narrow slot in the bedrock. They bounce along dark gray canyon walls before dropping hundreds of feet in a free-fall. Elegantly powerful, the waterfall is a dazzling, musical pendant strung across the mountainside's dark body. Tuned into the fall's deep voice, I will later hear it from our cabin's waterfront: a deep resonant throbbing that plays bass to our nearby creek's higher-pitched gurgling.

While I'm chasing waterfalls, Dave is again stalking wildlife. By day's end he'll paddle among sea otters and porpoises and watch a black bear mom with two cubs fish for salmon. But his most memorable encounter will come later, when he meets a clan of river otters.

We'd first seen the otters in the saltwater shallows near our creek. Six of them swam 30 to 40 yards offshore, diving, splashing, chasing each other. With binoculars we could see they were fishing—and having great success. Time and again they surfaced with silvery, minnow-size fish in their mouths. After 15 or 20 minutes of unabashed gorging, they moved on up the arm single file, heads and tails dipping rhythmically in and out of the water.

Approaching Otters
Two days after that first sighting, Dave hikes to a rocky point of land and discovers several small piles of bone and shell fragments. Guessing it to be an otter dining spot, he stakes it out; 90 minutes later, the otter family arrives. The two adults are chocolate brown, their four offspring almost black. The otters soon sense there's a stranger in their midst. But instead of retreating, they curiously approach to within 15 feet. Reaching a bed of kelp, the otters lose interest in Dave and instead roll around in the seaweed; a couple pee on the kelp, marking it with their scent. After several minutes of ritualized rolling and peeing, the otters return to the salt water. Dave sits in silent wonder, luxuriating in his good fortune.

Our last morning at North Arm, Dave and I go for a final beach walk. Standing on the otter's rock, we watch a hundred pinks that have schooled up in the water below. Unlike the frenetic, struggling salmon we've seen in the shallow creeks, these swim placidly in circles to form a slow-motion, submarine pinwheel of fish. Every now and then one of the salmon—usually a male—launches itself into the air, landing with a loud splash. We watch silently, mesmerized by this mass of swirling, jumping fish, by their mix of grace and zestfulness.

Our pilot arrives right on time, shortly after noon. But before we leave, Dave returns to the empty cabin and writes in its logbook. His entry says it all: "Another memorable trip. First time in a floatplane, first time to a wilderness area on the coast, first time in a kayak. I have a hard time putting into words the beauty and wildness this area has given me . . . I hope to come back here sometime, but if I don't, I'll always have the memories within me. And when I'm back in New York state, on some cold winter day, I can sit by my wood stove and daydream about the great trip to Kenai Fjord's North Arm."


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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