Kickin' Back on the Kenai

Kayaking Resurrection Bay
The author (left) and friend on Resurrection Bay
The author (left) and friend on Resurrection Bay

I encountered Eddy the Advice Man five days into my trip. Bythen, I was already in hot pursuit of the Kenai's many delights. In fact,I had just spent the day shoehorned into a kayak, silently knifingthrough frigid Resurrection Bay. Tom Twigg, an architect turnedguide, took me and three other novices out for a ten-mile spin.We embarked from a smooth sliver of beach on the outskirts of Sewardunder a blessedly blue late-summer sky. The true beauty of a kayak isn't its portability but rather itsidiot-proof buoyancy. Twigg gave us a brief orientation on paddlestrokes and weight distribution and reminded us of the Coast Guard's 50 - 50 rule for cold-water survival ("The average person has a 50 percentchance to swim fifty yards"). On that sobering note, we shovedoff; Twigg in a solo kayak, the rest of us doubling up.

The day before I had cruised the bay on a 150-passengersightseeing ship. It zipped along at 23 knots, doing an elongated loopinto a fjord that dead-ended at the glistening lip of Holgate Glacier.That wall of ancient ice thundered as house-sized chunks cleaved off andcrashed into the water. Passengers gleefully shouted at the glacierin a weird attempt to induce even more calving. During the six-hourexcursion, cormorants and red-necked phalaropes darted overhead,plump sea lions sunbathed on helipads of exposed rock, and a pod oforcas cavorted in the boat's froth. Splendid sights all, but slightlydiminished by the cattle-car viewing conditions. I later learned thatthe ship I was on had accidentally rammed a humpback whale a few monthsearlier, leaving me with an additional sour aftertaste.

I hoped that a little low-key kayaking would provide anantidote to assembly-line ecotourism. It did. Skimming around at sea-lion level, I felt sprung from a cage. We were part of the actualsideshow of the bay, not gawkers holding admission tickets. Hornedpuffins gaped from the nooks of exposed cliff face we paddled under,tucked tight in their holes like letters in post office boxes. Baldeagles lazed overhead, riding the thermals and oozing majesty.(Whenever I saw one in Alaska — and they're as common as crows — myfirst thought invariably was"What the hell was Benjamin Franklinthinking when he tried to make the turkey our national bird?")

Twigg led us up a side creek that was barely knee deep yetrunning heavy with red-colored chum salmon. Hundreds of them,hyperkinetic as jumping beans, wiggled beneath us. Their mouths andjaws were grotesquely deformed by the same strange hormonalexplosion that propels them ever onward to oblivion. "Dog salmon,"they're called. A hint perhaps of what they taste like. Chum are "mouthspawners," which means they don't need to bulk up for a long journeyupstream, the result being that there's not much meat on them.

"Once they hit fresh water," Twigg noted, "they're basicallyliving off themselves. They don't have as much fat and muscle fiber."The creek reeked of death while life rolled merrily along out inthe open bay

As we headed back at day's end, a lone sea otter did a slowfloat about thirty feet ahead of us. He was munching clams and we wereclose enough to hear the crack of shells breaking against his belly. Itmust be a tiresome existence. Sea otters can't produce blubber. Theydepend on their thick coats for warmth. To keep the hairs from mattingand losing insulation, they stay in constant motion, executing barrelroll after barrel roll.

"Sea otters and kayaks have played a big role in Alaska," Twiggsaid, as we fought a slight head wind. Our escort kept easy pace,snacking away. "The Russians basically enslaved the natives intocatching otters."

Vitus Bering's famous voyage of discovery in 1741initiated an especially bloody chapter in Alaskan history. Thoserich coats that protect the sea otters also make splendid clothing.Europeans developed an insatiable appetite for otter fur, and theRussians cornered the lucrative market with brutal efficiency.Native Aleuts were given the choice of slave labor or death.Subjugation took on the trappings of sport. Russian fur traders wereknown to line up rows of Aleut men and fire a musket into the firstperson's head, placing bets on how many skulls the bullet would passthrough. (The record was nine.)

Meanwhile, the sea otters were being mercilessly overhunted.In 1804 a single ship bore 15,000 furs back to Russia. By 1911 a fleet of 31 boats scrounged up only a dozenpelts. The sea otter was declared extinctin 1925, then miraculously a mother and pup were discovered six yearslater. The species gradually recovered. Fur trading is now a memory,but the sea otter remains just as valuable today as a symbol ofAlaska's tourism industry. Seward, a still-sleepy town of 3,000, is inthe throes of a miniboom. The multimillion dollar Alaska SeaLifeCenter, a combination museum and marine research facility, isnearing completion on the waterfront. The marina has swelled to 550slips and now accommodates jumbo cruise ships. There's more traffic onthe bay and veteran guides admit it's getting harder to find wildlife.

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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