Paddling in Alaska's Soundscape
By Hannah Hindley, Expedition Guide on the Wilderness Adventurer
We were just leaving a bay and had begun paddling toward the calm open water of Chatham Strait when we heard it: the low billowy huff, like air being pulled into an accordion. A whale was breathing nearby!
We scanned the horizon, and across the bay, we saw the exhalation itself wafting, cloudlike, across the water. The humpback surfaced again, and we listened to the sound of its breath carry across the water to where we sat motionless, drifting in our kayaks. The whale’s back glistened as it rolled and dove near the shoreline, where it was likely pursuing silvery little baitfish along the steep rocks.
We had been out the whole day, paddling from our anchorage in Takatz Bay out into a neighboring inlet on the wild eastern coast of Baranof Island. We’d pulled our kayaks ashore at lunchtime and bushwhacked under old-growth Western Hemlock trees and a colorful canopy of moss.
All day, in our kayaks and onshore, the rain had been our constant companion. It pooled on our spray skirts and glistened in beads on our eyelashes. The rain had made our dry cockpits feel cozier and had made the forest appear more vibrant—a kaleidoscope of dripping green.
But now, as we sat listening to the nearby whale, I realized that the rain was also making the world around us sound better. The wet air carried the noise of the whale’s breath so well that it sounded as if it were breathing right next to us, as if it might surface right among our kayaks.
We could hear the high-pitched peeping of little marbled murrelets from where they paddled in the glassy water. Behind us on the near shore, we could almost hear the drip of water splish-splashing down from the upper canopy and into the lower branches. Everything seemed intimate and amplified.
The rain percussed all around us like a thousand little drumbeats: on the decks of our kayaks, on the lids of our hats, on the flat sea all around us. Between the huffy inhalations of the humpback and the patter of rain, we had found ourselves in the middle of an entrancing soundscape. Our ears were full of whale breath and birdsong and the encircling magic of falling water.
As we rounded the final bend, we could hear the hum of the Wilderness Adventurer herself—the mothership—waiting for us with rumbling generators and the promise of a cozy return after a long day out in the elements.