This week on the Wilderness Explorer has been particularly awesome, from polar-plunging in front of Sawyer Glacier to seeing adolescent sea lions jockey for position to look at a group of kayakers from barely ten feet away. However, the time that I felt most connected to Alaska this week was kayaking at Robert and Crow Islands near Frederick Sound and having the time to listen to the wilderness.
The paddle was an early one, the type where you squint your eyes at the sky trying to determine, fog or rain? As my group of kayakers began to get ready, the universe decided fog and the sun fought to burn through it, lift it, and whip it around until we could see our destination at Walpole Island. We talked about breakfast while pulling on our spray skirts and checking our cameras. Soon enough, we were headed to the fantail to depart for the morning.
My group was not a loud group and so the first sounds upon leaving the boat were the paddles dipping gently into the depths and coming back up with some clinging droplets that trailed behind us as we headed to the shoreline. The second sound we heard were eagles making their trademark chip high up in the treetops. The eagles seemed to be chattering about us as we cut through the last wisps of fog and towards their high perches on the island above.
Suddenly, the snapping sound wings make when they’re caught with air fills our ears as large birds lazily swooped and circled above us as we craned our necks to watch them.
We continued paddling after a bit and ran into our first sea lions of the trip as we made our crossing to Walpole. About four of them swam in front of us like horses drawing a chariot and their bodies twined gently and softly around each other. Every so often, they would look over their shoulders to make sure they still had our attention and sneeze and pretend to ignore us as they charged away again. Soon the sea lions were drawn away by a group of silvery salmon, and we reached Walpole. We encountered another eagle perched on the far edge of the island, his eyes scanning the water for prey. He looked at us loftily and his stance let us know this was his island and he wasn’t moving.
As we circled around the back of the island, seals began to pop out of the water like little stones on the top of the water. Unlike their cousins the sea lion, seals are shy with liquid pools of black for eyes and large heart-shaped nostrils. They bob inquisitively at the surface and then dip out of view with barely a ripple. If you give them enough time, they pop up behind you to observe from a safer distance.
The seals trailed behind us as we worked down the island and then in an instant were gone. In Tlingit myths, the seals were keepers of a third dimension that they regularly opened to humans in distress by lifting up the corner of the sea and inviting them to safety. I like to think that these seals were the same.
As we headed around the island and back towards the boat it became eerily quiet and little fish began flailing out of the water. Suddenly a humpback whale came up in the middle of our group and released a breath that he must have been holding for a while. This was the most memorable sound of the paddle. The sound of a whale breaching is something that can’t be recorded or explained or described. It’s something you have to hear for yourself.
As the kayakers grouped up we watched the whale roll and breathe, flip, and finally fluke. We floated for a minute in silence, and then a woman said, “Thank you for showing me that.”
As always I responded, “Don’t thank me, thank Alaska.”