Chichagof Island, northernmost and second largest of Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, is separated from the mainland by an extension of the Inside Passage. The glaciers which gouged this waterway to depths of over 1,000 feet carved on Chichagof a shoreline so convoluted that it measures 742 miles in length -as long as the coast of a circular island 20 times as large.
On its western side this island of mountains, rain forest and muskeg meets the Pacific Ocean - but not abruptly. No, there are hundreds of tiny forested islets within a mile of the much-indented shore which create an "inside passage" in miniature, a series of small connected passages, bays and fjords sheltered form the storms of the Gulf of Alaska.
This is perfect kayaking country. The many islands form an enchanting maze, with passages branching and re-joining in a bewildering labyrinth - all the more so because some "passes" are alternately passable or not depending on the height of the tide. From these calm waters we make forays (weather permitting) to outer islands where we ride gentle swells from the ocean and watch as they break and foam on the rocks.
Once a busy gold mining region, only small pockets of activity continue in holdings. The rest of the area is in the West Chichagof-Yakobi wilderness area of the Tongass National Forest. Among the abandoned mine shafts and tunnels which we visit grow wildflowers, alder, and seedling spruce; people are few. Indeed, even Alaskan parks seem crowded compared to this area, where in a week we are likely to see only a commercial fishing boat or two. Instead there is the wildlife - the river otters, deer, brown bears, sea lions, gray whales and many harbor seals, sea otters and bald eagles.
We begin our expedition with a sea plane flight or boat ride from Gustavus to Ogden Passage. After assembling our kayaks, packing our gear, and learning basic paddling skills, we head for the outer islands and their shell beaches, rocky cliffs, and forests of pine and grass. We ride long swells, watch sea otters, and look back at the mountains of Chichagof Island. For several days we meander among island groups - now rounding rocky headlands with waves crashing against the rocks; and then paddling into the long twilight of these northern latitudes with the continual murmur of the ocean as background.
Eventually we head back "inside," where from still fjords and bays we explore the dim rain forest with its mossy carpet and towering spruce. We also hike into the muskeg, with its stunted, bonsai-like lodgepole pine, grassy meadows, and many small pools. But one of our greatest thrills is to paddle to the head of a bay or harbor.
Here, far from the foaming surf, we witness the spectacle of salmon swimming upriver by the thousand! They are so numerous that we cannot wade the river without them swimming between our legs. The physical changes that go with spawning have given these fish fierce-looking hooked jaws, humped backs, and have mottled their sides with red and green.
Grizzly bears have trampled down the grass of the banks and scattered salmon carcasses, half-eaten, for the bald eagles and gulls to finish. More often than not we are privileged to see one or more bears fishing, playing, or just watching us warily. And the fishing is, indeed, great! We have no trouble catching a meal or two of fresh salmon or trout, a meal which gives us food for thought, nourishes our spirits, and connects us with the land.
The pickup in the calm lagoon of Dry Pass seems too soon, and we are sad to leave the wilderness and the group that has become such friends here. At least we have been together for a week, long enough to become a part of both.
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