Gustavus is surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park and on the fourth by Icy Passage, a one-and-a-half mile wide body of salt water. On the other side of Icy Passage is Pleasant Island, a hilly wilderness area inhabited only by deer, bald eagles, bears, and other wildlife. The shores and streams are fringed by old growth rain forest while much of the interior is muskeg, a combination of grassy fields, lodge pole pine and small ponds. We gather at the Gustavus dock at 9 a.m. to don life jackets, spray skirts and rubber boots. Even though most of our guests have never been in a sea kayak, they are pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, stable, and secure our two-person boats feel. In rain and wind our guests are warm and dry under the covered decks. All you need to enjoy one of these trips is the ability to walk two miles and a sense of adventure.
After basic boat safety and handling instructions, we set off for Pleasant Island. Crossing Icy Passage, we keep an eye out for the sea otters, porpoises, sea lions, minke whales, orca ("killer whales"), and seals we sometimes see in these waters. As we rhythmically dip our paddles we see a variety of sea birds - gulls, guillemots, murrelets, and loons. Upon reaching the island we are usually greeted by a bald eagle, and in the shallows along shore are a multitude of intertidal creatures - starfish, limpets, chitons, crabs, barnacles, anemones, and a host of others. We view them from our kayaks as we drift in the shallow water. Eventually we reach a beach where we disembark to enjoy a lunch of smoked salmon, chowder or the like with fresh baked bread, jams and other fine fare.
On clear days we dine with a fantastic view of the Fairweather Mountains, and we can often hear and see humpback whales breaching and slapping the water with their fins in the distance. Next we explore the trail-less rain forest. We push aside the boughs that droop to the ground at the edge as if they were the doors to a cathedral, and enter the dim, green, moist interior of these ancient woods. Twenty-seven species of ferns and 80 kinds of moss carpet the floor in cushiony green and are draped from the branches of old trees. Unlike the young groves of Gustavus and Bartlett Cove, this forest is truly old growth. Thousands of years before the sand upon which Gustavus now stands was even deposited, centuries-old trees grew here on Pleasant Island. In the relative open of the muskeg bloom wildflowers of many kinds.
We pick our way through the blueberry bushes and over the rotting logs, soaking up the ambience of this special place. After we return to the beach and a snack, we paddle home to Gustavus to complete our day. Or, if overnighting on Pleasant Island, we paddle on to our campsite and prepare a fine dinner of fresh local seafood and wild edibles, while relaxing around our driftwood campfire. Later, the gentle lapping of waves lulls us to sleep. Our second full day allows time to explore farther along the shoreline watching wildlife, improving our paddle stroke, beachcombing, seeing the tides come and go, and fishing for salmon. Extend your stay to circumnavigate this true primeval wilderness and explore Pleasant Island's "satellite" islands.
With more time, we may hike through the island's arch and see its pillars. Or walk in the rain forest to a small, clear lake, possibly even to the top of the "Knob" - the island's ancient volcanic core. During this time, we are also alert for signs of wildlife - the cry of a bald eagle, the bleat of a black tail fawn, the explosive Whoosh! of a whale's breath, or the silent surfacing of a seal's smooth, bald head. On the return paddle we may well wonder at all the activities we fit into these few days. Participants in these trips experience a wilderness island's beach, old-growth rainforest and muskeg bogs, some of Southeast's wildlife, and paddling the tide water of the inside passage. Not many visitors take the time and effort to see the Alaskan wilderness this close, but those who do are richly rewarded.
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