PUBLISHED: 11:20 AM on Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Winter Vacation on a Juneau Beach
Exploring Southeast

Whether it's just a picnic or an overnight camping trip, all it takes is warm gear to make the beaches in Southeast Alaska just as appealing in February as in July.

Our big white canvas tent ensures warm and cozy comfort for eating and evening activities. One year, for the three-day President's Day weekend, we invited a number of our friends to join us for a weekend of winter fun on the beach at Sunshine Cove (mile 35.4 north of Juneau). They were welcome to spend all or part of the weekend, or to just drop in for a picnic. Our plans were flexible, so it didn't matter how many people actually came. Everyone who wanted to stay overnight would bring their own small tent; we'd use the big white tent for cooking, eating, and visiting space.

We had been having a stretch of very mild weather, but the temperature started dropping during the week before the holiday. We knew that with the white tent, and good winter sleeping bags, we were going to be comfortable and have fun. However, because not many of our friends had any winter camping experience, we feared they might not realize that. The temperature was 0? at our house that Friday morning. My husband, Kim, took Friday off so that he could set up camp.

By evening, with the big canvas tent, two small tents and a generous supply of firewood split for the stove, everything was ready. He also had four canoes and two kayaks down by the water. There were six campers that night. By morning, the temperature moderated to 22? and snow started falling while we ate breakfast.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  When the weather calmed, everyone was able to put the canoes, kayaks and diving gear to good use.
Our agenda listed "aquarium paddling" to enjoy the minus tide that occurred at 8:46 a.m. that morning. Drifting by the shore in a canoe or kayak, looking down on sea stars, anemones and an assortment of sub-tidal creatures has always seemed like visiting one of the big commercial aquariums down south.

However, even in the protected cove, the water looked a bit rough. Our daughter Kathy and another camper had brought their diving gear. Either at high or low tide is the best time to dive because there isn't so much current then. We all helped them get their heavy gear to the water's edge. Getting ready to dive was a chilly process.

In the icy wind, Kathy's hands quickly became painfully cold because she couldn't wear her mittens while she was connecting the hoses. The waves knocked her over as she waded backwards into the water. Backwards is the easiest way to walk with fins. They had only been down a few minutes when her diving partner popped to the surface again. His regulator had frozen and malfunctioned, causing him to loose all the air in his tank. He hadn't been able to get Kathy's attention.

According to diving rules, Kathy shouldn't have stayed down after she lost track of her partner. Therefore, we spent an anxious half hour, wondering why she didn't come up. For once, the fact that I'd known this 19-year-old to stretch a few rules gave me some reassurance. Kim and another friend, Drew Seilback, launched a canoe through the surf and found her bubbles, thus further improving my mood.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  In this winter storm, the waters of Lynn Canal were pounding into the cliffs at the end of Sunshine Cove.
The truth of the matter was that Kathy was having a very enjoyable dive. The floor of the cove was covered with sea pens and other interesting things. She didn't feel there were any unusual hazards. She decided it was safe to assume that her partner was OK wherever he was and that she would be OK without him.

I was anxiously scanning the surface of the waves when I saw a dark head break the surface. I had no sooner called to the others, "She's up!" than the head disappeared again. We realized that the head belonged to a big sea lion and it had just gone down right beside Kathy's bubbles. We later learned that she was on her way up when she saw the sea lion, about fifteen feet away from her.

Fortunately, her diving instructor had included some information on sea lion encounter do's and don'ts. In sea lion body language, remaining horizontal in the water signifies peaceful intentions while orienting vertically and blowing bubbles is a sign of hostility. An ascending diver is in a vertical position and venting lots of bubbles as they depressurize their suit. She quickly decided that this would be a good time for a decompression stop, reoriented herself into a horizontal position, and bubbled as little as possible while the sea lion looked her over and swam away. She told us that it had looked huge and incredibly graceful. Kathy had gathered lots of interesting specimens for the non-divers to see.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  With a small wood stove, a wall tent can be as warm and cozy as a cabin.
John and Diane Lohrey and their baby arrived in the late morning. We all enjoyed lunch in the big tent. Kim then gave a mini-class on what causes the tides. Drew, who had recently moved to Juneau from Missouri, had asked for some information on this subject. Another family, the Timothys, arrived in the afternoon. They'd brought scuba gear and a kayak, but with the howling wind and crashing waves, it didn't look like there would be much opportunity to use it.

While they were getting their tent set up and exploring around camp, John, Kim, and I hiked out to the western end of Sunshine Cove. From a vantage point on this steep headland we watched the big waves rolling in from Lynn Canal. The dark water would turn emerald before it exploded on the rocks. White waterfalls gushed down the rocks forming an aquamarine swath of bubbles and water that churned along the ragged shoreline. While we were there, a lone sea lion bull swam out of the cove and surfaced repeatedly just off the point. The big waves didn't seem to bother him although he looked like a brown sock tumbling in a huge washing machine when he'd come up for air near the crest of a wave. We watched, entranced by the waves and the sea lion, until we were too cold to stay any longer.

We enjoyed the evening in the big tent, visiting and reading stories. The next morning, snow was still falling steadily, but the wind had stopped. Everyone made good use of the canoes, kayaks or diving gear around the small islands. With the deep snow, no other friends arrived that day. The rest of our group needed to return to town, so Kim and I were alone that evening. We went for a quiet canoe paddle in the gathering dusk, following the shoreline south out of the cove.

A river otter was swimming near a rocky point. After paddling into a cove where we enjoyed the beauty of the snow-covered trees and rocks beside the dark water, we turned back toward camp. We had as cozy an evening in the luxury of the white tent and as if we'd been in a cabin. Monday we packed up. We'd gotten at least 14 inches of snow in the past two days. Although we regretted that the weather had prevented as many people coming to enjoy the camp as had planned, we had a great time. We were glad that we could share it with a few of our friends.