PUBLISHED: 12:01 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Canoeing With Marine Mammals

  Watching a breaching whale from the perspective of a canoe was an experience of a lifetime.
In Louis L'Amour's novel about Southeast Alaska, Sitka, the hero, grasshoppered a ship between two long inlets on Chichagof Island. Though I've always thought that was a little unlikely, I do know it is a good spot to portage a canoe. Both Hoonah, on the northern end of Port Fredrick, and Tenakee on the eastern end of Tenakee Inlet have ferry service, greatly simplifying logistics for a 60-mile canoe trip between these two towns. Some years ago my husband, Kim, and I accompanied by our daughter, Kathy, and nephew, Dan, did this trip. Both of the kids were 14 years old at the time. Canoeing for 8 days gave us the opportunity to enjoy close encounters with an assortment of marine mammals.

With the late June daylight, we canoed about six miles up Port Fredrick even though we hadn't reached Hoonah until after dinner. In the early morning the next day, I heard a whale go past heading toward the mouth of Port Fredrick. After we'd been on the water about an hour, it overtook us coming back the other way. Seeing whales is one of the many things that sets a saltwater trip apart. I'd watched a tiny shrew in the forest by camp before we set out. The whale represented the other end of the mammal spectrum. The whales on this trip were a new experience for Dan, fresh from his inland background. However, for all of us, seeing whales is always something special. The whale came up less than 100 yards from Kathy and Dan's canoe with its mouth wide open and about 20 feet of head and jaw towering out of the water. When it had sunk back beneath the water and they were rocking in the waves it made, they both knew they'd seen a whale like they'd never seen one before. The whale had probably come up through a school of small fish or krill, scooping water and straining the food out on the bony curtains of baleen that hang in its mouth.

Near Midway Island, we encountered another whale. Though there was no more surface feeding behavior such as Kathy and Dan had so closely witnessed earlier, we got close looks at its black back and the blow hole as it came up to breath. Beyond Midway Island, Port Frederick constricts into a half-mile wide passage. Rather than going further up the inlet, the whale turned there and swam back toward Hoonah. It was about a quarter of a mile away from us when we heard a noise like an explosion. When we spun around to look, the white curtains of water falling were all that was to be seen where the whale had breached. Merely the opportunity to hear it had been awesome. As we watched, the whale rocketed out of the water again, crashing down in another thunderous circle of white. Again, it came up, then went down with another mighty boom. I'd never before seen a breech so well and the sound was as thrilling as the sight. The whale then started slapping the water with its pectoral fins. All the while, it was getting farther and father away from us. We sat spell bound through another sequence of breaching, then more fin slapping. By this time, it was two miles away from us, and the sound was so far behind the sight that the whale would be completely gone and the water calm by the time we'd hear the last slap in a series. It was an exciting encounter.

That evening, we portaged into Tenakee Inlet. With the four of us shuttling gear, it didn't matter too much that we didn't wait for high tide to make the distance as short as possible. Many long, shallow bays extend from the southwestern side of Tenakee Inlet. Creeks meander across extensive tidal flats into the head of each bay. These drainages are pristine wildlife habitat, wide and flat, extending several miles back from the salt water. As we rounded the corner into the first bay, we heard a very peculiar noise. Somewhere between a roar and a moan, mixed with strange gurgling noise, it sounded savage and ferocious. Search though we would with the binoculars, there was nothing to be seen in the water or on the several hundred yards of grassy flats beyond it. Though faint with distance, there was no mistaking that it was a very loud noise. It seemed to be coming from the upper end of the bay, about a half-mile away. Frequently stopping to look and to listen, we paddled in that direction. It would have been a very alarming noise to have heard from our tents in the middle of the night. It kept us highly alert as it was. We speculated that it must be bears fighting somewhere in the willows beyond the grass flats. As we got closer to the head of the bay, we began to discern a large group of gray forms at the water's edge. The noise seemed to be emanating from them. After a little more paddling, we could see that it was a mass of harbor seals lying on the muddy beach. Whether they were fighting, mating, or just singing seal songs, we never knew.

Day by day, we continued on the southwest side of Tenakee Inlet. Sea lions are the one marine mammal with which, over the years, we've had alarming encounters. Perhaps Kim had not made it sufficiently clear on previous days that cutting straight across coves instead of following the coast line wasn't a good plan in a canoe. To the kids, it seemed like an expedient solution to the problems they had keeping up. They were far from us and far from shore when Kathy identified the brown head, which popped to the surface just a little behind their canoe, as a sea lion. Fortunately, after looking them over, it decided to leave them alone, but it added some adrenaline to their paddling. It was the only sea lion we saw on the trip.

We remained on the southwest side of the inlet. As we were paddling between Kadashan Bay and Corner Bay, we saw the first deer of this trip. It ran out a long gravel spit and to our surprise, continued right on into the salt water up to its neck. Then, as quickly as it had walked into the water, the deer reversed its direction, came out of the water, and disappeared into the trees. It certainly wasn't clear what its intentions had been. The next day we saw a fawn run into deep water, but fortunately we were able to rescue it. Deer are good swimmers, but maybe calling them marine mammals is stretching it a bit.

We camped that night beyond the cliffs north of Corner Bay. In sight of the mouth of Tenakee Inlet, the wide water of Chatham Strait and the mountains of Admiralty Island, this was one of the most scenic beach camps of the trip. Here we enjoyed another land mammal that does a lot of saltwater swimming. A group of nine river otters were in the bay in front of camp. We watched them come out and run across the beach into the trees in an undulating line like a long brown inchworm. From the comfort of our sleeping bags, we observed a whale working its way up the inlet past our camp, then later coming by again, heading out to Chatham Strait.

We all were sorry for this trip to end, having come to treasure the opportunity to canoe on the water with Alaska's marine mammals.