PUBLISHED: 10:10 AM on Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Winter in Berners Bay

  When Berners Bay froze, it caused some problems for the canoe.
Despite the fact that Berners Bay is only about 35 miles north of Juneau, winter there is decidedly colder. The snow comes sooner, gets deeper, and stays longer. For the snowy half of the year it is a seldom-traveled area. In recent years, the road to Echo Cover, the launching point for Berners Bay, has been used increasingly, so is more likely to be passable except right after heavy snowstorms. Our daughter, Kathy, and her husband, Gerry, along with their daughter, Jessica, have done several Thanksgiving trips to the head of the bay in a skiff and a mid-winter trip to the cabin in a canoe when Jessica was a toddler.

Kathy and Gerry's February trip encountered full winter conditions. It was snowing hard as Gerry dragged the 17-foot canoe from the road through the deep snow. 20-month-old Jessica was asleep and tucked into the front of the canoe under a raincoat when they launched. Beyond Echo Cove, they began paddling through mild waves. Jessica awoke and happily sat on Kathy's lap watching eagles. Soon a sea lion came up between the canoe and shore. A couple more large ones appeared. They swam along beside the canoe expressing their curiosity with loud snorts as they peered out of the water. More sea lions joined the group. The pod came within four yards of the canoe a few times as Kathy's family ate and watched them a bit nervously. However, once they continued to paddle, the sea lions remained behind.

They reached the cabin after a 4 hour paddle. It was buried in snow, with just an old indent of a trail to it. They enjoyed a candlelight evening. The next morning a river otter was swimming in front of the cabin as they launched the canoe and paddled to the head of Berners Bay and into a slough. They pulled the canoe upstream a ways, then snowshoed with Jessica in a backpack. When they returned to the beach, a cold wind was blowing. Jessica began shivering, so they wrapped her in a wool blanket and sleeping bag. That, plus sitting on Kathy, kept her warm.

After a comfortable day at the cabin, they again canoed to the head of the bay and went for a hike. As they returned to the canoe, they realized that a large portion of Berners Bay was frozen, with snow covering some of the ice. With an air temperature of 15 degrees, the bay was beginning to freeze. The cabin was only half-a-mile away, but they weren't sure that they could make it. They went close to shore. Kathy jabbed the ice in front of the canoe with her paddle to clear the path. Some of the ice was too thick to break that way. Once they were along the cliffs, Gerry hopped out wherever he could, grabbed the stern line, and shoved the canoe forward breaking a short path through the ice. Then he'd pull back the canoe to get in, and they would paddle through the broken ice. Progress was slow.

In a 30-yard stretch of broken water in front of a waterfall they saw a Common Murre. It would dive under the water, then pop up again in front of them. It didn't stay in the open water, but instead dove under the ice, surfacing between ice slabs. Kathy and Gerry also worked their way through the ice, enjoying the close looks at this bird, only twenty feet away. The murre suddenly jumped out of the water and began flopping across the ice, like a little penguin. Then it was jerked backward. A river otter had grabbed its wing and was pulling it down! The otter glanced at the canoe as it sunk down with its treasure. A few yards farther away the otter surfaced again, bird in mouth, and watched them for a minute. Soon the otter and bird disappeared again, to eat and be eaten.

At last, they got to the cabin, lit a fire, and stared out the window at the frozen ocean. Most of the ice disappeared that evening with the rising tide. The ice probably was formed at high tide on the rivers, sloughs, and shallows. At low tide it conglomerated into the bay. When the tide rose again, the ice washed back up the rivers. Though there was no ice on the bay the next morning and the wind was in their favor, it was too cold to attempt going home that day.

The next day conditions were better. Because of the tides, they left the cabin at 11:15 am. Though the water was calm in Berners Bay, they could hear a roar from Lynn Canal and see big waves in the distance. As they got closer, they encountered gradual swells, but soon it worked up to three-foot waves and more. Jessica wakened, but was content to watch the canoe sliding up and down, and water splashing around. (The candy may have helped her attitude, Kathy says.)

The waves got bigger. A couple of them sent the canoe sliding backwards. Fortunately, aside from a few splashes, they didn't take on any water. When they finally reached the mouth of Echo Cove, the huge waves going into the cove were meeting the tidal waters going out, and causing a short stretch of really bad water. They started through on the right side, until a large wave crashed in the shallow water in front of them. Gerry then quickly guided them over to the left and avoided this peril. His strong paddling got them through the narrows, and into protected Echo Cove. There was a lot of slush in the cove, but luckily nothing was frozen solid. It had been snowing constantly all day. They reached the ramp a little before dark.

At the ramp they met three men dragging kayaks down to the water. They were headed out to the cabin for the weekend. When they got there they no doubt appreciated the packed trail and shoveled snow. Hopefully it didn't detract from their daring winter adventure to meet a returning party in an open canoe with a little toddler.