PUBLISHED: 9:12 AM on Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Winter Canoeing in Juneau
Exploring Southeast

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  From the mouth of the Mendenhall River, Dianne and John Lohrey enjoy the sweeping view.
When our boats are all put away for the winter, there are still ways to enjoy the ocean. Day trips in canoes or kayaks can quickly take us to different perspectives of our hometowns.

Of course it is important to choose our weather carefully, but there are many calm winter days. Weather changes; open water is a greater risk in a canoe than in a kayak. The advantage of a canoe is the ease of getting in when launching and its capacity to carry an assortment of food and clothes within easy reach.

My family and I have had many pleasant winter canoe trips. One February day, with a high tide in our favor, we chose to canoe about nine miles in Gastineau Channel from Smuggler's Cove at the end of Fritz Cove Road to the mouth of Salmon Creek. We had beautiful, clear weather that Saturday. Our group on the trip included our daughter Kathy, our nephew, Dan (both in high school at the time), and our friends, John and Dianne Lohrey.

When we carried our three canoes down to the water at Smuggler's Cove about 9 a.m., we were very surprised to see that the cove was covered by a sheet of ice.

The thermometer at home was registering only 8?, so we'd dressed warmly, but we certainly hadn't expected salt water to be frozen. In the Juneau area, it is only in the quiet bays and harbors with limited tidal current and where there is some fresh water dilution that the ocean ever freezes. That is something that we usually see only when we have sub-zero temperatures.

Apparently, sustained low temperatures for a sufficient length of time will do it, too. The falling tide had left a sheet of ice draped over the cobbles of the beach. The ice had broken around the larger rocks as the water drained away. On the edge of the salt water, where the tide was now rising again, fractured areas in the ice that was now floating again showed where the rocks had broken it. The 1/2-inch thick layer of ice on shore broke easily as we launched, but paddling through the ice was very difficult.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  Turley and her party were surprised by ice in Smuggler's Cove. Air temperatures were around 10?.
Dan and Kathy, who were first to paddle away from the beach, got stuck about a hundred yards from shore. We started out following the path they broke, but Kim had noticed a line of fractured ice leading south, and steered into it before we'd gone as far out as they were.

Before Dan and Kathy backed up and followed us, Dan, in the bow of the canoe, had broken away half of his paddle blade on the ice. John and Dianne fell into line behind us in the cracked ice.

We soon realized that a skiff going by earlier was responsible for our easy passage through the ice. The ice thinned as we neared the southern end of the cove and disappeared entirely once we were opposite the mouth of the Mendenhall River.

The water was mirror calm, reflecting the blue sky. Viewed from the water, the mountains and glaciers were spectacular.

The Mendenhall Wetlands, an extensive grass-covered intertidal area that stretches from the mouth of the Mendenhall River several miles south to the mouth of Lemon Creek, provides an abundance of food for wildlife.

Large flocks of white gulls fed along the sandy margins of the little islets while huge rafts of ducks floated farther off-shore, waiting for the tide to cover the mussel beds that they would dive down to feed on. Flocks of geese with a hundred or more birds in a group, were resting on some grassy points.

Their voices added to the beauty of the setting. In the wide expanse of shallow water near the mouth of Mendenhall River, seals were very numerous.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  When the tide is high enough, it's possible to canoe right beside the road from Lemon Creek on into Juneau.
In the distance, we could see them splashing the water, but when we would get close, they'd stop whatever it was that they were doing and curiously watch us. They wouldn't sink out of sight until we got within 30 feet or so. Sometimes there would be a dozen or more seals at once in view right around our canoes.

We enjoyed the scenery, birds and seals so much that we didn't work very hard at paddling for the first hour or two.

The current was running south, so we were making progress without any effort at all. About 11 a.m., a wind sprang up, the current changed and the exercise began.

We stayed close to the Douglas Island side of the channel, getting a little wind protection, until we reached the wide part of the wetlands surrounding the mouth of Lemon Creek.

From here on, Gastineau Channel continues to get wider, so we needed to cross over to the Juneau side. The waves were beginning to whitecap, so we made a point of sticking as close together as we could.

We were trying to angle south, to minimize the distance left to travel to Salmon Creek, but the wind and current were carrying us back so that we actually crossed on a due east course. Because the tide was particularly high that day, the water covered the flats all the way to the edge of the highway.

We stopped for lunch at a little island a few hundred yards from the highway. Based on the difficult conditions, Kim suggested that we should modify our plans and take the canoes out at Lemon Creek. He could jog the last few miles to Salmon Creek and bring back the car that we had waiting there. Everyone accepted the suggestion.

However, after we'd reached the edge of the water by the highway, Kim and I realized that he and I could make it to Salmon Creek just fine, so we decided to re-modify the plan. Instead of Kim jogging to get the car, we'd canoe to it. Normally, Dan and Kathy would have had no problem getting to Salmon Creek, either, but the missing half of Dan's paddle reduced their power. John and Diane had had much less canoeing experience.

Salt water canoeing right beside a major highway (the biggest one we have in Juneau, anyway) seemed a bit strange. It would only be possible at a higher than average high tide.

While Dan and Kathy were waiting for us to get the car, they had a good time canoeing through the big culverts that handle the water at high tide along this four-lane, divided highway.

Often, when we're canoeing in difficult conditions, I pick out objects along the shore to measure our progress. In this urban canoeing setting, traffic lights and highway signs were the "short-term goals" with the "long-term goal" being a broadcasting tower.

We all enjoyed the canoeing trip, complete with beautiful scenery and weather at the beginning and with challenging conditions at the end.