The invitation came at the perfect time, in the middle of a depressing winter. "Would you like to join us for an eight-day kayaking cruise this summer, in Prince William Sound?" The email was from Kenny Blum, an outfitter I knew.
He had no idea my personal life was in turmoil, priming me for a distraction like this. Though I had barely any experience in a kayak, I said yes instantly. Then, in a fit of enthusiasm, I booked a glacier trek in Juneau to follow. Might as well go all the way.
Fast-forward five months. I'm boarding a plane for Valdez, Alaska, with a suitcase of new gear. I'll be joining four highly experienced kayakers for this cruise aboard the 42-foot Denali. I, who have never kayaked more than 4 miles in my life.
I'm the last to arrive in Valdez. Is this a sign? From the Pangaea Adventures shop, I'm transported via water taxi to Prince William Sound to join the boat near Shoup Glacier. The sound is a roughly 100-mile-wide inlet studded with icebergs. Dan Ureda, the captain of the Denali, shows me my tiny cabin and tells me everything I need to know in a nutshell: "We have limited fresh water; showers are precious."
The rest of the group returns from kayaking. They're older than I expected, but much fitter than I am. There are three men, one woman, and the guide, Ben Smaha, who looks like he just got out of college. They wave to me, and we start chatting easily as we reload their kayaks onto the boat. Even though I'm the newcomer to this group of kayaking buddies, an easy rapport forms over dinner. We spend the night anchored in Sawmill Bay. I lie awake in the hazy midnight sun.
Already I feel like I've fallen into the pages of National Geographic. Nothing seems real. We spot humpbacks and sea lions as the Denali heads to Columbia Glacier. Dan anchors the boat, and we take off in our kayaks. Thankfully, I'm in a tandem with Warren Baldwin, who owns several kayaks ― including one he built. He gently corrects my paddling. "Pretend you're punching someone, you're boxing with the top of the paddle. Use your shoulders, not your arms." I'm so worried about keeping up that I barely notice all the bald eagles. The ice field at the base of the glacier is thick, flowing in mysterious ways. One row of chunks flows left, the one behind flows right, so the path through the field is constantly changing. We turn back when it becomes impassable. Later we stop for a hike. Exhausted, I nap on the beach, unfazed by the light rain falling on us.
Miles paddled: 8
Wildlife everywhere. We head to Cedar Bay, known for containing some of the northernmost yellow cedar stands in the United States. Blue sky and sun. Two Dall's porpoises play with us along the way. We paddle close to shore, through water so clear we can see herring. A sudden rumbling thunder pierces the quiet, and we look up to see an avalanche rolling down a mountain. It's exciting, disconcerting, and beautiful all at once: The contrast of the snowcapped peaks atop the yellow cedar looks like a postcard labeled "Alaska summer." We beach the kayaks and set out for a hike on a boggy trail past wildflowers and snowmelt pools and streams, then up a dense, alder-choked hillside. Bear scat, fresh, is our cue that it's time to turn around. My heart is pounding at the thought that a bear is nearby, and I can't get back in the kayak fast enough. We paddle back to the boat, to safety, and feast on crab and artichoke appetizers.
Miles paddled: 4½
Rest day. It's rainy and cold as we head out for Knight Island. The plan is to paddle and hike again, but the rain and winds are heavy, so we hunker down in the boat over a meal of soup and smoked salmon. The storm picks up as Dan crosses the sound back to Long Bay. The crossing is rough ― 5-foot seas. As we come into the bay, we enter an otter-pupping ground.
More bears. We paddle into Long Bay, which is filled with otters and seals. The seals look like slim divers, surfacing without a sound just feet from our kayaks. We beach the kayaks and explore. Colleen and Ben see two bear cubs scurry up a tree, followed by the mother, so we all hustle back down to the beach quickly. Adrenaline! Back on the boat, I take my first shower after four straight days of wearing my hat 24/7.
Miles paddled: 4
The most unbelievable day of my life. Dan drops us off not in a bay but in the open sea. As we set out toward a sea-lion rookery, the ice becomes thicker and the group grows quieter. We carefully pick our way through chunks the size of refrigerators. My heart is pounding, and I can feel the sweat on my back. There are tidal surges, and the kayaks are tippier. I am, for the first time, truly scared. After 30 minutes, we clear the ice and are on our way to the rookery when we see them: two humpback whales. One is about 60 feet long, the other 40. They're breaching, jumping high into the air and flipping over. They slap the water with their giant flippers, and the sound is unbelievably loud. The whales keep coming closer to us, and there's nowhere for us to go ― not the sheer cliffs where surf is pounding, not back into the ice field. I'm frozen, focusing on Warren's gentle words behind me. "Just keep paddling, keep breathing." This is it, this is how I'll go out, flattened in a kayak by a humpback whale. My thoughts turn to my family, and I tear up.
The whales are 400 feet away from us ― I can see the color variations of their flippers. And then, just as suddenly as they approached us, they move on. We raft together, then paddle hard for a beach just beyond the sea-lion rookery. We can't stop talking about the whales. Miles later, as Warren and I pull up to the Denali to get out of our kayak, a 350-pound sea lion erupts out of the water right next to the boat. I practically jump out of the kayak onto the deck, shaking with fear. Enough wildlife!
Miles paddled: 8
Next: We're like family now
JUNE 7 & 8
We're like family now. We paddle Galena Bay and Jack Bay ― some peaceful paddling at last ― and I begin to feel sad about the idea of our trip coming to a close. As we head to Galena Bay, the seas are rough again with 6-foot swells. It feels like riding in a washing machine. When the seas are calmer, we follow a pod of orcas. Though not as large as the humpbacks, they're fast, powerful, and graceful, at times running under the boat.
Back in Valdez, it's time to say good-bye. Though they were strangers just days before, I feel so bonded with these people that I choke up hugging them. Their camaraderie and enthusiasm for our adventure have been like another life jacket for me.
Miles paddled: 9
Ready for anything. Now it's on to Juneau for my glacier trip. Another group of strangers, another challenge ahead of me. My group of five takes a helicopter up to Mendenhall Glacier. After the whale experience, a helicopter doesn't faze me at all. It's like we're floating on gusts of air. On the glacier, our guides teach us the proper walking technique. I feel like Spider-Man scaling the ice wall. After 30 minutes of exploring the glacier, lead guide Bill Forrest asks us if we want to try the ropes ― rappelling down a three- to four-story drop. I surprise myself by volunteering. As I back over the edge of the glacier and let myself drop, I feel the weight of the world falling away from me. I have a fleeting vision of the whales, a memory of being pulled to the brink, just far enough to glimpse the other side. I feel strong, and free, and ready for whatever comes next.
IF YOU WANT TO TRY IT
Many outfitters offer kayaking, camping, and boat tours around the sound. Pangaea Adventures offers four-, six-, and eight-day mother-ship cruises as well as day trips and kayak/camping trips, all out of Valdez, Alaska. Prices vary widely, but plan to spend a lot for a trip like the one described here ($2,300 per day for four people; 800/660-9637). Flights to Valdez are available daily from Anchorage.
FOR ICIER ADVENTURES
NorthStar Trekking (from $339; 866/590-4530) offers glacier and helicopter tours of various levels of difficulty.
More: Alaska travel guide