By Jeff Allen
I have been visiting Alaska for several years now, this has been on a commercial basis, guiding groups of sea kayakers out of Whittier, which is a very unique little town nestled at the base of the Chugach mountain range and at the head of a fjord on Prince William Sound. This year’s trip was going to be slightly different as we were going to be joined on the expedition by a chap who was very keen to conduct a wilderness journey on his stand up paddleboard.
SUP boards are not what I would consider to be a suitable expedition craft, maybe suitable for a jaunt in the tropics, or in an area with a little more moderate conditions than the frontier state of Alaska. Any crafts suitability for purpose is also very much dictated about the man (or women) in charge of it and where I may have considered that the paddleboard was not suitable for a ten-day wilderness expedition, I certainly had different thoughts on the paddler.
I have known Nick Healey for about 15 years or so now, most people who enter the water in Cornwall, probably know about Nick – Cornwall’s very own Laird Hamilton. Nick is a super skilled and gutsy all round waterman, an accomplished big wave surfer, paddle boarder, kite surfer, windsurfer, sailor and he is also the current captain of the Porthtowan Surf Boat team, who were the European champions in 2013. Where Nick and the ocean are concerned, there is a definite unification.
His craft was a Fanatic inflatable 14’0” adventure board. He felt and I knew, that he had the ability to keep up an average speed of three knots, six-hours a day, which is what I request from any expedition team member for this trip. We discussed his plans about equipment – how and where he would carry all of his own gear. His intention was to glue down pad eyes to facilitate strapping to the board all of his equipment which was going to be stored in a series of robust dry bags, coupled with a large waterproof ruck sack which he could sit on to rest his legs if necessary. We discussed safety issues, such as repairs and rescues if needed; it seemed to me that Nick had already done most of the required preparation. I was happy to crack on with the expedition.
The journey to Anchorage was a long but uneventful one, the jet lag was significant, but I had allowed two days of recovery time, which we needed, I had never felt the effects of jet lag quite so much as I had this time around. Interspersed between bouts of drugged like sleep, we gradually prepared ourselves for the expedition, hiring a 4×4 locally, we made several journeys into the city to purchase equipment and vitals for the eight-days we would be spending out in the sound.
Nick set about gluing down his pad eyes and strapping his gear onto the board, it all looked good on the lawn of the B&B, but I still wondered how effective it would be on the water. We loaded the board onto the roof of the car and headed down to the nearest beach, Nick jumped aboard and paddled out. All looked good, there was a stiff breeze blowing and a fair bit of current off the point, but the loaded board paddled well.
Levi Hogan our kayak outfitter, is a super friendly guy who resides in a small settlement just outside of Anchorage. The kayaks were in immaculate condition, he had also brought along paddles, decks and PFDs for the other members of the group, and some bear spray and flares for myself. He looked across at Nick pumping up his SUP board and I could read the thoughts going through his mind, they were written in electric neon blue right across his fore head.
‘What the hell!’
Prince William Sound
If anyone was ever thinking of conducting a wilderness expedition on an SUP board, Prince William Sound is probably one of the best destinations to head for. Located on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska, the waters are well protected from Pacific Ocean swell, yet there is still enough fetch within the sound that you do still get conditions from the wind, which can be fearsome at times.
In the month of March, 1964, the area was hit by a massive earthquake, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale which resulted in an enormous tsunami, in fact the effects of the tsunami have left an indelible mark all around the sound. Where the wave action, confined in the bowl of the sound, washed up the shoreline, it destroyed much of the tree growth, and now you can see many dead trees, interspersed with younger new growth, sometimes these signs reach quite incredible heights up the mountain side, it’s hard to believe that the ocean can lie calm one minute and the next, throwing itself up the side of a mountain.
We set off out into the fjord, it’s a long haul down to the mouth of the fjord where it opens up into the Sound, we wouldn’t venture too far from Whittier on day one of our trip, just in case there were any problems. Nick had agreed that if things didn’t work out so well with his board, he would transfer across to a sea kayak, any potential problems needed to be discovered early on in the journey.
As it was, our journey to the glacier was accident free, though amazing – due to the many tons of ice that we witnessed dropping into the ocean. It was the next day that events unfurled.
Stopping beneath a waterfall and refilling our water bags and bottles, a small wave washed Nick’s board up beneath a small rocky outcropping, a sharp pointed piece of rock, succeeded where ice had failed.
‘Sh*t!’ Nick shouted, spinning around on his board, locating the hole on the side rail of the board, that his finger was the perfect sized tool for plugging. Now his only problem was how to manoeuvre from here. He couldn’t paddle away, as that would mean removing his finger from the hole and then he would be in the water in a matter of seconds, there was no where he could land, short of climbing the cliff, so I hooked on a tow line and we made our way back along the coast to a beach, which we had passed about a half a mile before, twenty minutes later and we were hauling out onto a small gravel beach and Nick set about effecting a repair. We decided to stay here for the day, fellow paddlers Lucas and Tom set off on a fishing trip and Kathy and I took a snooze in the sun.
We were woken by a ‘whoosh’ the distinctive sound of a whale’s blowhole, punctured the silence. I sat up and looked out into the bay, just north of our position and about 200 metres away from our campsite on Willard Island were a pod of three Humpbacks.
We jumped into our kayaks and headed out into the bay and for the next two hours we followed this small family of whales and sat there as the sun lowered itself towards the horizon. The waters of the bay were glassy calm and the whales as they broke the surface were an incredible sight, set against the backdrop of mountains and glacier.
By the time we got back to the beach Nick had repaired his board, lit the fire and had the evening meal on the go, what a great end to an eventful day.
We left the Blackstone Bay area early the following day and two miles out we came across another pod of Humpback whales and paddled with them for several hours. On one occasion, what seemed to be the largest whale in the pod, broke the surface just in front of Nick, the whales back arched and the tail flukes came up just in front of his board. Had it a little more propulsion I’m sure Nick would have surfed the wave it had formed. We were all surprised at just how close to the foreshore the whales would swim, at times they were just metres away from the cliff face.
As we paddled on towards Culross Passage we encountered much of the Salmon fishing fleet. This time of year is a great time to paddle in the sound, the Salmon are running and there’s always some extra food for the pot. The region is full of wildlife, Bald Eagles, Sea Otters, Killer Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises; as well as Humpbacks, there are also Salmon Sharks, which although shy, can be seen as they break the surface in pursuit of the Salmon.
Our next campsite was situated on the south side of Applegate Island; we shared this area with a resident Black bear. I had seen him walking steadily away from my group as we approached the year before, this year we didn’t see him, but we saw lots of signs. I took the opportunity at this campsite to go through some bush-craft camp building techniques with Nick. We made a bed from the lichen and moss, which grew on the nearby dead falls and strung up a tarp, utilizing a natural dip in the ground to shelter us from the wind. The mozzies were beginning to bite so we lit a fire and added in a bit of green to help smoke the shelter out and then settled down for the night.
Two days later we managed to find a small-constricted entrance into a tiny inlet, with numerous islands dotted around the entrance. The tide was compressed between the islands and was pouring across a shallow shelf, creating a small white water experience for the group. Nick had a go at ferry gliding, a paddleboard loaded down with equipment was a challenge and it turned into a bit of a damp affair. We entered into the lagoon and then set up a short lunch stop while we waited for the tide to turn and then followed the flow back out of the lagoon and set up camp on the western end of Culross Bay. The camp was set up tight to the shoreline and for the first time in the two weeks of our time in Alaska it started to rain.
This was our final night in the sound and tomorrow we would be heading back to Whittier. Nick had proven that in the right hands a stand up paddleboard is quite capable of conducting a wilderness expedition, but possibly not an inflatable one for this type of environment/expedition, as most of the beaches and shoreline are made up of rocks and driftwood. What was made clear amid the group was the best part of any expedition doesn’t reside so much in the actual paddling, but more in the whole wilderness existence. Journeying through the sound is a memorable experience, whether it is by sea kayak or standing on a paddleboard – it is one that is never forgotten.