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Published December 28, 2013, 10:23 PM

Exploring the cliffs, peaks and canyons of Alaska’s Misty Fjords via kayak

Mist, rain, glacial valleys, precipitous cliffs and big bears are what immediately came to mind each time I thought about Misty Fjords, Alaska. In June 2013, along with two friends, we experienced this American wilderness on a nine-day sea kayak trip.

By: Berlin Nelson Jr., Special to the Forum, INFORUM

Mist, rain, glacial valleys, precipitous cliffs and big bears are what immediately came to mind each time I thought about Misty Fjords, Alaska. In June 2013, along with two friends, we experienced this American wilderness on a nine-day sea kayak trip.

Created as a National Monument and wilderness area in 1980 by the Alaskan Land Act, this pristine wild area of 2.2 million acres sits in the southeast corner of the Alaskan panhandle, about 30 air miles from Ketchikan.

This is part of the Tongass National Forest, which on average receives 160 inches of rain each year. It was also home to the Tlingit, the indigenous people of this area.

We wanted to experience all that Misty Fjords had to offer, so we planned a journey to Walker Cove, Rudyerd Bay, Shoalwater Pass and Winstanley Island – plus we hoped to hike, and to throw in a small amount of luxury – several nights in one of the Forest Service cabins that are scattered over the area on the lakes and shores.

To save two or more days of paddling just to get to the wilderness area where we wanted to begin our journey, we hired Southeast Sea Kayaks in Ketchikan to water taxi us and our kayaks and gear to Hut Point, at the entrance to Walker Cove, a 63-mile, three-hour trip up Behm Canal.

This wilderness is only accessible by watercraft or airplane. We went loaded with camping and kayaking equipment plus bear spray and expected to experience a lot of rain, mist and cool weather. Instead, to our surprise, we had four days of sun and warm weather, a little rain and mist, and cloudy but enjoyable paddling days. And we never saw another kayaker or camper in 77 miles of paddling.

At Hut Point we set up camp with large tarps over our tents, and hung a small screen shelter between trees. Although the mosquitoes were numerous and hungry, it was the no-see-ums that were most bothersome, and the screen shelter gave us the luxury of sitting in our camp chairs bug-free and enjoying meals and conversation even when it rained.

Kayaking allows one to carry more gear than you would if backpacking. Hut point has a small protected cove and a beach with easy access for the kayaks and we were greeted by a sea otter on the day of arrival. You need to be mindful of bears in Misty Fjords, so at night and when we were gone from camp, all food and items with odor were hung high in the trees.

For two days we explored Walker Cove, paddling along the shoreline and admiring the thousand-foot cliffs, snow-capped peaks, the side canyons, the waterfalls, and the numerous stately Bald Eagles that posed for us as we glided along.

Seal heads popped up and disappeared just as quickly throughout the day. At times the water in the fjord was like glass with a mirror image of the land, and other times there was a fresh breeze. Most of the fjord has cliffs of some height along the shore, but there are scattered areas where you can land a kayak.

We always made sure the bears knew we were landing. The tidal changes in Misty Fjords can be large – one day we had a 23-foot difference between high and low tide. The water in these fjords is up to 1,000 feet deep.

We then paddled south on Behm canal to Rudyard Bay with a tailwind that allowed us to surf in our 17-foot kayaks on foot-and-a-half waves, giving us a little excitement for some hours.

Behm canal is a 100-mile-long large body of water, and with a strong southerly or northerly breeze, conditions can be difficult for kayakers.

After a 15-mile paddle and several stops along the way we entered Rudyerd Bay, turned into Punchbowl Cove and received our introduction to the “air traffic” bringing the tourists in from Ketchikan. Tourists arrive on cruise ships to Ketchikan and take a short flight to Rudyerd Bay, the most popular attraction of Misty Fjords.

It seemed like every half hour or so there was a small plane passing overhead, and a few landed in the fjord. Not the wilderness experience we longed for, but by late afternoon the sky was silent.

As we glided into Punchbowl past a large and imposing cliff, there were several pleasure craft and a sailboat anchored in the bay. We camped at the head of the bay near the stream coming from Punchbowl Lake. A couple from a pleasure boat come ashore and gave us several cooked crabs they caught in the cove – a nice addition to our camping food.

The following day we hiked through the temperate rain forest to Punchbowl Lake, a scenic lake in a U-shaped glacial valley. The trail passed over boggy sections with planks to walk on, often with rotten or missing pieces. That carpet of moss that covers everything in the forest looks and feels like a mattress.

The trail ends at a lean-to shelter where the Forest Service keeps a rowboat and a canoe for anyone to use for exploring or fishing in the lake. We then explored Rudyerd Bay, an 11-mile long winding fjord with numerous waterfalls, cliffs and salmon streams that are frequented by bears when the salmon are running.

One afternoon while camped in Punchbowl Cove we had four bears close to the camp. We were a little jittery and let the bears know we were around as a large brown bear fed along the shore about 75 yards from our tents. The bear never paid attention to us.

From Rudyard we paddled south to the New Eddystone Islands, past New Eddystone Rock, a dark pillar of volcanic rock where the great explorer Captain George Vancouver stopped in 1793, and then we stopped to explore Checats Cove where we found a bear skull near the remains of an old cabin.

We then headed for Shoalwater Pass, a shallow and narrow waterway between Winstanley Island and the mainland. Just as we were about to enter the pass, we noticed spouts some distance down Behm canal. In short time a pod of killer whales (orcas) passed by heading north. It’s nothing short of magnificent to see them in their natural state as they gracefully swim by with those stately dorsal fins cutting through the water.

In a small cove on Winstanley was the forest service cabin that we had rented for several nights. The cabin was rustic with just one room with bunk beds, a table and wood stove, but after a week in tents it was a welcome break, and cost only $35 a night.

In the cove in front of the cabin was a couple in their 80s aboard a sailboat who spent the entire summer going from cove to cove and living off the abundant edible sea life.

We spent several more days exploring the pass, small islands, coves, and circumnavigating Winstanley. In one corner of the island there were petroglyphs on the shoreline rocks. At Winstanley creek that flows in from the mainland we set up our portable shower bags surrounded by tarps and took hot showers.

Our water taxi picked us up on our last day and took us back to Ketchikan, but on the way we viewed humpback whales feeding near the town. Misty Fjords is a huge wilderness, certainly one of America’s great natural areas. Exploring this area, however, requires you to be self-sufficient as help is a long way off and there is no cell phone service.

We carried a VHF radio for communication with other watercraft, a satellite phone, and all survival gear plus when sea kayaking, you need to know your rescue techniques. Rain gear is essential and always let the bears know you’re visiting their home.