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Kayaking points north

In Alaska's glacial waters, adventurers come nose to nose with marine animals and icebergs.

May 18, 2003|Erik Olsen | Special to The Times

Valdez, Alaska — Valdez, Alaska

So this is solitude.

I am alone in a kayak on a vast glacier-cooled sea in south-central Alaska. A moment ago a bald eagle soared overhead, and the loudest sound around me was the whir of its wings slicing through the wind. To my right, a glacier curls off the face of a mountain, giving the fleeting impression that it is going to fall on me and crush my bones. Of course, it's just an illusion. The glacier's thousands of tons of ice are locked in a frozen tumble, as they have been for centuries.

My friends Dork Alahydoian and Erik Riegler, two high school buddies from San Francisco, are in a tandem kayak about a mile ahead of me. Our guide, Matt Kandrick, paddling just ahead of them, leads our ragtag team and keeps a lookout for flora and fauna. We've been keeping a fairly brisk pace, covering about 12 miles a day. It's rough going at times but worth the effort. None of us has ever experienced anything like the beauty and scale of Alaska.

I can see Dork and Erik up ahead and wonder how they're faring. Between them, they have about a weekend's experience in craft like these. Not that I'm worried. The weather has been good, and our kayaks are stable and easy to handle. From the get-go, my friends, who, like me, are in their mid-30s, have had little difficulty.

This is our third day of paddling, and we are, by my estimate, 30 miles south of Valdez, the nearest town. Not long ago I slowed my pace to take in the scene around me. I hadn't expected Prince William Sound to be so glorious. The same goes for Valdez. That name is so firmly associated in my brain with the 1989 oil spill that I half-expected to be paddling around hulking tankers and past struggling flocks of oil-soaked birds. Far from it. In fact, we don't see any damage from the spill at all. The town, nestled into a dog-legged fiord, looks like a European village. Indeed, it is sometimes called Alaska's Little Switzerland.

We started our six-day vacation last June about 10 miles away at Shoup Bay, home to one of the state's largest kittiwake gull rookeries. Being in Alaska was a first for Erik and me. Dork had been here a year earlier for a friend's wedding. Just seeing the state on the map -- its unfathomable sprawl -- I knew it would be the perfect haven from city life, an ideal locale to get away from the pressures of work.

We hooked up with Matt, who is in his mid-20s, through a guiding outfit called Pangaea Adventures. He was eager and competent and had been guiding kayak trips for three years. We liked him immediately.

We put in several miles away from the rookery and paddled up to it as noiselessly as we could -- not too hard in a kayak -- so we wouldn't scare them away. Right.

Upon our approach, the birds, tens of thousands strong, took to the air in an avian pandemonium that echoed over the entire bay and momentarily darkened the sky. We covered our heads lest we became targets. The backdrop to all this was Shoup Glacier, a magnificent amphitheater of blue ice 70 feet high.

We camped and played cards that evening within a half-mile of the glacier. We dined on succulent salmon steaks and red potatoes that we had stuffed into the front of our kayaks. We had ample provisions to get us through the week, everything divvied up between our boats and packed neatly in the bow compartments. Of course, equipped with rods, we hoped to supplement our stores with some fresh-caught fish.

Our camp was hardly a camp at all. We merely tossed our tents and sleeping bags over the rocks high on the beach and prayed the sea would obey our tide table booklet, which said the waters would rise no more than 8 feet.

Through the night we listened to a concerto of creaks and groans as chunks of ice snapped from the glacier, calving into the water with a double-barreled splash that stirred us from our slumber. In the morning, the silted waters teemed with floating shards of ice, some of them as large as sedans.

Sudden storm

Now, as we pass through the Valdez narrows past Sawmill Bay, I catch up with my three compatriots. Black clouds begin roiling overhead. We're about half a mile from shore, and as the winds pick up and scallop the frigid waters, Matt suggests we get to shore. The summer squall hits us with surprising ferocity. What had been a leisurely float becomes a potentially dangerous situation, and we paddle furiously for the closest beach.

The winds kick up to 40 mph and heave 10-foot swells at us, large enough that when I turn to look for my friends, I see instead a mountain of dark water. We finally reach shore, exhausted. My arms throb, and my heart thumps in my chest like a percussion grenade. We're safe.

As we sit unsheltered in the rain and wait for the storm to pass, Matt casually mentions he's relieved that no one capsized. Capsizing is bad, he says.

"Why is that?" I ask.

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