Alaska Inside Passage

Southeast Alaska | Reflections on a Season Past (Part 1 of 3)

Monday, January 18, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

Sailing to Southeast Alaska is the pinnacle of cruising not only for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, but many cruisers world-wide. It’s one of the most stunning places on earth and has found its way on more than one bucket list – for cruisers and landsman alike. And now that the 2015 season is behind us, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the time we spent in her waters. To do that, I’ve written a total of three blogs: one listing the things we liked about cruising in Alaska, another about the things we didn’t like about cruising in Alaska and this one, the back story, which lays out several factors that impacted our experience and impression of the area – the weather, commercialism and sailing to a schedule.

The Weather

It’s easy to sit here 3,200 miles and six months later and say that it was the most incredible season we’ve ever had: David and I saw and did things while we were there that exceeded our wildest dreams and that we would love to experience again. But that’s not always how we felt. Cruising to Southeast Alaska can be very challenging and is a lot of hard work, which is fine; we knew that before going and signed up for it. But we picked a particularly bad season weather-wise and the work versus reward ration was out of balance for us a lot of the time.

Things started off well. The weather was beautiful in May when we arrived; and when June came around, we found ourselves in a regular pattern with four or five nice days followed by two or three days of unsettled weather. But then July set in and the heavens opened up: Juneau saw record-breaking rainfall, most of it during the last three weeks, and it was even wetter where we were. To put things in perspective, we saw almost as much rain in July, the height of summer, as Seattle did this past December – over 11 inches.

We’re not averse to getting wet. This is the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska is a rainforest, after all. But we went to Alaska for two reasons and two reasons only – the wildlife and the scenery, neither of which was showing its face. There simply weren’t many opportunities to enjoy ourselves, to get out in nature and absorb our surroundings. We knew we wouldn’t be able to go to shore much because of the threat of brown bears, but torrential rain kept us out of our kayaks and trapped below deck for days on end.


It wasn’t just the rain that put a damper on our experience. We found Alaska to be highly commercial. Not only the cruise ships, we were prepared for that. What we didn’t take into account were the hundreds of fishing boat – seiners, gill netters, perseiners, crabbers. And the impact from local tourism – float planes, “un-cruise” ships, charters, whale-watching boats and bear-watching vessels. Just about everywhere we went there was one kind of commercial endeavour or another nearby. It was hardly the remote wilderness experience we were hoping for or had come to expect from years of cruising in northern British Columbia.

Sailing to a Schedule

Another difficultly we encountered was that we had to sail to a schedule, something we try to avoid at all cost. But because we wanted to visit Glacier Bay, it couldn’t be avoided unless we’d arrived early enough in the season to enter the park boundaries before reservations were required (June 1 through August 31). We did try to make it to Alaska sooner but got stuck below Cape Caution for a week waiting out hurricane-force winds. After that, we made the choice to stop off in Ocean Falls to visit friends and linger a few days in places like Bishop Bay Hot Springs (for obvious reasons) and Prince Rupert (because we’d never been). In hindsight, we should have made more of an effort.

It wasn’t just Glacier Bay that required a permit. Visiting Anan Wildlife Observatory did as well. And thanks to some misinformation and a lack of follow-up on my part, we purchased our permit online two months in advance rather than in Wrangell during the week we wanted to go. This put us on another schedule, one that had us sitting around in the rain most of the month of July biding our time until we could go watch the bears fish for salmon. Of course, it wasn’t our intention to sit around; the weather forced that one on us.

And that’s pretty much the back story to our season in Southeast Alaska. I felt it was important to lay the groundwork because, despite the incredible beauty of the “Last Frontier”, the factors I mentioned in this blog made a large impact our experience in a negative way: Some of that was our fault. Some of it was Alaska itself. But most of it was the weather. Simply put, we picked the wrong year to go.

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  1. That's a bit disheartening to read about the commercialization. Somehow, I expected Alaska to still be untouched. Looking forward to the next installments. Definitely place on my bucket list :-)

    1. Yeah, I know. We expected it at some level but there were time we literally felt like we were sailing in the middle of a runway because there were so many float planes taking off, landing and flying overhead. It was crazy! It was definitely worth the added aggravation to see the tidewater glaciers and wildlife but it wasn't much different than a land-based experience to the Grand Canyon or someplace like that . . . basically, it's just not what we're used to anymore.

  2. Yes, we had a similar experience in SE AK. At Anan we we allowed to entry the sanctuary without a permit because it was one day before permits were required. That was lucky. But for Glacier we also had made reservations 60 days in advance. We felt lucky to have it but it put pressure on us to get up there fast. In addition some family and friends were to meet us in Hoonah to go into the Park. It all worked out in the end but I would have preferred less of that kind of motivation.
    I found out later that some people make last minute reservations because there are often cancelations to both the Park and Anan and we will try that next time. And next we will slow down and enjoy the roses!

    1. Something I wish we would have known about before we went was Hidden Falls (just north of Ell Cove off Chatham Strait). Some of our friends were able to watch brown bears fish in the creek and play in the meadow. I'm not sure it matched our experience in Anan, but it didn't require a permit . . . it was close to Warm Springs!

  3. Brown bears shouldn't be a deterrent to coming ashore with your kayaks, and shouldn't be feared to that extent. Obviously they can be dangerous, but by enlarge, they are not.

    1. We certainly don't have a fear of bears (brown or black) but we do have a lot of respect for them and their territory. We had a friend who was chased off by a brown bear after he went to shore in SE Alaska last year (the bear came out when he was walking on a beach and wasn't near his kayak). He made it safely and paddled off but the bear continued to follow him. I had a similar experience in BC with a black bear so we try to be conservative and give the bears their space -- it's their home, after all. We also don't carry anything stronger than an air horn for protection. With that said, I don't think there was any place we really wanted to go to shore that we didn't. Most of the anchorages we chose didn't have great shore access, let alone hiking trails or nice beaches. But when they did, if it wasn't raining down in sheets, we took advantage . . . unless, of course, there were bears foraging along the shore. At the end of the day, it's a personal decision and we wouldn't dissuade anyone from going to shore in bear country if they're comfortable doing so and know how to act if they encountered a bear. BTW, I love your picture . . . we had a husky/chow mix for 18 years and our Sally looked a lot like your dog.