Day-tripping in a kayak

A look at a plenitude of places to go kayaking just off Juneau's road system

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

Although Juneau has a limited highway system, it has almost limitless kayaking opportunities that begin on the road. Drive south to Sheep Creek, west to North Douglas, north to Mendenhall Lake or out Glacier Highway, and wherever the road leads to beach access, there's another kayaking opportunity.

"Juneau is a place where you can kayak and within a few minutes feel like you're in the wilderness," said Barb Kelly, sales manager for Alaska Discovery. "There aren't too many places in the world that can offer that."

One of those places for Juneau wilderness access is Berners Bay.

On a recent Monday, Gail Findley and her son Scott, who was visiting from his Texas home, launched kayaks in Echo Cover at the end of the Juneau road system. After a couple of hours, they reached Sawmill Creek, a wide, flat beach that allows easy kayaking landings. Many also hike the several hundred yards from the creek's mouth to view a dramatic waterfall. While the Findleys ate their lunch on the beach, dozens of eagles also had food on their minds as they perched near the creek watching the spawning salmon.

"We enjoyed a natural tranquillity," Gail Findley said. "That made the whole trip especially memorable."

Her son, Scott, said what made Juneau kayaking unique was the ability to get close to animals outside of zoo cages.

"We watched an immature eagle eating a salmon," he said. "And we weren't very far away."

The Findleys are among many seeking outdoor adventures by kayak in Juneau. The sport continues to increase in popularity, said Kerry Kirkpatrick, who rents kayaks through her business, Alaska Boat and Kayak Rental.

"Since the beginning of May, we've had 500 parties of from one to 10 people each," she said. "Most of our business is locals."

Alaska Discovery has been providing guided kayak trips for years. Sales manager Kelly said between June and August about 1,500 people will take part in their trips.

Dozens of different kayak day-trip destinations are in the Juneau area.

"It's great that you can put your kayak in the water anywhere along the road system and have a great experience," said longtime Juneau kayaker Skip Gray.

Here's a south-to-north listing of where some of those "great experiences" may take place during a near-shore Juneau day trip:

• Dupont: Put in at the Sheep Creek bridge and paddle the shoreline south for about three miles to the old Dupont dock and beach. The route offers water views of Thane beach homes.

• Sandy Beach: Launch from the Douglas Boat Harbor and paddle past Sandy Beach's mining relics as far as your skill and interest take you. The informal community of Lucky Me is about five miles and Marmion Island, which has protected beaches, is another three.

• Downtown: Harris and Aurora Basin offer easy, protected paddling and waterside looks at many of Juneau's boat fleet. Expand the trip by paddling in front of town for an entirely new perspective of the community and cruise ships. The nearest boat-launching ramp is in Harris Harbor.

• Mendenhall Wetlands: The wetlands offer a good, year-around paddling spot that features protected, shallow waters with a variety of routes. Access points are at the North Douglas boat ramp and the end of Fritz Cove Road. Because much of the wetlands are dry at low tide, it's best to plan your paddle on a rising tide. Part of the fun of wetlands paddles is exploring the variety of passages. As the tide rises, channels fill with water and a route that might be dry at low tide can be paddled.

• Mendenhall River: Put in beneath the Brotherhood Bridge and float the river to the mouth of the wetlands. Then continue to explore the wetlands or paddle the Auke Bay shoreline back to a car you'll have to place at the end of Fritz Cove Road or the Auke Bay boat harbor.

Tips to help ensure safe kayaking

THE JUNEAU EMPIRE © 2003

Like any outdoor activity, kayaking requires learning appropriate skills to be safe.

To learn kayaking basics, including paddling techniques, bracing, wet exits and rescues, team up with more experienced kayakers or take classes. Alaska Boat and Kayak Rental offers kayak safety classes. For more information, call 586-8220.

Numerous kayaking books are available in local stores. The Juneau Public Library carries Sea Kayaker magazine. Read the Juneau Empire for kayaking events organized periodically by the Juneau Kayak Club and the Juneau Alpine Club.

Paddling with others increases the safety for all. For beginners, short trips, near shore (and without open water crossings) are a good way to build skill levels and confidence. Always tell someone where you are going and when youll be back.

Be sure to check the marine forecast before venturing out.

A kayak's size makes it easy to carry extra gear, so don't skimp. Even on sunny days bring along a raincoat, rain pants, hat and gloves. Throw in enough extra food and gear, such as matches and shelter, to spend the night if necessary.

VHF radios or cell phones provide communications in case of emergencies. Of course wear life jackets at all times and use spray skirts on the boat.

As you take kayak trips, make note of your paddling speed (including rest stops) to aid in judging how long it will take to cover various distances on future trips. Observe and study conditions to judge the strength of wind and size of waves that you are able to safely handle. Learn about hypothermia and how to protect yourself.

Like any outdoor activity, safe kayaking means exercising good judgment. If in doubt, the prudent decision is to stay on shore.

• Auke Bay: The islands and shorelines of Auke Bay are accessible from several launching sites: the end of Fritz Cove Road, the Auke Bay boat harbor or Auke Rec. Several islands are close to shore, but longer crossings (and thus greater skill levels) are needed to reach Coghlan and Portland Islands.

• Mendenhall Lake: The lure of tidewater glaciers attracts paddlers to Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm, but a much shorter day trip on Mendenhall Lake produces similar results. Beaches just beyond Skater's Cabin allow access on the west side of the lake. Floating icebergs, water views of Nugget Creek Falls and the Mendenhall Glacier highlight this local paddle. To be safe, keep a good distance from glacier faces and floating ice that may roll unexpectedly.

• Auke Lake: This is a good spot for short kayak trips in protected waters. Watch for views of the Mendenhall Glacier from the University of Alaska Southeast dock. Launch boats from the parking area just south of the Fritz Cove/UAS intersection.

• Lena Cove: The recreation area offers two routes that make nice one-way trips if a second car is placed at the destination. One is to paddle south around Lena Point, past the beach homes in Auke Bay and to the Auke Village Recreation Area, a distance of about four miles. Also from Lena Cove a longer six-mile paddle north leads past Tee Harbor and the Breadline to the Shrine of St. Therese and another mile brings you to the Amalga Harbor boat launch.

• Amalga Harbor: The protecting islands make this one of Juneau's most scenic boat-launch sites. Less than three miles to the north are the sandy beaches and flats near the Boy Scout Camp.

• Echo Cove: The end of the road offers a boat launch and access to Berners Bay. From the launching ramp it's about a mile and a half to a large sand spit that narrows the waters and creates strong tidal flows. Once beyond the spit, the south shore leads to the Point Bridget State Park, and the east shore leads to Sawmill Creek and other Berners Bay beaches.

• Other sites: Virtually any place with beach access has kayaking opportunities. Once on the water, experienced kayakers will venture to offshore islands after a study of local charts. Open water crossings require greater skill and more provisions because bad weather may prevent a safe return. As kayakers gain skills and experience, they can expand their kayaking destinations by using the Alaska Marine Highway System to transport themselves and their boats (for an extra free) to other communities.

Juneau is a community of active residents. Just look, for example, at the racks on cars for kayaks, bikes and skis.

"What makes Juneau a great place to live is the quality of the outdoor experiences that are so close to town," said longtime resident Gray.

Scott Foster is a writer and outdoorsman living in Juneau.

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