Vagabond Tales: Kayaking With Orcas And Dodging Icebergs In Alaska’s Kenai Fjords

Of all the wildlife in the animal kingdom, killer whales really get a bad rap. First of all, only about 20 percent of them even eat other mammals such as harbor seals or sea otters, with the remaining 80 percent simply dining on fish like so many other marine species do.

You know who else eats fish? Dolphins. And nobody is scared of a dolphin.

Speaking of dolphins, killer whales are actually just that – dolphins. Belonging to the Delphinidae family of oceanic dolphins, killer whales are hardly even killers, and they aren’t even whales. Their entire nomenclature is virtually a farce.

Nevertheless, when a pod of them is passing somewhere beneath your sea kayak, all technicalities are thrown out the non-existent window. Such was the case outside of Aialik Bay in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park.

Occupying the southern reaches of the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Fjords National Park is a haven for outdoorsy kayakers and those looking to escape into the confines of nature. While the protected waters of Resurrection Bay offer breathtaking paddling set beneath hanging glaciers, outfitters such as Miller’s Landing in the town of Seward offer overnight trips into the fjords of the park where the adventures really get wild.

How wild?

How about strapping a bear canister to the front of your kayak, packing some food and something warm, and paddling into the wilderness hoping for the best. In a world all too filled with congested freeways and bustling slums it truly feels like the end of the Earth.Stroking the paddle through frigid waters, our small group of kayakers paddled in an awed and collective silence. Bald eagles soared overhead as we all scanned the shorelines in hope of a foraging black bear. Paddling amongst emerald green waters, which teem with plankton and all forms of life, hungry cormorants repeatedly executed high-speed dives in an effort to snipe an unsuspecting fish.

Life, it seemed, was happening all around us.

Not to be outdone by the copious amounts of wildlife, even Aialik Glacier itself was rumbling with life in the distance. A massive glacier, which is steadily retreating, the crevasses and pockets of mighty Aialik frequently come calving down into the sea in a thunderous display of ice meeting water. In case you’ve never seen the video of surfer Kealii Mamala surfing a calving glacier, do yourself a favor and go watch it now.

To give a better idea of what Aialik Glacier looks like as it completely falls apart, however, it’s easier to simply show you:

Aside from the surprisingly loud noise, the calving ice continues to float amongst the waters of Aialik Bay as it undergoes the slow and laborious process of melting back into water. Many of these icebergs can extend up to a mile away from the glacier, thereby creating a frozen obstacle course for the handful of kayakers plying the waters.

The experience, to say the least, is entirely surreal.

For obvious reasons it is ill advised to paddle directly up to the face of the glacier and all paddlers opt to stay at least half a mile away from the collapsing wall of ice. Death by calving glacier, after all, would really be a unique albeit unfortunate way to go.

Weaving our red, yellow and orange colored sea kayaks around the Jurassic-sized ice cubes now floating out in Aialik Bay, our small nucleus of adventure paddlers turned away from the glacier and stroked back towards where the protected Bay of Aialik merges into the tempestuous Gulf of Alaska.

As serene as gliding amongst the open fjords can be, it can also be somewhat disconcerting since, as you might expect, thar be animals down in them waters.

Sure enough, in what is admittedly a rare sighting, a pod of resident orca suddenly surfaced from beneath the placid waters, the towering dorsal fin of a male bull confirming the reality of their presence.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I breathlessly stammered in a whisper meant only for myself.

Obviously on the same page, my fellow paddlers had likewise stopped paddling and opted instead to simply sit and stare. Granted, the orca were not directly beneath our kayaks, but they were close enough to hear the spouts of air as they surfaced to breathe, which already was a distance near enough to become wary.

With the initial surprise having come and gone, the awe turned to a fear-based reality check where it suddenly became apparent the only thing protecting me from a pod of killer whales was a thin layer of plastic and a pathetically blunt paddle.

Another eagle soared overhead. A large spout preceded the eruption of a dorsal fin from the pea soup colored water. A gentle gust of frigid wind caused the hairs on my neck to stand up straighter than they already were, and just as quickly, it seemed, that the pod had announced their arrival they similarly had turned away to depart into the open sea.

A fleeting moment in a frozen fjord, we all knew that this had been our lucky day.

Throw on a thick flannel, build a campfire, drink some whiskey, grow a beard, look at the stars and chalk it up to another day in the magical backcountry of Alaska.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Glacial Surfing: Another Extreme Sport

Neil wrote a series of posts on traveling in Alaska without a cruise ship. Here’s another item to add to the things to do in Alaska list–if you are TOTALLY NUTS!! Head to a glacier, wait for the edge to fall off, and, when it does, ride the tidal wave on a surfboard as the ice chases you down. That’s what world championship surfers Garrett McNamara and Kealii Mamala did earlier this year at Child’s Glacier. This clip from Deep Water Films captures the essence in less than two minutes. I saw a version of this on CNN which prompted my You Tube quest.