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Dodging chunks of ice, paddleboarders soak up splendors of Glacier Bay for 4 days

  • Author: Mike Campbell
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2015

A typical summer day in 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve might see cruise boats, kayakers and anglers on the water, hikers on shore, flightseers in the air.

And increasingly, paddleboarders paddling among ice floes.

Many Glacier Bay paddleboarders use rentals arranged by two of the four tour companies that ferry hundreds of thousands of visitors through the visually stunning national park. But late last month, a couple of visiting Canadian paddleboarders spent four days paddling 35 to 50 kilometers on a trip that may be unprecedented.

"When we were pulling together the logistics, it became clear it was going to be the first," said Michelle Eshpeter, 33, of Whitehorse, who with 48-year-old Lee Paskar pulled off the expedition from Bartlett Cove to the Beardslee Islands plus another day at McBride Glacier. "Everybody at the park service said it was the first backcountry permit they'd ever done for a paddleboarder.'

There are reasons for that.

"It isn't perceived as a cold-water activity, but that's mainly a misconception of what you can do with a SUP (stand-up paddleboard)," said Eshpeter, who used a 10-foot-6 inflatable from Boardworks. "When we started asking people in the kayaking community what was the best trip they ever did, Glacier Bay easily came up the most often. Everybody said it was an epic trip."

Fortunate weather

In some ways, the duo was fortunate the weather they encountered was largely favorable, with stretches of flat seas and sunshine for half their four-day trip.

There's no guarantee, though. Historically, September is the second-wettest month of the year at Glacier Bay, with an average of 10.7 inches of rain.

"It can get really rough," Glacier Bay superintendent Phillip Hooge said. "We've had 60-foot wooden boats that have just disappeared here. We can have really high tidal currents. Gale-force winds and outgoing tides can be a bad combination."

Perhaps the most challenging stretch came when the paddlers tried to get to the north end of the Beardslee Islands by crossing Beartrack Cove, a Glacier Bay site made famous by an Ansel Adams photograph.

"It's notorious for being a rough spot, and on the day we were scheduled to cross, there were 4-foot swells and 20-knot winds," said Eshpeter, who works as a fitness instructor.

Too rough, the couple figured. But Eshpeter later decided to cross alone to retrieve some fresh water, which wasn't available where she and Paskar had camped.

"It was definitely a rodeo, the hardest paddle of my life," she said. "When it's like that, you can't coast. You have to keep going — paddle, paddle, paddle — to get through the wind and waves."

After about an hour, she reached shore. Almost immediately, the wind quit and the waves disappeared, making her return trip easy.

'Tons of wildlife'

Any difficulties posed by the weather was overcome by the visual treat that is Glacier Bay, first proclaimed a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925.

With the Fairweather Mountain Range serving as a backdrop, the couple saw "tons of wildlife" — breaching humpback whales, orcas, harbor porpoises, moose, black and grizzly bears and more. With their trip scheduled so late in the season, they didn't encounter another boat.

"That might be one of the reasons we saw so much wildlife," Eshpeter suggested. "We had nothing but positive encounters with all the animals."

They worried about one black bear that seemed to watch the couple. Once they retired to their tent, the animal would roam the nearby beach, eating barnacles off rocks. But he seemed to time his visits. "When we got up," Eshpeter said, "he'd be gone."

Marine mammals weren't so shy. "One seal followed me for an entire day," she said. "He was so curious."

Paddling amid ice

Glacier Bay, of course, is renown for its glaciers, even though global warming has caused most of the 11 tidewater glaciers to thin and recede over the last few decades.

Fourteen-mile-long McBride Glacier, which the duo visited at the end of their trip after a boat ride, is the only tidewater glacier Glacier Bay's East Arm, with an ice face extending about 200 feet above tidewater. Scientists have estimated its retreat rate at up to 300 feet a year, with occasional massive calving events releasing enough large icebergs to fill all of McBride Inlet.

"It's very loud when ice breaks off into the water," Eshpeter said. "When that happens, since it's so deep there, a huge wave would come through. It's very flat and wide, and (the wave) lifts you up, but it's very gentle.

"It's really cool to paddle over these soft waves from calving glaciers. Because it's late in the season, there were quite a few icebergs in the water . . . a little like an obstacle course.

"They tell out at (the) parks office you need to stay back from icebergs because they could roll. When you're with the icebergs, they seem so peaceful and you want to go up and touch them. But we followed the guidelines."

And they took precautions. Both Eshpeter and Paskar wore dry suits and layered up for chilly autumn weather.

Were they cold?

"Not once," she said. "It was really empowering to be really comfortable around cold water."

Preparation buttressed her confidence. "You need safety equipment for cold-water immersion," she said.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com

Gear:

• Inflatable paddleboards. Paskar on a Red Paddle board, Eshpeter on one from Boardworks. "They're really awesome for adventures," Eshpeter said. "They pack up really small so you can take them as a regular piece of luggage. You can roll them up and tuck them away so they're not a bear toy magnet. They're very durable. I've never had a leak in one."

• Repair kits and pumps.

• Dry suits from Ocean Rodeo and Kokatat.

• Emergency survival gear in a backpack.

• A 40-liter dry bag tethered to the paddleboard with bungee cords. "Since the Beardslee Islands are protected, it worked fine. In rough water, they could make you tippy," Eshpeter said.

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