Kayaker’s Cove: Alaska’s best-kept sea kayaking secret

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The view from the beach.

Want the convenience, amenities and paddler-friendly price of a 10th Mountain Division ski hut in the Rockies, but for sea kayaking? Stroke no further than Kayaker’s Cove in Alaska, the only youth hostel in the state that requires a water taxi to access and comes equipped with sea kayaks for the whole party…

Despite Prince William Sound’s allure as a sea kayaking hotbed, camping in the rain is a tad overrated. Especially with kids in tow. (Nearby Seward gets an average 73 inches a year, Whittier a whopping 156.)

A waterfall you can paddle to from your cabin. (Photos courtesy Bill Heubner).

Enter Kayaker’s Cove, a 12-person cabin, with two out-cabins sleeping another eight, in the heart of Alaska’s 5-million-acre Chugach National Forest. It provides a roof overhead, warm kitchen and living room, wood-fired sauna, and most importantly, a shed full of sea kayaks and accessories to explore some of the most pristine wilderness on the planet.

On the wall of the outhouse, reached by a boardwalk above the primordial rainforest floor, a poster lists all 28 members of the Alaska Hostel Association. An asterisk by Kayaker’s Cove notes it’s the only one requiring a water taxi to get to. So rounding up a posse of friends (and most importantly, some of our kids’ friends), we shuttled the half hour out of Seward with Tidewater Taxi across Resurrection Bay to a tiny cove nestled in a waterfall-filled nook below jagged mountains.

Owner Michael O’Connor and caretaker Sally Olsen, a fish-nut who’d rather jig for rockfish and troll for salmon than perhaps anything else, met us on the cobblestone beach and gave us a quick orientation. Mike then left on the boat that dropped us off, bound for a weekend in Homer.

Paddling toward Fox Island.

Hauling our bags up the back steps, leaving our coolers on the porch, we settled in, the kids quickly claiming their berths upstairs.

The atmosphere is like one of those ski huts you’d find in Colorado, only it’s for sea kayaking. Guests come and go, staying for different durations, all here for the same reason: a roof overhead in the wilderness, offering access to some of the best sea kayaking on the continent. You also bring your own food and booze, keeping the price down.

Inside, we shuttled our sleeping gear and duffels up a ladder-like set of stairs to a loft above the kitchen, unloaded our food into various cubbies, and hung our clothes on assorted hooks. The kids wasted no time settling into games on the dining table. Surrounding a crackling wood stove, the living room has couches and easy chairs for lounging, a wood coffee table, and windows and deck overlooking the rainforest and glass-like water beyond.

In the morning, we feast on fresh, kid-picked blueberry, watermelonberry and salmonberry pancakes and bacon before heading off to the boats. Outfitted with rubber boots, sprayskirts, PFDs, paddles and bilge pumps from a storage space below the deck, we grab our kayaks, adjust our footpegs and shove off, heading north toward Humpy Cove. We’re a formidable flotilla, in three tandems and two singles.

Counting sea otters, eagles and waterfalls along the way, we first venture toward aptly named Hat Island, surprising a romp of sea otters on the far shore. Then we head back to the mainland and down shore to a grotto filled with more sea otters and a hidden waterfall.

Rock fish for breakfast…and dinner.

Farther down, at Humpy Cove, we haul our kayaks over seaweed-covered boulders to escape the rising tide and hike to a waterfall cascading into a deep pool. The spray coats us before we return and save our boats from the rising tide. I find a piece of kelp and slice its bulb to form a horn, which my daughter, Casey, blows incessantly. Then we play a game of jump rope with its tail before paddling back to the cabin

In the evening, my Alaskan brother-in-law Nino and I sea kayak out for supper. We quickly catch nine rockfish, jigging a lure 70 feet deep, at one point a trio coming up on the same three-hooked line. Back on shore, we clean the fish and warm up in the sauna before plunging into the frigid water of the Sound at 10 p.m..

Your foliage-lined sink.

The days blend together, blurring salmon and rock fish dinners with saunas, yoga sessions on the deck, guitar jams, hikes through Spanish moss-draped Sitka spruce, and day-long paddles. Even a requisite day of drizzle – curtailing our plans to circumnavigate Fox Island – does little to dampen our spirits or setting. Instead, we don our rain gear and head left down the coast, mesmerized by Yosemite-like waterfalls cascading down towering basalt cliffs. The kids learn that out here, you take things as they come – a lesson thankfully softened by our warm cabin.

On our final day, we head back out past a tiny, banyan-looking spruce atop a lone rock island in search of a rumored sea cave somewhere along the jagged shoreline. Look for it across from a landslide scarring Fox Island, we heard. Poking our bow into various nooks, we finally find it, five eagles and four sea otters later. While the waterfalls of yesterday are gone, others remain, shifting our view from starfish skyward.

Kayaks on the beach.

While some of our party has already shuttled back to Seward (Tidewater Taxi’s charter is limited to six people at a time), we arrive back at the cabin just in time for our pick-up, where another group taking our place is unloading: it’s a group of four local women from Seward, here to bond and sea kayak the Sound just like we had. If the locals are coming here, I mused, you know you’re in the right place.

If you go: Kayaker’s Cove costs $25 per person per night. Bring your own food and libations. Sea kayak rentals, which include spray skirt, paddle, PFDs, bilge pumps and rubber boots, start at $25 per person per day. Info: www.kayakerscove.com

Sweet Sidetrip #1: Glacier Cruise to Harriman Fiord

Before or after your trip to Kayaker’s Cove, head to nearby Whittier for a day-long glacier cruise to College and Harriman fiords with Phillips Cruises & Tours. Suitable for all ages, the trip takes you on a 140-mile roundtrip into the heart of Prince William Sound. En route aboard the 137-foot M/V Klondike Express, the fastest catamaran in Alaska, you’ll explore the serenity of Esther Passage and more than 26 different glaciers, some tidewater, in College and Harriman Fjords, with an onboard ranger narrating the whole way. Upon leaving Whittier, the vessel heads east out Passage Canal toward Egg Rocks or Perry Island in search of Steller sea lions. From there it proceeds through Esther Passage, where you’ll likely see eagles, black bear orca whales, humpback whales, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters and more. From there, after a lunch of salmon chowder or vegetarian chili (washed down with glacial-iced margaritas or cold draft beer) you’ll head into College Fjord, whose glaciers are named after the Eastern Colleges during the Harriman Expedition. Next, cruise to Surprise Glacier and Barry Arm in the ice-filld waters of Harriman Fjord. On the return to Whittier, you’ll stop one more time at a kittiwake bird rookery where more than 10,000 birds lay their eggs. Info: 907-276-8023 www.26glaciers.com

Sweet Side Trip #2: Bear Lagoon

While you’re in the hood, add a little ice to your trip, courtesy of Bear Lagoon. Offering sup and sea kayak trips among icebergs out of Seward, Liquid Adventures is one of two outfitters licensed to operate in Bear lagoon. Meet at the train downtown, where you’ll get outfitted in drysuits and boots before jet-boating to the end of Resurrection Bay. There, you’ll negotiate a shallow shoal with the boat’s 4-inch draft before throttling up the Bear River, protected from the waves to the left by a huge terminal moraine regurgitated by your destination: Bear Glacier. Soon you’ll veer to shore, uncover a fleet of kayaks from a tarp, and then finish paddling up the river to Bear Lagoon, where a ghostly gathering of massive icebergs coalesces, courtesy of underwater currents streaming out from beneath the glacier. Info: www.liquid-adventures.com