It was the proudest I’ve ever been as a father. It was the rainy, first evening of our five-day sea kayaking trip at Kayaker’s Cove in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and, tired of all the travel and logistics, I headed out at 9 p.m. for a quick solo paddle while the kids got cozy in the cabin. After circumnavigating Hat Island and crossing back for the paddle home, and feeling guilty about not rallying my kids out, the splash of a paddle approached in the distance, soon revealing the beaming face of my daughter Brooke, 17. She, too, had decided to venture out solo. “I had to,” she gushed. “It was just too gorgeous out.”
So we stayed out, heading farther down shore to a hidden grotto filled with more sea otters and a hidden waterfall. Just before veering into it, I glanced back and saw my other daughter, Casey, 14, giving pursuit in her own single kayak.
“Casey!” I beamed. “What are you doing out here? Nice rally!”
“I’ve been trying to catch you,” she said. “But you kept disappearing around the corner.”
She, too, had come out on her own, mesmerized by our surroundings. Here I was wishing my daughters were with me, and Voila!, they each magically appeared out of nowhere.
High-fiving mid-water, we turned into the cove and paddled under waterfall spray before turning around for the half-hour paddle home. Dragging our boats up the cobblestone beach at 11 p.m., we ventured inside for hot chocolate and fresh baked brownies before snuggling into bed. Welcome to Alaska’s best kept sea kayaking secret: Kayaker’s Cove.
Despite Prince William Sound’s allure as a sea kayaking hotbed, camping in the rain is overrated. Especially with kids in tow. (Nearby Seward gets an average 73 inches a year, Whittier a whopping 156.) So we stumbled upon 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’d provide a roof overhead, warm kitchen and living room, woof-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 we shuttled a half hour out of Seward across Resurrection Bay to a tiny cove nestled in a waterfall-filled nook below jagged mountains. En route, Brooke saw an orca whale.
Caretakers Stan and Sally Olsen met us on the cobblestone beach, Stan a retired construction manager from Anchorage and England-born Sally as psyched on kayak fishing as she is on Brexit. While Stan gave us a quick orientation, and helped a family of four from Anchorage leave on our boat, Sally headed out to jig for rockfish.
Hauling our bags up the back steps, leaving our coolers on the porch, we met our other hostel roommates: a group of eight 60-something ladies, led by Barb, freshly retired from the military; solo traveler Meg; and Eric and Lisa from Reno. On day two we’d lose Meg, but pick up Fabio and Frank from Switzerland.
It’s like a ski hut you’d find in Colorado, only for sea kayaking. Guests come and go, staying for different durations, all here for the same reason: a roof overhead in the wilderness. 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 two couches and three easy chairs, 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 coast, we veer into the cove and haul our kayaks over seaweed-covered boulders to escape the rising tide. We then hike to a waterfall cascading into a deep pool, with a natural walkway behind it. The spray coats us before we return and save our boats from the rising tide. On the way back, we detour around Hat Island and surprise a harbor seal frolicking off its point.
In the evening, Nino and I sea kayak out for supper. We quickly catch nine rockfish, jigging a lure 70 feet deep, at one point a trio on the same three-hooked line. Back on shore, Barb’s group is under a tarp around the campfire, with one drysuit-clad lady outside the perimeter, reading a book through a Zip lock bag. We warm up in the sauna just behind, plunging into the icy water of the Sound at 10 p.m..
The days blend together, blurring salmon dinners with saunas, charades, hikes through Spanish moss-draped Sitka spruce, and day-long paddles. Four days of drizzle do little to dampen our spirits or setting. The kids learn that out here, you take things as they come – a lesson thankfully softened by our warm cabin.
On our final day, Casey and I head out past a tiny, banyan-looking spruce atop a lone rock island and head left along the mainland 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.
Timing our entrance with the tidal surge, a few quick strokes has us threading a tight passage to see the cave open up and tower overhead. Rising and falling with each pulse, we poke around, name starfish and marvel at the shafts of light filtering through the opening. We arrive back just in time for our 3 p.m. pick-up, where another group taking our place is unloading: it’s a 10-person “Friends and Family” trip put on by outfitter Pinkie and Goose Adventures. It’s the first time co-owner Goose (Jake) and his three brothers have been together in 19 years. As my own family knows, it’s hard to script a better place to bond.
If you go:
Kayaker’s Cove costs $20 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 side trip: Bear Lagoon
Want your hostel experience on the rocks? Add a little ice, 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 coalesce, courtesy of underwater currents streaming out from beneath the glacier. Info: www.liquid-adventures.com