The ferry from Glacier Bay National Park to Juneau has just dropped us off and we stand with our boats and our gear looking around, wondering how we will get it all to the boat ramp a quarter mile away. As we stand there, a man we talked to on the ferry comes by and offers help. He’ll drive our gear over and watch it while we get the boats. Our hearts warm, another of the countless examples of the generous people we’ve met along the way.
Boats and gear moved, we start to sort and load them. Then it’s back into the waters we left more than two weeks ago. Our plan is to camp on the same island we stopped at when we turned East to Glacier Bay. But tomorrow we will go north towards Skagway.
We arrive at the island 24 minutes after departing the boat ramp, our shortest paddle day yet. The sun is setting as we cook and it’s dark by the time we put our heads on our pillows. It’s strange to be back here, but we are excited as we look North.
In the morning we get on the water and are almost immediately rewarded by a group of humpbacks bubble net feeding. This is a little different then the humpbacks we’ve seen before. The largest group we’ve seen before was just two whales feeding. Here there are five or six working together. We see whale watching tour boats heading around the tip of the Mansfield Peninsula and in true Anna and Jeremy fashion, we take a long detour to spend some more time with the whales. And our efforts are greatly rewarded.
I wish I could describe better in words what it feels like to sit in a kayak and experience this. There is just a thin layer of fiber glass separating us from the water. We are low, our heads just two feet above the water. We watch the gulls circling, they are also looking for the whales and when they spot them, it’s our first indication of where they will surface. Then the waters start to bubble and boil. The first of the massive mouths comes up open, gathering krill and plankton in its 15 foot jaws. It closes with surprising ease. And suddenly there are six whales with their heads above water, creating waves as they snap their jaws shut, the gulls diving and swooping for their share of food. Then they are gone and it is quiet for a moment as they turn under the water, they surface again to blow, we can hear the intense breath of air being pushed out and see the spray they create. As they dive back under, we can hear them talking in their moaning voices. Their tails are the last thing we see. They slip quietly into the water. The gulls slow down and fly higher. And finally we breathe.
These massive animals aren’t even very close today, at least 100 yards away, but we feel at the same time intensely vulnerable and connected to them. We know the whales have very little care that we are here floating above them, but it feels like a gift that they let us share this space. Over our trip we have counted over 150 humpback whales. Most have been a mile or so away, but many have been much closer. We have very little control over how close we get to them. We couldn’t chase them if we wanted to as our top speed is laughably slow compared to theirs. We’ve had whales change course and avoid us. We’ve also had whales change course and come towards, as if they are curious. But mostly they just carry on, seemingly not bothered by the two strange shadows that float quietly above them with rapid heartbeats and held breaths.
The whales move on and so do we. Back to our path, North to Skagway.
If you ever have the chance, there is skeleton of a humpback whale on display at Glacier Bay National Park. I had been paddling with these animals for 75 days when I saw it. I knew how large they are. I had seen them close up. But standing near that skeleton, seeing the jaw bones the size of my waist, the ribs longer than my boat, the fins somehow huge and delicate at the same time, it gave me a new understanding of what I was experiencing.