Three Days in Eshamy Bay

Although it was once one of my favorite playgrounds, Prince William Sound slipped off my radar many years ago. In my mind, the sound was so closely linked to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that I couldn’t envision anything beyond oil-soaked beaches and foundering wildlife. For me, it was the richness and beauty of the sound that made the oil spill such an environmental disaster, but, as I discovered recently, that richness and beauty are still there.

My friend Bob and I emerged from the two-mile rail-and-vehicle tunnel that connects Portage to Whittier, a tiny town where the skyline is dominated by a modern high-rise and an abandoned WW II barracks that resembles a Soviet-era apartment building. A busy harbor, tourist shops and an attractive hotel stand in contrast to those two buildings.

Whittier is one of several easy access points to the sound and the closest to Anchorage. We had driven there to meet Mark Kulstad, who owns Eshamy Bay Lodge, about 50 miles from Whittier. We found him aboard the 34-foot twin-hull vessel that the lodge operates as a water taxi. It was late spring, and Kulstad had invited us to help with some chores before the lodge opened for the season in exchange for a few days of fun.
Perched on the boat’s back deck was a 500-pound steel fuel tank that Kulstad and two friends had wrestled aboard. They seemed cavalier about the prospect of getting it off the boat and up the 20-foot cliff next to the lodge.

Whittier might lack some of the charm of Seward or Sitka, but its setting is just as spectacular. It sits at the head of Passage Canal, a long steep fjord. Winter’s snow still reached almost to tide line. From the deck of the boat, we could see the kittiwake colony that occupies a cliff opposite the marina. During midsummer, the chicks provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for the local eagles and hawks. Just past the circling gulls, we spied a half-dozen mountain goats drawn to the beach by the fresh grass that was just beginning to appear as the snow receded.

The sound is an intricate maze of islands and bays, long passages and narrow cuts—a mountain range sunk below sea level with only the peaks emerging. We passed the opening to Port Wells, wound our way through the protected waters of Culross Passage and then along the open shore past Port Nellie Juan. We saw a smattering of boats, probably hunters looking for black bear. A pod of dolphins briefly surfed our wake and then flew by. Kulstad said he had seen humpbacks feeding in this spot a few days earlier and, as if on cue, two spouts appeared followed by a show of flukes as the whales dove.

Marine mammals are one of the great draws of the sound. Humpback and minke whales are common, and 50 to 150 orcas make their home in the sound. A few days earlier, Kulstad said, a bull orca had surfaced next to the boat holding a massive piece of meat in its jaws. From the musculature and sinews, Kulstad speculated that the whale had found a bear carcass. During our short stay, we saw harbor seals and endangered Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoise, seemingly drawn to the boat, were a common travel companion. With a top speed of 30 knots, the porpoise had little difficulty keeping up.

As we rounded the point into Eshamy Bay, we saw two people waiting on the floating dock. Pamela Eiting, the camp cook, smiled a welcome. Duke Marolf took the lines and made sure everything was squared away before he introduced himself as the camp manager. An hour later, we had our gear stowed and everyone had gathered on the lodge’s deck for a meal of crisp bear ribs. My meal was soon interrupted by what sounded like a 4-pound mosquito buzzing in my ear. It was a hummingbird, but it didn’t have a chance to check me for nectar before it was chased off by an angry rival. I looked around and realized there were about 15 of them hovering around the deck, numbers you’d expect to see in Panama or Costa Rica. I quickly took off my red ball cap, which seemed to be attracting them.

One of the joys of the sound is its rich supply of fish and shellfish. The next day, we motored a few miles out of the bay and pulled up a couple strings of shrimp pots. The first came up with 20 or so spot shrimp. These are the classic shrimp of the sound, and they are huge—nine or 10 inches long. The second string, in deeper water, was even more productive. The pots came up wriggling and red, full of shrimp, their eyes glowing a fluorescent orange that changed to black as they adjusted to the sudden light. We sorted the keepers from the smaller shrimp, crabs and whelks and sent the freshly baited pots back over the side. 

It was too early in the season for salmon, so we began jigging for cod and rockfish. We tried a couple spots with varying success and were about to move on to a third when things got exciting. A pod of porpoises had been playing around the boat while we fished. Marolf said he thought they were drawn by the ping of the depth sounder. I was fishing off the boat’s swim platform, in about 300 feet of water, and I was just beginning to reel in when I had a hard strike—so hard the rod jerked from my hand. Instinctively, I clamped down and felt my hand jam between the reel and the rod handle. Suddenly, I was flying, jerked off my feet and headed overboard. Fortunately the guardrail caught me at the waist and brought me to a sudden stop. The drag on the reel kicked in, the line screaming out, as a rooster tail split the water a couple hundred yards away. One of the porpoises had wrapped my line around a fin. But before we could decide how to free the animal, the line went slack and the porpoise swam away.

It was an exhilarating, but if the guardrail hadn’t caught me, I would have been towed like a water skier, face first and mouth open—an amusing image. Still, I could see the headline in the Anchorage Daily News: “Alaska man drowns in freak accident; porpoise blamed.” 

That was enough excitement, we decided, and headed back to the lodge. We still had that fuel tank to move, which proved to be an exercise involving ropes, pry bars, a chainsaw winch and a lot of opinions. I stayed out of the way.

Disappointment and delight

Eshamy Bay has a red salmon run, which means Eshamy Lake has trout—cutthroats, in this case—that thrive off the eggs and rotting flesh of the salmon that have spawned and died. The next day, we rigged up our fly rods and had Marolf drop us off at the mouth of the stream linking the lake to the bay.

Eshamy Creek was a mass of white water tumbling over moss-covered boulders. A narrow trail, marked with the delicate prints of black-tail deer, wound through the tangle of blueberry bushes and devil’s club beneath huge hemlock and spruce covered in lichens and yellow-green sphagnum mosses. Halfway to the lake, we spotted an impressively large river otter. He slipped easily through the torrent, moving upstream, disappearing underwater and gliding over the rocks. He slid under a fallen log and then popped up triumphantly, a large trout in his mouth.

The sight of the wriggling fish spurred us on, but when we reached the lake, it was obvious our efforts were in vain. Everything but a small patch around the outlet was covered in ice. Spring arrives slowly in the sound.

Our disappointment disappeared on the ride back, however. Eshamy Lagoon is a major nursery for sea otters and there were at least a dozen females floating on their backs, pups clasped to their chests. They were remarkably tolerant of the boat as we cut the engine and glided among them. We stared at them and they stared back as they slowly moved out of our way. The pups twisted their necks to watch us and then fell back asleep. Marolf said the otters often drift beside paddlers, showing no fear, and if it hadn’t been our last day in the sound, we would have been tempted to return in kayaks.

As it turned out, however, it wasn’t our last day.

The next morning brought 30-knot winds and 7-foot seas. We heard rain on the metal roof and watched it pound the windows. Spray flew high on the rocks, and fog-shrouded hemlocks swayed in the wind. An eagle struggled to make a clean landing on a dead limb. It was a good day to bring out the books and read.

The weather is always interesting in the sound. It can be sunny and in the 70s, or screaming wind and pouring rain—sometimes both in the same day.  Like everywhere in bush Alaska, a flexible return date is important.

The following day, the wind had dropped to more reasonable levels. The run up to Port Nellie Juan was still lumpy enough to make us glad we hadn’t tried a day earlier, and as we crashed into the rolling seas, spray flew over the boat, obscuring our vision between passes of the windshield wipers. The shelter of Culross Passage was a welcome sight. 

Motoring through the calmer waters, we spotted a bear feeding at a creek mouth. Kulstad pulled into a beach that was hidden from the bear’s line of sight, and Marolf slipped out with his rifle. We watched as he made a short stalk and brought the rifle to his shoulder, sighting through the scope. He held it for a minute and then returned to the boat.

“Little guy,” he said. “Let him grow up a bit.” 

We backed off the beach and headed into Whittier. 

It had been a short trip, but in many ways it was a classic sound experience. It didn’t erase my mental images of the oil spill, but it separated them from the sound today. Now when I think of Prince William Sound, I think of sheltered bays and harbors, rainforest trails and marine life almost close enough to touch.

That and wildlife waterskiing.

—Will Rice lives in Anchorage. He wrote about the Denali Road lottery drive in the June 2011 issue.


Go!

With almost 3,000 miles of shoreline, stunning scenery and easy access from Anchorage, Prince William Sound seems like a perfect tourist destination.  In fact, it is largely a do-it-yourself vacation spot. There are a few commercial lodges, a scattering of public cabins, and several water taxis that will transport campers and kayakers to remote locations. For many—Alaskans and visitors alike—the sound provides a welcome respite from the cruise ship crowds and tour buses at more popular sites.

The lodges in the sound are limited in number and modest in size. Their draw is the beauty of their surroundings rather than the opulence of their accommodations. From Anchorage and Whittier, the nearest is Eshamy Bay Lodge (eshamybaylodge.com). From Seward, you can reach Port Ashton Lodge (portashtonlodge.com) or visit Jumping Salmon Lodge near the Native village of Chenega (alaskajumpingsalmonlodge.com). If you are traveling from Valdez, the most accessible is Prince William Sound Lodge (princewilliamsound.us).

One of the most popular ways to visit the sound is by renting a public-use cabin. Both the state of Alaska (dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins) and Chugach National Forest (www.recreation.gov) have cabins available. Given the uncertain nature of the weather in the sound, cabins are often a comfortable alternative to tents, and they can be reached by water taxi or, in some cases, by floatplane.

The sound is a spectacular area to explore by sea kayak. Kayaks are available for rent in Whittier, Seward, Cordova and Valdez. All four towns have water taxi services that will transport kayakers or campers to the area of their choice, giving them an opportunity to explore waters that see little traffic.

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