Kayaking Wild Alaska (Hint: It was nothing like I pictured)

The pungent smell of worn rubber wafted up from my orange waterproof jumpsuit. Rain erupted as if it were on a mission. Droplets pooled on the rim of my Life is Good hat and scattered across my face as I glanced up to take in the view. Mendenhall Glacier peaked through the clouds in the distance. Its winding path abruptly ended at the edge of the bay, only a few miles from Juneau, Alaska.

“If you squint your eyes, you can see it,” said our kayaking guide. I did, but the iconic glacier was barely visible. All around me were lush, mist-covered hills, full of mountain ash, maple, pine, and cedar trees where eagles perched, but I couldn’t truly appreciate it. In my oversized raincoat — topped with a life jacket, a blue plastic tarp skirt around my waist to go over the kayak seat, and knee high boots — I moved like a robot. I worried how I would even get into my kayak. The odor worsened, as more of my fellow adventurers removed their damp sneakers to don their rain gear, reinforcing my hesitation to proceed on this little venture.

I grabbed my paddle and moved as far away from the crowd as possible. I was alone. Worse, I was alone with my thoughts. “Why did you sign up for this?!” my brain kept repeating, as cold water trickled down my arms, sending shivers down my spine. I had always wanted to kayak in Alaska, and held a vision of myself looking in awe at a breaching whale in my kayak against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and winding glaciers. But, on this dreary day, I was less than enthused. I could have been whale watching or in a helicopter viewing the glacier up close, or even relaxing in the hot tub on the cruise ship. Instead, I was freezing, inches above glacial waters under pounding rain.

When it was time to pair up, I got Lucy, a fellow cruiser who claimed she was an avid kayaker. I trusted her, and let her steer the kayak from the back seat. Everyone in the group, all fourteen of them, floated ahead of us expertly while Lucy and I zigzagged, struggling to synchronize our paddling. The boat wobbled when a boat whizzed by, forcing me to tense up. I cursed myself again for choosing this excursion as my shoulders began to ache from trying to stabilize. When I asked my guide if we were headed towards the glacier, he said, “Oh, that… it was a misprint in the brochure. The glacier is actually 12 miles away.” And, there would be no whales in the bay; the water is too shallow. My heart sank.

But I kept on; I was determined to make the best of it. Lucy and I learned to navigate our tiny vessel with a bit more ease. Being far behind everyone proved to be an advantage. I had an unfettered view of the surroundings. The calm of the azure water, the serenity of the misty mountains, the glide of the eagles, and the cool breeze took hold. My stress and anxiety slowly floated away.

Just as I was beginning to lose myself in the moment, I spotted a harbor seal’s tiny head pop up ten feet away. Then another joined it. Everyone shrieked in excitement over the sightings. The curious seals started following us, plunging underwater and reappearing closer and closer to us as we started to make our way back to the shore. Looking at these adorable creatures, I forgot I was getting drenched. The rubber scent seemed to have washed away. I stared ahead into the vast expanse, intent on finding more seals. It was just the two of them, so gentle and at peace with their surroundings. For a moment, I was one of them, a part of wild Alaskan nature, a rare experience that was enough to turn my misadventure around.

Kaking Wild AlaskaWhen we got out of our kayaks, I asked my partner to snap a photo. Soaked to the skin, I peeled off my gloves and handed Lucy my camera. I stood next to the kayak clutching my paddle; my blue plastic cover tarp fell around my legs and my messy hair framed my face as the misty bay lay calmly behind me, full of wildlife and wonder. I barely felt the rain pellets as I smiled ear to ear, knowing that I would do this all over again.

Published by Lavanya

Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and globetrotter based in New York City. She has written for The New York Times, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Shermans Travel, The Dodo, and many more in a career spanning eight years. She covers travel, eco-lifestyle, culture, pets, and wildlife conservation.

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