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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Alaska Journal: Prince William Sound pre Exxon Valdez

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

Prince William Sound, Alaska

June-July 1979 [age 20]

[Wilderness kayaking course with NOLS, the "National Outdoor Leadership School". This journey to a pristine Arctic Eden took place prior to the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, which impacted the area ten years later.]

June 8.

Here it is. I’m on the van ride from the base in Palmer to the train station in Anchorage. Amazing mountains- the Chugash mountains- with lots of snow on them, wolfie looking dogs tied up outside of trailers, gray skies, rivers gray blue with purest, iciest water. The trees are all green and the roadside lush with wildflowers.

We’re all quiet in the van. Sleeping. There are seventeen students, ten women and seven men. Three instructors: Sarah, Jack and Frosty. I have a bad head cold and am still recovering from the absurd, nightmarish airplane odyssey that got me here. But I’m psyched! It’s not raining yet. All our food, tents, fishing gear, cooking gear, a few clothes, are packed in scores of identical, unidentifiable pack sacks ready to load into our boats. After today we will be away from mailboxes for one month. They say we could be covering 150-200 miles! No sailing, either. I hope the weather is kind.

It doesn’t get dark here.

June 9.

Camped at a sublimely beautiful spot two miles from Whittier yesterday, after setting up the boats. We paddled out- it’s not too hard [I had never kayaked before]- beautiful clear water, stopped by a rookery of kittiwakes with waterfalls crashing down the sheer slopes. Made camp, made a fire and ate soup and the full moon rose. It’s still clear, sunny and warm today: miraculous. Last night I had a true nightmare that filled my heart with the heaviest sadness until I woke. The dream was that Tim [Tim McGinness, Clearwater captain and my soon to be former love interest] had gone back to his old girlfriend. He didn’t want me anymore. There was nothing I could do. But this morning it is still sunny and warm and the pace is relaxed. We sit around and have cooking class, and tide class, and take notes in the sunshine.

June 10.

Yesterday we paddled eight miles,

from 1 pm until about 7 pm. Stopped to rest a couple of times; made camp near Pigot Point. This morning I got up and made bannocks. And we heard a WHOOSH! and saw two triangular black fins of killer whales cruising by! Porpoise and seals here too, and what must have been bear poop in the woods.

The depth of the water goes down to 1500 ‘ almost immediately, and the land slopes up three times as high, just as fast.

(later) Evening now. Today was lazy! Learned to use a fishing rod, though. Ate a lot.

Took a walk through the marshy, cushiony tundra. Violets and some sort of cranberry, and tiny carnivorous flowers (sundews?) Up a couple of steep slopes, expecting to run into an irate bear at any minute, to one of the higher meadows where in contentment and delirium I prayed to the four directions and sang a song and as I sang two bald eagles flew over, close, circling a dance with each other over my head as they flew towards the sun. I watched them go, the sun blinding me.

Last night I dreamed bear nightmares, and dreamed that I was riding down the steepest railway track in the world.

June 11.

We did a long paddle today, twenty miles or so. Started at 6 am and went til 6 pm, with several stops. Another miraculously rainless day, spectacular, blue sky and racing clouds, porpoises and seals. I was being very macho and ended up paddling at the head of the entourage most of the time, in the single kayak. I was amazed by the landscape and the scene. The final leg of the paddle was a rather rough crossing: a few whitecaps, waves to be dealt with, a little excitement. I'm tired! Getting to know some of the people here, Gale and Emma [Gibson.] Good ladies. Another idyllic camp spot, leisurely meal, sunset, beach. So far away.

June 13.

Saw a porcupine a couple of days ago. Yesterday was decadent. Still nice weather. We had a map and compass class; I had everyone do a couple of New Games-y things and then we lazed. Hiked up the meadows to the most absurdly perfect set of ponds and connecting brooks, looking like a Japanese garden, complete with lily pads, surrounded by shining, snow covered peaks. Took a bath up there in the sun in bliss and delight, feeling like someone in one of those California artist-type psychedelic landscape paintings. Fantasy world.

This morning at about 4 am I woke and heard, repeatedly, a whoosh! followed by a shrill, breathy squeak or squeal that echoed off the mountains. Crawled out of the tent to watch a lone whale surface and blow, singing. I think it was a Minke whale.

Today is chilly and grayer, with a solid cloud cover and northeast breeze. This evening we're leaving Lighthouse Reserve to head for Knight Island, whale territory.

(later) Took a solitary hike today for a couple of hours. Saw a big, sleek sea otter cruising by in the water, rolling around on its back. Up in meadow country I almost walked right on top of a black bear. It came charging straight at me with a worried look on its face and I just had time to fumble for my trusty instamatic camera as it veered and sped off downhill at a healthy gallop. I snapped a picture of its retreating hind end and waited for the adrenalin to simmer down in my bloodstream. This afternoon there's a humpback whale flapping its flippers and playing around out in the inlet.

June 14.

Last night we paddled from 9 pm until 3 am, with an hour or two's wait in the middle for some boat repair. For awhile we were surrounded by a small school of Dall's porpoises breathing and diving around us. A whale, probably a humpback, showed up for awhile , and just after we landed on the beach here at Knight Island, a family of five killer whales cruised by, quite close to shore. The two parents were quite big. Slept til noon on what is yet another flawless, clear sky day.

June 15.

Today there is a giant ring around the sun. We are still camped at Herring Point on Knight Island and will be here until tomorrow. Weather still flawless, but what does the ring mean?

June 16.

Yesterday Emma and I went out in one of the boats and fished , with absolutely no success, for a few hours. We had a close encounter with a sea lion. He inspected us rather predatorily while breathing heavily, and swam directly under the boat, much to Emma's alarm. I took a hike yesterday evening. This morning we woke up to rain and had a gray, difficult paddle through Foul Pass with the wind against us. A Minke whale escorted us, showing his fin several times and surfacing once to peek at us. We're camped on Ingot Island. First wet. Lighting fires in the rain. May or may not move on tomorrow. I lost my knife today, my beautiful trusty Gerber that Hal Hansen gave me so many years ago [Hal was a murderous Humboldt county marijuanero I had met in 1976]

I miss Tim. Hope I don't get overly neurotic. Why am I here? I isolated myself out here on purpose, of my own free and witless will. It's up to me to force myself to enjoy it.

June 17.

More rain, and a short paddle down to Bay of Isles on Knight Island. The sun is peeking out a little, and about five humpback whales were just breaching and spouting and slamming their flippers and tails on the water with tremendous splashings and crashings. Bald eagles, seals, otters and porpoises are so common as to go without mention.

June 19.

Yesterday we had a climbing session all day on the sea cliffs here. I did two rappels, one a body rappel. Got some rope burn. Some fun climbs. Today, although rain was threatening , we paddled over to Short Arm, north of Iron Mountain, and attempted to ascend said mountain. We got part way up and were walking through snow, with glacier goggles and ice axes in use. Got to a small slope of snow and were learning self arrest, sliding down the snow. Frosty, while demonstrating self arrest, dislocated his shoulder. We had to evacuate him from where we were on the mountain- just walk him down carefully- and now four people have paddled off to seek contact with the real world. The rest of us are standing by ready to put him on a sea plane or helicopter. Still hasn't started raining again. Gale was one of the ones to go on the rescue mission. Emma and I are sitting on the beach baking a cake and gabbing.

June 20.

Nothing to do but wait for the plane. It's pretty breezy out and starting to drizzle down on us. Frosty, enshrouded in hat, sleeping bags and poncho, is sitting hunched on the beach, leaning on an old 55 gallon drum. I'm standing by waiting to jump into my waders and paddle Frosty's material possessions it to the plane. But the plane may not get here for three days. Emma is stuck on the other beach, to wave the plane over to this beach if it wants to lands over there. The evacuation is being handled with calm and clockwork. Wish I had a good book to read.

It is good out here. And my knife was found. But Tim is in my dreams every night. The course is almost half over.

June 21.

Yesterday a float plane came around 1 pm. No sweat. Heather, Sonya and I went back up Iron Mountain in search of Sonya's missing backpack, but apparently a yeti had eaten it. We have been baking cakes just about every night. Fishing rods all snarled up and snagged on the rocks. Today is brilliantly sunny and gorgeous. Tonight we're paddling to even wilder country.

June 22.

Last night we paddled from 8 pm until 3 am to Snug Harbor. Had some rather large swells for some stretches. Beautiful sea and sky, a few stars. The shortest night of the year. An escort of sea lions made us all a little paranoid for awhile. When we got to the beach, the two boats of rescue team people were just coming around the point, so now we're all together again. Today is gorgeous. No one can believe it.

June 23.

Last night we had a smorgasbord and ate tons of reasonably good food. I made yeast bread. Then after dinner I was absentmindedly spin casting just off the beach, when I caught a fish! Utterly amazing. I'm the first female to get one (beat fist on chest.) It was a pink salmon, about a pound and a half, beautiful and shimmering and shining. Iridescent green and blue, silver belly, bleeding mouth, struggling on the rocks. Jack pulled the hook out and Chris broke the spine, and I gutted it and fried it up in butter- pink meat, delicious- and fed it to everyone.

June 25.

Yesterday we left Snug Harbor and it started to rain. We had a gray , fairly difficult twelve mile paddle with the wind in our faces. I had the single kayak again. At one place we got really close, within two feet, to a baby sea otter asleep on the surface. It was so cute! Sea lions, leaping and whooshing dramatically, escorted us most of the trip. Last night we made cramped camp at Italian Bay and now we're holed up in Kake' Cove on Chenega Island after another wet seven mile paddle. Still raining, just like it's supposed to. There's an iceberg floating around over across the channel. The night before we left Snug Harbor we were all woken by a rumble-rumble-rumble which was a landslide way up the slope. Later that night lots of people felt an earth tremor but I slept through it. Today we saw a puffin fly by. Very wet!

June 26.

It stopped raining today. I dreamed last night that I was sitting outside a house in the country, watching the road, waiting for Tim's blue pickup truck to arrive. Life is full of small rocks and insects.

June 27.

Today was a lazy paddle to the back end of Whale Bay. We passed our first small icebergs, and turned our flotilla into several square rigged catamarans and sailed downwind for awhile like a ramshackle bunch of ragtag and bobtail. When we got here a bear retreated into the woods in deference to our encroachment. There's snow on the ground here, and people have been catching large salmon which we are eating for dinner. I'm usually to be found wandering around the beach in my mosquito netting headgear, looking like a bee keeper from the People's Republic of China.

June 29.

Yesterday we went for a hike in the snow and did more self arrest, sliding down head first on our backs. Spent the rest of the afternoon cooking amongst intermittent rain showers. It's boiling down to the last days of the course now- soon things'll begin to get crazy again.

(later) Paddled this evening into the fabled Icy Bay, and magnificent it is. Paddling was tricky amongst all the icebergs. And now we sit in the chilly, oblivious arctic air listening to the roar of a dozen waterfalls, watching a blaze of gray and crimson clouds over the two massive glaciers, Chenega Glacier and Tiger Glacier, and their attendant peaks. Every few minutes a ponderous boom echoes from Chenega Glacier. It is calving, and seals or birds bark strangely at the sound. Millions of icebergs float in the bay, all sizes. Occasionally one silently rolls over and the ones near shore murmur with a clicking, crackling, melting noise. The water, untouchably still and cold, is a clear, sterile blue, gray now that the sun is gone. This is wild country.

June 30.

Today Gale and I paddled down to the end of Icy Bay. The water was gray, turbid. The glacier yawned over us, immense, incalculable, giving off thunderous crashes. Nearby, a cliff full of kittiwakes shrilled and squealed; seals swam sluggishly in the icy, icy water and icebergs slyly rolled as we went by. There was a ring around the sun again, a smaller one. Snow around the tent, and the crisp, mossy smell of early spring in the woods, still half frozen.

July 1.

Today was the most dazzling, crystal clear day. This morning some of us took a short paddle and a hike over to the head of Port Bainbridge. It was nice to walk and stretch my legs. On the way back we swung by Copenhagen Spit and ventured briefly into the icepack in Nassau Fiord, having close encounters with black oystercatchers, nesting Arctic terns , and harbor porpoise. Got good and close to some sea otters on an iceberg, and then to two- a mother and baby- just asleep in the water. We snuck up on them, fairly bristling with photographic equipment. The baby woke up and gazed at us in sleepy amazement. Its stirring woke the mother, who grabbed it, spent several seconds staring at us incredulously, and then dove with her child. A little later, paddling with trepidation through the pack ice- it isn't pack ice, really, just many icebergs- we ended up sneaking up on three seals who were sound asleep on an iceberg. I could literally have petted one of them as we drifted by in silent glee, snapping pictures right and left. They all woke up and leapt into the water in chaos and confusion. Later on I went out paddling again with Heather. We snuck up on another seal and got equally close to it without even waking it up. Got back to camp just in time for a sort of shepherd's pie quiche sort of thing Gale whipped up. It is lovely here. But my dreams are still full of fear and longing and jealousy. The moon, the lovely moon, rises early and is waxing, nine days til the full.

July 2.

Short paddle up to Berg on Dual Head today. Another blazing summer sun day. Much sunburn. Many beans, plenty lentils and much rice at the banquet tonight. Tomorrow the Final, aka "Survival" portion of the course starts. [At this point the instructors departed, and small groups of kayaking students, without any food supply, would make their way back to base on their own] I'm the leader of one of the trusty little bands. Busy doing plans and schemes. Tomorrow's the last day to eat. Standby to go wild!

July 3.

We leave tonight. The instructors are already gone. Another NOLS course stopped by just as they were trying to leave. Mass overstimulation as we talked to them all, all as scraggy and sunbaked and smelly as we are, and gave them all of our leftover food, as bears had absconded with a lot of theirs. The weather is so gorgeous it's beyond absurdity. [My group consisted of two women, Heather and my friend Emma Gibson, and one teen-aged young man named Cliff. He had a thin build and no doubt suffered much more acutely than we females from the total lack of calories on the final trip.]

July 4.

I sit on an anonymous beach on Chenega Island, basking in the sun. Lat night we had an easy, beautiful paddle up here. No eating. Danger of sheer boredom setting in, but he weather's so lovely that nothing really matters.

July 5.

Much rain since that last entry. It began yesterday afternoon. Let up for awhile this morning and is now at it again industriously. We went to Granite Bay last night. Drank hot water in as jovial mood as we could muster. Left there this morning and sailed and paddled up here to Foul Bay. Four killer whales intrigued and terrified us at Point Nowell, so close to us, whooshing magestically. One huge one came closest to us, curious. [ Idiotically, all I could think of to say to my group as the whale approached was, "Think good thoughts about our brothers, the whales!"] We quaked with awe and delight and the whales were benificent. Twenty to thirty feet away from us! Now we're camped at Foul Bay- aptly named- vegetating in our tents. Supposedly we'll leave here tonight, but only if the weather markedly improves. Seas were really building up just as we scooted in here. All feeling good and weak. Fortunately we were able to sail quite a bit.

July 7.

Yesterday was stress incarnate. Weak and woozy, we paddled eighteen miles against a persistent headwind in rain and fog, across Port Nellie Juan and up Culross Passage. Nine hours of dismal, wet, weary paddling. Rounding the point the seas got good and big. We scooted into the nearest cove to a miserable little beach. Had to drag the boats way up the hill amongst many dead trees and rocks. Pitched our tents on some approximation of level, swampy ground, and rendered ourselves comatose. But this morning when we got up the water was smooth and the fog and rain gone, with even a couple of blue sky specks showing through ("sucker holes", they're called.) So we paddled to the head of Passage Canal and then- Oh, bliss!- sailed in from there to this last beach, a scant four miles from Whittier, where we're now all comatose again, basking in a few moments of sunlight.

I am looking forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow I might get a letter from Tim. I can eat. I an take a shower. I can start preparing to leave this wilderness, this sweet, wild, oblivious wilderness.

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