Kayaking Alaska’s Surprise Cove

Surprise Cove State Marine Park

Prince William Sound, Alaska

An incredible kayaking adventure amidst the beauty of the Alaskan wild

Every summer, I get to escape the Lower 48 to visit my best friends, Robin and Rich. Over the countless years, these two have taken me on the most extraordinary, breathtaking adventures, one being our three-day kayaking trip at Surprise Cove in the Prince William Sound.

I had been kayaking a handful of times on the warm, sunny southern Californian coast, but never in extremely cold tidewater bordered by glaciers. Of note, I had only rowed in open boat-like kayaks, not in narrow vessels, immobilized in a skirt with foot peddles for navigation, anxiously aware of the real possibility of rolling over and drowning. Despite the dangers and differences, I had always wanted to have a real kayaking experience during my Alaska travels, and being a total novice, Surprise Cove was the perfect training ground for what might be the platform for future expeditions. However, beginning kayakers should never venture out alone without an experienced kayaker who knows all of the ins and outs (literally!) of the sport. Otherwise, it is advisable to go on one of the many guided kayaking tours offered in towns around the Prince William Sound.

Gearing up and getting there:

Whittier is a little over an hour away from Anchorage and is the gateway to the western side of the Prince William Sound. It’s a small port town with a seaside village containing restaurants, charter companies, boat slips, and a few hundred residents. Alaska Hwy 1 south takes you from Anchorage to Portage Glacier Road where you will pay a toll and wait to travel through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier, famously, one of the world’s longest mountain tunnels. During the summertime, you will find Whittier to be a bustling little town with carloads of tourists and gear. Weather wise, July and August are the best months to set out, but also the busiest, so make charter and rental reservations well in advance, and think about going midweek.

Among many different charters in Whittier, Lazy Otter is my recommendation for gearing you up and dropping you off at the cove. They offer many other services such as sight seeing tours and a shop and café, but as with most tourist businesses, prices are high during peak seasons, so planning this mini expedition with three to six people to split the cost would be ideal. If you aren’t lugging around your own kayak, Lazy Otter has rentals, which include the full outfit: skirt, life jacket, paddles, water pump, and anything else you might need.

You are responsible for your own personal gear, depending on how many days you plan on spending at the cove. Remember, like in most awesome camping spots in Alaska, you pack in and pack out. There are no stores, no fresh water, and little to no cellular service. You will have a base camp at the cove so don’t worry about having to fit all of your gear in the kayak storage compartment. The following list contains some basic items and categories you’ll want to remember:

  • 3 meals a day x amount of days x people
  • Snacks!
  • Cooler
  • Plenty of water for drinking and cooking
  • IMG_5739
  • Water bottle
  • Coffee/tea travel mug
  • Camping utensils
  • Camp stove
  • Firewood
  • Lighter
  • Knife
  • Hand wipes
  • Toilet paper and paper towels
  • Small trash bags for hauling out all trash
  • Bear spray
  • Bug repellent- the strong stuff!
  • Bug netting- depending on the time of year. June and July can be rough.
  • Small first aid kit
  • Flashlight and headlamp
  • Waterproof jacket and pants
  • Waterproof boots- you will almost be up to your knees stepping in and out of the water to launch and unload your kayak
  • Clothing- depends on the weather, and it can get from very warm to extremely cold within hours. Plan on layering.
  • Water proof gloves
  • Beanie, cap or brimmed hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Teva type sandals:
  •  IMG_5718
  • Dry bags
  • Tent (not the mansion kind!)
  • Sleeping bag, pillow, mat
  • Bungee cords for hanging and strapping down hear
  • IPod or phone for music, portable speaker, portable charger
  • Camera

While there:

When arriving at Surprise Cove, you’ll pull in and unload on a calm sheltered beach along side several wooden camping platforms. One large tent or two small tents will fit on each platform. Each secluded spot is connected by wood steps and walking planks. On the opposite end of the platform closest to the water is an outhouse and two bear lockers for food storage. Beyond that is a rather large sandy spot to camp as well, but it is not as sheltered as the wood platforms.

Be aware of the high and low tides- you’ll notice a water ring along the beach that marks the high tide. You’ll want to store your gear on your platform or up high so the water takes nothing out to sea. Be diligent in tying your kayak to a tree, even if it is above the water ring level. You can never be too sure it’s not going to float away, and the last thing you’ll want to do is swim after it in the freezing water!

There are a lot of little coves to explore in the area without going into the sound’s choppy waters. Make sure you are comfortable working the peddles in your kayak and able to maneuver from right to left before venturing too far away from shore. Pack a water bottle, snacks, and layers of clothing in the hole of your kayak when heading out. Wear your gloves while rowing and keep anything you want easily accessible under a bungee cord in front of you. Turning side-to-side and rummaging through your pack is not the best idea while teeter tottering in a narrow kayak.

Once you’re ready for your daytime cruise, stay along the shore to enjoy the scenery and wildlife. While gliding in and out of the coves, listen for eagles soaring above, moose or bear tromping through a nearby meadow, and otters lying on their backs cracking shells. You’ll find waterfalls, amazing glacier views, and schools of salmon just below the surface. You never know what you will find while cruising along or coming ashore at a secluded sandy beach for a peaceful rest.

At the base camp, there are a couple of hiking trails. The main trail begins next to the outhouse. It contains a series of well-kept rocks, wooden planks, steps, and manicured dirt paths. Along this trail you will discover breathtaking views of grassy meadows, coves, fern gullies, sky scraping trees, salmon berry bushes, and fresh blueberries dotting the ground. The trail splits off eventually. If you go to the left, you will end up at a beautiful cove where you might see a boat or two anchored for camping and fishing. Continuing straight on the trail, also the longer and hillier way, you will discover a vast mirror-like glacier lake accessible only by foot or air. Be aware of bears and other animals while on the trail by making noise now and then and having your bear spray handy. It is Alaska, after all!

Important guidelines to follow while enjoying any nature spot in the world:

Share the love, but come and go as if you were never there!

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