My stomach was in turmoil thanks to an abundance of stress the weeks before leaving for a trip I had put together–a ten day sea-to-ski trip that would take five friends into the bays of Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. Multiple times a day during the weeks prior to heading north to Alaska, I’d check NOAA’s weather and watched what appeared to be typical: coastal rain at sea level with multiple feet of snow accumulating every week. I was afraid I’d asked my friends to throw down their hard earned cash and time away for a trip where we’d be stuck on a sailboat drinking below deck for ten days with shit weather falling outside and avalanche conditions so high that we’d never bother to get off the boat. Not only that, but, Patagonia and Alaskan Brewery sponsored our trip and National Park Magazine and I signed a contract for a Winter 22/23 article!
It wasn’t looking good when we arrived in Seward and made our way to meet the captain of the Madrona, the 35 foot sailboat that would be our home. Nathan Straubinger, who owns Resurrection Bay Sailing Charters with his wife, Kate, was busy getting final preparations in order while the biggest snowflakes I’d ever seen fell on the myriad of neighboring boats tied in their slips: trawlers, sailboats, tugs, etc. We carried our Alaskan Brewery cases and some groceries to the Madrona that evening before the light faded, then, hit up the local taqueria for dinner, followed by a night cap of bourbon, and finally a fitful sleep on the boat.Parting clouds surprised us as we hurried to load the remaining provisions and gear on the boat. By the time we left the dock, the sun was out and the peaks were glowing with afternoon light. Without any wind, we were forced to motor out and into Resurrection Bay. We anchored in the scenic Thumb Cove a few miles out from Seward. Pulling in to Thumb Cove our eyes lit up with possible ski lines now visible above us. We’d made it to the land where the snow touched the sea–we’d get up early, take the dingy to shore, and ski a line before heading over to our first fjord–Aialik Bay. Unfortunately, we woke the following morning to the typical coastal weather I’d be stressing over: rain, rain, and more rain.So, instead of skiing in the rain, we pulled anchor and began the move west to Aialik Bay. Six to eight foot seas passed from port to starboard as we crossed the north end of the Gulf of Alaska, waves crashed against the rugged coastline, and a few of us reached for the Dramamine. Once around Cape Aialik, the seas calmed and we hoisted the sails hoping the wind would carry us to our destination. Unfortunately, the light wind wasn’t enough to move us much, so, we motored on and dropped anchor just north of Coleman Bay.The next two days we played a game of cat and mouse with the weather. We’d wake to partly sunny skies, rally to get on the dingy and to shore as fast as possible to get a ski tour started, only to be hit by a squall of snow after 500 vertical feet of skinning. An hour later visibility would increase, then another squall would come and we’d be socked in again. On our first tour, we dug a six foot deep snow-pit at 1300′ above sea level, then probed and didn’t hit ground! There were a few layers that were suspect and coming from the faceted Idaho snowpack, we had a difficult time reading the hazards. Skiing those first days under the flat light was accomplished primarily by braille, and thankfully Gaia and CalTopo worked to keep us in the know as to where we were, the overhead hazards, etc. We were all psyched that we were getting off the boat, making turns, and feeling adventurous. Seeing everyone having a good time made my stress level diminished a bit and we all agreed that anything better than what we were getting those first days was going to be icing on the cake.From Aialik Bay we headed west, around Aligo Point, and into Harris Bay where the Northwestern Fjord and glacier reside. Thankfully, this travel day was crappy weather–rain and sleet–it was a perfect day to be spent drinking Alaskan Brewery brews and moving the boat to a new spot. Thankfully, no serious ocean swell hampered our move and we pulled into the north end of Harris Bay, found a safe anchorage, made dinner and started planning for the next days ski tour.When we woke the first morning in Harris Bay, there was not a cloud in the sky. We rallied to shore like a squall was going to slam into us at any minute, but, for the rest of the trip we enjoyed a high pressure system that blew our mind. Within minutes of starting the first ski tour in Harris Bay, south facing slopes began erupted with avalanches. The solar radiation from the sun was warming the recent snowfall. It was a bit unnerving and the constant roar of slides puckered our sphincters enough for us to seek out mellower north facing slopes to ski. We scored boot deep powder from 3500 feet above our boat all the way back to the shore–a true sea-to-ski moment. The grins, stoke, and thrill of being the only people in an entire fjord, as well as the beers stashed dingy-side made for a day none of us would ever forget. The next three days were a repeat: bluebird day, north facing slopes with boot deep pow, 3000 to 4000 foot vert days, and beers at the dingy. Skiing all the way to the coast day after day was surreal!
It was tough to leave a good thing behind out there in Harris Bay, but, time and reality were finally catching up with us. We were two fjords west of Seward and a two day sail back, unfortunately, our charter was coming to an end. So, we motored and sailed our way east breaking up the journey by anchoring at Bulldog Cove where we spent the final full day exploring the cirques above and north of the lagoon. North facing powder was now crusting up, but, south aspects were pure corn bliss. Climbing up above Bulldog to the ridge separating Aialik and Resurrection Bay, then skiing those final lines with views back on the southern islands of Resurrection Bay was breathtaking.
All that pre-trip stress and worry about being socked in and boat-ridden for ten days prior to setting out was worth it. Truth be told, had the weather not cleared to bluebird, the nature of the squalls passing through and then offering vignettes of the mountainous and glacial grandeur would have still made the trip epic. Be sure to support Patagonia as they not only make incredibly durable outdoor clothing, have a crazy warranty, but also support environmental initiatives like no other company out there. Drink Alaskan Brewery beers because they are soooo delicious and keep your eyes peeled for my article in National Parks Magazine this winter!
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