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The ultimate Alaska adventure trip - Kayaking with whales

It’s windy and wet as I’m rushing from my van to the ferry. I got up a bit late this morning and I’m not used to packing up all that I need for a couple of days into a backpack anymore. My van has been my suitcase and the last minute thoughts about what I might have forgotten slow me down today.

While the rain is hitting my face, I’m quickly showing my ticket at the gate to the ferry and rush inside. It’s not much warmer in here but at least it is dry. I’m staring out at the water but there is not much more to see than fog and rain drops running down the window glass.

Four hours later the ferry drops anchor in Gustavus. The sky has brightened up now but the rain is still pouring down on me as I’m stepping over the bridge to one of the most remote places I have ever been. 100 people are living in Gustavus. Most only spend the summer here and one of them slows down in his pick up right next to me, offering a ride into town.

I’m so pleased about getting a ride in a truck with two Golden Retrievers that greet me from the backseats that I can’t resist this offer. I’m completely soaked after those five minutes walking and dripping all over the car but out here people don’t seem to care about mediocre things like that. As I’m still enjoying this happy moment the driver is asking me where I actually intend going.

Good question. I’m starting to zoom in on my phone’s app, trying to see where my AirBnB is located but even though there is only four streets in Gustavus, I’m lost. I realize that taking the ride wasn’t such a good idea as I’m moving away from the dot on my map that signals my accommodation. Never mind, I say as I’m excited to see the town anyway.

The driver laughs at me. Ok, I will drop you there but there is really not much to see. Just two stores and a couple of cafés. I’m nodding and laughing, as I like to find out for myself and I assume he is exaggerating. Just a few meters more and we have already arrived at the junction that is the actual center of “town“.

I’m getting out of that cozy pick up, back into the rain, heading toward the first café I can spot. I feel totally out of place being completely soaked and covered in rain gear. I start pulling it all off, dropping everything in one corner of the café and order a hot chocolate.

The ladies here don’t know the name of my AirBnB and I can’t reach anyone from the property. As I don’t want to be sitting here half wet all day, I decide to go out again and find it myself. It’s only raining lightly now and I’m following the dot on the map again.

It looks like two gravel roads would lead me to the accommodation but I’m wrong and I’m starting to feel very frustrated as I’m ending up on a private properties garden that I’m trying to cross as my accommodation must be just behind it but again I’m ending up in an endless field and I have no choice left but to return and walk all the way back to the main road.

When I’m finally reaching the AirBnB I’m a bit shocked. It looks abandoned in this misty light and wetness. Just two shacks in a field. Doors are locked. I can’t get reception to call the number that is tagged to the door and slowly fading in all this rain. I see the bikes that were mentioned in the description. They are not locked and I decide to take the rusty thing and go back to town to make a call.

Another hot drink ordered. Again I’m unwrapping myself, much wetter than before. After hours I get in touch with the owner who assures me that the shacks are open. I can’t believe it and I’m frustrated again, why didn’t I get in touch with them earlier, why didn’t I pull the door harder and why did I get on that car ride in the first place as my accommodation was so close to the ferry dock.

When I finally enter the shack, I’m sitting in a bare room, with four mattresses, a tiny heater, and a kettle for hot water. Outside it is still raining. I’m positioning all of my wet clothes next to the tiny heater and hope that everything will be dry the next day.

But first I have to go to the meeting of our tour group. To my surprise we are only four guests and two guides. I immediately start bonding with Merry who has been to Gustavus many times and just wants to go kayaking with whales one more time.

Questions are answered, dry bags for our personal belongings are distributed and rain gear and boots matched for sizes. I’m very excited now and after thirty minutes of meeting, I get dropped off at my shack, where I’m running into a stranger.

I hear myself saying: “Who are you and what are you doing here?“, as if this guy was an intruder. At the end we had a nice chat. He came from Russia and rented the other shack. At that moment all I really need is a hot shower but also this attempt becomes complicated.

Luckily the intruder is a friendly traveller with reception on his phone and the owner comes out to get me for a hot shower at his house. Warmed up I can go to bed and the next thing I see above my head, is a brown something running on top of the beam under the roof of my shack.

It’s a squirrel that woke me up and found its way inside the shack. At first frightened, I’m amused now and start to pack up. I cycle to the shop for breakfast and then the van of our tour group is already coming to pick me up.

We are directly heading to the bay and everyone seems to be uncertain of what to expect but there is no time left to think about it as we immediately start to load our boat and then ride into the unknown foggy waters.

As soon as all the gear and the kayaks are unloaded at the shores of Pinta Cove, a lone stretch of Tongass rain forest along Icy Strait, we say goodbye to our skipper and boat and then head into the woods to see our campsite. It’s a small clearing at the edge of the forest, close to the shore.

It starts to rain again and we quickly set up our tents. Our tour guide is preparing the kitchen at the shore. All food and scented items must be stored down there in bear boxes. There are many grizzlies out here but we are all focused on the whales and after a delicious snack we go out on the water for the first time.

Paddling on these calm waters is a bliss. We are all enjoying this surreal scenery and celebrating that the sun is showing up. Then we can hear the first whale. It is breathing and we are spotting the splashes in the distance. Let’s head into that direction, I say as I really want to get closer but now we are learning that we will always keep the shore close by and also a fair distance to the whales.

I realize that I had a very colorful imagination about whale watching in kayaks, where I would be eye to eye with the largest mammals on our planet. We are laughing about it, as the other girl in our group has had the exact same image on her mind. We overcome this slight disappointment quickly because the whole scenery is just breathtaking.

After a warm hearty dinner we head to our tents. While I’m cuddling into my sleeping bag, I start to hear the whales. My heart starts racing. It sounds as if they are right next to us. The sound of breathing becomes more frequented. It must be several whales and then a loud splash sounds.

I can’t hold myself back and talk to the others through our thin tent walls: “This is amazing! It sounds like a whale disco!“ Everyone starts laughing and I feel incredibly blessed to have witnessed these sounds. In my imagination I can see them, enjoying the calmness of night, jumping full of joy through Icy Straight bathed in moon light.

The next morning it has stopped raining and the sun comes out. After breakfast we get ready to paddle out and it is the best day I have had being in the Tongass Rain Forest all week. Finally we are not freezing anymore, the sun is warming and drying us.

Eagles fly by, seals are pooping out of the water to inspect us and our kayaks and then whales! It’s two of them. They are heading North. We are following them. They are coming closer and closer and it seems that only a line of kelp is separating us from them now.

I’m taking out my telephoto lens, my heart racing, trying to stay calm and concentrated, guessing where they will be showing up next, where I might get to see their fins before they will disappear for a longer dive again. Then the magic happens. All six of us are facing the same direction. We see the splash, then the fins and finally, in perfect synchronicity, both tails glide down in the water.

I check my screen and raise my fist into the air. I’m yelling at the others: “I got it, I got it!“ and all of us are just filled with gratefulness and enthusiasm for the rest of the day. Our guide says that she has never been so close to them from a kayak and our second night ends with fresh caught Rainbow trout, an attempt of a camp fire, ukulele sounds and laughter in the air.

Recommended tour company:


How to get there:

From Juneau to Gustavus

by ferry

by sea plane

Where to stay:

Budget: Cabin for up to four people close to the ferry dock

Mid-range: Cotton Wood Lodge

Luxury: Annie Mae Lodge

Welcome to my blog and thanks for having a browse through my tips and stories from road and backpacking trips around the world. Please, leave a comment or send me a message if you have any questions. Stay safe and happy travels! 

Yours gratefully


Places I have traveled solo:

Alaska, Canada, USA, Mexiko, Chile, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Rumania, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Crete, Istanbul, Israel, Sinai, Nepal, Indonesia, Australia


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© 2020 by Isabelle Popiehn

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