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Sea Lions, Bears, Salmon and Cedars: Paddling in Wild Alaska with a Purpose

ASC guide Jamie Walton after a long day of paddling. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.
ASC guide Jamie Walton after a long day of paddling. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species.

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Nothing makes you feel small like sitting in a sea kayak being charged by a pack of sea lions. Splashing and agro-barking at us, the 15-headed monster moved right for our flimsy kayak and I began to wonder what might happen if they didn’t stop.  “Are they being aggressive?” Jordan, who was sharing the experience of a lifetime with me asked. Then they disappeared under the water, nowhere to be seen. Only one word is needed to explain and describe it simultaneously: ALASKA (said in a very deep whisper).

Sea lion encounter of the third kind in Klag Bay. Video by Gregg Treinish.

I just returned from a two and a half week excursion to the rainforests, fjords and endless coastlines of Southeast Alaska. My organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), had been hired to complete a field campaign for Stanford researcher Lauren Oakes on West Chichagof Island in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Lauren studies the effects of climate change on yellow cedar forests. Yellow cedar is an important tree species in SE Alaska that has experienced a significant decline in recent years due to changing conditions in the region.

Our mission was simple if not always easy: kayak along the coast and bushwhack through the dense temperate rainforest to collect temperature sensors I had helped install the year before.  The sensors measure the persistence of the winter snowpack in addition to the extreme cold events to which the shallow root systems are exposed  throughout the year. While in the wilderness, we also collected data for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and the US Forest Service’s Wilderness Characterization Study and the , helping land managers understand degree of solitude present in the wilderness area.

We were warned to be aware of bears, whose density on W. Chichagof is estimated to be more than 50 times greater than that of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home base for ASC, but no one said anything about the sea lions.

A grizzly crossing a salmon stream. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.
A grizzly crossing a salmon stream. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.

Alaska is a magical place full of adventure around every corner. Wildlife abounds. Bald eagles constantly soar overhead; marine mammals including sea otters, seals and sea lions curiously watch you paddle by; whales spray through their blowholes out in the bay and jellyfish blooms so dense you seem to be gliding through a sea of jelly rather than water. Salmon team in the shallow waters at the salt-freshwater interface preparing to run upstream to spawn.

Bushwhacking through the rainforest is made easier by following “bear highways” that are so well established and wide that at times you might think you are on a maintained hiking trail. We saw 8 bears during this trip, though certainly many more saw us given the overwhelming number of bear signs we observed – nearly every 10 yards along each of the salmon streams we hiked along.

There is also a rich human history on Chichagof Island. Gold mining was once a large industry in this area and the remains are evident. We spent one afternoon exploring the ruins of a mining town that previously flowed with gold and silver, juxtaposed to the pristine wilderness and towering peaks of the Tongass.  The area is also home to a vibrant fishing industry  for good reason.

I have never seen so many fish in my life. Salmon were stacked nose to tail, congregating to make their final spawning journey together. What free time we had was often spent fishing, hauling in some of the largest fish I’ve ever caught. We caught fresh salmon for dinner regularly, including the intimidating chum or “dog” salmon at an estimated 10-15 lbs whose fangs make you tentative to even try to get the hook out.

Chichagof mine debris on Klagg Bay. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.
Chichagof mine debris on Klagg Bay. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.
Gregg and his prize chum salmon, fangs and all. Photo by Gregg Treinish.
Gregg and his prize chum salmon, fangs and all. Photo by Gregg Treinish.

Overall the trip was a tremendous success. The scenery was incredible and the weather was amazing with very little rain and sunshine almost every day, a very stark contrast and welcome change to the constant wet I encountered last year that left an algae bloom growing across the chest of my shirt.

There was plenty of adventure to be found, hiking and paddling constantly for 15 days and fishing when we could. Most importantly though, we were 100% successful in our mission to collecting every single sensor installed last year.

Cold river crossing to get back to the boats. Photo by Gregg Treinish.
Cold river crossing to get back to the boats. Photo by Gregg Treinish.
Fly fishing for salmon in pristine wilderness. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.
Fly fishing for salmon in pristine wilderness. Photo by Jordan Holsinger.

Our last day on the water was the sea lion encounter. Paddling back from our fishing spot on Sister Lake we were soon joined by a playful group of three sea lions. They followed us for nearly the entire way home, periodically surfacing and looking back to our kayak as if they were inviting us to follow them.

After passing a large gathering of sea otters, floating on their back balancing the young pups on their chests, we entered Klag Bay where our sea lion friends joined the rest of their posse. After our close encounter they continued escorting us back, wishing us farewell as we headed home the next morning. But don’t worry, I will be back.

Gregg & McCain out on the water. Photo by Gregg Treinish.
Gregg & McCain out on the water. Photo by Gregg Treinish.