Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska

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Excited for our ride to Shuyak Island

On Sunday, June 12, I awoke early, excited for my first ride on a float plane. We were headed for Shuyak Island State Park to collect marine debris using sea kayaks. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year. Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network received a grant from NOAA Marine Debris Program, and months ago, we had applied to participate in this great adventure—paddling in Alaska, float planes, abundant wildlife, and a chance to give back to a sport we love. How could any of us pass up this opportunity?

Tent at Big Bay ranger station, Alaska
Kevin’s and my home for two weeks
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Brown bears sauntering down the beach

Our team of five had arrived in Kodiak several days early in case Kodiak’s notoriously changeable weather went bad. Dawn, Kevin, and I knew each other from previous kayak trips, and we met Fiona and Kate  at Kodiak Island Brewery the night before. Fortunately. Sunday’s weather was clear and beautiful, and the pilot gave us a tour the land and water between Kodiak and Shuyak. Soon after we arrived, a mama brown bear and her two cubs sauntered down the beach and then up the hiking trail. After sorting out our tents, boats, and gear we paddled out around Eagle Point into the Gulf of Alaska, then surfed the swell home.

Map of Shuyak Island
Shuyak Island Photo credit: National Geographic

Over the next two weeks, we tackled Gulf-facing beaches as well as the protected shores inside Big Bay—the wind and swell determined our daily destinations. Big surf landings onto rocky shores would have been dangerous for both boats and bodies, and we knew that any rescue situation would be difficult and hazardous. An accident that might be a minor inconvenience in highly populated Florida could be life-threatening in remote Alaska.

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Dawn with logo fly swatter

We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

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A tangle of water bottles and nets
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Wind carries plastic bottles
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Tom with super sacks
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A small beach on a calm day

 

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom will collect the bags later this summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment, and NOAA and the Island Trails Network will analyze this data in the fall.

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Tom with super sacks
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Piles of super sacks in front of headquarters—Big Bay Ranger Station

 

After a week, the winds shifted and intensified, so we moved to the calmer waters of the bay. We worked in teams of two which was sometimes creepy given the possibilities of bears. As we walked along the beaches, we sang out “Hey bear, Hey bear”, the best response being no response. At first glance, these inland shores seemed much cleaner, but we discovered how well the sand and logs camouflaged nets and ropes. In addition to being unsightly, nets pose a hazard to marine mammals, like seals, otters and whales.

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Cutting through gnarly nets on a rainy day

Tom warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. No one lives there, and the island receives few visitors, so all the debris comes from somewhere else. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Last February, I participated in Exxpedition, a sailing voyage on the 72′ Sea Dragon, assisting scientists investigating how disintegrating plastics disrupt the endocrine system. Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away.

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Loading and unloading on our return to Kodiak

On a cold rainy Sunday morning, the float plane brought our crew back to Kodiak and flew a new crew. As we flew away, I looked back at the super sacks on the beach and thought about what we had done. Overall, the trip gave me a terrific opportunity to spend time camping and paddling on a remote island in Alaska and to meet others who share these interests. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.

Exploring Bear Glacier by Kayak

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Icebergs at Bear Glacier, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Crackle swoosh boom! …. The sounds of a melting and calving glacier. Twelve kayakers awed by the ethereal blues of house-size icebergs floating in a glacial lake. We sat quietly, in communion with this living glacier until one large splash of falling ice broke the spell. We were in Alaska, far from my home in Florida.

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Paddling around the icebergs

 

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Brian enjoying the view

We paddled to Bear Glacier on our last full day of a week-long trip to Resurrection Bay. Our home base was the Kayakers Cove Hostel, about a 12-mile paddle from Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula. During our week there, we watched whales, otters, and sea lions and explored caves and rock gardens. With Levi Hogan of Turnagain Kayak, along with Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA, Tom Noffsinger, and Tony Hammock, we practiced rescues, rock gardening, and strokes along the rocky coast.

Our weather was spectacular, mostly clear and sunny, which meant we traded rough conditions for terrific views. Kevin and I had done the Resurrection Bay trip in 2015 with rougher conditions, so this seemed like an entirely different experience. A combination of sea swell, tide, and wind direction dictated each day’s activities. Last year, the winds mostly blew from the north, so we headed out towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This year’s winds blew southerly, offering a different set of explorations.

Towards the end of the week, Levi announced that conditions were favorable for Bear Glacier, and we leapt at the chance to kayak among icebergs. We would paddle the 10-ish miles to Bear Glacier, then return by water taxi in two shifts, six paddlers and six kayaks on each trip.

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Bear Glacier from Google Earth

We launched at 9 a.m. with drysuits, helmets, and extra food and clothes – just in case. As we passed the southern tip of Fox Island, Levi checked for confirmation of our pick-up. We had little or no cell service at Kayakers Cove—a wonderful cyber-vacation, but missing a text from Joe, the boat captain, would have resulted in a long, cold, and unexpected paddle home. As we paddled around to the east of Fox Island, we moved to the middle of the channel to ferry glide across and surf the wind swell. To quote Tom Noffsinger, “When asked if you want to surf, the correct answer is always ‘yes’”. I agree. The wind and swell gave us an easy ride across Resurrection Bay, and we soon reached Callisto Head.

As we paddled around Callisto Head, Bear Glacier appeared in the distance. Resurrection Bay gave us some small swell, and we played among the rocks along the way. Navigating a 17’ kayak through rocks can be like threading a needle, and a fun challenge with the right swell. Levi reminded us that fiberglass NDK boats and rocks do not mingle well and warned us not to go over any overfalls, where swift currents flow over exposed rocks. A severely damaged boat would be dangerous in this remote area. Soon after, I misjudged a swell and flew towards an exposed rock. Fortunately, an opposing swell covered the rock, and I sailed over it unscathed. I did not make that mistake again.

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Bear Glacier and a visit from a seal
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Ed playing in a tidal race

The entrance to Bear Glacier Lake was still several miles away. As we paddled across, seals and seal lions popped their heads up, curious about our strange crafts, and played in our wake. The mouth of the Bear Glacier River created a tidal race where we surfed in the waves. This water was cold—glacial melt.

After we played, we landed our boats, carried them up and over the rocky ridge, and launched again in the slower and deeper section of the river. This shallow braided river is the only access to Bear Glacier, so only those willing to paddle or walk (or pay an exorbitant helicopter fee) get to see the glacier. (In 2015, Kevin and I saw the Aialik Glacier on a Kenai Fjords tour.)

Resurrection Bay Map
Resurrection Bay (Photo credit: http://www.wildernessimage.com)

We eddy-hopped our way upstream, where house-sized and larger icebergs floated in the lake. Although we were still at least a mile from Bear Glacier itself, its presence enveloped us in the sights and sounds. We paddled carefully around the floating ice, knowing that our helmets offered little protection from falling chunks.

I sat in my kayak, mesmerized, but I wondered about its future. What will Bear Glacier look like in twenty years in an era of rapidly retreating glaciers? In India, Gangotri Glacier, the source of the Ganga and sacred to Hindus, has receded dramatically in recent years. In the late 18th century, Gangotri Temple sat at the foot of the glacier, but by 1992, when I visited, pilgrims trekked 12 miles over two days from the temple to Gangotri Glacier.

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Retreat of Gangotri Glacier (Photo credit: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4594)

Though Alaska seems remote from Florida, retreating glaciers and melting sea ice contribute to the rising sea levels that erode our shores and flood our seaside cities. Maybe Alaska and Florida are not so far apart after all—a baked Alaska means a soggy Florida.

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Sea lion haul-out in Resurrection Bay
Driving the boat
Driving the boat home

We paddled back towards the river, carried our boats back across the ridge, then headed towards our pick-up point. Our captain Joe ferried us back in two groups and took us past a sea lion haul-out. I was fortunate to be in the second group, leaving me with more time to relish this exquisite beauty and to play among the rocks. Back at Kayakers Cove, we relaxed over wine and fresh-caught fish, cleaned and caught by Joe, demonstrating Alaskan hospitality. Bev and James treated us to their amazing fish-cooking talents that evening. Our week in Resurrection Bay was filled with highlights—great paddling and great friends, but our trip to Bear Glacier stands out among these highlights.