Skiing Sea to Sky Kenai Fjords National Park Alaska
GUEST AUTHOR: Craig Wolfrom
My stomach was churning from an abundance of stress the weeks before leaving for a trip I had planned – a ten-day sea-skiing trip that would take five friends to the bays of Kenai Fjords National Park, in Alaska. Several times a day in the weeks leading up to northern Alaska, I checked the NOAA weather forecast and watched what seemed to be typical: coastal rains at sea level with several feet of snow accumulating each week. . I was afraid I had asked my friends to throw away their hard earned money and spend time on a trip where we would be stuck on a sailboat drinking below decks for ten days with shitty weather falling outside and avalanche conditions so high that we’ve never bothered to get off the boat. Not only that, but, Patagonia and Alaska Brewery sponsored our trip and National Park Magazine and I signed a contract for a Winter 22/23 article!
Things weren’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, owner Resurrection Bay Sailing Charters with his wife, Kate, was busy putting the final preparations in order as the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen fell on the myriad of nearby boats tied up in their slips: trawlers, sailboats, tugs , etc. We were hauling our Alaskan Brewery cases and a few of the groceries to the Madrona that night before the light faded, then, headed to the local taqueria for dinner, followed by a nightcap of bourbon, and finally a restless sleep on the boat.The parting clouds surprised us as we hurried to load the remaining supplies and equipment onto the boat. By the time we left the dock the sun was out and the peaks were glistening in the afternoon light. With no wind, we were forced to exit and enter Resurrection Bay. We anchored in picturesque Thumb Cove a few miles from Seward. Arriving at Thumb Cove, our eyes lit up with possible ski lines now visible above us. We had reached land where the snow touched the sea – we got up early, carried the dull to shore and skied a line before heading to our first fjord, Aialik Bay. Unfortunately, we woke up the next morning to the typical coastal weather that worried me: rain, rain and more rain.So, instead of skiing in the rain, we dropped anchor and started moving west to Aialik Bay. Six to eight foot seas shifted from port to starboard as we crossed the northern end of the Gulf of Alaska, waves crashed against the rugged coastline and a few of us reached the Dramamine. Once around Cape Aialik, the sea calmed down and we hoisted the sails hoping that the wind would carry us to our destination. Unfortunately, the light wind wasn’t enough to move us much, so we motored out and anchored just north of Coleman Bay.For the next two days, we played cat and mouse with the weather. We would wake up to partly sunny skies, rally to climb the dull, and rally to shore as quickly as possible to begin a ski tour, only to be hit by a snow squall after 500 vertical feet of butchering. An hour later the visibility would increase, then another gust would come and we would be interlocked again. On our first visit, we dug a six foot deep snow pit 1300′ above sea level, then probed and didn’t touch the ground! There were a few suspicious layers and coming from the faceted snowpack of Idaho, we had a hard time reading the dangers. Skiing those early days in the flat light was accomplished mostly in Braille, and luckily Gaia and CalTopo worked to keep us updated on where we were, aerial hazards, and more. We were all excited to get off the boat, make turns and feel adventurous. Seeing everyone having a great time took my stress levels down a bit and we all agreed that something better than what we were getting those first few days was going to be the icing on the cake.From Aialik Bay, we headed west, around Aligo Point, and into Harris Bay where the Northwest Fjord and Glacier reside. Fortunately, this day of travel was shitty weather – rain and sleet – it was a perfect day to drink beers from the Alaskan brewery and move the boat to a new location. Luckily no serious ocean swells hindered our move and we stopped at the north end of Harris Bay, found a safe anchorage, cooked dinner and started planning the ski tour for the next few days.When we woke up the first morning in Harris Bay, there was not a cloud in the sky. We rallied to shore as if a gust was going to hit us at any moment, but for the rest of the trip we took advantage of a high pressure system that blew us away. Minutes into the first ski tour in Harris Bay, the south-facing slopes began to erupt with avalanches. Solar radiation from the sun was warming the recent snowfall. It was a little unnerving, and the constant roar of the slides scrunched up our sphincters enough that we sought out gentler north-facing runs to ski. We scored deep powder from 3500ft above our boat to the shore – a real ski sea time. The smiles, the excitement and the thrill of being the only person in a whole fjord, plus the hidden beers on the dull side made for a day none of us would ever forget. The next three days were repeated: bluebird day, north facing slopes with deep powder, 3000-4000 foot green days and dingy beers. Skiing to the coast day after day was surreal!
It was hard to leave a good thing behind in Harris Bay, but time and reality finally caught up with us. We were two fjords west of Seward and two days sailing, unfortunately our charter was coming to an end. So we revved up and sailed east, breaking up the trip by anchoring at Bulldog Cove where we spent the last full day exploring the cirques above and to the north of the lagoon. The north facing powder was now crusty, but the south aspects were pure corn bliss. Climbing above Bulldog to the ridge between Aialik and Resurrection Bay and then skiing those last lines with views of the southern islands of Resurrection Bay was breathtaking.
All that pre-trip stress and the worry of being stuck and on a boat for ten days before leaving was well worth it. Truth be told, if the weather hadn’t been clear for the Bluebird, the nature of the squalls passing through and then offering up vignettes of mountainous and glacial grandeur would still have made the trip epic. Be sure to support Patagonia because they not only make incredibly durable outdoor clothing, have an insane warranty, but also support environmental initiatives like no other company. To drink Alaska Brewery beers because they are so delicious and keep your eyes peeled for my article in National Parks Magazine This winter!
Be sure to follow Craig on Instagram HERE.
VIDEO RECAP BELOW:
Kenai_Teaser by Craig Wolfrom on Vimeo.