Sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska
This site has information and web links about kayaking in the Sound. Stop back later to see updates.
I'm Jim Scherr and I've been kayaking in Prince William Sound for over a decade. This site is a compilation of information I have found useful over the years and it should answer some of your questions about paddling in the Sound. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. I've also posted trip reports for my kayak trips outside of the Sound on Facebook at:
I've begun my trips from either Valdez in the eastern Sound or Whittier in the western Sound. Most of my paddling has been in the western Sound because it is closer to my home in Anchorage. I've very much enjoyed the paddling I've done in the eastern Sound. The two areas are quite different. The most striking differences are the many glaciers in the West that are lacking in the East and the many campable beaches in the East that are lacking in the West.
Boat and gear rentals
When I was renting boats I used Prince William Sound Kayak Center in Whittier. They rent boats and much of the gear you'll want. Call them at (877) 472-2452 or check them out at:
Another company in Whittier is Alaska Sea Kayakers I have never rented from them but they have been renting kayaks for a number of years. Call them at (877) 472-2534 or go to:
I've talked with the folks at Anadyr Adventures ((907) 835-2814 or (800) 865-2925) in Valdez who rent boats and gear. They were friendly and helpful in answering questions about paddling in their neck of the Sound. They are at:
Another company in Valdez is Pangaea Adventures ((800) 660-9637. They rent boats and gear but I've never had the chance to use them.
In Whittier, I've used Epic Charters ((888) 742-3742 or (907) 242-4339 ). They are reliable and have boats designed to haul kayaks. Lazy Otter ((907) 472-6887), Aquetec ((907) 362-1291 or (907) 362-1290), and Prince William Sound Water Taxi ((907) 440-7978) are charters that I've never had a chance to use. Lazy Otter and Prince William Sound Water Taxi has a taxi sharing program where you can share a taxi with another group going to the same place and both groups receive a reduced rate. Contact the charters at:
In Valdez, Anadyr Adventures ((907) 835-2814, (800) 865-2925) provide water taxies. Anadyr Advenures are friendly and helpful in answering questions, but I have never used them. Contact them at
The water taxi operators try to be on time but plan for delays due to weather or other problems. if the weather is bad, you might have to wait at your remote pickup for a day or more so have enough extra food and fuel to get you through.
The Alaska Ferry system can transport your kayak and gear to and from four ports in the Sound, Whittier, Valdez, Cordova, and Chenega Bay. You'll need a flexible schedule since arrivals and departures vary by the day of the month but the Alaska Ferry is an inexpensive way to travel to any of these towns. Most maps show the location of Whittier, Valdez, and Cordova but not always Chenega Bay. Chenega Bay is not on Chenega Island but in Sawmill Bay on Evans Island. The ferry schedule can be found at:http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/
Transportation from Anchorage to Whittier
I drive to Whittier through the Aton Anderson tunnel. The tunnel is a single lane road and shared by trains. A schedule for the tunnel openings is at:
I believe you can take a train from Anchorage to Whittier but last year they only carried passengers and no luggage. That might change in the future. Give they a call at (800) 544-0552.
There are two shuttle services in Anchorage that can take you to Whittier, Magic Bus ((907) 230-6773), Girdwood Shuttle ((907) 783-1900 or girdwoodshuttle.com) and Shuttleman ((907) 677-8537).
Kayak Put-insWhittier has two kayak put-ins. The put-in I use the most frequently is a concrete boat ramp with a dock before you reach the harbor master. There is an $10.00 fee to use this ramp and can be paid at the harbor master's office. This ramp lets you launch in the protected harbor.
The second put-in is at the far end of town called Divers Cove or Smitty’s Cove. Cross the railroad tracks, drive past the city parking lot, and continue to the far end of town. This is a concrete ramp with a cobble beach to one side. It is a good put-in when the wind is blowing from the southwest. It can also save you effort paddling to the harbor entrance. There is no parking here and a fee is required for use. There has been a lot of construction nearby so beware of the heavy equipment.
There are several kayak put-ins in Valdez. One is about 1000' east of the ferry terminal. It is located in the southeast corner of the paved parking lot at the end of Hazelett Avenue. It has a treaded path and rock steps down to a gravel beach. There is a sign that says kayak launch. There is no fee to use this launch.
Another put-in at Valdez is a small beach east of the boat harbor on South Harbor Drive. There is free long term parking in the lot at the far eastern end of the boat harbor. If you stay at the Bear Paw campground tenting area then you can launch off their beach too. If you need to shuttle your boat and gear to a put-in, you can arrange with Anadyr Adventures (800-865-2925) to meet you at the ferry terminal and transport you to the put-in.
The put-in at Chenega Bay is at the boat launch, a short haul from the ferry terminal. The boat launch is a steel ramp that floats up and down with the tides. If the sea level is too low to launch from the boat ramp, then go to the beach at the southern end of the dock area to launch.
For most overnight trips I camp on the beaches with a tent. There are a few campsites with facilities such as outhouses, tent platforms, and bear-proof containers but in most areas these are not available. Campsites with facilities are near Whittier at Squirrel Cove, Decision Point, and Surprise Cove. In most areas it is not possible to camp in the woods behind the beach because it is too wet for a tent. I've landed at many beaches backed by beautiful green meadows only to find the lush green areas to be soggy. They may be great places for a hammock tent though. Because of the large tide range in the Sound, you'll want to camp as far up the beach as you can. When picking a camping beach look for seaweed left by the last high tide then consult your tide table to see if the tides are rising or falling. If you cannot find seaweed left by the last high tide then you might want to look for another beach. I know several kayakers who have been awoken in the middle of the night by the sea creeping into their tent.
Another consideration is the surf. Where will those breaking waves be at high tide? Camping on an exposed beach can provide great views but just be careful that the weather is in your favor. Related to surf are the swells produced by caving glaciers. Camping near a tidewater glacier can provide spectacular views but beware of the swells. I've heard of 6' swells rushing upon beaches.
Finally beware of tidal flats if you might be leaving your campsite at low tide. No one wants to carry their boats and gear through muck and slimy rocks then load the boats. The worst tidal flats are marked on topo maps but most beaches have some slimy rocks if you load your boat a low tide.
The Sound can be a rainy place and tarps make a rainy campsite pleasant. I use one tarp to cover a cooking area so I can have a pleasant evening. A second tarp covers the tent. In extended heavy rains the best rain fly eventually leaks and a tarp keeps the fly dry. The tarp lets you remove wet clothing before entering the tent. A well ventilated tent with lots of screen and a good rain fly is preferred for camping in the rains of the Sound. This kind of tent decreases the amount of condensation collecting inside the tent. A tent with lots of screen may be a little drafty but you'll stay drier.
here are a number of public cabins for rent. They are a pleasant break from camping especially if the weather is bad. Information on cabin location and
availability can be found and reservations made at http://www.reserveusa.com .
A good guide to these is a book by Andromeda Romano-Lax, How to Rent a Public Cabin in Southcentral Alaska : Access and Adventures for Hikers, Kayakers, Anglers, and More
The South Culross cabin has been removed and the Goose Bay cabin was built to replace it. The Goose Bay cabin is at the north end of Culross Passage near the entrance to Goose Bay.
Tides and Currents
The tides can have a range of 20 feet from high to low tide. A beautiful beach that looks ideal for camping can be covered with water in a few hours. It is necessary to have a tide book to know the times of high and low tides. Complementary tide books are found at the local Fred Myers in Anchorage and many sporting goods stores. Tide predictions can be found at the NOAA web site:
The tide charts provide the times and elevations of high and low tides but we also need to estimate the tide heights at other times in the tide cycle. The easiest way to do this is to use the rule of 12’s. Tides do not rise or fall in a linear manner. Instead they move a little in the first hour of the cycle then move fastest at mid-tide and slow down at the end of the tide cycle. The rule of 12’s estimates the level of this varying rate of change.
To use the rule of 12’s, first compute the difference between the high and low tide. The tide will move 1/12 of this difference the first hour, 2/12 the second hour, 3/12 the third and fourth hours, 2/12 the fifth hour, and 1/12 the last hour. For example low tide is 1.3’ at 6:55 a.m. and high tide is 10.4’ at 1:20 p.m. What is the estimated tide height at 11:00 a.m? The total change from low to high tide is 9.1’. It is about 4 hours past low tide so the tide has risen 9/12 (1/12 + 2/12+3/12+3/12). The estimated change is 9/12 times 9.1’ or 6.8’. The tide height is 1.3’ plus 6.8’ or 8.1’.
The tidal currents are usually not an issue for paddling in the Sound. There are two exceptions though. The lagoons at the ends of bays can have channels with significant currents. An example of this is the lagoon at Derickson Bay. The channels are hundreds of yards long and you can use your tide chart to estimate when the flow will be the least.
The other exception is the passages between the islands in the southern Sound that border the Gulf of Alaska such as Brainbridge, Prince of Wales, or Elrington passages. These passages are many miles long and the currents can be greater than 3 knots. It is important to know when the the currents are slack and when they reach their maximums and their directions. Tables of this information is available at
The weather is often wet. The annual rainfall in the Sound is measured in feet. Whittier averages 15' and Valdez averages 5' annually. A great site to see average monthly weather information for Alaska sites is
A webcam overlooking Whittier can give you a picture of the current conditions. It is at
After saying all these gloomy things about the weather, I have had week long trips with no rain so remember to bring sun screen for those sunny days. the summer temperatures range from the low 40's to the mid 60's.
Weather conditions can change rapidly. The best way to keep informed is the daily weather updates provided by the National Weather Service. I have a VHF radio that can receive NOAA weather channels. Depending on your location there is usually a weather channel available although they may be on any of the 10 NOAA weather channels. Before your trip you can monitor the NOAA weather forecasts by calling (800) 472-0391. Work through the touch pad menu to hear forecasts for anywhere in Alaska.
The local kayaking club is a good way to meet other paddlers and share information. They also have a listserver where you can send messages to the membership to ask questions. Contact them at:
Maps and Guide Books
I use the USGS topo maps for navigation and choosing campsites. The inch to a mile scale maps give the coastal detail needed for kayakers. There are Coast Guard navigation charts for the Sound but they don't provide the necessary detail for kayakers. Recently Trails Illustrated have published two maps covering the Sound, Prince William Sound - East and Prince William Sound - West. They give adequate detail plus show campsites and cabins. They are made of plastic making them superior for use in a wet kayak cockpit. These maps can be ordered from:
A newly published book, Kayaking and Camping in Prince William Sound, by Paul Twardock is a good introduction to kayaking in the Sound. It has practical "how to" information with suggested trips and campsites. It is locally published by Prince William Sound Books in Valdez.
A useful guidebook is Cruising Guide to Prince William Sound, Volumes I and II by Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. These are geared to sail boaters but have a fountain of information for kayakers. They discusses campsites, natural history, weather, tides, wildlife and much more.
Fishing can add to the fun of your trip and provide some great tasting meals. I've been successful trolling and casing from my boat for pink salmon. And I have caught a few rockfish and char. Salmon fishing is best when you can see some fish jumping. Trolling works well because you can paddle along while fishing but you must stop occasionally and clean seaweed off the lure. If you see fish jumping then it is more productive to cast.
I use 20-pound line on a spinning reel with a 1/2 ounce Pixie spoon. I attached a detachable rod holder to the boat to easily hold the rod when trolling or for storing the rod. For trolling in a boat without a rod holder, I use a handline attached to a cleat on the boat. Handlines are available from Captain Harry's at 800 327-4088 as catalog number c66-70101.
A comprehensive book about fishing in Alaska is How to Catch Alaska's Trophy Sportfish by Christopher Batin. This covers fishing techniques and lures used for various fish in Alaska.
Expect to see commercial fishing activity throughout the Sound. Commercial fishing is highly regulated with fishing restricted to short periods of time called openers. An opener can bring out a hundred boats to intensely fish an area. They may anchor nets near shore and string them perpendicular to shore so paddle carefully to avoid tangling in the nets or interfering with their operations. If you're lucky someone might give you a fresh caught salmon!
Fresh water is abundant in the Sound but it is often not where you'll be camping. I carry a 2-gallon water bag and fill it up near the end of the day before looking for a campsite. Most of the streams are clear but a few are choked with grey glacial mud. Glacial stream water can be used for cooking if necessary but I try to get water from the clear streams. Although the Sound appears pristine, I purify all my drinking water with iodine while some paddlers use a water filter. At a rainy campsite you can collect rainwater in your cooking pot as it runs off your tarp.
Mosquitoes and biting flies
Camping in Alaska would not be complete without mosquitoes and the Sound is no exception. I have never encountered the clouds of bugs seen in northern Alaska but I always come prepared for them. My first line of defense is repellent. I prefer DEET that always works but others use less toxic repellents with varying results. Burning mosquito coils is also effective in reducing the number of mosquitoes around you when relaxing at your camp.
There are also biting flies in the Sound. The repellents including DEET and mosquito coils have limited effect on them. The best defense is a barrier of clothes and a headnet.
I've often seen bears but have never had any problems. They can be found throughout the Sound and should be treated with respect. I carry bear spray for repellent but I have never had to use it. Before camping on a beach look for recent bear activity such as fresh droppings before deciding to setting up camp. Beaches near Whittier such as Decision Point, Surprise Cove, and Squirrel Cove have bear proof containers to store your food. On other beaches choose a tree to hang my food for the night. If you have a light food bag then just throw a rope over a high limb and haul it up. For heavy food bags attach a pulley to the rope over the limb and attach a second rope to the pulley. The pulley is hauled up to the limb and the heavy food bag is attached to the second rope and hauled up over the pulley. This is easier on the tree limbs and you.
An alternative to hanging food are bear proof containers. There are sold by several companies and are required in areas such as Denali Park and Glacier Bay. In Anchorage they can be purchased at REI or rented from REI or AMH. The Chugach National Forest Glacier Ranger District has bear proof containers they loan out. Call them at 907-754-2330.
A related article is Kayak Camping and Bears by Martha and David Tomeo in the June 1999 Sea Kayaker.
Some people use portable electric fences to protect their camps and gear. Electric fences are useful when you plan to camp at the same place for an extended length of time or if there are lots of bears in the area. The following website has good information about electric fences.
Viewing a tide water glacier is one of the most interesting activities in the Sound. I’ve spent hours floating in front of these walls of ice (see the picture at the top of the page) and watching the ice calve from the face. Seals and otters are sometimes seen on the icebergs or bobbing in the water checking you out. As the newly broken pieces of ice melt in the water they give off a fizzing sound. This is the release of air that was trapped and compressed in the ice for thousands of years.
The calving activity is very unpredictable. Sometimes I’ve floated for an hour and seen no activity then suddenly a quarter mile of ice face will crash into the sea, taking my breath away. Because of the unpredictability of calving, you must stay a safe distance from the glacier at all times. Kayakers have been killed by falling ice or capsized when they ventured too close to the ice face.
Ice can also suddenly torpedo from below you. The nose of the glacier can extend below the water and out into the bay some distance. Large pieces of ice can break off from this submerged tongue of ice and surface without warning. This kind of surprise is another good reason to keep a safe distance from the face of the glacier.
As a rule of thumb, I stay one-half mile from the face. The distance to the ice face is difficult to judge with the eye because there is nothing such as trees to help you estimate distance. The falling ice does offer a simple distance gauge if you count the number of seconds from when you see a piece of ice fall to when you hear the sound. Sound travels a mile in 5 seconds. If you count 2 to 3 seconds from the time you see the ice fall to when you hear it then you are about one-half mile from the ice face.
At this distance there is obviously no problem with falling ice hitting you but the falling ice can cause huge waves. Initially the waves are breaking but by one-half mile they should be just large swells if you are in deep water. The swells can upset the stability of icebergs causing them to suddenly roll so you want to be well away from any floating ice. A double kayak reportedly capsized when a swell caused an iceberg to unexpectedly roll onto their boat. Fortunately a tour boat was nearby to pull the freezing paddlers from the icy water.
As the large swells reach the shore, they can turn into breaking waves that run well up the beach. If you stop for a lunch break on a beach, keep an eye on the activity of the ice face. This is most important on beaches such as the Black Sand beach at the north end of the Barry Arm near Harriman Fiord. This beach is very near three active glaciers and huge waves can run to the top of the beach, washing away boats, gear, and you! The surge from a calving glacier can affect beaches miles from the ice face. I’ve been miles away from a glacier and seen surges run several feet up the beach.
The waves caused by falling ice are the same type of wave formed by tsunamis. The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 was centered in the Sound and caused spectacular waves. The largest waves caused destruction 100’ above sea level. These waves were probably triggered by landslides below the ocean surface that occurred within minutes of the earthquake. A summary of tsunami activity for the 1964 earthquake centered in the Sound can be found at http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/usgspubs/cir/cir491
When the next major earthquake occurs in this area, we can expect similar excitement in the Sound. I just hope I’ll be viewing it from a very high vantage point.
Articles about the Sound
There are a number of articles about paddling in the Sound. A recent book, History of Prince William Sound by Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, discusses the history of the area. Also see Going with the Floes by Michele Morris in the February 1999 Backpacker. This article discusses a paddling trip in the Sound.
Day paddles from WhittierOn a sunny day in Whittier it is pleasant to paddle and enjoy the beautiful shoreline. Whittier has two day paddle destinations. For someone with only a few hours, the kitty-wake rockery is a good choice. Paddle north to the northwest side of Passage Canal. The rockery is on the seep brush covered cliffs. Look for a rocky outcrop down to the ocean with water falls on either side. The rocks are populated with hundreds of white kitty-wakes.
This noisy colony raises their young on the tiny rock knobs of the cliffs. Don't venture too close or you'll disturb then. I enjoy floating nearby watching these birds.
A longer day paddle is Shotgun cove with it's shipwreck on the beach. This takes at least four hours of paddle time. Paddle along the southeast coast of Passage Canal and you'll come the wide bay after two hours of paddling.
Overnight trips from WhittierShotgun cove is also an easy overnight destination. The entrance to the cove is two hours from Whittier. Probably the first thing you'll notice is the wrecked vessel on the eastern shore. Or you may see the two huge mooring buoys in the middle of the bay. I've camped on the beach by the wreck. It is a tight spot for one tent. Better campsites are toward the back of the Shotgun cove where you can view the boat traffic of Passage Canal without the noise. Continuing past the wreck a quarter mile, you'll find a bigger beach with good camping
At the back of the cove on the west side is a salmon stream that has a mid-June run of chums. This is a good place to see Bald Eagles or bears feeding on the spawned-out salmon at low tide. To the east is a small campable gravel beach that provides a good viewing area of the salmon stream. Shotgun Cove has no glaciers or glacial streams draining into it so the water is often clean. Here can be seen the softball sized orange colored jelly fish.
There is also a campable beach at the back of the two bays on the west side of the entrance to Shotgun cove. There are good views of the boat activity in Passage Canal but they are noisy compared to the campsites within Shotgun cove.
The following posts of trip reports may give you additional paddling ideas.