Geology and Rainforest - Geologic Processes, Forest Zones
Weather - Temperature, Rain, Wind, Storms, Daylight hours, Forecasts
Water - Waves, Depth, Temperature, Turbulence
Tides and Currents - Tidal cycles, Flood and Ebb currents
Wildlife - Bears, Whales, Birds, Sea Creatures, Land mammals, Sea mammals
Geology and Rainforest
The long channels that make the Inside Passage such a sought after destination for kayakers and other boaters from all over the world are the product of what geologists call Plate Tectonics. The heavy, dense rock that forms the bottom of the Pacific Ocean or the Pacific Plate, is being slowly pushed eastward below the relatively lighter rocks of the mainland west coast or the North American Plate. At the same time, fault lines in the plates are forcing large coastal areas northward causing the lands to break apart into a jigsaw puzzle of islands. This can be observed by looking at any map of the Inside Passage and noticing how the islands would fit together like a puzzle if the water were removed. This movement has been taking place over millions of years at about the speed that your fingernails grow.
Another geologic process that has affected the area was brought about during the last ice age that lasted from around 115,000 years ago to just 10,000 years ago. During this time, sea levels were much lower than the present due to the enormous amount of fresh water that was held in massive ice sheets that covered the land. The weight of these large ice sheets was actually heavy enough to press down on the rocks below, compressing them. Now that the ice is gone, the land is slowly rebounding since the overlying pressure has been removed.
The ice age also created glaciers much larger than any that presently exist. As these huge rivers of ice made their way to the sea, they scarred the land and scoured out deep valleys through the mountains. Today we see the marks left by these glaciers as the inlets or fjords leading into the interior mountain ranges. Some of these inlets still have glaciers that reach the water and shed large chunks of ice that can be frequently seen floating in the channels.
The kayaker paddling through the Inside Passage is experiencing the Pacific Temperate Rain Forest, which is the largest temperate rain forest zone on the planet. This zone is characterized by heavy rainfall that exceeds 120 inches per year in some areas, and relatively moderate temperatures during both the winter and summer seasons.
This rainforest consists mostly of conifers with some broadleaf trees and shrubs making up the under story. Predominate tree species include Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and in the southern areas Douglas Fir.
The Pacific Temperate Rainforest of the northwest cost is so fertile that it’s biomass, which includes all living and decaying material, is four times greater than any comparable tropical forest anywhere else in the world. The rich biodiversity is partly attributable to the forest receiving so much rainfall. This also makes large scale forest fires a rare occurrence.
Since the mid to late 1800’s, the entire coastal rainforest has been completely logged at least once with some areas having been logged up to three times. No old growth forests exist along the shores of the Inside Passage except in small-scattered patches. Most of the trees you will see are less than 100 years old.
Air temperatures during the summer months along the Inside Passage are generally mild and pleasant for a kayaker. Daytime temperatures can reach into the 70’s but are usually from the mid 50’s to the high 60’s. Nighttime temperatures usually range between the mid 40’s and mid 50’s.
The southern stretches have some warmer days where overheating would be likely if it were not possible to ventilate. Since I was wearing a wetsuit, I could remove my paddling jacket if I started to overheat and easily regulate my body temperature. For those who prefer a dry suit with its tightly sealed closures at wrist and neck, you may have a problem on the few hot days you are likely to run into along the southern one third of the route. Once north of Namu it was never hot during the day and I had to wear cold weather paddling gear all the time.
Rain is an almost constant companion along the north coast. It does not come down hard too often, but is usually just a drizzle that lasts for hours and sometimes days. I found that paddling on cool days with no rain was very pleasant but as soon as rain would start more insulation was necessary just to stay comfortable. It seemed that most of the time when the wind was light, it was drizzling, so I did not necessarily mind the rain too much. In fact, I much preferred calm, rainy days to very windy clear days that created waves and slowed me down.
Wind can be the worst enemy of an Inside Passage kayaker. I found that winds over 15 miles per hour were generally too strong for comfortable paddling. Mornings were normally calmer than afternoons so I always tried to get off to an early start and get as many miles in as possible before the wind had a chance to pick up. Whenever there was a long open water crossing to make, I usually planned to camp just before reaching it so I could make the crossing first thing in the morning during calm weather before the wind had a chance to build..
The forecasts that I received on my VHF weather radio were of only limited value. They usually covered large areas so information relative to my specific location was never quite accurate. About the only thing for which the forecasts were actually useful was to get an indication if the winds were going to be increasing or decreasing. This would give me an idea if the winds the next day were going to be stronger or lighter than they were at the present time and location. Small craft warnings were helpful and I usually ended up staying on shore when they were in effect.
Daylight hours in the summer along the Inside Passage last from around 4am to 10pm so there is a lot more time available to paddle. I would usually wake up at 5am and be off by 6:30am. Sometimes when I really wanted to make extra distance, or beat the wind, I would get up at 3am and be off by 4:30am. The late evening daylight did create a minor problem with trying to go to sleep while it was still light out so I frequently had to use my fleece headband as a light block over my eyes.
The water conditions an Inside Passage kayaker encounters on any particular day will determine how far they will be able to paddle, if in fact they can get on the water at all. Wind can create waves that make paddling uncomfortable and tiresome. Currents created by the rising and falling of the tides can push a paddler along and add 2 to 3 miles per hour to their paddling speed or hold them back to the point where they are paddling in place. Turbulence created by current flowing around a headland or over a shallow spot can catch even a careful paddler off guard and put them in the middle of confused seas before they even know what is happening.
Strong winds that blow up and down the long channels of the Inside Passage can create large waves that will hinder paddling or even keep you onshore. If the wind is blowing in the same direction as the current is flowing, it can have a calming effect on waves, keeping them smaller than if there was no current at all. On the other hand, wind blowing against a current will create steeper waves with a shorter distance between crests making very difficult paddling conditions.
Most sea kayaking takes place along rocky shorelines, some of which is composed of vertical solid rock faces. Waves are reflected off these vertical faces creating a sea state of confused choppy waves coming from more than one direction. This is called clapotis. When kayakers find themselves in clapotis, it can feel like they are riding a bucking bronco and holding on for dear life. The only thing to do is to keep paddling through it, taking shorter than normal strokes, and being ready to brace at all times. I have found that when in this kind of water, it helps to angle the paddle blade so that each stroke skims across the surface slightly and does not dig in as much as during a normal stroke. The paddle will normally be hitting only the tops of the waves when paddling in this manner. This makes each stroke a bracing stroke and gives the paddler much more stability.
Water temperatures along the Inside Passage during the summer months are around 50°F so it is important to be dressed properly in case of accidental immersion. A wet suit and paddling jacket or a full dry suit combined with a life preserver is essential survival equipment in these frigid waters. A paddler out of their boat and in the water would be incapacitated within minutes if not dressed properly. It is important to remember to dress at all times for water temperature and not air temperature.
Tides and Currents
One of the most important things an Inside Passage kayaker must understand is tides and the currents they create.
Tides are caused by the gravitational pull on the Earths oceans by the Moon and the Sun. Since the moon is much closer, its effects are greater. During a full moon and a new moon (when the moon cannot be seen) the Sun and Moon are lined up together so their effects are magnified. This causes the largest range in tides for the month, so high tides are at their highest and low tides at their lowest. When the moon is halfway between full and new, tidal ranges are at their monthly minimum.
Since currents are caused by the tides forcing water to flow through channels as they rise and fall, it makes sense that currents will be stronger when the tides are at their monthly maximums. This also means that currents will be at their weakest during the two monthly periods when the Moon is in its half phases. These tide ranges move slowly and smoothly throughout the month as the moon phase changes gradually every day.
The phases of the moon affect tides in the world’s oceans in another significant way. Some areas such as the Gulf of Mexico have one high and one low tide every day. This is called a diurnal tide. The waterways of the Inside Passage have two high tides and two low tides every day. This is called a semidiurnal tide. The two high tides and two low tides are not equal. Each day one of the high tides is the higher high tide and the other is the lower high tide. The low tides also have a higher low tide and a lower low tide.
Since there are two highs and two lows in a twenty-four hour period, you may have already figured out that it takes approximately six hours to go from maximum high tide to maximum low tide. During this six-hour period, the tide moves up or down more slowly during the first and last two hours and more rapidly during the middle two hours. This also means that currents flow more rapidly during the middle two hours of a tidal cycle than they do near its beginning and end.
As a tide is rising, it creates a current flowing into a water channel known as a flood current. When the tide is falling and a current forms flowing out of a channel it is known as an ebb current. These flood and ebb currents are sometimes marked on nautical charts with arrows if the currents are substantial and can affect boat traffic.
Slack Tide is when the current stops moving at the end of a tidal cycle as the water stops rising or falling. This is the time when areas prone to tide rips or rapids can be safely navigated with minimal risk.
At the point where a current flowing through a channel meets a shallow spot, or intersects a current coming from another channel an area of chaotic water can occur. This is known as a tiderip or just a rip. Rips usually occur in areas with strong current. It is possible for a spot to be completely calm when the tide is slack and there is no current. Three hours later during the maximum tidal flow, the same spot can look like a whitewater river.
When looking for a place to camp on evenings when there will be a full or new moon, it is very important to select a site that will be above the highest monthly tide. Look for signs of the high water line from the previous nights tide. This is usually easy in areas where there is a lot of seaweed, as it will form a line on the beach showing the last high tide. If the expected high tide for a certain evening will be lower than the previous nights, and there is a spot to camp above last night’s high water line, you are ok. If tonight’s high tide will be higher than last nights you should be sure you have a place well above last nights tide line. Since the highest high tides generally occur at night, the last thing you want is to be woken up by water sloshing around your tent in the middle of the night.
One of the main reasons people visit the channels of the Inside Passage is to have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of some of the amazing wildlife that inhabit the region. Humpback Whales and Orcas top the list of sea creatures to be on the lookout for while Grizzly Bears sightings on the shore create the most excitement. Close behind in popularity are the sea lions, harbor seals, river otter, black bear, wolves, eagles, and dozens of other species of birds. A kayaker quietly paddling along a wilderness shoreline also has the opportunity to spot cougar, bobcat, martin, mink, weasel, fox, starfish, sea urchin, anemone, barnacles, and clams attached to the rocks. Let us take a closer look at some of these animals to better understand their habits and make spotting them more likely.
Humpback Whales are one of the larger members of the Baleen family of whales which include Gray and Blue Whales. Fully-grown males can be 49-52 feet (15-15.9m) long and females, which are typically a bit larger, can be 52-56 feet (15.9-17.1m) long and weigh 44 tons. The largest Humpback ever recorded was a female measuring 88 feet (26.8m) long and weighing almost 90 tons. Humpback Whales typically live from 50-60 years but researchers studying changes in whales amino acids have recently found evidence that some may live to be over 200 years old.
Humpbacks are a migratory species that spend the summer months feeding on krill and small schooling fish in polar and sub-polar waters. During the winter months, they do not feed but instead live off their fat reserves in tropical waters where they go to breed and give birth to their young. These annual migrations of up to 16,000 miles (25,744 km) make Humpbacks one of the farthest ranging of any animal species. Individuals typically live alone but sometimes form into small groups for short periods to feed cooperatively.
The common name for Humpback Whales comes from the distinctive motion they make with their backs when they go through a diving sequence. A frequently observed feeding behavior is for the whale to go through a series of around five shallow dives and exhalations, followed by a more pronounced humping motion of the back. This is immediately followed by the tail fluke being raised high before slipping silently below the waters surface.
Humpbacks can be very acrobatic, sometimes launching themselves out of the water in a breaching display creating a huge and thunderous splash as they come crashing back down. These whales can be heard breathing from over a mile away so they are usually heard before they are seen. The exhalations or blows are very powerful producing a geyser of misty vapor that can reach 20 feet high. Humpbacks have a very small dorsal fin that is briefly visible after they blow. Sometimes they roll onto their sides and expose their unusually large pectoral fins, which immediately identify them as a Humpback.
Humpback Whales can be seen almost anywhere along the Inside Passage. The highest concentrations that I saw were in Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound between Petersburg and Juneau. I also saw scattered individuals in Queen Charlotte Sound, Rivers Inlet, Milbanke Sound, Chatham Sound, and Clarence Strait.
One of the most interesting experiences that I had on my trip came one night in Stephens Passage while I was lying awake in my tent. The air was completely still, and the only sound filling the darkness, was that of whales quietly resting at the surface and rhythmically breathing very slowly throughout the night.
Brown Bears are also known commonly as Grizzly Bears, however researchers consider the Grizzly a smaller sub-species of the Brown that lives in predominately-interior regions. Brown Bears that live along the British Columbia and Alaskan coasts and have access to the protein rich salmon of the coastal streams can grow larger than bears of the interior that don’t have this high quality food source. The average female coastal Brown Bear weighs in at 450 pounds (204kg) while the average male weighs about 860 pounds (390kg). One large male specimen though weighed in at 1,720 pounds (780kg).
Brown Bears can be found along the Inside Passage in most areas north of Desolation Sound although none is known to inhabit Vancouver Island. While Brown Bears are usually solitary in nature they frequently can be found in groups feeding on salmon as the fish swim upstream in creaks and rivers during their yearly summer spawn. Brown Bears are omnivores that eat both plants and animals. Evidence of their foraging for roots, tubers, grasses, burrowing animals and insects can frequently be found along coastal beaches.
Since kayaking the Inside Passage requires camping in remote coastal locations where contact with Brown Bears is possible, it is important to follow some basic safety precautions. Whenever possible, avoid campsites that display obvious signs of recent bear activity such as freshly dug up plants, footprints or bear droppings. If you come across an animal carcass that a bear has been feeding on, get out of the area immediately. Keep a clean camp by hanging food and other items with strong smells such as cooking gear, trash and soap high up in trees at nighttime. Put these items in bear proof containers for times when it is impossible to hang them from a tree at night. Whether hanging food in a tree, or placing it in bear proof canisters, store the food as far from where you will sleep as possible. Do not store food or trash in your kayak overnight or it may severely damaged by a hungry bear. Designated wilderness campsites are more likely to attract scavengers of all types as those using the site before you will have inadvertently left food smells behind, no matter how clean they kept their camp. Avoid fish smells on you and your equipment by saving any contact with fish for trips to areas with no bears. Do not camp near the mouth of streams that may support salmon runs as bears can be attracted to these areas and they may consider you a threat to their food supply. Avoid walking through coastal woodland if possible. Bears that are busy foraging or tending to their young may not see you until you are right up on them. Bears have relatively poor eyesight so it is entirely possible that you will see the bear before it sees you. If you do walk through woodland, make lots of noise continuously to let bears in the area know you are around. Brown Bears are good swimmers and can be found on most islands along the Inside Passage. Just because you are on an island does not mean you are safe from a possible bear encounter. Take the same precautions as if you were on a mainland shoreline.
Carry pepper spray whenever in bear country and understand how to use it and its limitations. Keep it close at hand at all times as bears have a tendency to appear quietly out of nowhere when least expected. Never run from a bear as this signals the bear that you are possible prey and it will be more likely to chase you. Stand your ground and talk to the bear saying anything just so the bear knows that you are a human. Avoid direct eye contact as this may signal to the bear that you have aggressive intentions. Never turn your back to it as this may be taken as a sign of weakness. Making lots of noise and throwing your arms up and down may make a Black Bear back off but it is likely to provoke a Brown Bear. Do not make any aggressive moves toward a Brown Bear.
Attacks by Brown Bears on humans are rare as they avoid human contact whenever possible. Each bears temperament varies however and their sometimes-impulsive behavior can be unpredictable. Besides the information I have given here, there is much more available to help wilderness travelers avoid contact with bears. Inside Passage kayakers should educate themselves as much as possible on the subject to help make their trip both safer and more enjoyable.
Black Bears along the Inside Passage are spotted more frequently than Brown Bears and can very often be seen searching for food on remote wilderness beaches. Black bears are omnivores taking advantage of a wide variety of food sources. Their diet includes plants, meat, insects, and fish. It is common to see damp areas in the woods where they have been feeding on Skunk Cabbage and the ground has been vigorously dug up to get at the roots. They can also frequently be seen moving drift logs on beaches to get at the insects and amphipods that hide underneath.
Black Bears are smaller than Brown Bears, with males weighing between 250 and 600 pounds (114-272kg) and females between 90 and 400 pounds (41-182kg). The largest Black Bear on record weighed in at 880 pounds (400kg). Since Black Bear along the Inside Passage have access to spawning salmon, which provide a high quality protein source, they can easily approach the upper weight range. Their hair color can vary from jet-black, through chocolate brown, cinnamon brown, and blonde. Black Bear lack the prominent shoulder hump of the Brown Bear and their ears are larger and more erect.
Although less likely to attack humans than Brown Bears, they can be dangerous if they are cornered or threatened. From 2000 to 2008, there were 15 fatal attacks on humans by Black Bears in North America. The same precautions should be taken around camp for Black Bears as for Brown Bear.
Orcas, or Killer Whales as they are sometimes called, are common in all the waterways of the Inside Passage. Researchers have identified three different populations of Orca that inhabit the Pacific coastal waters of the US and Canada. Each of these three groups exhibit differences in preferred food sources, family units, social behavior, dialects, body shape, and color patterns.
The most commonly spotted are from the group known as Residents. These Orcas stay in the same general area year round though they are constantly moving and sometimes travel up to 100 miles in one day. They live in a family group, or matriline, that is headed by a female matriarch and all of her children including adult males and females. Matrilines that are closely related organize into groups called pods that commonly consist of about 18 individuals. Adult Orcas within these pods do not interbreed. Males leave to mate with females outside their family group but always return to their mothers’ family afterwards. Resident Orcas eat mostly fish and squid.
Less frequently spotted in Inside Passage waters are Orcas from the Transient group. Unlike Residents, Transients do not eat fish but instead feed exclusively on marine mammals such as porpoises, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Some have even been observed taking deer, moose, and bear that were caught unaware while swimming between islands. Transient Orcas live in smaller groups with looser family bonds than Residents. They are usually seen in pods of 2 to 6 animals. Members of this group are known to travel widely, with some individuals being spotted off the coast of California and later in the waters of Southern Alaska. Although Transient and Resident Orcas inhabit the same waters, they avoid each other and do not intermix. It has recently been found by researchers that the two groups have not interbred for the last 10,000 years.
One group of Orcas that an Inside Passage paddler would be unlikely to run across is the Offshore group. This genetically differentiated population was first identified in 1988. They travel the open waters of the Pacific in groups of up to 60, feeding on fish, sharks, and sea turtles.
Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. Adult females are 16 -23 feet (5-7m) long and weigh 6,000-8,000 pounds (2,700-3,600kg), males are 19-26 feet (6-8m) long and can weigh over 12,000 pounds (5,500kg). The largest Orca ever recorded was 32 feet (9.8m) long and weighed 16,000 pounds (7,260kg). Orcas are fast swimmers that frequently reach speeds of over 35mph (56km/h). Orcas have distinctive black and white markings that set them apart from other marine mammals and make them easy to recognize. Their backs are solid black while the chest and lower body are white. There is a small white elongated patch above and behind the eye. A gray patch can be seen near the base of the dorsal fin. Male Orcas have very long, straight dorsal fins that are triangular and can be 6 feet (1.8m) in height. Females’ dorsal fins are about half the size of the males and are more curved when viewed from the side. Inside Passage kayakers will be happy to know that wild Orcas are not considered a threat to humans.
Stellar Sea Lion
The Stellar Sea Lion is also known as the Northern Sea Lion and can be spotted by Inside Passage kayakers anywhere along the entire route from Washington to Alaska. These animals are often seen “hauled out” on rocky islets where they can rest safely out of the reach of both land and sea predators. When approached while onshore they are very skittish and will immediately dive into the water to avoid contact. Once in the water they seem more curious. Sea Lions will allow a kayaker to come within a few feet before diving out of sight.
Stellar Sea Lions are large animals with adult females averaging 8 feet (2.5m) in length and 660 pounds (300kg) in weight. Males can reach 11 feet (3.33m) in length and weigh from 1,300 - 2,500 pounds (600 - 1,100kg). Males have broad high foreheads and snouts that are flatter than those found in females. The skulls of sea lions resemble that of a bear, with their jaws containing sharp teeth like those found in other carnivores such as large dogs and cats. Sea Lions have four strong flippers that they use to move about somewhat awkwardly on land and yet propel themselves at an impressive 17 mph (27.4 km/ph) through the water.
The Harbor Seal, also known as the Common Seal, is distributed widely along the entire length of the Inside Passage. Harbor Seals can be easily distinguished from Sea Lions by their smaller size and the way they move about when on land. While Sea Lions use their large flippers for propulsion on shore, seals move their bodies in an awkward undulating motion with no apparent use of their much smaller flippers. Adult male Harbor Seals typically reach a length of about 6 feet (1.83m) and attain a weight of 120 - 370 pounds (55 - 168kg). Females are usually a bit smaller than the males.
The Cougar, also known as a Mountain Lion, Puma, or Panther is a large predatory cat that is indigenous to the entire area of the Inside Passage. It is the fourth largest cat in the world after the lion, tiger, and jaguar. Male Cougars normally weigh between 115-160 pounds (53-72kg) and are from 5-9 feet (1.5-2.75m) from nose to tail. Females’ weight averages 75-105 pounds (34-48kg). It is possible for a healthy male to reach 260 pounds (118kg). Cougars are larger in northerly latitudes such as Alaska and Canada. This is a natural adaptation because their prey such as deer, elk, and moose are all larger species. The only other animals that the Cougar competes with for food along the northwest coast are Brown and Black Bears and the Gray Wolf.
Cougars are ambush predators that stalk their prey through covered spots like trees and brush before leaping onto the back of the prey animal and delivering a deadly neck bite. Attacks on humans are rare as Cougars hunting skills are a learned behavior and they do not normally recognize humans as prey. If you spot a Cougar stalking you, do not run, as this will stimulate their instinct to chase down prey. Don’t “play dead” if attacked, as is recommended as a last resort in bear attacks, but instead fight back aggressively with pepper spray, sticks, rocks, or bare hands. If you have warning of an imminent attack maintain constant eye contact, raise your arms in the air to appear larger, shout loudly without screaming in panic, and if you have anything at hand that can be thrown like rocks or sticks give that a try. Have your pepper spray ready and close at hand at all times while on shore.
In North America between 1990 and 2004 there were 35 reported human attacks and 10 deaths attributed to Cougars. Statistics show that the highest number of Cougar attacks in North America occurred in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island where Cougar populations are very dense. While on my Inside Passage trip, I saw no sign of Cougar activity anywhere along the entire route. However, on my first night out of Port Hardy, while at a well-used campsite at Shelter Bay, there were yellow “Beware of Cougar in the area” signs posted on the beach and in the woods. I was constantly looking for movement in the trees the whole time I was at the site.
The Gray Wolf also known as the Timber Wolf is one of the top four terrestrial carnivores including the Brown Bear, Black Bear, and Cougar that inhabit most land areas along the Inside Passage. Wolves are timid animals, and generally not considered a threat to humans, avoiding contact whenever possible. They can however be aggressive depending on prior experiences with humans, and the abundance or scarcity of their current supply of prey animals. Wolves normally live and hunt in packs ranging from two to 20 animals with eight being the average pack size. Their favorite food sources in the area include, deer, moose, sheep, goats, caribou, small animals and birds and have even been seen preying on seals and salmon. Wolves will avoid potential prey animals that their parents have not taught them to pursue during their adolescence. Because of this trait, humans are generally safe from wolf attack.
Wolves, like Cougars, increase in size proportionately to the increase in latitude of their home territory. This increase is due to the increase in size of their main prey species. In British Columbia and Alaska, wolves range in size from 44-68 pounds (20-68kg), with one very large specimen weighing in at 170 pounds (77kg). Their height ranges from 26-38 inches (.6-.95m) at the shoulder. Females usually weigh about 20% less than the males in the same population. Fur color varies widely from white, gray, brown, red, and black to a mixture of blended colors. Wolves howl to keep in touch with other members of the pack, and to call others to a specific location, as when rallying before a hunt. Howling also serves to declare a wolf packs hunting territory, and to warn any others in the area to stay away.
During my kayak trip, I heard wolves howling one evening from my campsite at Nabannah Bay on Grenville Channel. It was a little spooky to hear, but nice to know I was deep in a wilderness area where wolves run wild and still free of mans’ intrusion. Seven days later, while camped near Flewin Point; I came face to face with a wolf as it chased a deer out of the woods and onto the beach where I was sitting. When it got to within a few feet of me and saw me sitting right in its path, it turned in its tracks and ran back into the woods where it had come from.
Bird life along the Inside Passage is extremely varied and abundant. Since there are far too many species for me to address here I will just mention the ones that I spotted most often. If you are interested in identifying birds while traveling through the Inside Passage you may want to carry one of the small field guides to birds of the pacific northwest with you on your trip. I found the lightweight and waterproof “Mac’s Field Guides” to “Northwest Coastal Water Birds” and “Alaskan Wildlife” to be very helpful.
Here are some of the birds I spotted on a daily basis while paddling and while on shore; Bald Eagle, Black Oystercatcher, Sea Gull, Murre, Surf Scoter, Cormorant, Guillemot, Grebe, Loon, Merganser, Harlequin Duck, Crow, Raven, and Canadian Goose.
Beach and Shore Life along the Intertidal Zone
The Starfish or Ochre Sea Star is common along rocky shorelines throughout the waters of the Inside Passage. Most are purple, but often a few orange or red ones are visible mixed in with a group. The mix of colors seemed to change as I paddled from south to north with the orange and red specimens being more frequent in northern waters. They frequently cling in clusters to rock faces exposed at low tide but submerged at high tide, in an area known as the Intertidal Zone. This makes them easy to spot during low tide by paddlers sticking close to shore. The Starfish diet consists mostly of oysters, clams, mussels, and barnacles. They are able to feed on these hard-shelled mollusks by actually forcing their stomachs into the shell and digesting the creature in place. At the end of each of its five arms is a primitive eye that the Starfish uses to see light and dark. This allows it to detect movement but nothing else. Starfish are famous for being able to grow a new arm if one is broken off. They can also generate a completely new body, if part of the central ring is still attached to an arm that has been cut off.
Sea Anemones are seen less frequently than starfish but live in the same environment. They are usually green along the northwest coast and easy to spot on the dark colored shore rocks.
Acorn Barnacles are found attached to rocks all along the Inside Passage. Although normally seen connected to large immovable rocks they find cobblestone beaches adequate. This creates a problem for the kayaker hoping to land or launch a kayak without damaging its hull. Running up on a cobblestone beach encrusted with barnacles, could do serious damage to not only your boat but also your hands, feet, and clothing if you happen to loose your balance and fall into them.
Barnacles provide an important food source for snails, crabs, and starfish. Besides finding home sites on rocks, they will also attach themselves to crabs, boats, seaweed, and whales.
Amphipods, also known as beach hoppers, live by the tens of thousands under beach logs and rocks above the high tide line. They are the scavengers that roam the beach cleaning up the remains of washed up seaweed and small dead creatures. Although slightly creepy looking, they are harmless and usually stay out of the way. I did find that on nights with the highest tides, when their normal hiding places were flooded, they migrated by the thousands up the beach to escape the rising water. Besides walking with their legs, they can also employ a powerful appendage that allows them to pop up one to two feet in the air and thereby move a little faster. This maneuver however does not always get them where they want to go so they can be comical to watch as they launch themselves all over the beach. Black Bears can frequently be seen foraging on beaches, moving logs and rocks to get at the Amphipods. I frequently mistook their popping movement for rain hitting the tent on nights when they were very active.
Blue Mussels are commonly seen attached by the millions to rocks that lie within the Intertidal zone. They are a food source for starfish, snails, and birds. Their blue shells are often seen washed up in heaps on shorelines at the high tide line.
Dungeness, Hermit, and Shore Crabs are the most commonly seen crabs on Inside Passage beaches and tidal pools. Look for them hiding under rocks in the daytime and scavenging the beaches at night during low tide.
Oysters and Clams can also be found in many places along the northwest coast attached to rocks and buried in sandy beaches exposed at low tide. These shellfish cannot be safely eaten as they frequently contain toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. These toxins are produced by algae that are commonly known as Red Tide. Toxic substances concentrate in the bodies of the shellfish causing them to remain toxic for years. Paralytic shellfish poisoning cannot be detected by examining an oyster or clam so it is best not to harvest any for consumption. Besides, the fishy smell may attract bears or other scavengers to your campsite.
Kelp is a yellow-brown algae or seaweed that will be the constant companion of any Inside Passage kayaker from start to finish. Kelp is held to the sea floor by a long stalk like structure called a holdfast. Long leaves called fronds are held near the surface by air bladders where they can collect more sunlight than if they were submerged.
Bull Kelp is probably the most widespread and frequently seen of the different types of kelp. Long 7 inch (17.78cm) wide fronds emanate from a 4-inch (10.16cm) air filled bulb that is connected to the sea floor by a 40 foot (12.2m) long, bullwhip-like stalk. The stalk and bulb are stiff, but slimy and smooth, so a kayak has little trouble sliding over a small patch of the stuff. Large dense areas of Bull Kelp may sometimes need to be skirted, as it can be difficult to paddle through if it is too thick. Kelp can have a tendency to calm small waves but it is not a good idea to paddle in a kelp bed with big waves rolling through as getting entangled is a real possibility and rolling would likely be impossible. Kelp can be very helpful to a kayaker by letting them know in what direction the current is flowing just as a flag indicates from what direction the wind is blowing.
Pacific Rockweed or Bladder Wrack will be seen frequently both while in the water and on shore. Rockweed grows in small clumps attached to rocks and can sometimes be spotted through the clear water moving about in the current. The leaves are short and filled with air pockets called vesicles. These air pockets make the plant float to the surface when it is broken loose from its anchor point by strong wave action. Rockweed finds its way onto beaches where it is piled up in long lines by high tides reaching different beach levels. It is very useful for indicating to a kayaker where the highest tides reach on any particular beach.
Giant Kelp, Winged Kelp, Sugar Wrack, and Sea Palms are some of the other types of kelp that an Inside Passage kayaker will encounter wile paddling through the waters of the northwest coast.
For more information on the flora and fauna indigenous to the Inside Passage, consult the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest”.
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