A day spent paddling the coves and bays of southeastern Alaska’s Sitka Sound is, more often than not, a day spent under clear skies. Sitka is protected from the fiercest winds and gales by a natural windbreak, Baranof Island’s snowcapped mountains, which loom over the frigid, fertile waters and the pristine archipelagos sprinkled across the steely blue water. Gliding away from Sitka’s wharfs, kayakers find themselves surrounded by sea lions, then sea otters, and finally eagles, which swoop low in search of salmon. The occasional whale surfaces with a perfunctory chuff.
The best way to access this aquatic wild is through Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, a mom-and-pop shop in the best sense of that tired term. Among other services, Mom (Alison Dunlap) hosts and outfits guests, and Pop (John Dunlap) runs a marine transport service that jump-starts expeditions by ferrying kayakers up to 60 miles from the city. Son (Connor Dunlap) is among the guides. He knows Sitka and the sound’s wildlife like the blades of his paddle and quickly answers any question visitors throw at him about flora and fauna or – more likely – about what it’s like to grow up Alaskan.
The temptation is to head deep into the wilderness, north toward Neva Straight and the less-protected Salisbury Sound, but there is plenty to see close to Sitka. Paddle toward St. Lazaria Island, a government-designated wilderness full of nesting birds. The island refuge is technically within city limits, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The rocks along the shore crest and break like frozen waves.
Whether you’re taking a leisurely photo trip or going for a big-time upper body workout, kayaking takes energy, and it’s hard to imagine a better mid-trip break than the one Sound Ocean Adventures provides. That big cookie Mrs. Dunlap gave you before you left? Handmade by Connor’s grandmother. Eat it on an empty beach while shooing away the envious shorebirds.
When you’re back in town, stop for a local craft beer at Baranof Island Brewery. The Silver Bay IPA is a tasty and appropriate way to end the trip.