Note: A big warm thank you to Pangaea Adventures, most especially guide Emma, for the calm, cool, and most knowledgable three hours I’ve ever spent sitting in a kayak.
In 12 years of Alaska residence, I’ve overcome many of the trepidations about living, working, and playing in the Last Frontier. Bears, for example. And small planes. That one took a while, and I’m good now. But kayaking…..
In my 20’s I dumped myself out of a boat in the middle of a lake, clad in a spray skirt that didn’t detach from the cockpit. New paddler (and cocky 20-something) that I was, no safety information about the mechanics of wet-exiting a kayak was locked in my brain and thus, I spent the worst eternity — three or so minutes of my life — contemplating my amateurish decision. Upside-down.
I’m writing this tonight so obviously I survived and went on to marry a person who loved to kayak and moved to Alaska and met a lot of people who also loved to kayak, including my own children. I even began writing about lots of places at which everyone wanted to kayak. See where I’m going with this?
I STRUGGLED WITH KAYAKAPHOBIA. It’s a thing.
A few summers I spent hopping in kayaks for brief periods of paddling calm Southeast waters. That helped.
But as AK Kid inches ever-closer to 13, and the possibility (and allure) of multi-day trips into pristine places like Prince William Sound tempt me, I felt it was time. I emailed Pangaea Adventures in Valdez and said, “Bring it.”
Well, sort of. By this I meant, “Take me out into the water for a few hours but not to long and not too scary.”
Done, they said.
In operation since 1996, Pangaea Adventures thrives on kayaking, rafting, and overnight backpacking trips for just about everybody, kayakaphobics included. AK Dad and Kid had taken a short paddle back in 2011 when the closest I’d come to a kayak was when it was hauled up on the dock, and had a great time. I recommended the company several times to friends, and gave a shout out in my two books.
OK, OK, it was time.
Pangaea’s signature family day trip is called the Duck Flats Sea Kayak Day Tour, a three-hour paddle around a unique little area outside Valdez Harbor where tiny, rocky islands provide habitat for sea birds and harbor seals. Traversing the shoreline outside the small boat harbor, then out to the Flats, kayakers age 6 and above can test their paddling arms and fortitude somewhere safe, secure, and interesting.
Guide Emma was key to our success. Despite glowering skies and drizzle, she cheerfully set us up in spray skirts, PFDs, and paddles and gave a quick how-to session that included (gasp), what to do if the boat tips over.
Emma, it turns out, has the middle name of “Kayak” (I kid you not), and was raised in the backwoods of Maine by parents who are whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoe guides. She is calm and smiley and exactly the person with whom to share a double kayak if you have any sort of anxiety.
It was a bit wavy out of the harbor that morning (Pangaea owner Tim Duffy calls it “squirty,” Emma told us), swelling to a few feet with a brisk offshore wind. Or something like that. All I know was that Emma and I in our boat, and the guys in the second boat, were bumped up and down by the swells. Did I panic?
The Necky kayaks we sat in were as stable as could be, and, as Emma had advised during our pre-trip session, the more we paddled, the better the boat responded. Go figure.
To our left, huge barges were moored, standing ready in case another oil spill like the tragic events of 1989’s Exxon Valdez grounding happens. Gulls and Kittiwakes swooped and hollered above us, gliding on the breeze. We reached Duck Flats after about 20 minutes of solid paddling and suddenly the wind and waves were gone and it was just us and the patter of raindrops on our jackets.
We explored the rocks, watched a pair of geese step in and out of their nesting site to give us a closer look, and spent quite a bit of time watching pairs of harbor seal mothers and pups swimming in the lagoon. With each stroke of my paddle, a bit more confidence showed itself. I took photos, laughed at the antics of the seal pups and a cheeky juvenile bald eagle who, try as he/she might, just couldn’t get around the gulls.
Two hours of paddling went by in a flash. Nonchalantly, with as much dignity as I could muster, I hauled myself up and out of the kayak and onto the concrete dock.
“How about THAT?” I said to my people.
Emma took our picture, three of us, dressed in full gear, holding paddles high.
How about that, indeed.
If you go:
Pangaea Adventures is located in downtown Valdez along Harbor Drive. The company operates May-September and offers a wide range of trip options, from leisurely day trips like ours to backcountry wilderness experiences.
Families traveling with children should expect kids to be 6+ to paddle, with a case-by-case basis made for anyone younger.
Dress kids in warm, waterproof layers (kayaking is damp business, even on a sunny day). Boots are OK to wear (Pangaea has them if you need them, but not a lot of kid sizes), but we wore hiking sandals and were fine. Add a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen even on cloudy-bright days. A water bottle can be a nice addition.
Pangaea provides spray skirts, PFDs (ask if your children are younger, just in case), rain gear if you need it, and all the kayaking gear. Plan to have a safety session before any trip, even if you are an experienced paddler.