This story featured in the June 2012 issue.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Because of its turquoise waters, blinding white glaciers, icebergs and huge array of wildlife, Seattle-based photographer Gary Luhm says that Alaska's Glacier Bay should be at the top of any sea kayaker's bucket list. "You can routinely view more big land and sea wildlife there than anywhere else in North America," says Luhm, who photographed sea ducks, songbirds, sea lions, black and brown bears, mountain goats and humpback whales on a 2008 mothership-supported sea kayak tour. (Check out Ursa Major for mothership tours in Southeast Alaska.) Though you don't need a luxury charter, most kayakers choose to take a water taxi from the national park headquarters at Bartlett Cove, near the ferry- or air-accessible hamlet of Gustavus, TK miles to Muir Inlet or West Arm. There they enjoy close-up views of Glacier Bay's namesake ice fields, and better opportunities to see brown bear, mountain goat and harbor seals loafing on icebergs. Plan to pack your food in bear-proof containers, and come prepared for rain.
Life-list wildlife sightings aside, Glacier Bay's retreating ice fields offer insights to an ecosystem's response to change. As glaciers retreat, barren soil is colonized by plant species like lichen and fireweed. These hardy pioneers set the stage for ecological succession, the slow yet unrelenting process in which one species of vegetation sequentially replaces the next and soil accumulates on the landscape through decomposition, supporting new assortments of flora and fauna. Eventually, the process culminates when a climax community of rainforest spruces and hemlocks take root and mature.
For more information: nps.gov/glba/
Johnstone Strait, B.C.
Each summer, 200-odd orca whales follow the scent of salmon to the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, where they rest and feed. Besides being one of the best places on the planet to see wild killer whales and an assortment of other coastal wildlife including black bears, bald eagles, dolphins and seals, British Columbia's Johnstone Strait and nearby Broughton Archipelago offer sea kayakers classic paddling in the Pacific Northwest. The quaint community of Telegraph Cove is the jumping off point for intermediate to advanced paddlers with experience predicting and navigating tidal currents, which in this area range from 1-3 knots. Wind can also be a hazard. Paddle along the shore to Kiakash Creek for great orca viewing, or if conditions are good, cross the strait to the campsite on West Cracroft Island known as "Pig Ranch." This is a good spot to spy orcas off the beach of Robson Bight, a pebbly cove on Vancouver Island where whales like to rub their bellies. Dozens of islands beckon beyond West Cracroft, making longer one- to two-week trips possible.
Nature Notes: Most of the killer whales in Johnstone Strait are known as "residents"—fish-eating orcas that specialize in salmon, swim in pods of five to 30 individuals and tend to stick to the waters of the Pacific Northwest from southeast Alaska to Oregon. Scientists have observed that resident orcas rarely interact with "transient" killer whales, a sect of seal-eaters that range the entire West Coast and have pod sizes of less than five.
For more information: orcalab.org
Elkhorn Slough, California
This six-mile-long saltwater marsh located between Santa Cruz and Monterey packs a ton of biological diversity into a small area. That's because Elkhorn Slough is positioned on a bird migration route that makes the area a seasonal or year-round home to 340 avian species including pelicans, hawks and thousands of shorebirds. Luhm and his wife once counted an amazing 75 species of birds here in a single day. Meanwhile, the slough's rich, tide-charged waters support sea lions and leopard sharks, and its sprawling mudflats provide respite for harbor seals. Springtime day-trips include pupping seals and flocks of migrating birds, but also some of the strongest winds of the year. Depending on the tide, sea kayakers can put in at the public launch at Moss Landing or from the docks of local outfitters. Since the afternoon wind usually blows onshore, it's also possible to launch farther inland at Kirby Park and paddle out to the coast in the morning calm, and then enjoy a tailwind on the return trip. November to April provides the best times for wintering birds and then for the migration.
Nature Notes: So-called "estuarine" areas like Elkhorn Slough are wildlife hotspots because they allow saltwater to mix with inflowing freshwater in a semi-enclosed area that's protected from the punishing swell of the open coast. This dynamic loads the water with nutrients and supports fragile marsh and mudflat habitat. Elkhorn Slough's salt marshes are home to shorebirds and waterfowl, while its 1,600 acres of seemingly uninhabited mudflats support hosts of tiny invertebrates that form the foundation of the food chain.
For more information: elkhornslough.org
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Lake Superior's largest island is a haven for iconic Northwoods wildlife. You're more likely to see moose, wolves or loons at Isle Royale than fellow paddlers; according to the National Parks Service, this 215-square-mile wilderness island is among the least visited national parks in the Lower 48. The long, slender island's fingerlike bays, offshore islands and rugged, exposed coastline make it a great destination for advanced sea kayakers. However, canoeists stand a better chance of spotting wildlife on Isle Royale's inland waterway, which consists of eight interior lakes connected to each other and the Lake Superior shore by 16 portages. The only way to get to Isle Royale is by ferry from Grand Portage, Minn., or Copper Harbor in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Nature Notes: Moose and wolves are relative newcomers to Isle Royale. The first moose are thought to have ventured 20 miles across the ice to the island from the mainland in the early 1900s. For nearly 50 years the moose ran amok, devastating vegetation and fluctuating wildly in numbers in times of feast and famine. But since a pack of wolves crossed the ice bridge and established a population in the late 1940s, predator and prey numbers have remained relatively constant, providing biologists with an ideal real-world laboratory to study moose and wolf dynamics.
For more information: nps.gov/isro
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
Paddling the shifting sands of Maryland and Virginia's Assateague Island offers a first-hand glimpse of the dynamic ecosystems of the East Coast's barrier islands. Though best known for its herd of wild horses, more ecologically significant are Assateague's seasonal and resident birds, including ducks and geese, shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors. It's a rich diversity of habitats like coastal dunes and inshore salt marshes that make the island a magnet for avian species, which descend upon the Atlantic coast for food and refuge. Since backcountry camping is only allowed on the Maryland portion of the island, canoeists and sea kayakers planning overnight trips are best to launch from Ferry Landing near Assateague's northern tip. The shallow waters of Chincoteague Bay are sheltered by a series of islets creating a 12-mile-long passage with three camping areas, all with cross-island hiking trails leading to the exposed Atlantic coast.
Nature Notes: Legend has it that Assateague's feral horses are descendants of equine shipwreck survivors, but in fact, colonists introduced horses to the island in the 17th century. Like most exotic species, horses have wreaked havoc on Assateague's native vegetation, causing widespread erosion and disturbing natural balance. As a result, National Parks Service biologists inject a portion of male horses with a contraceptive in an attempt to maintain a stable population of about 125 animals.
For more information: nps.gov/asis
Apalachicola River, Florida
The Apalachicola is a river of superlatives: It is Florida's largest river, growing out of Georgia's Chattahoochee and Flint rivers at Lake Seminole and cutting across the Panhandle west of Tallahassee before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico; it flows through Florida's largest national forest. It also boasts more recorded biodiversity than any waterway in North America, justifying its "Garden of Eden" moniker. The Apalachicola Blueway traces the river's full 106-mile course from the Jim Woodruff Dam to tidewater, with sandbars providing ideal campsites in low to medium water levels. Vestigial forests of longleaf pine and wiregrass and otherworldly tupelo swamps support a rich array of birdlife, including migrating songbirds and the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. Closer to the Gulf, 11 day-trip options accessible from State Road 65 provide opportunity to view Florida megafauna like alligators and black bear.
Nature Notes: Northwestern Florida remains a wildlife stronghold because of largely intact swaths of habitat like 571,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest. Whereas the eradication of wetlands and urban development in the southern half of the state has all but eliminated viable habitat, the north still has large parcels of undeveloped land capable of supporting disturbance-sensitive species like the Florida black bear. Similarly, the Apalachicola's expansive forests of mature longleaf pine are home to the world's largest population of ultra-rare red cockaded woodpeckers.
For more information: myfwc.com
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
Two hours east of Houston, Big Thicket was established as the United States' first national preserve in 1974. Big Thicket's name rings true for canoeists on the remote Neches River and more accessible Village Creek. Dense forests flitting with birdlife fringe both waterways, which meander through an undisturbed region that's had plenty of time to recover since logging ended in 1930. It's a three- to five-day float on the Neches through 54 miles of cypress swamps and pine forests from the B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir to the town of Evadale. Numerous road crossings make Village Creek day-trip-friendly, and the entire 51-mile stretch between U.S. 287/69 and Lakeview is a good introduction to multi-day canoe tripping. Watch for river otters, soft-shelled turtles and alligators. Upland areas are rumored to be home to an elusive population of mountain lions.
Nature notes: Ecologists describe this region of southeast Texas as a "biological crossroads" because of its unlikely intersection of swamps, forests, plains, savannas and sandhills. Such diverse habitat makes for a great variety of flora and fauna worthy of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Some 20 types of orchids highlight Big Thicket's nearly 1,000 species of flowering plants and 145 kinds of trees and shrubs; about 185 species of birds occupy the preserve seasonally or year-round, and 50 species of reptiles take shelter in its deep woods, wetlands and rivers.
For more information: nps.gov/bith