Wheelchair adventure travel and kayaking in Glacier Bay Alaska
by Scott Rains
Thirteen feet below me the water is the murky grey-green of saltwater laced with glacial silt. My bright red snowboarding pants reflect off the glassy surface but, like a mirror, nothing below the surface is visible. The naturalists onboard tell me that spots like this roil beneath with sea life in a feeding frenzy.
Last evening we anchored our 97-foot yacht just off the mouth of Reed Glacier. After dinner I rolled along the aft deck. The land surface was too raw from glacial scouring to support the grizzlies, black bears, mountain goats, and wolves that we would see later in the week. Gazing out over the bright 10 PM twilight of the northern summer I watched for more otters, harbor seals, sea lions, orcas, and whales. In the distance a salmon jumped.
There is something awe-inspiring about watching a fish as big as a salmon launch its entire length out of the water after food. They are pretty good with their aim too. I lost my bait five times in a row before I gave up earlier in the day. Maybe, I reasoned, if I fished from the sea kayak I would have better luck.
In fact, dangling there over the 34 degree Fahrenheit water of Glacier Bay Alaska, I was on my way down to the kayak.
Maybe it was nostalgia for the warm air of Sea World in Tampa Florida but as the crew winched me down toward the kayak on a cable I recalled the spectacular splash made by Shamu after she rocketed her entire 30 foot body vertically out of the water. Or maybe it was the fact that I had done the math. I realized that at 13 feet above sea level and falling Shamu's cousins would not have to break a sweat to snack on the two oversized bright red "worms" dangling ever closer to their lunchroom.
Either way, I settled safely into the tandem kayak and was released from the McKinnon Hugger.
Over the coming five days exploring this ecosystem created by the world's fastest-retreating glacier the Hugger was to become as familiar a freedom machine as my wheelchair. I made the descent at least once daily. Eventually the crew of our boat, the Sea Wolf, would become so efficient that in sixty seconds we completed the whole process from strapping-in while sitting in my wheelchair to swinging over the water (daring another pod of orcas into high-jump competition) and on to shedding the foam-covered metal exoskeleton that hugged me firmly and lowered me securely.
All travel is adventure travel when you have a disability. Some parts - like Peter Panning overboard - make for more memorable stories than others. It's those others - doorways that take skin samples from your knuckles as you try to pass through, for example - that every wheelchair-using traveler wants to know about.
I generally hold new construction at vacation destinations to high standards - ADA or Universal Design. Reconstruction is always less-than-ideal but I give points for good-faith effort.
The Sea Wolf is a redesigned World War II minesweeper. Her decks were widened to 32 inches, three of her six staterooms are wheelchair visitable, two lifts were installed for circulation between the three decks and all public areas are accessible. Equally important in my point system is the fact that the crew is competent and sensitive related to the individuality of one's disability. This is a boat and an itinerary that I can enthusiastically recommend to any paraplegic with good upper body strength or quad with a trustworthy companion, a sense of adventure, and the ability to be comfortable in a manual wheelchair.
With the basics of onboard accessibility in place, care in crew selection and training, and exceptional creativity shown in building inclusion into their adventure activities a cruise on the Sea Wolf can be a unique opportunity for passengers with and without disabilities to experience remote wilderness up close and share the unique bond that comes of living that close to the elements together.
On her site Kimber Owen, naturalist and the owner of Sea Wolf, explains the territory she cruises - Glacier Bay:
Glacier Bay is a vast Y-shaped fjord on the southeast coast of Alaska, sheltered from the ocean by the Fairweather range. Only two hundred years ago, when Captain George Vancouver sailed by its mouth, the bay was a solid sheet of nearly a mile of ice. One century later, the glaciers had shrunk back 65 miles, the fastest glacier retreat on record.
If that sounds like a piece of the world that you want to see for yourself then don't let anything stop you. Sherri Backstrom yacht rental broker arranged my trip. As someone with firsthand experience with disability Sherri did an excellent job anticipating my needs - and surprising me with a few extras along the way.
Photos and videos of the trip
- Sherri's WebShots: Sea Wolf access including McKinnon Hugger hoist in action
- Doug's WebShots: Scott infront of the Sea Wolf
For more information
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