Fantasy Islands: Kootznoowoo Wilderness, Alaska | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
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Fantasy Islands: Kootznoowoo Wilderness, Alaska Photo: Bjorn Dihle

Find solitude and bears on this northern island

Ready for adventure? We’ve roamed the world’s oceans and lakes to compile this look at eight of our favorite island escapes, from lounging in the palm trees of the South Pacific to paddling with whales in the Bay of Fundy and gazing at grizzlies in Alaska. We’ve also included one escapade that’s so daring, it may never be repeated. 

Admiralty Island is better described by its Tlingit name, Kootznoowoo, meaning Fortress of the Brown Bear. Located in Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, the island’s old-growth temperate rainforest makes it the most ecologically intact large island in the Tongass National Forest, and it is believed to have the world's densest population of brown bears—roughly one per square mile. Thanks to conservationists who battled timber companies, most of the mountainous island is now designated a National Monument.

Ken Leghorn, a wilderness guide who has spent decades sharing Kootznoowoo with visitors, calls the island a “timeless place for undiminished wild salmon, bears and eagles, where solitude and adventure can still be found throughout the year.” Overshadowed by nearby Glacier Bay National Park, Kootznoowoo offers paddlers more solitude, wildness and critter viewing opportunities than the comparatively crowded park. Besides the coastal grizzlies, its bays are full of humpback and orca whales, Steller sea lions, sea otters and hundreds of breeding bald eagles.

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The island’s most popular kayak trip begins in Juneau, Alaska's small and isolated capital. A five-mile open water crossing of blustery Stephens Passage ushers paddlers into Kootznoowoo’s narrow Oliver Inlet, where a short portage leads over muskeg to Seymour Canal. From there, it’s just 15 miles south to the famous Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area. During salmon spawning season July through August, all sizable streams and estuaries offer opportunities for seeing bruins, but many of the bears at Pack Creek are accustomed to visitors.

Few kayakers venture beyond Pack Creek; if you do, expect a whole lot of solitude. For a truly existential experience, spend a couple weeks (or more) making a 250-mile circumnavigation of the island. Unpredictable weather, currents and bears make this a challenging trip for experienced wilderness travellers. Learn proper bear etiquette—how to store your food, where to camp (and where not to) and how you should behave if confronted by a bear—before venturing onto the island. —Bjorn Dihle

If you go: Visit from mid-May through mid-August for best weather and wildlife viewing. Above & Beyond Alaska (www.beyondak.com) offers day and multi-day kayak rentals and floatplane packages. 

This article was originally published in Adventure Kayak, Volume 16 • Issue 3. Read this issue.

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