Juneau to Pelican: Icy Strait, Cross Sound and Lisianski Inlet
The trip from Juneau to Pelican, through Icy Strait and Cross Sound, is one of the most wildlife-rich passages in Southeast Alaska. The route is a major corridor for birds, fish and marine mammals. All the seawater in northern Southeast Alaska funnels through Icy Strait. Point Adolphus, near the entrance to Glacier Bay, is a hot spot for humpback whales, and Cross Sound is a window to the open ocean of the Gulf of Alaska.
The first portion of the trip passes through the same waters covered in the Angoon to Juneau route. The passage to Pelican diverges from this route where Icy Strait meets Chatham Strait. On a clear day, the massive, perennially snow-covered peaks of the Fairweather Mountain Range are visible to the west down Icy Strait.
Rocky Island sits off Point Couverden. This grassy little knoll is a popular haulout for sea lions.
Heading west, it's possible to see where logging has taken place to the north in the Excursion Inlet area and to the south on Chichagof Island. Bears and Sitka black-tailed deer are sometimes spotted on the logging roads around Excursion Inlet. The community of Hoonah is nestled into the inlet of Port Frederick on Chichagof Island to the south. Point Sophia and Cannery Point, where Port Frederick meets Chatham Strait, is a reliable area for seeing humpback whales. Harbor and Dall's porpoises are also found in the waters of Icy Strait.
The Pleasant, Lemesurier and Inian Island Wilderness, a 23,000-acre National Forest Wilderness Area, sits in the middle of Icy Strait and encompasses its namesake islands as well as several smaller islands. This area is popular with kayakers. Gustavus is on the mainland behind Pleasant Island, and serves as the gateway community to Glacier Bay.
Point Adolphus, jutting into Icy Strait at the northern tip of Chichagof Island, is famous for humpback whales. A combination of seafloor topography and currents creates a rich feeding area, and dozens of whales converge here. This is a prime area for observing a variety of whale behaviors.
Glacier Bay National Park lies to the north of Icy Strait. The waters here can be teeming with bird life. Look for scattered pairs of marbled murrelets and flocks of murres. Puffins can be found winging past, leading with their prominent, oversized beaks. Gulls, terns and kittiwakes fish the waters of the strait. See the Glacier Bay chapter for more information.
Sea otters, nearly hunted to extinction for their luxurious fur, are re-inhabiting their former range. In Southeast Alaska, numbers are growing in Icy Strait and the waters to the west. Don't expect the sleek profile of an animal swimming like a river otter or seal - sea otters are generally seen floating on their backs, their feet and pointed noses poking up into the air as they rest or feed.
A cluster of islands, known as the Inian Islands, marks the divide between Icy Strait and Cross Sound. All ship and boat traffic here must navigate one of two narrow passes that flank the islands, and all the water flowing into Icy Strait from the Gulf of Alaska surges through here. At mid-tide when the flow is strongest, the seas of Icy Strait run like a powerful river.
Cross Sound is a beautiful area with abundant wildlife. Taylor Bay and the massive Brady Glacier are visible to the north, sheltered from the open Pacific by Cape Spencer. All the country visible to the north here is part of Glacier Bay National Park. The Gulf of Alaska, part of the North Pacific Ocean, stretches out to the west. To the south, a scattering of small islands and peninsulas marks the northwest shore of Chichagof Island. The small fishing community of Elfin Cove is tucked into a cove near the mouth of Port Althorp, and Pelican sits about 15 miles down the long, narrow reach of Lisianski Inlet.
Killer whales are often seen in this area. Cormorants, riding low in the water, can be seen between flocks of gulls, murres and murrelets hunting small fish.
Cross Sound provides a rare opportunity to see oceangoing birds such as rhinoceros auklets and puffins, and in stormier weather, perhaps even northern fulmar, sooty shearwater or albatross.
Cross Sound is a good area to look for sea otters, especially among the kelp beds. A sea lion haulout near south Inian Pass is a gathering place for the big marine mammals, and they are abundant in these waters. Graves Rocks, one of the five major sea lion rookeries in Southeast Alaska, can be found just outside Cross Sound, northwest of Cape Spencer.
This is one of the areas in Southeast Alaska where you may see Pacific white-sided dolphins. These dolphins are generally found in the open ocean, rather than in the protected Inside Waters, and large numbers have been seen west of Cross Sound and Yakobi Island.
Entering Lisianski Inlet, scan the shore for brown bears and deer. Morning and evening are the best times to look. During late summer, bears are drawn to streams to feed on salmon, and creek mouths are a good place to look for bears.
Don't look for pelicans in Pelican. Founded in the 1930s as a fishing village, Pelican was named for a fishing boat, not the big sea birds. Pelican is a magnet for a different, much smaller bird, the rufous hummingbird. These birds nest in Southeast Alaska, and in late April, May and June the aggressive, hungry little birds are thick in Pelican.