A whale of a time at White Sulfur Springs

“WHALE! There it is!” Jill shouted while pointing ahead of the bow.

Mere boat lengths in front of us rose the unmistakable fin of a humpback whale and I steered quickly to starboard to get Yahtzee out of its path. Just then, its massive tail gracefully broke the water close off our port side, arched skyward and then disappeared into the sea.

All of us looked at each other with huge eyes and shared a frenzied few minutes of, “Oh my … I can’t believe that just happened!” while replaying the event over and over, and from our different perspectives.

I’ve never been that close to a whale in the wild and to do it while sailing at 7.5 knots with a decent sea running was incredible. We didn’t see this one coming across our bow until the last second and, in retrospect, I wish I’d had the GoPro running to capture the moment. It was one of those sea stories that will forever be etched in my memory.

A humpback surfaces off our port bow near Mirror Harbor.

Early the next morning we were up to catch high tide and humpbacks surrounded us on our approach to Mirror Harbor on the west side of Chichagof Island. With no wind and little swell running, the scene was far less dramatic yet equally as stunning to be a part of and we watched them surface and give a spout before diving in search of breakfast.

Leaving the whales in our wake, we reached the narrow, rocky entrance to this diminutive harbor only to find it completely choked with kelp. Approaching slowly, Jill stood at the bow and I nosed Yahtzee forward before realizing that, to attempt a passage over the forest would be a fool’s errand. It was too late.

We drifted slowing into the kelp and when I spun the helm to port and gave the engine a burst to get out of there, strands of sinewy kelp clung to our rudder and a leaf blocked the engine’s water intake. Fortunately, there was still a small amount of water coming from the exhaust and when we reached clear water, I backed down to shake the kelp free. I’ve done this maneuver a number of times on race boats and we soon watched the kelp move out in front of us. With the rudder clear, we shut down the engine and rolled out the genoa. I jumped down below to check the sea strainer and found no debris. Firing the engine back up, a large amount of water poured out and, relieved, we began to alter our plans.

For cruisers, Mirror Harbor is the entrance point to White Sulfur Springs and our disappointment at not getting in washed over us. We’d heard great things about this very remote place and had made it a point to get here during our voyage to Southeast Alaska. Undeterred, and in true Yahtzee fashion, we looked at the charts and formulated a different plan for reaching the springs.

What we found was a beautiful anchorage at Porcupine Bay, which would put us somewhat near the springs. The problem with this location was that the springs themselves were 3-plus miles by sea and 5 to get to the trail at Mirror Harbor. We don’t have a fast dinghy with an outboard engine so our plan, then, was to paddle to a small cove that I’d noticed on the way in, beach the kayak and SUP, and then hike/bushwhack a mile into the springs from the back side.

Easier said than done.

I laid out the plan to everyone and we all agreed that we should at least give it a try. Off we went from Porcupine Bay not knowing how we’d end up, but we were hopeful. After a 1.5 mile paddle, we reached the rocky shore of the cove and were able to land the boats. With Magnus on my back and Jill and Porter walking, we set out into the woods to find the springs.

By land or sea, Yahtzee’s crew gets it done.

Our first obstacle came right away in the form of a small, boggy lake. My decision to go north around it brought us to a steep ridge and we found a spot that was easy enough to get up on top of it. Once on top, we found ourselves in a landscape that was pure Alaska. Part forest, part alpine tundra, we put our boots to good use and sloshed over grass and bear scat, through small streams, and in and out of sticky mud. Onward we went and in an hour’s time we could hear the sounds of waves crashing on a beach — we were getting close!

Jill and the boys pick a path through a boggy section of forest.

Sure enough, after clawing through more trees and brush and over more mud and water, we came onto a path that ran adjacent to the beach and ocean. Following the trail south, we soon came to the hot springs and celebrated by stripping down, donning suits and jumping into the empty, hot pools.

Not a bad ocean view from the bathhouse.

Warm Sulfur Springs is absolutely amazing. The parks department has built a small bathing house that is fit for a 5-star resort, and an outdoor pool nearby is slightly cooler, which makes moving back and forth between them an ideal temperature control. For kayakers and campers, a small cabin is available on a reservations only basis and a trail takes boaters back to Mirror Harbor. Our approach to getting here may have been far more adventurous, but no matter how you reach the springs, you’re doing so with the knowledge that you’re bathing in an incredible wilderness area where land and mountains meet the sea.

The cooler of the two pools was the place to be for Porter and Magnus.
Magnus didn’t want to get out.

After two hours hanging out in and around the pools, we needed to make the trek back and left relaxed and refreshed through the woods. With a better sense of the terrain we’d be covering, the hike back didn’t take nearly as long and before we knew it, our red kayak and white SUP were spotted through the trees from atop the ridge. Clamoring down to the water, we splashed the boats and paddled back to Yahtzee with an unparalleled sense of adventure and accomplishment. We might not have made it into Mirror Harbor, but we sure made it the springs.

Editors Note: Apologies for the lack of pictures. This was one of those adventures that called for being in the moment rather than capturing it.

6 thoughts on “A whale of a time at White Sulfur Springs

  1. Andy, you all are full of adventure. It must have been and amazing experience to see a whale do it’s jump into the air and go back into the ocean. What an incredible experience for all of you and especially Porter and Magnus. Happy sailing! Love GMA

  2. We have made two trips to White Sulfur Hot Springs via Mirror Harbor. The kelp really marked a safe entrance, as kelp will not grow without about 6 feet of water above it at low tide. The hairy part is all the rocks further in, but they are manageable. The the walk is about 40-60 minutes. Our last trip there was in 1205.

    The Douglas guide is pretty accurate, but be your own best guide.

    1. “Be your own best guide.” I like that, and in this instance we certainly were. We met some people at the springs who entered Mirror Harbor in a small powerboat and they said they wouldn’t have tried it in ours.

      In the moment I wasn’t so worried about the depth as I was with the sheer amount of kelp and its ability to foul our prop, raw water intake and rudder.

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