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Kayaking through the bugs of Alaska's Prince William Sound

Doug O'Harra
As the evening wore on, the beachhoppers moved from their hiding spot under the seaweed and made their way toward us on the beach.
Doug O'Harra photo
During the night, the bugs nestled into everything we owned that was outside of the tent.
Doug O'Harra photo

Late one evening about a week into our annual kayaking trip in Prince William Sound, my family and I fought tide and wind out of Unakwik Inlet toward a new camp in the islands. A stiffening sea breeze morphed waves in the main Whittier-to-Valdez channel into a churn of white-capping three-footers that washed bows and jacked sterns around in a bouncy rodeo.  

It was exhausting -- no longer much fun, almost like weight training -- when myself and my 10-year-old daughter in a double kayak, my wife and 15-year-old son in their own singles, finally jostled through the last three-mile crossing and ducked into the lee on the southeast side of Axel Lind Island.

Over the past decade, we’d spent about 130 summer days traveling in the Sound, and we knew what we wanted in a camp. It only took a glance for us to embrace a steep cobble beach on a densely wooded peninsula. It rose above a flat-calm lagoon to a rain forest of spruce and cedar, thick enough to block the sun still shining on the other side. We were damp and itchy, tired and cranky, ready to pitch tents, eat dinner and go to bed, and this beach appeared to have the makings of one of those classic Sound base camps.

A word about refuge: In the summertime of the western Sound, it’s a simple thing. You want to be dry, sure, with a view of the ocean and defensible space against black bears. Throw in a source of fresh water combined with enough food and fuel to make it through breakfast, and you’ve pretty much dialed in the primitive primate hierarchy of essential needs.

But for urbane comfort -- for that serene sense of existential refuge that comes with knowing you are safe from all pursuit -- you must escape the bugs. Not just those wimpy mosquitoes that buzz into your ears, but the mean no-seeums that raise welts on your ankles. Or those ruthless black flies that gnaw eyelids and hairlines and cause blood to flow down your cheek.

This beach had clinched it: almost nothing tried to bite us. Headnets remained stowed.

Still, it’s true that a slippery wrack of rotting seaweed carpeted the rocks just above the most recent high tide line. The mess spanned 300 yards of beach. Accidentally gouge it open with a boot toe, and you exposed a crustaceous hell that slithered and crawled, including a mess of inch-long scorpionesque beachhoppers that sprang into the air before burrowing back underground. But we hardly gave them a thought. After all, they ate seaweed and wood, not flesh. And who was going spend time digging up the compost?

Huge yellowed logs appeared to have blocked this gunk and its denizens from fouling the upper beach anyway. There, buttressed between grounded snags and the face of the jungle, extended a series of tent-sized clearings, almost like rooms, all of them floored by Chugach gray stone polished smooth by a thousand winter storms. It was high and dry — our refuge for the night — with a panoramic view of the Sound’s eastern bight.

In the dimming light, we started yanking dry bags out of hatches and shuttling gear up the beach. In an hour, we were eating quesadillas inside a screen shelter. What could go wrong?

Later, kids in bed, Helen and I sat inside the shelter sipping warm scotch. A cruise ship snuck into view along the horizon off Naked Island, glittering like an Arabian nights fantasy. The chittering of an eagle and the explosive exhalation of a whale blow broke the silence. We were snug and smug inside our own little cocoon of high civilization in the marine wilderness. It was like living inside a slick REI sale brochure, complete with shiny gadgets and clean fleece.

That’s about time we noticed there were a lot more beachhoppers around than we remembered from only a few moments before.

Instead of a stray pale orange body or two, there were a couple dozen wriggling on the rocks beside our bums. Just outside the shelter’s mesh, 20 or 30, or maybe 40 or 50, of the creatures were crisscrossing the closest driftwood log. Like suddenly becoming aware of one’s own heartbeat, we realized that the faint ticking in the background wasn’t caused by the gentle pitter of spruce needles or light rain but the alien tattoo made by dozens of amphipods colliding every second with Polyester fabric.

Within a span of about 20 minutes, as it grew dusky and dark, hundreds of beachhoppers emerged around us, waggling their 22 appendages and compound eyes and weird pincher-like antennae. By midnight, there were thousands of them about, crawling up and down on everything — the logs, the kayaks, the mesh and roof, the tents, the gear, the rocks. You could not step outside without crunching a half dozen into an exoskeletonous smear.

What saved the scene from Hitchcockian horror was they seemed to have zero interest in us personally. When they landed on a leg, or sprang toward a face, or crawled down a sleeve, or tickled across your fingers, they leapt away just as quickly. We bored them.

Nonetheless, we fled to our tent and lay there with eyes wide as billiard balls. The outlines of their moving bodies crisscrossed the fly like wee monsters in a shadow play. We fell into uneasy sleep to the skittering of bug jumping, as loud and disconcerting as persistent rain.

In the morning, with full sun blazing on the beach by 7 a.m., they appeared to be all gone. Not a single bug jumped or crawled in sight.

No one’s going to believe this, I thought as I reached for my neoprene socks, left drying on a log.

There were about 40 of them under each sock. I yelped in surprise as they scattered like cockroaches.

It turned out that the beachhoppers were hiding inside everything we owned that had remained outside a closed zipper — socks, gloves, rain gear and jackets, shoes and boots, string bags and stuff sacks, pots, mugs.

Refuges come and go, fragile things, vulnerable to whatever crawls from beneath the rocks below. We broke camp after breakfast, vacating the beach so fast that we actually trotted most of the gear unpacked through the woods to a different beach, one that lacked windrows of gooey seaweed.

Still, we took the time first to turn our stuff inside out -- and then flap it violently.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com