Three of Southeast Alaska's most inviting inns can be reached only by seaplane or boat. For the best approach, head in by kayak.

By Susan Haynes
January 08, 2007

Talk about feeling wanted: On a lodge-to-lodge trip about 150miles west of Juneau, a living welcome mat rolls toward our partyof seven paddlers at each destination.

In Gull Cove, at the guest cabins of South Passage Outfitters,giggling young twins Rosie and Alice Montgomery greet us pierside.Parents Dennis and Peggy, who own the small, rustic resort, followbehind. Then come Maggie, Ying, and Tang―two tail-swishingdogs and a tortoise-shell cat.

Next day, nine miles away, we reach shore at The Hobbit HoleGuesthouse, on the middle Inian Island. Innkeeper Jane Buttonstrides toward the dock with Lab-mixes Pearl and Star trotting byher side. A cluster of honking ducks waddle to keep up, and Sylviathe cat deigns to join the fanfare.

Last, in the hoisted-boardwalk village of Elfin Cove, TanakuLodge owner Dennis Meier lends a hand to tie up our kayaks. "Youguys look like you need a cold beer," he says. "It'll be in yourrooms by the time you get there. And dinner's at 6:30. Freshhalibut."

Gustavus-based outfitter Spirit Walker Expeditions organizesthis tour for meeting real Alaskans and sharing their habitats atthree isolated inns. "Our regular camping and paddling trips areimmersions into the natural world," says our guide, Nate Borson."But lodge-to-lodge is as much cultural as it is naturalscience."

Along with wilderness kayaking, we also enjoy well-dressed beds(some with down comforters and pillows), full private baths,splendid water views from not luxurious but certainly pleasingrooms, and delicious fare. In Gull Cove, Dennis Montgomery'saromatic breakfast frittata draws us to the cookhouse cabin, and weall want the recipe.

"You start with a broken oven," he says, "and you try to fix itbut make a sooty smell instead. So you fry an onion to get rid ofthe smell. Then you stir up some eggs and put on some Parmesancheese and let it bake on top of the stove." Both funny andresourceful, Dennis named three of his guest cabins This, That, andThe Other, guaranteeing comic confusion.

"We'll take this," I say. "You mean That," says Carol Light, afellow paddler. "Because this is That. We want This, which isn'tthis."

At The Hobbit Hole inn, dinnertime brings ivory king salmon.Reeled in by Jane's commercial fisherman husband, Greg Howe, thesalmon is marinated in Alaskan amber beer and perfectly grilled. Wehave only to look out Jane's window for the source of thyme for thepopovers, sage for the roasted potatoes, and baby lettuces for oursalads. At breakfast, our appetites renew for neon-yellow scrambledeggs, compliments of the ducks who'd greeted us, and pancakesspeckled with fresh blueberries from Jane's garden.

Our expedition intersperses kayaking with hikes in maritimespruce forests and squishy, colorful bogs. Such activities wraparound Alaska's spectacular scenery and wildlife. On the leisurelypaddle from Gull Cove to The Hobbit Hole, a raft of nearly 20 seaotters cavorts in kelp, and humpback whales blow toward thecoastline. Interlacing paddles, we anchor our kayaks to watch otterantics and explosive bursts of vapor from exhaling whales. "It'snature's TV," says Carol's fiancé, Tom DeBusk. FollowingSpirit Walker's philosophy, we keep our distance, share binoculars,and remain quiet.

Both Virginians, Carol and Tom often river kayak in theSoutheastern states, but this trip marks their saltwater-paddlingdebut. "It's almost like two different sports," he says. Carolagrees, "Whitewater is swift. This is slow and mellow."

Not always. At The Hobbit Hole, Nate says our five-mile route toElfin Cove will cut a diagonal across South Inian Pass. There, IcyStrait ebbs to the Gulf of Alaska, and "currents flow so fastthey're like rapids," he says. Reading the tide table, he resolves,"We'll need to cross before 4:07 tomorrow."

Tomorrow comes, and it's 4:37 when we arrive at the pass. (We'ddawdled at The Hobbit Hole and among myriad photo ops.) Though calmand reassuring, Nate shouts firmly above the sound of rushingwater, "We go now or turn back."

"Go!" we yell, and ply the paddles toward unleashed currents.Every second that passes delivers more force―on nature's partand ours. We buck our way into the worst of it, protected only byour 17-foot double fiberglass Seascapes and the expertise of ourguides.

With Juneau photographer John Hyde in his back seat, Natemaneuvers close to Carol and Tom. Apprentice guide Eric Syrene,alone in his kayak, buddies reassuringly alongside my husband, Bob,and me.

Thirty minutes later, we emerge from the saltwater rollercoaster and jockey into position for paddling into Elfin Cove,whose main "street" is a saltwater inlet. Here's where Dennis'cold-beer invitation at his Tanaku Lodge joins our memories.

Together with the other lodge hosts and our terrific SpiritWalker guides, Dennis made us feel at home in this grand, remoteregion. For travelers like us, who want a warm splash of comfortwith a big dash of adventure, these Alaskans have created theperfect setup.