Beyond Ketchikan, a few towns punctuate long, isolated stretches of scenic grandeur. Two routes onward offer a stark choice: bears or bergs. To see bears, a paddler can pass the Anan Creek Wildlife Sanctuary and cross the wide Stephens Passage to the grizzly-rich shores of Admiralty Island. Those who prefer icebergs and glaciers can stay on the east shore of Stephens Passage, exploring spectacular fjords. I had seen plenty of bears, so I chose bergs, starting with the parade from LaConte Glacier.

In Frederick Sound, humpback whales woke me early as they passed by. At noon, a pod of orcas followed me into a cove for lunch, surging through the water with such power that I was content to dabble in a tide pool and let them go by. Twice the next day, humpbacks corralled me in the shallows while they blew bubbles, rolling and bursting through the surface, feeding at low tide.

On Day 40, a Steller's sea lion rushed my boat, looking for all the world like a drowning grizzly bear. They became so common that I talked to these big carnivores as if they were bad dogs pawing at me.

A day away from Juneau, I sought shelter from a storm in a state park cabin. Its rightful renters arrived toward dusk. It could have been awkward. Instead, I made friends for life.

The final leg of the route offered many options, including spectacular Glacier Bay, and Sitka, the site of the historic capital of Russian Alaska. My original plans had been somewhat open-ended, and I stopped paddling in Juneau when my parents joined me. Together, we sought out every address where Josie had lived and found her husband's gravestone. We hiked at Mendenhall Glacier, as near as we could to the base of the mountain that bears my great-grandfather's name: Mount Stroller White.

Then we took the ferry to Skagway, where we walked directly into the office of the newspaper once edited by "The Stroller" -- as his readers called him. It was cluttered with the familiar flotsam of community journalism -- posters and press releases, computers and coffee cups. It was warm and smelled of paper and toner and was occupied by the current editor, who keeps the spirit of history alive in a town that peddles the remembrance of boom times past.

I had come a very long way alone, and I was immensely satisfied to cross the finish line in the company of people I love. I had paddled hundreds of miles through an unfamiliar world, meeting challenges I had never imagined. And now I had emerged, stronger and more humble, in a place so instantly familiar that I felt at home -- a newsroom.

Nadia White is an associate professor in the University of Montana School of Journalism, with past experience as a reporter and editor for Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune, the Boulder, Colo., Daily Camera and other newspapers in Maine and Minnesota.