Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.
Mid-day on the last Fourth of July, I sat in my kayak and watched a parade like nothing I'd ever seen: Icebergs shaped like elaborate floats bobbed past me, one resembling an eagle, another a house, still others calving with a splash or dissolving with a long, slow shuuush.
The only other spectators were young seals, but they were more interested in finding their mothers than in watching the parade. Like kids, they yipped back and forth, playing energetically.
I had been paddling North America's Inside Passage, along the coast of western Canada and Alaska, for 45 days, alone in a sea kayak. These were the first icebergs I had seen, and I was transfixed. They floated majestically away from the LeConte Glacier, just north of Wrangell, Alaska.
I paddled among the bergs until I was chilled, then found a cove with a high bench for my tent and a mossy cradle for my kayak. From the shore, I watched bergs the size of apartment complexes jostle their way around the bend that stood between me and the glacier. I thought: I could watch icebergs forever.
The rising tide filled the cove, stopping a few feet shy of my kayak and twice that far below the tent. Darkness fell and the sound of ice calving from the glacier echoed off the rocks. The seals had long since gone to sleep, and I followed suit. A cracking noise like a gunshot woke me during the night, an intense shock followed by the sound of a rippling wave and then my boat rocking hard in its cradle. A huge iceberg must have collapsed, I figured. I checked on the boat and slid back into my bag.
As the cove quieted, I heard something new, between my spooked heartbeats: A soft pop-pop-pop. I realized it was the midnight finale of the fireworks from the Independence Day blowout in Wrangell, a fishing and tourism town with a few thousand residents. The fireworks were out of sight, but as I fell back to sleep far from the crowds, I thought, this is what independence is all about.
Going it alone. This is all I'd wanted years ago, when I first saw the Inside Passage as a 14-year-old traveling by ferry with my family. The stretch of coastal water from Seattle north to Alaska called to me, even back then. The huge landscape withheld more than it shared. The vertical shoreline shot from water to rock to tree and revealed little else. Fjords and broad watery arms reached around the bend toward something unknown, out of view. The salty wind tickled my adolescent hunger for adventure. I ached to explore, but on that trip, the ferry -- and my family -- stayed the course. We spent that summer reconnecting with ink-stained family history, bouncing from newspaper office to newspaper office, retracing the adventures of my great-grandfather, a newsman who went north in 1898 with the Klondike gold rush and stayed to become Southeast Alaska's first political columnist.
My thirst to explore the Inside Passage lingered, and it was no coincidence that I became a journalist and a journalism teacher. In May 2012, at the age of 47, I took a break from the University of Montana, loaded my car with more gear than could ever fit into a kayak and drove with a friend to Whidbey Island, about 30 miles north of Seattle.
Another friend joined us for the launch, and once I'd accepted that not all my supplies could make the trip, I pushed off into a broad cove with a brisk breeze rising. I was nervous, but my friends, left behind on the shore, were downright terrified. Later, one of them told me that they turned to each other as they watched me go and said, "We may never see her again." I was off, going it alone.
The Inside Passage stretches 1,200 miles from Puget Sound north and west, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, continuing past Juneau to Glacier Bay in Alaska. The waters are protected from the Pacific by scattered islands, but huge expanses are teased by winds and tides that can rise swiftly, 30 feet from low water to high, creating crazy currents.
It's at once an iconic, alluring and intimidating expedition, especially for a solo paddler. On my 57-day trip, I paddled or portaged about 900 miles of it.