Field notes from a solo paddle in Alaska’s Inside Passage

  • A sea kayaker approaches an iceberg at Tracy Arm in the Summer Fords-Terror Wilderness Area of the Southeast Alaska portion of the Inside Passage.

    © John Hyde / Alaskastock.com
  • "Looks like a bird, right?" blogged Nadia White, after paddling from Wrangell, Alaska, to Le Conte Bay. "I fell asleep to the booming of bergs calving from the glacier, and the sharp crack, splash and hiss of big bergs becoming smaller."

    Nadia White
  • "Oh, what a tease of a day. Despite strong wind warnings, the sea hardly rippled and 25 miles flew under me like kelp," blogged the author, after paddling Cape Caution. "A white shell beach and rare sunny afternoon camp."

    Nadia White
  • Coving up on Young's Point on Lasqueti Island, Strait of Georgia.

    Nadia White
  • Another day, following a trail in search of a spot, the author had to think again: "Long curved claw marks revealed whose trail it was -- as did some of the biggest, grassiest bear poop I have ever seen. I beat it back to the boat ..."

    Nadia White
  • Author Nadia White on launch day of her Alaskan adventure.

    Michael Gallacher
 

Page 5

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.

martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Mar 19, 2013 03:43 PM
my canoe carries 800 lbs. of cargo. beats a kayak anyday. you could have taken all your stuff and a friend, too. next time.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Mar 19, 2013 03:44 PM
my canoe carries 800 lbs. of cargo. beats a kayak anyday. you could have taken all your stuff and a friend, too. next time.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Mar 19, 2013 04:01 PM
I am so jealous! What a superb journey. My river trips were much akin to your passage. Stops for supplies at little towns, friends made and skating on the surface of deeper landscapes. I encourage everyone to have this experience anywhere water avails. Wear a life jacket, take bottled water and leave no trace except charred driftwood. Thanks for this. Made my day.
Linda D Paul
Linda D Paul Subscriber
Mar 26, 2013 02:14 PM
"I'm not sure whether I enjoy adventuring by myself more than with other people, but I do know I am different when I go solo. I become more honest about my fears and more conservative in the risks I take. And I find myself more purely, joyfully awestruck at simple pleasures and successes. I miss my friends, but I am most fully myself when I go solo."

White articulates my experience perfectly. (Although, I'm not quite intrepid enough to take on a challenge as daunting as the Inside Passage!)