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Know the West

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


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.

My boat was a Tiderace Xcite-S, a small, fast, fiberglass composite I chose primarily because its no-frills, no-padding seat proved the best for my back. I used Kayaking the Inside Passage -- Robert H. Miller's 2005 book about his own solo expedition -- as my guide.

I carried electronic gadgets, mostly crammed into the boat with a week's worth of food and several days of fresh water. A tiny computer and cell phone fit into the largest of my three hatches. I also had a VHF radio for communication and weather forecasts tethered to my deck, a satellite locator stashed in my life jacket, and a camera clipped to the life jacket. A small GPS backed up the topographic maps that I relied on. But since it rained almost every day and most nights, eventually I sent my pricey solar panel home.

Along the route, short-term vacationing kayakers come in by road or ferry, to make a base camp and spend a week, or a month, exploring. But "through kayakers" like me focus on the journey itself, and each year a handful of people paddle the route alone, despite the increased risks. Some seek the solitude. Some have simply given up on finding a partner willing to take two months off work to paddle in the rain.

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.

From the start, it was clear that this adventure would blend the scary and the scenic into the addictive elixir of the sublime. Over the centuries, the word has come to mean nature's mysterious power to make people feel more alive, partly by scaring them almost to death. Major John Wesley Powell, who risked his life boating through the Grand Canyon in 1869, called it "the most sublime spectacle." Other writers have defined sublime as an "agreeable horror" and "negative pain," which, once it stops or is resolved, floods a person with delight.

But this trip was not all about the fears and thrills. My great-grandfather, the journalist, had not moved north alone. His wife, Josephine, followed him with their young daughter on a steamship later in 1898, in the heady days of the biggest gold rush the world has ever seen.

His career drew me to journalism, but it was her adventurous spirit that lured me to the water. Josie's obituary captures the life of an active woman who built community in an unusual way. She bowled the highest score ever at the local alley and climbed "every worthwhile peak" in Southeast Alaska. Photos show her in long skirts on a rock in a raging river, and posing in unlikely tennis whites in Yukon Territory, and standing with a gun and shovel, her hat tipped jauntily back, near Juneau.

As modern newspapers cut back and journalism changed, I left the newsroom to help young journalists take on the challenge of shaping our profession's future. Still, at times, my career shift has left me feeling adrift. This trip was partly biographic, and partly an inward search honoring my own restless core. I hoped, somehow, that by moving through landscapes that in many ways were unchanged from what Josie knew, I would come to know us both a little better.

All this sea stuff was new to me. I've spent most of my adult life in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Most people who plan to paddle the Inside Passage prepare for months by getting physically fit, doing sit-ups with a twist, but instead I raced to submit final grades. I spent late nights plotting my route with a stack of maps on the dining-room table. I read books about navigation while I walked my old dog, and I begged friends of friends on the coast to teach me anything they knew that might help me survive.

Once I began paddling, a constant diet of problem-solving kept me moving through a summer of steady rain and cool temperatures. My hands blistered horribly, my pruney toes split, but I grew stronger. I lost a tremendous amount of weight, then regained it as muscle.

I kept a blog, travelswithjosie.com, and focused on the lessons I learned and the characters I met along the way -- human, animal and sometimes inanimate. I called home whenever I had a signal, which was more often than you might think, although less frequently than my people would have liked. I checked in with my satellite locator every night, providing a dot on the map that my father visited via Google Earth every day.

At the end of my first day, for instance, I camped on a grassy knob, only to awake the next morning to my first lesson in tides and the ways they change the landscape: The low tide exposed a long mudflat I had to cross to launch my boat. I built the first of the trip's many wet log roads and slid the kayak toward the water. It was windy and raining, and gumbo mud sucked at my neoprene boots. The water retreated as the tide went out, and I raced between my far-off gear pile and the increasingly heavy boat, skootching the kayak forward until it floated.

Later on Day 2, as I paddled toward a cliff-lined point, the sea ahead suddenly reared up, sharp and jagged. I backed into an eddy, astonished. The specter was rising and falling, surging, splashing, but not, as I first thought, moving toward me. It was my first encounter with a tidal race, a condition that arises where strong currents collide to form abrupt standing waves. I learned to skirt many of these bursts of turbulence by hugging the rocky shoreline.

Paddling class was always in session, and unannounced quizzes were frequent. Lessons often hit with a jolt of anxiety, then resolved to my joy and relief, as I gained a better understanding of the world I was moving through.

I learned that navigation is less about getting from one point to the next than it is about understanding what the sea will allow -- or require.

Soon, I found myself paddling two miles east, up Rosario Strait, a busy commercial shipping lane, then across the strait in the wake of a huge icebreaker, and doubling back west the same two miles, on the other side, then north a mile. I crossed an inlet that was flooding into Rosario, struggling to keep from washing out to sea on the tide. After six hard miles, I reached my goal -- an island less than two miles across from where I had started. Wind and current had made it too rough to dash straight across.

Patience is a lesson the sea teaches over and over again. When conditions are bad, just wait for them to change. Wait for the wind to die, for the tide to turn, for the sea to be ready. You may have to wait until tomorrow, or the next day. Then, all at once, you make your move. Exposed reaches lifted by ocean swells and prone to sudden storms become serene rainbow-draped mirrors for the patient paddler.

The sea, the shoreline and the weather dictated my schedule. Every night, I interrupted my sleep to check on something, the rising tide, or a noise of some kind -- raccoons breaking shells, otters herding fish, deer hooves on gravel. Some mornings I was on the water at sunrise, about 3:30 a.m., so I could make progress before the winds and waves rose with the warmth of the day.

The distance I traveled was dictated more by conditions than my stamina. Some days I made six miles, other days 30, but they generally ended the same way: carrying gear, lugging logs, skidding the boat, knowing knots.

Alone on the water, I found comfort in something that had long been a source of anxiety: math. I constantly calculated when the tide would turn and what, all else considered, that would mean for my boat and me. Unlike the wind, the tide keeps its promises. It turns, rises and falls as predicted.

If I took my time with the figures, the Rule of Twelfths -- that a tide rises 1/12 of its range in the first hour, 2/12th in the second, 3/12ths in the third, 3/12ths in the fourth, 2/12ths in the fifth, and so on -- would tell me how high I needed to drag my boat to get it above the high-tide line at night. The 50-90-50 Rule told me what to expect of the speed of the current crossing wide passages: A current flows at 50 percent of its maximum speed in the first hour, 90 percent the second hour and 100 percent in the third, then backs off in the reverse order.

On Day 10, I pushed past a perfect campsite hoping to set myself up to cross the Strait of Georgia the next day. The island I camped on had horrible landing options, yet I could go no farther -- the next one ahead was in a Canadian military zone, and landing was prohibited. I figured the night's high tide would be somewhere in the middle of a wide zone of huge sharp and unforgiving rocks. Securing the boat was awkward, and my feet and the boat took a beating. The next morning, the kayak was well above the water -- but clearly it had shifted. I had not gone high enough, but I had tied it off with extra line, and that had held. Kayaks drift off in the night. It happens. The thought terrified me.

At Desolation Sound, long arms of water reach deep into snow-covered mountains, giving way to tightly packed islands where whirlpools form and cliffs stream waterfalls like tears. I entered the sound and faced the edge of the world. The disembodied mast of a sailboat slid through the water between two islands ahead. I saw no boat below the mast, and my mind convincingly constructed an abrupt edge to the sea -- an illusion created by the planet's curve, beautiful, humbling and a little frightening. The next morning, I interrupted a wolf eating a fawn that had washed up on a rock ledge. As soon as the wolf slipped into the forest, an eager mink moved in on the carcass.

Several days later, I walked a rough rock beach, looking for a campsite. I topped a small rise to see a cinnamon grizzly sow and her year-old cub flipping rocks for food. Did they spot me? Who knows? By the time I was 20 yards offshore, they were foraging where my boat had been.

On Day 20, I became windbound on uninhabited Yorke Island in Johnstone Strait. Stretching my legs, I stumbled across monolithic concrete bunkers covered with orange moss and unkempt vines, relics of Canada's World War II defenses. Suddenly, it seemed, I had ghostly company.

Queen Charlotte Strait, at the north end of Vancouver Island, is a seven-mile crossing that exposes a paddler to Pacific swells. The weather can be tempestuous. I decided not to take the risk and crossed it on a ferry instead.

Intermittently, I stopped at welcome -- and welcoming -- outcroppings of civilization, including First Nations villages, government moorings and small towns. I re-supplied as well as I could at these stops, with fare that ranged from cans of chili to organic almonds and Cadbury bars.

Steep shores and very high tides made campsites increasingly hard to find. I spent part of one night on top of a huge log, in a place where there was no tent site above the high-tide line. The next day, I pitched my tent next to another bear's snack spot; the alternative appeared to be its bedroom.

I ferried again across Dixon Entrance -- another exposed passage open to swells and storms. That allowed me to explore Prince Rupert, B.C., with its pleasant but pricey waterfront and a proprietary cellphone service that does not play well with others. The ferry left me in Ketchikan, Alaska, where a stranger I had hailed online from Prince Rupert met me late at night and stored my kayak while I was in town -- a gesture so helpful that I hope he is still coasting on the good karma.

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.