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 /
  • "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

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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.