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 3

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.

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