I’ll never forget your first sea kayak expedition in Alaska. There were moments of serene beauty and there were moments of sheer terror.
I remember how excited you were during the time you were first planning your trip. I also remember meeting you for the first time and how nervous and uneasy you felt the day before the trip began. You were so nervous that nobody else had signed up for the group trip. It would just be you and I in one double kayak, paddling all the way from Juneau to Haines. Alone. In raw nature. At the mercy of wind, weather, waves, bears, and killer whales…In one of the most beautiful, yet dangerous stretches of water of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. Were you fully aware of what an expedition like this entailed? Did you feel the burden of responsibility overwhelm you, realizing that it would be just you and I?
Part of you wanted to not go through with the trip, but it was too late to get your money back. You asked me a lot about food; about bears, and about safety, which showed your trepidation. Even though I’ve been doing this safely for years, I joked that I had at least three weeks of experience. Somehow, you didn’t think that was funny.
You feared that we would have to share a tent as well as a boat together. I promised to bring an extra tent so you would have your own three person tent to yourself, so that you might feel more comfortable in camp even though it would make the boat overloaded. Did you know how cramped I would feel the whole trip with the extra cargo stored in my cockpit, robbing me of leg room?
What you didn’t know, because I never told you, was that I was also apprehensive about taking on this trip with you. Financially, it was barely worth it. More importantly, I wondered what kind of expedition partner you would be. Sure, you had outdoor experience under you belt, but it was all from the lower 48 states. You had no experience on the sea; no experience negotiating extreme tidal fluctuations and the currents that went with that. And you signed up for the longest and most challenging expedition that my company runs. We certainly would encounter some challenging situations over the next week. On a group trip, someone from the group always rises to meet the challenges, and displays leadership when it is needed. With you being the only client, could I count on you to be a good partner? Could I count on you if I needed help with something? Or, would you be the high maintenance type of client?
I’m thinking about our trip now, reflecting on it from my hot tub in Central Oregon. The moon is a waxing gibbous moon and the winds are calm this February evening. It’s a perfect setting for reminiscing about memorable events our lives. I wonder, “How often do you think of that journey? Did you remember it the way I did? Did you ever realize how close we came to losing it all?”
The first day, after launching the boat in quiet waters, you started to relax. The scenery was stunning. Even though I could only see the back of your head from my cockpit, I could almost see you smiling, as you took pictures of the steep walled mountains of the fjord. We headed west toward a group of islands in the middle of the fjord, where we would make our first camp. We paused on the water before we got there, for you to take more pictures of birds that you had never seen before. Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots don’t exist where you come from. The tiny Murrelets were spread out in a line on the water, like a defense in a football game making a goal line stand at the one yard line. You laughed as they dove under the water one by one, like they were dominos falling. You chuckled again as they popped back up in a perfect row, one by one, like they were in a synchronized swimming competition in the Olympics. I worried that you might strain your index finger from all of the picture snapping. At least you were having a great time.
You told me how much you liked wildlife and how you looked forward to seeing new types of fauna in a new ecosystem. We talked about biology and about science. I saw that you had a heart as well as an intellect. We enjoyed that first day together. I was grateful for that, as you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I know from experience that it is hard for a client to recover from a bad first day. We made a side trip to Poundstone Rock, where the sea lions hauled out on the buoy there. You had seen a sea lion before, but we got close enough to smell their breath as you took their picture. Does the olfaction of that stench still resonate in your mind after all of this time has passed by?
When we got to Lincoln Island, we set up camp, which would be your first campsite on Alaskan soil. You were relieved that there were no bears on this island. It was too far from the mainland and too low of an island to have any running streams for salmon. After setting up the tents, we heard a whale swimming close by. We rushed to the boat and launched. You didn’t even put your 2 piece paddle together, but were concentrating on taking pictures while I paddled. The current between the two islands was running strong against us, and I paddled hard just to keep the boat in the same place. We didn’t chase any whales, but by staying in one place, the whale swam close by us. In essence, they were chasing US!
The look on your face that day will remain with me forever. Your eyes were wide and your jaw was agape. You couldn’t believe how loud a breathing sound from an animal could be. Being so close to a 40 ton humpback whale was everything you had hoped for and more. You would be changed by that experience, at least I hoped so. I see this every day, and it never gets old for me. But the first time you experience it is like the first time you made love…it would be a defining moment in your life.
The whale surfaced again and the spout from from his exhale exploded from the sea as the sound echoed off of the trees of the island. But he was upwind of us. In an instant, your feeling of awe and wonder evaporated as the stench emanating from his blowhole engulfed us. And you thought that the Sea Lions stunk! I remember you jokingly saying something about them not being able to floss. It was then that I told you that they don’t have teeth- they are baleen whales. That was an epiphany for you.
He must have seen us in his path. That’s when he dived below us. I stopped paddling for a second to take a camera shot of my own. I remembered how gracefully his fluke fin slowly disappeared below the surface. You had experienced a lot of Alaska Magic so far in one day.
Hopefully, your pictures came out great. How often do you look at them? How do you remember that day? Was your internal conflict about the trip starting to diminish at that time? If you only knew what lay ahead, it wouldn’t have….
You proved to be a help with my meal prep. I remember your eyes tearing up while you were chopping up the yellow onion for our chicken stir fry. I can still smell the sesame oil as we sauteed the chicken and vegetables. After dinner, while you were brushing your teeth in the inter-tidal zone, I turned on the marine radio. It was then that I got the bad news.
A weather front was moving in and by morning there would be a small craft advisory. We were stuck in the middle of the fjord, with a long, open water crossing still ahead of us. We might be stuck on this island for another day. I told you to button up your tent securely tonight.
The next morning we awoke to a howling wind. We looked out to a sea of whitecaps in all directions. Your countenance was full of fear. I tried to assure you that we would not be paddling today….it was too dangerous. You wondered if this might put us so far behind schedule as to make every other day harder by having to add mileage to each day. I said not to worry.
You also didn’t like having to use the inter-tidal area as the bathroom. You had concerns about privacy. I told you to use the beach around the corner. If there were no fishing boats on the water, then you would have all of the privacy that you would need. You told me that you learned that one should never go to the bathroom close to the water’s edge. “True-for Fresh Water”, I said. But this was salt water and the tides give us two flushes per day. You had a forlorn look on your face that day. And you didn’t like having to bring back your used toilet paper in the brown bag I gave you, so that we could burn it later in a beach fire in the inter-tidal zone. You begged me to bury it in the soil inside the forest, but I said no. That is not how we practice no-trace camping up here.
We did take a short hike into the forest. We did see a deer too, which was the only highlight of the day. But the forest proved to be too thick to do much hiking. When the thorns from the Devil’s Club bush got tangled in your jacket, you said you had enough. Suddenly, this idyllic little island seemed like a prison. We hoped to escape tomorrow.
The weather report for the next day wasn’t much better, but the winds were supposed to lower from 25 knots to 20 in the morning before they picked up again in the afternoon. If we were to escape, it would have to be in the morning.
When we left Lincoln Island, there were a few white caps toward the Chilkat Peninsula on the western shore of the fjord, but only some small waves near our island. We packed up the boat and headed northwest, toward St. James Bay. The seas were a little “lumpy” the first part of the trip, but nothing more than 2-3 foot waves. You were nervous, but I told you to put your head down and keep paddling. We were doing just fine.
About halfway across the wind picked up hard from the south and the waves got bigger and were hitting us from the rear quarter of the boat. This part of the fjord connected with Chatham Strait, a straight wind tunnel of a couple hundred miles. The next hour would be the crux of our trip.
I didn’t tell you at the time, but these types of waves are the most dangerous. You can’t see them coming from behind and because they hit the boat at an angle, they want to push the boat off course. Besides that, as the stern gets lifted up higher by the oncoming wave, it pushes the boat forward and digs the bow into the trough of the wave in front of the boat. These types of seas can both flip you over sideways or pitch the boat over forward. It was my job to not let you panic, but to direct you to focus on the cadence of our paddling. But, I could tell that you were on the verge of freaking out.
I could roll a single kayak over if it capsized, but wasn’t sure I could roll this overloaded double boat by myself in these conditions. I would need your help, but you weren’t trained to do that. If we capsized, we would likely die of hypothermia before we washed up on some shore. It was imperative that I keep you focused on the proper cadence. I barked out orders like a coxswain on a rowing crew. You were terrified, but obeyed orders. We made progress and neared the western shore of the fjord. You voiced relief upon seeing the shore come closer. You shouldn’t have….
What you didn’t know at the time was that the near shore environment is MORE dangerous concerning wave actions. As the slope of the ocean floor rises, the depth gets shallower and the energy from the wave causes it to steepen. Add to that the possibility of an unseen rock protruding and you have a recipe for disaster. I didn’t see it coming, but a huge wave broke over the left rear quarter of the boat and over my back. I reached out and did a quick brace on the right side with my paddle to keep us from capsizing. Later, you said that moment felt a little “squirrely”. I never let you know how close we were to capsizing. Maybe if you read this, you’ll know.
I rammed the boat onto the smooth wave polished rocky beach at full speed so that you could get out without getting too wet. I was soaked, but we were happy to be on dry land. I saw you shivering on the beach and encouraged you to get into the forest to get out of the wind. I got the stove going and used the last bit of fresh water we had to make hot drinks and some soup for lunch. We both needed calories to burn to stay warm. I poured way too much of the potato soup mix into the pan of hot water and the soup was closer to the consistency of mashed potatoes than it was of liquid soup. You complained, but I explained that the need for added caloric intake was the primary reason. With some hot tea to wash it down, we both started to warm up. We stayed on that isolated outpost of a beach for hours. Just waiting…. At least here, I could find a stream and refill our fresh water supply. You wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Hours later, the seas were still a little lumpy, but the waves had lessened enough for us to head further north to find a suitable campsite. On the way, we ducked into a little cove called Boat Harbor. It is one of the only places for a boat to hide in a storm. It is a great place for a larger boat to anchor, but the steep walled mountains surrounding the harbor do not provide any place to camp. We sat in the boat looking up and just enjoyed being protected from the winds for awhile. After a rest, we headed back out to Lynn Canal and kept paddling north. It was already a long day.
We set up camp at a place I called “Taco Beach”. That beach doesn’t have a name on any map, but I first camped here a few years ago with some other clients. There is a small indentation in the coastline with a north facing beach, which kept us out of the southerly winds. There is a small ephemeral creek that flows to the beach. I cooked Tacos the first time I camped here with a couple from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who were wonderful people. We became friends after they no longer were clients. This would be my first time back to Taco beach after that trip.
One of your tent poles broke while you were setting up your tent. I exchanged tents with you so you would have one with all four poles. Even with three poles, my tent was still functional, although unsuitable for pictures.
After dinner, I went away from camp to cache our food away from our tents. We were now in bear territory. I saw some fresh bear scat about 50 yards from camp. I didn’t want to alarm you, but just reminded you to be more careful and mindful that camping here would be different than on Lincoln Island. Since you didn’t see the bear sign, you seemed to be more relaxed.
The next day we still had south winds, but nothing like yesterday. We planned to stop on Sullivan Island after a few hours of paddling and to have lunch and find a place to camp. When we got out, there was fresh bear poop everywhere. It was the first time you had seen any, and you asked me to confirm what it was. When you realized just how much of it was on the beach and in the forest, you didn’t want to be there anymore. You asked me why bears were on this island and not on other islands. I explained that Sullivan is just a short swim away from the mainland where there are abundant salmon streams. Bears are good swimmers, but not likely to make a long crossing where there are rough seas, but more likely to swim across a small channel to find new sources of food. You looked around and asked if we could have a no cook lunch and get the hell out of there. You pointed to an island out in the middle of the fjord with a beautiful lighthouse on it and asked if we could go there.
I remember telling you that I’ve only visited the lighthouse once in all of the years that I have passed by there. I saw whitecaps on the water between the island and where we were. Yes, there are no bears there, but it is another dangerous crossing and it wasn’t safe to go today. Our options were to head further up the west side of the fjord and find a beach far away from a salmon stream. There might be the possibility of a bear, but not as much as here. It would add distance and time to our day and might turn it into a longer day than you might feel comfortable with. You said you didn’t mind, so we packed up.
A few hours later, we came to a fork in the road. Lynn Canal split into two halves. Both led to the town of Haines, but we had to take the right fork to end up at the part of town where we could access the Ferry terminal to get a ride back to Juneau. The left fork was the Chilkat Inlet, which was fed by the Chilkat River, and the right fork was the Chilkoot Inlet. We veered east along the end of the peninsula to take the Chilkoot Inlet route. After a very long day, we set up camp on an East facing beach with a view of Yelgadalga Creek. You didn’t know it at the time, but we had more than made up for the lost ground we lost waiting on Lincoln Island. We ended up paddling twice as far as I do with most clients. We were in fact too close to Haines, with only a few miles to go and one very long day available for us to use to get there.
I thought about taking you across Chilkoot Inlet tomorrow to see more sea lions, but when we woke up to calmer seas, I had another idea. We left the tents where they were and only brought the food with us in the boats, so any bears around would not tear up our camp. We set off to the south, unburdened by leaving most of our gear behind, with a view of the lighthouse on Eldred Rock ahead of us. You asked me if we were going there. I didn’t want to promise you something that I couldn’t be sure of delivering, so I told you it was a long way. But I knew you wanted to visit there. So did I.
After the trip was over, you confided in me that you knew what I was thinking and that we would indeed be going to the lighthouse. I asked you how you knew. You said that you could feel the boat move more quickly and that as my paddle strokes from the back of the boat became longer, your paddle strokes became more easy. You also told me that you felt more confident as a paddler after what we had already been through, although you didn’t want to jinx the opportunity by telling me that too soon. A few hours later, Eldred Rock Lighthouse was coming into close view.
As we passed by the reef north of the island, we frightened a group of harbor seals that were hauled out on the rocks. They scampered toward the safety of the water. They peered at us from the safety of the water, with only their eyes and nose in view. You said their heads looked like floating bowling balls.
We landed on the south side of the island, beached the kayak and hiked up to the lighthouse. You were giddy with excitement. I myself was enjoying this place for only the second time in 20 years. I’ve taken many pictures of it several times from the deck of the ferry as we steamed past. As we climbed up the spiral staircase we imagined what a lonely life it might have been like for the lighthouse keepers when this place was manned. From the outside deck high above the water, we had such a wonderful view. To the north I spotted a dorsal fin, right where we had kayaked past the reef were a couple of killer whales; a rare sight even for me. Whereas I see humpback whales almost daily, I only ever see orcas a couple of times per year.
You took out your binoculars to get a better look. It was then you saw the thrashing in the water. I too could see it. Then the water turned the color of crimson. You had to choke back your tears when you realized one of the seals we had scared off the rocks had been killed by the orcas. I think you felt some guilt as well as sadness. You blamed yourself for the seal’s death. I reminded you that even though it was a sad day for the seal family, it was cause for celebration for the orca family. These things happen all the time, without any influence from us. Such is the way of the wild.
After the orcas left, we headed back towards camp to pack up and head towards the ferry. You were getting hungry and asked what I had planned for our dinner menu. Your eyebrows rose when I told you it was pizza. “How are you going to make Pizza out here?”, you asked.
You were tired from the long paddle today, so I said we would eat at an Italian restaurant instead of cooking on a stove. That got you re-energized. Paddling down Chilkoot Inlet, you saw your first signs of civilization in almost a week, a house on the beach. We paddled together in sync. Every time the right paddle blade hit the water we would alternately chant, “Pizza….Pepsi”. I could sense you smelling the finish line.
The boats of Haines harbor appeared ahead and we could see traffic moving on the road to our left. We paddled below the dock of the harbor through the pilings and landed on a nice sandy beach. We got out and I started walking towards town. “Aren’t you going to pull the boat up higher?”, you asked.
The tide was falling so there was no need to. You worried about someone stealing our stuff, but that doesn’t happen nearly as much up here as it does where you come from. To make you feel better about it, I suggested to take our paddles with us. Who would steal a loaded kayak with no way to paddle it?
We only had to walk two block from the harbor to the restaurant. It seemed like the trucks and cars going the 20 mph speed limit were speeding. We had been moving only about 3-4 mph for the last five days. It seemed like the whole world was moving in fast motion. We sat down at a table near the door. The people behind the counter didn’t blink an eye having two customers walk in and set their kayak paddles against the wall. Haines after all is at the end of the road, where civilization bumps up against wilderness. I’m sure they’ve seen stranger things.
There was a red checkered tablecloth on the table. We both had pizza, a salad and a soft drink. On any other day, in any other circumstance, this lunch wouldn’t have stood out as being something so memorable. But it was INDOORS, and the smell of melted cheese and tomato sauce permeated the air. It seemed like the fitting end to an epic journey, except that the journey wasn’t over just yet. Tummies full, we waddled back to the boat. You seemed disappointed that we had to paddle another four miles to get to the ferry terminal. You were ready for a nap.
Four long miles later, we got to the ferry terminal. Lugging all the gear uphill was a chore. I bought our tickets and we waited outside the lounge area for the ship to arrive. I told you to take out some clean clothes as there were free showers available on the ferry. Your eyes got big in anticipation upon hearing that news! There are chaise lounge chairs on the back deck under heat lamps. That area of the ship is called the Solarium. The ferry is like a cruise ship for locals and backpackers. We would hurry up and claim one while the passengers in cars would take their time loading. I would guard our stuff while you took a shower. When you got back, I would take my shower. By the time we got under sail, we could both be clean and relive our 5 day trip in just 4.5 hours.
When you got back from your shower you looked so different. You smelled a lot better too! I hadn’t realized how dirty I was until you came back to our spot in the Solarium. The ship was just leaving the dock. I told you I would be back in about 10-15 minutes so that we could relive the last 5 days together as we retraced our trip backwards in time.
When I got cleaned up and felt presentable enough, I returned to the Solarium. You already had a group of people around you. You were pointing out places we had been the past week. You were explaining how a geologic fault caused the crack in the earth to shape the fjord they were looking at and how the glaciers of the last ice age polished off the rest of the landscape. I didn’t realize that you had paid so much close attention to what I had been teaching you this past week about this special place. YOU were teaching the other passengers on the boat and they were enthralled with your descriptions, mostly because you were opening them up to a world they would never be able to see from the deck of a ferry.
I stayed in the background and watched you with admiration as you described our day seeing the killer whale take the harbor seal. The other passengers listened in rapt astonishment. They asked you often how you felt on this journey. You didn’t hold back, and shared both the moments of joy as well as the moments of fear or discomfort. I then realized that I had underestimated you on the first day we met. Now, I was seeing you develop, grow and mature into a new person. I wanted to tell you right then how proud I was of you. I wanted to tell you that I would consider taking another trip with you anywhere, not just as a client, but as a partner. But I didn’t do that. I simply remained in the background and listened. I was gratified, however, that I might have had some small part in your growth by sharing our expedition together.
Over the loudspeaker, the captain announced that the on-board naturalist would soon be giving a talk near the bow of the ship. The rest of the passengers didn’t want to go, but instead they wanted to hear more about our trip. They thought your story was more interesting. You looked around to try to find me and see if I could help to add anything to our story. I stayed out of sight, but within earshot. You were doing just fine by yourself. You told the passengers about the bird life; about what the beach was like on that far shore; how thick the vegetation was in the forest; what a humpback whale sounds and smells like; how you can eat fresh food day after day; how storing fresh food in the bottom of the boat uses the cold sea water to make the boat act like nature’s refrigerator ….things they would have never known without you.
About an hour later, I joined you on the deck of the Solarium. You asked me where I had been for so long. I replied that I took a really long shower. You commented that we both smelled like day trip passengers on the ferry. You had a peaceful, contented look on your face as we steamed further south towards the end of our journey at Auke Bay.
It is my second consecutive night staring at the moon from the warmth of my hot tub in Central Oregon. I’m still thinking about you and about our trip together. I wonder how you view it now that you have more perspective on it. Do you still share it with others with the same enthusiasm that you did with those folks on the ferry? What kinds of places have you experienced since our trip together? Do you think about our trip as often as I do? What other things have you learned about the natural world?
When I tell people about our trip, they always press me to tell them your name. I am hesitant to do that, as I respect your privacy. You haven’t given me permission to share it, so I don’t feel comfortable doing so before publishing this piece on a blog for the whole world to see. But that doesn’t satisfy the curiosity of most of my readers. They want to know at least a few details.
“Are you a woman?”, they ask, probably thinking that because you were open with your emotions. “No,” say others, “I’m sure your were a man.” They probably thought that because of your endurance, strength and courage.
The pressure to reveal who you are is getting to me. I hope you will forgive me if I do end up telling. But know that I have only kind things to say about you. The readers of this story probably already know who you are. At least some of them do, so I hope you won’t mind me letting the cat out of the bag.
You are no one, yet you are everyone. All of the experiences told about our trip together are true and they happened at those exact places. Nothing was embellished. The only thing that is different is that they all happened to different people at different times, and on different expeditions up the Lynn Canal. The only one who has experienced all of them in one trip is YOU. Dear reader, YOU were the one in the front of the kayak. Only you experienced all of these things in one trip. I am so grateful that we finished the trip together. I look forward to the possibility of doing another geographical journey with you.
When I sit in the hot tub at night, I think of you. Where would you like to go next?