Kayaking Canada to Alaska
Finding a way into the wilderness via the Inside Passage
“Paddle hard left!” Suresh called from the aft cockpit, fighting to make his voice heard through the crashing surf. Alan and Tony shouted to us from the beach, “Nose in behind ... ” but their voices were lost in the rumble of surf-tumbled pebbles. Spray washed the white salty marks off my spray deck as Suresh and I drove the bow of the laden kayak into the gravelly beach. I flinched at the sound of scraping fiberglass, but I was relieved to be ashore and upright. We quickly released our spray decks, as the crew waiting for us on the beach dragged us farther from the reaches of the North Pacific.
With our double kayak landed, all nine of us were safely ashore, and seven brightly clothed paddlers fanned out on the steep beach-some scouting for the flattest bivouac site, others rummaging for carrying slings and harnesses.
Sitting awkwardly among the ocean-smoothed logs, I began making hot drinks and dinner. I shouted out to make myself heard over the roar of the petrol stove, “Could someone pass me a water bag please?” and again, “And if anyone has a pan handy ... ” Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, I fell silent and watched the others as busy as ants unpacking kayaks, stringing clothes on trees to dry, splashing the salt from their skin with fresh water, constructing camp sites-the jobs that needed doing were endless. I looked carefully for someone who appeared less busy. I wanted to catch someone’s eye so I could ask for a dehydrated meal pack that was just beyond my reach.
The stark reality of having no wheelchair and nothing but my arms to drag myself around the rocky beach was glaring at me. The issue was not just my lack of independence, but my total dependence on the rest of the team. It felt uncomfortable. A dread rose in my chest. We had chosen to paddle a thousand miles of the Inside Passage. What if the challenges of the next three months were too much-not just for me but for everyone else? What if carrying Adi and me up and down beaches every TIlOrning and evening injured someone? What if the help that Adi and I require distracted all of us from enjoying the wild beauty of the coastline we were all so excited about exploring? I glanced at Adi, and we caught each other’s expressions. His face spelled similar thoughts. “Bit of a shock to the system this, hey?” I commented. He nodded agreement. I didn’t need to articulate it any further.
I decided to get super organized. I had to know very clearly where every piece of my equipment was-which dry bag it was packed in and where in the kayak it was stuffed. The next morning, I prepared a small dry bag to keep between my knees while paddling, with all my essentials for the day and warm clothes to keep me going for a few hours after landing-that way I figured I could be self-sufficient at least for a while.
We awoke to the endless roar of white water. The surf was crashing into boulders-some the size of tree-stumps, others the size of small cars-uncovered by the retreated tide. It was too risky to try launching in the surf. We sat around a smoky fire, Suresh popping anti-inflammatory pills, his back already shouting with pain after an awkward kayak lift the evening before. It was a harsh reminder of the importance of being systematic and careful while lifting and carrying heavy kayaks over rocky ground.
Suresh expressed his doubts about being fit enough to get in a kayak that day. I was worried. We were already struggling only a day from Vancouver and still had a thousand miles of harsh wilderness to go to reach Juneau. By lunchtime, Suresh’s back warmed up and the wind and waves had settled enough for us to leave the beach.
We arrived in the well-protected haven of Smuggler Cove. Meandering over the calm green water, we explored the convoluted shore and its rocky islets. Within minutes, we’d lost sight of each other. It was probably a combination of eagerness to find a good camp spot for the night, but our drifting apart may have grown out of a desire for space and peace from our group of nine. Despite all being friends, things had been pretty intense preparing in Vancouver, and I felt as though we all needed space to breathe and to settle into finally having begun our journey.
Over the previous year, Suresh and I had nurtured the idea for the journey, and gradually friends, friends of friends, and regular acquaintances added to the momentum, bringing together our team of nine-some more closely acquainted with the others.
Whatever the case, our teamwork was in a shambles, and when we woke the next morning, we discovered two kayaks missing. We found them a few minutes later. They’d drifted ashore and had been breached on sharp rocks. Everyone had assumed that someone else would tie the boats up, but we’d left two of the kayaks unsecured in the rush to camp, and they’d floated out with the tide. We were lucky to find them. It was obvious we needed to tighten up our act and assign clear roles within the team.
Enjoying the warmth of the June sun on our bare skin and the opportunity to dry our surf-soaked clothes out, we didn’t notice the tide creeping farther away, exposing a shelf of greasy-slick mud. It was a hard lesson. Adi and I watched as the others slipped and sank knee-deep in the sludge, precariously balancing the kayaks on lifting straps, white knuckles clinging tightly at either end.
When it was my turn to be carried to the water’s edge, I sidled from my grassy patch into the blue canvas seat, being careful not to sit on one of the four handles in each of its corners. In position, four of the team each grabbed a handle, and on the count of three lifted me up. We began staggering toward the mud, the two at the back tripping over the heels of the pair at the front. “Let’s do diamonds,” Pete called. “Doing diamonds” had quickly become the term for rotating the seat 45 degrees, so that those carrying were not tripping over one another. Like royalty in a sedan chair, it gave a much smoother ride, with less chance of my bottom grating on a barnacle-studded boulder. That morning, however, I didn’t have to worry about slippery boulders or barnacles-just mud.
Our muscles screamed with pain for the first few days, and our skills and speed at making and breaking camp were far from slick. There was more to adapt to, though, than just the physical effort and environment. The special adaptations I was using to give me support to sit in the kayak were needing some attention.
“So a bit more foam here for lumbar support, you think?” Suresh asked, pulling off threads of gummy fabric tape holding the chunks of foam and plastic together to create my postural support. The support had “wings” made from an old windsurf harness, reemployed as lateral support that fastened together with a strap across my front. “Yeah, my shoulders are slumped forward and giving me bad posture and a terrible ache between my shoulder blades. A bit more lumbar support and a couple inches off the height of the whole backrest might help.”
The previous day, my own backache had been piercing and ripped upward through my neck to the back of my head. I doubted my ability to continue with that searing pain, but I held onto a glimmer of hope. If the pain was posture-related, it would be curable. Suresh studied how I fit in the cockpit. He hacked into a chunk of foam pipe insulation and cut a strip to fit across the lumbar area of my back support. I have no use of the muscles below my chest level, so I would wobble badly without some support provided a few inches above my waist.
I set out the next day with my modified support, and by lunchtime the relief glowed from me-the backache had
else in the team. The prototype of the Field Toilet-basically a bottom-shaped plastic seat with a hole in it, padded and mounted on four short legs-had to be set up each morning-below the high tide line. On one occasion, it was placed close to the water’s edge, and Adi was set there and given his privacy. Some time later, someone finally he;:trd Adi’s expletives above the roar of breaking waves and rolling shingle. The tide had come in, and the water was swirling around Adi and the toilet.
We made good progress during our first week on the water. We were only about six days’ paddle from Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and Dent Rapids, where the whole of the Sound is channeled through a rocky gap
I doubted my ability to continue with that searing pain, but I held onto a glimmer of hope disappeared. I was amazed that a couple of inches of pipe insulation could have such a profound effect on my pain.
Balance and posture were major considerations for Adi and me. I had chosen to paddle a double kayak, as I didn’t trust my ability to balance in a single kayak in the inevitable choppy seas. Adi, a semi-professional kayaker prior to his injury and now paralyzed from the waist down, had better balance than I and felt confident paddling single. Both of us had our own modifications for posture support, and one of the aims of the trip was to research the optimum design of these and other bits of equipment useful to wilderness kayaking.
The star of this array of special equipment was the “Field Toilet.” Without use of our legs, it was impossible for Adi or me to hover over the tide line and from rocks in quite the same way as everyone else in the team. The prototype of the Field Toilet-basically a bottom-shaped plastic seat with a hole in it, padded and mounted on four short legs-had to be set up each morning-below the high I tide line. On one occasion, it was placed close to the water’s edge, and Adi was set there and given his privacy. Some time later, someone finally heard Adi’s expletives above the roar of breaking waves and rolling shingle. The tide had come in, and the water was swirling around Adi and the toilet.
We made good progress during our first week on the water. We were only about six days’ paddle from Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and Dent Rapids, where the whole of the Sound is channeled through a rocky gap of only a few yards, hadn’t been as tricky as it could have been. We timed our arrival there to coincide with slack water, and we drifted easily through Dent in flat calm water-no sign of its infamous whirlpools and tortuous currents. Our drift brought us to the community of Big Bay, where float planes and boats are the only way in and out of this roadless settlement.
After a week on the water, our skin and our clothes were crusted with sundried salt. We all took hot showers, and it was delicious to feel clean and comfortable again. This moment of satisfaction was quickly shattered when Adi discovered a small pressure sore on his backside, the result of a tiny pebble that he had found in his kayak seat that evening. He’d unknowingly sat on it all day. Depending on the depth of the damage to his skin, we knew it could have serious consequences for the trip ahead.
It was a stark reminder of the diligence required when one’s body is deprived by paralysis of tactile sensations. Even a rough trouser seat seam can be enough to damage the skin, lead to a pressure sore and require medical attention. And our journey from here would, after Vancouver Island, become more remote with no space for error or avoidable risk.
After some tough decisions, and a kind offer from Kerry, Big Bay’s baker, Adi decided to take some time out and meet us a few days later. Kerry took Adi under her wing and gave him a home to recover in while the rest of us paddled on. It was sad saying goodbye, even temporarily, as we paddled north toward Johnstone Strait.
Our days fell into a routine, the rhythms dictated by nature. The early risers would entice the rest of us from our bivi bags with hot chocolate and steaming porridge laced with chocolate chips. Half-asleep bodies would stumble among the log jams, gathering scattered equipment and stuffing it into dry bags. Breaking camp became a quiet morning routine and one of the rare opportunities while traveling in our group of nine to sense the solitude of the woods and waterways.
Our comings and goings were ruled by the time of high tide. We had learned the hard way that trying to carry heavily laden kayaks across the wet sand, mud and boulders during a low tide was both difficult and risky. Bound by the tidal rhythms, our days on the water expanded into encompassing upward of 12 hours of paddling. That was quickly followed by 12 hours of exhaustion and deep sleep.
There were days when I felt fantastic, feeling the connection of my body, boat and paddle, cutting through the water with ease. I found that “peak state” I’d read about in outdoor books and magazines. Despite my lack of sensation or contact with the kayak via my hips, knees and feet, the subtle movements of the kayak were transferred to my shoulders, and I could read the sea and feel the rhythm of the waves tuning into the sensations in my upper body.
There were days when I ached, when the next headland seemed to take an eternity of wind-battered struggle to reach; when negotiating a safe landing and making camp just all seemed like too much effort. I think we all felt that way. On the good days, the sun would shine brighter, the views would be more spectacular, the wind would be calmer, and a passing fisherman would give us a bundle of Coho salmon to cook on a crackling log fire. On the tough days, the sea would chop, the sky would be blanketed in clouds, the seaweed would be extra thick, and we would eat a paste of soggy couscous stirred up with a mix of dried carrots and spices.
Speed was an issue with nine paddlers. Naturally some had a higher cadence and an appetite for speed. Near the back of the pack in our heavy double kayak,
Suresh and I would watch the “snakes” disappear toward the horizon while the “walruses” at the back plodded along. At times it was difficult to communicate, and friction would rise between the Snakes and the Walruses, but always we found each other, camped together and accepted our different styles and speeds.
With time and routine, we were becoming accustomed to each other’s ways and nuances. Alan was a morning person, Suresh was an evening person, and Pete seemed to manage to be both. Fran and I enjoyed cooking. Tony liked drawing shapes in the sand with a stick. Alan and Susi liked to have the map. Mark liked to catch and clean fish. Adi liked to fix things. Alan liked to take photos. Pete liked to make fires. Suresh liked to look after everybody.
We adapted to each other and were sensitive to each other’s needs. “You OK?” Alan or Tony would ask me in the morning. “Anything to take down to the kayak?” I would prepare my carefully packed pile of color-coded dry bags ready for one of them to carry to my kayak and jigsaw into my kayak hatch. Everyone developed an eye for what needed doing and put themselves there-retrieving breakfast from the bear stash, packing food and stoves, maintaining the kayaks-whatever the task, someone was there.
It took us a few weeks to navigate into this mutually supportive team state, and of course it wasn’t without its irritations and difficulties. It was often too easy to be critical of our performance, of how many hours it had taken us to get on or off the water, but there were moments when I smiled inside, watching the way the team had reached a slick efficiency of launching or landing.
I was full of excitement at the prospect of being reunited with my wheelchair, which we’d asked a Vancouver friend to mail up the coast to Port Hardy. How fantastic it would be to enjoy a day or two of rest and independence-to wheel around and feel some freedom again while on land. I thought it would be a welcome break for the rest of the team too-everyone could just switch off for a while and not have to be keeping an eye out for me.
On the paddle to Port Hardy, we struggled against the biggest swell and seas we had encountered. My concentration was intense as the waves slopped around the kayak with no apparent pattern, wave reflections from the cliffs interfering with those coming in from the open Pacific. I dared not stop paddling for fear of losing my balance. If I paddled, I felt connected somehow and able to find focus through my fear. My gaze was straight ahead, and my paddle strokes had to be cautious because my paddle occasionally found air where I had expected it to find water.
Reaching Port Hardy under such rough conditions felt like a major achievement. There we were reunited with Adi and in the mood to celebrate getting through the first third of our journey. Suresh, Fran and Mark headed to the ferry terminal where the wheelchairs would be waiting, while the rest of us puttered about at camp, dreaming of a feast that we’d create after a trip to the supermarket.
A little later, the group returned from the terminal looking worried. “There’s a wee problem. Sorry to tell you, but your wheelchairs aren’t here. We need to phone Vancouver and try to track them down.” My heart sank. Posting the wheelchairs up the coast to various random “strangers” had always felt like a plan full of potential to fail. I took the bad news with silent disappointment.
A few hours later, after some effort from resourceful team members, Richard, the owner of the campsite where we’d landed, appeared with a wheelchair. It was sadly lacking in essential parts, such as a footrest, but luckily had round wheels. It was in no fit state to carry me around the center of Port Hardy, its wheels groaning and creaking for oil. My inability to manage its awkward structure was revealed when I fell out of it while transferring onto the toilet and when I crashed into piles of canned goods while in a grocery store.
“Hello!” “Goodbye!” “Hello!” “Goodbye!” Pete and Suresh shouted as they alternately appeared and disappeared from each other’s sight, carried up and down on the crests and troughs of the giant Pacific swell. North of Vancouver Island, we found the exposed passage around Cape Caution without wind and chop, but the ocean swell was large enough to roll our stomachs. We felt the power and expanse of the Pacific, but it was a peaceful, almost serene crossing, and a seed of relief grew within me as we safely passed the Cape and returned to more protected waterways.
As we paddled northward, a cheeky sea otter made off with Tony’s hatch cover when he opened the hatch to get his camera. The otter seized the moment and grabbed the cover, holding it like a steering wheel before flopping onto Fran’s deck. The otter then grabbed Fran’s paddle right out of her grip and rocked her kayak to alarming angles. Later, Mark and Susi were the first to spy a whale spouting in the distance. Later, a grey whale flopped its tail less than a hundred yards from the kayaks.
At the end of the day, we reached Duncanby Landing, a collection of shacks, a cafe and a small store. We sat at the cafe and consumed a lot of beer, chips and burgers-anything edible that didn’t involve porridge. Adi realized that his skin had deteriorated again, broken down by the previous days of paddling. The damp conditions, sand and seawater were a gritty abrasive that left their mark on Adi. It wasn’t safe for him to continue, so he decided to radio British Columbia Ferries to take them up on their offer of support. Adi’s logistics were made more complicated by his lack of a wheelchair, so Fran and Pete volunteered to stay with him, and we agreed to meet in Shearwater-four days’ paddle away.
It was four days of relatively easy paddling, with a bouncier stretch where we ventured out from behind the islands to the swell of the Pacific. The size and scale of the ocean was intimidating to me after the few days of more sheltered water we’d just enjoyed, but we soon left the ocean desert that extended west for the forested island scenes of Shearwater.
The sounds of buzzing floatplanes and humming boat-engines spelled civilization. Fishermen, sailors, tourists-Shearwater was the happening place, and we all looked forward to spending a chunk of time in the warmth of the bar and restaurant among more “civilized” folk.
While we were in Shearwater, we cleaned, ate and sorted through our gear. We had many difficult discussions about how to proceed. Adi was not yet fit to continue because of the worsening of his pressure sore. No one wanted to miss the next two-week section to Prince Rupert, yet no one wanted Adi to sit two weeks out alone. Everyone on the team had invested a lot in this voyage. Some had even given up jobs to be here. How should we proceed, giving everyone the chance to paddle as much as possible?
Alan came up with a solution: While we paddled toward Prince Rupert, he and Tony would wait with Adi to put him on the ferry, then the two of them would paddle fast to catch us. Meanwhile we would shop and restock-the only disadvantage we could see was that Tony and Alan wouldn’t get a rest, and that if they were delayed for any reason, we might have to continue with only five people able to lift boats and me. We decided to go for it despite these reservations.
For the next 10 days, we had superb tailwinds and rain so heavy it bounced of the surface of the water and reduced the landscape around us to a hazy outline. The tide, current and waves swept us northward, and on some days we were amazed at making almost 40 nautical miles of progress. We negotiated sandbars, ran aground a few times, and eventually arrived to a disappointingly urban scene. Not that there was anything wrong with Prince Rupert, but we had come to breathe more freely in the wilderness.
Adi was waiting for us, and his injury seemed to have healed. But we’d arrived in Prince Rupert well ahead of schedule and after three days of waiting for Alan and Tony, we were eager to get back on the water. We left a trail of messages as to our whereabouts so that Alan and Tony could track us down.
“Welcome to Alaska,” a smiling customs agent boomed from the Ketchikan jetty. “Do you need to check our kayaks, or what do we have to do for immigration?” I asked. “Well, they look like nice kayaks to me. They’ll do just nicely in Alaska.” And that was it! With all our worries about crossing the border into the U.S., our effort of traveling to the American Embassy in London for special visas to allow us to enter by water had paid off.
In Alaska, we found clear skies and sunshine, but we worried about the bears. We’d read stories of toothpasteseeking, coffee-craving grizzlies. At Anan Creek, we paddled into a sheltered lagoon where the air was thick with the odor of decaying flesh. Beneath the dark emerald water there were countless fish skeletons, the remains of salmon devoured by hungry bears. A lone black bear paced back and forth along the shore.
The next day, we decided to walk the path (Adi and I got piggyback rides) to the bear~observatory platform, believing, somehow, that because it was an established bear-watching spot, it was also safe. I was carried up the twisting forest path by Mark, with Suresh there to help. After a half-mile or so, the others were well ahead, and the three of us decided to rest on a wooden step we came across. Suddenly, Mark and Suresh’s faces drained of color and their jaws dropped open. I turned my head to see a giant black bear striding across the path just a few yards ahead of us. It turned to look at us, appeared rather bored by our frightened stares, and continued on toward the creek.
From the platform, we watched grizzlies working their way upstream, scooping writhing salmon from the silver water, blood spraying. Black-bear cubs cowered in trees, as their mothers kept them from getting too close to the grizzlies.
For the last few weeks of paddling, the mountains and their tooth-like ridges, cusped peaks, sheer rock faces and icy edges were a mesmerizing backdrop to the quiet indigo water, broken by resounding echoes of whale tails slapping up plumes of white spray. Huge flocks of geese squawked by overhead in spectacular fan-shaped formations, while sea lions grunted and otters played.
Our team, which had initially been battling with what seemed to be a harsh and demanding environment, now felt in harmony-finely tuned to work and travel together with ease, like the flocks of geese overhead. My dread of the journey was long gone, and all that remained was a great sense of peace, harmony and achievement. Any concerns I’d had about losing my independence during the trip had been unjustified. They had given way to the enjoyment we all shared within our interdependence. Adi’s and my disabilities had forced the group into communicating and working together more closely than ever.
We paddled to a small iceberg, the first we’d seen, and toasted Alaska with drinks on iceberg ice. The relief of realizing we had reached the homestretch safely showed in our faces, and our smiles reflected the growing sense of relaxation that had been slowly easing through the team the closer we got to Juneau. There were no more major challenges or obstacles, nothing to worry about-just a comfortable bed and delicious food to look forward to.
Hoods up and gloves on, we journeyed silently, cold waves breaking over our kayaks, and low cloud concealing the glacial peaks. The rain had set in and discouraged us from stopping to set up camp within sight of the twinkling lights of cruise ships and downtown Juneau. Too weary to feel elated, we paddled the final few miles in near darkness.
It was hard to stop. Paddling had become a way of life. I think we all found it more difficult to end the journey than we had anticipated. The attraction of a bed, a hot shower and fresh food was only temporarily appealing, and within two days, we longed for the smell of salt and log-pile bivouacs, the simplicity of living on and beside the ocean, and even the camp food. I had felt so out of place
when we set out, but the awkwardness I’d felt on land and among my colleagues soon ebbed away. In the end, I realized that the ocean’s edge was a place where I too belonged. SK
Karen Darke has a Ph.D. in geology and worked as a geologist for Shell before realizing her passion for helping people reach their potential. She is now a performance coach, motivational speaker and learning consultant and runs her own development training business. Visit Karen online at: www.inspireandimpact.com
The 63-day expedition was organized through Interventure (www.equaladventure.co.uk! interventure), a registered Scottish charity (formed by Karen Darke with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as patron), to provide equipment and opportunities for disabled people to participate in sport and access the outdoors. Specialized equipment was designed and/or provided by Equal Adventure Developments (www.equaladventure.co.uk).
Support was provided by the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, the Neville Schulman Challenge Award, OPS Group Ltd, Exxon Mobil and the Southern Trust.