On July 14, 2010 I paddled into Ketchikan, Alaska harbour on a southwest tailwind, ending a journey that had taken five weeks of paddling and more than six months of planning.
That last moment is as clear in my mind as the very first moment, the one that started it all: The moment when the trip ceased to be an idea and suddenly became something real. Looking back on all the hard moments I had along the way, I think that initial decision, that initial commitment was the hardest. Saying that one little word, "yes" is so difficult. Taking the necessary steps to make a trip happen is so daunting. Everything lies ahead. All the planning, all the decisions about work, about how to arrange your life have to be faced. And yet commitment, not hard skills or experience, is the only thing you need to make any adventure happen. You have to be willing to make it a priority, above all else. It was a beautiful sunny fall day on a patio on Granville Island. We looked each other hard in the eyes, raised our glasses and sealed the decision with a swig of lager.
The Inside Passage runs from Puget Sound in Washington to the Alaska panhandle. Geologically it is a massive underwater mountain range; the channels and inlets are the deep valleys between the mountains, all protected from the big swells of the Pacific Ocean. The onshore ocean flow into the mountain ranges causes a large amount of rain to fall, creating one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest in the world. In B.C. alone there is 40,000 kms of coastline, which is home to cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, and the Kermode (spirit) bear, a unique subspecies of the black bear, in which one in ten cubs display a recessive white coloured coat. It is an ideal paddling destination.
It is a place that enchants you, captivates you, hooks you. You cannot be there and remain unaffected. I first felt its grip when I took the ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy. Standing on the deck as the ferry slid down narrow channels I could feel its influence on me. It was mysterious and wild, delicately interconnected and unimaginably vast. Channels, inlets and bays spread endlessly around me and I was aware of layers of green, alive from the sea floor to the tops of the forests that I had never known before. I would be back.
Our team consisted of five paddlers; we were all friends before the trip. We all had lots of expedition experience, but not really in kayaks and not really on the ocean. The challenge was not so much completing the journey itself, but getting ourselves ready to go on the journey in the first place. Our goal was to paddle from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Ketchikan, just inside the Alaskan border, a distance of about 700 kms.
If the swig of lager didn't confirm the decision, then buying a boat surely did. We got them used at a post-season rental fleet sale on Jericho beach. I got a huge Necky Tesla; 18 feet long, stable, tank-like. Never had a few mm of fibreglass inspired so much confidence. We rented spots at Granville Island and began the process of learning how to paddle them.
In the early months we would meet about once a month to talk shop. We assigned duties, wrote gear lists, created excel spreadsheets, bought charts, read guidebooks and talked to everyone who had heard of the Inside Passage. We paddled one night a week, blocked spots in our calendars for longer trips and clinics with instructors. With five people the work was spread out into manageable pieces.
As the trip grew closer, we spent more time planning, prepping, shopping. We built the menu, dehydrated a lot of our own food, marked charts, loaded up the GPS, built sails for the boats, customized the seats and braces. Everything came together in the last two weeks as we physically collected everything in one place.
On June 10th we drove our boats and gear from Vancouver and launched our trip from a Port Hardy marina. It took us more than three hours to pack our boats that first morning and it would be days before we figured out the perfect packing method and streamlined our gear management system. It was the start of a lesson in efficiency.
The one thing that nobody had told us about kayak tripping is that it has very little to do with paddling. It is all about managing your gear. Packing, unpacking, keeping track of it, carrying it up and down beaches. Nailing that aspect is the key to any successful trip.
We paddled out into a calm morning, the first of 34 days of paddling and exploring. The landscape varied from low rock shores with weathered trees to steep walled, mist filled fiords. The wildlife, especially the marine life, was plentiful and curious.
But it was the incredible beaches we came across that surprised me the most. They just seemed so improbable. We would paddle all day beside impenetrable forests, rock and steep impassible shorelines, and then our marked campsites would appear, seemingly out of nowhere.
Sometimes they were vast stretches of open beach, sometimes small pockets of white sand. We would pull into these treasures and have them all to ourselves. And when the sun shone through the crystal clear water and heated the sand we could be forgiven for thinking we were in paradise.
There is a human element to the Inside Passage as well. The west coast native people live and draw their entire existence from the rich food resources available on the coast.
There is a history of fishing and canning, power generation and timber extraction. The whole route has ruins and ghost towns and evidence of a wealth of resources valuable enough to invest in their removal. The biggest, widest channels also form a working shipping route for cargo ships, cruise ships and ferries.
And yet the kayak provides an exclusive experience. You can access channels bigger vessels cannot enter. You are a few inches off the water and a few feet from land. Your vantage point is intimate and unfettered. You paddle along the shoreline and camp on land. You feel a connectivity that other travellers cannot. As you travel along the life you left behind begins to feel very far away. You take life at the speed of a kayak. And suddenly life becomes very simple. There is no tomorrow. There is only the next mile or the next meal. You live in the moment. It is nice to have a different set of priorities and to take life at a different speed.
When we pulled into the government wharf in Ketchikan, none of us wanted the trip to be over. We raised glasses once again, we had a lot to celebrate: that we, five ordinary people, had executed an expedition. That we had organized our lives to realize an idea. That we had not been intimated by the unknown. That we had used planning and commitment in place of experience. That we had paddled 700 kms together. I hope that this encourages anyone who ever had an idea for an adventure to simply get out there and do it. We did it. So can you.
Goto http: //vimeo.com/21418425, to see a short film about the trip No Experience Required (32 minutes) which looks a little more in depth at the adventures we had along the way. Need help making your adventure a reality? Dam Good Logistics is an adventure logistics and trip planning outfit. Visit www.damgoodlogistics.com.
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