On the first day, we packed the hatches of our boats to the point of needing a trash compactor to make it all fit. I actually used my foot to further compress the already packed gear to make just a little more room. It took us four hours to complete the most high stakes Tetris game I have ever played. Packing a kayak is more complicated than just making everything fit into the hatches. The boat needs to be balanced so it would float upright in the water without a paddler to balance it. Constantly using bodyweight to counterbalance is hard on the back, strips power from a paddle stroke and presents a set of vulnerabilities the ocean can use you flip your boat with greater ease. It needs also to be balanced equally from bow to stern. We had packed our boats one previous time to three quarters capacity in Alaska Pacific University’s gear room. Through rose-colored glasses, the mentality of “if we can’t get it into the boat on the beach, it wasn’t going to come” seemed like pretty simple math. The pressure of our ferry departure did not leave much time for the tediousness of a 100% dry pack. Plus, I had told Libby, my trip partner, that my super power was the ability to make any amount of gear plus a little extra fit into any kayak. So, standing in our drysuits on the beach in Cordova, I had a reputation to uphold and those last two dry bags were going to fit into the boat. Specifically inside the hull. Not under the deck bungies as my tolerance for bojangleing gear was exactly zero. After a season of guiding, which can be a lot like baby sitting adults who can’t tell the difference between a tent pole and a paddle shaft, how could it have been any higher?
There’s something about water that makes me tick. Maybe it’s the salt, maybe it’s the constant movement, even in the stillest form of the ocean, that reminds me that our earth breathes. But discovering what that something is doesn't really matter. What truly matters is that, that something - whatever it is, exists. It still drives me to love the sea’s tranquility even when I'm forced to ignore it by the presence of an entire separate 5-star gluten free menu, which one client requested. Kayaking on that water and taking shelter on the islands and coastline allows for a rare form of intimacy with the sea and the earth. My kayak paddle is my most prized possession. It facilitates the dance between human and sea. It’s become a security blanket, a token of memories, and a conversation starter. Ive broken it twice and thrown it into the Gulf of Alaska more times than I can remember. I’ve loved it more than any woman and hated it more than the 5-star gluten free menu.
Human-powered travel is not the way I would choose to lump together the outdoor activities that fill up my life, especially kayaking. Regardless of my preferences of description, the phrase ‘human powered travel’ is the most accurate, all encompassing, boiled down way to describe traveling across hundreds of wild miles whilst crossing to and from uninhabited islands under your own power. As a result of feeling a draw to the water, specifically of the salt kind, it only seems natural to pull myself, my boat and everything I can fit into it across the unfathomably deep waters of the Alaskan Coast with my carbon lady in hand. Two summers ago I wanted to take what I had learned through mentorship, experience and mistakes and put it all together. To embark on a trip without an employer to back it all, to pay you when you return; without an institution facilitating and mitigating all of the real risk for you, leaving only risk that is perceived.
Libby is tall and blonde with a smile that can pause the rain. Her nose crunches up and wriggles when she's thinking and her laughter is contagious. We both started guiding in the summer of 2013 for different outfitters. At the time we met, I was unsure of her where her experience in a boat stacked up against mine or if she could feel a storm brewing in the way the ocean spoke through its waves on a beach. I was also instantly in love, although it never actually panned out. The summer preceding the trip, I switched outfitters and started working for Libby’s company and was able to guide along side her a few times. In working with her, I was able to see how competent of a paddler she was. Sure, there are a lot of strong paddlers around Seward, but Libby and I had been friends for years. I knew her the most out of all the skilled - whatever that means - guides that worked with us. I enjoyed her company and I trusted her. Trusted in her ability to make route choices, weather calls and voice veto’s. And know that the level of risk she would be observing and how she would weigh it against our skill level to make said decisions would be done through the same lens. Being on that same page with your partner really allows to accomplish what you have set out to do as a team.
When the conversation of doing a trip like this turned serious and the maps, charts and notes from mentors were sprawled out in top shack of our outfitters building, we knew three things: we would be starting toward the end of guide season, which meant we would be in the best paddling shape. We didn't want to explore the National Park in which we worked; we wanted to land on unknown beaches. She wanted to gain new limits as well as to see Columbia Glacier and I wanted to explore the islands of Hinchinbrook and Montague and to press my own limits with big, high consequence crossings.
So, two months, 4 paychecks and too many hung-over day trips with clients later we were on the ferry to Cordova. Our goal was to island hop our way back to Whittier in 28 days. Our route was as such: Cordova - Hawkins Is - Hinchinbrook Is - Montague Is - Green Is - Knight Is - Naked Is - Storey Is - Glacier Is - Heather Is - Fairmount Is - Olsen Is - Blackstone Pt. - Whittier. I did say Island Hopping, right!? Basically, Libby and I paddled a roughly 250-mile backwards ‘Z’ through the Prince William Sound in late August through late September. Eleven island crossings, four of them over five miles in length and one of them, The Hinchinbrook Entrance, was more or less a dream come true. The Hinchinbrook and Montague islands are what make Prince William Sound the oceanographic feature that is a ‘Sound’. The gap between them is the only way in and out for major vessels. I first saw them paddling from Valdez to Whittier. My glimpse was more than 50 Miles away. I knew ever since that tick in time I wanted to go there. I wanted to arrive on those golden coastlines by the power of my own arms and the help, conversation, and skill balance only Libby could give me.
As our trip began, the amount of time it took to pack our boats was cut down by half every morning. From four hours to two. From two hours to one. Slowly we learned which bags belonged in which boat, where in the hatch they belonged and how to jam a forgotten FairShare Mug into a bow-hatch lacking room even for an octopus to hide in. Setting up our tent became as habitual as brushing our teeth and enjoying the slow wash of waves formed into the white noise that can put an insomniac to sleep. Those views, sounds and smells were our reward for the steadfastness it takes to paddle crossing after crossing in headwind after headwind. Our first and most serious crossing was that dreamy span between Hinchinbrook and Montague. A twelve mile stretch with a shipping lane traveled by the biggest vessels the seven seas have ever known, and a notorious reputation for sea conditions varying from 6’ to 20’. We were apprehensive. The Hinchinbrook Entrance was and will always be the crux of any trip in which it is involved. Six miles from shore at the closest point, no option to bail out and utterly vulnerable to the whim of the sea. We woke at 3am to avoid the variable winds that are typical that time of year but as we made our VHF Radio call to the Coast Guard to let them know we would be out there, the winds left us alone. We crossed in golden light and glass calm conditions. The groundswell was asleep and the only sounds were the furious chewing of nicotine gum and our boats slipping through the water.
The winds did come. Two days later, camped on Green Island, just inside the protection of Montague, we watched the wind line blacken as we pitched our tent. It was hot, Knight Island was only 7 miles away and the thought to outrun the wind line was tossed around but the NOAA weather was advising safe harbor to all vessels, not just the standard small craft advisory. The North Wind hit with gusts up to 70kts and howled through the straits for 36 hours. As it let up, we had only a small window to make the crossing through the Montague Straits, westbound for Knight Island. At this point in the voyage, our through process behind making a weather call had to shift. We were no longer making calls to oblige the varying ability of clients. Libby and I are highly skilled professional kayakers. It was time to kick aside the three-foot blow off rule, and accept heavy wind-chop broadsiding us for 7 miles and half a day. It was only going to get worse Pushing out into water like that gives a rush most think sea kayaking is incapable of providing. We made it without hitch but a waiting game was upon us once we made it to Knight Island’s Bay of Isles.
Headwinds become unmanageable when all of your might only keeps you tread-milling next to the same rock and any momentary lapse in cadence results in significant lost ground. We realized this as we tried to press out of the Bay of Isles; with hopes to gain as much coastline as we could, we came around the north point of the bay and were smacked with 20kt headwinds and building seas (Libby still claims it to be 30kt). I could see her try to talk me out of it with a familiar look but I was determined to try. We spent 2 hours in sprint mode only make marginal ground. Libby and I agreed on a few rules at the beginning of the trip, the most important being the “veto”: the ability to say no without question. “I can’t do it anymore,” she cried out over the winds and spray waves. Seas on the west side of Knight Is. were building with the wind and it was getting dangerous to even turn our boats around. Hearing her call out, I allowed the wind to push me back by slowing my cadence a bit to remain in control and as not to broadside my boat in the hay-stacking waves. We rafted up bow to bow; this creates a more stable situation to about face in difficult seas and we let the wind spin us together. Trying to battle a sea in that mood is useless, not to mention dangerous. Our sunny days still existed. In fact the battle against that storm was incredibly sunny but the winds we lost to were showing us, at a week and a half into our journey, that summer weather was dwindling. Fall storms that swing dance counter clockwise into The Sound were around the corner. Dawdling around was no longer a viable option; exploring back bays was only now acceptable when exposed water was impassable.
As we continued crossing from island to island, the long stretches in the boats became meditative. Hours slipped by in a matter of a few paddle strokes and the constant North Wind never really allowed for a pause during a crossing without getting pushed back. The lumps of rock sticking out of the water that we were gunning for were thick with steep forest, bursting with blueberries and always seemed to have a flat spot on the beach above the tide line. As the sea transformed into formidable and unforgiving monster, the Islands were egging us on, providing us with hidden splendor and the most romantic picnic spots. We lacked our nightly bottle of wine, the familiar views of Resurrection River and our parking spot with a heart painted boulder at the end. But for all that we lacked, we gained so much more. Laughing off getting dressed in a wet drysuit took the place of a rushed morning cigarette before meeting clients at 6:30am. The joy of cooking dinner on a WhisperLite Stove took the materialistic place of overpriced menus and marked up bottles of wine. Life changes on longer trips, and usually that realization comes after the last landing, on the last beach, where the road to the real world starts.
Landing on Storey Island marked half way for our trip mileage. We had only one more major crossing over to Glacier Island, just to the south of Columbia bay’s mouth. Waking up to light and cold rain, a headwind coming from the north and seas at an annoying 3 foot chop tends to lend itself well to allowing thoughts of going home early enter the mind. At this point, I was completely over the headwinds. I wanted to be able to eat my chocolate bar without being blown backwards. I could see it was taking its toll on Libby as well. A kink in her shoulder was hurting her paddle stoke and it was bothering both of us that we couldn't travel at the same pace. On the other side of Glacier Island is Columbia Bay, home to the infamously studied and often mis-cited Columbia Glacier. This was Libby’s destination goal for the trip. This massive, receding river of ice is the reason we added a zag to our zig. We had to get there. Columbia Glacier was Lib’s icy dream. She's drawn to the ice the same way I'm drawn to the water. It has unspeakable gravity over her that warrants no reasons; the pull is enough. Writing off this focal point of Prince William Sound before even getting to its bay was simply not an option. During the eight mile crossing from Storey to Glacier, I chewed through my nicotine gum. I dropped two candy bars into the depths while trying to eat and paddle at the same time and discovered all of the holes in the upper part of my drysuit. At this point in the trip, packing our boats was one of the easiest parts of the day.
Maintaining the drive to keep crushing twelve to twenty mile days was fading. But never completely. Leaving Glacier Island we started to see ice in the water. We were close, so we thought. Our maps were last updated in the ‘80s with only minor revisions since the late ‘60s. We knew that Columbia Glacier had been receding rapidly. So rapidly, it had become a major talking point for climatologists, glaciologists, non-believers and truth seekers. Without getting in to the dreaded climate talk, let me just say that rapid retreat of any tidewater glacier is largely the mechanical process of water melting ice, and not so much a warming climate (which is happening). But the extent of what fourteen miles actually looked like was beyond us. So much so that for more than a few moments we though we under shot Columbia Bay. Did we miscount inlets? Did we trend too far left and catch an island that looks smaller on the map then it does in real life? We realized we hadn’t, but experiencing that alone really drives home that our landscape is changing, for better or for worse. These northern coasts were not once shaped by ice, they are being shaped still. As we slid through the icy waters of the mouth of the bay, lone ice chunks gave way to patched brash ice. Then growlers started mixing in and full-on ice bergs, broken free of the moraine, were noticeable in the distance. Our next goal was Heather Island. The northern tip of this tiny island is also the terminal moraine of the Columbia. There we saw massive ice. Ice the size of homes hung up on the earth the Columbia had spent years pushing out. We knew where we were now, without doubt.
Walls of un-vegetated rock lined the fjord and told stories of how fast the ice recoiled. But we still could not see the glacier without binoculars. In this moment all of the holes in my drysuit or lost candy bars could not drive me from the present. I was wet, cold and tired. I had enough knots in my upper back to make the eyes of a masseuse roll back with dollar signs. Regardless, I was in love. In love with this place I was standing. I could feel the ocean under my boat, gently bobbing me up and down, a motion I had become so used to that standing on the islands now felt foreign. The lap of the waves calmed and restored me, and the blueberries on the beach more than made up for the candy the ocean had snatched out of my mouth like a hungry dog. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else. The desire to bail out to Valdez was gone before it arrived. I wanted to stay, present in that moment. I knew it wouldn't last forever. Passage Canal would give way to Whittier and Libby and I would have to go our separate ways. So, why bail? To end the misery? To get to a warm shower sooner? No. There was no real reason to round the point to the right and head into Port Valdez. It would be a waste, a string of goals half completed resulting in longing in later years to complete it. We Spent two nights on Heather Island. We hiked up to an old United States Geographical Survey observation cabin, we harvested Muscles, and found creative ways to keep the tent warm. When it came time to leave, we shoved of to the west. Bows toward Whittier and the unknown that lie in-between.
Libby and I rubbed our bows up on the beach of Shotgun Cove, on the outskirts of Whittier three days early. After leaving Columbia Bay a few notable notable things happened. I collected rain water on a tent fly and we paddled through a thunderstorm until we saw lighting; extreme rarities in Alaska. I only threw my
paddle into the ocean one time. Waiting out thunder for three hours only to have it break after you set up camp dictates a single and acceptable outburst of rage. I lost my binoculars on Culross Island and miss judged which point was Passage Canal because I left my map in the tent; which was packed up and put away that final morning. The tent was later pulled out in a jumbled tangle of zippers and fabric, mid crossing, in the middle Wells Passage as we had to confirm our direction. This tent pulling out extravaganza caused a near miss with the Alaska State Ferry M/V Fairweather and a most angry Libby. It had been a long time since I had been lectured for being a rookie; I earned that one though. Somehow, we made it, all in one piece. We had gone through windy conditions, stupidly long crossings and the scariest dark water, tide-rip fueled haystacks. She had taken my binoculars, and crusted me in so much salt that a saltine would be jealous. The sea given me only knowledge. Libby had proved, as I already knew, that she was the best of partners. She had earned a level of trust and respect reserved for the most seasoned of partners. These trips can never last for ever. Our bank accounts need money in them, our employers need a job done and all the ties to the network we create for ourselves needs tending to. However short and however finite, time spent with the sea under my kayak is forever because, well, the White Rabbit once told Alice that forever is “…sometimes, just one second.”