A 900-Mile Solo Paddle: Getting Into The Inside Passage

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series about paddling the Inside Passage, a 1,200-mile waterway that stretches from Washington's Puget Sound to Glacier Bay, Alaska. This is a months-long bucket list journey through one of North America's most pristine stretches of coastline, where paddlers encounter whales, icebergs, grizzlies, wolves and more than their fair share of tricky sea conditions. Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

Mid-day on the last Fourth of July, I sat in my kayak and watched a parade like nothing I'd ever seen: Icebergs shaped like elaborate floats bobbed past me, one resembling an eagle, another a house, still others calving with a splash or dissolving with a long, slow shuuush.

The only other spectators were young seals, but they were more interested in finding their mothers than in watching the parade. Like kids, they yipped back and forth, playing energetically.

I had been paddling North America's Inside Passage, along the coast of western Canada and Alaska, for 45 days, alone in a sea kayak. These were the first icebergs I had seen, and I was transfixed. They floated majestically away from the LeConte Glacier, just north of Wrangell, Alaska.

I paddled among the bergs until I was chilled, then found a cove with a high bench for my tent and a mossy cradle for my kayak. From the shore, I watched bergs the size of apartment complexes jostle their way around the bend that stood between me and the glacier. I thought: I could watch icebergs forever.

The rising tide filled the cove, stopping a few feet shy of my kayak and twice that far below the tent. Darkness fell and the sound of ice calving from the glacier echoed off the rocks. The seals had long since gone to sleep, and I followed suit. A cracking noise like a gunshot woke me during the night, an intense shock followed by the sound of a rippling wave and then my boat rocking hard in its cradle. A huge iceberg must have collapsed, I figured. I checked on the boat and slid back into my bag.

As the cove quieted, I heard something new, between my spooked heartbeats: A soft pop-pop-pop. I realized it was the midnight finale of the fireworks from the Independence Day blowout in Wrangell, a fishing and tourism town with a few thousand residents. The fireworks were out of sight, but as I fell back to sleep far from the crowds, I thought, this is what independence is all about.

Going it alone. This is all I'd wanted years ago, when I first saw the Inside Passage as a 14-year-old traveling by ferry with my family. The stretch of coastal water from Seattle north to Alaska called to me, even back then. The huge landscape withheld more than it shared. The vertical shoreline shot from water to rock to tree and revealed little else. Fjords and broad watery arms reached around the bend toward something unknown, out of view. The salty wind tickled my adolescent hunger for adventure. I ached to explore, but on that trip, the ferry—and my family—stayed the course. We spent that summer reconnecting with ink-stained family history, bouncing from newspaper office to newspaper office, retracing the adventures of my great-grandfather, a newsman who went north in 1898 with the Klondike gold rush and stayed to become Southeast Alaska's first political columnist.

My thirst to explore the Inside Passage lingered, and it was no coincidence that I became a journalist and a journalism teacher. In May 2012, at the age of 47, I took a break from the University of Montana, loaded my car with more gear than could ever fit into a kayak and drove with a friend to Whidbey Island, about 30 miles north of Seattle.

Another friend joined us for the launch, and once I'd accepted that not all my supplies could make the trip, I pushed off into a broad cove with a brisk breeze rising. I was nervous, but my friends, left behind on the shore, were downright terrified. Later, one of them told me that they turned to each other as they watched me go and said, "We may never see her again." I was off, going it alone.

The Inside Passage stretches 1,200 miles from Puget Sound north and west, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, continuing past Juneau to Glacier Bay in Alaska. The waters are protected from the Pacific by scattered islands, but huge expanses are teased by winds and tides that can rise swiftly, 30 feet from low water to high, creating crazy currents.

It's at once an iconic, alluring and intimidating expedition, especially for a solo paddler. On my 57-day trip, I paddled or portaged about 900 miles of it.

My boat was a Tiderace Xcite-S, a small, fast, fiberglass composite I chose primarily because its no-frills, no-padding seat proved the best for my back. I used Kayaking the Inside Passage—Robert H. Miller's 2005 book about his own solo expedition—as my guide.

I carried electronic gadgets, mostly crammed into the boat with a week's worth of food and several days of fresh water. A tiny computer and cell phone fit into the largest of my three hatches. I also had a VHF radio for communication and weather forecasts tethered to my deck, a satellite locator stashed in my life jacket, and a camera clipped to the life jacket. A small GPS backed up the topographic maps that I relied on. But since it rained almost every day and most nights, eventually I sent my pricey solar panel home.

Along the route, short-term vacationing kayakers come in by road or ferry, to make a base camp and spend a week, or a month, exploring. But "through kayakers" like me focus on the journey itself, and each year a handful of people paddle the route alone, despite the increased risks. Some seek the solitude. Some have simply given up on finding a partner willing to take two months off work to paddle in the rain.

I'm not sure whether I enjoy adventuring by myself more than with other people, but I do know I am different when I go solo. I become more honest about my fears and more conservative in the risks I take. And I find myself more purely, joyfully awestruck at simple pleasures and successes. I miss my friends, but I am most fully myself when I go solo.

From the start, it was clear that this adventure would blend the scary and the scenic into the addictive elixir of the sublime. Over the centuries, the word has come to mean nature's mysterious power to make people feel more alive, partly by scaring them almost to death. Major John Wesley Powell, who risked his life boating through the Grand Canyon in 1869, called it "the most sublime spectacle." Other writers have defined sublime as an "agreeable horror" and "negative pain," which, once it stops or is resolved, floods a person with delight.

But this trip was not all about the fears and thrills. My great-grandfather, the journalist, had not moved north alone. His wife, Josephine, followed him with their young daughter on a steamship later in 1898, in the heady days of the biggest gold rush the world has ever seen.

His career drew me to journalism, but it was her adventurous spirit that lured me to the water. Josie's obituary captures the life of an active woman who built community in an unusual way. She bowled the highest score ever at the local alley and climbed "every worthwhile peak" in Southeast Alaska. Photos show her in long skirts on a rock in a raging river, and posing in unlikely tennis whites in Yukon Territory, and standing with a gun and shovel, her hat tipped jauntily back, near Juneau.

As modern newspapers cut back and journalism changed, I left the newsroom to help young journalists take on the challenge of shaping our profession's future. Still, at times, my career shift has left me feeling adrift. This trip was partly biographic, and partly an inward search honoring my own restless core. I hoped, somehow, that by moving through landscapes that in many ways were unchanged from what Josie knew, I would come to know us both a little better.

Click here for Part 2.