A 900-Mile Solo Paddle: One With The Wildlife

Editor's Note: This is Part 3 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 1, and here for Part 2.

The sea, the shoreline and the weather dictated my schedule. Every night, I interrupted my sleep to check on something, the rising tide, or a noise of some kind—raccoons breaking shells, otters herding fish, deer hooves on gravel. Some mornings I was on the water at sunrise, about 3:30am, so I could make progress before the winds and waves rose with the warmth of the day.

The distance I traveled was dictated more by conditions than my stamina. Some days I made six miles, other days 30, but they generally ended the same way: carrying gear, lugging logs, skidding the boat, knowing knots.

Alone on the water, I found comfort in something that had long been a source of anxiety: math. I constantly calculated when the tide would turn and what, all else considered, that would mean for my boat and me. Unlike the wind, the tide keeps its promises. It turns, rises and falls as predicted.

If I took my time with the figures, the Rule of Twelfths—that a tide rises 1/12 of its range in the first hour, 2/12th in the second, 3/12ths in the third, 3/12ths in the fourth, 2/12ths in the fifth, and so on—would tell me how high I needed to drag my boat to get it above the high-tide line at night. The 50-90-50 Rule told me what to expect of the speed of the current crossing wide passages: A current flows at 50 percent of its maximum speed in the first hour, 90 percent the second hour and 100 percent in the third, then backs off in the reverse order.

On Day 10, I pushed past a perfect campsite hoping to set myself up to cross the Strait of Georgia the next day. The island I camped on had horrible landing options, yet I could go no farther—the next one ahead was in a Canadian military zone, and landing was prohibited. I figured the night's high tide would be somewhere in the middle of a wide zone of huge sharp and unforgiving rocks. Securing the boat was awkward, and my feet and the boat took a beating. The next morning, the kayak was well above the water—but clearly it had shifted. I had not gone high enough, but I had tied it off with extra line, and that had held. Kayaks drift off in the night. It happens. The thought terrified me.

At Desolation Sound, long arms of water reach deep into snow-covered mountains, giving way to tightly packed islands where whirlpools form and cliffs stream waterfalls like tears. I entered the sound and faced the edge of the world. The disembodied mast of a sailboat slid through the water between two islands ahead. I saw no boat below the mast, and my mind convincingly constructed an abrupt edge to the sea—an illusion created by the planet's curve, beautiful, humbling and a little frightening. The next morning, I interrupted a wolf eating a fawn that had washed up on a rock ledge. As soon as the wolf slipped into the forest, an eager mink moved in on the carcass.

Several days later, I walked a rough rock beach, looking for a campsite. I topped a small rise to see a cinnamon grizzly sow and her year-old cub flipping rocks for food. Did they spot me? Who knows? By the time I was 20 yards offshore, they were foraging where my boat had been.

On Day 20, I became windbound on uninhabited Yorke Island in Johnstone Strait. Stretching my legs, I stumbled across monolithic concrete bunkers covered with orange moss and unkempt vines, relics of Canada's World War II defenses. Suddenly, it seemed, I had ghostly company.

Queen Charlotte Strait, at the north end of Vancouver Island, is a seven-mile crossing that exposes a paddler to Pacific swells. The weather can be tempestuous. I decided not to take the risk and crossed it on a ferry instead.

Intermittently, I stopped at welcome—and welcoming—outcroppings of civilization, including First Nations villages, government moorings and small towns. I re-supplied as well as I could at these stops, with fare that ranged from cans of chili to organic almonds and Cadbury bars.

Steep shores and very high tides made campsites increasingly hard to find. I spent part of one night on top of a huge log, in a place where there was no tent site above the high-tide line. The next day, I pitched my tent next to another bear's snack spot; the alternative appeared to be its bedroom.

I ferried again across Dixon Entrance—another exposed passage open to swells and storms. That allowed me to explore Prince Rupert, B.C., with its pleasant but pricey waterfront and a proprietary cellphone service that does not play well with others. The ferry left me in Ketchikan, Alaska, where a stranger I had hailed online from Prince Rupert met me late at night and stored my kayak while I was in town—a gesture so helpful that I hope he is still coasting on the good karma.

Beyond Ketchikan, a few towns punctuate long, isolated stretches of scenic grandeur. Two routes onward offer a stark choice: bears or bergs. To see bears, a paddler can pass the Anan Creek Wildlife Sanctuary and cross the wide Stephens Passage to the grizzly-rich shores of Admiralty Island. Those who prefer icebergs and glaciers can stay on the east shore of Stephens Passage, exploring spectacular fjords. I had seen plenty of bears, so I chose bergs, starting with the parade from LaConte Glacier.

In Frederick Sound, humpback whales woke me early as they passed by. At noon, a pod of orcas followed me into a cove for lunch, surging through the water with such power that I was content to dabble in a tide pool and let them go by. Twice the next day, humpbacks corralled me in the shallows while they blew bubbles, rolling and bursting through the surface, feeding at low tide.

On Day 40, a Steller's sea lion rushed my boat, looking for all the world like a drowning grizzly bear. They became so common that I talked to these big carnivores as if they were bad dogs pawing at me.

A day away from Juneau, I sought shelter from a storm in a state park cabin. Its rightful renters arrived toward dusk. It could have been awkward. Instead, I made friends for life.

The final leg of the route offered many options, including spectacular Glacier Bay, and Sitka, the site of the historic capital of Russian Alaska. My original plans had been somewhat open-ended, and I stopped paddling in Juneau when my parents joined me. Together, we sought out every address where Josie had lived and found her husband's gravestone. We hiked at Mendenhall Glacier, as near as we could to the base of the mountain that bears my great-grandfather's name: Mount Stroller White.

Then we took the ferry to Skagway, where we walked directly into the office of the newspaper once edited by "The Stroller"—as his readers called him. It was cluttered with the familiar flotsam of community journalism—posters and press releases, computers and coffee cups. It was warm and smelled of paper and toner and was occupied by the current editor, who keeps the spirit of history alive in a town that peddles the remembrance of boom times past.

I had come a very long way alone, and I was immensely satisfied to cross the finish line in the company of people I love. I had paddled hundreds of miles through an unfamiliar world, meeting challenges I had never imagined. And now I had emerged, stronger and more humble, in a place so instantly familiar that I felt at home—a newsroom.

This story first appeared in High Country News.