Paddle to Alaska

Pete happily agreed to help Keara fulfil a lifelong ambition to paddle the majestic Inside Passage in Summer 2010. This was our first long distance, extended journey together spending 6 weeks covering 500 miles of ocean.

Knowing that we can still giggle together in a pogo fight after a 6 hour slog of headwind paddling reassured us we can go the distance for 11,0000km on a bike. So, it’s now Keara’s turn to return the favour and join Pete on his dream cycle trip.

It is impossible for me to condense the many magical moments, comedy memories and occasional struggles of this trip into any number of words. But for the sake of my own memory, I like to keep a journal and have used this to record some of the highlights here, and for the lovely folk at MEC who helped us out with some shiny gear! Enjoy the photos, skim the text, drop us a line to let us know what you think. We’ll be missing you!

You can check out Chris’ 30 minute movie of our trip at http://www.vimeo.com

http://player.vimeo.com/video/17736163<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/17736163″>No Experience Required_Full HQ</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user5345282″>StuntBeaver Productions</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Or her trailer for the movie (2 mins) here…..

http://player.vimeo.com/video/17305060<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/17305060″>No Experience Required – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user5345282″>StuntBeaver Productions</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This tale of our trip was largely written whilst sitting against a rock in LeConte Bay, Alaska, a warm evening sun on my face and the G+T sparkle sound of massive icebergs popping, crackling and occasionally crashing or rolling just 20m away. Hearing a flutter above my head I glanced up to see a bald eagle fly from a nearby tree, dropping a tail feather which spiralled to the ground just yards from my feet. Collecting the feather I grinned about this appropriately magical end to an astonishing journey and made a little wish. As we paddled the final mile to Petersburg the following day my wish came true. A fin flashed, looking much like a dolphin we paid little heed. A curiously broad head drew us a little closer and then two steep huge dorsal fins left us in no doubt. An orca calf had attracted our curiosity, and the 2 parents cruised with it within yards of the boats as we watched open mouthed. The journey was now well and truly complete, and another dream ticked!

Of course, this journey of dreams had started many years earlier. I’d always wanted to prove myself in a self-supported long distance journey. My love of the ocean made a sea kayak the natural vehicle, and a few taster trips in Canada, Devon, Cornwall and Scotland left me drooling for more. Convincing Pete took a little longer, but a chance meeting with an Inside Passage rower sealed the deal for him. He was on board, and soon enough experienced canoeist Chris was committed too. Still, we grew, with Lacey and Justin joining we became a dream team of 5, probably the largest group to ever paddle this route.

Despite its wilderness reputation, the Inside Passage is in fact sailed, ferried, fished and cruised by many thousands of people a year. Historically a Gold Rush route, it is now a vital shipping lane, lucrative fishing ground, famous ‘Cruise to Alaska’ passage, and favourite trip for North American yachties. With only very sporadic road access, these private boats and the BC and Alaska Ferry system are the only way to experience the region. For us, the magic was in the paddle power. Knowing we carried 28 days worth of provisions and could access numerous islets, coves and inlets not even glimpsed by larger craft was what it was all about. The region is covered in the dense majestic ‘Great Bear Rainforest’ which stretches right down to the sea, occasionally dipping it’s salt-withered, mussel encrusted branches into the ocean itself. Happy coincidences of geology provide steep cliffs, rocky ledges, and fortunately just enough driftwood covered coves for kayak camping. Paddled by perhaps a dozen or so kayakers a year we had been researching other’s journeys for months, marking their reported campsites on our charts and GPS. As the usual group size is 1-2 we were uncertain if 5 of us would always find a group site. This was occasionally a challenge, especially with the ever changing and enormous tides in the area but we can now happily report that with a little sniffing out it can be done!

Convincing me to leave the delights of Whistler for any kind of Vancouver-based paddle planning became a bit of a mission. Convincing Pete to do a little planning by the fire after a powder day was inevitably easier! The others weren’t so lucky with their work schedules so emails were flung, lists written, responsibilities ordained and finally beer, curry and a projector provided the basis for some pretty entertaining team meetings! 5 strong, driven personalities jostled over plans and remarkably some kind of slick, leapfrog leader organisation emerged. The dedication, committment and attention to detail of the non-Brennan team members was the saving grace from the easily distracted, fun-seeking, overly busy Brennan ways! But, paddle geek weekends with SKABC were endured, meetings attended and details addressed. All by the non-Brennans! An irritating ski injury had left me broke and frustrated in Whistler so I scurried back to the London smoke for 2 months of cash-earning while the others plowed on with the planning.

Switching continents with Pete, I arrived back in BC 10 days before our start date whilst he flew to Ireland to shoot a family wedding. My time had come to make up for my earlier flakiness. Fortunately, focussed Chris had quit work early so she kept us all on track for a week of seemingly endless dehydrating, chart annotating, shopping, boat fitting/fixing. Justin and Pete’s home turned into paddle HQ, and their lone, long suffering non-paddle housemate made himself sensibly scarce. My one and only short warm-up paddle in my new boat went without a leak. Hangovers were endured, cheery send offs received from that wonderful BC posse of outdoorsfolk and finally we were getting on the road.

We made an early start with last minute cleaning, boat loading, mild hangovers and a heart-attack inducing bacon pie (think tartiflette in tin foil) from our ‘safety officer’ Sue. Our high spirits for the ferry journey to Vancouver Island meant none of us were quite able to catch up on the sleep we were hoping for but enthusiasm more than made up for that. Driving into Port Hardy was somewhat dispiriting, a town stuck uneasily between the spangle of tourism and industrial fishing and logging, at this stage in early june it definitely ‘smelled of dead holidays’. Our tired spirits sagged a little further when checking the weather report we found a solid block of red covering the entire region. Even with our somewhat rudimentary understanding of weather systems we appreciated that this, and its companion ‘gale force’ wind warnings were not likely to be a good thing when attempting your first unsupported kayak expedition with an initial open crossing of 20+ miles. Nevertheless we managed an early start on the first day in the hope of beating the approaching system and familiar (from our somewhat greater surf experience) afternoon building of wind.

Striding out to the Port Hardy coastguard

First of course, the inevitable packing of boats. Smug in the knowledge that to at least some extent we had tried this before we were excitedly pottering on the dock in the stately company of several bald and golden eagles, eyeing us antagonistically from stancheons or picking over nearby fish spoils. The smugness didn’t last long when returning to the car for a final check I discovered an entire tent and sleeping bag still unpacked. Pete in his jet-lagged, work-lagged state had made his first, and only major oversight of the trip. The already cumbersome ‘caravan boats’ belonging to the 3 tightest/poorest/cleverest paddlers received a few extra items lashed to their stern and were now really taking shape as the jalopy workhorses of the trip. As we launched and paddled away a bearded ‘old man of the water’ coastguard fella hollered to find out where we were heading. We received a subdued nod in response to our happy cry of ‘Alaska’. I’m still not sure if this was a gesture of respect, concern, indifference, or knowing the forecast, whether he was simply calculating whether he’d still be on duty as we hit open water the following day?

Paddling away from civilisation was interrupted only by a few words of advice from a returning local paddler. Little did we know this was the only paddler we would speak to on the water for the entire trip. Swiftly enough with fresh muscles and happy spirits we paddled into the aptly named ‘God’s Pocket Marine Reserve’.

Stopping for lunch in a typically rocky cove I wasted no time in checking out my spanking new drysuit (previously tested only in the bathtub!) by ‘practising’ my roll. The drysuit worked, my roll didn’t. I was pretty unnerved to have failed in a boat I knew I could hand roll unloaded. Especially as I’d even bothered to practice said roll in a poorly fitting playboat at the mighty Chertsey weir whilst in London. I guess we weren’t travelling particularly fast or light….with 28 days of food, chocolate and plenty of liquor!

Happening upon an incredibly protected island inlet as the afternoon winds picked up we took our opportunity and pitched tents on 2 of the five ‘floating docks’ tethered outside a particularly grungy abandoned cabin. The boys enthusiastically paddled off to fish while us ladies perfected our dock/rock tarp installing technique and prepped dinner. 4 hours later, with cold curdling mac and cheese beside the cooling stove I was just about to paddle out on a SAR mission when the boys proudly returned with 3 small rockfish and not one but two ‘cod that got away’. We humoured them, frying fish into their languid mac and settled down for the night, the others eyeing me somewhat suspiciously as I stashed gear under a dismantled tarp weighted down with paddles and liquor. It would take them a few days to become accustomed to my maternally inherited habit of worrying about the most unlikely and apocalyptic disasters ‘the wind pick up in here – you must be joking!’ they correctly exclaimed. When the 0430 alarm went off I happily rolled over proclaiming ‘its windy out’. Going out for a closer look Lacey discovered our worldly possessions precariously clinging to the adjacent dock tilted at 45deg in the outgoing tide. Campsuds, half a paddle and some calvados were already floating and it seemed the rest were held on by the tarp and little more than a bottle of precious tequila. Deciding that our 2 tent docks would be spared this fate we thanked the tidal stars and the more dedicated team members wriggled back into bed after a brief kit rescue mission. I, of course, remained snuggled in my sleeping bag throughout, a scenario which became frustratingly familiar to the rest of the team.

One that got away?

The sight of all 5 boats using their primary coloured sails to help cross the remaining 10 miles to the mainland was made only more memorable by our first company of dolphins. Marred a little for me by my need for serious concentration as my hard, multi-chined hull responded more twitchily to the filling cross wind and swell than the caravans. Hoping for better luck that the previous night we set up camp at the head of a beautiful cove, accurately predicted the highest spring tide level and proceeded to effortlessly collect over 30l of water from the tarp in less than 2 hours. Losing a little faith in our tidal predictions as the tide and moon rose we set the alarms for 1230am to reccy the situation. Even I had to make it out of my sleeping bag while the tents were stashed in the trees and drysuits donned for 2 hours of protecting our now floating boats. Of course, it was only after high water passed that we could confirm that the tide never actually surpassed our actual prediction and if you never want to worry take pete’s advice and bring a hammock – smug git!

We failed to make our planned early rise after this debacle and awoke to a completely dry, rocky 100m long cove at low tide. Taking the opportunity to dry some kit on the exposed rocks we finally tackled a lengthy boat haul to the water’s edge. We handled another short day with more challenges than we were accustomed (2m broadside swell) to arrive at a pretty, multi-indented and protected Skull cove. Happening upon an empty but well used campsite with rudimentary cabins and pit toilets we enjoyed dinner on the rocks with full pacific sunset view. The site was home to the Coast Ecosystems Research Foundation and is presumably a prime whale-watching spot. Sadly we failed to sight whales but certainly rated their glorious ‘staff only’ pit toilet high up on the cliffs as perhaps our favourite ever toilet.

Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation

Beautiful Burnett Bay

Succeeding a full 24 hours without any untoward ocean disturbance we were beginning to think we had this nailed. Of course, mother ocean had other ideas. We were now faced with a 2-3m broadside swell and gathering wind 5 miles from our protected cove, and another 10 exposed miles from our landing site on a beach notorious by those in the know for its remote (no road access of course) but excellent surfing. We decided, with hearts in mouths, to persist, hoping we’d have some protection from a nasty surf landing by a small island just offshore of our landing site. Fortunately as we crossed the bay the swell period increased, size steadily diminished and with island protection we made it to the stunning shore of Burnett Bay – all 10k of its deserted glittering white sand.

Washing up at Burnett Bay

With continued strong winds forecast we decided we wouldn’t be tackling the expedition crux of Cape Caution the following day and settled in for marshmallows and whisky on the beach. Our first rest day in glorious but windy sunshine was heavenly. Some mellow beach yoga, bouldering around perfectly grippy granite tidal islands and the discovery of a beautiful handmade Hansel and Gretel cabin in the woods. This provided hours of entertainment with beach golf, perusing the logbook dating back to 1984 and culminated in a cabin ‘dance party’. Only in Canada do you find such a perfectly constructed, well loved and used cabin in a place accessible only by boat and a good 30 miles from any civilisation.

‘Place to dance on the beach’

By the 3rd day in paradise the group were getting somewhat restless but the weather forecast was not improving. We spent the day discussing options and finally made a satellite phone call to a boat service in Port Hardy to see if they would take us the 20m north to protected water. Unfortunately the fee between 5 was not astronomical and I was left with the deciding vote. Having watched 3 of the 5 of us swim in 1 foot surf just 2 days earlier, and the glint of fear in our eyes during a 2 mile reccy mission that day, I was not willing to paddle 20nm of difficult coastline exposed to the full brunt of the Pacific with no likely get outs. As there was no forecast break in the weather we elected to book the ‘taxi’ with the caveat that we wake early to check conditions and forecast in case they changed. We then appeased the gods by christening our boats with our finest scotch and a little wind becalming dance (this long beach is known to natives as ‘place to dance on the beach’). When the 0430 forecast called for perfect conditions the following day I assumed we’d be cancelling the taxi and enjoying another day at the beach. Sadly even those previously determined to paddle whatever the weather were curiously unwillinging to sit it out one more day in the hope the forecast ran true. So the taxi came and we left our little disintegrating paradise. Our first, and only real experience of group disagreement and dischord only rankled for a day or two as we continued our habit of open discussion and democratic decision making!

Bannock and fresh jumbo prawns….top 5 meal!

Entering the Fitzhugh sound and fully protected waters for the first time JT bravely intercepted a 30ft fishing vessel. No mean feat when you’re in a fibreglass kayak and your interception technique basically involves making sure you are smack bang in his way. Well worth the effort though, he procured us 60 fresh jumbo spot prawns. That evenings feast of bbq prawns and bannock was one of my favourite ever meals. Only made sweeter by reliving our first whale sightings of the trip. The first time your plop of paddle strokes is disrupted by the boom of a whale breaching 50m from your kayak is a moment of brief panic. What the hell is that noise, where is it coming from, and what is it going to do to me. Panic swiftly over, we were treated to our first and best whale show of the trip with breaching, tail flipping and blowing at very close range. Topped off by a little synchronised swimming finale from a couple of sea lions. Over the next few days the sight and sound of whales blowing and flashing their tails would have become routine but for the unavoidable magic of those moments. The curious way that the blown water cloud and noise lingers in the air is a gift for photographers, and romantics alike!

We were starting to think we had this kayak thing down pat until the day we decided to head for Namu, an abandoned cannery, population 3. We had hoped after 8 nights of camping and minimal washing that we might get treated to showers and even a cold beer. We battled a headwind for 12 hours, stopping only briefly to admire a beautiful native longhouse with astonishing cedar smell as we cooked falafel for tea. Arriving at Namu we quickly discovered there were no showers or beer but plenty of curious yachties and freshly cooked delicious local clams. A fascinating place, steadily abandoned since its heyday in the 1980s it was obviously not subjected to health and safety inspections. We were free to roam the suspended rotting boardwalks at will, take a cleansing dip in the lake, play pool in the abandoned managers house and inspect these bizarre movie set surroundings. Store, workshops, classrooms, cafe and offices were all abandoned as if evacuated in some sudden panic. Hats still sat on named pegs, tools lay out on the workshop benches, and we got to set up camp on ‘Main St’. Our first minor injury was swiftly repaired with a spot of superglue after scrubbing in a luxurious bucket of warm water provided by the permanent residents. These caretakers are a retired husband and wife team, and one female friend who have built themselves a comfortable home, art studio and workship for their quiet existence. What a lucky fella 😉

Sadly all this took a little time so once again we had a late start and a horrible headwind. Setting the record for slowness at 1 knot we finally crossed the 5 mile channel. Collapsing on a small pebbly shore after the crossing we had a brief recovery period of collapse, pogo fighting, exhausted giggling and restorative boogying. Unfortunately, this wasn’t much of a campsite so we paddled on to arrive at dusk at one of our favourite campsites. A miniature lagoon on an offshore island with tiny interconnected white shell islets and beaches, minus the chill it could have been lifted straight from ‘The Beach’.

Sadly, and perhaps appropriately, this is where things took a little turn for the worse for me. After a fitful nights sleep wondering why my fingers and toes were so blisteringly itchy I decided during the following mornings paddle that I wasn’t cut out for more than 2 weeks kayaking at a time. Getting into my zen rhythym with mountainous mainland panoramas and tiny wind swept islets offshore had me by the afternoon planning my next big paddle trip (Melanesia anyone?!)

My hands….the good side!

That evening, camped on another picture postcard, deserted offshore island, ‘tropical’ beach we were treated to a display of cuteness by two sea otters. Sadly my memories of this trip highlight are tainted by ‘MY HANDS!’ which felt like I’d bathed them in stinging nettles all day. Still itchy and becoming increasingly painful and more than usually blotchy I was treated to another night of disturbed sleep. The following day’s paddle through an eerily calm channel yielded our one and only wolf sighting. This regal creature nonchalantly trotted along the edge of the forest about 15m from our boats before climbing up into the forest. Another marooned island in this channel emanated unusual noises and revealed some kind of debacle between sea lions, seals, baby seals and the now ubiquitous bald eagles. Eagles had become almost constant company by this stage, reducing our initial excitement over the Port Hardy specimens to embarrassment at having witnessed such a majestic species reduced to picking over scraps.

By the time we reached Shearwater, a yachties haven complete with showers, toilets, bar, restaurant, painfully slow internet and even a bed, my fingers and toes were blistered beyond recognition. A total of 39 blisters at its peak. The constant rubbing process of un/packing dry bags and boats encouraged the blisters to burst leaving open sores in their wake. This had made mornings particularly uncomfortable and slow over the last few days, and always a Brennan, I was already the tardiest and slowest on the team. I hoped a couple of days R&R would clear things up. It was indeed luxury to have a bed for a night, even if it was shared with my brother! A couple of quirks served to remind us we weren’t really in city civilisation, bizarrely water from every available outlet bore the sign ‘boil before drinking’ but of course there was no kettle to be found. The adjacent ‘native reserve’ yielded some tasty resupply goodies but was by all accounts an otherwise depressing visit of alcoholism and teenage pregnancy. Unfortunately, I can’t speak from personal experience, having remained in the hotel room, degenerating into the kind of addicted mindlessness I find only in a certain kind of novel. Bloody Shantaram!

The day of R & R did nothing for ‘MY HANDS’ which after another few days paddling up the ‘misty fiordlands’ were developing into the kind of sea ulcers you only get from being semi-immersed in sea water several hours a day, day after day after day. 39 scars by the end of the trip, on an already particularly unattractive set of bony fingers and toes! I have now sealed the deal for my old irish boss Sylvie who once declared ‘ah bejasus ciara you’ll never find a husband with hands like that!’ I only hope my skin can perform some kind of youthful rejuvenation, or I can find a man un-threatened by scarred women. At least there’s stories behind them all!

Misty Fiordlands

The constant mizzle of the fiordlands and sheer, close granite walls tumbling with waterfalls were starting to match my greying mood. Those sheer cliffs did at least provide the cheery distraction of vivid purple, green and orange sea urchins and enormous steering wheel sized sea stars as the tide went out. We chuckled in respect as we paddled past a group of bouldering starfish performing heroic feats of strength to cling onto overhangs with one finger awaiting the return of the tide. Oh to have such skill and strength!

No mean feat….it’s blimmin slippy!

Despite the moody surroundings you couldn’t fail to be impressed by the stark, sheer beauty of this region. Paddling up a river we found a powerful waterfall with misty spray like that of Niagara for a refreshing cleanse. One beach campsite yielded a 150m sheer granite face hidden in the woods behind our tents. The promised bouldering comp didn’t materialise in favour of finishing the alcohol to celebrate JT’s return to civilisation the following day. We did however establish that dedicated climbers really do get everywhere – a spraypainted 5.12 marked at the bottom of the cliff at a venue infrequently visited and solely accessible by boat. Gotta love the Canadians!

5.12!


1 man down and 3 weeks in we continued north with some determination. At this point I think we were on about day 12 of consecutive ‘mostly rainy’ days so looking forward to reaching Butedale (population 1), another abandoned cannery which we hoped might yield a shower or at least drying space. A particularly grey day was memorably cheered up with a ‘log rolling’ competition in Princess Royal Channel. Plodding along with our heads down in the rain Chris spotted a huge log smack in the middle of this dramatically grey channel. With genius enthusiasm she successfully claimed the log, stretching to a stand before promptly falling in to the chilly water. I didn’t fare much better, managing only a little longer with a comic lying down and throwing my limbs about technique after a brief but heroic stand. Pete of course nailed it, with athletic handstands and paddle boarding, he could have cooked us dinner on the damn thing. Fortunately we also established that all our drysuits were still largely dry and we were indeed capable of re-entering our kayaks from the water with minimal faff. Although we had now entered a supposedly busy shipping channel, sadly no boats passed by to take in the spectacle, but it is recorded for posterity on camera.

Butedale

We took advantage of every break in the rain to colourfully festoon our campsites with gear/clothes for drying, usually to gather them all back up a little less damp when the rain returned an hour later. So, arriving at Butedale we quickly established that there was of course no shower, but were pretty excited by a dry log store for hanging kit and a comfortable campsite on an abandoned dock. Despite appearances, we were assured this campsite wasn’t going to enter the sea anytime soon. The same couldn’t be said for the remaining buildings which were more spectacularly decrepit than at Namu.  Huge bunkhouses literally crumbled into the sea, an old half collapsed warehouse sported a makeshift bowling alley, except if you screwed up you weren’t going to be retrieving your ball from the ocean’s grip. Lone resident Lou seemed to enjoy the company. He relished an afternoon of tinkering in his workshop to fix Chris’ footrest and seemed amazed at Pete as the now solo male in the permanent company of 3 women. He enthusiastically regaled us with detailed tales of his Butedale triumphs, the highlight of which was seemingly the 3 months he spent fiddling with the hydro generator to get it working again – an amazing, enormous, tank of a machine.

Convinced by Lou’s tales of a nearby, little known hotspring we took a rest day and convinced him to give us a ride in his launch to the fabled site. He wasn’t lying, there was a lovingly built hut, with hot tub sized pool tucked into the woods. Except much to our disappointment the water was barely tepid. It seemed that 400m up the hill at the actual spring the water was pretty warm but not by the time it reached us at a volume to be useful. Slightly cleaner, but significantly colder we returned to Butedale to an invite from two delightful old time yachties for a dinner of home made pitta and fresh salmon chowder on their boat. The company of those warm, twinkling retiree faces gave us all faith in the prospect of a long and happy life, perhaps even in ‘togetherness’. They had met sailing as 16 year olds, and were evidently still at it!

Tepid spring

Taking sensible precautions in this Great Bear Rainforest, we had been carefully stowing our food at night and prepping any fish away from camp but had yet to see even a hint of a bear footprint. Now we were in ‘Spirit Bear’ country (a rare white-coated mutation present only on Princess Royal Island and its surrounds) it was tempting to start festooning our camp with fish entrails instead of drying smelly gear. We didn’t, but did enjoy watching a big black beast spend his evening ambling about the low water rocks beneath the Namu docks methodically upending every rock for any tasty morsels beneath. Our one and only bear sighting of the trip!

Look closely!

With the remaining man due back for work but desperate to reach Alaska we got our heads down and trucked up Grenville channel. Reputed to be one of the busiest and narrowest shipping channels in the Inside Passage we were looking forward to some scary encounters with enormous cruise ships. We were a little disappointed to be nearing the end of the channel with only one drive past by an ostentatious ‘super yacht’ when a wished-for cruise ship trundled past as the channel widened. Those cruise ships certainly put a kayaker in their place!

There was a LOT of gear hauling. In the rain!

After what felt like a long time encased in dreary channels we entered a region I named ‘god’s pond’, 5 channels entering a huge area dotted with islands and glittering with attempts at sunshine whilst an enormous storm marched across the horizon ahead. Sadly the storm brought high winds so we didn’t make the entire crossing, plonking down for some kip on a small rocky island. Hoping to reach Prince Rupert the following day we were swayed only by a strong rip and counterwind, and sunshine hitting a perfect little deserted beach with beautiful view. Stripping off damp smelly clothes and goretex none of us quite managed to redress until several hours of sunbathing and drying had passed. Prince Rupert could wait another day!

My hands sadly could wait no longer. By this stage I was fairly accustomed to the pus-sy ulcers that were my fingers, whinging mostly only during morning packing when it was impossible not to scrape and rub them against every surface. Sadly the initial, thousand nettle sting, infernal itch resurfaced, and afflicted Chris at this stage too. By the time we reached Prince Rupert we could barely finish our celebratory pints before Chris announced she was going to find a doctor. With diminishing faith in our medical kit I had at this stage tried several topical antibiotics, steroids and local anaesthetics to no avail, holding off from systemic antibiotics only in case we needed them for something more important. Knowing something of the medical profession, I came along for the ride, if only to convince the medics that the currently apparently asymptomatic appearance of Chris’ hands would rapidly degenerate into my plague if they didn’t do something about it.

Apologies for the forthcoming essay on a simple trip to the doctor. This is definitely one of those ‘had to be there’ tales. But, as Chris will concur it became such a bizarre comedy to us that I have to record it here.

Arriving at the busy local clinic to ask if they had any appointments, we were informed that they didn’t do walk ins. Ok, any appointments for tomorrow? You have to be registered. Ok, can we register? You have to be resident. Uh, we’re resident right now. No, go to emergency was the reply. I’m pretty sure she would otherwise have set the fierce looking lynch mob of waiting room locals on us had I tried any more lines of approach. ‘But we only have a rash’, admittedly an ugly one, as I profer my hands. Nope, go to emergency. Having even less faith in the ability of an ER doc to give us some relief than a GP we trudged reluctantly up the hill in disbelief that we were actually going to attend ER for a skin rash.

If we’d known the Monty Python scene we were about to walk in on we might have been a little more enthusiastic. Another busy waiting room, and a semicircular reception desk. Please take your number and have a seat the sign says. So, being a good Brit (and an even better Canadian), I do. My number is 1, there are at least a dozen people in the waiting room. A little confused I disrupt the receptionist who’d been steadfastly avoiding acknowledging our presence. ‘Uh, any idea how long the wait is?’ ‘No idea, you’d have to ask in there’….she gestures vaguely. Ok, maybe there’s ‘another’ reception so we head on through the swing doors. Greeted by an efficiently busy nurse we feel a little guilty asking about waiting times. ‘No idea, but perhaps just an hour, and they’re used to dealing with minor complaints if we’re happy to wait’ comes the response. But, we have to go back to receptionzilla and register. Ok, we return, ‘uh….could we register then’….she brightens just slightly….’yes, but you have to come sit over here’. We move barely 2m to the other side of this lurid eyeshadow daubed receptionist so she can process our registration through a little glass window. Now she begins to function slightly more normally, perfunctorily if sluggishly taking our information and slowly warming into some kind of humanity. Apparently we have to return the 3 paces and 45 degree angle around the semicircle to receive our ‘namebands’ (oh, the humiliation….its just a rash!!). ‘Ah, she chuckles inclusively, I like you gals’ she exclaims. Wondering what in god’s name she has in store for us she announces she’s changed her mind and we’re going to get the special wristbands. Removing the stickers she’d already placed on the standard medical namebands she rummages in the drawer for the kiddies namebands because they’re so much prettier. Evidently we need prettying up. Resplendent in our new orange spangly wristbands we return to the nurse and present our paperwork. In yet more efficiency another nurse swiftly appears to triage us. She takes a brief history, and then, takes out the thermometer, and the blood pressure cuff. Good god, its just a rash, I can barely stay in my seat with the humiliation. Discovering that she went to nursing school with Pete only adds insult to injury but somehow we’re swiftly passed on to a typically Saffa male doctor. Trying to explain the situation he merely looks at us baffled. But don’t you have some guys with you to chop wood and stuff? He was not entirely reassured by the answer that we do have a male, a nurse no less, and actually chris makes the best fires anyway. He grimaces at my fingers and pronounces a dermatitis. Marvellous, don’t need a vet degree for that diagnosis. A secondary infection, ‘mursa’ he mutters. MRSA I think not but could we have a script for more antibiotics, the most potent topical steroid going, and a few oral preds in case this continues to aggravate? With a little negotiation he concurs. I reckon I could have convinced him to give me methadone by this stage. And this new topical steroid yields perhaps a little relief by the afternoon. Watching a fresh new eruption of blisters with the crowning glory a grand 2cm long I finally plumped for some oral antibiotics, fearing I might have no fingers left if these got infected too.

We celebrated our first view of a mountainous Alaskan horizon with steak on the beach, a dramatic sunset, and a little wine. Pete picked his moment to convince us we should don our spraydecks, paddles and nothing else for some of his signature silhouette shots. Here’s hoping they were worth the chilly nips!

We stopped briefly at the native reserve Port Simpson for lunch as I sent a frenetic work email from the only computer in town. Paddling out of Prince Rupert that morning I had convinced myself that spending 4 months working in London  as planned was entirely undesirable. So, I hastily applied for, and eventually got, a postion in Cornwall. Phew! I had a near miss with a nasty dog, distracting him by launching my drybag of valuables into the middle of the road worked only just long enough to stop him from launching at my goretex. I was a little baffled by the cardboard, black marker daubed sign in the bare-shelved reserve store stating ‘10% off every day’ and then listing several names beneath the words ‘not welcome’. Despite this, it was probably the most optimistic reserve we’d visited. Generally tidy, with few people lingering, drinking or wandering. Except some kids, who seeing me walking down the street in full drysuit asked ‘where’d you come from’, ‘port hardy’, ‘oh….did you walk here?’ In my drysuit?! I guess their understanding of Canadian geography was more shaky than I’d hoped. Her parting shot was a puzzling ‘did you do that last year’ so I guess they must get the odd dry suit donned walking kayaker each summer.

We were beaten by the wind again after a gloriously misty, whale visited channel crossing and our one and only real occasion to use the compass. Sheltering at a beautiful alaskan beach we found a sign in the bush of a tiny tidal island proclaiming this to be the U. S. of A. Hurray! Making an early start in the hope of beating the wind and gaining a little ground across our secondary crux, the exposed Dixon entrance, we detoured long enough for some weather advice, and a free fresh salmon from a fish tender. A 3 mile crossing with 15kn headwind, 1 metre swell and 3 foot chop deterred us from gaining any more ground that day so we settled on another gorgeous white sand beach for rehydrated chowder with real fresh salmon pieces and a feast of salmon steaks for dinner. Apparently this was a sockeye salmon – the notoriously vivid pinky orange flesh was certainly socking my eyes out. That super fresh barbecued taste was pretty memorable too.

A longish day in confusing seas took all of our limited reserves of concentration but we were fully rewarded by the kind of tiny, deserted white sand and forest island and glorious sunshine you don’t even get to see in Alaskan tourist brochures. Stripping off as usual from our rank clothes we toasted a little in the sun before gaining inspiration for an Alaskan skinny dip and another dinner of salmon steaks. Epic as it sounds the water was certainly warmer than Donegal in January. Already one of my favourite campsites the place is now etched in memory due to the whale show as we exited the following morning. At one point I thought I might actually get swallowed up as a huge mouth opened on the surface about 5m from my kayak. Paddling along with the constant companion of regular blowing we enjoyed a tailwind to swing us not far from Ketchikan for our final night camping together in a mossy island eden.

Woken by the noise of several float planes low overhead we were suddenly aware that things were drawing to a close and civilisation was coming near. Entering the narrow channel containing Ketchikan I started to actually feel nauseous from the exhausty fumes. Still five miles away, the continuous flow of planes and speedboats streaming out of town, and the sirens and SUVs plying the peninsula road also made me feel decidedly uneasy. And then the reason for all this bustle. Not one but 3 enormous cruise ships were in town and it seemed at least one was disembowelling its passengers into waiting fishing, boat and plane tours as we paddled up the channel. We arrived in town to the background noise of the ‘logging show’ and promptly were told we couldn’t paddle up the creek of ‘main street’ with the stilted shops lining its narrow waterway as it was ‘dangerous’.  Needless to say, we were losing not a little enthusiasm for this town already. And we still had US customs to get through. Waiting with the boats I was surprised to see the group returning quickly and cheerily with a simpsons-simple customs officer carrying a lolly for me. Apparently some days office visitors get lucky with doughnuts, pot luck food and all sorts. I was pretty impressed with the lolly. Clearing customs largely involved chatting about our kayaks and getting advice on the best spots in town. Wasting little time we moored the boats and headed for the bar. Getting comfy in this local dive with a good view of the cruise ship gameshow across the dock we were only mildly bemused when an older chap takes the seat recently vacated by Chris visiting the toilet. Explaining his mistake he didn’t blink an eye but to tell us this was his seat. See it even had his name on it. Finding another seat we continued through the pitchers and finally accepted another younger male local to the party, largely in sympathy with his to sheer persistence. Yet more beer, some dancing, and a Wii induced minor back injury later we finally felt we’d sufficiently celebrated achieving our goal.

I spent the entire following day in our 4-sweaty-kayakers crack den of a hotel room. Nursing a hangover and sore back I decided that cable tv, some time in a bed without my brother and a take out burger was far better than re-entering the cruise ship tack of Ketchikan. Through the hungover haze I pondered my next step. Continue paddling north solo, or head south with the girls for a jolly in the Queen Charlotte Islands. A pretty painful back convinced me that boat shlepping solo was not going to be fun so I plumped for the Queen Charlottes. Ferry faff meant we spent far more time than necessary in Ketchikan, that hole of holes, before catching a ferry back to Prince Rupert. This involved the most dangerous maneuvre of the trip so far. Clambering up steep slippery boulders with all our gear to try and get our kayaks from the water to ferry I was pretty sure at least something of ours was going to succumb to injury. Fortunately it didn’t, and we were soon watching our journey unfold in reverse from the comfort of the ferry. This was far more impressive than I’d expected. The different perspective gave me a real sense of having achieved something in total contrast to that sensation when on the water that we were really just chipping away at an old, if beautiful, block.

I had been enjoying the journey so much that my instinct had felt like it was going to keep on paddling solo after Ketchikan. But the sore back, inertia, and the continued enjoyment of my lady companions meant I chose a visit to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) to see Chris’ mom who had rented a cabin there. Haida Gwaii was pretty, with that laidback small community vibe of which I’m so fond. Sleeping in my own bed, showering daily, sitting on the deck eating great food and consuming way too much alcohol and great conversation were so luxuriuous I didn’t regret my decision. Although I still hanker for a solo wilderness trip at some point in my life I suspect I don’t really have the strength of mind for it.

Haida Gwaii

Yet more ferry faff, including some helpful customs officers who unknowingly smuggled fruit across the border for us in the back of their truck, brought us back up north of Ketchikan to Wrangell. By this stage we were travelling aboard the quaintly retro Alaskan ferries complete with unbelievably friendly staff and fellow passengers. The friendly small town vibe of Wrangell was a relief after the horrors of Ketchikan and with the glorious sun on our backs I was stoked to be back on the water and heading north again. We were a little deterred when we couldn’t land to eat lunch because the marshy delta of the mighty Stikine was so furiously buggy. Such were the swarms when the bows touched any solid land we eventually resorted to using our as yet virginal she-wee for a little technical, in- boat urination, a pretty impressive feat whilst still in your drysuit and giggling furiously in a tipping boat! We were particularly relieved to find that evening’s campsite contained only the usually steady stream of bugs and hugely excited to spot enormous white floating objects 5 miles across the channel, far too big and plentiful to be boats they must be icebergs! Spotting a sign on invasive plants in Haida Gwaii Chris had finally diagnosed our gross skin condition. A reaction apparently to the invasive plant giant hogweed which causes intense pruritus, blisters and purplish-black scars. Go figure, and add in almost continuous saline dampness for the kind of ulcers I ended up with. At least I could now leave behind my nervous fear of all flying insects having previously suspected these with the combination of sea and sun had been causing my infuriation.

Paddling closer to the icebergs the following morning was only deterred by a significant detour due to the extensive drying flats of the Stikine. But eventually we made it, and boy was it worth it. We could have spent all day marvelling at, photographing and drifting past the glittering blue and white apartment block sized chunks of ice in what became our campsite backyard. Paddling on up the narrow channel with towering 2000 ft waterfall and granite peaks we persisted through 3 or more miles of increasingly tightly packed ice aiming for the head of the glacier. The girls elected to turn back but I had glacier in my sights and with a more maneuverable boat and a new line apparent from some kind of fishing boat I made it as close to the face as I dared. Perhaps a 100m from the face was enough for me. Particularly as I was now paddling solo, and facing a continuous boom and splash cycle as blocks sheared from the ice. The resulting bizarre low rolling swell with floating ice and fierce wind turned me back, ultimately into an impasse of large rolling iceberg and floating ice where I nearly lost my nerve. Especially knowing that my drysuit had lost its latex neck integrity and was no longer really dry. This hadn’t stopped me from earlier enjoying another Chris-inspired genius idea of docking beside and climbing on an iceberg. Jumping, doing headstands and posing were all achieved. I’d really hoped to paddle with icebergs this trip. I never thought they’d be so big or spectacular or we’d be jumping on them! I made it back in time for dinner and we settled into a lazy 24 hours in a small cove watching the huge bergs crash, roll and tinkle their G and T way into smaller and smaller but no less dramatic pieces, some being stranded on the beach at low tide to provide us with water.

Floating into Petersburg, a busy fishing harbour, and another friendly, pleasant small community I felt like a very lucky lady! Only the 2am ferry to wait for now. We were assisted by yet another friendly Alaskan who loaded our kayaks in his pickup for the ferry, and kindly drove us to the marina upon our arrival in Juneau. Unloading our gear for drying at the marina entrance and scrawling ‘for sale’ on a paddle-suspended drybag we attracted a fair bit of attention. After a disappointing start chris and lace sold their boats to a lovely couple who took us home for a shower and floor space in their den. They then let me try and sell my boat in their yard sale that morning. A true American experience, and unexpectedly a success, I sold my boat the following day. With a wedge of dollars in my pocket this now meant I could head inland for some mountain wilderness time before my trip came to an end.

Canoeing in the Yukon, and hiking in the truly spectacular Tombstone National Park are stories for another day. But, if you need a giggle some time, ask me about securing a ride in Tombstone by performing a scrotal examination, with attendant pustule expression. On a human!

Tombstone tasters….(thanks to Alec Forss)

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7 Responses to Paddle to Alaska

  1. jack says:

    What a story. What a memory to have and not a mention of the satellite tracker that kept your Mummy and Daddy`s siblings and friends happy that you were all still alive and moving. Well done all.
    Jack

  2. Kim says:

    AMAZING!! Can’t wait to hear the details and see the pictures from the bike trip too! You guys are really living life to the fullest!

  3. John Field says:

    Having paddled the Inside Passage in 1980, it was so much fun to see No Experience Required. Well done! I admire all of you. Thank you

  4. Noel Cribben says:

    Am just after a most fabulous paddle myself, although after seeing all of these photos, it is nothing by comparison, but I would say, that your journey must be 1 that I would like to aim for, but realistically, it will never happen. It looks absolutely fantastic x 100. All 5 of you must be overjoyed

  5. Suzanne Crawford says:

    Wow, these are beatiful. Looking forward to India to Ireland pics. 😉

  6. Suzanne Crawford says:

    These are wonderful photos and it’s a pretty amazing story.

  7. I seldom drop comments, but i did some searching and wound up here Paddle to Alaska | Cycling from India
    to Ireland. And I do have a couple of questions for you if
    it’s allright. Could it be only me or does it look like a few of the responses come across like left by brain dead people?
    😛 And, if you are posting on other places, I would like to follow anything new you have to
    post. Could you list of every one of all your communal sites like your twitter feed,
    Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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