The Inside Passage
As a whitewater kayaker from the land-locked state of Idaho, jumping into a 17.5-foot sea kayak for the first time was a little intimidating, especially due to the scale of the journey I was beginning. I hoped to paddle 1200 miles down the Inside Passage along the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. This was the final leg of a much larger expedition I call PROOF. (Editor’s Note: See PROOF for some background information on Lance.)
Before getting into my kayak, I had biked 1700 miles north to Haines Junction, Alaska and then climbed Mount Logan, the second highest mountain in North America. I initiated the grand journey on April 4, 2010 from Whidbey Island, Washington. I rode north through Washington, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, arriving in Haines Junction on April 28th. I met my three climbing friends, Mike, Andrea and Lisa in a hanger just outside of town. We all flew up to the base of Mount Logan on April 30th. At 8:00 p.m. on May 16th, after 16 days on the snow and ice, I stood on the summit of Mount Logan with Mike. Four days later and 47 days after initiating PROOF, I set off in my kayak at 10:00 a.m., paddling solo toward home: Whidbey Island, Washington.
I had no reference; this was my first time on the ocean and I was all by myself. I took the day to reflect, study my surroundings, my gear, the weather, the tides and myself. What were my limits? Scale is always a tough thing to comprehend, and it is even tougher in Alaska, a state one-fifth the size of the entire United States and larger than many countries. Alaska extends as many miles from west to east as the lower 48 states from coast to coast and stretches as far from north to south as the lower 48 states do from Canada to Mexico. With such great distances, there are few services found in these extremely different conditions of climate, terrain and accessibility.
My new surroundings were abundant with stimuli and new challenges… I was overwhelmed with the excess of vegetation and wildlife. This place is alive and without any true direction; it is mine to watch unfold right in front of my eyes as if I am creating it. The impact of great distances is magnified by rugged landscape—towering mountains, glaciers, winding rivers and expanses of tundra. It is also intensified by fierce winds, snowfall, fog and extremely cold temperatures.
I arrived in Juneau on May 24th around 7:00 p.m. Juneau was a familiar place where I had worked and studied in the past. And my friend Neli Nelson lived there. He’d agreed to join me for part of my journey south, but couldn’t leave for a couple of weeks. So I had time to readjust my kayak system, pick up some missing pieces, pay some bills, let my poor body recover from the last 51 days of continuous physical activity and enjoy Juneau. My legs were stoked to be at rest while my weak upper body was sore, fatigued, blistered and burned… Over the next few days I caught up with old friends, played an extra in a Zombie movie, went for a jet boat ride up the Taku River, dug a hole, cut some firewood, enjoyed a bonfire on the beach, visited the Alaskan Brewing Co., bathed in a snorkel hot tub, flew on a float plane, joined in Celebration, made some ski turns, went to a birthday party and crashed a wedding.
We took refuge on June 15th at the Five Finger Lighthouse for a couple of days, enjoying the company of Edd, the lighthouse keeper. Islands dotted our path the rest of the way to Petersburg, Alaska where Stephanie Jaeger joined us. A friend of a friend, Stephanie was also new to the world of sea kayaking and eager to be part of the experience. The three of us paddled together through some big water to Wrangell, Alaska where Neli caught a ferry back to Juneau.
Stephanie and I continued paddling south, stopping at the Anan Creek Bear Observatory, the settlement of Meyers Chuck and finally in Ketchikan, Alaska just in time for the 4th of July celebration with my friend Chris Currie. There, Stephanie was to board a ferry, leaving me to another 700 miles of solo paddling.
I pushed the mileage each day. As I paddled into the unknown, the large swells gently picked me up and set me down. I stayed far from the shore to avoid the giant waves breaking on the rocky beach. Out past the breakers I had to end-run gill nets and fishing boats as I coasted across the US/Canadian Border. Once in Canada I stopped in Prince Rupert for food and then paddled past the Skeena River and down the narrow Grenville Channel. The steep granite walls lining the narrow channels made camping difficult. Thus, I put my head down and paddled big days to find a practical site big enough for my sea kayak and tent.
I continued on, slowly making my way to the crux of the paddle, Queen Charlotte Sound and Vancouver Island. The crux came in three major parts: Cape Caution followed by a 15-mile crossing of Queen Charlotte Strait and then the dreaded “Salt Water Rapids.”
As I headed around Cape Caution on July 28th, the seas turned to chop and the fog rolled in. It felt like I was inside a ping pong ball. I watched my compass and checked the vague map in the guide book, but with no physical reference point I was navigating by sound and intuition. What I thought was Skull Cove turned out to be Shelter Bay and I ended up three miles southeast of my targeted sandy beach and had to settle for a rocky ledge. On the bright side, I had covered 30+ miles and I was still on route for the 18-mile crossing in the morning.
My isolation was over. Kayakers began to appear everywhere; however camping became difficult with a lack of public land and the increase in houses. Traffic also became an issue… both wild and domestic. I dodged whales, ferries, motor boats, sea lions, birds and cruise ships. My surroundings had become much less wild. I made great time as I paddled toward the “saltwater rapids”.
There is no way to avoid these tidal saltwater rapids, found in the middle of the strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. No matter which way I went I had to face at least one rapid. The guide book described them as monster holes bigger than anything he had ever seen in the Grand Canyon. I stayed my course and headed for Dent and Yuculta rapids. I spent hours calculating the slack and current changes. August 5th was entirely dedicated to these two rapids which vanished at slack tide (at approximately 2:47 and 6:04 p.m.). I had to run Dent Rapids on an ebb tide in order to take advantage of the “Sneak Route”, which skirts “Devils Hole” on the left side of Dent Island.
I was up early, pacing back and forth on the beach with anxiety. At 1:45 p.m. I launched and headed for Horn Point. I subtracted 15 minutes from Big Bay’s slack tide and another 15 minutes to make up for the difference in distance. At Horn Point I read the guide book again and realized I should have subtracted more time… I went anyway. At 2:04 p.m. I turned the point and immediately paddled into turbulent water. I had 3.5 miles to travel, but with smoke in the air from a giant forest fire, I quickly became disoriented. I pulled out the guide book again. I began paddling toward the gap between Little Dent Island and Dent Island. I noted a small gap on my left which turned out to be the “Sneak Route”.
Losing time, I put my head down and paddled into a 7-knot current. I eddy-hopped my way to the top of the small drop, jumped out and lined my boat the rest of the way through the constricting rapid. Back in the cockpit I could see Big Bay. Head down once again, I charged for Barber Passage, but as I got to Jimmy Judd Island I had to accept that I was too late. A fierce rip was ebbing out of the bay on both sides of the island. I sat in an eddy for 2 hours and 45 minutes, paralyzed. Losing confidence, I was now hesitant to paddle through Yuculta Rapids, second guessing my math skills. At 5:35 p.m. I crossed the eddy line and began paddling as hard as I could toward Big Bay. As I got past the rip, I turned into the ebb and headed for Kellsey Point. I paddled and paddled, reaching Whirlpool Point which is beyond Yuculta Rapids… I was now past the CRUX and on the home stretch!!
On August 6th I made new friends on Middle Rendezvous Island and decided to paddle to Lund with them. The group paddled at different speeds and quickly spread out. There was a strong headwind out of the southeast, but we managed to make it to the busy takeout a little after 10:00 a.m. I was persuaded to join the group for lunch. As I sat in my kayak waiting my turn to get out, four Mountain Equipment Co-op spokesmodels in a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser drove up. They explained to everyone within ear shot that they were heading out on a week-long expedition which they do every year. One of my new friends told them that I had just paddled for over 60 days. Slightly humbled, they inquired about my journey and I said I was just paddling home.
Before heading back out, my new friends offered me a warm bed, shower, dinner, a ride and a permanent invitation to visit whenever I wanted to. I headed off at 12:30 p.m. into the worst conditions I had yet encountered. A huge rip current and a 24-knot headwind paralyzed my progress. I headed for Savary Island hoping for some protection but continued to struggle for over two hours. A concerned local, who from his house on the shore had watched me struggle for 90 minutes, came to my rescue. “Grab my boat” he said, “you look very tired!” I reassured him I was fine, just frustrated, but he was sure I was going to drown. I was almost to shore and told him I was going to take a break, which put him at ease. At 3:00 p.m. I finally reached the sandy beach three miles from Lund, in the wrong direction.
The next day, I paddled until 7:00 p.m. and I was exhausted. I paddled for another hour hoping for a beach, but settled for a rocky, sloped, buggy takeout. As I set my tent up in the dark and rain, SNAP, I broke a tent pole. At 10:15 a.m. I was back on the water as the sun slowly worked its way out from behind the clouds. I stopped at Gillies Bay for water and continued on, contemplating the word “tolerance”. Then I began to hear music? Curious, I paddled toward it. The music led me to Shingle Beach and a small gathering of sorts. I was offered a beer which led to another, which led to tacos, which led to a limestone cave, which eventually led me into town for a few games of pool and then back to the beach with Tanya and Big Robby. I was overwhelmed with hospitality.
On August 12th I rounded Blackberry Point and heard a LOUD noise that sounded like a jet airplane. The noise continued to get louder and soon the BIGGEST hovercraft I’d ever seen rounded the point behind me… it was the Canadian Coast Guard. The craft landed just ahead on a gravel beach. Not to let an opportunity go by, I pursued. I stopped and walked up to the group. I asked for a tour and they were more than happy to accommodate. Aboard the hovercraft the crew was as excited to hear about my journey as I was about the tour. They all gathered around and we swapped questions. Eventually I asked for a ride and we were off. Shotgun! I sat in the front seat as we hit 60 mph on the open water. It was the smoothest ride I’d ever had.
Miles further on, at the Canadian/U.S. Border I experienced crazy water with rips, choppy waves and big eddy lines. I was able to take shelter on Stuart Island. I had to time the crossing of San Juan Channel to avoid the big rip just off Green Point. Anxious, I left my eddy about an hour early making the short 2.5 mile crossing into a two-hour marathon. I finally made it to Jones Island and took a short walk around. I now needed a local tide table and telephone to contact my parents and inform them that I would be home tomorrow afternoon.
I woke at 5:00 a.m. on August 14th and lingered in my sleeping bag until 6:00. With my boat loaded, I put my lifejacket on and began paddling across Rosario Strait. The water was smooth and quiet. I got to the intersection at 7:45 a.m., looked both ways and entered the giant channel. Staying out in the middle I reached Cypress Island at 8:30 a.m. I turned south and crossed both Bellingham and Guemes Channels. I was now set up to cross the dreaded Deception Pass during the ebb tide. At 11:00 a.m. I returned to my starting point… Whidbey Island, landing on the rocky Deception Pass Beach.
The romantic ending to my journey was shattered as I shared the beach with hundreds of people. It was a total circus. My camera was about to die and I was down to only a few pages left in my journal… I am finally “home…after 133 days.” My family was paged and I waited patiently in the crowded parking lot. When my family arrived, they informed me that my watch was an hour fast, which explains a lot of my problems and math.
To me the scale of this journey will always be incomprehensible. It isolated my thoughts, exploded my curiosity and redefined what I consider to be feasible. The events unfolded in perfect order, replacing each demanding situation with a positive distraction. Comfort always gave way to change, and by being efficient and resourceful, there was no need for further research. This journey has now inspired me to go bigger and further… I have yet to discover my limits. I have the PROOF.Lance Roth
Whidbey Island, Washington and the rest of the world