Story and Photos by Ryan adams
With the long Canadian winter of planning and logistics finally over, fellow sea kayak guide, Canadianborn Matt Edwards and I paddled away from Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island. The destination was Haines, Alaska, some 1450km away. We left on May 15, when a decent window of weather gave us the thumbs up to paddle into the beauty of the inside passage on the Pacific Northwest coast.
The seed of the Inside Passage Expedition was planted in the dying days of the paddling season early last year with a few bored sea kayak guides looking for the next step in our chosen interest. The inside passage is the coastal route between mainland British Columbia, Alaska, and their coastal islands. The protection these islands hold keeps the passage relatively sheltered from the Pacific Ocean and makes for some excellent paddling conditions. Just what we were chasing…
All last minute anxiety was pushed out of the system stroke by stroke as I paddled the plastic necky looksha that I’d managed to rent cheaply from an outdoor education lodge on Vancouver Island. The aptly named ‘Patch’ had taken a good days work with a plastic welder and a good dose of electrical tape to bring her up to expedition standard. We were thrown straight into expedition mode during the first few days as the calm flat seas of Vancouver Island were left behind. The Pacific Ocean started pitching up swell with the largest getting up to three metres, sending sprays high into the air as it smashed against the rocks of Cape Caution, one of the most exposed stretches of the coastline.
The first wildlife lesson was learnt too soon with a tired lack of care in cooking up our first catch of the trip, two small cod. Matt yelling out loudly awoke me abruptly at dawn the next morning. This was followed closely by the sound of a large animal scrambling into the scrub off the sandy beach we were camped on. Footprints in the morning showed a sizeable grizzly bear had been cruising the campsite, probably chasing our fish! A closer inspection revealed the bear had had its two front paws on the stern of both kayaks before ambling over to within ten feet of the small twoman tent we were sleeping in before being scared off. Lesson learnt!!
The Pacific Northwest is home to some significant tidal ranges, sometimes up to twentyfour feet. This tide rising and falling in between the islands on the coast can result in some strong currents. Our paddling schedule while paddling up the narrow Princess Royal channel and even narrower Grenville channel relied entirely on the tides. This meant some early mornings, some late nights, to maximize time on the flooding current. It’s a great feeling to be living on the tidal clock, paddling when you can and sleeping when the current isn’t going your way!
The tide on one specific occasion provided us with a not so pleasant late night experience after paddling fairly late on a flooding current. After the tent was pitched and dinner eaten one beautiful but cold evening in the Grenville channel, a slight miscalculation while checking the tide book kept us up past midnight. Our extremely narrow block of real estate we’d perhaps not so cleverly claimed for the night became worryingly smaller and smaller as the tide met its highest point. Just inches from the tent at its highest point, the joke of a big boat motoring past and leaving the wake that would surely destroy the dry campsite slowly faded as the sound of the Alaskan Ferry service boat came up the narrow channel.
Matt threw the tent, full with two sets of thermarests and sleeping bags up into the thick scrub behind us, while I held onto the kayaks to try and keep them as dry as possible. The wake threatened but never dampened the tent site while the boats were broadsided as I struggled to keep them perpendicular to the swell. After the channel became calm again, the tent set back up and the kayaks tied up safe from the tide, the falling tide gave its permission to fall asleep for another night.
Three weeks of consistent kayaking saw us paddle into Prince Rupert, just south of the Alaskan border, where the strong paddling community welcomed Matt and me warmly. When the tide and current run big, a series of standing waves collectively named Bhutze Rapids are created between Kaien Island and the mainland. These waves are relatively unknown in the kayak world because of the isolation of the area. Local paddlers hooked us up with a couple of playboats so we enjoyed a much needed two days off to paddle this sweet wave in a couple of the favoured shorter kayaks!
Leaving Prince Rupert refreshed, warm and comfortable, the expedition continued on into some not so desirable conditions. A ten kilometre crossing north across the mouth of the Portland Inlet was possibly the coldest and roughest crossing that was encountered, with chopped up four foot swells and strong winds coming in from the west. The tough crossing was rewarded with a breaching humpback whale working its magic on the horizon as the northern side of the inlet was in reach. A wet afternoon followed, sitting under the tarp by the fire on the last sandy beach south of the border. The painstaking contrast between the comforts of town and the brutal wet conditions became known as the ‘town blues’ and it wasn’t the last time the blues were experienced.
Paddling over the Alaskan border was nothing but an anti-climax although the weather did turn for the better, giving us a warm welcome into the American state. First port of call heading north along the coast is Ketchikan, a city that seems to have sold its soul to the cruise ship industry. A couple of kayakers turning up to the American customs office in Ketchikan, dripping wet in full paddling attire apparently isn’t the norm for these guys. A different breed from their counterparts down south, the customs officers happily filled us up with hot coffee and cake while all visas (or lack thereof) were sorted through. After striking more town blues on the following day after Ketchikan, we plodded our way northwards to a little cabin community called Meyers Chuck. Whilst there, Steve and Cass, the community postmasters, kindly took us into their home. Over lunch and
GETTING UP CLOSE & PERSONAL IN STEPHENS PASSAGE
GRIZZLY CUBS PLAYFIGHTING SOUTH OF JUNEAU