Paddling North

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Kayaking 1,200 nautical miles from Salt Spring Island, B.C., to Glacier Bay, Alaska

Photo Essay By Rebecca Grim and Leonie Mahlke


Introduction
The Inside Passage is a network of passages stretching from northwestern Washington to southeast Alaska. This partially protected coastline is one of the most uniquely raw and wild places in the world and a dream destination for paddlers.

Paddling North is a two member team - Rebecca Grim and Leonie Mahlke. We started our kayak expedition in the middle of May 2018, leaving from Salt Spring Island and finishing in Glacier Bay, Alaska, in the beginning of September 2018.

We set out with the intention to explore the diverse coastline of Canada and Alaska, while learning more about the environmental threats this area is facing. Stopping in various places to look for answers and opinions concerning environmental topics, we interviewed and filmed people who had something to say about these issues. 

Beside the environmental aspect, we were craving an adventure – being outside for four months, living in tune with nature’s rhythm, experiencing the power and beauty of the ocean, all while pushing our own comfort limits. What we got was all that and more – we were rewarded with the most stunning and wild places and natural events. We had breathtaking wildlife encounters, met some very inspiring people and last but not least, found ourselves kayaking surrounded by glaciers and icebergs, at our destination Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Paddling the Inside Passage not only provides a good understanding of how the rainforest and ocean interconnect, but also gives time to understand how we – as humans – are connected to the natural world and what great impact we all have upon it.

When people ask us “How was it?”, we have a tough time summarizing this expedition of a lifetime in a couple of sentences. 

Nevertheless, we want to share our top moments, focusing on the best paddling experiences and challenges, wildlife, people and personal learning curve.


Paddling British Columbia’s coastline
From the Gulf Islands in British Columbia we paddled our way across a gentle Georgia Strait and along the most picturesque white beaches of Texada Island. Warm temperatures in May created wonderful kayaking and swimming conditions. On a sunny and calm day, we suddenly found ourselves in the company of a small pod of Killer Whales. They seemed to be resting or socializing with their breaths echoing away on this silent day.

One of our first challenges was posed by the many currents and rapids in the Discovery Islands. After calculating the currents down to the minute, we had an amazing time navigating through these narrow waterways. Paddling through Surge Narrows and Whirlpool Rapids stands out in our memory, because of the very fast currents and magnificent surroundings. The time we spend in the Broughton Archipelago, a hidden paradise made of islands and ideal for paddlers and nature observers, proved to be a very special treat. Watching humpback whales from the shore and water and witnessing the generally rich ecosystem was incredible.

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As we rounded Cape Caution, the exposed tip of the mainland, where Queen Charlotte Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound meet. We were greeted by fog and huge ocean swell crashing into a wall of cliffs, when we made our way along the rough shoreline. The sea was moving and all of a sudden huge rock formations opened up in front of us by retreating swell.

Timing is essential when navigating Cape Caution, as it took an entire day of paddling until we got to the next accessible beach. Winds generally tend to increase in the afternoon, so leaving early in the morning would be advisable.

We paddled North through Fitz Hugh Sound and into the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. On Denny Island we were fortunate to stay and work with a couple who have studied Sandhill Cranes for years, and – to our greatest excitement – we went out on their sailing boat to watch a few of them. Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of recent birds and you can not help but compare them to dinosaurs.

For lunch one day, we paddled into Butedale, an abandoned fishing, mining and logging camp. It appeared that people just dropped everything here and left decades ago, without ever returning. It felt like we were taken back in time and the scenery slightly reminded us of a set in a horror movie, so cool!

While paddling pretty far from any signs of society, we had the strangest encounter of the entire trip. A stand up paddle boarder approached us from the other side of the channel, who turned out to be participating in the race to Alaska. This race starts in Port Townsend and ends in Ketchikan. We exchanged pleasantries, took some pictures and continued on with our individual journeys.

Near the Northern tip of Princess Royal Island, we saw our first group of bubble-netting humpback whales. With our hydrophone (underwater microphone) in the water, we were able to listen to their feeding calls and could also estimate the time of their next surfacing. It was incredibly powerful to watch these giants move as they forage.

The narrow Grenville Channel gave us a mild headache and ultimately became our teacher, as we were confronted with heavy northwest winds, currents and eddies. Leaving the channel behind, we island hopped our way towards Prince Rupert, our halfway point, navigating alongside the outflow of the Skeena River. Here, we experienced some of the fastest currents of the trip – a crossing of 2 miles took us approximately 15 minutes. As we usually rose between 3 am and 4 am, this morning was holding the most beautiful reflections of emerging light for us.

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Approaching Alaska
Prince Rupert marked our last resupply stop in Canada and we could not wait to finally set paddle into Alaska. Crossing the border felt immense – even though it was in the middle of nowhere and just the two of us there. We had made it into another country by kayak! We paddled on and were struck by places like Knudson Cove and Meyers Chuck, whose wonderful people were warm and welcoming and helped us in so many different ways.

A couple of times we had to navigate and even cross channels in foggy conditions, meaning that our vision was limited to 5 meters. Thanks to the help of navigation apps and our deck compasses, we luckily arrived exactly where we had planned to.

Very aware that we had now entered “bear country,” we scanned the beaches and our surroundings more often. We did not see many bears after all, which could be due to various possible reasons. There is uncertainty of how many bears there are in this region.

We left the common kayaking route of Stephens Passage and took a left into Frederick Sound, a wide channel emptying into Chatham Strait. Paddling these huge channels was very humbling. We watched a plethora of wildlife like seals, sea lions, whales, porpoises and sea birds and stopped in places such as Warm Springs Bay, to take a dip in hot springs and relax our sore muscles.

Tenakee Springs Inlet was a wonderful day‘s paddle with astonishing views of mountains and low hanging cloud formations. Part of our Alaskan route was a portage from Tenakee Inlet into Port Frederick, which meant carrying our kayaks and gear 100 meters over to the other side of a hill and dragging them through shallow waters for another mile. The change of movement was great and posed a new challenge.

Before crossing Icy Strait, a 7-mile-wide channel, we were greeted by humpback whales feeding right next to the shore, while the sun was rising. Once we started paddling, they started breaching behind us. What a start to the day! We were on the way to our final destination: Glacier Bay.

Glacier Bay topped it all. We paddled past ancient glaciers, of which most are retreating, watched rafts of sea otters, saw huge flocks of birds, camped on a beach clustered with icebergs and watched as a new world was being created. When we refilled our water supplies in a nearby river, two brown bears came up the river bed, feeding at their own pace. We were in awe when we watched these giants make their way past us. The snow covered Fairweather range loomed in the distance, while we paddled in sunshine and rain.

Paddling the Inside Passage definitely changed our lives and our view of the world. Despite all the wonders we encountered, we also witnessed numerous unsustainable industrialized sites, clear-cuts, fish farms, mining areas and general habitat degradation along the way. Asking questions and taking more action to preserve Earth in its natural state seems undeniable today.

Kayaking is a wonderful way of exploring nature in a human-powered way without leaving a carbon footprint. It allows you to be part of the ocean and the shore at the same time. Let us make sure the Inside Passage remains such a wild and intact place, allowing everybody to appreciate its specialness.

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Caroline Royce