90 Days on the Water: Paddling the Inside Passage

The Inside Passage is a protected water route that weaves through islands and narrow channels along the North American West Coast. Its southernmost point is Olympia, Washington and it travels north for roughly 1200 miles to Skagway, Alaska. Last summer my partner, Jeremy, and I set out to kayak its length.

Foggy morning in Fraser Reach. Photo by Jeremy Nylander

The idea was born during a seemingly casual conversation early in our relationship. We were discussing dream trips and Jeremy asked if I would ever want to kayak the Inside Passage. Looking back, I think this was more a question of my merits as a potential partner than a proposition to actually do the trip, but regardless, the seed was planted. That summer we did a nine-day shake out trip off the coast of British Columbia and from that point the wheels were set in motion. Two weeks after returning, I asked for a leave of absence from work and we started planning what was to be the most pivotal adventure of our already rather adventurous lives.

We spent a full year planning for the trip. Researching routes, purchasing gear, planning our food, and working out all the logistical details it takes to pull off a three-month self-supported kayaking trip. On May 24 I walked out of my office in Washington for the last time, finished some last minute packing, loaded Jeremy’s parent’s truck with our kayaks and gear, and it began.

In a state of barely-contained excitement, we drove the 14 hours to Bella Coola, Canada, our starting point. There was electricity in our conversations and the world seemed brighter, crisper. Every leaf more green, the sky more blue as if they put on their best colors just for us. We were off! The great adventure was beginning! We have both traveled extensively and been on extended backcountry trips before, but nothing like this. We slept fitfully the night before our launch, woke early, packed our boats and took the first paddle strokes of the trip. Dipping my paddle into the water for that first paddle stroke was a moment that will forever be etched in my memory.

Sunset from Revillagigedo Island. Photo by Jeremy Nylander

The paddle from Bella Coola to Shearwater was supposed to be an easy transition into expedition paddling. My research said the winds would be in our favor and, provided we had an early start, the waters would be manageable. We gave ourselves seven days to cover the first 85 miles, a very modest goal. We had campsite options that were well-used and accessible. We planned to relax and settle in gradually, enjoying ourselves.

Anna contemplating a waterfall in Graham Reach. Photo by Jeremy Nylander

But that wouldn’t be the case. Eight short miles after our start, we pulled our boats off the water for the first time and set out to look for our campsite for the evening. It was supposed to be a local favorite, an often-used clearing in the woods, just up from a beach with easy landing. Instead we found a sign warning us that the area was now being used as a bear research “snag station.” Basically, a bear lure. We could not camp there. We had no choice but to put our boats back in the water and continue on.

The next six days proved to be similarly difficult. We encountered headwinds daily. By 10 a.m. each day the wind and seas had reached a height that pushed us off the water. My well-researched campsites continued to be hard to find, or simply missing. On day five an official-looking boat pulled up to the beach where we were camped. The crew were part of the bear research effort in the area and had stopped to warn us of high bear activity at our chosen campsite and to let us know the forecast called for gale force winds the following day.

All of that frustration and struggle had the backdrop of clear blue waters and sunny skies. Towering peaks jutted straight out of the water. We paddled past magnificent waterfalls, coastlines colorfully adorned with seaweed, anemones and starfish. Porpoises traveled with us often, dancing and playing just off our bows. Nature was exploding all around us, full of life and wonder, and we were struggling to keep to our schedules and plans. We spent a day in Jenny Inlet waiting out the storm the researchers had warned us about. For me it was a turning point of the trip. We didn’t talk about it, but there was an unspoken decision that we would release control, let go of our schedules and expectations and just paddle.

Anna paddling into the sunset in Glacier Bay. Photo by Jeremy Nylander

 

The researchers were right about the bear activity too. As we cooked dinner that night a black bear sauntered slowly through our camp. It didn’t seem to care that we were sharing its beach, it just paused a moment to sniff the air and walked by.

The day we reached Shearwater, our first resupply point, we paddled through icy rain and headwinds most of the day. We passed through the beautiful Gunboat Passage with mist swirling around the towering green spruce and cedar that lined the shore. We landed at the Shearwater docks at dusk where a friendly Harbor Master greeted us, let us store our kayaks and offered us camping. We took our first showers of the trip, purchased groceries, picked up our re-supply box, made the obligatory phone calls to friends and family and headed off again.

The second leg would be our longest. It would take about two weeks and we would travel a winding path from Shearwater, through Milbank Sound—our first experience with waters unprotected from the open ocean—through Grenville Channel, a narrow waterway with tides so strong that even large powered boats must carefully time their passage, past Fraser Reach and on to Prince Rupert. We encountered some of the worst weather on this leg—11 straight days of rain which left everything we had damp. When the sun finally did come out we gleefully unpacked every item from our boats and dry bags, spread them out across a rocky beach and laid on the rocks, soaking up the sun like basking seals.

Anna sautéing fiddlehead ferns. Photo by Jeremy Nylander

 

That night we woke to the sound of whales splashing. We ran out of our tent and with the light of a full moon watched two humpbacks surface, mouths wide. They dove and spouted before moving on, leaving us speechless and filled with elation in one of those moments that seems too pure to have been real.

The days and weeks that followed were filled with authentic joy. We started out most mornings in mist which dissipated as we paddled, revealing the hills and snow-capped peaks that surrounded us. We fell into a rhythm that followed the ebb and flow of the tides. Break camp, pack our boats, paddle. Stop to eat, paddle, find camp. The coastline, its animals, plants and weather started to feel familiar. Our bodies began to change too. We could feel ourselves growing stronger. We paddled farther and more easily each day.

As paddling became easy and the area started to feel familiar and welcoming, we had time to let our minds wander. Each day as we settled into the rhythm of paddling we contemplated our lives, letting all our decisions, our failures and successes, our great losses and struggles roll through our minds. We didn’t always talk; we spent hours in silence, just listening to the world around us: otters playing, an eagle soaring overhead or a whale blowing in the distance. I had gone through an incredibly painful divorce just a few years before and as I paddled and let the world breath into me, I felt myself letting some of that pain go.

Yearling moose on an island in Windham Bay. Photo by Anna Grondin

One morning in particular, we got up early to make a long and exposed crossing and as we paddled away from shore a young wolf ran out of the forest. He trotted to the water’s edge and watched us. I could see the same breeze that was tousling my hair ruffle the fur behind his ears. As I looked into that wolf’s eyes, I felt deeply connected to the world. Our gaze met: both of us curious, neither particularly fearful, just observing. I found myself thinking about the circumstances that had brought us both here in this moment. The wolf trotted away and I was left feeling reassured in my life and my choices.

Our path took us north, winding through channels, weaving in and out of islands, looking for camping spots, falling asleep, snug in our tent, while listening to the sound of whales singing all around us.

We saw eagles, wolves, bears, otters and minks. One morning we woke to find we were sharing our beach with a yearling moose.

We paddled through waters that took us to the limit of our paddling abilities and then we pushed past them. We dusted off our navigational skills and paddled through thick, opaque fog and rain. Every day something incredible would happen; a moment would come that would shake us deep in our core. A moment that far exceeds my ability to capture in words. Sometimes fear, sometimes awe, wonder, or joy. We had set out to paddle for three months, to go on a great adventure, and we did that, but we also saw deep into ourselves. Free from the frantic schedules and constant noise of normal life, we could sit with these emotions, breathing in the salty air, smelling the trees, hearing the animals.

Fireweed in front of Johns Hopkins Glacier. Photo by Anna Grondin

We made it to Alaska and glacier country and watched as the seasons changed from summer to fall. The shore plants turned yellow and red. The grasses became brittle and dry. During the last few weeks of our trip the Alaska ferry strike caused a major change of plans. We had planned to take the ferry back to Shearwater and paddle south and home from there, but with the ferries not running we no longer had that option. Instead we chose to spend two weeks exploring Glacier Bay.

The land there is some of the most rugged and remote in the U.S. Aside from the small visitor center at the mouth of the bay, there is no sign of our species. Mountains rose straight out of crystal blue waters. Massive rivers poured off cliffs, showering the surrounding shore with their spray. It is the dominion of whales, bears and wolves. Glaciers stretched down the valleys, reaching into the bay, calving and breaking, causing shockwaves in the water that reached us even miles away. The air blowing off the glaciers was cold around us and the water below us was frigid. For the first time we paddled in all of our layers, water bottles filled with hot water between our feet, but we were still cold. The grandeur that surrounded us made us feel small and utterly insignificant.

Jeremy paddling in Tarr Inlet of Glacier Bay. Photo by Anna Grondin

 

We paddled in the shadow of those mountains for two incredible weeks, breathing in the ice-chilled air, camping on rocky ledges, listening to the gunshot sound of glaciers calving and crashing into the water at night. One evening Jeremy woke me and we lay with our heads out of the tent, warm in our sleeping bag watching the lights of the Aurora Borealis dance across the sky.

With no small reluctance we made our way north again for the last leg of the trip. Those last days passed easily and as we paddled into Skagway Harbor and pulled our boats out of the water for the last time I felt both extremely accomplished and overwhelmed with gratitude for the experience. We didn’t paddle the full length of the Inside Passage but we adapted to our circumstances and completed the 90-day adventure that we had set out to do. We spent three months in the company of whales and wolves, slept in old growth forests under the cover of 500-year old trees, and paddled waters that challenged our paddling skills. The hours and days spent in those waters changed us, gave us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.

We walked off the Skagway dock that final day feeling confident in who we are, where we had been and who we hope to become.

Anna Grondin is a wanderer at heart. She loves to upend her life in pursuit of new and intriguing experiences and is always quietly planning her next endeavor. While not at her day job or out exploring the world, she enjoys trail running, backpacking, and eating delicious food.

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