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Charting a Course: Washington State, BC, Alaska!

"Go simple. Go solo. Go now." ~ Audrey Sutherland

I recently connected the last dot, the last Google Earth placemark, the last waypoint on the page that represents my route through the Inside Passage from Washington State to Sitka, Alaska. This digital rendering seems so tidy, precise, and straightforward, doesn't it? (Click on the map below and see for yourself!) Yet I know the real journey, as it unfolds, will be nothing but tidy, precise, and straightforward. There will be chaos, blunders, and uncertainty. The route may twist and twirl, meet dead ends, or turn back on itself, if only to find a safer, more reasonable path. The static route you see here will, I imagine, evolve into a dynamic dance, pulsing north with the ocean's rhythm and my dedication to living and loving the journey as it unfolds in its own time, in its own steadfast manner. Once underway, all I can do is trust in my skills, my gear, my training, stay present, clear-headed and focused, and embrace the wildness as it lives in and around me. I will seek the wisdom of the ocean, the rivers that flow into it, the forests that fringe its edges, the wildlife that make their homes there, and the people who have inhabited the Inside Passage since time immemorial. To do without, thereby opening myself to the lessons within, reclaiming my wild soul. This is adventure!

In my last blog post, I promised to provide a more detailed description of my route along with a few screenshots of how I'm plotting it. Here goes.


Click on the map above to see my route broken down into seven sections.

Below I've inserted screenshots of those seven sections and below each section I'll share a few pre-planned highlights of each leg of the journey. My resupply boxes, containing food and charts, will be mailed ahead to my resupply towns along the route.


l chose the west side of San Juan Island because of its proximity to where I'll need to check in with Canadian customs in Sidney, BC. Weather permitting, I'll make the 3.5 nautical mile crossing of Haro Strait almost immediately out of the starting gate, and work my way to the customs building in the city's main marina. Once cleared, Inside Passage, here I come! This will be a "paddle up memory lane" as much of this leg will parallel what I paddled in 2010, with a few exceptions. When I arrive in Powell River, my first resupply town, I'll hopefully meet up with some Facebook friends! This leg is approximately 115 nautical miles, 8 days, give or take.


This section deviates a bit from my 2010 route. Instead of going through Hole in the Wall and dealing with the southern reaches of the infamous Johnstone Strait, I'll head a bit further north into the smattering of tidal rapids known as Yuculta, Dent, and Whirlpool. Yipee! Johnstone Strait gave me a run for my money last time, but at least I'll only have to contend with its more northerly reaches. But first I get to visit with cetologist Paul Spong at the Orca Lab and learn more about this whale research station he founded in 1970. I originally contacted Paul to interview him for my book about Audrey Sutherland, the late-great grand dame of expedition paddling. His first words were "she is one of our favorite people in the world, and we’d be happy to chat about her." The next highlight will be a visit to Alert Bay, experiencing the living culture of the ‘Namgis First Nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw. From there, a short paddle to the home of Stewart and Gayle Marshall in Sointula on Malcolm Island. Stewart was an extraordinary adventurer, having paddled large swatches of the BC coastline, including crossing Hecate Strait to Haida Gwaii in a kayak, twice (!). The book "Painter Paddler" by Andrew Scott showcases Stewart's life and artwork includinghis dramatic watercolor, oil, and acrylic paintings, mostly created from his campsites along BC's wild coast and beyond. What an honor to have connected with Stewart and have the opportunity to meet him in person! This leg is approximately 150 nautical miles, 12-13 days, give or take.


Ahhh, I've got some 'splainin' to do on this stretch. As you can see, my planned route through the southern reaches of the Great Bear Rainforest is void of campsites and other placemarks --- it's quite straightforward. That's because I'll be experiencing it high and dry on the deck of BC Ferries' Northern Expedition. I've paddled this route three times, always with a paddling partner. I'm absolutely smitten with this leg of the Inside Passage, but frankly, paddling it solo scares the hell out of me. This stretch is a ten-day to two-weeker via sea kayak, so transiting it in four hours frees up time to more deeply explore the northern reaches of the route and/or buys me some wiggle room for those bad weather days, as I'll have some pretty exposed chunks of water further north. Cape Caution and The Magical Cabin -- I'll wave to you as we pass by! This leg is approximately 100 nautical miles, and will go lickety split!


Now, this is gonna be fun --- and different! This part of the route deviates from the "standard" Inside Passage route, bypassing my 2010 nemesis Grenville Channel, and all the narrow fjords and reaches leading up to it. Paddling on the outside of Princess Royal Island, Campania, and Pitt Islands will have its own set of challenges, but based on what other paddlers who have shared their experiences in this most magical area, I'm stoked! A major highlight of this section is my partnership with Pacific Wild. After a bit of brainstorming, we've come up with a way to use this leg of the expedition as a platform to raise awareness for their Marine Protection Campaign, and their efforts to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact temperate rainforest on earth. Thanks to our collaboration with Strigo, I'll have mobile satellite connectivity on this part of the route! This means I can upload images, voice memos, and short videos directly to the Pacific Wild team. They will add this to a brilliant storytelling platform called ArcGis StoryMaps. Using a combination of text, images, and maps, Pacific Wild will create an interactive, online multimedia experience based on my journey through this ecosystem that will ultimately be inspiring, motivating, and entertaining! In addition to portraying the essence of the expedition itself --- camping, cooking, paddling, flora and fauna --- I'll also be documenting any environmental injustices I may come across, such as logging, fish farms, derelict fishing gear, plastic on the beaches, etc. I hope to take a deeper dive into this area, paddling, exploring, witnessing, listening, participating, writing, photographing, and simply learning more about the Inside Passage --- and sharing what I learn. The goal is to bring awareness to Pacific Wild's pivotal work and highlight the biodiversity, richness, and abundance that lives in the Great Bear Sea. There will be a fundraising component to this leg so stay tuned for ways you can contribute to the GBRF "species spotlight." This leg is approximately 210 nautical miles, 14-16 days, give or take.


Next stop: ALASKA! This leg follows the same route I took in 2010, with one exception: a side trip to one of Audrey Sutherland's favorite Forest Service cabins: Alava Bay. It's a rustic 12x14' Pan Adobe-style cabin with a deck, bunk beds, and a woodstove. I'm super excited to once again lay my head on the same wooden bunk she did, prepare a meal directly from one of her hand-written recipes, and soak in the essence of her spirit. Once I arrive in Ketchikan, I'm twice blessed with another Audrey connection: her all-time favorite bush pilot, Michelle Masden, owner and operator of Island Wings Air Service. I'll be resting and resupplying at Michelle's home a few miles south of Ketchikan, along the Tongass Narrows. Michelle has some fantastic Audrey stories, and photos galore, having dropped this tiny gray-haired woman off many times in remote locations, often wondering if she'd ever see her again. This leg is approximately 120 nautical miles, 7-8 days, give or take.


From this point forward, it's all "uncharted territory" for me. Once I leave Ketchikan, I begin my northwest trajectory toward Sitka, my final destination, still 3-4 weeks away. This is where it could get reeeeallly interesting, with some major crossings (one 9 miles and one 12) and a good number of convoluted tidal rapids, all waiting to gobble up the unwary paddler. For this leg, WARY will be my middle name! This is also the leg where I'll truly be following in Audrey's paddle strokes, packing along her tattered and sticky-noted book "Paddling North" to make sure I don't miss a thing. She chose this rather sinuous route because of its hot springs, old cabins, small towns, and the hopes of retracing parts of Cook, Vancouver, and Muir’s historic voyages. She always considered climate, current, and her own vulnerability. Since I wish to recreate her route as much as possible, I've arranged for a land transport from Hollis to Craig on Prince of Wales Island with the wonderful Katie Rooks, owner and operator of Prince of Wales Excursion Outfitter. Unlike Audrey, I'm not too keen on sticking out my thumb and hoping for the best with a 40-minute bumpy ride with an 18' kayak hanging out the back of god-knows-what kind of vehicle to the other side of the island. With my kayak safely on her padded trailer and my butt in the front seat of Katie's van, I'll travel in style to the salt on the other side! This leg is approximately 130 nautical miles, 8-10 days, give or take.


If I'm lucky, I'll be able to stay at a couple of Forest Service cabins on this section, as this is big brown bear territory. No, I'm not packing a firearm, and yes I have several canisters of bear spray and a huge dose of bear awareness. I'm more concerned about my ten-mile crossing from the northwest corner of Kuiu Island over to Baranoff. Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound comingle here, so it's not the friendliest place to be in SE Alaska. Patience, Grasshopper!! Once along the eastern shore of Baranoff Island, I'll be treated to hot springs, waterfalls, and deep, lush bays, many of them Audrey's favorite haunts! It'll seem odd to be going south on my final approach to Sitka, but first I'll have to get through the notorious -- and appropriately named --- Peril Strait!

This leg is approximately 170 nautical miles, 16-18 days, give or take.

So there you have it. I'll close this blog with a few lines from Audrey's first book "Paddling my Own Canoe": ...I felt again the surge of pure primitive joy and power that comes with being alone and wary and confident... I know it often in and under the sea, in that blue world where I can move with a dancer's leaps and spirals, a seaweed's supple sway, no longer an awkward stick of a land animal. I squatted there, hugging my knees and grinning.

I hope I'll be doing a lot of knee-hugging and grinning on this journey!

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