The WHY of It All: San Juans to Sitka
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
"We'll regret most what we didn't do" ~ Audrey Sutherland
Three weeks ago, with the Inside Passage in my rearview mirror and Mount Baker soaring in all its glory to the east, I wheeled my kayak off the MV Matanuska onto Bellingham, Washington's terra firma, ending an 88-day seafaring adventure. The "Blue Canoe" (as Alaskans dub the ferries) was my shuttle ride home after completing a 1,200-mile solo sea kayak journey from San Juan Island to Sitka, Alaska. Distant outlines of large islands and headlands, the arc of coastal mountain ranges, immense straits, bays, and fjords, along with the bow of a long purple kayak defined my day-to-day world. Tides, currents, wind, rain, the ocean's rhythms, and my own tenacity dictated my movement.
Since returning, I've been re-immersed in the sometimes overwhelming responsibilities of my off-water life, with little time to digest this recent experience, let alone organize and edit the 5,000+ photos and videos I took, as well as transcribe hundreds of pages of journal entries. I ease my anxiety by reminding myself of a key lesson learned on this journey: patience. The time will come. Meanwhile, if only to console myself, I episodically reflect on what this journey meant to me.
Long solo journeys on the sea change you. Long journeys require patience, problem-solving, staying power, and independence. Mindset is extremely important. Living expansively is a by-product. One question I'm often asked is WHY. Why take on a journey of this nature? Why solo? And why again?
When I made the decision to paddle the Inside Passage a second time, it felt visceral, coming from my instinct rather than my intellect --- more than just the “I must go to the sea again” mentality or George Mallory's "because it's there" sort of reasoning. Although responding to a deep inner calling, part of my quest was simply the spirit of adventure and a huge dose of aqua-therapy. Water enlivens me and there is now scientific proof (Blue Mind by Wallace Nichols for starters) of how being on, in, or near the water makes us happier, healthier, and more connected.
Other desires included learning more about the Indigenous People, their beliefs, their teachings, art, music, dance, etc. To more consistently acknowledge their presence, their ancestral lands and waters that they have cared for since time immemorial. I ached to slow down and soak in the lessons and learn how to be more authentic. I was also driven to explore, on a deeper level, what it is that has pulled and influenced my life ever since I first slithered my hips into a long, skinny sea kayak on a large glacial-fed lake in northwest Montana 32 years ago.
Two of my biggest goals were about giving back. First, I wanted to use my expedition to inspire and motivate others to steward the oceans. I wanted my expedition to serve as a platform to raise awareness of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) scattered throughout the Great Bear Rainforest, and the pivotal work that Pacific Wild does to protect this globally important ecosystem that I had the privilege of paddling through. I feel this was achieved in spades, thanks in part to our collaboration with Strigo, and the satellite connectivity I had to upload images, voice memos, and short videos while paddling through this beautiful temperate rainforest. Along with highlighting the biodiversity, richness, and abundance that lives in the Great Bear Sea, Pacific Wild was able to bring my journey alive with the brilliant, interactive storytelling platform they created for people to follow along. It was an incredible honor to be the ears, eyes, and voice of the Great Bear Rainforest for a short period of time, bearing witness to the beauty, magic, and threats. Click here to take a deep dive into my MPA paddle. And, thanks to the tenacity and fundraising efforts of the Wells/Trumbull law firm, nearly $40,000 was raised for these Marine Protected Areas! It’s given me great hope that people see value in a project like this one!
My second major goal was to follow in the paddle strokes of the legendary paddler Audrey Sutherland, retracing her route from Ketchikan to Sitka, Alaska. With a few exceptions, mostly due to weather and safety considerations, I was able to follow the route she paddled in the early 80s, as chronicled in her last book "Paddling North." I reveled in some of the same hot springs, waterfalls, and deep, lush bays that she did. I pitched my tent above some of the same beaches she did, laid my head on some of the same Forest Service cabin bunks that she did, and synchronistically met some truly amazing people who remembered Audrey from her 20+ consecutive years of paddling in SE Alaska.
My time spent with Paul and Helena Spong, founders of Orca Lab on Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait, BC was one highlight resulting from my Audrey quest. They viewed Audrey as "one of their favorite people in the world" and I so enjoyed visiting with them! I also had the privilege of staying with Audrey's favorite Alaskan bush pilot, Michelle Masden, owner and operator of Island Wings Air Service in Ketchikan. What began as a business relationship with Michelle dropping Audrey off at remote locations evolved into an endearing friendship. "She turned growing older into one adventure after another, and made me rethink what was possible," Michelle said. Baranof Warm Springs on the east side of Baranof Island was one of Audrey's favorite places to paddle into. Now I know why. My time spent there was absolutely mind-blowing! The generosity and sense of community I experienced during my brief stay there fueled me for the remainder of my journey, not to mention remarkable fodder for my next book, which will be a tribute to the late, great grand dame of expedition paddling.
The busy buzz of summer is winding down and I look forward to settling into the cozy womb of my office and revisiting all that this journey entailed. I relish the solitude and clarity of mind that will come with the shorter, less hectic days of fall and winter. I can hardly wait to listen to all of the interviews I recorded, before the trip and once underway, of people who knew Audrey. I hope to craft a story that will humbly contribute to the legacy of solo female paddlers and explorers who have come before us, ultimately inspiring and motivating women and girls to follow their dreams and pursue their passions. Thanks to my new friend Jim from Baranof Warm Springs for sharing this excerpt from Robert Service's poem "The Spell of the Yukon." It seems fitting here as it repeats a popular motif that the journey is more important than the destination.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
The soaking pools at Baranof Warm Springs are literally over the top!!
Prudence waiting for her paddler.
Yet another waterfall.
Always a good omen.
Good times with new friends.
Sea arch on the north end of Kuiu Island in Alaska.
Baranof Island---enough said!
Lunch break beach.
El Capitan Passage, Prince of Wales Island.
Me and Michelle, Island Wings Air Service adventure extraordinaire!
Good night Alaska.
Totem Bight State Historical Park, near Ketchikan, Alaska.
Shakan Bay, Prince of Wales Island.
A cathedral forest camp.
About to lose my beach---time to go!!
Campania Island bliss.
Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC
Big John Bay cabin, Alaska.
Watch out for the boomers!
Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC.
Discovery Islands, BC.