Field Notes | SUP Touring Alaska’s Inside Passage
Photos and words by Paul Clark
I flew to Juneau, Alaska in late-August with my 14-foot iSUP and lightweight camping gear. I was there to paddle the Inside Passage—the fabled network of passages that weaves through islands off Alaska's Pacific coast. My float plan was “no plan;” I arrived with a few itineraries in mind that might unfold depending on the weather. Late August in Alaska can be fickle with rapidly changing conditions.
Hundreds of miles of paddling options are available in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Based on the weather forecast, I decided to paddle from Juneau to Skagway, a 100-mile route of remote coastline with glacier views. Six days would be all I needed for this route. Light south winds and cloudy conditions were in the forecast.
The forecast was wrong. Heavy rain, wind and building south seas allowed me to cross to Shelter Island from Auke Bay as a downwinder with 50lbs of gear and food tethered to my board. I was shooting for a forest service cabin nestled in the woods. By the time I reached it, a Coast Guard zodiac caught up with me. Somebody had called them concerned about why a paddleboarder would be out in such stormy conditions. I tried to convince them I wasn’t being reckless…paddleboarding is uncommon here. SUP touring is virtually unheard of. I was wearing a drysuit and hipbelt PFD. That alone seemed to assure them, and after a bit of discussion, they allowed me continue.
Rain and wind persisted. Then, as if out of a dream, the weather became spectacular on the third day. Sunny, warm and windless. The drysuit, which I would wear both on and off the water as paddling gear and rain protection, was stowed. I made many miles in lake-like conditions wearing boardshorts and sunscreen. Humpback whales, orcas, dall porpoise and sea lions were my distant companions.
Camping along the way, I found myself bedding down in a mixture of rocky beaches and forest. Having the cabin the first night was nice. Tent and tarp is typically my shelter and would be the rest of the way.
Tides are extreme. Low tide exposes dozens of yards of rocky beaches sharp with barnacles and mussels. High tide can flood the forest. Knowing where to camp above the tide line is crucial. Recognizing bear habitat is equally important. Both brown and black bear live here. I avoided any spot that had spawning beds or signs of dead fish. Gravel bars and rivers are out of the question. In the end, I was able to avoid any negative encounters with tides or bears.
On the fifth day, I crossed through the Chilkat Islands where the calm winds grew gusty. Significant winds and big seas in this area had recently stopped a cruise ship from going to Skagway. Though I could have pushed on to Haines, I landed early in the afternoon to enjoy mountain views at a beautiful camp. Rain began again overnight. More importantly, seas developed with gale force winds from the north. I was shut down. A gear-laden board is impossible to paddle against a headwind. Typically summer winds in the Inside Passage are from the south. Summer was gone.
For the next two days I was tent bound and restless. I communicated with my wife with a Delorme InReach. Cell reception turned out to be rare along my route. She informed me days of north winds were to continue without reprieve. Decisions had to be made. I’d run out of food in that time, but have plenty of water. Should I wait it out? Should I flag down a boat when I saw one? There is a trail from the end of the Haines Peninsula that accesses the road. Should I lose ground and paddle south to that point?
I decided to paddle back south to access that point. I had hoped there would be some protection from the winds in the lee of the peninsula. At worse, I’d deflate the board, pack up, and portage the seven-mile trail. There was no protection from the wind, but I did find a good camp near the trail. Prepared to hike, I was pleasantly surprised when a charter boat pulled up in my cove. My wife Angelique had made some calls and arranged for an Alaska Adventure tour to check on me. I accepted the offer for a ride to Haines.
Though I had planned to paddle into town and then continue another day to Skagway, I was happy to enter Haines on the charter. Afterward, I took the ferry back to Juneau and spent the last few days of my two-week trip hiking in the mountains and paddling at the Mendenhall Glacier.
Paddling is supposed to be challenging. Part of its reward is the destination. But mostly, the rewards come from experiences along the way, exhilarating and humbling.
Paddle with Paul on a solo expedition down the Baja Peninsula.
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