Field Notes: An Open Agenda in Alaska’s Inside Passage
by Paul Clark
And Then, There Was One (Blade)
The board is rolled and the gear packed. By this time tomorrow, I'll be on my way back to Alaska. It's been some time since I paddled such northern waterways, but my memories are fond and familiar. How could it be with scenery this spectacular? I spent many immaculate seasons guiding sea kayak tours based out of Haines or Juneau. But an undeniable love affair with SUP some years back led me to surrender my seated ways, and I haven't had any desire to sit back down since. It seemed my paddling days on the Inside Passage were finally numbered. Or so I thought.
Now, here I am. Board and bags packed, paddle parted in pieces and (single-blade) securely stowed, safety gear and sustenance stored in dry bags that will soon bear the Alaskan elements atop the deck of a paddleboard, not in the bow of a boat. This expedition is a kind of homecoming for me. I land in Juneau tomorrow, where for my first time, I will attempt a SUP tour in the rugged waterways of Alaska's Inside Passage.
With carefully selected gear lashed to my board in dry bags, I'll put in solo near Juneau and start paddling. What separates this trip from my usual expedition approach—I am embarking with a completely open itinerary for the next two weeks. I have a round trip ticket from Oregon to Juneau that gives me two full weeks before I'll be deposited back in the lower-48. Until then, I'll let the region's weather (world-renowned for its unpredictability) and my mood (a bit more predictable than the weather) dictate what I do and where I go from there. I may take the ferry down to Wrangell, about 150 miles south of Juneau, then paddle back up along the coast entering Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm, and Taku Inlet—a path that retraces the canoe routes of John Muir. Or, I may paddle north to Haines and Skagway. The expedition could range anywhere from 150 to 250 miles. Regardless of which route I choose, I am certain to experience remote and wonderful wilderness. With my 14-foot inflatable I am open to a range of experiences and I'll be able to adapt to most any circumstance.
Danger: An Inevitable Variable
There will be glaciers, hemlock forest, whales and bears. There will be plenty of "liquid sunshine," or, as most people know it, rain. The Inside Passage has long been a test piece for adventurers. The weather can be brutal, as can be the wildlife. I've been asked, "Are you bringing a gun?" No, but I am bringing a drysuit, and plan to wear it every day on the water. I'm more concerned about hypothermia than bear attacks. That said, I am extremely conscious of the bear habitat and I plan to do everything I can to avoid contact with bears. Both black and brown bears live in abundance where I will be paddling and camping, likely outnumbering the human occupants by a long shot. Coexistence is often the best defense against wildlife not conditioned to human populations. You are not food, but you can be in their way. The goal is, don't be in their way.
Paddleboarding isn't the typical craft there, but I hope to show its versatility and practicality in this type of extreme environment. Aboriginal Tlinkit and Haida natives paddled dugout canoes there for hundreds of years. It's truly an honor to paddle in areas where such a tradition exists. Away from crowds, paddling deep into the solitude of wilderness, shrouded in mist and aware of life bigger than one's own; that's something I can't get enough of. Paddleboarding is how I reach these places. And besides, it's less the destination and more the experience. See you on the other side.
Stay tuned to SUPthemag.com for updates on Paul's journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage.
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