Saturday, September 18, 2010

Our story in the Ladner Optimist paper

Saturday, September 4, 2010


While the weather was a considerable challenge in our last leg of the trip, as you can see from our previous post, the kayaking continued to be an amazing experience. In Work Channel, just before Portland Inlet and on the very day that we had the bitter taste of hypothermia, we had a magical close encounter with humpback whales. There was this one family with two cows, a big bull and a calf, who couldn't yet fully dive, right near the mouth of Work Channel and directly in our path. As we got closer, they didn't see us as any threat and just kept on doing their whale things - breath, breath, breath, then dive with their iconic split whale tails slowly sliding into the depths. They got so close to us and were sometimes only a paddle length away! They are gigantic. The part of their backs that surfaced easily dwarfed us and even dwarfed the fishing boats. Much of their mass remains unseen underwater like an iceberg. When they surfaced right beside us, you could tell that our 19 foot kayaks could easily fit inside of them! Good thing they are gentle giants.

We were paddling slow since we were going against the current so we got to spend a lot of time with them. A few times, they would swim right beside our boats and their four sinuous bodies arched and glided through the water. The two cows were often in perfect unison and dive together with two beautiful tails sticking up in the air like synchronized swimmers. The huge bull took the outside path, so closest to me, and often got so close that I could see the texture of the skin on his back and count the vertebrate. A little (little being relative...still the size of our kayaks!) calf kept up with its family but couldn't yet make a full dive with its tail in the air.

Every time after they dove, there would be a suspenseful 5 to 10 minutes before they surfaced again. Thoughts fleeted across our minds, "Where were they? Were the right under us? I sure hope they don't surface onto us!" But there were no worries - they seemed to know where we were though it was always a little jump of surprise when they cam out right beside me!!

The humpbacks continued to accompany us as we entered Alaska. They know no political borders and continued to surface and breach right beside us until we got close to Ketchikan.

On the 73rd day of the trip after launching at Vancouver, we crossed the invisible, imaginary line dividing nations and entered Alaska. There wasn't any fanfare or fireworks and the scenery remained remarkably similar. The only place you'll see a border is on a map. The same little diving birds still peeked their heads above the water and was so round from eating fish that they bounced a bit on the water before flying. The international boundary was completely artificial on the landscape as we crossed on one island to another. It existed in what it meant to people and for us, it meant that we have kayaked over 1100 km, fueled by people power along, almost the entire length of British Columbia. No matter what happens now, we have paddled to Alaska!

Bryan and I was talking on the beach after eating a delicious dinner of crab that night. After seeing our own backyard, we agree that it is one of the best places we have traveled to. It is so beautiful, so safe, so remote and so rich. No other place wold you have lived off the land with such ease as we did. Food is everywhere! We live in an amazing place.

Foggy Bay in Alaska lived up to its name and was foggy. We instead camped out on the nearby DeLong Islands, which weren't that long. There were some extremely shallow intertidal areas between islands that would dry up in low tide and morning these days featured an extremely low tide. The extensive drying sand flats made for an extreme workout in the morning as we carried our heavy kayaks down to water, sometimes almost 2 km away! On the day we got to Foggy Bay, we had to wake up at 4:30am when the tide was higher so we could escape our bay that would completely dry up. Consequently, we were very cautious picking out a camping spot to avoid this morning's hassles.

We find a nice pebble beach that faces outside to the bay in the north end of the islands and found some footprints leading ot the next beach.
"People!" Bryan exclaimed as we saw a neatly and widely spaced rows of identical yellow tents on the next beach.
"Kayakers!" I said excitedly. "Let's go say hi!"
It turns out that they were a kayak sport fishing group from the Ketchikan Kayak Company. The area around here is fantastic of halibut and they are able to catch huge fish off of their kayaks, which are stable sit-on-top "Ocean Kayaks" made for fishing. The owner, Howard, caught and landed a 183 pound halibut here! Absolutely amazing and an impressive display of skill. Our 43 pound halibut that Bryan caught in Namu was quite a struggle from a dock! One of the guys on the tour caught a 18 pound halibut and invited us for feast for lunch. Very nice and professional outfit.

As we paddled past Kah Shakes cove and Boca de Quadra inlet, we came by some rocks completely covered with hundreds of seals. They all slipped into the water with a splash and suddenly, we were surrounded by lots of little seal heads poking out of the water. We drifted through, eating a granola bar snack and the seals seemed torn between curiosity and fear. They would cautiously slink forward and poke their heads out of the water and then flip away with a splash and disappear. Groups of them waited nearby with their beady eyes glued to us. They inched forwards but always seemed surprised by how close they always got and made a quick get away.

We found a nice beach on the islands after. We sat around in the sand and relaxed the afternoon away. It wasn't that warm out and was actually kind of chilly. We are definitely seeing the end of summer. However, it was not raining! Yay! I know I will look back to theses days, chilling out of the beach without a care in the world and realize that we were in paradise.

Again, we say a bunch of big humpbacks on our paddle that day. I am still amazed by how big they get! When their tails come out right in front of us, I am dwarfed by it. I wonder how they know we're around. They always seem to miss us though they do sometimes come up RIGHT BEHIND US for a shockingly surprising breath if we didn't know that there were any whales around.

The next day after, we had a gigantic crossing where we crossed at the mouth of the mouth of Belm Channel. Belm Channel has strong tide currents and we knew that currents are strongest in narrow areas. We decided to take the widest possible crossing at the front, almost mirroring the route that boats would take. The weather was good until the end and we were feeling confident with nearly 3 months of continuous paddling under our belts. We ended up doing over 15km in crossing.

The next day was a drizzly, rainy paddle as we inched closer towards civilization. We could see houses and cars! Funny how just a little time in the bush makes returning to civilization a bit of a culture shock. Our eyes were glued to the buses (BUSES!) and trucks that drove by on a road. We were still over 10km away from Ketchikan proper but already signs of civilization was bombarding our senses. We could hear the rumble of the many float planes and helicopters as they whirled above our heads. We could feel the wakes of increasing boat traffic as we got closer to Ketchikan gently bounce our boats. The homes in Ketchikan's suburbs (SUBURBS! CRAZY!) are getting more and more visible. I can almost taste our victory burger and bear.

We had intended to spend another night camping but it was raining and the lure of our final destination was too much. The buildings beckoned to us. This was our goal for nearly the last 3 months and it was in sight! I could see the giant cruise ships docked in Ketchikan harbour and I know that our docking area was right before them. We were nearly there! It would be silly to stop now! Especially to camp in the rain within sight of the warm, dry finish line!

The cruise ships were actually a little deceiving. We were still about 10km away. It was just that the cruise ships were so giant that it looked close. As we got to Thomas Basin in Ketchikan Harbour, we were wet and cold but really excited.

The trip has really taught me that you can do anything. Nothing is impossible unless you think it is so. Impossible is just a frame of mind. While we can't physically fly, we can invent tools and find a way. When we were faced with headwinds and enormous waves, we woke up at the crack of dawn before the wind was awake. Stoke by stroke in the water and we have paddled pretty much the entire coast of BC.

The challenge, I think, is sometimes getting overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. I was certainly crushed in Bella Bella when I realized that we had about 600km left to go in about a month when I thought we only had 300km. However, by obsessing about the future and always worried about the end, you loose the pleasure of the detail in the present. The landscapes are stunning and beautiful, the paddling is invigorating and meditative, the places you stumble into are hidden paradises and the people you meet are wonderful. You would miss all that in a rush.

Projects such as these are so big that it is easy to panic or give up hope as the results are drawn out over a wide stretch of time and space. However, you just have to take it a day at a time and in the end, nearly 3 months later, we find ourselves in Ketchikan, Alaska. We can do it. Human strength is an amazing thing. We just need confidence, patience and a hell of a lot of determination.

It is the same for malnutrition. Malnutrition in Africa is a huge, complex problem with many pitfalls and depressing stories about its tangled webs of cause and effect. However, something as simple as an egg a day to children and we can end it.

After a bunch of beers, we stumble to church. The youth hostel here in Ketchikan is run by the local Methodist church and features separate female and male dorms. We went to check out the other hostel in town, Eagleview Hostel, but the man was rude and the couples room was booked. The Youth Hostel was super friendly and welcoming though so we gladly returned. We closed our eyes, tucked away in our warm, dry sleeping bags on a bed under a roof. My feet were dry and my sleeping bag was not clammy or cold.
"We made it! We have kayaked to Alaska!"
The excitement still raced though my mind as the sheer immensity of our trip is still kind of surreal and unbelievable. However, even the excitement was no match for our comfortable beds and our tiredness and we drift off to sleep.


As a last note, we have had a surprising lack of donations. I was wondering if anyone has any trouble with the website. If anyone has experienced any trouble with PayPal or wants to donate without going through PayPal, please contact me personally through my email ( or Santiago, the director of the charity (

Thank you for all your support and well wishes on this amazing journey!!!

On weather...

Our last leg of the journey was perhaps the hardest. We were getting tired but the lure of Ketchikan was seemed finally within grasp. The whole trip until this point, we had enjoyed unspeakably good weather...that is, we couldn't speak about it! We have enjoyed perfect conditions this entire trip: slightly overcast and calm in the morning when we paddled clearing away to an amazingly sunny and windy afternoon when we could enjoy camp and do the food gathering close by camp. However, every time we told people we had good weather, then it rained! It happened to us when we told people in Klemtu, then we had those rainy days in Cougar Bay when we went searching for spirit bear of the Pacific rainforest and only found rain in the forest. I guess the weather was like, "Well, I've been awfully nice to you and here you go ruining my reputation!" So we didn't speak about the weather and enjoyed amazing days.

...This worked until the last part of our trip. Around Prince Rupert, the weather seemed to drastically change. The fog around Prince Rupert was so thick that when we were trying to get to Kitson Island, just outside of Prince Rupert, we couldn't see the island even though we were right infront of it. There is something slightly unnerving about an island that runs away from you as you try to paddle to it. That was Kitson for us. On our approach to Prince Rupert, we had started our 12km crossing from Lewis Island and Kelp Passage, passing Genn and Little Genn Island, towards Kitson when Kitson dissappeared in the fog. We unconsciously started paddling towards Smith Island, which we didn't intend to but could see a hazy point in the fog. When we were under a kilometer away, we still coudln't see Kitson Island...or anything else for that matter. The current made a disconcerting twist on things as a heading on a compass helped until you drifted to a different perspective.

We finally caught that tricky island and was rewarded by the sun coming out in all her glory revealing a beautiful sandy beach with water that was an amazing turquoise, sparkling sapphire. Porpoises meandered by in pods. Porpoises are like the laid back version of dolphins and seem to slowly casually swim about instead of the jump, jump, JUMP! of dolphins which always seem like they're racing to some appointment that they are late for. Kitson Island is a gorgeous place and totally recommended... if you can find it!

The next weather challenge was crossing Portland Inlet. Portland Inlet sort of divides Canada from Alaska. I say sort of beacuse it is a little messier than that with some islands on the northern shore in Canada. The northern shore of the inlet fades into the mist as we begin our 8 km crossing. Portland Inlet is completely open to Chatham Sound and is very long. It is over 100km in length making it the the longest fjord in North America! The length, which winds get funneled down and picks up speed, plus the openness make for notoriously bad conditions. As we got around the middle, the calm and drizzly conditions quckly deteriorated as wind gusted down the channel, picking up wild whitecapped waves. The rain downpours and the water covers my glasses. I can bearly see and the raindrops pelt my face and stings my eyes. The shape of Tracy Island was only a faint outline in the fog that was visible if you stared intently and the rest of the shore right behind it remained cloaked in white. It was a very wild and wet crossing that took our complete concentration.

As we were able to see more of the shore, Boston Islands and the mainland becoming faintly visisble, there was a feeling of relief. Yay! We had almost made it and was virtually on Alaksa's doorstep!

However, Alaska would have to wait a couple more days. We landed on a little island just off of Wales Island with Alaska as the next set of islands across Tongass Passage as we were cold, shivering and on the verge of hypothermia. The rain continued to pour so we set up an old tarp in the forest. Even after changing, Bryan and I were shivering wrecks. I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and go to sleep. However, that was a very bad idea. A good idea was to keep moving and doing stuff. We went through our usual motions - I prepped hot chocolate and cookies then dinner and he carved out camp. By 6pm, we crawled into our nice dry tent into our sacks of delightful warming.

The next morning, we woke up to the downpouring rain pelting our tarmp and promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. Weather systems will pass and as yesterday's taste of hypothermia was still very fresh, we decided to take a rest day and stay warm and dry. Alaska was so close but would just have to wait another day.

For the rest of the trip, we danced with the rain. There were beautiful sunny breaks but for the most part, we weaved in and out of misty, drizzly weather. Big, fat raindrops showered as we kayaked down the coastline of Alaska's Misty Fjordlands, living up to its misty name. The wet weather made the trip considerably harder as all our stuff became damp and clammy, if not completely wet. My clothes supply diminished steadily as I couldn't dry stuff and then when I could, it had been sitting wet in my kayak for so long it stunk like you couldn't imagine. Wet weather at the end of the trip has made me realize that we have been so lucky to have amazing weather for most of the trip. Bad weather makes the trip considerably more uncomfortable and challenging. I don't know if we would have made it if it had been really wet in the beginning!