Rite of Passage

A group of kayakers embark on an exhausting journey along British Columbia's breathtaking coastline

The first time I saw the Inside Passage was from the deck of the Queen of the North as it slid down the narrow passages on its way from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy. It was such an intimate experience. I felt as though I could have reached out and touched the walls of the channels as we glided past. The shore was an endless fortress of trees and rock, all swabbed in low-hanging mist. Even today, more than five years later, I remember that first encounter so vividly; the memories are so clear.

The Inside Passage runs from Puget Sound in Washington, along the entire length of British Columbia to the Alaskan panhandle. In B.C. alone, there are 40,000 kilometres of coastline. Its a series of channels and passages, inlets and archipelagoes all protected from the big swells of the Pacific Ocean. The onshore ocean flow into the mountain ranges causes large amounts of rain to fall, creating the largest remaining tract of unspoiled temperate rainforest in the world. It is a remarkable wilderness in the unique connection between the marine environment and the terrestrial one. Salmon hold the key; they are the link between the ocean and the land. As they swim up streams to spawn, they become food for bears and wolves. Their nutrients sustain the land animals as well as provide the nitrogen that allows for the development of the massive forests that define the landscape.

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It is a place that enchants, captivates and hooks you. You cannot be there and remain unaffected. It is mysterious and wild, delicately interconnected and unimaginably vast. I knew from the first time I saw it that Id be back.

The best way to explore the Inside Passage is by kayak. It provides an exclusive experience. You can access channels bigger vessels cannot. You are a few inches off the water and a few feet from land. Your vantage point is intimate and unfettered. You paddle along the shoreline and camp on land. You feel a connectivity that other travellers cannot. This was how I wanted to experience the Inside Passage again. I wanted a vehicle that gave me the flexibility to explore at my own pace and that allowed me to move from the marine environment to land seamlessly.

As always in life, saying you want to do something and actually doing it are two different things. Commitment is hard to come by these days. Our lives are so busy its often hard to break free. Committing to a five-week expedition is even harder to do. Five people committing to a five-week expedition begins to look like it was engineered by some perfect cosmic alignment.

That first moment, the one when the trip ceases to be an idea and suddenly becomes real is the most difficult moment to attain. Looking back on all the hard moments, I think that initial decision, that initial commitment was the hardest. Saying that one little word yes is so difficult. Taking the necessary steps to make a trip happen is so daunting.

Everything lies ahead. All the planning, the decisions about work and how to arrange your life have to be faced. And yet commitment, not hard skills or experience is the only thing you need to make any adventure happen. You have to be willing to make it a priority, above all else. I was able to do that, and whats more, four other people were able to also.

The team consisted of five paddlersall friends before the trip. We all had expedition experience, but not in kayaks and not on the ocean. The challenge was not so much completing the journey itself, but getting ourselves ready to go on the journey. Our goal was to paddle from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Ketchikan, just inside the Alaskan border, a distance of about 700 kilometres.

The first step was to find boats. It was a great test of our commitment. I found mine used at a post-season rental fleet sale on Jericho Beach. I got a huge Necky Tesla, 18-feet long, stable, tank-like. Never have a few millimetres of fibreglass inspired so much confidence. I kept mine in a slot at Granville Island for easy access and to get out and paddle as much as possible.

In the early months, the five of us met about once a month to talk shop. We assigned duties, wrote gear lists, created Excel spreadsheets, bought charts, read guidebooks and talked to everyone who had heard of the Inside Passage. We paddled one night a week, blocked spots in our calendars for longer trips and clinics with instructors. With five people, the work was spread out into manageable pieces.

As the trip grew closer, we spent more time planning, prepping, shopping. We built the menu, dehydrated most of our own food, marked charts, loaded up the GPS, built sails for the boats, and customized the seats and braces. Everything came together in the last two weeks as we physically collected everything in one place.

On June 10, 2010 we drove our boats and gear from Vancouver and launched our trip from a Port Hardy marina. It took us more than three hours to pack our boats that first morning and it would be days before we figured out the perfect packing method and streamlined our gear-management system. It was the start of a lesson in efficiency.

The one thing that nobody had told us about kayak tripping is that it has very little to do with paddling. It is all about managing your gearpacking, unpacking, keeping track of it, carrying it up and down beaches. Nailing that aspect is key to any successful trip.

We paddled out into a calm morning, the first of 34 days of paddling and exploring. The landscape varied from low rock shores with weathered trees to steep-walled, mist-filled fjords. The wildlife, especially the marine life, was plentiful and curious. It is a humbling experience to not be the star of the show for a change. You are a silent witness, and the show goes on with or without you, or as if you werent even there. You never knew when you would round a corner and interrupt sea lions fighting, dine with otters hacking open their own dinner or sit nosing a group of humpbacks.

The walls of the shore themselves were alive. Covered from high tide line to the ocean floor with layers mussels, barnacles, algae, starfish, laid out like a geological strata, each existing in a pre-ordained niche zone, each uniquely coloured.

Perhaps what surprised me the most were the incredible beaches we came across. They seemed so improbable. We would paddle all day beside impenetrable forests, rock and steep impassible shorelines, and then our marked campsites would appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they were vast stretches of open beach; sometimes they were small pockets of white sand. We pulled into these treasures and had them all to ourselves. And when the sun shone through the crystal clear water and heated the sand we could be forgiven for thinking we were in paradise.

As you travel along, the life you left behind begins to feel far away. You take life at a completely different pace, at the speed of a kayak. And suddenly life becomes very simple. There is no tomorrow. There is only the next mile or the next meal. You live in the moment. It is nice to have a different set of priorities and to take life at a different speed.

We ate and lived well. The expedition kayaks we had were massive and held the food and gear we needed for the whole trip. We restocked on fresh food in Bella Bella and later in Prince Rupert, but everything else came with us the whole way. We had massive amounts of chocolate, energy bars and nuts. Most days we ate a cold breakfast, and on mornings where we had more time, we whipped up pancakes and slathered them with Nutella. We always took a break at lunch, stretched out and ate massive amounts of peanut butter crackers.

Dinner was typically pasta or rice, pad Thai, tortellini, red/green curry, burritos. We had brownie and muffin mixes. Often we had fresh fish to supplement dinner. Aside from maybe a cold beer, I lacked for nothing. There was never a time when I craved anything or went hungry.

There is a human element to the Inside Passage as well. The West Coast native people live and draw their entire existence from the rich food resources available on the coast.

There is a history of fishing and canning, power generation and timber extraction. The whole route has ruins and ghost towns and evidence of a wealth of resources valuable enough to invest in their removal. The biggest, widest channels also form a working shipping route for cargo ships, cruise ships and ferries.

When we pulled into the government wharf in Ketchikan on July 14, 2010, none of us wanted the trip to be over. It is an amazing thing to paddle 34 days with people, to push and to be pushed and in the end be disappointed that things have come to an end.

We raised glasses, we had a lot to celebrate: that we, five ordinary people, had executed an expedition. That we had organized our lives to realize an idea. That we had not been intimidated by the unknown. That we had used planning and commitment in place of experience. That we had paddled 700 kilometres together.

It is my hope this story encourages anyone whoever had an idea for an adventure to get out there and do it. We did it. So can you.

To view a short film, No Experience Required, about the trip, which takes a little more in depth look at the adventures we had along the way, go to vimeo.com/21418425.

Chrischowaniec@hotmail.com

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