Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States and, although its shores can be treacherous, miles of gorgeous waterways are relatively placid in the lee of sheltering islands. The largest and, for many, most accessible of these waterways is the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. The region is a magnet for cruise ships and tour boats, but kayaking is the best way to get close to wild sea and shore.
Tim Lydon, who worked for a decade as a kayaking forest ranger in Southeast, has turned an ambitious kayaking trip into an equally ambitious book about the coast. In 1996, he and his friend Bill Bastian set out from Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to paddle roughly a thousand miles to Juneau.
"Even on the most miserable, rain-soaked adventures when warmth and comfort seemed impossibly distant the region's glacially carved landscape and intimate mixture of land and sea have always been magical and luring to me," he writes in his preface.
The details of the trip provide the book's framework and focus, but Lydon adds abundant background material about the region's human and natural history, past and present. Also included are sidebars offering tips for kayaking and camping, regional maps and a selection of color and black-and-white photographs.
Much of the tale deals with daily routines of paddling up the coast: rain, wind, tide and currents; setting up camp to cook trail food under a tarp, hanging provisions in trees to avoid bear problems and sleeping in a small, damp tent. But surprises punctuate the narrative: getting caught in a gale, stuck on mudflats and discovering wonderful hospitality among strangers in isolated places such as Tsimshian villages or lighthouses.
Lydon compares his travels with pioneers of the region, discussing the routes of Native settlement, early mapping endeavors by George Vancouver's crew in the 1790s, and John Muir's glacier studies in the late 19th century. At one point, he and Bill rejoice to find themselves along Taku Inlet sleeping on the same patch of flat rock where Muir described bivouacking.
The author touches on modern issues such as Southeast logging management and cruise ship pollution, but he is more interested in exploring the landscape than controversies.
The book starts with some klunky prose but, as in kayaking, Lydon seems to find a stronger rhythm as he continues. Soon he catches the reader in the current of his tale and the pages glide by. He conveys a sense of both the lyrical and the dramatic, and his evocative descriptions of the rain forest and misty fjords are engrossing.
"For us, the coast had become textures we felt daily soft moss, wet leaves, cold rockweed, smooth drift logs that we never would have known from beyond the windows of a boat. Its soundtrack surrounded us. Ravens, gulls, wings on water, twigs snapping in the night, barnacles
crunching under rubber boots things we could not have heard beyond the drone of an engine," he writes. "Each day, as the rain washed over us, our senses became more intimately attuned to the coast."
Of course, the duo's sailing was not all smooth. As soon as they set out they found themselves far from shore in Queen Charlotte Strait in such high seas that they regretted embarking. They ended up stuck for days with the generous caretakers of the lighthouse on Pine Island, which since has been automated.
Later in the trip they braved the chronic, demoralizing precipitation, bushwhacked through steep alder thickets, picked their way through treacherous ice bergs and, as spring advanced into summer, finally confronted the man-eating insects of the north woods. Yet they deemed it worthwhile for the views of turquoise and white glaciers, giant trees crowned in mist, bears grazing on sedges and whales blowing nearly within arm's reach.
All this makes for a likable book and a good read.
It would have been even better, however, had the editing been more meticulous. Typos mar the maps and a few bloopers crept in the text, such as Lydon's fractured version of Vitus Bering's voyage to Alaska. Another frustration is that the detail maps show the travels of Vancouver's sailors, but not the author.
Despite those flaws, "Passage to Alaska" has many charms. It is a wonderful way to experience the Inside Passage without getting wet.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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