Kayaker fulfills long-distance dream in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Dennis Eagan spends most of his time in the foothills of California's Sierra Mountains these days, but there was a time when he called Alaska home. Back then, sitting in a kayak paddling along a wild coastline was the epitome of his ultimate day.

As one of Alaska's most accomplished coastal kayakers, Eagan returned to the state this month to take part in the annual Alaska Sea Kayaking Symposium at Alaska Pacific University, which brings together paddling enthusiasts from around the state.

Eagan was scheduled to talk about his 10-year solo quest to paddle the waters from Sitka to Kodiak, retracing the steps of early kayak - or baidarka - travelers at the end of the 17th century. Eagan has just completed the manuscript for a book on the trek and will share insights from his experience.

We caught up with Eagan at his home in Coloma, Calif., just before he headed back here for the symposium. We asked him to share some of his favorite memories of his Alaska sea kayaking days.

Q. When and how did you end up in Alaska?

A. I moved to Alaska in '89, right after the (Exxon Valdez) oil spill. I spent a few summers kayak guiding and got interested in the history of the kayak and the traditional route toward the end of the 17th century for those great kayak fleets of 1,000 paddlers from Kodiak to Sitka and back. I got really inspired by this Native history, and the largest skinboat fleets history had ever known.

Q. So you decided to retrace that route?

A. In 1991 I went to Sitka that spring, hoping to paddle all the way to Kodiak. I thought it would take maybe two months - or maybe all summer. I went in early May, which I decided later wasn't too good an idea because at Icy Point (south of Lituya Bay in Glacier Bay National Park), the northwest winds were blowing 20 knots and the idea of paddling huge sections of coastline in head winds was not good.

The next year I went back to Sitka and tried again. This time I made it to Yakutat (before being turned back by weather). Over the next several years, I tried to go to Kodiak, but the weather - I always struggled with that.

Q. So the weather then played a huge role in piecing this Sitka-to- Kodiak trek together?

A. I struggled with that and I loved that too about Alaska. You are humbled by that experience, and you have to let go of your goals and objectives but still hold on to your vision. ... I was a kayak guide in the summertime and always trying to squeeze these trips in between the weather and the guiding season. I chipped away at the different legs, and eventually I made it from Homer to Kodiak in 1997.

Q. How did the experience lead to writing a book?

A. At the end of 1997, I left Alaska to study yoga and thought I'd be back in a few years but ended up staying in California. I was teaching a yoga class workshop one day and one of the students asked me if I'd ever thought of writing a book (on the trek). She was a writing coach and said, 'I'd like to trade yoga instruction with you for writing coaching.' Once it got going, I just spewed out the pages. I'm actually ready to send out proposals now. Who knows how long it will take to find a publisher? That could be a longer process than the paddle.

Q. Were you the first to accomplish this trip?

A. No, not at all. Other accomplished paddlers have done more exciting trips too, and the first modern paddlers to do this stretch were Bob Peck and Martin Leonard.

Q. How was it traveling solo?

A. I love doing things by myself in the wilderness, and I love time alone. But it can be a challenge, because there are risks. There were stretches out in the Gulf of Alaska between Prince William Sound and the Inside Passage that it was risky, and you almost question the sanity. It's intense, so sometimes it doesn't leave you time to enjoy the scenery when you're concentrating on just paddling through it.

Q. What are some of the most memorable moments on the trek?

A. The wildlife experience in ocean paddling is fairly unparalleled. If you go out into Prince William Sound to a place where there is a moraine, you will see sea otters. If you go where there are glaciers, you will see seals. In the open water, there will be sea lion haulouts. The bird rookeries, all of the wildlife, is part of it.

Another specific memory is seeing a humpback being attacked by at least one orca, but my guess is a few more were there. They paddled 75 yards across my bow.

Another incredible place I really enjoyed was camping at the traditional campsites that the early travelers used. One of those is in Lituya Bay in Glacier Bay National Park. It has an amazing history (including one of the largest-recorded-ever tsunamis in 1958), and I think it's one of the most dynamic places on the planet.

Q. What do you do if you can't be outdoors?

A. When I am not outdoors I like to spend time on the yoga mat, up to two hours a day. And I have been enjoying the process of writing as well, though I find it quite challenging.

Q. Yoga seems a fairly natural extension of sea kayaking, don't you think?

A. I find many similar links between paddling and yoga, and I teach yoga now as well as kayaking. I sort of feel like yoga helps my paddling, and paddling has helped my yoga. Water is a great feature and can teach you if you are trying to force something.

Q. Got an Alaska hero?

A. My Alaskan heroes are the kayak cultures of the North Pacific, the Unangan People of the Aleutian Islands and Sugpiat People of Kodiak and Prince William Sound regions.

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