"Weight doesn't matter," said Larry Fanning, trying to interest me in a seven-day, 70-mile kayak trip.
"We can take anything we want as long as it fits into the kayak," he said.
Then he held up a giant frying pan he was planning to use as an oven to bake pineapple-upside-down cake on the trip. The size of the frying pan was impressive, especially considering the meager provisions Fanning and I usually bring on backcountry hiking trips. When he mentioned baked chocolate brownies I made the leap and signed up for his expedition from Pelican to Hoonah.
Since I never learned to swim, I was nervous about anything to do with water, but the extensive kayak experience of Fanning and Alan Davis, who also signed on, was reassuring. Davis has a computer background with the state and as we sat around Fanning's dining room table planning our spring journey his ability to calculate things, particularly risks, impressed me. The other member of our little expedition was Tom Wagner, a local attorney. Wagner's lack of kayak experience was equally reassuring because it meant I would have company as I stumbled through what was clearly going to be a learning experience.
In addition, we were neighbors on Starr Hill and all 50-something. That meant there would be plenty of ibuprofen to go around.
As we left Juneau on the state ferry the weather was a pleasant high overcast, but it darkened as the LeConte traced the route we were about to kayak. By the time we off-loaded our kayaks in Pelican the sky was dark and it was raining heavily.
"Whose idea was this trip anyway," said Wagner. We all eyed Fanning and laughed, nervously as Wagner later noted.
As we paddled away from Pelican, into the rain and wind, it occurred to me that it wasn't always going to be easy to find a place to land, even in a kayak. Along much of the Southeast coast the earth rises directly out of the water with no beach - just cliffs and jagged rocks. Lacking flat land, the fishermen who settled Pelican had to build on pilings, with only a boardwalk connecting the community.
After two hours of paddling we reached our first camping site, which I knew would have a beach because I owned the land. As I confidently paddled onto the beach I detached my spray skirt, preparing to jump out of the cockpit. The next thing I knew I was in the water, the waves washing me up on the beach. Another thing occurred to me as I clumsily got to my feet and fell backwards over the kayak that had just pulled up behind me. Dampness was going to be a perennial problem on this trip.
Two very wet days later, despite our excellent gear, things were indeed a bit damp. Although hypothermia wasn't an immediate threat, the possibility made us start to think. Fanning spotted a huge tarp abandoned on a rocky beach, which he grabbed to use as a roof over our tents. This improved camping tremendously by keeping the rain off the tents.
We also started taking a second look at Elfin Cove, a tiny community that catered to commercial fishermen and charter fishing boats. Originally we had only planned to stop for a meal, but now with soggy clothes, damp sleeping bags and water-saturated tents, a Laundromat and a dry room sounded alluring.
As we left Lisianski Inlet to turn east towards Elfin Cove and we met open ocean. Although the rain had lessened, the wind had picked up, adding waves to huge gray-green ocean swells that were crashing against two rock pillars we needed to pass between. Controlling the direction of the kayak was difficult. The wind would push in a different direction from where I wanted to go. The result was kind of a skidding action. Wagner, who was only 20 yards away, would disappear into the trough of a swell and then reemerge above me.
Davis led our approach while Fanning kept an eye on me. To my uninitiated mind the twin columns looked like a gate at end of the known world.
"Can we make it through?" Fanning yelled over the roar of the waves. Davis bobbed up and down, studying the situation.
"No, I don't think so," Davis shouted. "Let's go back."
Mentally and physically you have to have a way back if things don't work out, Fanning said later about our planned route. Physically you need to be close enough to a shelter like a beach, cove or inlet. Mentally you have to be willing to turn around.
"Our objective was to get home safely, so the thing to do was to go back and wait it out," Fanning said. Wagner said he liked the way Davis sized up the risk rather than just blasting through.
As we ate lunch on a small beach within sight of the columns, the wind began to die down and the sea transformed itself into gently rolling swells. Despite the better weather, I was tense as we approached the columns for a second time. I didn't want to turn around again, I just wanted to get it over with. My stomach tightened as we maneuvered the kayaks closer to the columns. Water boiled up white around rocks that were invisible beneath the waves. Davis caught a giant swell that picked him up and carried him though the gate in a grand fashion.
"I could hear him behind me yelling 'Whee.' He was having a great time," said Wagner.
My passage was less dramatic, but I made it through and that was what mattered.
The next day as we approached Elfin Cove we stopped to check our location. What we looked at were charts, not maps. Charts show shoreline characteristics, water depth, rock outcroppings and currents. Maps show landmass like elevation and ridgelines. The relationship between charts and maps reminded me of my military experience and the relationship between the Army and Navy. Neither side cares to acknowledge the existence of the other. In other words, charts have very few land features. In order to figure out where Elfin Cove was we were forced to use some basic land (sorry Navy) navigation skills involving a compass, terrain association, and the knowledge of the difference between grid and magnetic north. In kayaking, like hiking, a small mistake in navigation can mean a huge expenditure of energy making up for it.
In Elfin Cove we rented a room over the Laundromat. We ate pizza at the local restaurant run by Bill and Shirley Perkins while our gear tumbled in the dryers. As we ate, another customer told us that the previous night a lone kayaker had flipped over while going through South Inian Pass, our next objective. The woman had apparently righted herself and survived. Although we had no way of confirming the story, after Column Point none of us had trouble mentally picturing the incident and it wasn't pleasant. All I could think of was she must have been one heck of an athlete to have been able to climb back in the kayak on her own.
Getting outfitted for the trip
In all, food, lodging and ferry tickets for the seven-day kayak trip from Pelican to Hoonah came to about $220 each. Anyone considering a similar trip should check out "Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southeast Alaska" by Jim Howard.
The kayaks were able to carry plenty of supplies, including extra clothing and footwear, fresh water and two tents. And, of course, plenty of food.
Meat frozen prior to the start of the trip was used for dinners. Fresh fruit and salad was consumed early in the trip. Dry ingredients for pancakes were mixed prior to the trip, then eggs and canned milk were added to the mix. Peanut butter and jelly, canned meat and cheese were used for sandwiches. At night, the food was hung from a tree in trash bags.
Larry Fanning's oven idea was successful. A metal top was placed over the frying pan and charcoal placed under and on top of the pan created an oven effect.
The kayakers also carried a hand held VHF marine radio to communicate with boats in the immediate area, a cell phone and a Class B Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). For backup they also carried whistles, mirrors and flares.
South Inian Pass and its tides had been a topic of considerable discussion between Fanning and Davis before the trip started. The narrow pass seven miles north of Elfin Cove is known for strong tidal currents, but we needed to go through it to reach the South Passage of Icy Strait, and eventually Hoonah. Now, as I listened to Fanning and Davis discuss our strategy, I envisioned all the tidal water from the Inside Passage raging out of South Inian Pass at once. I imagined a concoction of ocean swells, undertows, countercurrents and whirlpools with us in the middle.
Our plan was to go through the pass at slack tide, the short period of time when there is no tidal action. We arrived at the pass early and pulled into a cove to await slack tide, which was scheduled to happen at noon, about an hour away.
"I was all tensed up about the pass," said Wagner, but as he paddled through the ocean swells he could hear Davis, a member for the local opera, humming a piece of an operetta. "It calmed me down because I could tell that he wasn't worried. (I thought) 'It's OK, we're going to survive this trip.' It's amazing that a little craft like a kayak can handle that kind of action."
As we left the pass behind us it was covered by fresh, dark rain squalls coming in from the ocean. In front of us were breaking clouds highlighted by a double rainbow. Whales were everywhere, blowing. One even raised its tail straight up in air and slapped the water three times. By now I had my paddling stroke down and with little help from the wind and tide I could feel a sense of power as I propelled the kayak through the water.
"We were just four guys out on the ocean making our way along and having a good time," said Wagner.