Paddling on the ocean

Saltwater canoeing in Southeast Alaska has its dangers, rewards

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

Greg Steele is one of a small group of people who prefer paddling in a canoe to kayaking in Southeast Alaska's ocean waters.

"I like being out there in a boat that's not really made for the ocean," he said. "I like the fact that it's a dangerous thing to do."

As a youth growing up on the East Coast, Steele used to take a canoe into the ocean and play in the surf, pointing the bow into the waves and riding them like whitewater.

Besides being a little more "edgy," ocean canoeing offers other advantages over kayaking, he said.

"You can carry more in a canoe," Steele said. "I can bring extra gear for camping, more food and stuff I could never pack into a kayak. A canoe is a lot better for catching fish, too, which is the main reason I go out."

Steele's "big fish" story happened last year in Gastineau Channel.

"I was in the canoe fishing off the mouth of Fish Creek, hooked a king salmon, pulled the anchor up and fought it for three and a half hours with a fly rod and 8-pound test," he said.

"It towed me out toward False Outer Point, where all these sport fishermen were trolling for kings. One guy wanted me to get out of the canoe and onto his boat and fight the king, and I told him, 'No way, the only reason I still have this fish is because I'm in this canoe.' "

The king, which turned out to weigh about 35 pounds, headed back across the bar toward Juneau and eventually gave up, and Steele was able to pull the line up by hand and gaff the salmon.

Steele also said canoeists are able to set and pull up crab pots, which is not possible from a kayak.

Steve Byers, another ocean canoeist, said he likes paddling the long, thin craft for the variety of wildlife he sees along the shore, including bear, deer, porcupine, otter and mink.

"There's so much wildlife under the water too," he said. "You see starfish, crab, mussel beds and all varieties of seaweed."

Before coming to Alaska, Byers canoed in the Florida Keys and along the Everglades Canoe Trail, a water pathway with camping sites, hammocks and other amenities. In Southeast Alaska, he has canoed on trips that involved paddling across open water to Admiralty Island, portaging overland, and paddling across lakes and around smaller islands. A few years ago he took students down Seymour Canal with a school district cultural camp.

"We went out for a week at a time and had a great time paddling up into the bays to explore," he said.

Despite some canoeists' pursuit of danger, most pay close attention to safety, since Alaska's ocean water is so cold you can die of hypothermia in a very short time.

"Take a survival suit as well as a life jacket," Steele recommended. "A life jacket will only keep you afloat, where a survival suit will keep you alive."

Byers carries a VHF radio and global phone for emergencies.

"Always have your gear in dry bags, and an emergency bag with warm clothes and survival gear, in case you flip," he said. "Practice doing a rescue with a swamped boat, and always let someone know where you're going and when you're coming back."

Steele suggested outfitting your canoe with floatation, such as foam fill in the forward and aft compartments or air bags strapped in.

"If you're ever swamped, an aluminum canoe without floatation will sink to the bottom fast," he said.

Byers also warned of dehydration, which can cause mistakes because it affects people's ability to think clearly. Drinking and eating are very important, especially before long crossings where clarity, strength and stamina are vital for making it across safely.

High winds bring larger waves, which are dangerous in a canoe. Where a kayak is built to roll in swells, a canoe will tip over and sink when broadsided by a large wave. Cruise ship wakes can easily swamp a canoe, so it's important to be watching for those, canoeists said.

Another hazard is sea animals, said Byers.

"Remember, you're coming into their territory and they might get aggressive," he said. "An aggressive sea lion will bump your boat, or even bite it. I've had whales come up within a few feet of the boat, but they're more curious and usually just keep going."

Like kayakers, ocean canoeists said they enjoy being on the water without motors and loud sounds. Traveling time is slower and there is more effort involved in getting somewhere, but paddlers have the scenery right at their fingertips. They have the sound of the blade cutting through the water, the waves lapping on the side of the boat and the calls of birds and sounds of sea mammals nearby.

"It's a good feeling to be self-sufficient on the water," said Steele. "It's just you and your boat and your gear. You're not worried about breakdowns. You're not worried about running out of gas. It's just you and the canoe, and that's enough."

Teri Tibbett is a free-lance writer living in Juneau. She can be reached at

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