By Kelly Yelverton
Editor’s Note: Lyons resident Kelly Yelverton recently graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. To celebrate her accomplishment, she and a friend have decided to paddle their sea kayaks on a 1,200-mile journey through the Inside Passage to Alaska. She will be sending updates and photo of her adventure throughout the summer.
Paddling the two hundred miles from Ketchikan to Juneau, we wound our way into increasingly stunning channels and straits. The snowy mountains up here crowd ever closer to the water, and seem to grow larger each day. Just as the views have become
grander, so has the adventure overall. This last stretch has been particularly memorable, and not just because of the appearance of the country.
We made it to Wrangell on July 30, having spent the night on several small beaches, one forest service cabin, and one tiny bug-infested swamp of an island. After one night at the Wrangell Presbyterian Church Hostel, we headed up past the mouth of the Stikine River through the Dry Strait. Now, when mentally preparing for this trip, both Brooke and I knew we were going to face a lot of challenges. We expected sore shoulders, aching arms, and all that upper body stuff. But neither one of us had considered that we might actually spend the larger part of some days walking north instead of paddling!
It turns out “Dry Strait” is an excellent name for the area. About a mile offshore we noticed a flock of birds swimming strangely across the water. As we approached, we realized they weren’t swimming, they were walking. Seconds after this realization we hit bottom in no more than two inches of water. I’m sure it would have been quite amusing to watch the next several hours unfold. For most stretches we found small rivulets of deeper water (four inches) to pull our boats through like stubborn dogs. Occasionally we found five-inch bits, and discovered if we leaned back in the kayaks we could scoot forward in Venetian-gondolier style. In a few sections the muck was deeper than the water; once I stepped into a sinkhole and dropped thigh-deep into the sludge. Brooke fell flat on her behind when she tried to resume walking after a pause and both feet were suctioned into a particularly loose sandy section. I also got to make use of my boat-standing skills, balancing in my kayak upright scanning around for what looked like the best direction to move.
We did eventually escape the tidal flats and were rewarded the following day with car and house-size icebergs, from the LeConte Glacier, to paddle around. But alas, several days later we had another terrestrial experience with our kayaks; this time, however, it was a planned portage three-quarters-of-a-mile across Admiralty Island, from Seymour Canal to Oliver Inlet. The portage is done by trolley over rails. We lashed the kayaks to the rolling cart and secured our gear on top. A minute into the portage I glanced down to find a fresh bear print smack between my own two feet on the boardwalk between the rails. It covered almost the entire width of the 2x4 and made my shoes look child-size. After glancing at each other, Brooke and I immediately burst into a, hopefully, bear-scaring song at an atrocious volume (a paddle-modified “Twelve Days of Christmas”). The rest of the push was beautiful but we didn’t lollygag to look around. Admiralty island has Alaska’s highest concentration of brown bears. They outnumber people on the island 2:1 and are of the larger, coastal variety.
When we took off on the water on other side of the portage we breathed a sigh of relief. We were to reach Juneau that day and the sun and glassy water seemed to promise a pleasant, easy paddle. The dull roar of a waterfall nearby complemented the lake-like conditions of Oliver Inlet. But, there was no cliff-side nearby to hold such a big waterfall. The rumble grew louder. As we rounded the corner the inlet constricted and we could see out into open water. The water on the other side looked strangely lower than where we were. I glanced at my chart. The sounding for the opening to the inlet was a mere half a fathom! That was only three feet! Judging by the noise, the shallow water depth ahead wasn’t going to make for a dry walking experience this time. As we were swept along faster and faster, the larger whitecaps of the tidal rapids came into view.
I’ve done a minimal amount of whitewater kayaking, but that was in a four-foot plastic boat filled with nothing but air. This time I was headed toward a river in a seventeen-foot fully loaded fiberglass boat. The portage options were minimal and the shoreline rocky. Our main concern was damaging our boats. Moving this fast, and having them so weighed-down, if we hit a rock we were sure to badly damage them. Scanning ahead, the frothing stream made an S-curve with dark water down the center. It looked deep enough to pass through unscathed, and with options dwindling we gripped our paddles and pulled hard to position ourselves. We rocketed through the rushing water, maneuvering past rocks and larger rapids. After what was probably only several seconds, we were spit out into the main channel. Looking at each other with raised eyebrows, there was a moment of tense silence, then we simultaneously burst into laughter.
Sent from somewhere north of Portland.