What is the Inside Passage and why is it popular with kayakers?
In 1896, gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Within a year, people from all over the United States were heading west toward San Francisco and Seattle hoping to get passage on a ship to the goldfields. The route north that these ships took, wound through thousands of small islands off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. Since this passage was protected from the sometimes-violent sea conditions encountered along the outside waters of the Pacific Ocean it came to be known as the Inside Passage.
The Inside Passage is the only place in the world where a kayaker can paddle over 1,200 miles along an ocean shoreline, be protected from ocean swells for essentially the entire time, be exposed to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere, and remain within the protections of a first world Democratic country. Besides these major considerations, you can add the logistical conveniences. There are numerous populated areas at frequent intervals along the route that provide opportunities for re-provisioning, medical assistance, communication, law enforcement, public transportation and rescue assistance.
Nowhere else in the world is this combination of factors available to the average kayaker, and if you just happen to live in the US or Canada it is right at your doorstep. There may be more exotic or beautiful places in the world to explore, but for a kayaker wanting to put down some miles, the Inside Passage is hard to beat.
Why paddle the Inside Passage?
The first time I heard of the Inside Passage was around 1980 when I had become interested in sea kayaking. The idea was intriguing, a way to paddle all the way from Washington State to Skagway Alaska, without being exposed to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. At the time, I considered it something to read about but beyond my capabilities both in skill and in time available. I had just started a new business and had two little ones at home that made it difficult to get away for a weekend much less the months necessary to complete such a voyage. The idea of paddling the Inside Passage was put in the back of my mind but never forgotten. Over the years, I was able to complete some challenging but shorter kayak and canoe trips that gave me the experience and confidence necessary to paddle this incredible route.
On August 29, 2005, my whole life changed, along with millions of other people who lived along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina hit. My home and business was destroyed, but I was lucky, and managed to salvage most of my personal possessions. I sold what was left of my home and business, and helped my best friend gut and then rebuild her flooded home. After over a year of rebuilding, the job was finished and it was time to take a break. For the first time in my adult life, I had few responsibilities, no house, no kids, and no business. It was time to plan a trip.
I got online and searched for all the information I could find on the Inside Passage, read every book on the subject, and started looking over the charts and maps that covered the route. It was starting to look more doable though still intimidating. I had most of the equipment necessary already and now had the time and opportunity to try it. Also at 55 years old I was not getting any younger so if it was ever going to be done the time was now.
Planning the Trip
There were many questions that I needed answers to before I could seriously start planning a trip through the Inside Passage.
In which direction should I paddle, south to north or north to south?
Where will I start and end the trip?
Can I do it solo, or should I try to find others to join me?
How much will it cost for things like equipment, travel, and time away from work?
Can I handle it, both physically and mentally?
My main reason for choosing to paddle south to north was to follow the summer temperatures northward. Since the trip would be starting in May and ending in August, it made more sense to me to start at the southern end and work my way north as the weather warmed up.
Something that needs to be considered on most long distance kayak trips is the prevailing winds and currents. The winds along the British Columbia and Southeast Alaskan coast do not blow more from any one direction. There is no predominately northerly or southerly wind. The wind changes from north westerly to southerly as fronts move through from the west. This is complicated by winds that move onshore as the land heats up in the daytime and offshore as the land cools down in the evening. Winds are also affected by the narrow channels that they are forced through all along the Inside Passage. Because of these factors, direction of travel will not be determined by winds.
Since currents change with the tides and there are two high tides and two low tides along the coast every day, travel direction is more influenced by the time of day than the length of time for the whole trip. You may plan your launch time to coincide with a favorable current but not your whole trip.
If your trip starts from the southern end, you will be able to test yourself and your gear in a relatively populated region where re-supply and bugging-out opportunities are more frequent. This strategy worked well for me on the first leg of my trip as it gave me three weeks to test myself before reaching Port Hardy. It also allowed me to test equipment and supplies that turned out to be inadequate, such as my tent, cook shelter, waterproof camera, and food supply.
Along the first leg of the trip, I had re-supply and bugging-out opportunities at Nanaimo, Powell River, and Port Hardy. All these towns have ferry service and it would have been possible for me to get back to my vehicle from any of them.
Anyone who has done much paddling knows that on almost every trip, a shuttle of some type will be necessary and it is no different on the Inside Passage. Bellingham Washington is the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and Skagway Alaska is the northern terminus. A paddler could arrange to leave their car at a long term parking facility in Bellingham, paddle to Skagway, then return to their car in Bellingham along the beautiful Inside Passage via the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. This is possibly the best shuttle ride ever.
If you start your trip from the northern end, you will be immediately thrust into a more remote wilderness with fewer options for re-supply or assistance. North of Port Hardy there are virtually no inhabited areas other than a few small towns and some scattered fishing camps. There is also much less boat traffic in the northern stretches. If you run into trouble here, you may be on your own.
From the US / Canadian border in Washington to Skagway Alaska is roughly 1250 miles. If you paddled 15 miles per day with no days off for bad weather or layovers, it would take you 80 days to complete the entire route. If you factor in delays and some days that you will paddle more or less than 15 miles it is not unrealistic to estimate 90 days necessary to complete the entire route.
On my trip, adding together both legs, I spent 68 days paddling and 19 days either held up by bad weather or playing tourist in the towns. This averaged about 18 miles per day on days that I did paddle. The total time was 87 days or roughly 3 months to do the whole thing.
Anyone attempting to paddle the Inside Passage should be in good physical shape. Not only is it obviously necessary to paddle for hours at a time but the loading and unloading of the kayak and carrying all the gear up and down steep beaches requires an enormous amount of energy expenditure. For me, carrying gear including my kayak and setting up and breaking down camp every day seemed to take more energy than paddling.
To stay in shape I keep up an exercise regime year round that includes lifting weights, stretching, and aerobics, working out five days a week for 2 ½ hours. If this was not a regular part of my daily lifestyle, I definitely would not have been able to take on a challenge like paddling the Inside Passage.
Food and Cooking
On the first leg of my trip from San Juan Island to Port Hardy, I brought mostly foods that were available at any large supermarket. Breakfast was usually instant oatmeal or grits, an apple, a muffin, and some coffee. Lunch was eaten throughout the day while I paddled and usually included nuts, Cliff Bars or some other high protein power bar. Dinner consisted of instant soups and other bean, rice or noodle dishes to which I would add canned chicken to provide protein.
The breakfast and lunch foods that I brought on the first leg were satisfying and varied enough that, I used essentially the same combinations for the remainder of the trip. The dinners however were completely changed. Dinners for the second leg of the trip consisted of some of my favorite one-pot meals that I had prepared in advance at home and dehydrated myself using a small Nesco dehydrator. After dehydrating, I placed the food in vacuum-sealed bags. When it was time to eat, I would open a bag and add the contents to boiling water for a satisfying and healthy evening meal.
Before I left the US, I shipped food boxes ahead to Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Juneau. Upon reaching Port Hardy, I mailed food boxes ahead to Shearwater, Hartley Bay, and Prince Rupert. By avoiding having my food boxes cross the US / Canadian border I was assured there would be no customs delay and my boxes would be awaiting my arrival on time. After evaluating, what my food needs had been on the trip, I concluded that four food drops on the second leg would have been sufficient.
When I decided to paddle the Inside Passage, it was obvious to me from the start that I would be doing it alone. Finding someone who would be compatible with me, and of a similar skill level, who could take off long periods from work would be impossible. For some people attempting something like this solo would be unthinkable, but for me it was completely logical.
In 1980, I had taken a month long National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. During that month, I spent the entire time in the wilderness with fourteen other trip members. None of us had contact with the outside world. There I learned I was capable of extended wilderness travel over difficult terrain and what my limits were. I knew that if I took it one day at a time on this trip that I could do it and I didn‘t need anyone else with me.
Solo paddling does have risks that are mitigated when traveling with others. Obviously being alone presents risks not only while on the water but also while moving about on shore. I tried to provide myself with multiple backups in case I found myself in need of outside help. I always carried an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB) with an internal GPS that would send out an emergency distress signal via satellite and short wave frequencies at the touch of a button. This was kept attached to my life preserver in one of its pockets so it could be activated if I was in the water or separated from my kayak. While on shore, I always kept it nearby in case I became incapacitated. I carried a VHF radio that could be used to contact the Coast Guard and marine vessels in my immediate area and a cell phone to give me access to assistance while on shore.
I had left maps and charts with a friend back home with my route marked and a list of government agencies to contact in case of emergency. I would call in whenever I had phone service and give my position and plans for the next few days travel. If I was not heard from in a specified period, the coast guard was to be contacted.
Luckily, none of my “PLAN - B” safeguards had to be put into effect but just knowing that I had taken every precaution made me feel safer and more confident.
Equipment and Travel Cost
As I already owned much of the equipment that was necessary to do an Inside Passage kayak trip, the main cost for me was the charts that would be needed. For someone that would have to buy everything new, the cost could easily be from $5,000 to $10,000. Add to this, transportation cost to and from the put in, the ferry shuttle trip, meals, lodging, parking fees, and time off work and it can be an expensive proposition.