A Kayak of One's Own: What You Get out of Your Travels May Depend on What You've Left Behind

Article excerpt

What you get out of your travels may depend on what you've left behind.

I watch Matt's back retreat across the ferry terminal parking lot and up the ramp; he reboards the Columbia under the black southeast Alaska sky. Darkness provides cover for my tears. The great adventurer has opened her big mouth once too often. Now I have to follow through.

My plan had seemed natural, even logical, at the time. Sitting on a driftwood log with Matt and Stan at our campsite on Kolosh Island, I listened to them plot their plans now that our four-week expedition together was almost over. "I'd like to do some backpacking in the mountains around Juneau," Stan said.

Matt frowned. "My job starts soon," he said. "To make it back to Seattle in time, I have to catch the September twelfth ferry from Sitka."

They both looked at me. Four weeks of their frequent unsolicited advice had taken a steep toll. I remembered Stan instructing me in how to hold my kayak paddle. I'd been working as a whitewater river guide for three seasons; this was his first summer kayaking. I remembered both of them standing over my white 16-foot Chinook, the Ozzy, telling me how to arrange my stuff sacks. I remembered the morning I was cooking a huckleberry pancake, and Matt appeared and said I should turn it over. I turned it, then Stan strolled over, looked into the pan, and pronounced that it had not been ready to turn over yet. That was the day I stopped cooking.

And I remembered Audrey Sutherland's talk at The Mountaineers in Seattle. She had autographed my copy of her new book, Paddling Hawaii, with these words: "For Sheryl--paddle south of Sitka--down to Goddard. Aloha, Audrey Sutherland." I'd followed her advice: here we were, camped offshore of Goddard. Then I recalled something else Audrey told her listeners: "Go now, and go solo."

I flexed an arm grown hard and muscular through many weeks of paddling and thought of my guide friends back home. "Arms like tree trunks" was the standard we held to. I looked at Stan and Matt. "I don't have to go back yet," I said. "I think I'll get off at Petersburg and paddle solo down to Wrangell." Stranded, they contemplated the steam swirling over their tea mugs.

Stuff sacks, paddles ammo can: all are piled around my rubber-booted feet. I'm alone, in the rain. The ferry horn blasts twice, a sound that usually churns my blood with anticipation. This time, I hear a death knell, and fix on the word solo as a saltwater mantra . . . solo, solo, so low here I go.

I depart Petersburg's harbor while a cruise ship anchors. Resting the wooden paddle across my spray-skirted lap, I munch an apple and look at the people on the upper decks. A man trains his video camera on me, and I feel like a member of an endangered Alaskan species, captured on film before it's too late. Time to get outta town.

Paddling south along the east coast of Mitkof Island, the familiar rhythms settle in: push, pull, inhale, exhale. Shoulders, arms, wrists, waist: they move like actors playing their parts for the thousandth time. Rain lightens to drizzle, then stops altogether. Strengthening sunlight reveals the whorls of my paddle blades reflected on the water Birds wheel and call,brown kelp bulbs bob, sea swells cradle the boat and over all things hangs the crusty pungency of salt.

All afternoon I crawl alongside steep cliff walls that plunge to the waterline. After several hours, my muscles begin to tire; time to consider tonight's campsite. Another hour's paddling and the underpaid actors start to grumble. Around a headwall a long, gently sloping beach offers itself I land the kayak and disembark to look for the high-water mark. The woods behind this beach are too densely overgrown to yield a tent space. I settle for pitching my tent as far from the water as possible, but the encrusted rings of algae and kelp high up the beach make me nervous. The tide table shows that the highest water is due just after midnight. …