Inside Passage Southbound

For a number of years and reasons I’d wanted to row a dory down the Inside Passage through Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. Seattle wasn’t particularly my goal. My goal was to row. Still, Alaska to Seattle is a storied journey. Small boat transits – non-Native people’s anyway – go back to the 1800s when fishermen rowed from Puget Sound to the fishing grounds and towns and fish traps in Southeast.

Ever since then people have made the trip for its own merits in canoes, kayaks, rowboats and all manner of backyard vessels. Tiger Olsen (a famous homesteader at Taku Harbor) rowed up in the 1930s – or said he did. “There were three of us: one man rowing, one man bailing, one man hollering for help.” Jack and Sasha Calvin rowed a canoe up from Tacoma in 1929. Nineteen-year-old Bob De Armond made the trip from Sitka to Seattle in a Banks dory. Betty Lowman rowed a canoe up from Puget Sound in 1937. Peter McKay and a friend rowed a dory up in the ‘70s. A guy named Gary rowed a Whitehall to Southeast with his malamute.
Jack Hodges made the trip in 1995 with a pontoon boat, which he pedaled under the Juneau-Douglas Bridge 44 days after leaving Seattle. I got to have dinner with Jack not long before I left Juneau and his trip was a comfort to me on all big water crossings. “Jack came through here on a pontoon boat. I can do this.”

A constant – along with wind, tides and currents – was good energy from everyone I met. For more than two months I didn’t hear anything negative at all from my fellow humans. No television, radio, computer or newspaper; everyone I met was into the row. No doubt this is the longest streak of pure goodness I’ve ever had. Everyone should be so lucky.

Along the way, my trip inevitably reminded locals of others who’d rowed or paddled through. Or of trips they’d made themselves. People from First Nations in British Columbia would insist on giving me something for the journey. Then they’d tell me a canoe story. One man literally gave me the shirt off his back. He told me about carving a canoe with a group of men in the 1980s. They paddled it to Expo ’86 – Bella Bella to Namu in six hours – then on to Vancouver. A woman from Alert Bay told me how her canoe (she was captain) went straight down the channel in Seymour Narrows [famed for its strong tidal currents] when they raised the sail.

My row was in the Golden Moon, an 18’ traditionally-built lapstrake sailing surf dory. She’s wood because I like the feel of a wooden boat. How they move in seas. How they respond. Dories are tremendous sea boats. Lowell’s Boat Shop, which built mine, supplied a larger version to the Coast Guard for lifesaving boats for more than 100 years. This type of dory is good in surf, swells and surprise gusty winds. You can carry a ton of stuff, move your legs freely, cook breakfast on the thwarts, sleep on them (I added a platform for the tent) and they aren’t fast. I like that last thing.

Ocean Masters have a maxim: Never let the ship get moving faster than you can think. That’s why I have a rowboat. Thinking’s a slow, centered process. At any speed over three knots, we leave the center and get out ahead somewhere. So, for thinking, speed is an obstacle like rocks or deadheads.

Destinations are even worse. You can’t be where you are if mentally you’ve already arrived at the end and are just waiting for yourself at the finish line. Often, I’d tell myself to stay in the boat – both physically and mentally. When people asked where I was going, I’d name the next town. If they asked, “After that, where?”, I’d tell them, “I don’t really have a destination because it would keep me from being where I am.” Everyone knew what I meant by that.

This was the year to go north to south. June was raw and wet in Southeast Alaska. Petersburg, for example, still had snow half-way down the mountains outside town and they’re only 2,000 feet or so high. Cold rains ruled and there were days I had to ride at anchor waiting for the wind to pass. My travelling style was to pick my weather and go long and late when the travelling was good. Choosing an anchorage in semi-dark and familiarity with tidal ranges are important for that style. Nice thing about a small boat is that you can tuck in almost anywhere there’s a cove, island or big rock to hide behind.

If there’s no suitable rock you can get on the lee side of a bull kelp mattress, which will at least dissipate the wave action. Everything gets wet with enough rain. Those are the times you’re glad you brought extra layers of wool and the menu is fats and carbs with two tablespoons of butter in your afternoon tea. The first nice day, you forget the whole thing. The world is rosy. The further south I went the rosier it got. After the Boston Islands at the Canadian border, I had maybe five days rowing into the wind. For the rest it was clear and lovely; the wind came up from the northwest and blew me down the coast in a succession of dazzling sunsets, one after another, strung out weeks on end like a string of pearls.

The Moon’s two sets of wooden oars were matched to the boat by Shaw and Tenny. Light and strong, these oars have a flex at the blade when you’re pulling hard in current. The flex transfers energy to the end point, kind of like the flick of the wrist at the end of a boxer’s punch. I can’t imagine making the trip with off-the-shelf oars. One boating enthusiast along the way showed me his “broken oars club”. He had a whole wall of cheap, broken oars in his shed.

I sailed about 200 miles of the trip. Reliable wind in British Columbia was great fun with 30 miles on a tack some days. The Moon has a lug mainsail and small jib to go closer to the wind. Usually I’d put up the main as a balanced lug, no jib. The lug drops fast and has two sets of reef points, which mostly kept me from overpowering the boat – and out of trouble.
A regular phenomenon on the trip was a short, strong wind at tide change, especially the bottom of the ebb that comes from the ocean side and dissipates about the time you’ve gone to shore ready to hang it up for the day. This wind, combined with an ebb tide out of a large bay or inlet – such as where Kelsey Bay meets Johnstone Strait – can be really hairy. Even if it’s not the ebb it can be hairy. I’d reef early. Or drop the main and just use the jib. Or drop the whole thing and use the oars.

Marine mammals were constants. Seals every day! In a rowboat, the connection is different than in any other craft I’ve been in – probably because seals like to come up behind a boat with kayaks, they pop up, have a look at the back of somebody’s head and go back down with the kayaker never the wiser. With rowboats, they come up and look you right in the eyes. They are interested and will stay longer. Sometimes they’ll follow you for miles or hang with you for hours when you’re anchored up.

With no motor, you’re more aware of the richness and variety of marine life because you can hear them. Whales, sea lions, flocks of birds all around, breathing, calling, making their way unhurried. Being out in the big ocean, Dixon Entrance, Queen Charlotte Strait, the Strait of Georgia, teaches a simple lesson. In the real world, the boat and you are vanishingly small and unimportant, a symbiotic bit of plankton making your way slowly along the sweet, ancient North Pacific Coast. I enjoyed all that for 79 days. June 3 to August 18.

I’d like to thank the wonderful folks at The Center for Wooden Boats for helping me navigate Seattle while working out the logistics for getting the boat back to Alaska.

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