By Justine Curgenven
Paddlers: Justine Curgenven and Sarah Outen
The Paddler ezine issue: http://joom.ag/o7hb/p108
“So close, yet so stuck” a friend wrote to us on day 99 of a 2,500km paddle along the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan peninsula. Reading the email in the warm cocoon of our little red tent, which was being buffeted around by the wind and rain, I let out an ironic half-laugh. Homer and the first road to somewhere was merely 100km away but a barrage of strong winds were preventing us from making our final two 16-mile open water crossings.
Pacific Ocean to Canada
Sarah set off alone to row the Pacific Ocean to Canada but 600 miles out her boat was damaged by a tropical storm, not to mention the mental damage to Sarah who endured over 20 capsizes and water leaking into her boat for a 48 hour period. On her second attempt to row the Pacific a year later, her rowing boat was the play thing of unseasonable winds. She was pushed north and back towards Japan, finally realizing after four months that she wasn’t going to make Canada before winter storms hit. Looking at a map and scratching around for solutions, her eyes were drawn to a mysterious chain of islands 500 miles to the north, which are dotted between Russia and Alaska.
I was sitting at my desk working in August 2013 when I had a phone call from the Pacific Ocean and a friendly voice asked if I would kayak along the Aleutian Islands with her the following summer. It would be from wherever Sarah landed in her rowing boat to the nearest road, so she could jump back on her bike and continue her journey.
I didn’t answer straight away. I was doing calculations in my head about how long I’d need to be away for and what whether the substantial challenges would be too much for us to take on safely. We’d be taking on over 20 open water crossings of over 15 miles in an area of strong – but undocumented tidal streams, in a virtually uninhabited archipelago, over 1,000 miles from the nearest coastguard station.
Was it reckless?
Sarah is one of the most determined, tough people I know but at that stage she didn’t have a reliable roll, wasn’t able to read the water and had very limited experience of rough conditions, surf landings or controlling her boat in strong winds. I’d love to go to the Aleutians myself but was it reckless to go with Sarah?
After some research and a lot of faith in Sarah’s ability to train and to cope mentally with challenging situations, we decided to do it. Over the winter in the UK, Sarah learnt to roll and her rough-water skills improved dramatically. We decided to take Flat Earth kayak sails which would increase our speed and therefore make us more likely to land in the daylight on the longer crossings. If we couldn’t paddle for any reason, we may be able to raft up and use the sails to take us towards land (whether that was in front of us or behind us).
In April 2014, we flew to Adak, the westernmost inhabited community in America and got ready for a paddling journey to the mainland that hadn’t been attempted since Aleut people used kayaks to hunt from 300 years ago. It was exciting (and at times nerve wracking) to discover the conditions for ourselves, figuring things out along the way. While there are a few small communities dotted along our route, it’s primarily a large swathe of untouched wilderness and we felt lucky to spend several months weaving our way along the shores, watching her burst with life during the short summer season, and seeing the landscape turn from the treeless, rocky volcanoes of the Aleutians to the lush, green spruce-laden slopes of Kodiak.
The highlights are too many to list, much of the joy was in the simple fact that every day brought new scenery and experiences and life was boiled down to the basic pleasures and necessities of food, safety, shelter and living in the now. A naked Sarah coming face to face with a curious brown bear while washing in a stream, barbecuing fish in the embers of a driftwood fire, washing off the grime and sweat in the delicious heat of a hot spring, being woken up at 4am by three sea lions hauling their giant bulks ashore besides our tent, watching hundreds of mother otters swimming on their backs with their babies clutched close to their chests, and jumping between the driftwood logs along a vast empty sandy beach as the last of the sun turns the sky pink. These memories and more help make this one of the most special trips that I’ve made.
We visited eight of the ten communities that are scattered along the Aleutians and the Alaskan peninsula. Twice we needed to cover 250 miles between villages. We shipped food ahead to these communities and we carried enough food for a month. There are short stretches of road in all the habitations but the only way in and out is by plane or boat so the people who live there chose to exist close to nature and appreciate being able to harvest much of their food from the land.
Delights we sampled included sea lion soup, smoked salmon, canned salmon, baked halibut, reindeer bolognese and sea urchin eggs slurped straight from the shell. These times spent with people who chose to live on the fringes of modern society were really special, although ironically the modern tool of Facebook will allow me to continue to watch these new friends as they catch salmon, harvest berries and beach comb for glass balls.
Some of the paddling was really committing and we didn’t always know how long it would take us to buck currents and reach land. On one 30-mile crossing we were swept away from land for two hours, not knowing if or when the current would change to allow us to reach solid ground before it got dark. Once the current relinquished and allowed us to inch towards land, a headwind ensured our progress remained slow, and our bows crashed into oncoming waves, losing momentum and requiring continuous hard work to reach safety. Sixteen hours later, I felt like kissing the ground.
On day 100, after five days of waiting for a weather window, we set off on our last crossings to Homer. Crossing number 1 to the Barren Islands started slowly but the current changed and gave us a helpful push north. We decided to make the most of this favourable current and continue with crossing number 2. Being close to Homer, we had current predictions for once but that doesn’t mean they were accurate. We were once again swept away from land into the middle of the sea.
It was two weary but happy paddlers that pulled into Homer spit after 101 days of challenging paddling in wild and beautiful Alaska. We’d covered 1,350 nautical miles, which is 2,500 km or 1,550 statute miles. Sixty-four of those days we paddled and we spent 37 days on land. Sarah is now cycling across North America through the winter and will set off to row the Atlantic in the spring of 2015 – see www.sarahouten.com