Adventure and Growth in the Last Frontier: Five Weeks
as a Kayak Guide in SE Alaska

February 2015

It’s February, 2015 and once again, as I do often, especially when I have been cooped up inside, I find myself remembering a trip I took to Alaska. I’ve been thinking…

In the summer of 2008, opportunity knocked for me, a fifty nine year old speech pathologist from Portland, Oregon. I left my career and my wife for five weeks and went to Sitka, Alaska to work as a kayak guide for Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, a company offering tours to cruise ship passengers and other visitors to Sitka. I was looking for fishing and paddling adventures and unexpectedly ran into personal growth.

My wife and I met John and Barbara Delong, the owners of the company, when we visited Sitka in 2007 and rented a float house from them. They listened when we talked about our own kayaks at home in Portland and they noted I seemed reasonably competent in the boats that came with the cabin. When we left, I let it slip that I had always been interested in leading kayak tour groups and if they provided room and board, I would do the job for free! I was immediately sorry for opening my mouth, worried that they would think I was too forward or, worse yet, take me up on my offer. Then in November, I got a letter from Barbara, asking if I was serious and would I consider working short term as a guide the following summer, with living quarters and a salary to be provided. Wow! Would I! I had never worked as a kayak guide although I was trained in paddling skills and rescue methods and had years of experience in my own boat. I had also never been apart from my wife longer than a week, but I could not pass up such an opportunity to work in Alaska. With her encouragement, seven months later, off I went.

My first day on the job, June 30, 2008, dawned clear and sunny. The water was calm and the few puffy white clouds were color-coordinated with the snow on the mountains as I left the floating cabin where I was staying and headed across Sitka Sound in the company-supplied motor skiff. Small islands played hide and seek as I boated to town. I carefully steered around a gleaming white cruise ship already at anchor, and moored in my designated spot at the town dock. My first day was to be an observation and orientation trip with a guide named Joel. It would be a chance to learn the local waterways as well as company procedures. I met the other guides, all younger than my own children, then Joel and I drove to one of two boat ramp staging areas for the company. A group of eight from a small cruise ship joined us. After gearing up and getting a safety lecture from Joel, we all walked to the ramp where the paddlers were fitted into their boats. Then off we went, Joel in the lead and me bringing up the rear in my observer role. I quickly noticed one boat with two women aboard having difficulty and dropping far behind. So, I dropped back with them. The paddler in the rear seat, a woman from Atlanta Georgia, was having trouble keeping her feet on the rudder pedals. In most double kayaks, the rear cockpit is fitted with rudder pedals. When the paddler pushes her foot on the left pedal, a cable pulls on the boat’s rudder and the boat turns to the left. When she pushes on the right, the boat turns to the right. Quite a few visitors experienced difficulty keeping their feet on the pedals, and in fact after trying it for a while, many people just gave up and steered with their paddles, which worked fine. Anyway, this woman became very frustrated by her perceived ineptness. A beautiful morning began to turn sour. The rest of the group had gotten far ahead of us and disappeared around a point. I was alone with two brand new paddlers, one of them very frustrated, on a water way I did not know. So much for observing. Almost automatically, I began using my calm and slow speech therapy voice, the one helpful in putting nervous little kids at ease, and I gradually convinced the woman that it was not due to personal incompetence that she was struggling with the rudder. Then I showed her how to use her paddle to steer the boat, since we had been wandering all over the harbor’s busy commercial fishing boat channel, and we very gradually began to move forward in a reasonably straight line. We found the rest of the group up ahead, clustered around Joel’s boat and staring up at an eagle’s nest. Joel, looking a little relieved, called out a greeting and an “everything ok?” to which I, acting as if I did this every day, nonchalantly answered, “sure, we’re ok.” The next day I was on my own.

Sitka, population 8900, sits on the west side of Baranof Island in SE Alaska, about 130 miles southwest of the state’s capitol, Juneau. Alexander Baranov was a Russian fur trader and entrepreneur who established his headquarters on the site of present-day Sitka in 1804 after battles with the Tlingits, the resident Native people. Russian and Tlingit influence and architecture remain in the area today. It is a mild, wet place (average annual rainfall 86 inches) with a still-surviving commercial fishing industry and some tourism, and is called by many the most beautiful city in SE Alaska. A brace of small forested islands separates Sitka from the open ocean, and it was around these that most of our tours occurred. Our customers were from the cruise ships traveling the Inside Passage from Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, British Columbia. There were visitors from Australia and China and the United Kingdom, and there were large family groups traveling together from the US. I met people with extensive experience in kayaks and those with none at all. I met a family traveling with their garden gnome, which had to stay in the safety of the company office while his family paddled. I met a remarkable woman with advanced ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) who was in her late seventies and who enjoyed every second of her trip. I encountered teenagers who put themselves at risk for capsizing as they argued with their parents and flung themselves around in their little boats. I met people who wanted as much information as possible about the Tlingits and Sitka’s Russian heritage and the wildlife we encountered, and people who wanted little talk at all, preferring to soak up the marine scenery along with the mist. I met people so large they had to be shoehorned into the big double kayaks and some children so small we did not fit them with spray skirts out of fear they would be trapped if the boat tipped. On my last day I met a first year medical student traveling with his family, whose parents made three trips back to our office to tell him to be sure to take his umbrella and wear his raincoat and to ask questions like “is this really safe?”

This job pushed me far outside my comfort zone. I met new people and found I had to relate to them in different ways. When a visitor approached to inquire about kayaking or when I encountered someone new in town, I forced myself out of my usual don’t-take–a-risk-what–if-they-don’t-want-to-talk-to-you mindset, pushed forward, and introduced myself with a handshake and a smile and a “hi, I’m Glenn from Portland, Oregon.” In kayaking, your boat is actually more stable when it’s moving. I moved forward and took a little risk and was rewarded by enhanced guide-visitor interactions and new friends in town.

My off duty time expanded my comfort zone even more. I lived in a small float house, the same one my wife and I had rented the year before, on a beautiful, remote bay about five miles from Sitka by boat. The cabin had no electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. Heating was by wood stove and living there was like camping with a roof. The only connection to the outside world was my cell phone, which worked if I got into my kayak and paddled 100 yards off my cabin’s dock.

At the cabin I did my own cooking and cleaning and maintenance, things like changing out the big propane tank when necessary and splitting firewood to keep the wood stove running. I had to pump Sitka’s persistent rainwater out of my commuter motor boat and stay aware of the daily tide changes. I had to make sure the boat stayed fueled and tied up except when needed because it would have been a long cold swim to town. I had to navigate to work and back in occasionally bouncy water and keep my visitors afloat and safe when on the job. My setting forced me to dust off my marine and outdoor skills and suburb-dulled self reliance and when I did increased confidence resulted.

There were also times when self reliance didn’t work, when things veered out of my control and I had to exercise my faith in God to provide for me. One morning on the way to work I arrived at the mouth of my little bay to find all of Sitka Sound encased in fog, with visibility less than 300 feet. I could not see Sitka, usually very visible from this point. My GPS receiver was unfortunately in the pocket of my other lifejacket which was at the company office. I could hear a 900 foot cruise ship sounding its fog horn somewhere between me and town. So I prayed, trusting God to the best of my limited ability, and began inching out across the water. By hugging the shoreline and with the aid of a man in another motor skiff and the gradual lifting of the fog, I eventually found my way across. On another morning my guide friend Joel and I took a paddling trip west of the Sitka airport, out to an island group called the Parkers, a place exposed to more open water. A low pressure system was moving in and we were faced with paddling in big water, swells to five feet with some waves breaking on top, first in front of us as we paddled out, then even more challenging, laterally and behind us as we returned. At one point Joel’s boat, just in front of me, appeared to be balanced on a two foot triangle of water at the top of a big breaking swell. The big water was out of my control and again I prayed for safety for both of us.

I motored to work each day across Sitka Sound with continuous snow-tipped mountains to the north and east and 3,201 foot Mt. Edgecombe, an extinct volcano resembling Japan’s Mt. Fuji to the northwest. Salmon-munching sea lions, eight feet and longer, were seen everyday, and near the end of my stay I saw a surfacing whale silhouetted against the creamy white of a cruise ship. One drizzly morning on a day off I sat entranced in my kayak at the end of the little bay as I watched a female grizzly bear and her two cubs munching on tall grass, and on the same day was slowly towed around by a king salmon too large to land on my light tackle. Eagles were as common as robins and mysterious ravens made eerie sound effects from the spruce and Western hemlock forest behind my cabin. The wonder of it all made it easier to live in the moment, to be where I was. Whenever I found myself nervously slipping toward my life-long habit of “what if-ing” I would look around and internally slap myself, saying, “Come on. You’re in Alaska, for crying out loud. Look around and enjoy where you are right now.” I tried to take some of that back with me on the plane to Portland.

It was an amazing, eventful five weeks. My job working with new people every day and my desire to be less lonely led me to push myself forward to meet and take the initiative with people. Being outside in Alaska surrounded by mountains and ocean made it easier to practice being in the moment, instead of fretting. Life on my own in an isolated cabin and traveling and working every day on the water helped me resurrect some self-reliance skills that had lain dormant for years. And being faced with things out of my control and above my pay scale forced me to rely on God.

On Friday August 1, 2008, at 9:30 AM, I parked the commuter motor boat at the town dock for the last time. I trudged up the ramp to the company headquarters, reluctantly shedding my role as a member of the Sitka waterfront working community. I said goodbye to the other guides and got a ride to the airport with John, who sent me home with salmon and halibut from his freezer. Barbara met me at the airport with my paycheck for the month, gave me a hug, and off I flew, away to Seattle and then Portland, away from the adventure of my life. In Seattle I reunited with my wife. As I hugged her tightly at the top of an airport escalator, I vowed never to go to Alaska for that long again…at least without her.

© 2015 Glenn Weybright. All rights reserved.

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