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Though the Aleutians to Alaska

  • Written by  Sarah Outen
  • Published in Explorers
Paddling towards King Cove, Alaska Paddling towards King Cove, Alaska Sarah Outen/Justine Curgenven
12 Feb
2015
Sarah Outen describes her kayaking expedition along the Aleutian Islands, a significant undertaking that is just one part of her ongoing human powered journey around the world

Tiny trout nibble my toes as I scrunch across the gravel riverbed. The cold creek water numbs my legs and, for a moment, my aches and strains are soothed. I squeal as I dunk my head under the surface, then scoop water over my body, revelling in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. While rinsing my hair, I sense a presence. Expecting to see the familiar outline of my kayaking partner, Justine Curgenven, I look up to discover that she has instead turned into a grizzly bear. I freeze for a nanosecond, then start shouting. The bear is now trotting towards me. I look into its wide eyes and watch as its nose twitches with intense curiosity.

‘Don’t run! Don’t turn your back!’ yells a voice in my head. I spin away from the bear and begin scrambling in a don’t-look-like-you’re-hurrying sort of way towards our camp. I trip, fall and glance behind. The bear is a double-decker bus length away and closing. Abandoning my flip flops and clothes, I run naked and screaming through the long grass towards our tent. Justine hears my cries and we rendezvous at the top of the riverbank. The bear pauses to sniff my discarded garments. Justine holds a video camera to her face. She records herself cursing and films me throwing stones into the water to encourage the inquisitive grizzly back into the bush. We appear to have stumbled upon the local sushi takeaway.

Hauling-the-boats-up-the-stream-made-for-a-much-easier-landing-of-the-boats WEBHauling the boats up the stream made for a much easier landing. Image: Sarah Outen/Justine Curgenven

 

THE Journey So Far

Justine and myself were part-way through a 101-day paddling expedition that had begun on the remote island of Adak, the westernmost inhabited island in the Aleutians. Centuries ago, islands even further west were inhabited by the native Aleut people, who used skin-on-frame iqyax craft to navigate the archipelago.

I had landed in Adak in my rowing boat one year earlier, having successfully rowed from Japan across the North Pacific on my second attempt (see Rowing the Pacific in Geographical January 2013). Poor weather had stymied my progress from Japan towards my original destination of Canada, forcing me to land at Adak. To continue my journey I had to reach the nearest road on the mainland of North America. That road was in Homer, the halibut capital of the world. To get to the city, I would need to paddle 2,400 kilometres from Adak, a voyage that would take me through the Aleutian chain and along the Alaskan Peninsula.

Justine, my anointed queen of sea kayaking, had previously joined me for shorter kayaking sections on my quest to complete a human-powered loop of the planet. When I asked her to join me in the Aleutians, Justine remarked that this adventure would entail the most challenging kayaking that either of us had ever undertaken. Nevertheless, she was game. I overwintered in Britain, recovered from illness, swapped my ocean-going rowing boat for an expedition kayak and trained with Justine in Anglesey’s tidal waters.

I named my kayak ‘Krissy’, and glued pieces of closed cell foam inside her hull and onto her footplate to raise my overall comfort level in her cockpit. The foam would also provide a degree of insulation from the cold Alaskan waters. I stowed a piece of Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite foam inside Krissy to serve as a luxurious seat while lunching on rocky Aleutian beaches. An unwelcome family of newly-acquired allergies meant that my medical kit and first aid training was more complex than I was accustomed to. I added several bags of tablets to our resupply boxes after taping over the pills’ foil blister packs to give them extra protection. An emergency medical evacuation might take days to organise in the Aleutians so we needed to be self-reliant.

The-Islands-of-the-Four-Mountains WEBThe Islands of the Four Mountains, an island grouping in the Aleutians. Image: Sarah Outen/Justine Curgenven

 

THE WINDS OF CHANGE

Following various forced evacuations during and after WWII, the population of the Aleutian Islands shrank. The people who remained on the isles swapped their human-powered iqyax for boats fitted with outboard engines. Consequently, only a handful of people in living memory had made long kayak journeys in this region. No one had covered quite the distance we were aiming for so we looked to other sources for knowledge.

The United States Coast Pilot for the area (a nautical book packed with information for mariners that includes historic and current observations) explained that the Aleutians are ‘generally considered to have worse consistently unfavourable weather than any other region in the world’. Sitting across the top of the planet, and stretching from Russia to mainland Alaska like a string of beads, the Aleutians are simultaneously buffeted by cold air from the Bering Sea to the north while being kissed by warm Pacific air from the south. This combination of temperatures creates huge low pressure systems. No wonder that Adak is described by its inhabitants as the ‘birthplace of the winds’. Sailors and fishermen treat this area with respect.

Magically-calm-day-crossing-as-judging-Bay WEBGlassy turquoise seas and snowy peaks at Dutch Harbour. Image: Sarah Outen/Justine Curgenven

 

Crossing the Sea

We raised sails on our kayaks, which helped us take full advantage of every favourable weather window, especially on the longer passages between headlands and across wide open bays that were vulnerable to katabatic winds that raced off the surrounding mountains. Yet even with sails raised we still paddled every stroke of the way, including on the longest crossings of 60 or more kilometres that took up to 18 hours to complete.

It is not just the changeable winds that make for a challenging journey amongst the Aleutians. The currents also play their part as tides pull and shunt water through the gaps between this volcanic chain with little predictable rhythm. Locals described the water temperature as ‘liquid ice’, a description we estimated would give us no more than 40 minutes of survival time if we capsized.

Navigational accuracy was crucial and so we used waterproof GPS units sealed inside Aquapac cases. Despite this precaution, all three of our GPS devices broke during the trip, leaving us wishing that we had packed even more technology. Fortunately, we also carried a YB tracking unit as well as a couple of Iridium Extreme satellite phones. During the course of our voyage, we discovered that our digital camera included GPS technology that, at a pinch, could also provide us with an accurate fix for our current position. In fog, GPS was invaluable because our primary navigation tools, the deck-mounted nautical chart and compass, became redundant when we could not see any landmarks.

Our clothing needed to protect us in a variety of weathers, as well as remain comfortable for up to 18 hours at a time in the boats. The garments also needed to be lightweight and fit inside the hulls of our kayaks. In the Museum of the Aleutians on the island of Unalaska I was interested to see that the design of my storm cagoule echoed the pattern of the original Aleut fish-skin tunic. Whereas I cinched down the fleece-lined hood of my drysuit, the Aleut sailor would have drawn together sea lion sinew to tighten her cowl.

It was humbling to think of the Aleuts paddling the heaving tide rips and hunting the quiet coves, pulling up on the same beaches as Justine and myself, perhaps fishing from the same spots and roasting their catch over open fires. The Aleuts mummified their people in caves that looked down on us on our route and I often wondered what the Aleuts would have made of our journey and modern gear.

Sea-lions-at-a-rock-concert WEBSea lions jeer at Sarah as she passes them. Image: Sarah Outen/Justine Curgenven

 

Bear-ing up

The first part of our voyage along the Aleutians had been devoid of any encounters with bears as none reside on the islands. It was only when we reached the mainland, about halfway along our route, that we began taking precautions. We saw our first grizzly on our second night on the peninsula, after spotting several sets of paw prints the previous evening that were bigger than our footprints. I stoked the fire long into the night and woke up multiple times to add more driftwood in the shape of the biggest logs I could haul. A couple of nights in, I was so tired I just slept. The adrenaline rushes dissipated and the nightmares retreated, leaving us with hot embers to rekindle in the morning before breakfast.

After successfully aiming our kayaks towards the 900-strong community of King Cove, I asked the elder driving us along a stretch of road about the local bears. Our host’s face drew into a frown and she lowered her voice to protect the feelings of her young niece in the back of the car from hearing how a six-year-old cousin had been killed by a bear while hiking with his family.

Further along the Alaskan Peninsula we visited Hallo Bay Bear Camp in Katmai National Park with a local guide. I had been told that the Katmai bears would be among the politest that we would meet on our expedition. It was a sublime experience to sit quietly on a creek’s grassy bank and watch two juvenile bears playing. They were not at all bothered by our presence and threw us only the occasional glance. Watching these creatures was intense, especially when one bear ran towards us in pursuit of the spawning salmon. ‘Remember,’ whispered our guide, ‘When the bear runs towards you, he’s not really running towards you. He is running towards the salmon.’

Sarah Outen is currently on the penultimate, North American leg of her journey around the world by bicycle, kayak and rowing boat. Details at: www.sarahouten.com

IS KAYAKING COMING HOME?   

It was uplifting to see artisans and elders at the Sand Point Culture Camp teaching youngsters the traditional Aleutic skills of iqyax construction and basket weaving. Sharon Kaye, a basket weaving maestro, told me she was spurred into action when she discovered that there were more Aleut artefacts in New York City museums than in the Aleutians.

I was saddened to discover that after being initially floated upon completion, most of the beautiful iqyax that do remain on the islands are hung on display in schools and community centres as kayaking has all but disappeared from modern Aleutian society.

Consequently, I enjoyed taking young Aleuts out on the water in our kayaks. For some youngsters, this was the first time they had found themselves afloat. It was wonderful to see their eyes light up and I remain hopeful that perhaps paddling might make a return to these waters. One teenager who lives in the village of Nikolski on the island of Umnak vowed that he would take up the sport: ‘After all, my family has a pretty good history in the iqyax.’ 

  

ESSENTIAL GEAR

Kayaking required specialised equipment at the best of times, kayaking around the world even more so. Sarah Outen offers 10 pieces of equipment that she couldn't have done without, including decent communication equipment, plent of batteries, a notebook rugged enough to withstand a soaking and more warm clothing than you can shake a paddle at...

 

1. Sea kayak

Rockpool Menai 18

£2,000 / 29 kilograms

Hand-built with extra bulkheads, the Menai 18 is a superb expedition boat for the paddler looking for a roomy ride. My customised kayak was fitted with multiple clips and collapsed into three parts for transportation purposes.

2. Paddle

Mitchell Blades Bombora

£290 / 900 grams

This lightweight touring paddle has an asymmetric cranked shaft that can be tailored to your preferred feather for maximum comfort. The lightweight carbon construction is fabricated with Kevlar for maximum impact resistance.

3. Communications

Iridium Extreme Satellite Phone

£900 / 247 grams

This military-grade handset resists shock, dust and moisture and I linked mine to an Iridium AxcessPoint to create a wi-fi hotspot for sending and receiving emails.

4. Drysuit

Kokatat Expedition

$1,170 / 2.5 kilograms

Staying warm and dry is essential in temperate climates. This waterproof and breathable suit did the job perfectly. I especially liked the integral hood and the pockets on the sleeve are ideal for stowing sunblock, lip balm and snacks.

5. Notebook

Weatherwriter WaterBook Memopad

A5 £7 / 50 grams

My preferred pocketbook for taking notes in wet conditions. Doubling up the Memopad with a waterproof pen or a pencil means you can actually read your journal even if it has endured a rinse or two en route to your desk at home.

6. Sail

Flat Earth Code Zero 80

£340 / 1.5 kilograms

Generating extra power from the wind to assist our crossings was important to us for safety reasons. It was also great fun. The Code Zero sail was easy to rig with its fitting kit once initial modifications – including strengthening the bulkheads with extra layers of glass – had been made to my Menai 18 kayak.

7. Insulating layer

Icebreaker Cascade Vest

£120 / 400 grams

I swear by merino wool. It ‘wicks’ sweat, traps body heat and does not retain body odour even if you wear it for several days at a time. Sufficiently thin to wear under a regular mid-layer when I was out of the boat, this gilet kept my core warm with no restriction of movement when collecting driftwood, hiking or photographing bears.

8. Spraydeck

Reed Chillcheater Aquatherm

£58 / 600 grams

Made from Aquatherm material, the Chillcheater kept me warm as well as dry. The expedition version boasts additional reinforcement, but be sure to pack Storm Sure sealant or Aquaseal for field repairs.

9. Hatch cover

Reed Chillcheater Emergency

£16 / 100 grams

My day hatch cover was washed away during the course of the expedition so I used this custom-made emergency cover as a replacement. It was excellent. As long as I cinched it down tightly with the supplied shockcord, it kept the contents of my kayak almost as dry as the original.

10. Power

Powertraveller PowerGorilla Battery

£160 / 700 grams

A compact and powerful energy storage system. Supplied with interchangeable charging tips for compatibility with a multitude of electronic devices. We paired our PowerGorilla battery with a SolarGorilla solar panel to create an efficient recharging set-up.

This review was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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