It was late in the day and the marshlands stretched for miles, with shallow channels leading in numerous directions, draining away the last of the salt water before low tide. Trudging across the mud flats, my kayak sliding easily behind me on the slick surface, I kept my mind on high alert. I’m tired and alone. Cold and hungry. Can’t make any mistakes here. The Forest Service cabin peeked above the tall grass and after 10 hours of steady paddling through rainsqualls, the cabin, with a woodstove and dry wood, was all I craved for the day’s efforts.
Here in the delta of the Stikine River, 15 miles of islands, a maze of marshes and mudflats, there was not a single place to lie down for miles around except for the cabin.
The Stikine River flows from a plateau in northern British Columbia, cutting a course through the Alaska Coast Range to the sea. From the cool, dry, continental climate of the interior, it flows to a rain forest, the maritime climate of southeast Alaska. The climatic boundary is about 70 miles upriver at a place called Little Canyon. Here the river narrows to 100 feet, the waters swirling in gurgling whirlpools and eddies beneath 200-foot cliffs.
Above the Grand Canyon, the Stikine forms as a small stream on the Spatsizi Plateau. Spatsizi means “red goat” in the Tahltan language and refers to the mountain goats that roll in red oxide dust found on Spatsizi Mountain.
My day had begun in Petersburg, a fishing village in southeast Alaska, with my plan to paddle my sea kayak 25 miles to Wrangell, Alaska, where I would catch a ferry to Seattle. Low stratus clouds formed an amorphous blanket of gray as I launched my boat. Before long the town disappeared as the mists closed in behind me.
There was little or no wind and I hoped to make 20 miles that day. Paddling, like any rhythmic exercise, is meditative. Alone, it is more so. My world was the blue of the sea, the green of the land, and the gray of the sky. There was nothing else. Sometimes, low clouds dropped to sea level, and I paddled through a deluge of rain, then the clouds lifted and I was reprieved. Time passed in a blur.
Pounding rain snapped me out of my reverie. I was now about half way to Wrangell. Keep your head down and paddle. No reason to stop. After five hours, I pulled up on shore for a bladder break and some food. Traveling hard that day, I took only a 15-minute break before setting off again. My arms pulled on the paddle a hundred times. A thousand times. Ten thousand times. How many strokes have I taken?
That night I made camp at a shore side city park amidst tall spruce and cedar trees with a sunset view to the west. With one more day before the ferry arrived, I spent some time in the tourist shops of Wrangell. “Sylvia’s Gift Shop” was especially nice and her goods were not the usual tacky items you find in many shops.
The next morning I went for one last paddle around the north end of Wrangell Island and, though homesick, I was sad to be leaving Alaska. I was very tuned in to a life on the water and I loved the independent feeling derived from my boat loaded with all life’s necessities. I thought of the feeling of simplicity and fullness. How would I fit in back in civilization? The longer the time in the bush, the more intense the re-entry. I once went to a hamburger stand after a long trip. When I went to order the burger through the drive-up window, uncontrolled laughter choked off the words. I can’t say why I laughed.
It was a good life in the wilds. Having paddled and camped for a month among eagles, fish, bears, whales and more, I felt like I could go for another month. I would return home broke, but there was value in my experience: a renewal for me.