by Steve Landers
Even though the temperature was only in the low sixties, I was soaked in sweat from carrying kayaks, gear, water, and propane tanks down an incredibly steep, long, rain soaked gang plank that linked the parking lot to the floating docks within the harbor of Homer, Alaska. I remarked to Josh, the water taxi driver who was to take us to our destination for the first four days of our trip, some forty-five miles southwest of Homer on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, that I was going to be dead before this trip even started. He remarked, "You gotta be careful what you sign up for!"
What I had signed up for was Geneva Kayak's L4 training in Alaska. Seemed like a good idea last September when I signed up. I wasn't so sure at this point. Along on the trip were veteran CASKA paddlers Sarah Hartman and Ron Laird; GKC's imperial grand pubah, kayaking sensei and CASKA member, Ryan Rushton; Tom Pogson, owner of Alaska Kayak School in Homer who was providing the kayaks, sprayskirts and paddles for the trip; Mark Anderson, a 4-star worthy instructor who works for Ryan on occasion; and myself. Once the boats and equipment were loaded on the 30-foot boat we headed out. The taxi was propelled with twin 225 horse Honda engines and got us to our initial destination, Chrome Bay, in about two hours.
Water Taxi Ride
Unloading the Boat
Tom is a 5-star instructor and was along on the trip mainly to help us get set up in the yurts that we were staying in for the next four days. Everything ran on propane with the exception of the solar powered bear fence that spanned the perimeter of the property. Designed to keep Yogi's at bay, someone remarked after a couple of days of living within "the wire" that he felt like a cow.
The yurts are sort of like large vinyl teepees, oval in shape, built upon treated lumber decks. There were three to sleep in, each with cots, and a common yurt that housed a kitchen and dining room table. If we weren't paddling, or sleeping, the common yurt was where we spent our time. Much of that time was spent planning out the days ahead, planning on routes, and how to deal with the tides and tidal currents. It was of course, spring tides with the full moon, the water level within Chrome Bay changed by over twenty feet every twelve hours! I say "of course" because, of course, Ryan would schedule the training during the greatest variance of tidal change and flow. There was within one tidal race we experienced a current of five knots.
Those first four days went quickly by as we worked on L4 skills, paddling in tidal races, doing day trips among the snow capped mountains and islands that adorned the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula. At the end of the day Tuesday after paddling to and circumnavigating Perl Island, I remarked to Ryan, "I've been in boats of one kind or another for over fifty years. I can't think of a more memorable day on the water anywhere than the day we had today." A large part of that was because as we rounded the outer side of Perl we came upon a colony of sea lions, probably thirty to forty in number, with two huge bull sea lions clearly upset that we had infiltrated their ranks. It was incredible. On Wednesday we took it easy for the most part, did a lot of chart work, and worked on rescues and stroke refinement within Chrome Bay. I "voluntarily" capsized while grabbing a bit too much water with my paddle while trying to do a sideslip. The forty-three degree water was a bit cool. That was the only capsize of the week for the group, although Sarah got wet frequently while practicing her rolls.
Day five of our excursion had us break camp and head out early with the ebbing tide along the coast and up into Kachemak Bay on our trek back to Homer. On this day we covered about 28 miles, a lot of that into head winds. We set up camp outside of Seldovia in a community campground right off the beach. After dinner and hanging bear bags we were quickly snuggled in our sleeping bags listening to the crashing waves...and the maniacal laughter of some kids driving by in their ATVs...and according to some, my snoring. Exhausted, I was asleep by 8:30pm (about three hours before sunset).
Friday we set off on the final leg of our journey back to Homer. We had about fifteen miles to paddle with a four to five mile crossing across the bay back to the Homer Spit. The last leg proved the most challenging of the week, waves were, according to Ryan, three to five with occasional seven foot dumping waves. Three times on the way back we had to raft up, once to fix a broken foot peg bracket, and twice to reposition and reattach helmets that had slipped off back decks into the water. It's amazing how much drag a helmet can create hanging in the water!
That evening we chose to rent a four bedroom house in the foothills of Homer instead of sleeping on the spit in our tents. Ron, Mark, and I were sitting outside on the back deck at one point, enjoying an Alaskan Amber, mesmerized by the beauty of the snow capped mountains and glaciers from as far as the eye could see along Kachemak Bay. I asked Ron, who is an airline pilot and has been all around the world, where, if anywhere, has he been that was more beautiful than here right now. He was silent for a minute and said, "I can't think of any."
Roughing it in the Cabin
Saturday we drove back to Anchorage. Ron, Sarah, and I hopped out at the airport, while Ryan and Mark went on to shop for groceries and supplies for the following week's GKC Alaska trip that Mark was leading. I had more than enough time before my flight to reflect on the week. I couldn't begin to put into words how beautiful Alaska is. I had told Ryan last year, "I know this trip is old hat to you as many times as you've been to Alaska, but for me it's a trip of a lifetime." And it really was.
I was asked what the difference was paddling in Alaska compared to the Great Lakes. That's an easy answer, tide! Everything you do is predicated on the tide. It's much more involved having to factor in whether the tide is coming in or going out, where and how fast the flow of the tide is, dealing with tidal rips and currents, and everything else that comes with tidal kayaking. Timing is crucial. Keeping track of your course and progress is more important. Being able to recognize how the current is affecting the water while you are on the water is another skill that's necessary in tidal areas. I learned a lot in regards to tide, Alaska was the first time that I had paddled on the ocean so it was all an entirely new experience for me. I also learned on the trip that it's a good idea to keep your waterproof tape in your day hatch in case it's needed for on the water repairs, and not only stored in a dry bag packed away. Making sure your helmet is securely attached when it's getting hit by waves is another important consideration. I now know why some people opt to keep their helmets between their legs under the dryskirts.
Ryan warned me before the trip that once I had been to Alaska that paddling in the Midwest will never be the same. I've been in a daze all week still thinking about it, and I have to admit paddling Tuesday night didn't have quite the same luster. My advice to anyone considering going there, no matter what level trip they're thinking about doing, is to go!