Book review: ‘A Complex Coast’ details a youthful journey approached with an open mind and heart

“A Complex Coast: A Kayak Journey from Vancouver Island to Alaska”

By David Norwell; Heritage House, 2023; 224 pages; $29.95.

If you aren’t young now, chances are good that you were once. And if you’ve ever gone on an adventure while young, you know the enthusiasm you felt setting out. The endless directions your mind wandered as you placed yourself in unfamiliar territory and learned to navigate a place beyond your previous horizons. The person who you found at the end of the journey. Still the same, yet somehow changed.

David Norwell was one of those young people compelled to embark on a big adventure. In 2014, fresh out of college in British Columbia, he got in his kayak, the Bell Pepper, and headed north from Victoria. The trip took him to Bella Bella, midway between the border with Washington state and the southern tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle. Two years later he returned to where he had left off, bound for Alaska.

Norwell kept a journal and also painted watercolor portraits of the places he passed through and the things he saw along the way. In his recent and thoroughly delightful new book “A Complex Coast,” readers are treated to both, allowing them to share, through words and imagery, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure by someone who approached his journey with an open mind and heart, and who captured it as it happened with his diary entries and paintbrushes.

Norwell is an engaging companion on this trip, equipped with all the prerequisites for a 20-something testing themselves against the world: big dreams, healthy optimism, and an outlook heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy. His journals reveal an inquisitive mind and a tendency towards self-reflection when the going gets tough. A trip like this will give anyone ample time to get lost in their own thoughts, and Norwell’s thoughts tend toward both the philosophical and the practical. Which one would expect under such circumstances.

Norwell set out from Victoria on April 4, 2014. He was operating on a shoestring, having bought his kayak secondhand and much of his gear at thrift stores. He borrowed a life jacket, and foraged grocery store dumpsters for discarded but still edible food items to take with him. “The future seems impossible,” he wrote that day as he prepared to travel through a “maze of islands ruled by grizzlies, orcas, and wolves” (he was amidst orcas within a day and had a bear encounter in Alaska). “I have questions and this journey is the only way to answer them.”


Norwell threaded his way through the islands, dealing with the elements, meeting people along the way, encountering wildlife, and drawing sustenance from the land and sea. He ate berries, kelp, oysters, rockfish and mussels (those produced an allergic reaction, and fortunately it wasn’t of an anaphylactic nature since he was far from help).

After 33 days, Norwell concluded his first journey in Bella Bella, located on Campbell Island, still in B.C. Two years later he traveled by ferry to Klemtu, not far from Bella Bella, and resumed his trek, bound for initially for Skagway, but ultimately ending in Gustavus.

The account is accompanied by Norwell’s watercolors and occasional sketches, which capture details both large and small of his journey. Each section comes with a hand-painted map of the region he was traveling through. From there the work ranges from the water to the land as he weaves his way through the Inside Passage. The diversity of topics he puts his brushes to is remarkable.

On one page it’s his father, who joined Norwell for part of the trip, kayaking ahead of him past a tiny shoreside settlement. On another page a lighthouse rises along the coast. There are character sketches of those he met along the way, and drawings of himself, the person he spent the most time with. There are bears and whales. He offers detailed renderings of the sea life he encountered — both flora and fauna — as he passed through different microclimates. At the bottom of one page he paints a globe. Elsewhere, we find whimsical stick figures. There are even abstracts.

In one of the book’s most amusing moments, Norwell pauses along the Dixon Entrance to examine the resident nudibranchs. “Nudis are gastropods,” he writes. ”Basically, sea snails who threw away their shells in favor of rainbow displays and slug culture” If that isn’t appealing enough, he offers some weird science facts, along with paintings of eleven species of the gastropods, including brief descriptions of what he refers to as their “superpower.”

The art is fun to look at, and Norwell discusses his belief that text and art should be merged, arguing that humans are visual learners and that words and pictures together can teach things more effectively than words alone.

It’s what he seeks to do with this book, which offers many tips for the novice, both written and visual, from food recipes to gear to seasickness to the inescapable fact that if you take a kayak out to sea for long enough, you will flip. This is peppered alongside musings about the nature of life, man, industry and more, consistently from a philosophical standpoint.

Norwell is a young man in love with ideas in this book, but he’s also a young man in love. His mind wanders home consistently to Kaia, his on-again, off-again girlfriend for whom his feelings are a jumble that he tries without success to sort out, realizing that running away north might not be the best way to sustain a relationship.

Norwell went looking for answers and came back with new questions. He learned from his adventure that he can never hope to be heroic, but he can hope to be human. He’s since become quite the world traveler, according to his author bio, and he continues his studies of Buddhism. In “A Complex Coast,” he explores the complexities of life, both human and otherwise, and through his journal entries presents a coming-of-age tale, told in real time.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at