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Whether paddling in place or going in reverse, this amateur is a work in progress

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 9, 2017

The Twin Peaks peek over a ridge above Eklutna Lake in August 2015. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Editor's note: This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

We were paddling and paddling, and going nowhere.

I tried alternating sides when my arms burned from the exertion. I tried putting my core and back into it, bobbing back and forth like a graceless woodpecker with oar in hand. At several points I stopped paddling, resigned to my fate.

I was never getting off Eklutna Lake in our canoe. At least, not in that wind.

Sidelined by injury from hiking that week, I had turned to paddling for an outdoor activity that would keep me off my bad leg. With the wind at our backs earlier in the day, we cruised to a gravel beach at Eklutna and stopped for a Lucky Wishbone fried chicken picnic.

I budgeted ample time for the return trip, knowing we'd be heading into the wind, because I was supposed to meet another friend that evening back in Anchorage to catch a movie.

My arms churned on the way back, paddling (seemingly) in place. We moved closer to the shoreline, and that seemed to shake my disorientation.

I knew I had planned poorly when my muscles started quivering. After all, my upper-body strength is more T. rex than Popeye.

Seeing one buddy slice through the water in his kayak with ease, I felt a tinge of jealousy. But there was no time to take a break, as my canoe partner urged repeatedly: "Keep paddling!"

I eventually made it to the movie theater sweaty and breathless. But to this day, I still haven't seen the first 30 minutes of "Straight Outta Compton."

That was my introduction to paddling in Alaska.

I've been on the water precisely five times since I moved here: canoeing at Eklutna Lake and Portage Valley, a Kenai Fjords tour when my family visited, kayaking in Thumb Cove off Resurrection Bay and a packrafting trip at Spencer Glacier.

Devin Kelly paddles on the lake at the toe of Spencer Glacier on Monday, June 12, 2017. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

You can tell I'm a boating novice. The fit of my personal flotation device may give me away. If not that, the way I hold my paddle or the way I start muttering expletives when I get in and out of a boat probably will.

Each outing has delivered some lesson I've taken to heart. At Eklutna Lake, I learned the miseries of paddling into the wind and poor time management.

Canoeing on a small lake in Portage Valley went smoothly. The ride out there was a bit bumpier for the boat strapped to the top of my car, though. My roof rack system took a beating, and I'm still looking for two plastic endcaps somewhere between Midtown Anchorage and Indian.

My family's visit last year gave me a chance to play tourist on a cruise around Kenai Fjords National Park. After we drifted among the icebergs at the terminus of Bear Glacier, I started feeling seasick. Focusing on the horizon helped. The smell of food in the cabin — who is eating a tuna salad sandwich right now? — did not. Next time, I may try Dramamine, but I'll take any and all suggestions.

Our day paddling at Thumb Cove was spectacular. A chartered boat took our group and kayaks across the bay, and we dropped in via a Zodiac inflatable boat. Alaska waters are always cold, but in March, I was particularly nervous about getting chilly.

My worries quickly subsided. Under the PFD and rented drysuit, I was sweating through all of my layers as we paddled across the cove in sunshine, floating amid icicle formations while auklets puttered by.

A lucky break: My first time kayaking was at Thumb Cove out of Resurrection Bay on March 29, 2017. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

The experienced kayaker in our group lobbed pointers my way, describing how my arms should be at 90-degree angles and how I should paddle with my core rather than my back. Easier said than done, but I was grateful for the tips — that was my first time in a kayak.

I'm easy to spot in all our group photos. My boat is the one that's slightly off angle. Also, anytime we had to get into position, I revealed a natural preference for maneuvering a kayak in reverse.

"Why are you paddling backwards?"

"I DON'T KNOW!"

A June trip to Spencer Glacier marked my maiden packraft voyage. At the glacier lake, we dodged dive-bombing sea gulls, who taught me that I should never again squawk at a bird when it's squawking at me.

Floating on the Placer River back toward the Seward Highway, I got stuck in a few shallow spots — serves me right for getting distracted by the scenery — and tracked water into my boat.

When we crossed under the Seward Highway, I was sitting in a tidy pool of bone-chilling, silty water, and the turnoff we hoped to take to get closer to the car in our rafts existed on our map but not in the real world. We considered going forward anyway.

Then a vision of us trying to cross Turnagain Arm in our packrafts entered my mind.

We pulled out of the water and lazily towed our rafts behind us along the shore, back toward the section of road we had passed earlier.

Sometimes, this is what packrafting looks like: towing a raft after floating the Placer River from Spencer Glacier past the Seward Highway on Monday, June 12, 2017. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

If you're looking for expert advice on kayaking or packrafting, you've come to the wrong place. All I know about paddling here can be boiled down to two points:

1) Water in Alaska can kill you.

2) I still have so much to learn.

Luckily, I'm not going anywhere. And that's not just because I keep paddling in reverse.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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