News & Features

Keep Paddling

Flathead woman solo kayaks renowned “Inside Passage”

FERNDALE – On May 5, Susan Conrad put her kayak into the Swan River for a short paddle. “Short” is a relative term, but in Conrad’s case it applies.

Her paddle last week was to commemorate the day, exactly one year earlier, when she put her boat in the waters off the coast of Anacortes, Wash., and began a 1,113-mile solo journey north along the famed Inside Passage route, through the archipelago of islands off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska.

Over the course of Conrad’s 66-day trip, she encountered pods of Orcas, humpback whales, grizzlies, crushing fatigue and harrowing passages across busy shipping lanes.

“I learned to live in the moment,” Conrad said. “If I wasn’t in the moment, I might not be alive in a few more moments.”

But she also experienced moments of profound beauty, solitude and joy. At its conclusion, Conrad emerged with a deeper knowledge of herself, and the reinforcement of an already substantial reverence for the sea. She will be presenting a slideshow detailing her journey May 21 at Clementine’s in Bigfork, beginning at 5 p.m. Her talk, titled, “Oceans of Uncertainty; A Sea of Revelations,” is part of Paddlefest, the annual symposium in Bigfork celebrating kayaking and canoeing over the weekend.

The reasons compelling anyone to undertake a trip as difficult and dangerous as the Inside Passage are complex, but Conrad chalked it up to a desire to accomplish something significant before she turned 50. As a self-described “goal-oriented” person, she also considered it the “mother of all goals.”

Conrad spent almost a year preparing for the trip.

“Since I was doing most of it solo, I figured the better shape I was in, the less room for error,” she said. “I was really strict with myself; I joined the gym, I lifted weights.”

She also paddled every day for three months while living in B.C.’s Gulf Islands the summer prior to her trip to train in a saltwater environment.

The term, “Inside Passage,” was coined in the late 1800s, during the Yukon gold rush, to differentiate it from the “Outside Passage,” and runs from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska. Sea kayakers consider it the most difficult and beautiful paddling trip in North America, and travel from all over the world to attempt it. But navigating the entire route was daunting, requiring 33 separate charts, and much of Conrad’s preparation consisted of the logistics involved in what she anticipated would be a three-month trip.

“It was a lot of logistics, a lot of brainwork went into this,” Conrad said. “Surprisingly I had cell phone service probably about 50 percent of the time.”

In the case of emergencies, Conrad also had a marine radio, flares and a “Spot” GPS unit she could use to call for help. She named her 18-foot sea kayak, “Chamellia,” with hopes that, like a chameleon’s independently rotating eyes, the boat would notice any hazards she might miss.

Once on the water, Conrad averaged about 20-25 miles daily, with some of her most difficult days – what she refers to as “cruxes” of the route – coming when she had to cross major, high traffic shipping lanes, like the Strait of Georgia, where she paddled through 8-foot swells.

“I’m playing chicken in this nautical superhighway,” she said. “That scared the heck out of me.”

In more constricted channels, Conrad paddled tidal rapids as committing as any river.

“I had to be very savvy with my tide and current tables,” she said. “Those were my Bible.”

The tides, along with grizzlies, also dictated where Conrad could set up camp.

“I didn’t know that I would see so many damn bears,” she said. “There were so many bears that I just developed this bear-phobia.”

While on the longest leg of the trip between resupply towns, from Bella Bella, B.C. to Prince Rupert, Conrad was forced to paddle 38 miles in a day: despite her fatigue, the few campsites she saw had bears. The density of bears also frayed her nerves in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

“I had quite a few sleepless nights because of that,” she said. “There were times when I was in tears when I was paddling.”

But with that adversity, Conrad witnessed transcendent beauty: waterfalls, icebergs and wildlife. On July 4, she found herself surrounded by pods of Orcas, a spectacle she described as “better than any display of fireworks I’d ever seen.” At another point, she floated up to a snoring humpback whale.

“I felt like I was tiptoeing past this sleeping whale,” Conrad recalled. “What happens when you startle a 40-ton sleeping whale?”

But she didn’t startle the whale and things went smoothly. Her friend Becky Hardey joined her for a 120-mile stretch, and despite getting stuck in a few campsites due to weather, they traveled swiftly.

Another friend, Jim Chester, who had paddled the route previously, was charged with mailing Conrad her re-supply boxes, timing them so they would arrive at each town when she did. But as she closed in on Skagway, Chester began suffering complications from open-heart surgery. Conrad ended her journey in Juneau, and managed to see her friend before he died.

“Although it was difficult to deal with the grief and despair from his death, I was grateful that I managed to return to Montana in time to be able to spend a few short weeks with him,” Conrad said. “Calling the trip in Juneau was the right thing to do.”

Her slideshow is dedicated to Chester. And while she is unsure what trips might lie in her future, Conrad is, for now, still contemplating the impact of what she did last year.

“It was a journey that changed me profoundly,” she said, “and that continues to change me on a daily basis, and will stay in my heart, mind and soul forever.”

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