The Inside Passage winds a thousand miles through the Pacific
coastal islands of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.
Seattle in the south to Juneau in the north, the route leads past
Victoria, Vancouver, Port Hardy, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, and a
dozen other towns and villages. Protected from open ocean swells by
innumerable islands, this classic labyrinth of waterways provides
the only access to the world’s largest temporal rainforest.
Between Seattle and Juneau over 7,000 islands
protect the coast, but there are few great beaches or deltas. The
Coastal Mountains drop abruptly into the ocean. The great rivers and
lesser streams arise in the mountains and flush into the ocean,
creating deep inlets which frustrate land travel along the coast.
Waterways, therefore, have always provided the only travel paths
through the region, serving this function especially well because
the islands provide protection.
Ten thousand years ago, and maybe even earlier, when the first
humans arrived in the Pacific Northwest, they traveled by canoe.
Later, Europeans arrived, not overland but by water. Sailing vessels
brought Russian, Spanish, English, and American explorers including
the great navigators, Vancouver and Cook. When gold was discovered
in the Klondike in 1897, the Inside Passage provided access for
thousands of adventurers seeking their fortune in the fabled gold
fields of British Columbia and Alaska.
Boats are still the only way through this country, now known as the
Great Bear Rainforest. Today the waters are plied by kayaks, native
canoes, tug boats, cruise liners, fishermen, loggers, sailors, as
well as killer whales, humpback whales, five species of salmon, and
a myriad of other land based and water based creatures.
Though protected from the open ocean, the Inside Passage does have
its dangers and challenges. The tides in the region can vary as much
a sixteen feet from low water to high water. While the tide level
rises and falls vertically, vast quantities of water surge
horizontally through inlets and passageways seeking ways in and out
of the labyrinth. These horizontal tidal currents constitute a major
challenge to any mariner. In some constricted passages, the current
can reach seventeen or eighteen knots. In 1792, seeing the
river-like gush of water through the narrow passage north of Whidbey
Island, George Vancouver named the narrow passage Deception Pass.
The Inside Passage is more than a utilitarian highway. Even before
the gold rush, the Inside Passage sparked the imagination of those
who yearned to escape the definitions of civilization. After the
promise of gold had vanished, the Inside Passage continued to
inspire fantasies and challenge mariners. Like the South Pacific,
the Northwest Passage, and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the
Inside Passage to Alaska evokes a spirit of mystery, the exotic, and
adventure. It provides escape from the ordinary and mundane. It
challenges the body, mind, and spirit. As clear as the air and the
water, its spirit beckons.
Thirty years ago that spirit called me and I headed north. Like most
life-path turns, my response to the call of the Inside Passage was
not one conscious decision but serendipitous--the result of numerous
small, sometimes unconscious choices. Responding to the call, I
found much more than I had expected. There were unforgettable
adventures, rigorous challenges, exotic and surprising pleasures. I
found unforgettable people and a wilderness of beauty and fragility
Previously I was a university professor of philosophy and religious
studies. I came to the Pacific Northwest for a new job as a scholar,
teacher, and administrator. I stayed as a boat captain and because
it seemed like home. I had always been drawn to the wilderness, but
far from salt water--to the mountains of Colorado and New Hampshire.
At first I continued that pattern in the Northwest: hiking, camping
and fishing in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.
But the edge of the ocean was at hand, and so I bought a boat.
I explored the nearby waters--the San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands,
and Desolation Sound. But the call from my restless unconscious
would not silence. Each summer I pushed a bit further north, making
the ever longer journey in ever larger and better equipped boats.
Each time I learned to appreciate more the challenge and the beauty
of this magnificent place. The Inside Passage began to define the
rhythm of my life; the academic world receded. For the next three
decades the rhythm was set: spring--preparation, summer--the
journey, fall--return, winter--rest and plan. My career as an
academic and my life as a husband and father had to respond to that
rhythm. Sometimes they did and sometimes there was discord. But I
could not escape the central melody of water, islands, boats, and
Five sturdy boats have carried me through the Inside Passage:
“Elsa,” “Raven,” “Sundown,” “Shadow,” and “Loon.”. Each appears in
the stories that follow. And I had wonderful companions on most of
these trips—my wife, friends, crew—but in the stories I have
minimized the many and frequently indispensible contributions they
made to the joy of the journeys. The stories are all true, but they
are not about me or about my companions; they are about the Inside
Passage and the adventure and insights that await there.
As I began to write stories about those experiences, I discovered
that I am still hooked. My memory for many other things slips, but I
can still remember and visualize every anchorage between Seattle and
Juneau. Things have changed since the rush to the Klondike, and they
have changed since I began to make the journey. As civilization
encroaches relentlessly the wilderness recedes. Nevertheless the
adventure and challenge are still there, at least for a little
while. My next boat, Orina, has arrived.
Seven of the following chapters trace a journey from Seattle to
Glacier Bay with anchorages and stories along the way. They do not
constitute a cruising guide, but they do provide a rough outline of
a way to make the trip. The rest of the chapters are stories about
people, places and events that have enriched my experience of the
Some of the stories contain gaps and disjunctions, sometimes a lack
of continuity. Perhaps I should remove these non sequiturs that tend
to interrupt the literary flow and leave the reader puzzled. Maybe
so, but maybe not. That’s the way the wilderness is and that is the
way I have experienced the Inside Passage—not as a seamless
narrative, but as a quixotic, frustrating and seductive environment.
Weather changes unexpectedly, regardless of radios, forecasts, and
sky gazing. We meet people, share with them, learn from them, and
then move on, not knowing where or when they will anchor next.
Killer whales appear when we do not expect them, a salmon hits while
we are not paying attention. Over it all lingers the spirit of the
first inhabitants and we come upon the remains of their fish traps,
pictographs, petroglyphs, big houses, burial sites and cedar
harvesting in places where we imagine we are the first humans to
ever have walked.
Why does the wilderness call to us? It is a voice from outside our
mechanized, pre-packaged, commercialized world. Huck Finn heard it
as did Edward Abbey, and so did those of us who grew up with the
Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. It is the voice of Zorba, of Nietzsche,
of Hesse, of Dionysius, of Shiva, of the Raven. Behind all these, it
is the voice of our own soul breathing the unquenchable desire to
discover and to be liberated.
I hope my stories will evoke that call for you. I hope they will
take you away from what we call civilization--from the shopping
malls, the condos, the television and gaming, the cruise packages
and vacation get-aways—into experience that has not been
pre-packaged for you but that you can discover for yourself. If you
don't have a boat, or can't make the Inside Passage, I hope my
stories will spark the spirit of adventure for you wherever you
might find it.
The wilderness is there, the hesitation is within.