Inside the Inside Passage                True stories from the Land of the Spirit Bear  by  Captain Joseph Bettis

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Chapter 1


"Aunt Polly allowed how she was going to civilize me. I've been
that route before, so I lit out for the territory."

--Huck Finn

The Inside Passage winds a thousand miles through the Pacific coastal islands of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. From 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 beyond imagination.

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 people.

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 Inside Passage.
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.

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