Passage to Juneau
by Andy Dappen
In June of 1974, my mother drove my older brother, several friends, and me to the banks of Horseshoe Bay just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. She smiled bravely for us as we loaded our homemade canoes and launched into the saltwater bay. Then, after we had paddled out of sight, she sat down on the beach and cried. She was quite sure in the 1,100 miles and weeks of paddling separating us from our destination of Juneau, Alaska our tiny crafts would be swamped by waves, wind, or tides and two of her three sons would forfeit their lives to the frigid waters of the Pacific.
We who were just knocking against the doors of adulthood and who were, therefore, all-knowing, had no intention of succumbing to the Pacific. For weeks on end we paddled canoes slowly northward. When it rained, which it does frequently along British Columbia’s misnamed ‘Sunshine Coast’, we paddled. When high weather systems from the North brought days of breezy fair weather, we paddled. When the tide ran with us, we paddled. When the tide ran against us, we paddled. And when we were hungry, which as twenty-year olds was a constant state of being, we paddled. Of course there were also periods of gale-force winds, torrential rains, or tidal rips when we hunkered down along the shoreline and waited for favorable conditions.
At a pace of 18 to 20 miles per day, the timbered green landscape and the fertile green water scrolled by. Amidst all that green were wonders that amazed us– peaks rising from the water’s edge into the clouds, waterfalls cascading from those same snowcapped peaks, whales whose dorsal fins rose 6 feet above our canoes as the submerged leviathans approached us, bald eagles that plunged into the dark water and hauled out 10-pounds of silver salmon.
Six weeks after leaving Vancouver, our band of seven pulled into the docks of Ketchikan, Alaska. My brother and I, organizers of the trip and makers of the three canoes transporting us, advocated we push on several more weeks to Juneau—the port we had always identified as trip’s end. But the summer had grown long in the tooth and half of our crew, slightly weary of the endless paddling, decided 800 miles was plenty. We had made it to Alaska and that seemed good enough. The trip disbanded and despite our Mother’s fear we returned from our epic journey stronger, tanner, more confident, and better prepared for the adult world of careers we would soon be joining.
Many decades later as both my brother and I neared the end of those careers we discussed doing a 40-year anniversary canoe trip of our 1974 Inland Passage Trip. We could revisit old haunts and use a new journey as a bookend to our initial journey. How had this area changed and how had we changed after all those years? Likewise, what was still the same? What had we believed then that had proved true versus what had proved to be nonsense? How had careers, wives, and children altered our world views? As brothers we had been close, sometimes inseparable, but now with lives and families of our own could we get along on an extended trip? There was so much to explore — in this place and in ourselves.
The sequel trip didn’t come together immediately. It took several years to fully commit, secure family buy-in, and make it happen. And the place we ultimately chose was different than what we had initially discussed. We remembered our goal had been to paddle to Juneau — why not use the sequel to finish that last 300 miles of our journey? Our parents had always emphasized that we needed to finish what we started. Why not prove to ourselves and to the world that while the Dappen brothers were slow, they did finish what they committed to?
In June of 2017, the next leg of our Inland Passage journey continued. We brought our gear and our canoe on the Alaskan ferry from Bellingham, Washington back to Alaska. In a rainstorm, Alan and I launched at Ketchikan and started paddling north at a pace of 15 to 20 miles a day. Several weeks later we reached Juneau.
Along with us this time were Alan’s two adult boys, the next generation of brothers to explore this coastline. One of those boys owns and operates a software company in Portland, Oregon. The other son, Nate, is a filmmaker who made a thoughtful film exploring how our 1974 trip impacted not only those of us who participated but how the ripples of that trip impacted the person Nate became.
Some aspects of the Inland Passage, particularly in the southern waters, had changed in the 43 years since Alan and I had paddled them as young men. Likewise some aspects of our personalities had morphed during those years. Yet much about the northern waters and our older selves had remained the same. All of this provided fodder for both our journey and Nate’s film.
See Nathan Dappen’s film, The Passage, here: https://vimeo.com/272632802
This article was originally published on 10/2/18.