From My Portfolio

Girl Kayak Guides of Juneau, Alaska


If I were in Juneau right now, I'd be taking a nap. Naps are a very Juneau thing to do. Jane, a self-styled "girl guide," told me that while we were feasting on smoked salmon and reindeer sausage at Eagle Beach not far from downtown Juneau, Alaska's tiny capital.

We had paddled our sea kayak — a long narrow boat swift and silent as a shark — to a beautiful outlook where humpback whales rode the chilly waters and eagles huddled in black trees. Way off on the horizon, mysterious peaks pierced the clouds that hover perpetually over the steel blue Gulf of Alaska.

A lanky girl with bright brown eyes, Jane stood on the shoreline and scanned the channel for squalls. Then she scanned the black sand beach, which gave way to lush meadows of fireweed and rye grass. She listened to the squawking of ravens, flying up to stands of Sitka spruce. She sniffed the air, which smelled of kelp and wildflowers. Finally, she yawned.
"Boy, I wish I could take a nap right now," she said. "We're real nap-oriented here. My boyfriend has what he calls a safety nap. He'll spot something dangerous. And he's like, 'Whoa! — time to take a nap!'"
What a revelation. Where I live near Seattle, the lights at Microsoft burn all night. I never nap without feeling that I've taken a sad and possibly fatal turn toward sloth. Now here was Jane, an adventurer, promoting naps as a safety tip. And here was I, a failed kayaker, hanging on her every word. The truth was that before I met Jane, I was thinking about giving up sea kayaking, because I simply wasn't strong enough to stay out of trouble on saltwater.
Just a month before, I had gotten myself in a nasty mess on Puget Sound — the wildcat waterway on which Seattle perches, some 900 miles of icy water south of Juneau. I crossed a shipping lane with a group of kayakers on a glorious summer day. Suddenly, a current caught my boat and tossed it to the right. Everybody else went left. I kept trying to turn the kayak, but it was like trying to turn the head of a rebellious horse. Next thing I knew, I was headed out to sea. I couldn't see a single member of my group, not even their white paddles going up and down — a sight that, from a distance, looks like a flock of tiny, elusive white birds.
Then the wind rose. I had to fight both the current and the chop. I panicked. I knew that kayakers, even experts, died on the Sound every year. My biggest fear was that I would flip the kayak and either get trapped underneath or fall into the icy water and be unable to struggle back into the boat. "There is no lonelier, more desperate maneuver when you are far from shore and help," my kayak manual says.
"Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, made worse by cold, fumbling hands."
I knew I should conserve my strength, in case the kayak capsized. But I kept thrashing around, because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Luckily, a woman from our group finally spotted my uplifted paddle — which she said looked no bigger than a handkerchief in the wind. She doubled back and towed me, humiliated, to shore.
How I longed to be courageous like Jane, who soothes angry bears with compliments: "I see you, bear. I respect you, bear. Brave, brave bear." Jane, who can tell a storm is coming by the smell of the wind. Like the Tlingits who settled this lovely, rain-drenched land, Jane makes tea from a prickly plant called devil's club. She can out-paddle a squall and survive by her wits. 
"My first year in Juneau I lived in a cabin, without heat or running water," she confided, as we climbed into our double kayak to paddle back to our starting point. "The cabin was on an avalanche chute. Every night I had to think, 'Now, where am I going to sleep tonight?' I had seven escape routes." 
She laughed. "But, hey, it was cheap and available. And avalanches bring trees down with them. If an avalanche comes down the hill without hitting the house, you can get your firewood for free." 
Juneau draws many women like Jane — adventurers from the Lower 48 who climb the near-vertical streets in drab raincoats and yellow, knee-high neoprene boots rolled partway down. It is a tilted town of brightly painted gingerbread houses pressed up against a muddy mountainside, with water everywhere. You can't drive from Juneau to any other town, because the longest road fades into wilderness after 40 miles. You step outside your front door into a maze of wild rivers and crumbling glaciers and slippery peaks.
On my wildest days, I like to pretend I have what it takes to be a girl guide. Strength, courage, know-how and patience. How thrilling to rate a chapter in Jane's memoirs, which she plans to call Girl Guides of Juneau. At Alaska Discovery, where she works, girl guides tend to be tall, cool, powerful blondes of few words. But Jane was like a younger version of me — small-boned, dark-haired and talkative. She made me feel that, given the time and inclination, I too could be a guide. I could give up my desk job and survive a winter in Southeast Alaska without running water or electricity.  
All the way back to Juneau, I did the paddling. Jane sat behind me, steering the boat and critiquing my technique. "If you keep jerking back like that, you're going to flip the kayak," she warned, as we skirted the edges of a forlorn island, its tumbled-down buildings covered with moss. Even though it was a balmy day in mid-July, she had insisted that we don life vests, plus waterproof jackets, pants and boots.
"You wouldn't want to fall into that water," she said. "It's 45 degrees. We become animals at that temperature. We thrash around. We go insane."
I loved Jane's stories about careless sailors sent to the deep, hapless tourists who choked on poisonous mushrooms, reckless tenderfoots who thought they could conquer Alaska without studying it first. She taught me that what I lacked wasn't strength but know-how, not courage but cunning. She showed me how to paddle with the power of my entire body, not just my arms. She made me pay attention to the currents and read the wind — a kayaker's greatest enemy.
"You have to look," she kept saying. "You have to be aware."
Suddenly, I got it. The kayak skimmed the water like a sailboat blown by the wind. Chum salmon leapt all around us. An eagle soared overhead. My heart soared too. I remembered why I had started kayaking in the first place. Because I love sea kayaks — boats as gaily painted as kites, so sleek and light that they feel like part of your skin. Because I longed to explore the wily, hard-hearted gorgeous Sound — every island, sea cave, twisted channel and river mouth. Because I was tired of standing on the shore while other people set off on adventures.
Back here in Seattle, 900 miles down the Inside Passage, rain falls all winter. When a Yukon Express blows down from Alaska, rain pounds so hard on the roof of my house that it wakes me up at night. So I read trashy novels. I lift weights to prepare myself for kayaking. I remember the mantra of the girl guides of Juneau.
"Always be prepared," Jane told me. "That's what the wilderness has taught me. I never leave my house without my raincoat — even when the sun is out."
Always be prepared. That's good advice for venturing anywhere. Have seven escape routes. A compass, map and whistle.
When in doubt, take a safety nap.


*This story appeared orignally appeared on UnderWire.msn.com. Illustration by Steven Salerno