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Passage to Juneau: Reviewing life and landscapes as brothers complete last leg of paddle journey — 40 years later

By on September 24, 2018 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

Arrival in Spurt Cove in Thomas Bay about 15 miles north of Petersburg came after a dry day of paddling. But the rain returned soon after camp was established and it rained all night.

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 for us as we loaded our homemade canoes and launched into the saltwater.

After we had paddled from sight, however, she sat down on the beach and cried. She was quite sure in the 1,100 miles and the 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 gates 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 did frequently along British Columbia’s misnamed “Sunshine Coast” we paddled. When high weather systems from the north brought days of breezy sunshine, we paddled. When the tide ran with us, we paddled. When the current flowed against us, we paddled.

Fire and food — a big part of the apres-paddle lifestyle. Alan on left, Andy right. Photo by Nathan Dappen.

And when we were hungry, which was a constant state of being for 20-year-olds, we paddled.

Of course there were periods of gale-force winds, torrential rains, or tidal rips when we hunkered down along the shoreline and waited for more 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 that jutted from the water’s edge into the clouds, waterfalls that cascaded down those same snowcapped peaks, whales whose dorsal fins rose six feet above our canoes when they approached us, bald eagles that plunged into the dark water to haul 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 place we had always identified as trip’s end. But the summer had grown long in the tooth and half of our crew, weary of the endless paddling, decided 800 miles was plenty — we had reached Alaska without busting.

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 our working careers, we discussed doing a 40-year anniversary canoe trip of our 1974 Inland Passage Trip.

Sea lions and their rookeries were common sights along the route. Photo by Nathan Dappen

We hadn’t realized it then, but that trip had defined us in many ways. It was a trip many had hoped to torpedo. This was before the sea kayaking boom and many told us this trek was a fool’s errand, a suicidal venture.

Actually surviving and thriving during the journey gave us confidence in our abilities and confidence to later walk paths that were at odds with conventional wisdom.

On this anniversary trip we discussed revisiting old haunts and using our new journey as a bookend to the original trip. How had the area changed and how had we changed after so many years? What had we believed then that had proven true versus what had proven ridiculous? How had careers, wives, and children altered our worldviews?

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 always been to paddle to Juneau — why not use the sequel to complete the final 300 miles of our journey?

Paddling across a wide channel of water. Most miles were made staying close to the shoreline but most days also involved crossing channels or inlets that were between one and five miles wide. On this trip, a spray deck (yellow cover) was used to minimize the likelihood of getting swamped should the wind kick up whitecapped waves. This was a safety measure not used on the original trip. Oh the folly of youth.

Our parents had always preached that we needed to finish what we started. Why not prove to ourselves and to the world that although the Dappen brothers might be extraordinarily 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 canoes north on the Alaskan ferry from Bellingham. In a rainstorm, Alan and I launched at Ketchikan and started paddling north at a pace of 18 to 20 miles a day.

Along with us this time were Alan’s two adult boys, the next generation of brothers to explore this coastline.

Ben, the oldest boy, owns and operates a medical record software company in Portland. The other son, Nathan, is a filmmaker who made a thoughtful film that explored how the 1974 trip not only shaped those of us who participated but actually impacted the person Nate became.

We spent 25 days polishing off the chore that had eluded us for four decades.

Days occasionally dragged on monotonously as we stroked the paddles some 15,000 times to make our distance through an atmosphere that was often more liquid than gaseous. Although June is considered a dry month in southeast Alaska, over five inches of rain spilled over us during our weeks of paddling.

Most days, however, were miraculous.

Below the flat pane of the green water over which we floated lay a three-dimensional world teeming with life.

Enjoying a rare day of clear weather with a small fire on the beach. All our fires were small and made in the inter-tidal zone so tidal action would quickly eliminate evidence of passing.

Alan’s fishing pole pulled out a very small representation of this life — salmon, rock cod, flounders, sculpins. Our eyes witnessed a slightly larger sliver of the total: humpbacked whales, killer whales, harbor seals, sea lions, otters, diving birds, crabs, star fish, anemones, barnacles, limpids, mussels, clams, shrimp…

Most of the life submerged below our boat, however, slipped invisibly past as we paddled overhead.

All of this seemed an apt analogy for the broader picture.

As we paddled, our fraternal conversations often flowed on for hours as we philosophized about kids, work, wives, recreation, growing up, health, parents, get-rich schemes, growing old, travel, siblings, life’s joys and regrets, opportunities seized and lost, death and dying, spiritualism, environmental issues, humanity’s bleak future, literature, books we should write, music, must-see films…

Looking at life with someone whose nature and nurture were so intertwined with my own was like viewing this ocean so teeming with life — there were few topics that couldn’t occupy our minds and imaginations for hours.

And yet the views of two people in a world habituated by billions are so small and so limited that we were, in deed, a canoe following one insignificant line atop an ocean of experiences that is unfathomably deep and impossibly large.

We reached Juneau in late June. Of course, closing the book on this trip of a lifetime meant opening the door to future possibilities to be pursued with our future lives. We discussed returning to Juneau and cruising by canoe and paddle northwest into Glacier Bay or southwest to Sitka.

Now that the speedy Dappen brothers were on a roll, we saw no limit to what we could accomplish in the 40 years ahead.

The 2017 cast: the Next Generation to the left (Ben Dappen far left, Nathan next), and the Original Series to the right (Andy left, Alan far right). Ben and Nathan left at Wrangell Alaska, catching the ferry south. Alan and Andy spent the final two weeks traveling on to Juneau alone. Photo by Nathan Dappen

The 1974 crew before launching at Horseshoe Bay, BC. Alan is second from left, Andy kneeling on right.

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