A Lengthy Paddle South -- Solo Kayaker Wary Of Waves, Bears On Trip From Juneau
Slowly freezing to death: Not a good idea.
Sparring with hungry Alaska brown bears: Bad idea.
Getting diced to bits in the blades of a large cruise ship: Very bad idea.
Skirting the Alaska/B.C. coast for eight months in a kayak, with no support crew: Excellent idea.
If you're Randal Queen of Ballard, the potential good far outweighs the potential bad.
He's about to find out for sure.
North to Alaska
A week from tomorrow, Queen, 30, will board a ferry for Juneau, Alaska, carrying only a lightweight kayak, minimal camping gear and a waterproof bag of cameras and film.
By 5:30 a.m. April 18, Queen will settle into the cold, clear waters of the Pacific Ocean, the nose of his custom-built craft pointed south toward Seattle. It will stay pointed in that general direction for eight months, as Queen makes a solitary, paddle-powered voyage along the coastal Inside Passage.
Queen, 30, has dreamed of the trek since 1992, when he worked as a bartender at Glacier Bay Lodge.
It sparked a fascination with the flora, fauna and history of the Inside Passage, which was further heightened when he read of John Muir's water-borne travels there.
Gradually, the concept of an environmental/journalistic kayak voyage took form. This winter, he gained sponsorship from the Kayak Lakefront Grill and other local sponsors. His expedition gained a name, "Strait and Sound Discovery: A Northwest Kayak Expedition."
Planning on puffins
Using topographical maps rather than marine charts, he carefully mapped his route and drew a schedule. The trip is set to coincide with natural events, such as whales arriving from Hawaii, bears congregating at Pack Creek Bear Refuge and the birthing season for puffins on remote marine islands.
In that sense, the trek has a decidedly environmental flavor. Photos and accounts of his trek will be made available to environmental organizations and outdoor publications, he said.
"Everyone stays on the Alaska Marine Highway," Queen says of ferries and cruise ships that ply waters near his planned route. "But what's going on off of it?"
Too often, he believes, local adventurers head out for environmental trips far outside the Pacific Northwest, while plenty of exploring awaits close to home.
"Instead of going to Patagonia, Trango or K2, let's look at what's going on here in our back yard," he said. "I wanted to see it before any more of it is clearcut."
Not that Queen's journey is or ever was a carefully organized, highly financed venture. His most recent job was as a waiter at Denny's in Ballard. The roughly $20,000 he's raised to support the venture came through hard work, plenty of doorbelling and a bit of corner-cutting.
The trip itself turned into an eight-month odyssey because Queen, poring over maps, found too much to pass up.
"I told myself, `I can't miss this, or this, or this,' and next thing you know, it's an eight-month trip," he said.
He'll travel between 10 and 30 miles a day, camping mostly on flat beaches along the route. He'll carry a small tent, sleeping bag, minimal cooking and survival gear, and as many days' food as he can cram into his kayak. Additional supplies will be picked up at numerous coastal villages or lodges, where Queen has mailed care packages.
His kayak will carry 350 pounds of gear and Queen, who checks in at 125.
Queen, who grew up in Texas and first sat in a kayak several years ago, has made many training runs in Puget Sound. But he admits route-finding on the trek will be challenging, especially in bad weather. He's not comfortable with nautical charts, and won't carry them, he said.
"As long as I know I'm on the general page (of his topographical maps), I'll be OK," he said. "I know the compass always says south."
Wave-wary and a bit bearanoid
Notoriously strong tides in narrow coastal passages also will be a challenge, he said. Currents run as fast as 12 knots, he said. And he wouldn't be surprised to meet four- to five-foot waves in bad weather.
Like any cautious sea kayaker, his strategy is to stick close to land.
"My theory is simple," he says. "You can't drown on land."
He's also wary of Alaska brown bears - coastal grizzlies - known to inhabit many of the areas where he'll stop to camp. He won't carry a firearm, but believes he can take to the water if confronted by unwelcome visitors.
Still, the element of unknown surprises has kept him awake many nights.
"I do the research on brown bears, and next thing you know, I'm dreaming about them every night," he said.
The logo for Queen's adventure, in fact, is a bear emerging from a wave, both about to consume his kayak.
Rest assured, he has no death wish. The kayak trip should be a good way to learn more about the coastal environment and what makes it tick. It also should be a good way to learn about Randal Queen, and what makes him tick.
But he hopes the research element proves more beneficial than the personal challenge.
"It's a fact-finding mission," he said. "The focus should be on what we have out there, not on me."
The trek won't be a first, Queen said. But no one has taken the time to complete the thorough coastal documentation he hopes to provide.
"I don't think anybody's paddled around up there for eight months with nothing better to do," he said.
A floating send-off
Kayak Lakefront Grill is hosting a send-off party for Queen Saturday at 4 p.m. at the restaurant, 1200 Westlake Ave N.
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