The change was abrupt – from the hectic world of crowds, exams and automobiles to days filled with craggy coastline, endless ocean and the company of eagles, orcas and sea lions.
The day after they graduated from UBC, roommates Eric Letham and Christoph Schaub from Salmon Arm climbed into kayaks at Jericho Beach in Vancouver and began the 60-day adventure that took them to Juneau, Alaska.
The trip began for Letham between the pages of a book. About five years earlier, he was in Mountain Equipment Co-op when he spotted a book on building a strip-built sea kayak. He went back the next day to buy it.
The construction wasn’t quite as speedy. Working on it as well as earning a degree in geology meant the project took about four years.
In the meantime, Schaub’s parents moved from White Lake to Bella Bella.
“During the school year when we were studying hard, he (Christoph) jokingly threw it out there, ‘why not go to Bella Bella when we’re done?’ I said, if we’re going to go that far, why not Alaska?”
On May 31, the day after their graduation ceremony, they were off.
It was no small feat packing their kayaks with everything they might need for a trip they thought would probably take three months. They brought a good supply of rice and noodles, as well as a crab and prawn trap to help provide protein from seafood.
Overall, the trip was better than Letham expected. But it wasn’t without tense moments, to use an understatement.
“There were definitely ups and downs, depending on the weather and the misfortune you have.”
One such day was the 15-km crossing between the Aristazabel and Campania islands. The men checked the weather the night before – they carried VHF marine radios for the purpose – which included a 10-knot tail wind. They didn’t check again in the morning and when they set out, there was a swell, just what they had expected. What they didn’t foresee was the gale that blew up behind them.
“The boats were blown apart, Christoph couldn’t see me for two-and-a-half hours, waves were breaking at our backs, the whole boat would go underwater,” Letham recounts.
Schaub was in front, so Letham could see him periodically, but because they were in survival mode, Schaub couldn’t turn to see Letham behind.
Although they were wearing good life jackets, they probably wouldn’t survive long in the freezing ocean if their kayaks flipped.
When they finally got to shore they were able to reach each other by radio.
“The first thing he said when he heard my voice on the radio was, ‘Thank God you’re alive.’”
“It’s amazing how fast things can turn,” Letham says. “It can be calm and peaceful and all of a sudden there’s a hellish storm. That was the biggest wear on the trip, constantly worrying about tides and currents and weather. How much worse can the weather get before I’m flipped out of my boat?”
Another challenge was finding places to camp. Often there’d be thick forest coming down to the shore, so it was hard to find spots for the kayaks.
“You’d tie it up and hope it’s not floating away in the morning.”
One memorable day was when the young men were chased by sea lions after possibly encroaching on their fishing territory.
“That was the most frightening experience… It
was the most obnoxious noise I’ve ever heard in my life, an amplified barfing sound. It was the fastest we’ve ever paddled.”
Thinking about it afterwards, Letham said he’s sure the sea lions could have easily caught up with the kayaks, but were content to just scare them off.
A grizzly bear poked his head out of the bush at one of their camps, but he seemed as shocked as the kayakers – and quickly took off.
The men covered about 50 kilometres a day, sometimes stopping for a nap when the sun came out. They spent three days in Bella Bella, where they were impressed by First Nations hospitality, which included food and tips on navigating the coastline.
And the scenery along the way was never boring.
“There were bears, orcas, humpback whales, eagles, seals – there’s just life everywhere in the ocean. There was always something to look at.”
The weather helped them appreciate the end to their adventure. For the five days before they reached Juneau, it poured, as they paddled at times amongst icebergs. Sometimes their feet would freeze to the bottom of the boats.
“We put our heads down and paddled. We weren’t having much fun by then. It was probably the wettest and coldest I’ve ever been.”
When they arrived, what they wanted most, Letham says, was a big burger.
And along with missing a variety of foods, Letham also missed music.
“You’d get the same song stuck in your head for so long,” he smiles. “Sometimes you’d have a Christmas carol stuck in your head for a couple of days.”
So after navigating hundreds of kilometres and facing dangers, did the journey boost their confidence? Not necessarily, he says.
“It feels kind of strange when people say congratulations. That wasn’t our goal – can we do this? It was more, ‘let’s go have a good time on the coast.”
One noticeable change for him after the trip is a bit of a different world view.
“The world feels smaller – to look on a globe and see I’ve travelled an appreciable distance on it under my own power.”
And apparently, he hasn’t lost his taste for adventure. Eric and his brother Bryn, who spent a year in the Middle East, are heading to Iran this month “to see what’s going on there.”