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John and Terry Row the Inside Passage to Alaska

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

John and Terry are Alaska natives who now reside in Seattle. When they retired from their fishing business they instituted an “anti-aging plan” and section-hiked all 2600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail over a five year period. They are in their early 70’s and have extensive backcountry hiking experience. Terry has completed numerous ultra marathons, including the Moab 240 in 2021. A 240 mile foot race through the country around Moab. They aren’t strangers to the difficulties of moving and sleeping outside for days.


In search of their next big adventure John found inspiration in the Race to Alaska (R2AK). The R2AK is an human and wind powered boat race (no motors allowed) that starts in Port Townsend, WA and covers 750 miles finishing in Ketchikan, AK. The R2AK is typically done as quickly as possible with the fastest sailing vessels completing the race in just days and the human powered boats taking longer. They decided that rowing to Alaska was a worthy endeavor, not as part of the race but on their own time table.


The plan was to row 800 miles from Seattle to their hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska in a 17 foot Whitehall Spirit open water rowing boat. The route follows the inside passage between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada and among the islands and waterways north of Vancouver Island. Whole books have been written about the challenges faced in these waters. The dangers are many: tide ranges upwards of 15 feet, rip currents, shipping traffic, wind, long open water crossings, submerged rocks, and days-long storms. If you can pull off a safe passage, the trip is incredibly rewarding.



We quickly realized the boat works better in the water


Step one was getting John and Terry comfortable with the technical rowing stroke. This involved several individual on the water coaching sessions in the Whitehall. Then with both of them in the boat I got to coach them from the coach’s “launch” a recreational kayak. We worked on synchronizing their movements in the boat. The two person rowing boat is quite a bit faster than the kayak I was in. It was comical watching me desperately trying to keep pace and coach them at the same time.


The view from the coach's "launch"


I assigned strength training workouts and rowing workouts to help their bodies adapt to the challenges of rowing for up to 40 days. Terry was able to get reps in the boat on Puget Sound. John, however, was in Alaska for much of the time leading up to the trip and had to rely on the Concept 2 rowing machine for his endurance training. The strength training movements were focused on building rowing specific strength and were done at least twice per week. There was an emphasis on squating, hinging, and pulling movements. We devised a core training plan that they could execute while on shore to help ensure their backs would survive the entire trip.



Preparing to launch in the ship canal in Seattle.


John and Terry wisely devised a 5-day “shake out” trip along the west shores of Puget Sound to test their systems. Among the lessons learned were the importance of rollers in assisting moving the boat to and from the water when the tide had receded, the water will pile up and bounce off of bridges when the winds are blowing a certain way, and that they would need to be flexible in their schedule given weather delays.


Using the rollers to move the boat back to the water at low tide


For John and Terry the people they met along the way was a highlight. From strangers sharing a campfire and warm drinks to friends meeting them at camp while they were marooned for days due to foul weather. They crossed paths with adventurer and author Susan Conrad, who had made the trip through the inside passage previously and whose book John had read.


"Beached"


Campsite


They found enjoyment in strategizing how to work through the problems presented by the waterways, such as carefully timing travel around tide rips. Wildlife sightings, abundant natural beauty, and solitude at hard-to-reach backcountry campsites were other highlights.


Containerships... something to be avoided.


Tides in the waters around Vancouver Island ruled much of their decision making. They had to plan their days around high and low tide. Certain constrictions in the waterways can only be traveled through at specific times of day depending on tides. There was one day, during a lunch break, they had to repeatedly move their fire further up the beach to avoid the encroaching waterline. Other days their boat was dozens of feet from the water, and to avoid waiting for the tide to rise, they utilized their rollers and 3:1 rope systems to move the boat back into the water.



Comfort in the boat can be a significant challenge. Before leaving Seattle they had tried a variety of seat pads to keep their sit bones from becoming a limiting factor. Coordinating two people rowing at the same time in choppy water was a hurdle. They decided that one person rowing at a time through the roughest days was more efficient and less frustrating. Feathering. Much to my chagrin John and Terry never did incorporate feathering into their rowing stroke.



Working hard or hardly working?


By day 20 the duo had covered 400 miles and were on the north end of Vancouver Island when Terry began to experience unshakeable dizziness. He went through his ultra marathon checklist: rest, hydrate, eat, and repeat. Even after that any physical exertion sent him into a “weird feeling,” He contacted his medical provider, who recommended he cease all physical exertion and get immediate medical attention. His doctor’s concern: a lack of blood getting to his brain.



The Canadian Coast Guard came to the rescue. Fortunately, John and Terry were only right across the Queen Charlotte Straits from the Port Hardy rescue station. John was able to reach them via cell phone.


Terry preparing to be loaded into the Helicopter.


A dramatic extraction was undertaken. The coast guard picked them and their Whitehall up from their camp in a substantial motorized lifeboat. Then a helicopter, hovering just yards above the coast guard boat, lowered a guardsman with a tag line to the stern deck. A basket followed him down and Terry was placed inside. The basket carried him up into the helicopter and he was whisked off to receive medical care in Comax, BC. Thankfully, Terry’s tests came back with nothing life threatening.



John flew home and drove up to the north side of Vancouver Island to retrieve their boat. I sat down with them in Seattle for a trip debriefing. I asked if they would be returning next year to complete the journey, to which they answered without hesitation, “Absolutely!”



P.S. They reassured me, in the year ahead, they would learn to feather the oars.


Photo Credits to DeeDee, John, Terry, and Bob Waldrop.



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