Finally, I stop. My heartbeat reels like a dizzy child who’s been spinning around on the spot, my lungs test their boundaries and my soul smiles with joy. This must be what they mean by a natural high.
I am, as it happens, pretty low on the surface of the earth. At sea level, in fact. My legs bound beneath plastic, my belongings wrapped between them and a paddle across my lap. I’m in a kayak, I’m in Alaska, and I’m in seventh heaven.
It’s almost embarrassing for a typically cynical Brit to be enjoying myself this much. No, strike that, it is embarrassing. When I get back to the main boat and catch up with the rest of the crew, I fully expect a chorus of “awesomes” and “you did great” from my American comrades, since that’s pretty much the reaction I got when introduced myself. Coming from a country that uses the phrase “not too bad” to congratulate people, I always sound, well, repressed.
A drip of water brings me back to the present, a noise amplified by the silence, with the echo of a solitary church bell. Waspish clouds hang low on the horizon, forested mountains rise up on either side and the water stretches away like cerulean honey.
There’s no-one else in sight.
Southeast Alaska doesn’t really do roads; its jigsaw geography doesn’t let it. Floatplanes and jet boats cover the distances, with skiffs and the odd ferry picking up the slack. It’s been years since people relied on canoes, but for centuries, of course, that was it, the only way to get around. Trade, travel, hunting and war. Paddling underpinned it all.
My lightweight shell is far from the cedar and spruce that the Tlingits carved, but the connection’s still there. I’m still seeing the same Alaska that people saw a thousand years ago.
Well, almost. Out on the horizon, the odd flash of sunlight catches my eye before a tip of canary yellow appears. It’s Nellie and Pokin in a two –man kayak, steadily making ground.
As it turns out, more kayaks make it more fun. Sure, there’s coordination jiggery-pokery to get sorted and only one of you can steer, but you can also be incredibly mature and race each other or compete to block one other off.
No-one wants to fall in: the Chuck River may look as smooth as polished sapphire, but it’s riddled with the carcasses of salmon as they’ve swum upstream to mate.
Luckily, the water’s not always like this. Another full day’s kayaking takes us past rocky shores with amber starfish, bear tracks in the mud and the challenge of navigating a narrow network of streams.
This isn’t for extremists (we do head back to a yacht each night) but neither is it for the faint hearted. We’re in the kayaks for six or seven hours at a time, paddling, working, breathing, laughing. And although we’re a small group, it turns out that we’re not alone.
Behind me, I hear another noise. Soft, stunted, and almost silent. I hold my breath and turn around. Slowly, slowly, trying to become invisible. I’ve got company.
The saucer eyes of a seal greet me and then another row of heads pop up. I want to scream, I want to dance, I want to find some better way of saying “Wow. Just. Wow!”
The word “awesome” crosses my mind but I let it pass. I don’t want to break the spell.
Instead I hold my breath and hold still – and I thrill in the experience of kayaking through southeast Alaska.
I kayaked as a guest on an “Un-Cruise” run by InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari Cruises. These guys specialise in small cruise ships (no more than 20 passengers on our trip, 50 on the cruise this summer and 75 the year after.) This way, you get off the beaten track and escape the giant liners. Kayaking equipment was provided, right down to the waterproof trousers, as was a wonderful meal each night.
The Northern Lights in Alaska