Leonie Mahlke and Rebecca Grim met through a mutual friend back in 2015. The first time they hung out together was on a kayaking adventure off the coast of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where Rebecca lives in one of the coolest tiny homes you’ll ever see. The second time, the day was also spent on the water. It was then that Rebecca mentioned that she was thinking about paddling through what is known as the Inside Passage — an intertwined network of passages and islands stretching from Northern Washington to Southeastern Alaska. Leonie, or Leo for short, didn’t waste any time, informing Rebecca that if this trip was happening, she was going too. And so, Paddling North was created.
The route that inspired such an endeavor is (sadly) known for more than its pristine coastline and abundant wildlife, as it’s inspired controversial headlines in recent years regarding treatment of First Nations peoples, fish farms, pipelines, and environmental issues that both Leo and Rebecca felt passionate about highlighting throughout their explorations. After a few years of extensive planning, it was time to paddle north.
Here’s what they had to say about their fourth-month journey, which concluded in September 2018.
How far out of your comfort zone was a trip like this?
Rebecca: This expedition pushed us both past our comfort zones as it was our first multi-month kayaking voyage. We spent a lot of weekends leading up to the trip preparing: paddling and camping in the Southern Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands during the winter months, and attending training courses such as a kayak-guide course, wilderness first aid course, and a VHF(a type of marine radio transmitter) course. During the trip, we tried our best to avoid dangerous situations by listening to the weather twice a day, and resting when we needed to. By the end of the expedition, however, our surroundings had become our new comfort zone.
How much planning went into a trip of this magnitude?
Rebecca: Planning this trip was half of the fun! Endless questions and decisions continued to surface up until the day of the launch. Leo and I have different strengths, so we decided to divide and conquer our seemingly never-ending to-do list. Leo reached out to women we hoped to interview as we paddled north, researched media equipment, and sourced our nautical charts. I worked on the website and Instagram account and contemplated camping gear. During the majority of this time, we weren’t in the same country (Leo is originally from Germany and has spent that last number of years working in marine mammal research internationally), so we quickly learned how to stay organized online. We’d focus on our day jobs, and then in the evenings, we would spend countless hours in front of the computer. One of the most helpful aspects of our planning was to speak with other paddlers who had completed the voyage, asking questions and learning what they would have done differently.
Any packing tips for people looking to do long-distance paddling adventures?
Rebecca: Our practice paddles definitely helped, but the first time we packed our kayaks for the trip north we were still surprised that everything fit — solar panels, hammocks, GPS, nautical charts, multiple stoves, detailed first aid and repair kits, several books, water jugs and filters, and even a ukulele!
After the first leg (10 days), we realized how much we had overestimated the amount of time we would have to relax at the end of each day, so we sent a large duffel bag of unnecessary items back home. Once we hauled up our kayaks, made dinner, listened to the weather, confirmed our route for the following day, cleaned the dishes, set up camp, and washed our bodies, we were pooped and were often asleep by 8 p.m.
Why did you choose this specific route?
Leo: Right from the beginning, our vision was to leave from Salt Spring Island and paddle through the Inside Passage all the way to Southeast Alaska. Prior to our departure, we had been educating ourselves on the issues that plague the different regions along the coastline, and had gotten involved by volunteering for non-profit organizations, supporting First Nations at the frontlines (in their fight against fish farms), and joining demonstrations. So we knew there were countless environmental issues like marine traffic and logging to highlight along the way, and we wanted to find out more about them.
Did your view on these issues change or intensify during the paddle?
Leo: Our views didn’t change necessarily, but we learned how many layers there are to every issue; it’s not always black and white. By talking to those involved, we received a much better understanding of the politics behind these problems. We also learned that much of what is going on stays behind the scenes, which means the public doesn’t always know what is truly happening. After learning more about what people face in these regions, we both have a strong urge to dig even deeper.
What organizations are already making a difference in these important and fragile areas?
Leo: There are so many outstanding individuals and nonprofits fighting for environmental and social justice out there, we could never name them all. But some that stand out are Marine Education and Research Society, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, and RAVEN Trust.
These foundations are focusing on destructive industries and political decisions threatening wildlife and ecosystems. Many are also assisting First Nations who enforce their constitutional rights and title to protect or restore their traditional territories.
What was it like paddling through such staggering natural beauty?
Rebecca: Being out there with a rising sun in the morning, our paddles slicing through calm water, and finding a daily routine in an ever-changing coastline was priceless. Every day was different and unpredictable. We did not see another human for days on end and found ourselves surrounded by stillness, with the occasional bird call, whale blow, or wolf howl.
What were the biggest challenges of the trip?
Leo: When you spend four months in such close proximity with someone, you will get to the point of annoying one another! Luckily, we know each other well enough to not take anything personally. Physically speaking, one of the hardest things was carrying our kayaks and other gear up and down a mile-long, slippery and muddy intertidal zone (the area between tide marks) after a long day of paddling. Our biggest mental challenge was keeping cool and calm while navigating between boomers (big rocks formations just below the water’s surface, which can disappear and reappear in a blink of an eye when there’s swell) in fog for hours at a time, when we were unable to see farther than 16 feet (five meters) ahead of us. It was days like these we were very grateful to have each other to keep morale up.
How did you overcome each of these challenges?
Rebecca: By not taking ourselves too seriously and having a good laugh when we were warm and dry. We took extra rest days in towns along the way to rejuvenate, and we often treated ourselves to huge plates of French fries and cold beers.
What did you learn about yourself and your paddling partner?
Rebecca: We took turns navigating with the charts and I found it challenging to not be the one calling the shots. I learned that I need to openly communicate my needs instead of holding them in. I also learned how incredibly patient and tough Leo is, how she rarely complains, even in the most miserable conditions.
Leo: I learned that I am too hard on myself and that my communication needs to improve. I also have to stand up for myself more often. I admire Rebecca for being fast and efficient in everything she does. There is no job too hard for her to tackle! Her constant positivity often got me out of tricky situations.
Did you accomplish what you wanted to?
Leo: Yes and no. Arranging interviews along the way turned out to be harder than expected. We were completely dependent on weather conditions, which limited our flexibility to meet people and visit certain places. The result was that we missed out on some interview opportunities. But we still achieved our main goal: leaving from home, kayaking for four months, and arriving at Glacier Bay National Park, which brought a feeling of humbling contentment.
How has this trip changed you and your perspective of the world?
Rebecca: This trip has ignited a fire within me and an urge to spend more time on the ocean, learning from the people who live along the coast throughout the Inside Passage. Together, we want to take more action to protect this beautiful coastline and share what we have learned with schools and community centers.
Any closing words for the reader?
Rebecca and Leo: We would like to encourage everyone to ask questions and take a look at how they can change the little things in their daily lives to make our home a healthier planet. It is in each and everybody’s hand to step forward and start change.
Interested in more earth-friendly adventures? Check out our Sustainable Travel Series!