On August 21, 2009, Apryle Craig and Phil Magistro paddled the last few strokes into Glacier Bay National Park, completing their 111 day journey on the Inside Passage. The “Go Wild Expedition” began on May 2, 2009 in Gig Harbor, WA and covered 1,251 miles through Washington, up the wild coast of British Columbia, and along the panhandle of Alaska.
One of the primary goals of the expedition was to examine the issues that are thought by the scientific community to be contributing to the localized extinction of pink and chum salmon along the British Columbia coast, specifically the open-net farming of non-native Atlantic salmon. To meet this goal, the pair began with background reading on salmon history, life cycle, and modern challenges. The couple also had dialogue with various involved parties, including discussion of closed containment with a representative from the BC Salmon Farmers Association, correspondence with a Norwegian citizen about awareness in Norway (where most of the BC salmon farms are based) regarding the issues surrounding salmon farming, analysis of information provided by a manufacturer of closed containment systems, and recommendations from the staff of the Living Oceans Society.
Actually paddling the Inside Passage proved more difficult than either partner had imagined. “At 2 miles per hour, the world goes by very slowly,” says Magistro. Strong headwinds in the Johnstone Strait slowed progress, and communication with the outside world tapered off as the pair made their way into the wilder parts of British Columbia. Muir said it best, however, that wilderness can “heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” The Go Wild team hit their stride in central British Columbia, as they began to increase their mileage and take fewer rest days. Hearty, delicious meals fueled the duo, and paddling big storm swells around Cape Caution in the Queen Charlotte Sound inspired confidence. Blue skies for much of the summer made sunburn a greater concern than hypothermia. When bad weather, rough conditions, and fatigue set in, the team was thankful for their Kokatat drysuits, Current Designs kayaks, and Werner paddles. Furthermore, Magistro and Craig took heart in the exceptional kindness and hospitality offered by locals and fellow travelers all along the route.
Salmon are ubiquitous on the Inside Passage, and their presence pervaded the entire expedition. As such, Magistro and Craig enjoyed plentiful opportunities for salmon study, beginning with a stop at a wild salmon smokehouse in Washington. They enjoyed copious discussion with local residents, fisherman, and paddlers along the route, as well as a study session at the Living Oceans Society office in Sointula. The pair hoped to tour a working salmon farm near Campbell River, however, they passed through the region before the start of organized tours and a representative of the BC Salmon Farmers Association was unable to return their calls in time. However, they did have the opportunity to paddle near a host of working fish farms near Quadra Island and discuss farm density, fish habits, and health with a staff person at one of the farms. Magistro and Craig did not personally witness any problematic behavior on the part of the salmon farms, nor did they observe trash that could be linked directly to a farm. However, they were struck by the presence of what appeared to be abandoned fish farms as well as the amount of detritus, abandoned machinery, plastic, and rope found on the beaches in southern British Columbia, likely resulting from a combination of logging, passing ships, commercial fishing, and salmon farming.
Further north, the team became intimate with wild salmon. Traveling by kayak through massive schools of returning adult salmon, the “whump-splash” of piscine missiles launching out of the water and crash landing mere feet from their kayaks became a daily occurrence as the spawning season started in earnest. They observed salmon traveling upstream to spawn all along the coast from central British Columbia to Glacier Bay. On Admiralty Island, they explored on foot a salmon stream thick with pink salmon, strewn with dead and dying fish, and liberally peppered with grizzly tracks and scat.
Never far from the wild salmon were the host of fisherman pursuing them, with gillnets, trollers, and purse seines. Encounters with sport and commercial fishermen provided frequent opportunities to discuss opinions on salmon farming and its apparent effects on wild salmon. That salmon farming is almost universally opposed by fisherman, their families, and residents of fishing towns was not entirely surprising, though it seemed that these adverse opinions stem equally from competition for market share from farmed salmon and from their environmental impacts on wild salmon.
Wild and domestic salmon were not the only creatures keeping the Go Wild team company; frequent wildlife encounters also provided inspiration on the long paddle north. Some of the wildlife highlights were watching throngs of humpback whales migrating through the Fitz Hugh Sound near Bella Bella, BC, losing count of bald eagles on a daily basis, witnessing a humpback breach eighteen times in a row near Wrangell, warily avoiding close grizzly bear encounters on Admiralty Island, dodging a playful sea otter in Icy Strait, and enjoying daily visits by curious harbor seals and Stellar sea lions.
While there are arguments on both sides of the salmon farming issue, by August both paddlers agreed that salmon farming has significant negative impacts. Juvenile mortality possibly resulting from parasitic infections originating in open-net salmon farms is just the most recent of two centuries of abuse: logging impacts from “splash dams” and improper waste disposal, gold dredges reworking entire streambeds, tremendous commercial fishing pressure, and massive dam projects. However, this issue may be the proverbial straw on their humped backs.
Since the end of the expedition, research has implicated the salmon farms Magistro and Craig paddled by in the Okisollo region in the recent (and massive) collapse of the Fraser River sockeye. However, awareness of these issues outside of a very narrow geographic band along the Pacific Coast appears to be almost nil. It seems that the problems could be largely mitigated through scientific analysis, informed governance, common sense, and educated consumerism. The team hopes that in writing about the journey, performing slideshows, and discussing these issues they can continue to raise funds for the preservation of wild salmon through the Living Ocean Society and awareness of the issues among the general population. Says Craig, “I hope that after hearing our story, people will consider what types of salmon to put on their table with a greater understanding of where that fish came from and how it lived in or interacted with the natural environment.”
Traveling the Inside Passage by kayak is an intriguing experience, difficult beyond belief but at the same time incredibly rewarding. The expedition could never have come together and would not have meant as much without the support of friends, family, sponsors, and all the amazing folks who lent a helpful hand and kind words along the way. Kayaking to Alaska was an accomplishment for the pair, and provided both with greater respect for the natural world, time for reflection and personal growth, and the chance to become very intimate with a fascinating and beautiful part of the world. They are proud of their achievement and are looking forward to carrying the lessons learned on the Inside Passage into “civilized” life, and hopefully the next adventure.