Archive for Monday, November 27, 2006

Alaskan adventure

Sea-kayaking course covers 30 days, 300 miles

November 27, 2006


There were times, Emelia LaFortune admitted, she'd crawl into her sleeping bag, body shivering, muscles aching, and she'd be so tired she couldn't think straight.

And just before tumbling into unconsciousness, she'd console herself with one thought: Come morning, she'd get to do it all again.

"Some days were really hard, but absolutely worth it," said LaFortune, a Kansas University senior from Tulsa, Okla., who earlier this year completed a 30-day sea kayaking expedition through the National Outdoor Leadership School in Alaska. "It was the best feeling in the world. You'd get in your sleeping bag, so exhausted you couldn't move another inch, and think, 'That was the greatest day in the world, and I get to do it again.'"

For 30 days, from June 15 to July 16, LaFortune's class - 12 students, three instructors, ranging in age from 15 to 30 - paddled through the ocean waters of Alaska's Inside Passage containing the islands and lush coast of the Southeastern Alaskan Archipelago.

After spending a few days learning the basics of paddle strokes, hazard assessment, maritime navigation and ocean-rescue techniques, the group - with all the equipment needed for camping and living in a coastal environment - shoved off from Petersburg, Alaska.

Over the next 30 days, 24 or so of which were spent paddling, the class covered a course-record 264 nautical miles. That's the equivalent of about 300 statute miles.

"Nobody in the group had had any sea-kayaking experience," LaFortune said. "Some had some sit-on-top experience, so there was definitely a learning curve. We went five miles the first few days. Those were the hardest days of the whole time. The last day was a 25-mile day, and everybody felt pretty good."

Well, good is something of a subjective term.

LaFortune said it rained 19 of the 30 days and often was bone-chilling cold. There were days of 30 mph winds and days of 10-foot waves.

And there was a potentially dangerous run-in with a group of suspected seal poachers.

"The thing is, and I don't know exactly what it is, but people just take much more responsibility for themselves, just your own happiness," LaFortune said. "It can be horrid, raining and cold, but there's always a good side. When it's raining every day, you could collect the rain water and drink it clean, because there's no pollution. I think as a result of that, everybody leaves much more grounded."

About the NOLS

The National Outdoor Leadership School was founded in 1965 by mountaineer Paul Petzoldt.

A private, non-profit school, the NOLS operates field expeditions around the world. Students learn wilderness skills and safety, conservation and leadership. There are more than 85,000 NOLS "graduates" worldwide from the school based in Lander, Wyo.

The NOLS ( runs 14- to 95-day expeditions in the Rocky Mountains, Tetons, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Alaska, Western Canada, Mexico, Patagonia, India, Australia, New Zealand, Baffin Island and the Amazon.

LaFortune had completed a shorter wilderness natural history course in Wyoming in 2002, and it opened her eyes.

"I come from a Catholic Republican oil-business family in Oklahoma," LaFortune said with a laugh. "I had never heard about the environmental movement and thought, 'I have to learn something about this.'"

Though she recalls writing in her journal during that Wyoming expedition, "Never do this again," LaFortune indeed did it again.

In fact, she went large.

"There's a term they used: Type-2 fun," LaFortune said. "Type-2 fun is fun looking back on it. That's pretty funny, but this wasn't Type-2 fun. This was hard. It was a very, very physically strenuous workout, but it was absolutely worth it. It's better than battling crowds on the way back to work. On Day 15, knowing you don't have to see another QuikTrip for 15 days was worth it."

The class was miles away from convenience-store convenience.

The students explored the islands and coasts of Alaska populated by whales, otters, golden eagles, black bears, wolves and moose.

"It was pretty amazing," LaFortune said. "Three days, we were completely exposed to the Pacific. There was nothing between us and Japan. There were 10-foot swells, big crashers, but I don't think at any point were any of us really afraid we wouldn't get where we were going. It was a lot of responsibility. The majority of the people were 16-, 17-year-olds who had never lived alone. In this course, you're making your own food from scratch, deciding how far you can paddle each day, determining what the tides are, when you have to leave. It's a lot of responsibility."

Trip highlights

LaFortune seems reluctant to single out any one most memorable moment.

OK, maybe one.

"There was one day that was absolutely amazing," she said. "I don't think you could see more than 200 feet an any direction. We had just paddled by this hieroglyphics, and we were really exhausted. We heard what we thought was thunder, but it doesn't thunder. It rains all the time, but it doesn't thunder. Finally, we could see through the fog, and all we could see were these seal hunters. The thunder was them shooting through the water.

"We were like, 'Oh my God, what do we do? This is illegal.' At first, we were trying to make sure they saw us. We didn't want them to think we were sneaking up on them. So we got the flares out, put the paddles up. But then we thought maybe we didn't want them to see us. They drove off. In the end, we found out some Indian tribes in Alaska can do some seal hunting, so maybe they weren't poachers."

LaFortune saw plenty of wildlife not being killed, too: seals, sea lions, whales and the like.

"It was almost magical at times," she recalled. "There would be times you'd be paddling and it would be sprinkling around you, and it makes this hissing noise. It was pretty amazing."

LaFortune, an environmental science major who will graduate in just a few weeks, was so taken by the experience, she'd like to become an NOLS instructor.

"I think everyone has something to gain from an experience like that," she said. "Everyone comes out of it with something different. At the end, you have this feedback session. The things you hear : no one ever says anything negative. It's such a positive environment. I learned a lot of things about myself. Maybe it's that you're being a little harsh under pressure, or you're an amazing cook. But you learn so much about yourself."

LaFortune pauses.

"It was pretty much," she says, "the best experience ever."


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