Voyage of Oiselle: Water Trails

Max and Addie leave Douglas Harbor at low tide.

When was the last time you went a whole day without hearing or seeing anything negative? What would it be like to move unhurried with no ‘breaking news’ at all for weeks or months on end and trace a thousand mile arc where, most of the time, you were your only company and when you did greet people nobody ever had a mean word because everyone liked you? Imagine that all you met were interested in your good self—yes you—and they genuinely wanted to know where you’ve been and where you were going. Imagine what that would do to your head.

Max Morange and Addie Candib are exploring that territory as I write. This lovely couple, who work in supplying farm products to a food bank and organic farming respectively, are rowing their 17 foot dory, Oiselle (little bird) from Skagway to Bellingham this summer. Max had read my book on rowing that route and sent me an email in May as he and Addie were outfitting their boat. They spent the night with us on their way through Juneau and it has been a pleasure to follow their progress as they’ve visited Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Prince Rupert with side trips to Thomas Bay and Anan Creek along the way.

Rowboat travel, even in boats with a sail like Oiselle, is usually sea turtle travel. They’re slow and bound by weather and tides but they see more and they can navigate oceans. A few short weeks ago Max and Addie rowed over the bar from Auke Bay to Douglas and looked small as plankton passing those 950 foot behemoths at the cruise ship dock. Tonight as I write this they have gone about 600 miles down the water trail and are quartered for the evening in a charming rainbow colored cabin in Oona River, BC: population 25.

Water Trails

Motorless boat travel is growing fast in North America. As it grows, the rowing/paddling/sailing community is creating a system of water trails for itself. These trails are usually set up and maintained by volunteers in partnership with government and private land owners. They describe routes, places to get in and out, and campsites. They’re in most US states and all over Canada. Thousands of kilometers of Canada’s epic new 22,000 km. ‘Great Trail’ are water trails. The Great Trail describes itself as a gift from Canadians to Canadians. Other trails, like the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, follow waterways across borders of multiple states and provinces.

In the U.S. the American Canoe Association, ‘the nation’s largest and most active nonprofit paddle sports organization,’ maintains a Water Trails list. They show eight in Alaska: Katchemak Bay Water Trail in Homer, Swan Lake Canoe Trail-Soldatna, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)-Soldotna, Koyukuk NWR-Galena, Forty Mile River Trail-Tok, Shuyak Island State Park Water Trails on the Kodiak Archipelago, Selawik NWR-Kotzebue, and Nancy Lake Canoe Trail-Wasilla.

They don’t show any Water Trails in Southeast Alaska. Some reasons people have offered for that lack are: 1) Who needs it? The whole place is a water trail. 2) we don’t have huge number of paddlers from outside going though. 3) finding your own way should be part of the trip so quit being such a baby and go. 4) A sweet campsite is like a secret nagoon berry patch, you don’t tell anyone where it is.

I get all that but: 1) Trails aren’t equal. There are places where one side of a waterway is protected from prevailing winds, and you can travel comfortably in marginal weather, while the other side is exposed with nowhere for a rowboat, or even a kayak, to tuck in for dozens of miles if the weather kicks up. Some confluences have currents that lump up on part of the tide cycle but are calm an hour before or after. etc. 2) Other states have a few B&B’s along bicycle trails or cross country ski trails. People love that. Small, sustainable tourism, with cinnamon rolls and a shower here and there, would be good for locals and out of state travelers alike. 3) People from this area have the advantage of being able to find someone with local information before making a water trip. Plus, with modern electronic navigation devices and programs, most water travelers these days are not exactly George Vancouver’s small boat crew. 4) There are a lot of sweet campsites. Picking out half a dozen obvious ones, that volunteers would help keep clean, along a hundred mile water trail might make it easier on the environment, just as Juneau’s world class hiking trail system has made the mountains more accessible at the same time they stopped every-man-for himself trail finding from trashing the muskegs. 5) Water trails offer wilderness opportunity for many people who can’t hike.

I support Water Trails for the reasons above but mostly I support them because they encourage small motorless boat travel and small motorless boat travel brings out goodness in people—not only in the rowers and paddlers but in pretty much everyone they come into contact with. This kind of travel encourage stewardship, camaraderie, generosity (people have given me food, a place to sleep, local knowledge and a First Nations guy in Bella Bella literally gave me the shirt off his back saying, “I want you to have this for the journey.”) and friendship, which are affirmations we need these days.

Max Morange told me about the worldwide bicycle touring network, ‘Warm Showers’ where riders contact like-minded people along their route who are interested in sharing hospitality with them. I think that would be a fine model, and first step, for connecting Southeast, Alaska communities with small boat travelers. Friends and neighbors what do you think of making a gift to future generations by linking a Water Trail system from Yakutat to Prince Rupert with options along the outer coast and Inside Passage? If you’ve got ideas please drop me a line at