By Mike Misselwitz
Sarah Outen was in a rowboat halfway across the Pacific Ocean when she made the call. The 29-year-old British adventurer already had crossed more than half the globe by kayak, bicycle and ocean-going rowboat. But the Japan-to-North America leg was not going to plan. As persistent winds drove her little craft North, Outen realized she would not be landing in cosmopolitan Vancouver, British Columbia as she’d intended, but rather Adak Island at the westernmost end of the Aleutian chain.
Somewhere in the middle of the North Pacific, she dialed her friend and kayaking coach Justine Curgenven on the sat phone. Did Curgenven fancy a 1,355-mile kayak trip from Adak to the nearest road, where Outen could continue her round-the-world trip by bicycle?
"I told her, ‘I'm not saying no, but this is going to be the most challenging sea kayaking expedition either of us has ever been on,'” answered Curgenven, a Welsh filmmaker and noted expedition paddler. The route along the entirety of the Aleutian chain would be a first in documented history, and that appealed to Curgenven's penchant for adventure. She ultimately agreed, but couldn't have anticipated the challenges to come.
On May 5, 2014, Outen and Curgenven launched from Adak in fully laden sea kayaks bound for Homer, a small fishing city at the base of the Alaskan Peninsula. Conveniently, Homer is known among locals as "the end of the road." After 101 days and 1,355 miles of paddling undocumented currents and desolate seas, as this post goes live at 9:25 p.m. local time Outen and Curgenven are in the last mile of the final and most treacherous crossing of their expedition.
"We're dealing with a 35-mile crossing from Shuyak to Elizabeth Island," Curgenven told C&K Tuesday via satellite phone from her wind-bound tent on Shuyak, prior to attempting the crossing. "It's the most technical crossing of the trip because of the strong currents. The tides are the biggest of the year. The wind's been blowing for days and the seas are extremely rough."
With the worst behind them, the duo is currently only 45 miles away from the finish line of their Alaskan epic. If the weather holds they should make landing in Homer by Friday night, which is suitable, as they plan to celebrate over a beer at the port's Salty Dawg Saloon.
The duo spent most of their Alaskan experience in relative solitude, with only their boats, each other and wildlife for company. Boat sightings in the Aleutians are extremely sparse, and at points they were more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station.
"We've been on our own most of the time." Curgenven said. "One of the longest crossings, between Seguam and Amutka Islands, was 37 miles with no published information about the currents. Our longest distance without resupply was 250 miles."
Residential areas in the Aleutians are also scant and small. Some of few people the pair encountered were in the island town of Nikolski, population 17.
"We've met very few people because the area is so sparsely populated," said Outen. "But we've had really magical experiences with those people. Engaging with these small communities inspires me to help others have such terrific experiences. Everyone's been so welcoming."
Weather in Alaska, however, is not so hospitable. Outen and Curgenven endured plenty of 12-hour paddling days to make the most of cooperative conditions, and plenty days more (37 in total) spent hunkered down in tents under heavy rain and wind.
Fortunately, Alaska's adventure makes up for its bad weather. Memorable encounters include remote hot springs, snowcapped volcanoes, massive bears, sea lions, seals and a multitude of other wildlife.
"Alaska is now my favorite place in the whole world," Outen said. "It is sublime on so many levels. I feel super lucky to have such remarkable experiences up here, even with the challenges."
Preceding the Alaskan leg of the Outen's round-the-world mission—dubbed "London2London"—Outen and Curgenven first launched in April 2011 beneath the London Tower Bridge, where they sea kayaked down the river Thames, across the English Channel to France. There, Outen left Curgenven and the kayaks behind and cycled for more than 10,000 miles through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, China and back into Russia's remote Far East.
From Russia, Outen rejoined Curgenven to kayak approximately 1,000 miles via the remote island of Sakhalin from Russia to Japan, where Outen traded her kayak for a rowboat and attempted her first North Pacific solo crossing to Canada in May 2012. She was rescued after 25 days spent battling relentless Typhoon Mawar, a traumatizing circumstance that left her reeling but eager to make another attempt. In April 2013, Outen set out once again and landed in Adak 150 days later. Now, with the Alaskan odyssey nearly complete, she has only North America and the North Atlantic to go.
Upon landing in Homer, Outen will switch to bicycle and pedal to New York. From there, she'll row home to London. She hopes to complete her journey by September 2015, but not before raising funds for the many charities her mission supports.
For more information about the expedition, to donate and to track Outen's progress, visit the London2London website and follow @SarahOuten on Twitter. To keep tabs on Curgenven's adventures, visit her website, and follow @CackleTV on Twitter.