By Conor Mihell
For sea kayakers, the 1,200-mile coastal journey from Washington's Puget Sound up the British Columbia coast to Juneau, Alaska, is a rite of passage. A 66-day solo expedition in 2011 on the Inside Passage was that and more for Susan Conrad. After a difficult childhood and sometimes trying times as an adult, Conrad discovered sea kayaking in 1991. Two decades later, her Inside Passage voyage was one of healing and self-discovery. Conrad's memoir of the experience, Inside (Epicenter Press, 2016) is a nuanced and richly insightful account of her one-way trip to self-understanding. You can't help but compare Conrad's raw, no-holds-barred prose with that of Cheryl Strayed, the bestselling author of the backpacking memoir, Wild.
We caught up with Conrad to go inside ‘Inside’.
CanoeKayak.com: What inspired you to write Inside? In some ways your journey mirrors that of Cheryl Strayed’s in Wild. Do you see a parallel?
Susan Conrad: To paraphrase Maya Angelou, "There is no greater agony than a story left untold." I refused to be that untold story. I felt I had something of value to share, not only with adventure seekers, but with anyone who wishes to be inspired or enriched. I wrote Inside because I wanted to take readers along for the ride and share the raw wildness and magic of the Inside Passage. I also want to inspire folks to take chances, pursue their own dreams, find their own truths, and realize their full potential. I certainly wasn't shooting heroine on the Inside Passage, nor was I attracted to every salty sailor I came across, but yes there are indeed some parallels between Wild and Inside. Both stories are much more than the physically exhausting aspects of pushing your body to its limits. I think both Wild and Inside reveal where this strength and courage comes from; how someone going through this type of often miserable experience manages to push forward—because there is nothing left to do. Both journeys are about acceptance and love and forgiveness and moving on in life and both stories share the universal pain points of fear, grief, and personal growth.
How did paddling help you come to terms with a “childhood of neglect, abuse and abandonment”, and so many interludes of tragedy?
The biggest thing I got out of this journey was an awareness that everything in life, no matter how challenging, is there to point us toward healing and growth. Paddling is empowering for me because it takes me out of that victim mindset. There is something magical about being on the water, especially in solitude; it's almost as if I transcend into this secret world—a healing world. I get this heady sense of freedom from making my own decisions, relying on my own abilities, my own strength and courage. All these things were quite foreign to me as a child and young adult. I've always had this insatiable curiosity to have to know what's around the next corner and just prior to committing to this expedition I so desperately needed a next corner. The Inside Passage became that next corner.
Why did this trip "take you," as you mention in the book's introduction? Did you set out hoping to heal?
I believe we all have the choice to seize the day or to be a victim of the day. We get to decide. This trip reminded me of that nearly every day. It grounded me, challenged me, humbled me—it took me deeper inside myself. What began as a genuine desire for adventure transformed into an inward journey, allowing the healing to happen organically. I didn't set out thinking all my problems would be solved, far from it. I'm a pragmatic, goal-oriented person and initially approached this journey from the logistical and physical levels. I wanted to see how I would handle adversity and how that adversity would make me a better version of myself. I wanted to remain open to everything that was placed in my path, realizing there would be profound lessons presented along the way but, of course, I had no idea how life changing they would be.
You dedicate the book to Jim Chester and it's clear that he was a huge influence on your journey. Can you summarize what Jim meant to you—before, during and after your expedition? Your relationship was very complex. Why was it so enduring?
Jim was my inspiration and my exasperation. He was my rock and my counterbalance while en route, and my back azimuth to help me return safely. He was my mentor, my logistics expert, my best friend. At times I'd swear he became my self-appointed hands-on guardian angel! Not only did he play a huge role in the journey, but he also played a huge role in my life. He was this perpetual voice of reason, someone I could count on for just about anything—for nearly two decades. But beyond the trip itself, he "got" me. Our relationship was extremely complex; I'm sidestepping a potential spoiler for the book here but I will say our bond was so enduring because we both had this love for adventure, the environment, each other. In the process of writing, I realized I wanted to synthesize his life with my story, to illustrate just how profoundly he affected this sea journey, before, during, and after.
Half a decade on, what does this journey mean to you?
This journey has become a paradigm of my life's journey, a benchmark of sorts for everything that comes my way. I now realize that this journey wasn't a one-time deal. It's part of a life-long opportunity I was given to challenge and discover myself. It's remembering that it's not about the destination. I use this dance metaphor in the book and it's definitely the same principle in everyday life; life is a dance, and it's not so much where you end up on the floor, it's about enjoying every step along the way—even if you have two left feet like me!
What do you hope readers take from your story?
Adventure yanks at all our shirtsleeves. It is my hope that the pages of this book will kindle everyone's sense of adventure—whether they set foot in a kayak or not—and that by sharing the magic of this beautiful coastline, it will impart a stronger connection to the natural environment and inspire people not only to explore it, but to cherish and protect it. May that insatiable curiosity to know what's around the next corner be your moxie, as it was ultimately mine.
More recommended reading this winter:
Bill Guppy: King of the Woodsmen
By Hal Pink / McGahern Stewart Publishing, 2016
Ottawa-based McGahern Stewart Publishing has made an impressive impact on canoe lit in a short period of time. Since their inception as boutique publishers in 2011, rare book collector Patrick McGahern and veteran wilderness canoeist Hugh Stewart have released six titles. All consist of out-of-print and never-before-published accounts of northern travel, aptly referred to as "Forgotten Northern Classics".
McGahern Stewart's latest title is sure to inspire canoe trippers in northern Ontario's Temagami region. Bill Guppy: King of the Woodsmen ($25, available online) is the story of quintessential Canadian fur trapper, guide and backwoodsman Bill Guppy, spanning from the turn of the 20th century to the First World War and the Great Depression. Guppy ranged the woods of today's canoe country, and one spring just before the outbreak of WWII, he sat down with writer Hal Pink to tell his story.
Guppy's tales range from the trapline to logging camps, and include wonderful descriptions of northern travel by canoe. Most intriguing, however, is his description of Grey Owl, the noted Canadian naturalist who achieved considerable fame in Great Britain during the 1930s. As it happens, Guppy was Grey Owl's tutor, and was a highly sought after interview when Grey Owl died and was revealed to be an Englishman named Archie Belaney. From Guppy's account, Belaney was the real deal.
As Stewart notes in his introduction, original copies of King of the Woodsmen are exceedingly rare because of the time it was published. In 1940, England was in the midst of the Second World War; the tales of a curious Brit turned Ojibwa were lost in the turmoil of air raids and drafts. Yet Guppy's story still resonates today, especially in the watery landscape that shaped his life and moulded Grey Owl, a Canadian icon.
To order a copy, contact McGahern Stewart Publishing at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Contemplative Paddler's Fireside Companion
By Timothy McDonnell / North Star Press, 2016
In close to two decades of work as a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior's Canadian shore, I've heard Tim McDonnell's name many times. He has participated on numerous sea kayak trips, and by all accounts in guide circles he's a first-rate guest. Surprisingly, after all those years I've never had him on a trip. After reading his new collection of essays, I realize what I've been missing. The Contemplative Paddler's Fireside Companion ($14.95, available online) ranges from wilderness canoe tripping in the Canadian subarctic to sea kayaking on the Great Lakes. McDonnnell's prose is true to the title: He contemplates issues from group dynamics to his choice to switch from a single to a double blade.
McDonnell has a pleasant style that avoids the usual pitfalls of machismo and over exaggeration. He has a wonderful sense of humor, but at the same time delves into how his experiences on the water have shaped his life. As the dust jacket notes, "Each of his essays flares a bit then lingers, just as one would expect from a good fire."
Some day, I hope to witness his wonderfully humble storytelling first hand, by the shores of the greatest lake.
— Read about a new wilderness park on Lake Superior's rugged Canadian shore.
Comrades on the Colca
By Eugene Buchanan / Conundrum Press, 2016
Longtime Canoe & Kayak readers know the magazine's indefatigable editor-at-large Eugene Buchanan's plucky, witty ways of storytelling. Brothers on the Bashkaus, Buchanan's 2007 account of his experience paddling Class V whitewater in the Siberian hinterlands in homemade rafts with a crew of kamikaze partners, is an adventure lit classic. In the same vein of impossible adventure, Buchanan returns with Comrades on the Colca ($14.99 at Amazon.com), the tale of a weird and wonderful first descent of the world's deepest canyon.
Comrades on the Colca is as much the story of Buchanan's experience on an Explorers Club-sponsored expedition in the Peruvian Andes as it is an exposé of Poland's hard-core paddling culture. The story begins with Polish explorer Jerzy "Yurek" Majcherczyk invites Buchanan, an old friend, to venture into headwaters of the Rio Colca—"one of the world's true blank spots"—an unknown cleft in the earth's crust that's twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Here, the Colca plummets 2,750 feet on a 12-mile stretch of river, promising hair-raising whitewater and shadowy campsites in the canyon's depths.
Like any good adventure yarn, the 15-member Colca expedition involves the prospect of El Dorado (some believe the Inca hid gold in the depths of the Colca, which literally translates to "Money Cave") and a race with a competing team of Polish paddlers. Buchanan also weaves in fascinating Inca lore and a concise history of Poland's world-class paddling culture. But in the end, perhaps the most striking element of Comrades on the Colca is captured in the title: The friendships gleaned from hardship on a wild river.
— Read C&K Editor Jeff Moag's story about Rocky Contos' mission to map the true source of the Amazon River
By Sean Bloomfield / 10,000 Lakes Publishing
By dint of geography alone, canoe tripping is an esteemed pursuit in the 10,000-lake state. While Minnesota's license plate slogan is embodied by the myriad waterways of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—America's most popular canoeing destination—the state's fascination with tripping is rooted in the legendary 1930 journey of teenagers Eric Sevareid and Walter Port, a 2,250-mile passage from the Twin Cities to Hudson Bay.
So it was no surprise when two teenagers caught Minnesota's attention when they accelerated their high school studies and retraced Sevareid and Port's "Canoeing with the Cree" route in 2008. Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte launched their canoe from their hometown of Chaska, Minn., and paddled upstream on the Minnesota River before crossing the height of land and tracing the Red River into Canada to the infamously rough water of Lake Winnipeg. The 18-year-old friends completed the 250-mile paddle on the big lake's eastern shore before descending the Hayes River to York Factory, a historic fur trade post on Hudson Bay.
Adventure North ($16.95, available online) captures the thrills and chills—and especially the heartfelt emotions—of Bloomfield and Witte's journey. It's an unlikely tale in this day and age. At its core, Adventure North is an account of coming of age, a rite of passage. It is the story of young adventurers pursuing and attaining a challenging goal. Sevareid's wildly popular travelogue, Canoeing with the Cree, had a similarly engaging theme. Herein lies the book's greatest attribute, in describing the timeless demands and rewards of a long journey and how they influenced Bloomfield and Witte.