The NOAA Pilot describes the weather in the Aleutian Islands as being generally considered some of the consistently worst in the world. Low pressure systems — born from warm air from the Pacific to their south mixing with the frigid air from the Bering Sea to their north — spin eastwards along the island chain and onto the US mainland, driving its west coast weather. The water conditions are just as dynamic, powered by strong tides and currents, which heave and rush through island passes over a richly sculpted seabed, meeting a jagged, rocky coastline.
Wildlife abounds above and below the water, drawn here by the rich up-swellings and cold water. Hordes of noisy sea lions bark and honk from precarious rocky stages, while rafts of sea birds divebomb shoals of sand eels, or perch on ledges. Otters bob and float in family groups or giant nurseries, weaving in and out of the kelp beds. Spiky carpets of sea urchins cram the shallows and knobbly chitons graze the rocks in static herds. It’s like a wildlife sweet shop — there’s always something to look at, study and wonder on.
For the paddler, it’s an intense place, technical and physical, often inspiring and challenging in the same stroke. The currents between the islands are not well understood and often do the opposite of what you think they should be doing, or something in between. A brilliant book by Corey Ford based on the diaries of 18th-century naturalist surgeon Georg Wilhem Steller on his experiences of the Russian expedition to discover the ‘Great Land’ is titled, Where The Sea Breaks Its Back. Reading it inside our storm-bound tent on the tiny volcanic island of Amukta on my birthday in 2014, it was easy to see why — surf crashed on shore as a grey sea rolled in from the south.
The night before had been still and quiet when we landed in our kayaks, after 16 hours crossing the notorious Amukta Pass, but for the ‘(un)welcome chorus’ of angry sea lions, apparently unhappy at us disturbing their snooze. For a couple of days we were stormbound in our little tent, much as the early Aleuts might have been pinned on shore during their journeying up and down the islands as they moved from camp to camp. Days later, further along the chain, we spent nearly half a day wondering if we were ever going to make it to land as the tide waltzed us north and south, pulling us away from our destination and from any land at all.
It’s an ever-changing place, and yet there’s something unchanging about it too. Just as the biting wind and damp can leave a chill, which persists until the sun comes out, the spirit of the islands endures after a visit; its space and energy, the contrasts between still and stormy, quiet and raucous, colour and grey. The tenacity of the Aleut people who have called the region home for thousands of years, the mummified remains of their ancestors tucked away into volcano sides.
The region is home to one of the early precursors to the modern kayak, the iqyax, now relegated to museums and community centre halls, in favour of skiffs and motors. The irony is that the Aleuts’ persistence as a remote islandic people is threatened by that very remoteness within the context of a globalising world, controlled by a government thousands of miles away. It’s relatively unpeopled and unspoilt because it’s so inaccessible and expensive to get to.
For me, the Aleutians never figured in my London2London: Via the World journey plans, until the weather dictated that it should, forcing a diversion from my original path across the Pacific in 2013. That’s the Aleutian way — the weather is boss out there.
Having landed in Adak, the most westerly inhabited of the islands, I returned home to the UK to train and prepare for the 15,000-mile journey the following summer with my kayaking partner and sister of the sea, Justine Curgenven. I’d always wanted to visit Alaska and so this felt serendipitous. It became the favourite leg of my journey and perhaps one of the most formative too. Not only did it develop my kayaking to the point I felt like a real kayaker, it also showed me the importance of being open to changes in plans and how, sometimes, the best journeys are those which you don’t plan at all.
Dare To Do: Taking on the Planet by Bike and Boat, is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. RRP: £18.99. sarahouten.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)