Destination: Alaska – Face-to-face bear encounter, US Customs nightmare… how a newbie kayaker paddled the West Coast
It’s no wonder, the 36 year old overly-exuberant Scotsman had never set foot in Canada before.
Previous kayaking experience? Sure… a whopping total of three times, one of which Wilks described as a “near death experience” 15 years prior to his solo trip.
So what posessed Wilks to seek out this journey in the summer of 2011?
I always wanted to go to Alaska but flying or driving seemed to be cheating so when I found out about the inside passage the idea was born in about January of that year.
I connected with Wilks as he was more than eager to share his 2.5 hour (yes, you read that right, 2.5hrs!) Youtube video of the trip. He posted almost daily logs on how the trip was going and shared his experiences.
The video gives the viewer great insight into what a trip up the coast would be like. From the wonderful people he met along the way, to the scenery and the exuberance he showed when catching a fish is entertaining and informative.
Wilks is like a school kid in that everything he experienced seemed to genuinely EXCITE and amaze him.
He never seemed to be bothered by the weather, the lack of food, the loneliness or the abundance of mussels and oysters and later, the volume of salmon he consumed. In fact his only complaint was:
I didn’t get sick of the oysters and mussels but when I started eating a lot of salmon they did give me the runs!
I was curious to get to the reasoning behind Wilks attempting this remote trip on his own. Was that his plan from the start? Or was it that no one in their right mind would go with him? Perhaps he was TOO eager and his friends were apprehensive as the lack of experience was evident.
And a lack of experience can be extremely costly in this environment, especially taking it on as a solo trip.
As it turned out, Wilks had a plan from the start:
…the plan was always to go alone, something about being alone in the wilderness appealed to me. I refused the advice of friends to take a “spot” device or radio as again it seemed like cheating. I had seen a documentary about a Scotsman trying to live in the wilderness a few years back and he ended up crying a lot and hitting a button to get rescued about a month into it! that was not going to be me!
Despite his enthusiasm, there were moments of loneliness and self-doubt that took over. In these moments, he avoided stopping over in campsites and ‘civilization’ for fear of being ridiculed for his lack of experience.
I ask Wilks about the possibility of running into a bear and what his attitude was towards them. For someone who has grown up in an area where bears are not native, it can be an intimidating and scary thought to run into one. I’ve known people who are terrifed of the possibility and even avoid trips because of potential bear encounters.
Wilks claims to have done a bit of “bear research” before the trip and seemed to have the basics down on not startling bears, not getting between a mother and cub, etc. Regardless, he did get a surprise visit late one night.
As I slept I turned over in the hammock and scared a bear just to the side of the hammock within 2 meters. It crashed through the woods like Usain Bolt! I just went back to sleep as I decided it wouldn’t come back which it didn’t, packed up the next morning and set off.
Many people would have panicked or at the very least, not been able to sleep for the rest of the night. But this calm attitude seems to be typical of Wilks.
Wilks’ ability to “be able to think clearly under pressure” no doubt helped him in that moment, and on this trip in general.
Despite the constant dreary weather that locals had told him was the worst in decades – he remained positive and upbeat. There is rarely a moment of sunshine on the full video he posted.
I ask him if he’s normally a positive person. He replies:
Yes i think so but i would say the harder something gets the happier I get… don’t ask how that works because I couldn’t tell you!
I asked him if he ever got down during the trip and if so, what did he do to pull himself out of it and he explains one moment where the locals helped pull him through with a small, but significant gesture:
Only once was it a bit much when I was coming through the Grenville Channel. It had rained heavy for 7 days and this night my tarp collapsed in the night and a lot of my stuff got wet, I was miserable! But that day kayaking, 3 sail boats went by me going the other way who I had met at Namu and they all shouted and encouraged me on with the last one throwing me a beer! That was the end of being miserable!!
The plan to make it to Alaska did not pan out as expected for Wilks. Upon landing in Ketchikan, he was told by US Customs that he needed a “pleasure craft” visa, to the tune of $600. For a guy who barely spent that much on his whole 2.5 month trip, it was asking a bit much. Not only that, all boaters must report to Customs as soon as they dock, something Wilks was unaware of and neglected to do until the next day.
When he found out the fine for not doing so was $5000, he had a few tense hours while trying to get it all straightened out. In the end, he got away without having to pay the fine as there was no sign at the dock he landed at. US Customs gave Wilks some time to get out of the USA and he did some sight-seeing as he paddled his way back to Canada.
Although the trip didn’t turn out exactly as Wilks had planned, was it still worth it? Was he sick of kayaking and did he ever want to look at another kayak?
the last three weeks on the water was tough and I didn’t want to ever see a kayak again. But when I edited the video i got to remember all the good bits and every now and again when i’m walking along something will trigger a memory of the trip and a smile will come on my face!
With these types of adventures, I’m always interested in how people came out of it. Did they learn anything about themselves? Did they come out of the personal challenge with new skills or more confidence in themselves? It seems Wilks experienced it all:
yeah the trip has changed me, I’m now worse than before – I now believe I could do anything!
And what is next for Wilks? Plenty I bet.
There is a lot more Adventure in me just don’t know what it is yet, But just like the kayak trip I’m sure it will find me!
Well, good luck to you Danny! We hope to see you in the Yukon – perhaps paddling the Yukon River to the Bering Sea next!
Here’s a 4-minute teaser video of Danny’s trip. The accompanying music is appropriate for not only the lyrics, but the Canadian-ness” of it all – “Maybe Tomorrow” by Terry Bush (the theme to the Littlest Hobo!).
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.
Down this road, that never seems to end,
Where new adventure, lies just around the bend.
So if you want to join me for a while
Just grab your hat, come travel light – that’s hobo style.
To view the full trip video: visit Wilks on Youtube