Paddling With Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey by Irene Skyriver
Some people throw themselves a dance party for their 40th birthday. Irene Skyriver chose to celebrate hers with a solo kayaking trip from Ketchikan to her home on Lopez Island.
Years later, she recounted her momentous journey in Paddling With Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey. The memoir is interspersed with family lore and mythology from her Makah and Tlingit ancestors. Skyriver’s account is infused with nature and introspection, as well as some practical tips for readers who may be inspired to launch a similar adventure.
She starts strong: “I am one in the continuum of family born on these shores of the Pacific Northwest. My soul is connected to their spirits by the very sea waters we have each stepped into, through the generations.”
Skyriver spends the first few pages painting quick brush strokes of her life before her journey. Childhood on the Olympic Peninsula. Teen pregnancy. Raising children on Lopez Island. Yearning for a solo adventure; encouraged by her partner, Gregg, a local legend known for leading the first winter expedition of Mt. Denali. Then, with her 40th birthday, a plan—paddle 750 miles in a kayak from Alaska back home again. She’d leave in June and return in 40 days.
Skyriver comes across as spiritual, a little naïve, and blissfully unaware of how unprepared she was for the rigorous journey. In lieu of actual conditioning, she was counting on her hours of physical toil in her garden to have sufficiently strengthened her arms and shoulders. She didn’t know how to right her kayak if it capsized. She brought a PFD along but never wore it. She had an assortment of maps and charts but acknowledged she’d be navigating on the fly. In short, she lucked out, with fairly good weather and calm seas throughout most of her travels.
Kayaking solo can be monotonous, tiresome work, but it gave Skyriver ample time to consider the stories of her forefathers. She vividly evokes the Trickster Raven and imagines her Tlingit great-grandmother’s marriage to George Barrett, an Irishman many years her senior who ran the trading post near her village in Katalla Bay, Alaska.
Later, she tells the sad story of her maternal great grandmother, Emma Bell, a Makah from Neah Bay, Washington, then winds her way to her parents’ generation. In between the family lore, Skyriver tracks her voyage, her brushes with wolves and bears, her fatigue and her bliss. Despite some minor setbacks, her journey is mostly liberating and joyous.
Paddling With Spirits is a great read for anyone who enjoys adventure stories, or Northwest stories, or women’s empowerment stories. Skyriver shares some hard truths about her family’s experiences as Native Americans, and also some deep appreciation for her culture and the natural beauty of the coastal waters.
Whether your 40th birthday is still ahead of you or long past, you can find inspiration in her desire to challenge herself and may even be compelled to head to Bellingham’s Community Boating Center so you can get out on the water yourself.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.)