Whales got so close she could smell their breath. Bears occupied so many beaches it sometimes moved her to tears.
For 66 days in 2010, Oso resident Susan Marie Conrad paddled 1,148 miles from Anacortes to Juneau in a kayak named Chamellia. Along the way she reveled in the natural beauty, relished the solitude and conquered her fear.
She opens her 2016 book “Inside: One Women’s Journey through the Inside Passage” (Epicenter Press) with one of those face-to-face encounters with fear.
Conrad screams. Hypothermia is setting in after a week of rainy weather. Cliffs plunge into the water, leaving nowhere to flee the sea. Her hand is on her radio, and her mind is practicing what to say when she calls for a rescue.
“I was livid that things had spiraled out of control and this might be the end of my trip,” Conrad said.
Sometimes it was like paddling in an aquarium.
Susan Marie Conrad, author and adventure kayaker, on her 2010 Inside Passage expedition
Conrad never called for help. She pushed on and finished her journey.
On Tuesday, the-56-year-old will share tales and photos from her solo adventure at Puyallup’s Playback Sports.
We caught up with Conrad while she was in Ashland, Oregon, promoting her book. While preparing for her presentation, she took some time to field a few questions.
Q: What was it like doing this trip alone?
A: I’ve spent a lot of time in the paddle sport industry and leading large groups, being responsible for their safety and all that’s wrapped up in that. So I was really ready for some alone time. I’ve always been a person who cherishes solitude. I’m an introvert trapped in an extrovert personality. I just crave that aloneness and solitude. I’m not one of those people who equates solitude with loneliness. For me, it is an opportunity for harmony and introspection.
Q: You wrote about the fear of being an woman alone and “men with ill intentions.” Were there any incidents that made you nervous?
A: It was one of my biggest fears. More than bears or wolves or drowning or hypothermia, it was people who could do me harm. … I never had any issues, but there was one time that gave me pause. I was looking for a place to camp, and there were a couple of guys going back and forth on a skiff. They just seemed really creepy and really insincere.
They knew I was alone and looking for a place to camp. They said, “You should pitch your tent there, it’s a dandy spot.” I got out and was watching them out of the corner of my eye as they kept going back and forth almost leering at me. I pulled out my cellphone, and I had zero bars. I just got back in the boat and kept going. They didn’t follow me, and I paddled a long distance and found a place in a cove and tried to shake that feeling off.
Q: Why did you paddle south to north?
A: I left in May, early in the season, and there are a lot of wild cards, like weather. Typically the prevailing winds are from the south early in the season. And I did have a lot of tailwind. Logistically, it worked out better. I just paddled all the way to Juneau, then took the ferry back. And it’s kind of like starting out in the kiddy pool. It’s very populated all the way to the northern end of Vancouver Island. So I had several weeks of shakedown. If I had any issues or needed to find a marine store or bail on the trip, I could. If you are coming from Juneau you are pretty much committed.
Q: What were your thoughts deep in the trip when you saw those big cruise ships and their luxury accommodations?
A: I’m in camp in a really isolated, beautiful area way up in British Columbia, and it’s dark out with a lingering sunset. This huge cruise ship goes by, and it looks like this floating city, and I could hear the loud speaker onboard with somebody telling the tourists about this beautiful area.
I wrote about that in my journal. No animosity, but just how for a fleeting period maybe I was jealous that it would be nice to be on that boat eating lobster and crab and fresh salad and having a glass of champagne in my hand. But then I’d come back around and think, “No. They are the ones who are missing out.”
Q: What about the fear factor?
A: I realized early on that my body could do this trip, but it was my mind that really controlled it. I tried to put fear in a box and compartmentalize it. I’d acknowledge it at times, and at other times I’d need to put it away or I might not have ever gotten out of my tent.
Q: What’s your next adventure?
A: In front of me right now, I’m going to be a guest presenter on one of the (Princess) cruise ships that plies the Inside Passage. … I’ll be sailing from Seattle to Juneau, and then they’ll fly me back. I think I have 14 sailings so that will take me through the end of September. And, down the line, I’m definitely feeling the itch to get back on the water and do something substantial.
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Presentation: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Playback Sports, 105 E. Stewart Ave., Puyallup.
The book: “Inside: One Woman’s Journey through the Inside Passage,” by Susan Marie Conrad, Epicenter Press, 2016.