Jennifer Hahn

Spirited Waters : Soloing South Through the Inside Passage

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka MAR 25, 2002)

"For three days I paddled these narrow slots hemmed in by stunning three and four thousand-foot mountains rising from forested shores to luminous snowfields. Sunlight ushered in late and left early. Every mile began to look confusingly similar - walls of olive fucus and barnacles at tide level, then steep, scrubby evergreen forests above. But for the presence of three side inlets - the Green, Khutze, and the Aaltanhash - carved into the mainland, I'd have had few navigational aids for tracking my slow progress. But every now and then the trees would break open to a quartz-white veil of falling water.The falls. Ah, the singing, tumbling, roaring, snorting falls. Fusion of voices and applause, they never failed to rejuvenate my weary spirit. I would sprint up to their turbulent, bubbling feet, paddle in place against the race of current, and await the cool, churning mist as it settled on my lashes and the minute hairs of my face and neck, then drifted in to the hollows of my jacket."

Accompanied only by her beloved Yemaya (her kayak, named after the Yoruba ocean goddess, symbolically decorated with a cedar wreath) and armed with food, camping equipment and navigational tools, Jennifer Hahn narrates her true-life adventure: a 750-mile solo kayak trip through the inside passage from Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington, done over the course of two springs and two summers. A naturalist and kayak guide with 14 years experience in wilderness travel, Hahn narrates her voyage not only with tales of weather conditions or wildlife sightings, but also with a reverence for the Old Ones who lived with the land, and a connectedness to the environment itself.

This volume will appeal to many different readers. Naturalists will appreciate Hahn's observant eye and respectful yet detailed descriptions of the wildlife and vegetation that are her constant friends during these journeys. Really, by the end of her trip, Hahn reflects that she was not alone at all; she adopts the Native belief that everything, whether furry, leafy, scaly or stony, has a spirit and guided and accompanied her. Kayakers will relate to her decisions, choices and trials as she navigates the ever-changing currents and tides. Her determination is tested nearly every day as she decides whether to continue on her planned route and timetable, or to tarry for a day and wait for better weather and water conditions. Sometimes, she decides to simply spend time with the local otters, eagles and dolphins. Finally, anthropologists will appreciate Hahn's understanding of First People and her obvious knowledge of Frank Boas' and E.L. Keithahn's work (turn of the 20th century anthropologists familiar with Native myths, religion and language).

Mostly camping on solitary beaches or treasured clearings on wild islands, Hahn does make human friends here and there. Many are surprised and impressed with her plan to solo such a long distance; most are friendly and hospitable. She overnighted with new friends at a lighthouse, in a bed and breakfast, on a sailboat, and in a comforting beachside cottage with the familiarity and warmth of home. Once in a while there were frightening encounters with drunken fishermen or campers who made our plucky kayaker realize that weasels and cedars can make better companions than human beings after all.

Often reading like a personal journal, but always sensually poetic, Hahn's travelogue includes sketches and maps to help orient her reader, or perhaps to remind the author herself of every detail of her expedition. Translated legends and prayers from local First Peoples begin many of Hahn's chapters and set the tone for what natural treasures she will find. One chapter, titled "Feasting on Flotsam", details Hahn's knowledge of the saltwater supermarket. She describes varieties of sea lettuce and the many medicinal uses for fucus; includes how to cook with seaweeds and make chocolate ocean pudding from Turkish towel; and provides a recipe for Yemaya's Chowder, which contains wing kelp and a sea lettuce garnish.

Although each part is beautifully written, my favorite section is the last one, The Salish Sea Coast, because of its balance between water time and land time. Here, Hahn stops to explore the land, a salmon hatchery, an outdoor art gallery, and ancient petroglyphs. She takes time to reflect on her journey and how she connected with the natural and spiritual world over 750 miles of waterways.

Spirited Waters: Soloing South Through the Inside Passage is a winner of the Barbara Savage Miles from Nowhere Memorial Award.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews


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About the Author:

Jennifer HahnJennifer Hahn is a "hand-drumming, Lake Padden dog-walking, polar fleece-wearing, wild mushroom and kelp-gathering, bird-sketching, sea-kayaking, poetry-reading, world-traveling, Solstice-celebrating, blackberry pie-making woman with a double degree in natural history and creative writing from Western and Fairhaven." She lives in Bellingham, Washington.

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