With 2 toddlers for crew, a family embarks on a sailing trip up Alaska’s Inside Passage
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With 2 toddlers for crew, a family embarks on a sailing trip up Alaska’s Inside Passage

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    A skiff is anchored offshore near Tenakee Springs, Alaska.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    The Van Hemert family’s young crew members play in the dinghy on a beach in Ell Cove on the northern Chatham Strait, Alaska.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    The Van Hemert family sails aboard their ­32-foot sailboat, Chaika, off the coast of Washington.

This was the third time I’d sailed up the Inside Passage in a boat. The third time I’d watched surf explode from the rocky headlands of northern Vancouver Island, the swell rhythmically shifting my view of the horizon. The umpteenth time I’d listened to the weather forecast on the VHF radio while gulls catapulted past me in the wind. But it was the first time I’d done a trip like this with young children on board.

In June of last year, in the lengthening days of summer, my husband, Pat, and I launched north from Bellingham, Wash., on a 32-foot sailboat with our sons for crew. In 15 years together, we’d learned that we were happiest when we were outdoors; now, we were applying these same lessons as a family. We set out, like we had so many times before, in search of wilderness, adventure, and the thrill that comes when we push beyond our comfort zones. Under the tutelage of a barely-4-year-old and a not-quite-2-year-old, in a floating home the size of a child’s bedroom, we soon discovered that the best rewards were those we’d never imagined.

“Mommy, when I pee in the ocean it gets fuller,” Huxley announced. My older son gazed back at me with serious dark eyes as he shared his latest observation. With one hand, I held onto the back of his life jacket while he relieved himself over the lifeline of our sailboat; with the other arm, I balanced my younger son on my bent knee. Pat was adjusting the sails while keeping watch for a flailing child. We juggled between single-­handing the boat and managing kids. Each shift, Pat and I drew straws. The winner got the boat.

But on this day, I was the lucky one. As I helped Huxley pull up his rain pants, a humpback whale surfaced 40 feet from us. Huxley heard the whale before he saw it; his eyes widening at the whale’s loud “whoosh” as he turned instinctively toward the sound. Grinning, he pointed to its enormous silvery back as a plume of breath rose into the sky. So close I could make out the barnacles and unique markings on its skin, I held my boys tight and we peered together into a magical, underwater world. A moment later, the whale was gone, leaving only a stream of bubbles in its wake.

SO FAR, it had been a typical toddler morning: spilled food, a few tears, an argument about who got the orange polka-dot bowl. We were short on sleep, like most parents are, as we juggled tasks to get ready for the day. The key difference was in the setting. We were three weeks into a 10-week sailing expedition up the Inside Passage, a 1,200-mile stretch of islands and coves that extends along the North Pacific coastline from Washington state to southeast Alaska.

This passage transits some of the most scenic northern waterways in the world, and, if one dares to venture off the main shipping lanes, some of the most remote. It’s a trip that many passengers now take by cruise ship, others by ferry. Versions of this route have been traveled for centuries — by indigenous residents, fishermen, loggers and explorers.

Still, for all of its seeming popularity, the Inside Passage is a far cry from being a busy thoroughfare. In one’s own boat it’s possible to explore granite-­walled fjords and secluded inlets, to visit moss-draped forests where old-growth cedar trees whisper their ancient secrets to anyone who will listen. The only crowds to be found are of the wild sort: rowdy sea lions, playful porpoises, rafts of sea ducks that gather in the thousands. Cellphones work poorly, if at all, and sensational news headlines matter little here. We spent most nights in the company of rattling kingfishers and curious seals. Besides the volume of our own noisy crew, this coastline offered the sort of quiet that has become exceedingly scarce.

Despite its often serene backdrop, the Inside Passage is fraught with hazards. Each year, there are reports of drownings and capsized vessels, tales of unlucky sailors who perished in these unforgiving northern waters. Currents turn to roaring rivers if the tides are timed incorrectly, anchors drag along rocky bottoms, and winds blow up channels with hurricane force. Storms arrive, like most things in Alaska, bold and fierce and often without warning. Although Pat and I spent many months preparing for this journey and have two decades of boating experience between us, we knew that these facts wouldn’t guarantee a safe passage. It was prudence that mattered. Each day we woke up and reminded ourselves that we are small and the ocean is big.

Pat and I are sailors. We are adventurers. We are also parents. It’s a dilemma we all must face: how to reconcile our many different identities into a life that feels true, and good, and, in the end, responsible. Into an existence that leaves room for others. Spending the summer on a boat was our attempt to knit the disparate parts of our lives together. On both of our previous journeys up this coastline (by sailboat and rowboat, respectively), our days were distilled to the simplest of objectives: sail, row, eat, sleep, breathe. There were only ourselves, and each other, to look after as we traversed thousands of miles alone. On this trip, many of the elements remained the same: the ocean, the wind, the waves. Yet there had been a fundamental shift; we had two young companions to remind us of the stakes, and of the joy.

THERE ARE plenty of reasons sailing in a 32-foot boat with young children isn’t on the top of most people’s travel itineraries. Many days, it was impossible not to question our motivations, and our sanity. Like when one child, and then the next, spilled milk all over the cushions that couldn’t be washed, while yelling Mommy, Mommy! (as though I was the one who caused the cup to tip). Or when first one child, and then the other, vomited all over the inside of our boat, spewing into the cracks and crevices of multiple hatches. Or when I wanted desperately to wake up and stretch and fix myself a cup of coffee, alone. But when I tiptoed the three steps to the stove, the floor creaked and I accidentally banged the teakettle and soon the whole boat was awake. There were no doors, no privacy. In fact, there was barely enough room to turn around.

But I’ve also learned why this was precisely the sort of trip that belonged on our bucket list. Each night, peering into the V-berth, the triangular-shaped bed in the bow of the boat, I watched my two sons sleeping, bottoms raised, hands draped across their faces in that deep slumber that comes after a day of playing hard. In the quiet morning fog, I felt a soft warm body curl itself against mine, burrowing under my sleeping bag. I saw my children discover that sea anemones squirt if you poke them. We sat together in the bowsprit as the waves passed beneath us in a swirl of green and white. I watched Huxley encounter death up close for the first time in the form of a flattened crow and heard him say, “I wish it would fly away.” I tuned my ears to a cacophony of voices, wavering between toddlers squealing from the beach, an eagle calling from a cedar snag, and thunder pounding its drum in the sky. I slowed down long enough to realize that our time together was precious, and ever so fleeting.

ONE AFTERNOON, in the last week of our trip, halfway between Glacier Bay and the northern terminus of the Inside Passage, we loaded into the dinghy for a trip to shore. Pat rowed, I sat with Dawson in the stern, and Huxley took his usual position in the bow.

As we approached the beach, Huxley asked, “Is that a bear?” Sure enough, a shiny-coated, two-toned grizzly had just wandered down to the coast. We wouldn’t be landing there any more. Instead, for the next hour, we floated in our tiny wooden rowboat in a quiet cove and enjoyed the rare pleasure of watching a bear do what bears do. It turned over driftwood logs in search of ants, rolled on its back in the grass, and, to the boys’ great delight, pooped on the sand. The latter was an unusually good performance, with the bear dropping enormous piles of scat on the ground as it walked. The boys started giggling, in that contagious way of kids, and soon all four of us were laughing so hard we were nearly crying. This was our farewell gift: a reminder to hold onto a bit of wildness, and laughter, always laughter.

There was a time for each of us when the wild felt infinite and the horizon might have been the edge of the earth. A time when we didn’t need to be reminded that the present is all that matters. Because somewhere, a bear is cruising the shoreline. Because at any moment, a whale might appear from below. Because life, in all of its messy glory, is there to be seized. For my children these moments were now. And if I was willing to climb on, their magic carpet had room for me, too. “Come on, Mommy,” they said. “Let’s go.” And so we did.

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