Advice for saltwater trip with mixed crowd

I live in Alaska and am looking at doing a canoe trip to a remote cabin. The issue is that it requires about 8 miles of paddling across open water to reach the cabin. I am pretty knowledgeable and experienced personally, but I am taking a mixed group of newbies and intermediates. I know what I can handle in terms of cargo weight and endurance, but I have been taking canoe trips for 15 years. Any advice on how much weight a relatively inexperienced paddler an handle in open water? I plan on pairing people up based off of experience. The most skilled partnered with the newest because in my opinion, having someone skilled in the back of the canoe can overcome a lot of shortfalls with a less experienced person up front. I’m unsure what the sea conditions are going to be. In Alaska we have a couple sayings “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” and “the weathers is sh*tier in Whittier.” We are departing from Whittier and obviously if the seas are too rough we will have to scrap the trip all together. What I’m really wanting to know is how much weight can the average joe handle in semi decent sea conditions? And for how far?

Thanks for the input

I applaud your ambition. My concerns arrive after that.

I am not a skilled canoeist.

But I do roughly understand the risks of an 8 mile open crossing in a kayak. I would not even consider being solely responsible for the safe passage of several relatively inexperienced people across a stretch like that in sea kayaks.

I have enough respect for the additional difficulties of handing an open craft in similar conditions that I would advise anyone I knew not to even think about doing it.

For a trip like that, the prudent guide to paddler ration would be 1 to 4 in kayaks. Given the additional complications of a canoe capsize in open water, and if I knew someone who was going to insist on it, I would tell them to at least double the number of guides.

I am not certain what you mean by “relatively experienced”. But if that does not put at least one paddler per boat with proven ability to help someone thru an on-water re-entry, I think this is a very bad idea.

I assume you would also have good sized float bags fore and aft in each boat. The built-in flotation chamber in canoes is typically not sufficient for an on-water recovery especially if loaded w gear.

Of more concern, I am not convinced that you understand the effect of that much fetch on terms of the risks it creates. 8 miles opens you up to a lot of fetch. And you could start out calm and be in the middle of a huge mess partway there because your distance is so long.

As an ex-guide It’s like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re gonna get. Some strong looking paddlers can poop out first.
A long open water crossing with nowhere to hide or rest is an insane idea.

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Whittier is relatively protected. We went to Valdez and Stewart in 2017 and no way would I take a canoe from either of those places with a south wind… Wow the seas were incredible.

8 miles of open water or 8 miles paddling along a shoreline? Till you get to Entry or Surprise Cove I see no need for an open water crossing,

How many times have you done the trip? Leading others on a trip you haven’t done before is never a good idea. Local knowledge is so useful as sometimes as you allude to , in five minutes you can be in a heap of trouble.

If the tides are contrary to wind and you are going opposing the tide 8 miles can be difficult. On a calm day going with the tide a pleasure.

I have lead a lot of canoe trips in 60 years. Your concerns are warranted. It would help a lot to have covers on the canoes. If it were me I would insist that people have wet or dry suits due to the cold water temperature and difficulties in making rescues in big waves with loaded boats.

It would best not to take any paddlers without a lot of rough water experience in the open ocean. You do not mention the rips and currents associated with salt water in AK, also commercial boat traffic. A river would be a lot safer in a lot of ways.

Dittoing @kayamedic 's question - “8 miles of open water or 8 miles paddling along a shoreline?” Much different things.

I likely would think twice about taking a group of all intermediate paddlers on an 8 mile open water crossing - no way I would consider it for any beginners.

8 miles along shore could be a different thing, as you potentially could have bail out points (but depends on the shore and whether you actually have bail out points).

Then, of course, the question on whether this stretch of water would be safe in canoes. They are much more impacted by wind and waves than a touring/sea or sit on top kayak.

Can you take a water taxi across the open water stretch?

An 8 mile crossing in benign conditions takes about 3 hours, but that’s plenty of time for weather to change from benign to snotty. The consensus here seems to be “Don’t Do It”.

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Well alaskanguy I give you a lot of credit for asking for input.

Regarding your question around how much load can be handled it’s really more a matter of making sure th total load of people plus gear fits within the boat’s efficient load range because if you overload boats the handling gets weird. Heavier loads are harder to accelerate but also glide better from the added momentum so the load isn’t a big factor for cruising.

But I think it’s the laundry list of safety “don’t” that’s getting everyone’s attention.

  • inappropriate boats - there’s a reason that only sea kayaks are recommend for offshore use on the Great Lakes and there are plenty of recent examples of serious problems for folks that violate this one

  • life-threatening cold water - again just too many examples of this killing people even in warmer water than yours

  • lack of self-rescue capability - not good for offshore paddlers

  • inexperienced paddlers (what could go wrong?)

  • not working your way up to a major challenge

  • area known for volatile weather - even if your area was average the risk is huge

Did you see the recent tragedy with the Kennedy relatives that took a canoe to just rescue a beach ball and never made it back? I have quite a bit of canoe experience and canoes that are made for “big water” but would never do an eight mile crossing…I won’t even go offshore on a calm day on the Great Lakes mostly because powerboat traffic can appear suddenly at any time.

There is just so much inherent risk in what you are talking about doing.

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I was on a trip with a friend that insisted on wearing hip waders on a fast river with cold water. He kept “forgetting” to put on his lifejacket. I refused to paddle with him again. I imagined on that trip what it would be like to knock on the door of his house and inform his wife, that her husband had drowned. I never want to have that experience. It is why I quit rafting difficult rivers.

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After a time I refused to paddle with people under three circumstances - like above I did not want to be around when they died. My husband and others in our group did the same where there was an overlap. I for a time had a couple of folks I would go out with who did not interact with our larger group, but had one of these issues.

Someone who cannot swim. They panic if they do capsize and are horrid to manage, and the YMCA has lessons for that.
Someone who will not invest in a dry suit for late fall/winter paddling. We generated a lot of money for Kokatat when we were paddling into winter.
Someone who tells me they are severely afraid of capsizing and refuses to practice a wet exit with me helping. Same as the non-swimmers, I am not interested in dealing with panic and the person has a way to solve it.

I have never paddled with anyone who refused to wear the life jacket, our evening paddle group made that mandatory years ago. The kayakers were mostly compliant and found the complaints from the canoeists a little amusing.
I have not encountered the wader issue. But it would go the the above list unless maybe for puttering along the shallows near the shore.

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I am interested in hearing more from the OP about this paddle. We were in Valdez and Stuart and did go out in powerboats so I got a bit of an idea of the topography… Whittier is rugged enough that the only road and the railroad tracks are in the same tunnel. Its on a fjord.

The importance of that is that any waves will reflect and make confusing seas even if the party is going along the shore. Two of us traveled from Marathon to Michipicoten ON in a Wenonah Odyssey which is a big deep canoe. With some areas of cliffs the reflecting waves were quite concerning even as we knelt ( not fun in a tractor seat) as they came at us from multiple directions and sometimes were 4-5 feet tall even though the seas were about 3 foot regular waves. Only our 20 years of ocean kayaking experience saved us… We had brought the canoe as it was easier to pack…

The next time we brought a sea canoe and a Greenland kayak… Much more reassuring and stable yet we had some nasty crosswinds and six foot seas broadside on the last 5 km stretch of open water.
This is one of our favorite trips… in a kayak. Having seen a little of SE AK I would not do that in an open canoe ever… And I don’t have the local knowledge of where the safety exits are ( like a beach in bad weather). It has taken a little time to build our Lake Superior knowledge and cause she is the boss we always pay heed to that Kenny Rogers song.
Know when to fold em. Know where and when to run.

8 miles open water crossing I would never have committed to without a lot of study of tide wind patterns and weather. Have done 13 miles open water crossing in summer doldrums on Long Island Sound… Bear of a burn.

To the OP know your route and allow for a flexible schedule. A fixed schedule can kill someone.

I am not anti canoe in salt water. For several years ( in the '70’s early 80’s)AMC ran trips out of Knubble Bay in Georgetown based in canoes. This was before kayaks were even around in mass production. Members were mostly Boston Whitewater so they had some skills reading currents( ocean currents can have eddies and holes just like rivers). It was more what they knew than what boats they had.

The Maine Island Trail was initially used by canoeists. I remember a map and list of trips on the back of the KBC outhouse… It has the portages indicated to avoid danger areas. Sadly those are gone.

But Maine coast is not Alaska.

You do have to vet your paddlers. I have had the unfortunate experience of a person who capsized not twenty feet from shore panic and grab the coaming of my kayak from the side… She had English as a second language and totally forgot how to understand instructions… From that time on we had everyone do a wet exit before going on a trip and this is not easy in cold water. They don’t want to do it.

I would have everyone sign waivers to acknowledge danger and self responsibility.

Yep, I teach some of those YMCA swim lessons. The swim test that everyone must pass to let them swim in the deep end is to swim one length of the pool without touching the bottom. That’s nice but good luck in our local rivers which are now at flood stage.

I met a guy that told me his father was fishing with waders in the winter when his waders got swamped and the current took him under the water and he eventually got lucky and made it out half a mile downstream. Sounds like a memorable experience.

I think we all want to help the OP with our own personal experience but I have to admit that I’ve learned more from my own mistakes than from advice from others.

Yes, it’s the old saying " Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgement"

I paddled in and out Whittier a few times back in 2008, taking newbies out for multi week sea kayak trips in pws. Had a few days that it was almost calm lake like out there and we drifted easily with the tide. Had other days where we sat on shore waiting out storms. Bring a good tarp and make sure your tent does not leak.
I remember the camping being a little crowded around Whittier, but dispersing a day or so out. But it would suck to have to hunt for a campsite the first day out.
I would also recommend the water taxi route if at all possible. Will take the stress out of making a bad decision trying to stick to an itinerary and make it to camp. Eight miles if conditions are deteriorating with newbies sounds like a recipe for disaster. The water is also cold up there year round which is a potential hazard. Just getting through the tunnel, getting boats off vehicles and packed, and then shuttling vehicles could take the better part of a morning.

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I just looked at the map. Above post seems to answer my first question when I looked again, that of parking cars to launch from Whittier. I was only there off season, in March, so would not know if there are parking limitations once it is the train plus tourist cars.

I looked for cabin rentals and they do exist on the outer boundary islands, Hinchinbrook and Culross. But unless I am badly deficient in coffee they are a lot more than 8 miles out from Whittier. So the proposed cabin would be on one of the islands nearer the coast. Maybe Esther or Culross if either qualifies as remote.

Unless the crossing in the original post is just that part, and the trip is more than 8 miles total. Which puts Perry or maybe Knight into play.

FWIW, I am not seeing this as a canoe trip however you shake it. Or one for beginners in kayaks. If it is not less wide passages with cliffs that could be reflecting waves back, and sharing said passage with bigger boats or the fishing fleet, it is coming a corner and having the wind funneled right at you around islands and points in that irregular coastline. With water that is cold enough to challenge rescuing even someone in a dry suit since if the problem happens where there are cliffs down to the waterline so landing them would not be immediately available.

There is a park at the outer edge of the peninsula with ten camp sites. Entry Cove State Park. With the correct guiding and outfitting this looks like it could be a sensible target for a group. Tent sites are first come first served thru 14 days.

If the OPer is still listening, why skip this option?

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In cold water everyone is a bad swimmer.
I took a scuba diving class once. In order to pass we had to swim a half mile.

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Half a mile is a good swim test. I was swimming a mile in about 45 minutes before the virus crisis. That’s in an 83 degree pool in a swimsuit. Add clothes and a PFD and drop water temp to current temp at Whittier (48 right now) and anyone would be lucky to get 1/4 mile…and even attempting to swim could be a mistake. I’m sorry if the OP feels like they are getting beat up.

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Better beat up online from your armchair than trying to swim in 48-degree water.

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