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An 8-year-old paddles her kayak through an iceberg wilderness with Dad and Grandpop

May 18, 1997|GERALD RENNER | HARTFORD COURANT; Renner is religion writer for the Courant, a Times Mirror newspaper based in Connecticut

PETERSBURG, Alaska — It sounded like the ultimate macho trip: sea kayaking among the icebergs of Alaska from a wilderness base near a glacier.

But the reality was quite different. It turned out to be one of the most family-friendly trips I had ever experienced, one in which we toured some of the world's greatest natural ice sculpture gardens and where bald eagles were as common as crows.

My son-in-law, Franz Lidz, suggested going when he heard that the trip was being offered by Mountain Travel-Sobek, a California tour outfit that specializes in hiking, paddling and climbing throughout the uncivilized world.

Despite the tour company's assurances that the six-day Alaskan expedition was suitable for people in reasonably good health, from ages 8 to 80 (even for those with no kayaking experience), persuading most of the rest of the family proved insuperable.

"No thanks," said my wife, Jackie. She had humored my outdoorsy wanderlust for the last time when she joined me and the grandkids on a weeklong wagon train across the prairies of North Dakota several years ago.

Franz had no more luck with his spouse, my oldest daughter, Maggie. Since childhood, her idea of roughing it has been to check into an economy-class motel. Their 11-year-old daughter, Gogo, also declined--she had the alternative offer of visiting her Aunt Andi in Paris that week.

But their other daughter, Daisy, 8, was more adventuresome, agreeing to accompany her dad and Grandpop on a flight to the land of the midnight sun. (Actually, we went during the summer solstice last year, and daylight in southeastern Alaska amounted to a mere 17 hours and 50 minutes.)

Our jump-off point was Petersburg, known as "Little Norway," a bustling fishing village of 3,300 people on the northern tip of Mitkof Island, between Ketchikan and Juneau. It is one of the many islands along Alaska's scenic Inside Passage. Enterprising Norwegian fishermen founded the village at the turn of the century. They looked to LeConte Glacier across Frederick Sound on the mainland as a ready source of slow-melting ice to keep their catch fresh on the trip south to Seattle.

The glacier, too, was our goal, and we were ensconced in a wilderness camp a few miles from it within several hours of our midday arrival in Petersburg via Alaska Airlines.

Our guide, Scott Roberge, met us in a van at the small airport a few minutes from downtown. (Everything in Petersburg is only a few minutes from downtown because most of the 211-square-mile island is a public preserve, limiting expansion.)

We rendezvoused at a hotel, the Scandia House, where we met our traveling companions, a young couple from Minnesota and a father and his teenage son from New Mexico.

Gently spurred by Roberge, all of us decided that some of what we carried was excess baggage to leave behind for our return. The trick was to travel as light as possible, carrying only our sleeping bags, rain gear and light fleece garments we could layer or remove, according to the challenge of changeable weather and our proximity to the chilly ice fields.

We changed into our kayaking gear, which included indispensable knee-high boots, and within two hours were on our way. Five of us traveled to the camp on a jet boat, an hourlong ride, while the father and son went by float plane, a De Havilland with Pratt & Whitney radial engines, work mules of the Northland.

The camp in a quiet cove had been set up in advance by Roberge and his summer assistants, several of them students who are getting degrees in outdoor recreation from Western Washington University.

We staked claim to the two-person tents set on a steep slope in the rain forest. We then set out in the ice-choked water in two-person kayaks for orientation.

Roberge's basic order was a simple one: Don't fall out. In his 12 years of leading kayaking trips in Alaska, he said he had never had to do what he called a "deep water" rescue.

It was essential advice. He estimated that a person couldn't stay conscious more than two minutes in the frigid, 1,000-feet-deep water. That was true even though the day was sunny and a comfortable 50 degrees, a condition that prevailed for five of our six days. Such good weather was unprecedented in a place that gets more than 100 inches of precipitation a year, Roberge said.

Our kayaks, designed for the sea, were thankfully more stable than the single-person, freshwater versions that tend to be tippy. They were made of fiberglass, were about 21 feet long, weighed 90 pounds and had a rudder controlled with the feet by the person in the rear.


Daisy, a precocious young lady possessed of natural physical coordination, took to paddling in Roberge's kayak as if she were one of the native Tlingits who inhabit the area.

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