When Whitehorse’s Michelle Eshpeter told friends of a backcountry expedition she was planning, they weren’t very supportive of the idea.
When she searched for outfitters to work with, they too were wary.
“I got so much of that I started to worry about what I was thinking about doing,” said Eshpeter.
Eshpeter was, after all, attempting something that had never been done before. The skeptics are now eating crow.
Eshpeter led a successful stand-up paddleboard expedition in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, starting and ending in the community of Gustavus, at the end of September.
“When I was phoning the community of Gustavus and the national park … People said, ‘You want to do what? When? You can’t do this. The weather will be awful. Nobody has ever taken a stand-up paddleboard backcountry here before. It’s probably not safe.’ And a lot of people just outright refused to work with me on it.
“I really felt like I could do it, so I just kept pressing on and I honestly feel like I found the only two people in Gustavus who were willing to support this crazy idea.”
Eshpeter and her friend Lee Paskar of Edmonton piled stacks of dry bags full of gear on their boards, camped out three nights, and traveled a distance of about 50 kilometres over four days in Glacier Bay among the Beardslee Islands.
“The whole trip kind of got started after taking paddling courses in B.C. and my instructor asked if I could explore for some cool paddle spots in Yukon and Alaska. So I started asking in the paddling community what their favourite all-time destination was and people said Glacier Bay National Park,” said Eshpeter. “So I decided to go there and when I started planning it I found out this was going to be the first backcountry adventure on a stand-up paddleboard through there.”
They started a little late on their first day to catch high tide and paddled two and a half hours to Kidney Island. The next day they doubled that to five hours on the water to get to the most northern Beardslee island in the bay. After spending a day at camp there, they were picked up by a boat in order to spend time paddling at the McBride Glacier before heading back to Gustavus.
Overall the journey went smoothly, but it wasn’t without its dicey moments.
Eshpeter, 33, and Paskar, 48, weren’t intending to camp the day at the top of the bay, but Mother Nature had other plans.
The water was choppy at Bear Track Cove, an area known for rough waters. Eshpeter rose to the challenge, leaving Paskar – an inexperienced paddler – behind to get drinking water before returning.
“When it was our day to cross there it was four-foot waves and 20-knot winds, so there was a lot of wind-chop on the water,” said Eshpeter. “For my friend, it was absolutely not OK for his level of experience to go across. So we decided not to cross, but we were out of drinking water, so I had to cross because that’s where the water source was, which ended up being a bit of an adventure that day. I crossed the waterway and came back and that ended up being the pinnacle of excitement on the trip … He said while I was crossing there was all these humpback whales around me, coming up surfacing to get air. I was paddling really hard so I didn’t see them.”
Surprisingly, Eshpeter doesn’t have a long history paddleboarding – or paddling, in general. She took paddling courses in B.C. and just before moving to Whitehorse from Edmonton in July 2014, after a friend who had taken it up while in New Zealand convinced her to give it a try.
The rest, as they say, is history. Eshpeter continued to paddleboard after moving to Whitehorse. On just her fifth time on one, she was already riding down the Yukon River with camping gear in tow, seeking out adventure.
She has since become a certified instructor and teaches stand-up paddleboard yoga at Whitehorse’s Canada Games Centre where she works as a fitness instructor.
“It’s just been a year, but it’s been full-on,” she said. “I’ve been taking courses to get all my Paddle Canada certifications.”
In Glacier Bay, Eshpeter wasn’t just looking for adventure, she was scoping out the area for possible guided trips she could lead. She might have already found a partner for guided trips in Jim Kearns of Fairweather Adventures, who delivered Eshpeter and Paskar to McBride Glacier on the last day of their trip.
“Nobody in Gustavus or in Glacier Bay had ever seen this before. Most people have never seen an expedition done on a paddleboard before. It ended up being really interesting to lots of people,” said Eshpeter. “Once Jim, the boat operator, took us out to the glacier and saw how this all worked, how nice paddleboarding is around the glaciers, how easy the equipment is on and off the boat, he was really keen. He called me that night to see if I would work with him on a tour next summer where he’d be a boat operator taking me and a group of paddleboarders to a different area each day … and back to the bed and breakfast each night.
“That’s where this is going from here.”
Trips to the area have a lot to offer in addition to adventure and breathtaking scenery. There’s abundant wildlife. Eshpeter and Paskar saw humpback whales, orcas, a wolf, moose, sea lions, harbour seals, grizzly bears, sea otters, eagles and harbour porpoises (a relative of dolphins). There was also a black bear they got more acquainted with.
“We had a bear on our campsite for two nights, which was really interesting,” said Eshpeter. “I swear that bear was just watching us all day because as soon as we got in the tent we’d hear him come out and start eating barnacles off the rocks right in front of our tent.”
With her first-of-a-kind journey complete, Eshpeter is already planning her next paddleboard adventures. She is currently searching for a location where she can paddleboard to the base of a mountain, climb it, ski down and paddleboard back this winter. She also wants to lead a group of paddleboarders over Atlin Lake before running up a down a mountain next summer.
“When I did the trip, the community was so into it, they were so excited,” said Eshpeter. “The day we were coming back, the national parks office closed at five o’clock … and all the parks staff stayed behind late so they could see us in and they were so excited that we completed the trip.”
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