Paddling With Spirits

An adventure for the ages

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Some people throw themselves a dance party for their 40th birthday. Irene Skyriver chose to celebrate hers with a solo kayaking trip from Ketchikan to her home on Lopez Island. 

Years later, she recounted her momentous journey in Paddling With Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey. The memoir is interspersed with family lore and mythology from her Makah and Tlingit ancestors. Skyriver’s account is infused with nature and introspection, as well as some practical tips for readers who may be inspired to launch a similar adventure.

She starts strong: “I am one in the continuum of family born on these shores of the Pacific Northwest. My soul is connected to their spirits by the very sea waters we have each stepped into, through the generations.”

Skyriver spends the first few pages painting quick brush strokes of her life before her journey. Childhood on the Olympic Peninsula. Teen pregnancy. Raising children on Lopez Island. Yearning for a solo adventure; encouraged by her partner, Gregg, a local legend known for leading the first winter expedition of Mt. Denali. Then, with her 40th birthday, a plan—paddle 750 miles in a kayak from Alaska back home again. She’d leave in June and return in 40 days. 

Skyriver comes across as spiritual, a little naïve, and blissfully unaware of how unprepared she was for the rigorous journey. In lieu of actual conditioning, she was counting on her hours of physical toil in her garden to have sufficiently strengthened her arms and shoulders. She didn’t know how to right her kayak if it capsized. She brought a PFD along but never wore it. She had an assortment of maps and charts but acknowledged she’d be navigating on the fly. In short, she lucked out, with fairly good weather and calm seas throughout most of her travels.

Kayaking solo can be monotonous, tiresome work, but it gave Skyriver ample time to consider the stories of her forefathers. She vividly evokes the Trickster Raven and imagines her Tlingit great-grandmother’s marriage to George Barrett, an Irishman many years her senior who ran the trading post near her village in Katalla Bay, Alaska. 

Later, she tells the sad story of her maternal great grandmother, Emma Bell, a Makah from Neah Bay, Washington, then winds her way to her parents’ generation. In between the family lore, Skyriver tracks her voyage, her brushes with wolves and bears, her fatigue and her bliss. Despite some minor setbacks, her journey is mostly liberating and joyous.

Paddling With Spirits is a great read for anyone who enjoys adventure stories, or Northwest stories, or women’s empowerment stories. Skyriver shares some hard truths about her family’s experiences as Native Americans, and also some deep appreciation for her culture and the natural beauty of the coastal waters. 

Whether your 40th birthday is still ahead of you or long past, you can find inspiration in her desire to challenge herself and may even be compelled to head to Bellingham’s Community Boating Center (http://www.boatingcenter.org) so you can get out on the water yourself.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at http://www.wcls.org/get-a-card

Support horizontal
More Words...
Rainbow Warrior
The fabric of revolution

At its most basic, it’s just a piece of cloth—a nice poly blend, perhaps, or a hank of nylon in a fade-resistant color. There are holes in one end to fasten to a pole or rope, but it’s otherwise simply a piece of cloth.

Yet people have died for it and, as in the new book Rainbow…

more »
The Honey Bus
Saved by bees

Recent news stories have drawn attention to the plight of pollinators like the honeybee, and the potential for Colony Collapse Disorder and the endangered status of several bumble bee pollinators to impact our food supply. But how many people understand the world of the honeybee, with its…

more »
Great Pretenders
Of Hollywood and history

Just in time for hammock season comes local author Laura Kalpakian’s latest novel (her 16th), The Great Pretenders

Set in Hollywood in the 1950s, it’s got the right blend of glitz and pop culture so you can while away a sun-filled Saturday, allowing yourself to recuperate after your…

more »
Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Fairhaven Summer Repertory Theatre

8:00pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Stories in the Park

10:30am|Marine Park

Kids Can Cook, Dough Edition

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Cook It and Book It

3:30pm|Lynden Library

Paddline Whatcom County


Artist Workshop

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

History Sunset Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Bay

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|VanderYacht Memorial Park

Mama Caught Fire

7:30pm|Reverie Gallery

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Fairhaven Summer Repertory Theatre

8:00pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Summer Noon Concert Series

12:00pm|Performing Arts Center Plaza

BFM Community Concert

12:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Photography Workshop

1:00pm|Sumas Library

Wednesday Farmers Market

2:00pm|Barkley Village Green

Ferndale Book Group

2:30pm|Ferndale Library

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Downtown Sounds

5:30pm|Downtown Bellingham

Mach One Jazz Orchestra

6:00pm|Seafarers' Memorial Park

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm| South Whatcom Library

Brewers Cruise

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Village Books Support Vertical
Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Skagit Guided Adventures


Tall Ship Tours and Sails

10:00am|Squalicum Harbor Marina

Summer Reading Bingo Challenge

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Bow Farmers Market

1:00pm|Samish Bay Cheese

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Dig Deep

3:00pm|Deming Library

Blues and Brews

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Elizabeth Park Summer Concert Series

6:00pm|Elizabeth Park

Riverwalk Concert Series

6:00pm|Skagit Riverwalk Plaza

Pub Run

6:00pm|FrinGe Brewing

Chuckanut Radio Hour

6:30pm|Village Books

Atwood Beer Dinner

6:30pm|Old World Deli

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

The Birds

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Good, Bad, Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Fairhaven Summer Repertory Theatre

8:00pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

see our complete calendar »

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Support Vertical Trove Web