A Paddler’s Guide Embracing the Elements in Southeast Alaska

Embracing the Elements

Southeast Alaska is comprised of water, like most of the planet: The Gulf of Alaska and the Tongass National Rainforest. For a paddler, someone who thrives on water, this is a good thing. For others, it is perhaps a thing off the edge of the map where it says things like:

“Here there be monsters!”

And it’s true! On land or sea. “Here there be monsters”: Enteroctopus dofleini (giant Pacific octopus), Orcinus orca (killer whale), Ursus arctos (grizzly), and yes, Homo sapiens … we’ve all been here a LONG time.

So Why Go Kayaking in Southeast Alaska?

So you might legitimately ask, “Why? Why go on a tour of Southeast Alaska?” The water is rarely over 56 F (13 C) in August, and the summer air temperature average is 62 F. What’s the draw, and how do I prepare if drawn?

Southeast Alaska is the Tongass National Forest. It is the world’s largest temperate rainforest and covers 17 million acres. It includes mountains, lush islands, giant trees, calm inner channels, wild outer coasts, tidal rapids, water, and more water, RAIN, sun, and an astounding array of flora and fauna, from tiny orchids to great whales. It has abundant wild food, amazing vistas and secret coves, wild tidal rapids, and more. But yes, it’s cold and can be wet—it often is.

Those of us who live here have figured it out. We expect it, dress for it, and go out in it. We see what is here because the weather does not deter us. If it were other than it is, there would not be the variety and density of life that abounds. There would be many more people here, too, and that is, for many, the draw.

How To Dress For Southeast Alaska Rain

So this is how we cope:

First, remember that Alaska Delivers! It’s the truth. Rain or shine, Alaska, wherever you find yourself, is magnificent. Here in Southeast, expect rain. Be ready for it, and when you hit the 40% of days when it doesn’t, it’s a bonus. When it does rain, I am prepared and can enjoy the element in style and laugh about it later. 

I wear a wool skin layer for day tours or multi-day excursions. Synthetic works, too. Cotton just doesn’t make sense. If it gets wet, it stays wet, is uncomfortable, and drains the heat from your body. Wool and synthetics keep you warm even when wet, and good quality wool, though expensive, has better insulation than synthetics, with the bonus of never getting the ammonia body stink that synthetics manufacture.

Additionally, I always wear a rain layer that doubles as a wind layer, even on sunny days. The temperature on the water is always cooler than on land, typically about 10 F (3 C) cooler. That, combined with wind, which is almost always present to some degree, means that you need to be ready. Wear a ball cap and a hooded jacket to keep the sun (or rain) out of your eyes. Bring sunglasses and sunscreen. You can leave the latter with me, lol.

It's All In The Prep

So many people call me, and I hear their hesitation about kayaking in the rain. It’s something so strange for most people to think of. But kayaks keep you dry and warm—at least your lower half. If you have a good rain jacket, your upper half stays dry and warm as well. You cannot say the same for hiking in the rain. 

So, paddling in Southeast Alaska. It’s true that you have to prepare, but is it more than preparing for paddling in Florida when it is 90 F (32 C)? I don’t think so, and I can dress for it. I cannot undress enough for 90 F…