Fulfilling a 40-year-old dream

by  Tracy Kalytiak

Ski coach paddles from Sitka to Glacier Bay

Jack Harbottle was attending college in Colorado, a member of its ski team, when he and his friends got to talking. One of them said his dad knew a man who held the contract for building the airport up near Ketchikan.

“We had this great dream: We’d go to Alaska, get jobs, buy motorcycles, go to Japan and ride around,” he said. “I dropped out of college. We got up there, the guy we were trying to get hold of wasn’t around. Boeing had just laid off 50,000 (Puget Sound employees) and there wasn’t a job to be had. We were down at the docks asking people  for work.”

They chatted with a fisherman and told him they were from Spokane. The fisherman and his brother had grown up in an orphanage there, and let the men stay on his troller. Jack ferreted around for work and finally gave up.

“We were rained out, starved out,” Harbottle said. “I hopped on the ferry, looked at that beautiful country between Ketchikan and Seattle and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to paddle here. This would be such a cool adventure.’ I was thinking about that forever.”

Harbottle left Alaska. Years unspooled. He began coaching alpine skiing at Colorado Mesa University and helped coach the college’s cycling team. He also spent 13 years caring for his mother.

“All these things in life, they just keep coming at you,” he said.

Harbottle’s mother died. Forty years after that first voyage, his thoughts again fastened on Alaska.

He bought a used 19-foot-long, 23-inch-wide Seda Glider—“fast and tippy”—for $800, and spent $200 on a Werner carbon-fiber paddle. He honed his paddling skills and, last summer, revived his dream of exploring the intricate waterways of Southeast Alaska.

One of the friends who set off on that long-ago journey with him—an explosives expert who frequently travels to Alaska—sent Harbottle a guidebook that set his course.

“I didn’t have a clue where to go,” Harbottle said. “I had wanted to paddle up the Inside Passage but it looked neater to do the trip from Sitka to Glacier Bay—such fantastic country, less traffic on it, and remote.”

Harbottle was 61 when he first hauled his kayak to the shore in Sitka for the beginning of what became a 500-mile odyssey.

“I must’ve had 150, 250 pounds of food and gear at first,” he said. “I also shipped 30 pounds of food to Elfin Cove. Moving everything up and down the high tide line was quite a workout.”

Harbottle kept the menu simple during the eight weeks he spent afloat.

“I ate rice, rice and rice, oatmeal, little candy bars, sometimes a little bit of tuna fish,” he said. “It was not gourmet. I bought flour and made bannock, made tortillas and ate them with refried beans.”

A group of Detroit men navigating rented kayaks up Muir Inlet gave Harbottle some sausage.

“That was the only meat I had,” he said. “I did not fish. I like to fish and my buddy gave me fishing stuff, but I never did it. The paddling was so pretty, I never bothered to fish. It’s kind of hard to fish out of a kayak. All that fabulous fish in Alaska and I never ate any.”

On a hot July day, Harbottle paddled near Margerie Glacier when a slab of it plummeted into Tarr Inlet, surging a wave toward his kayak. A photographer cruising on a boat nearby captured Margerie’s immense séracs, the swell, the red dot of Harbottle and his kayak amid speckles of iceberg.

“That was unbelievable, wasn’t it?” he said. “It calved and the waves came off it, rose up about 15 feet. I just turned my bow to it, rode the wave. I was just sitting there in awe of the whole thing.”

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