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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Kayaking the Aleutians: How two British women conquered 'impossible' 1,200-mile route

Remote, barren, prone to almost constant fog and rainfall, and notable for sea conditions so treacherous that it starred in the reality TV series Deadliest Catch, the Aleutian Islands wouldn’t be most people’s pick for a watersports holiday. But the vast archipelago that links Alaska with Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula was just what Justine Curgenven was looking for.

“I’m attracted to sea kayaking in wild, challenging places – and the Aleutians had been top of my list for years,” the Briton told Telegraph Travel.

The only problem was finding someone to go with her. Given that the area is home to a semi-permanent area of low pressure, which means fearsome storms, high winds and 10-foot waves tend to arrive without warning, allied to the fact that Justine wanted to travel the entire length of the archipelago, it's hardly surprising her friends did not all shout at once.

“People told me the route was impossible,” she said. “But I convinced myself they just meant that they wouldn’t want to do it.”

One of the few to have tackled the region in a sea kayak was Jon Bowermaster, a US explorer, author and filmmaker whose book ‘Birthplace of the Winds’ – a touch “sensationalist”, according to Justine – recalls several weeks spent conquering the Islands of the Four Mountains, a Aleutian grouping perhaps 80 miles across. Justine’s journey would be a colossal 1,200 miles, with the Four Mountains ticked off in a weekend.

Her search for a travelling companion led her to a young Briton clearly as intrepid as herself.

Sarah Outen was in the midst of a round-the-world journey, travelling by rowing boat, bicycle and kayak. She was in Tokyo, at a loss about the best way to get to Vancouver, so naturally leapt at the chance to join Justine for a very long paddle across the Pacific. 

Despite some pre-departure training, Sarah’s relative lack of experience – particularly in rough seas – was a concern. She was the slower kayaker of the pair, which caused some tension.

“We did irritate each other – I remember one day we didn’t speak for about four hours,” said Justine. “Day after day paddling slower than you’d like can be stressful. The currents are very strong, and I would worry that she couldn’t maintain a pace that would stop us being swept out to sea.”

Such fears could be forgiven. With the nearest coastguard 1,000 miles away and almost no information available about weather conditions, the pair were reliant on their own strength and Justine’s good judgement. Days at sea were long – crossing from one island to the next might mean a 16-hour journey into the unknown.

“I felt lot of pressure to keep us alive,” she admits. “One day we spent three hours paddling against the current and still being swept backwards away from land. Experience tells you that the current will eventually turn back in your favour – but what if it doesn’t?

“The biggest thing is decision making. It’s not about beating big waves, but knowing when conditions are in your favour – and when to stay out of the water.”

The Aleutians are not completely uninhabited. Unalaska, home to Dutch Harbour and bombed by the Japanese in the Second World War, has more than 4,000 residents, but smaller communities of fewer than 100 are far more common.

The once thriving culture of the Aleut people, who use kayaks to hunt sea lion, has been slowly eroded, but there are efforts in some villages to preserve the language and way of life. Justine and Sarah spent time with some – and tried some of the local delicacies, such as sea lion stew (“mild and salty”), sea urchin eggs (“slimy but sweet”) and chiton molluscs (“not so good”).

All in all the odyssey took 101 days, with 67 spent at sea. And despite the rough seas, hardships, occasional row and dodgy cuisine, Justice said the experience was a privilege.

“It’s a pretty bleak place. There aren’t even any trees,” she said. “But it’s got that raw, untamed beauty. Some of the islands we visited, such as Seguam, are so remote that I doubt if more than 100 people have ever set foot there.” By comparison, more than 4,000 have stood atop Everest.

“In the modern day, when there’s so much development, it was wonderful to see that there’s at least one stretch, more than a thousand miles long, that’s still wild.”

Kayaking the Aleutians, an award-winning documentary by Justine Curgenven, will be shown at the Adventure Travel Film Festival in London (August 12-14; see

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