British Kayakers Take On Aleutian Chain

Atka bids farewell to Sarah Outen and Justine Curgenven on May 16. (Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)
Atka bids farewell to Sarah Outen and Justine Curgenven on May 16. (Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

For the past three years, a British woman has been trying to travel around the globe using only her own strength. Sarah Outen has biked through China and rowed the Pacific Ocean.

Now, she’s in the Aleutian Islands, tackling some of the world’s wildest seas in a kayak — and learning plenty along the way.

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When she first left London in 2011, Sarah Outen couldn’t have known that her journey around the world would lead to do this:

Danny Snigaroff: “Fish don’t wanna eat? You come around, and you just snag ’em.”

Sarah Outen: “Oh, really?”

Snigaroff: “Yeah. You get between them and jerk.”

Outen’s standing on Korovin Beach in Atka — a village of about 70 people in the Aleutian Islands.

The man giving her fishing lessons is Danny Snigaroff. For the past few days, he’s been teaching Outen and her kayaking partner all about the traditional foods that line Aleutian beaches.

Snigaroff: “Oh, yeah. I was going to ask you, do you have a triple hook? No, eh?”

Outen: “A triple hook? No, I don’t think so. Whoa! No! We don’t.”

Snigaroff: “You don’t have one of these, I’ll give you one.”

Outen: “Thanks, Danny. That’s really kind.”

That could come in handy over the next few months, as these women attempt to kayak through the entire Aleutian chain — from Adak to Homer.

They know it’s been done — at least in part. Traditionally, the Unangan people traveled through the Aleutians in kayaks. Outen says there have been more recent trips.

Outen: “But we’ve not heard of anyone in modern times doing the whole length like that.”

There are plenty of reasons why that would be. Outen’s kayaking partner on this trip, Justine Curgenven, has no trouble listing them off.

Curgenven: “There’s rocky landings, there’s not very many beaches. There’s no people, so if something goes wrong? You know, our longest stretch without people is 250 miles. That would take us 20 days even if everything went well — even if we’re not sat around waiting for weather, which we’re likely to be. So, there’s just so many potential things that could go wrong, I suppose.”

Sarah Outen — the explorer at the center of all this — knows what challenges lie ahead. But she prefers to take things:

Outen: “Bit by bit. In piecemeal. Because it is overwhelming to think of the whole thing in its entirety. I mean, it’s complex logistically, financially, physically.”

Outen is only 28. It wasn’t that long ago that she was back in England — studying at Oxford, rowing on the crew team, and dreaming of adventures.

Outen: “I had no experience of rowing across oceans. I certainly had no money. I was just a student at the time. And during that kind of early phase, just a few months into those ideas, whilst I was still a student, my father died very suddenly.”

That inspired Outen to row across the Indian Ocean alone — a recordbreaking trip, that set the stage for this journey around the world.

It was never supposed to lead to Alaska. Last fall, Outen was trying to row across the Pacific Ocean — to Canada.

Outen: “The weather had been crazy, as you guys who live up here know — that it can be really crazy and unpredictable and fickle.”

That meant changing course. When she arrived at Adak, in the western Aleutians, it had been four months since Outen last saw another human being. She was sick and tired.

In Atka — a week into the kayaking run — Outen isn’t 100 percent.

Outen: “My face looks rather red at the moment, but it’s all allergies. Coming back into contact with people and dust and animals.”

But it’s worth it. Outen says new friends, and new experiences are what this journey around the world is all about.

That’s clear as the adventurers get ready to the leave the village. They’re packing their kayaks on the beach, when the buzz of engines fills the air.

It’s more than a dozen residents, riding down on four-wheelers, to say goodbye.

Crystal Dushkin: “We’re so glad you made it to Atka.”

Curgenven: “Yeah, so are we! Yeah, that was great. We had a really lovely time.”

Outen: “Mike, I realized I didn’t say cheerio. Bye now!”

Mike Swetzof is an elder, and he says he has to hand it to the kayakers:

Swetzof: “Got some balls to do something like this. Be adventurous, I guess? I don’t know. It’s just not my thing.”

Taking on the entire Aleutian Chain is scary, he says. But Swetzof and a lot of other elders in Atka think it can be done.

With enough respect for the weather and the sea — and an open mind — anything’s possible.

CLARIFICATION: Technically, Outen and Curgenven are not attempting to kayak the entire Aleutian Chain. Their trip skips the far western Aleutians.

You can track the kayakers through the Aleutians by visiting Sarah Outen’s website.

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