Kayakers spreading plastic-free message along coastline

A pair of Australian kayakers navigated their way to Wrangell over the weekend, part of a three-month excursion down the Pacific Ocean's northeastern coastline.

Starting in Glacier Bay National Park a couple of weeks ago and terminating in southern British Columbia, their trip is one with two purposes: to raise funds for marine conservation and to raise awareness about the impact of plastics on the world's oceans.

Lucy Graham and Mathilde Gordon come from Cairns, a seaside city in Australia's northeastern province of Queensland. Much as Wrangell is to the Stikine River and Anan bear observatory, Graham explained their community is the primary gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

"It's the largest continuous coral reef system in the world," she noted.

Stretched over 1,400 miles and larger than the state of New Mexico, the reef is the largest single structure made by living organisms and can be seen from space. Despite its impressive size, the great reef is under pressure from various environmental factors, ranging from warming ocean temperatures and pollution to overfishing and harmful starfish.

"It's such an important ecosystem," said Graham. From an economic standpoint, the reef is a linchpin to her community's visitor sector and the basis for the region's fishing industry. Ecologically, the reef enables a highly diverse ecosystem, and is home to hundreds of species of unique fish, marine mammals, bivalves, birds and other creatures.

"There is a kind of ecosystem where you can go snorkeling and diving and see anything from humpback whales to manta rays to sharks to Nemo," said Graham, referring to Pixar's iconic animated clownfish. "Everything you see in 'Finding Nemo,' that's what it's about, the Great Barrier Reef."

Protecting this resource has become a focus for both women, and their paddle trip is itself a project to further that goal. Dubbing their project "Passage Adventures" in reference to Alaska's Inside Passage, Graham and Gordon have set a goal of $20,000 to raise for restorative efforts like Tangaroa Blue Foundation, which mobilizes volunteers to clear debris from Australia's shores, and Living Oceans, a similar group operating in British Columbia. Once they reach Vancouver, the two will meet up with the latter and assist in a remote beachside debris project, one requiring helicopter support.

Gordon explained the trip has been two years in the preparing, learning the ins and outs of marine navigation and survival skills, and researching as much as they could about the Alaskan and Canadian coastline. She had limited experience with kayaks beforehand, doing some island-hopping off the Australian coast.

"I didn't know anything about chart reading and tides, like reading the weather out on the water, or most of the equipment we have now," Gordon said. "This trip seems like a crazy adventure and you like have to be some kind of expert to do it. I think for any kind of adventure it just takes some good research and planning and commitment. ... That's a lot of commitment, but everyone can find that commitment if they find something that they want to do."

Graham had more experience between the two, spending time as a kayak instructor near Vancouver a decade ago. It was that experience which had inspired the setting for their present project.

"It was always in the back of my head," she said. "Doing travel and trips like this you have to keep it in the back of your mind and hope one day there'll be an opportunity for you to take that and do it."

Already some weeks into the trip, Gordon pointed out some of the benefits of traveling by kayak. "It gets you very nice and close to the animals and nature without disturbing them," she said. "And it's pretty awesome to get somewhere and know it was powered by yourself."

Graham said their trip has so far been aided by fair weather. Their first big crossing was Lynn Canal, and that Stephens Passage had been disconcerting for her in advance. Luckily enough, she said "bathwater conditions" made the day's journey a safe one. Continuing southward, their trip should mostly be protected until leaving the Haida Gwaii, where two open stretches of ocean lie on the itinerary.

"Which is quite challenging, and will probably be some of the toughest conditions that we'll face," said Graham.

The fundraising element of their venture has so far gone swimmingly, and after stopping into Wrangell last Friday the count has topped $14,000. Gordon and Graham took part in the weekly potluck arranged by the Forest Service at the Nemo Loop Road, where they had the opportunity to meet with residents and describe their project.

"That we can come to a place we've never been before ... when you get to connect to those other people who care, that's very rewarding," Graham commented.

The trip isn't only about raising funds, and a large component of its aim is outreach. Graham and Gordon both want to encourage people to be more mindful consumers, particularly with regards to single-use plastic materials. Disposable flatware, superfluous packaging, straws and other such disposable conveniences are problematic on several levels. For the very short period of convenience these offer, the energy expended to produce and distribute them seems wasteful and after disposal, plastics' non-biodegradable nature means they will be sticking around for some time, in many cases hundreds or thousands of years.

"It's important to realize that there's never an 'away'," said Gordon. Out of sight, out of mind they may be, but every item that gets thrown away is still someplace. "In reality it's just buried somewhere or burnt somewhere, or out in the ocean."

Not long before their interview on Saturday, various Alaskan news outlets were reporting on a pilot whale found dead in Thailand last week with a stomach full of plastic. Earlier this year scientists reported that a plasticine garbage patch occupying a space nearly the size of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean is still growing. Graham noted current trends put the world's oceans on course to have more plastic in it than fish by 2050. Backdropped by these realities, she felt it was critical that people become more mindful about what they use in their day to day lives.

"If we don't change what is normal, the waste and the plastic, we are going to lose some of the things we love. It's not going to end the world, that's for sure. But how we enjoy it and what we give to our next generation and the people we love will be very different," she said.

It was coming across these sorts of items on a regular basis while clearing beachside debris that inspired Gordon to try to live a more plastic-free lifestyle two years ago. "When it really hit home was doing some beach cleanups and seeing the toothbrushes and the flipflops and the food packages," she recalled. "Any of that could have come from me. That's something I need to stop at home, from the source."

Both of the friends have since given disposable plastics notice, opting for reusable containers and package-free supplies. Where possible, they produce the soaps and pastes and other items they regularly need themselves.

"At first it was definitely overwhelming," Gordon admitted. "I remember walking into the supermarket and going 'Great, now I'm going to eat apples for the rest of my life.'"

"Don't try and do it all at once," cautioned Graham. "It's basically about creating a whole new habit."

One of the ways the pair have prepared for this trip is by dehydrating meals beforehand, using otherwise serviceable produce bound for disposal at local grocery stores. Meal ingredients are then wrapped in newspaper – which itself can be used further as tinder or toilet paper – and kept in dry storage bags. Caches of these foodstuffs are then posted to the ports of call on the kayakers' itinerary.

The plastic-free approach is not a perfect one, either, Graham explained, and sometimes plastics will come up.

"We were sponsored by a number of people on this trip, a number of companies, which was amazing. A lot of our gear came wrapped in single-use plastic, probably enough to outcompete the amount of plastic we avoided in making all of our meals. But that's not the point," she said. "It's important not to give up, or be down on yourself when you fail. And I think it's really important to be honest about how often you fail.

"We've been doing everything in our power to be plastic-free for two years," she continued. "It's never going to be 100-percent perfect, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying."

Their progress can be followed online on their website, passageadventures.org, along with links to the organizations they are supporting.

Meanwhile, green thinking has already been finding a niche in Wrangell. The food truck the Pit Stop began discontinuing plastic utensils this year, after switching over to biodegradable packaging last year. Owner Jill Privett said the change has been a smooth one, with customers understanding. Even at this year's royalty competition for July 4 the trend has picked up, as candidate Draven Golding opts to provide plastic-free alternatives to the usual fare. Interestingly, even his menus double as garden starters, with embedded seeds in the paper.


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