Chris Whittaker (left) and Nuka de Jocas during their expedition. Photo: Supplied
Last spring, Nuka de Jocas and a friend set out to kayak the Inside Passage from Lund, BC to Skagway, Alaska. A YouTube series follows their 72-day journey.
Described as a kayaking mecca, the coastal Inside Passage stretches from Puget Sound, Washington, to Skagway. “The views, the scenery, the wildlife, all of it was just so incredible,” De Jocas said.
“It’s basically the perfect place for anything that you’re looking for, except for maybe rock climbing.”
De Jocas and travel companion Chris Whittaker spent two and a half years planning their trip, which they called the For Fun’s Sake Expedition.
De Jocas, who lives in Yellowknife, and Whittaker are releasing a YouTube series to share their trip.
Below, read a transcript of Cabin Radio’s interview with De Jocas, sharing his experience of the Inside Passage and the importance of preparation.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Megan Miskiman: Tell me about the expedition.
Nuka de Jocas: In 2018 and 2019 I was working on Vancouver Island as a kayaking guide. We brought groups of people to see orcas and humpbacks and wildlife throughout the coastal areas on Vancouver Island. I met a guy there, his name was Chris, and he was anticipating prepping a kayak expedition on the Inside Passage to go to Alaska. He was talking about this, and I told him that I had gone on an expedition three years prior to that. I had kayaked from Montreal to the Yucatan in Mexico, which was 7,350 km. It took me and my buddies 15 months to do.
I understood the scale of it, I understood it very well. Chris was a much better kayaker than I was, but I had more experience in larger-than-life expeditions, so he asked me if I wanted to do this with him and I said yes. It was supposed to happen in 2020, but because of the pandemic we pushed everything back. You don’t want to go through communities that don’t have loads of infrastructure for medical issues and potentially bring in this virus. We had two extra years of prepping, getting sponsors, figuring out all the logistics – so it worked out.
We made our way from Lund to Skagway over the course of a 72-day period. We really just wanted to have fun, we weren’t going to break any records or anything like that. Neither of us are ultra-competent kayakers, we have enough knowledge to be able to manage our charts and our navigation, food, campsites, and we have a basic understanding of the law that relates to those coastal areas. But because we’re not exceptional kayakers, the point of it was to have fun.
How long have you been doing these expeditions?
I did my degree in outdoor intervention and leadership development. Basically, it’s a program that includes general project management, risk management, adventure, eco-tourism and advanced first aid. It opened a lot of doors and also kind-of planted those seeds. We spent 10 days as a group in the mountains, skiing in the middle of winter. We did a month-long canoe trip in northern Quebec. It was there that the seed was planted to do this larger expedition to Mexico.
It’s by prepping that I was really able to find my voice and enjoy myself. I also did scouts, and I had a very outdoorsy father who was always bringing us camping and things like that, so just a general surrounding of it helped me realize the importance of preparation.
I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of prepping. When I was 18, I did a biking trip across Canada from Kelowna to Montreal. We ended up getting to Brandon and I got extremely sick. It was a big disappointment because it was just a lack of competencies that didn’t permit me to get to the very end. It was still a great time, but I learned the importance of preparation because it shouldn’t have happened.
What was the motivation to go on this trip?
It was about having fun but also about the difference between this expedition and the last one. As you can imagine, the east coast of the Americas, from Montreal to the Yucatan, it’s a very populated coastline. Every 30 km is a new community, or a massive community. Going through New York on a kayak was amazing, but you do see a lot of people. We were really fortunate because seeing people every day, they would offer us food, offer us housing, offer us a beer, it was non-stop. On this one, you don’t have anyone. You had a few First Nation communities, you had very small communities, but most of the time you’re just on the water alone, enjoying wildlife as much as you can.
There was also something a tad more dangerous involved with the West Coast. While it’s still a safe passage, safe waters, in some areas it is pretty dangerous – in a general sense, there was more risk because you’re isolated. You’re not close to a community. You’re helicoptered out if anything happens. That kind-of changes how you organize yourself. I also have a son and a partner here in Yellowknife, and I didn’t with the longer expedition. It changes the whole dynamic because when I was prepping, I kept thinking, “I have a kid.” It changed the pace a bit.
What were the most memorable parts of the trip?
At one point, I had a killer whale that bumped my boat. I was really surprised. It slid and turned upside down, and its belly came in and kind-of nudged my boat, which was pretty surreal. It creates a sentiment of smallness, if that makes sense. When it hit my boat, I almost tipped off, and I have a camera, so I was scared of losing my stuff in the first week of our expedition. But really, it was more like adrenaline pumping through my veins. I wasn’t worried about the orca, and if I fell in I didn’t really feel like I was threatened, but it was pretty insane.
Another moment: we were making coffee and Chris was walking somewhere, and he stops and is like, “Hey! Turn around! Turn around!” I turn around and there’s nothing. Then, suddenly, there were two or three humpback whales. They bubble netted, then breached and ate whatever fish was in there. It’s the morning, we’re on a low tide, you can get really close to where the water dives deep. They are right there.
The last moment I’ll share was when we stopped in Klemtu, a small community just north of Bella Bella. We met with a guy, his name is Doug, and he’s the chief there. He was just sharing so much with us. He was like, “Do you guys have a campground for the night? Wanna sleep in the big house?” We’d been sleeping in campgrounds and whatnot. The big house ended up being the space where they had all of their ceremonies. It’s a beautiful piece of art, a really beautiful centre. It’s not somewhere that people sleep – people from the community don’t sleep there, it’s where their traditional events happen. And so we were sleeping in this beautiful place and just the whole experience was so great.
He was also an activist and prior to that he was a guide, so the next day he asked if we wanted to go see some grizzly bears. He brought us and we ended up having a private guided tour of these bears, which was nice because, prior to that, that was our biggest stress. What the hell happens if we see a grizzly bear? We have bear bangers and bear spray, but will they work? So to see him go forward and walk through the brush saying, “Hey bears! Hello bears,” we learned so much. From there, every time we were worried about bears, we just said “hello bears” and felt safer. It was a legit cool moment.
Tell me about the wildlife, what did you see?
There were sea lions, more eagles than you could count, coastal wolves… we saw a moose, the humpback whales, the orcas. We also saw a ton of sea otters, and some grizzly bears and black bears.
Were you scared of the wildlife?
I think you always think you will be, and then you’re there with the animals and it’s just so amazing. We did come very close to sea lion rookeries a few times. They become very aggressive in those areas if you come too close and, you know, there’s like 200 or 300 of them in these colonies, and they’ll jump in the water and try to flip you. That can be stressful. But I’m not staying around, obviously.
With all wildlife, there’s a risk associated with having them in your area. If you think of a humpback that is maybe 60 feet or 20 metres long, if they breach and you’re in the way, you’re most definitely going to get hit. But, to an extent, you can lower that risk by respecting rules and guidelines that are set out by professionals – a certain distance that you should stay away from wildlife, not putting yourself purposefully in the way when you see a pod of orcas heading in a specific direction. At the same time, if you’re sitting there and a pod of orcas decides to go close to you, you are better off staying put, not moving.
Mice, though, can really be an issue. They can eat through your clothing and through your food and through your dry suit. So we were sure to not leave food around, and made sure our kitchen stuff was far away from our camp. The insects were quite bad, like mosquitoes and no-see-ums and little gnats and horseflies. Those can be quite dangerous because they’re relentless, but again, you just prepare and deal with them.
What did your days look like? How many kilometres were you kayaking on average?
We were trying to do 30 km a day. Sometimes we would do less, sometimes we would do more. I think our biggest day was 51 km. We often would use the current to our advantage, and the tides going out and coming in. We would try to utilize them so that we would always be pushed in the right direction. Sometimes that wouldn’t work, sometimes the wind was against us. But most often, if we felt like it wasn’t worth our time, we would just take advantage of that to get some rest.
We did take a week off in Prince Rupert, because one of the conditions that my partner had set upon me to do this expedition is that in Prince Rupert, I had to fly to London, Ontario to go to her brother’s wedding. Other than that, we didn’t take any days off.
What’s it like for your partner when you do these big trips? Do they get nervous?
That’s a really good question. I think there’s a mix of things. Stress is definitely one of them. It’s hard being a parent. It’s hard being a parent when you’re a two-parent household. It’s hard being a parent when you’re alone. It’s hard being a parent when you’re in a pandemic. So it was difficult. But I think that she appreciates that there can be some things that one can do that can be supported. She kind-of said, “It’ll be hard, but I’ll support this because this is what you love.” I think that most people hope or seek to be with someone that will support them in their projects and their endeavours. Obviously, she already knew this about me, so it wasn’t completely new.
It’s also about finding ways to accommodate. She said from the start, “When you’re in Prince Rupert, my brother has a wedding, you have to show up.” That was doable. And it’s crazy how much support you get. You do have to be frank, you have to talk about the risks. You have to have conversations about death: what happens if I die? It’s not necessarily because it’s for-sure going to happen, but you have to talk about it. These are all important conversations to have. And then after that, you just hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Thankfully for my partner, Yellowknife is really great. The community is really strong here. People support you. She has friends all around her that would invite her to come and eat supper and support her, and that was also really helpful to me because I knew she had support. Going on an expedition always involves more than just the people going on the expedition. It’s always considering all the people that surround you.
What were the most difficult parts of the expedition?
Two days prior to getting to Skagway, I got really sick. I think I had Covid because a few days before that, we were in Juneau and we were couch-surfing at some guy’s house. He said one of his employees got Covid so he wasn’t coming in, but he did come by to park a vehicle, and I wonder if during that time I caught Covid. Only a few days later, it started kicking my butt. Luckily, I always have a mini pharmacy, we were well prepared, and I took a lot of drugs. But we still had 60 km to go to get to Skagway and I was exhausted, I had no energy. I’m a very talkative person, so during this time, we were kayaking and Chris noticed that I wasn’t saying anything to him. I almost wanted to exit. I felt like crap and I wanted to stop, right close to the end of it.
Fortunately, I didn’t, but it goes to show that if you don’t have medicine or anything that can help, it can get really sketchy.
What goes into the preparation for a trip like this?
Honestly, preparation depends on how much money you have. First, you want to figure out what equipment you need. Mostly it’s a matter of: what can you not replace out there? You need the appropriate sleeping gear, you want the appropriate cover, like tarps and tents, you want to feel safe. So what type of equipment do you need for that? Sometimes your telephone has connectivity and you can call for emergency help if you need. But what if you don’t have connection? You need your Spot device. You need to make sure that you’re paying the subscription. You don’t want to pack too heavy, but you also don’t want to pack too light.
Food is fairly simple because it’s easy to transport. You have to consider where you’re going to pick up your next set of food. I prepped all of our food, so I had it sent to specific locations on our trip. I was able to send boxes of dehydrated food to Bella Bella and Prince Rupert. You can hold up to 10 days of food easily in the boats, but if you’re going on a longer stretch for a while, say it’s maybe two weeks before you meet another community, you need to consider that you need 14 or 15 days – and maybe a few extra days – of food, because you never know if you’re going to get stuck somewhere. Mostly you want to pack dehydrated food, protein powder, that kind of thing. If you want a little shot of liquor, bring a little flask with you or, in our circumstance, a bottle of tequila.
It’s also really important to communicate with communities that you’re going to be there and ask, “Hey, can I come on your land?” Generally they say yes, but in some circumstances they won’t, and you have to respect that.
How important is it to get along with the person you’re going on the expedition with?
It’s everything. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip with Chris. When he presented it, I thought, “Yeah, this is a person I could definitely see myself going on an expedition with.”
Part of that was because he has numerous skills, but what attracted me the most was that it’s harder to find someone that knows how to be than someone that knows how to do. If I’m going to put importance on something, it’s going to be that I want to be out there with someone I can have fun with, especially when I’m out there for weeks or months at a time. All those competencies, you have plenty of time to go out and get them, but you really want to have fun.
The expedition world is kind-of like switching time around. The whole thing happens pretty fast, but on a day-to-day basis, you’re slowing everything down. Your progression is only based on the effort that you’re putting in. Sometimes you just don’t want to get out of bed, and sometimes you have a slow morning watching whales while you drink coffee and your brain kind-of goes, “You have to get going.” We were in no rush. We wanted to enjoy every moment. Sometimes we got really tired and sore, but we were also full of adrenaline and excitement. We knew that even if it took us a full day to get somewhere just around the corner, we’d still get there. And finding someone who has that same outlook as you is so important to make the expedition a fun and memorable experience.
If you go with someone that already sometimes annoys you, those things will be amplified when you’re out there. I’m not saying that Chris and I never annoyed each other or had disagreements. We had our little confrontations. But the truth is, we both understood why we were there and that we had no ill intent. We had those discussions beforehand, asking things like: “What are your expectations? What are the outcomes you’re seeking? What do you want so that when we’re doing this trip together, I can do everything possible to make sure the outcome responds to what you want?” If you’re able to try to deliver on that, that effort is noticed, so those are really important things.
Tell me about the YouTube series.
We decided to do it for a bunch of reasons. For one, it can really help with sponsors – it could be a way to finance another expedition in the future. It gives us credibility, not only in the way that we’re able to do an expedition, but also in the way that we’re able to tell a story.
Because we’re just trying to have fun, we’re not trying to be better than anyone, that premise helps us share the story in a way that people can identify with, or at the very least, nudge people into doing that thing they’ve been thinking about for a while – whether it’s biking, skiing, whatever it might be. Yellowknife is a really adventurous place, the entire territory is. Everyone who lives here has some sort of adventure in them, so it makes sense to share this story with folks here, because they would be the first to understand the enjoyment in something like this.
A new episode is going to be released every Wednesday. There are 10 episodes. One that has already been released, the first one we released, is all about the organization and preparation, and I think it’s cool to watch because it shows how hard it was to do during Covid. Chris was in the UK, I was in Yellowknife, and we’re planning this big expedition over Zoom, posting on Facebook, looking to get help from people in Vancouver, that kind of thing. The episodes are anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes long, and it brings viewers through the entire trip from our point of view.
I also hope it can be used as a reference for people who are maybe wanting to do the Inside Passage, or any kayaking expedition. It shows how to prepare, good campgrounds, the communities spread throughout the trip, all of that, and hopefully it can help people plan their trips and realize that it is a doable expedition, even if you aren’t the most advanced kayaker in the world.
What comes next?
There was a lot of discussion about the West Coast to Mexico. I’m a bit fair-skinned though, so I’m not sure. It’s a whole different ball game when you’re in that type of heat. We had spoken about Brazil as well, and Japan and the Mediterranean. But we’ve also talked about here. Yellowknife and the NWT has so much to offer. There will definitely be something again soon, but we haven’t quite decided on what yet.
I think part of that is because it’s different now. Having a family is just a new thing to take into consideration. One of the scariest parts of going on these adventures is thinking about the people you’re leaving behind, and while you still want to do what you want to do, it feels like you’re creating some sense of abandonment. Going on expeditions is not only about planning a trip with your travelling partner, but also with the person that you’re with, and making sure they’re supported while you’re gone.
So something new is definitely coming in the future, but we haven’t figured out what yet, and probably won’t until I’ve figured out how to navigate that side of things. But this feeling, this need to explore, it never goes away, and I have to fulfill it.
What advice would you give to people wanting to go on expeditions like this?
If you want to go out on expeditions, ask for help. I’m always pleasantly shocked at how many people are willing to help. We had to get our kayaks from Victoria on Vancouver Island to Lund, which is a six or seven-hour drive round trip, with two ferry rides. We had so many people offer to do that drive, way more than expected. And it’s because people want to be part of it. People want to help and have a part in the story. Don’t shy away from asking for help. We had one guy share his charts with us, people will share the things that went wrong, the things that went right, where the best places to stop are, all that. People have done most things already, so from asking for help, you can really learn so much.
Also, make sure to take it easy. Make sure you’re able to entertain yourself. If you’re out in a team, make sure that you trust the people around you, or it’s gonna be a lonely road. Preparation, as I’ve said, is so important. Once you’re out there, you’re out there, and if you aren’t prepared, the outcome can be bad. Don’t take risks, and if you do, make sure you fully understand them. Don’t mess around with bears. Prepare, brainstorm, get your dreams out there on paper so you know that you can achieve them. And of course, don’t drink water with mouse poop in it.