Petersburg Pilot -

Montana man rows into town

 

Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

Blake Miller shows off the 16-foot boat he traveled in from Washington to Southeast Alaska, while moored in North Harbor last week. He kept the boat loaded with provisions and plenty of warm clothes.

When a person is rowing a freshly licensed, hand-constructed 16-foot boat from Washington to Juneau, bad days are bound to happen. One happened right before Blake Miller of Missoula, Montana, rowed into North Harbor early one morning last week.

After being about 3/16 inch on his map, he ended up on a massive mud flat. So his options were, get up at 1 a.m. and be on the water by 2 a.m., or roll the boat over a couple hundred yards of rock and mud. He also had the option of waiting until 11 a.m. to launch, but he got up early and the reward was a flat Frederick Sound all to himself.

"I watched the moon set and watched the sun starting to rise," Miller says. "I had at least two humpbacks that I could hear coming up to breathe and the water was glassy calm."

Five days prior, Miller was in Ketchikan being a "dutiful tourist," watching the lumberjack show, checking out coffee shops and searching for a good cheese burger and fries. When he stopped in Wrangell, he arrived mid-afternoon on a Saturday, just in time to grab a cheese burger and watch the town shut down. He's been eating a lot of soup and instant rice lately so when a town is coming up Miller's motivation becomes a good burger and soft bed.

After deciding to attempt this journey in January, he built a boat from a kit which cut into his planning and preparation time. He found out doing epoxy work during a cold Montana winter is a "really bad idea." Miller says the boat definitely has some manufacturing defects, but also points out it was his first time tackling a wood-working project. Miller launched from his parent's house where he grew up in Tulalip, Washington over two months ago on May 20.

"I wanted to do a big adventure, and I wanted to see if I could do a really long trip," Miller says. "And I've always wanted to build a boat, for a trip, so it was like, 'Why don't I just build a row boat and row it from Washington to Alaska?'"

Miller likes the day to day challenges of a solo trip. He will read a guide book and search for details about a good place to camp, but he intentionally stays away from reading accounts of other adventure seekers.

"Ultimately, I'm out there and it's my call," he says. "I don't want anybody else's account of their adventure to influence my perception of what I'm going through out here."

Miller ended his journey in Juneau earlier this week, and he said the last portion of his trip was by far the best part yet. He rowed next to glacier ice, encountered more humpback whales, with one coming within 50 feet of his small craft. He also got pinned down for two days in a storm, but all he needs is a tarp to lie under and Alaska to look at.

"There's almost always something worth looking at, either a whale swimming by or some eagles hanging out," he says.

Miller very slowly worked his way up the coast, and he rowed or sailed the entire way, except for a ferry ride from Port Hardy to Bella Bella. By the time he arrived in Ketchikan a ferry ride home started sounding good. The number of rest days needed at the end of his extended trip increased, because he was exerting more energy than he could consume. In Petersburg, Miller was tempted by the prospect of hopping on a ferry, but he pushed on and overcame.

For Miller, there are a couple reasons for making the journey, and building the boat was a huge lesson in empathy. He teaches math at one of the colleges in Missoula, and deals with a lot of math-averse students. So he likes trying new things he has no experience with and to feel what it's like to start from scratch. He also took ballroom dancing lessons once, but Miller doesn't remember much of the venture other than the fact it was "absolutely terrifying."

Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

Miller's only security system for his dry bags and other goods too bulky to transport to and from his hotel room was pulling the sail over the items.

"It helps me empathize, because I do lose empathy, and I kind of need to remind myself what it's like to really go into something intimidating, not knowing anything about it," he says.

Almost 10 years ago, the adventurer in Miller, 27 at the time, increased after hearing about the possibility of adult complications from a heart defect he had surgically corrected at birth. His heart essentially functions as well as someone who's had a major heart attack.

"I've spent most of my life out of the medical system, which I've been very grateful for because nobody ever said to me, 'Oh no, you can't do that, you have a heart condition,'" Miller says.

He goes on bigger adventures every other year or so. He's completed multiple winter trips down the Grand Canyon and been on the verge of hypothermia in the Yukon, but this year's trip might be his limit. It's not a bad thing, however, because he's already thinking about rowing back to Alaska.

 

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