Two sets of brothers re-create a fateful 1974 canoe trip to Alaska, completing the journey their father and uncle had not.
SARA SCHERR made the first move. Both she and Alan Dappen, the man who would become her husband, remember that part vividly.
The year was 1972, and the two were college students working as counselors at her father’s summer camp for kids with asthma in the fresh air of West Virginia’s rolling mountains. They’d known each other for a little while. Alan actually had flown into camp early the year before to take Sara to her senior prom — but only as a favor to a buddy who had a thing for Sara’s older sister, blissfully unaware of his date’s burgeoning feelings for him.
“He was very slow,” Sara jokes now, but in other areas, she liked the level head of the boy only a year and a half her senior but already an old soul, and his meticulousness. She was also drawn to his sense of adventure. And so at the end of the summer of ’72, their second spent together at camp, she kissed him, “and the switch flipped,” says Alan. “That was the beginning of the end for me.”
In 1974, my parents — Alan Dappen, then 21, and Sara Scherr, 20 — and my Uncle Andy built their own canoes; launched them into the Pacific; and became some of the first people in modern history to canoe from Vancouver, B.C., to Alaska up the Inside Passage. My brother and I grew up paddling those wooden canoes in Virginia rivers, and the 1974 adventure became legend in our family — shaping who we’ve become, how we view our parents and how our parents view themselves. In summer 2017, my brother and I renovated those canoes and, with our dad and Andy, completed their 1974 journey. “The Passage” is a story about growing up, growing old and the wild places that define us.
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For him, maybe, but their shared story was still at its genesis.
They went to college on opposite coasts, and though they considered each other boyfriend and girlfriend, privately she figured this youthful fling would run its course, and they’d each find somebody else closer to home. Their dynamic flipped: If she initially brought them together, he’s the one who kept it that way. If they couldn’t see each other often, they made those visits count, going on lengthy outdoor excursions that Alan mapped out.
“I didn’t let go,” Alan says. “I kept chasing her.”
Then he pitched the adventure that eventually would go down in the lore of the family they’d one day become. It had to do with something called the Inside Passage.
ALAN’S CHILDHOOD was nomadic, his family forever at the whims of his father’s employment with a paper company, moving every few years, from the East Coast to Mexico City to rural Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until they landed in Everett, midway through high school, that he truly felt a sense of place.
“For the first time, it felt like I was at home,” Alan says. “I almost felt it in my genetics that this was where I was supposed to live.”
He and his only brother, Andy, always felt most at home in nature. Their parents tried their best to indulge that passion, staying on the outskirts of the cities they lived in, spending summers in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York when on the East Coast, but even still, according to Alan, “Going to the Pacific Northwest was like going to paradise.”
The brothers hiked the North Cascades and explored the Olympic Peninsula. Alan got a job with a tugboat company in the summer of 1970 that ran routes between Puget Sound and southeastern Alaska. They anchored in isolated hollows up and down the coast, dramatic scenery unlike anything Alan had seen before or — even with all the globe-trotting he’s subsequently done — since.
“For that kind of northern landscape, the trees and the rain and the moss, there’s nothing that matches the Inside Passage of the Pacific Northwest,” Alan says.
Somewhere in his mind, that summer, an idea started to germinate: What if he and Andy were to canoe the 1,000-mile passage between Washington and Alaska? It seemed crazy, at first — Vancouver to Juneau is a long way on a map, let alone on the water — but he couldn’t shake it. Once he met Sara, he incorporated her into his plans, too, daydreaming about their journey as he sat through classes at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
The brothers were serious enough about the idea that in 1973, following Alan’s junior and Andy’s freshman year at Whitman, they flew into Prince Rupert, B.C., on their way back from their summer jobs in Alaska. They bought a canoe at JCPenney, planning on paddling as far south as possible as something of a test run.
Finally out on the water, they were intercepted by a fisherman who had overheard their grand plans. The local lit into them, calling them the stupidest kids he’d ever met. The water was freezing and the currents unpredictable. If they went in blind, the fisherman predicted death by drowning or hypothermia.
“He really put the fear of God into us,” Alan says. It worked.
The brothers took the canoe back to JCPenney and flew home. It sank in that if they really wanted to take on this journey of a lifetime, first they would have to do their homework.
GROWING UP IN Charleston, W.Va., Sara’s adolescence was more domesticated. She, too, often felt the call of the wild, but her parents were “always-be-careful, safety-first types of people,” she says. It wasn’t until she and Alan got together that she really got into what would later be called outdoor recreation but then was much rarer: cross-country skiing, bouldering and scaling mountains.
“I have mostly been a follower for the big wilderness adventures,” Sara says. “I wanted to try everything, but I was never good enough to be the lead in the climb.”
Her desire for pushing boundaries manifested in international travel. Like Alan, she spent a portion of her young life in Mexico City. In 1973, the summer before the Inside Passage trip, foreshadowing her future career in tropical agriculture and development, she spent six months in Costa Rica. The country was far less developed than it is now, and she says hiking through its rain forests was “probably, objectively much more dangerous” than the canoe journey to follow.
Still, a sense of adventure had not initially been all that high on her priority list of what she wanted in a partner. Only as she got older — and, not coincidentally, after she met Alan in her late teens — did that reveal itself.
“Once I caught the bug, it became really important that I find somebody who was willing to take risks,” Sara says.
While she was discovering a greater appetite for risk and coming of age at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, some 3,000 miles away, Alan and Andy were in the process of mitigating it.
They researched the trickiest sections of the Inside Passage — a more arduous undertaking in a Google-less world, when far fewer intrepid souls had ever made the journey — and built their own wooden canoes in a shed on Whitman’s campus, testing them over and over again for durability. They learned that it was imperative to stay close to land, and to be wary of the riptides on the Johnstone Strait.
“You can’t really have any agenda,” Alan says. “You just have to go with whatever the weather and currents are giving to you.”
Years later, recalling June 14, 1974, the day the crew of eight — Alan, Andy, Sara and an assortment of various friends — shoved off in Vancouver, the brothers’ mother admitted she genuinely wondered whether she would ever see her sons again. But Alan and Andy had so carefully plotted everything out that once they hit the water, everything went remarkably smoothly.
There were a couple of scares — like when Alan and Sara went to retrieve their crab pots and got trapped on an island by high tide, or when they were marooned north of Vancouver Island for five days by inclement weather — but mostly, they were able to just bask in the glory of nature.
For outdoorsy 20-somethings, as Alan and Sara were, the journey was everything they could have asked for. The scenery surrounding them was a living postcard: glacial blue waters below white-capped mountains, lush greenery as far as the eye could see. They spotted orca whales and bald eagles, living off whatever fresh fish they caught on any given day.
For a young couple who had spent most of their time together apart, it was something closer to a test of their long-term compatibility.
“I was pretty hooked,” Alan says. “If you still like spending time and talking to each other after paddling for 800 miles, you might really be onto something.”
FOR NATE AND BEN, Alan and Sara’s sons, the legend of the Inside Passage canoe trip came to embody the qualities they most admired about their parents.
“This story was just so much more epic than any story I’d ever heard any of my friends tell,” Nate says. “For me, it was like something done by the Great Adventurers you grew up reading about. Some people see things that other people have accomplished and say, ‘Oh, that’s something I could never do.’ My parents have never been like that, and that’s something I think me and my brother both emulate.”
Just as their parents had done when they were little, the Dappen boys grew up bouncing from place to place. Some of their first memories, too, were of the outdoorsy, adventurous sort: safari trips in Eastern Africa, camping alongside the Shenandoah River.
Sara’s job in tropical agriculture required moving every few years, and Alan, a family doctor, was happy to tag along. The young family lived in Mexico for a little while, and then Nairobi, Kenya. Alan says he never settled anywhere for more than four years until he turned 40.
In many ways, Alan and Sara were the ideal couple, forever expanding each other’s horizons. “We pushed each other into trying new things,” Sara says. He introduced her to the great outdoors, and she took him all over the world.
The Inside Passage might be something of an encapsulation of their life together, but it did not stop there, frozen in time on a lonely stretch of coastline in summer 1974. To gloss over the more trying times — to focus only on the natural beauty of the trip while overlooking the monotonous months of preparation and its very real hazards — is to paint an incomplete picture.
They didn’t get married until 1978, after a few more years of living apart and of lingering doubts. The proposal wasn’t very romantic, with Sara again taking the lead. They were about to move to Mexico in order for her to do her Ph.D. research, and she mused aloud that it would be easier to explain why they were living together in a conservative society if they were to get married rather than pretend.
“Are you proposing to me right now?” Alan asked, as bemused and amused by her as ever.
Later, after two decades of hopping all over the world, Alan realized that in order to make a real difference in his patients’ lives, he needed to be settled in one particular place. Whereas Andy parlayed his passions into a career as an outdoor travel writer, and Sara remained as exhilarated by new frontiers as ever, Alan calls it the biggest surprise of his life to discover that he was most content when setting down roots.
“I was kind of disappointed in myself, in a certain way,” Alan says. “I used to live an exciting life, but it might not have been meaningful. Now, my life might no longer be exciting, but it sure is meaningful.”
Sara took some convincing. This wasn’t part of their deal, but a drastic shift in their dynamic. For a while, Alan feared he would lose her — but then, as always, he held on.
She found a job based in Washington, D.C., with an international nongovernment organization that would allow her to continue to travel for work while technically being based somewhere permanent, and he opened a family practice in the Virginia outskirts of the city. That was in 1992, and they’ve been there since, still together and each still pursuing what makes them happiest.
Although, “I still can’t call myself a Virginian,” Alan says. “When people ask me where I’m from, I still say Washington state.”
SOMEWHERE ALONG the line, Nate and Ben decided they wanted to re-create the canoe trip they had so mythologized. Nate, a filmmaker and photographer who runs his own production company, is a storyteller, and he became fixated on how this one particular tale of the 1974 trip had made such an impact on his family’s shared narrative.
Sara begged off, offering to help take care of Ben’s young daughters in his absence, and so it was that two pairs of brothers shoved off into the waters of Puget Sound last summer, more than 40 years removed from the original journey.
So much of it was how Alan remembered — the peaceful rhythm of the oars, the colors reflected back in the water when light hit it a certain way.
“It’s hard to explain just how amazing it was for all of us,” Alan says.
The second trip made them whole in other ways. The inaugural excursion didn’t make it all the way to Juneau. Thanks to time restraints, the original group stopped in Ketchikan, some 700 miles up the 1,000-plus-mile route. Four decades later, the two sets of brothers made it to Ketchikan, then Alan and Andy completed the journey, paddling all the way to Juneau, after Nate and Ben had to return home to work.
It wasn’t just the experience of coming full circle that was meaningful to Alan, but seeing firsthand how much the story meant to his sons, and that they were willing to carve weeks out of their busy lives in order to experience it with him.
Alan, who is now 65, realized how much he had missed his brother and the outdoors, and made a promise to himself to get back out there more often while his aging body still allows it. He flashed back across the decades, remembering the smile on Sara’s young face, and the growing feeling that this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
“It’s funny that people call it ‘dating,’ ” Sara says, “because we didn’t really go on dates.”
Their courtship was unique, and in some ways more intense: written letters and long-distance phone calls, trying to squeeze the most out of every minute they actually saw one another, culminating in one lengthy and fateful canoe journey in the summer of ’74.
“It’s a rare opportunity to have that amount of intimacy over such a long period of time, and it was just such a fun thing to do,” Sara says. “It kind of cemented everything, because we so enjoyed our time together, that we ended up staying together.”