By Lilly Milman
New Orleans resident Austin Jones completed a personal mission to cross the entire U.S. West Coast when he pulled his 16-foot foldable kayak into the Skagway Small Boat Harbor on May 31.
In 2015, he began a hike across the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada as a way of celebrating his final summer before starting medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans. However, his plans changed when he did not finish. Jones made it as far as the Columbia River in Washington state, hiking roughly 80 percent of the trail over 110 days, but falling short of the coveted “thru hiker” title reserved for those who complete the trail in one season.
This small failure inspired Jones to embark on a much more ambitious trip that would consume over four years.
The following summer, he set out on a hiking, biking and kayaking expedition of his own creation. The trip was accomplished in five discontinuous sections during his breaks from school, including his initial trek in 2015. Jones kayaked across the Inside Passage from Anacortes, Washington to Juneau in 2016, biked from Skagway to Prudhoe Bay in 2017, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the Columbia River to the Canadian border at Manning Park in British Columbia, and then returned to Anacortes along the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2018.
By the time Jones kayaked from Juneau to Skagway this year, his cumulative route totaled roughly 5,500 miles over a combined 227 days.
Initially, Jones said he planned to take a day off in Haines on his way to Skagway, but the weather reports promised a weekend storm. Knowing his flight from Juneau to New Orleans was booked for June 3, he headed toward Skagway immediately.
He began the final stretch by staying close to the Lynn Canal coast, but the wind near Skagway led him to take an hour-long break approximately three miles from his destination.
“Hugging the coast no longer really became the best safety option because all the waves were reverberating off the really sheer granite walls, so that made like a washing machine effect,” Jones said. “The waves were above the brim of my hat, so above three feet. They’re crashing over my spray skirt and everything, so I thought, ‘Okay, I need to get in.’”
Jones said kayaking was the most dangerous part of his trip. He said he warmed up by kayaking across Glacier Bay with his mother for a week beforehand, which he described as being much easier than the trip from Juneau to Skagway. When he is alone, Jones keeps a GPS tracking device on him that marks his location every 10 minutes to prevent family members from worrying.
He chose to use a kayak made of corrugated plastic that could fold up into a backpack rather than a standard fiberglass ocean kayak because it can be taken as checked luggage.
Jones is set to graduate from Tulane’s medical school in 2021, and said he hopes to combine his love of traveling with a career as an expedition physician. Although he anticipates being busy finishing his degree, he would like to find more time to travel, even as it becomes more difficult for him.
“I just have a sense of adventure,” he said. “And the confidence that if someone else has done it, I can do it.”