Native Ohioan Connor Ward takes the kayaking skills he learned on Lake Erie up North.
Connor Ward got a kayak for Christmas when he was 16 — and he managed to hold off till March before trying it out in Avon Lake, Ohio.
“I had no safety gear, no spray skirt — nothing — and the first second I was in the kayak, a wave broke over the side of my boat,” he remembers. “It was March and so cold. I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy.’”
Now, a decade later, Ward is someplace much, much colder — Sitka, Alaska. He’s lived there fulltime since 2019, leading kayak expeditions for a tourism company called Adventure Sitka.
“No two times on the water are the same,” says Ward, who gets to spend his days with stellar sea lions and his nights gazing at galaxies of stars.
Ward got serious about kayaking in college where he took his first sea kayaking courses. While still at Hocking College in Ohio, Ward started working seasonally at resorts in West Virginia and Montana. He kept it up after college — working at everything from a bear guide to a ski instructor — until he grew tried of the seasonal employment cycle of moving and starting over multiple times a year. He decided to move somewhere more permanent — Alaska.
Although he came for the adventure, it’s the people who have kept Ward in Sitka.
“Your neighbors need you for help and you need your neighbors,” he says. “You hold each other accountable because of the small-town dynamic. I just love that I can’t go into Seamart without seeing at least three people I know.”
Sitka is the only town on the southeastern leg of Alaska that faces the gulf, rather than being positioned on an inside passage, and kayakers are seen paddling in rain or shine. The town of Sitka is located on Baranof Island, which has many smaller islands off of its coast. These smaller islands help block currents and winds so paddlers can enjoy the calm waters of the Sitka Sound.
During the summer of 2020, Sitka was projected to have the biggest tourist season ever since the Sitka Sound cruise terminal opened in 2018. However, due to the pandemic, tourism numbers plummeted.
Determined to stop moving from place to place, Ward stuck around and was the only kayak guide at Adventure Sitka for the 2021 season. Now, he manages 20 other kayak guides and plans for many more great summers to come. Adventure Sitka, he says, provides opportunities for up-close encounters with wildlife that aren’t available at any other company.
Although Ward found his home in Alaska, he still holds Lake Erie close to his heart. “I visit the Cleveland area every year, sometimes twice,” he says. “I have lots of friends in the Cleveland area, as well.”
Ward loves how kayaking always brings something new. “No two times on the water are the same,” he says. “Kayaking can be so simple or extremely technical, and you can challenge yourself. The better I’ve gotten at kayaking, the more access to the ocean I’ve received.”
But you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy Alaska. “You can’t just read about it. You have to come see it in person.”
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