Take a peek inside the cabin of Jill Fredston’s boat and you’ll think a rainbow exploded.
“When we got the boat, it had a lot of just dirty white surfaces on the inside. So I went a little insane, and I think there’s 28 different colors of paint here and there throughout the whole boat,” said Fredston.
The Compañera is hard to miss, tied up near the end of the transient float in Eliason Harbor. It’s bright yellow – at least at first glance. Look again more closely and it’s actually a cream color with a yellow stripe.
“It’s funny, even with just the stripe, people see it as a yellow boat,” said Fredston.
Jill and her husband, Doug Fesler, are avalanche experts. They co-wrote the book Snow-Sense, a guide to traveling in the backcountry and surviving avalanches. They have spent the last 7 years on the Compañera, traveling the world. Now they’re in Sitka.
“We love Sitka, Sitka’s just a very friendly place. We love all of the different kinds of boats. We love walking the docks,” said Fredston.
Before the Compañera and Alaska, Jill grew up about 25 miles north of New York City, near Larchmont on a little island with only four houses. There, she fell in love with rowing.
“I begged for a row boat. My parents finally agreed on the condition that they could name it, and they named it “Ikky Kid. I climbed in that rowing boat and basically spent all of my time on water, in the winter, in frozen versions of water, all my life.”
She came to Alaska over thirty years ago, after getting her master’s in polar regions and glaciology. Then, in 1982, she was offered a job heading the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center in Anchorage, a position some thought she wasn’t qualified for.
“There were really only two problems. One was that I knew nothing at all about avalanches. The second was that the state’s reigning avalanche authority recommended strongly against my hire. He was right, but I got the job, and then over the space of the next several years we did this funny little dance where he went probably from the biggest skeptic I’ve ever had, to mentor, to partner, then to husband,” said Fredston.
They’ve been working, writing, and traveling together ever since. They rowed 25,000 miles in the Arctic over twenty years, an experience she recounts in her book Rowing to Latitude.
“I love rowing, I love getting everywhere under my own power. But the reality is we’re getting older. We were in the Northwest passage in 2003 when we started talking about having a bigger ship that could get us through the scary or boring places faster, but also carry our rowboats,” said Fredston.
They came upon the Compañera online, but it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for.
“It had two major fatal flaws. One was that it was a wooden boat. The other was it had an incredibly noisy engine. But something about this boat just caught us, and it’s been a great ship. We had it in Alaska for about five years, and then in 2009 we just started wondering what it would be like to spend a winter with no snow,” said Fredston.
So they traveled south on the Compañera, just the two of them and their late dog, Bodie. It takes her a full minute to list all everywhere they visited along the way
“Mexico, and Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.”
They left Bodie with a family in Peru for a month, and Jill says during that time he learned Spanish. But there was one thing Bodie wouldn’t do.
“Bodie had a thing about not doing his business on the boat. He was a very stubborn dog. When we came down the line of the Pacific Coast, you have a lot of surf,” said Fredston.
When they couldn’t drop the dinghy, Jill would swim Bodie out to land so he could relieve himself, and she says he’d swim happily, snorting like a pig. But coming back was another story.
“When we came to go back to the boat, he was not interested at all in going back to sea. So I’d just grab him in a lifeguard hold and drag him back out through the surf,” said Fredston.
One year turned to two, two to three, and eventually seven years went by. But now they’re happy to be back in Alaska.
“Alaska definitely draws us for its people, for its wildlife, for some of the places that really are wilder than anywhere we’ve seen anywhere in the world,” said Fredston.
Jill and Doug are still at the avalanche center. Jill isn’t writing a book about their experiences on the Compañera, but the two plan to keep on traveling anyway.