Posted on December 29, 2012 - by Nadia
Posted on November 18, 2012 - by Nadia
Originally published in the Skagway News –
It wasn’t in the original plan, but it felt pretty good to step off the ferry at Skagway next to Stroller White. Together, we made our way through the crowded street to the Skagway News. More than a century ago, when Skagway was in its founding growth spurt and news overflowed its docks and saloons, The Stroller was a newsman at that paper, though he hadn’t yet adopted the name he would make famous in his column, Strolling Around the Yukon.
Skagway, and specifically, the newspaper, had been my destination for the past two months as I kayaked the Inside Passage in a three-part pursuit of my Klondike roots. It was a quirk of timing that my mother and father, who is named Stroller after his grandfather, arrived in Juneau in time to join me on the ferry to the finish line.
The Stroller’s name has some cache. The shoulders of Mount Stroller White square off above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. He spent years chronicling the personalities along the way to the Klondike, served in public office and pontificated about local politics for decades.
Posted on July 13, 2012 - by Nadia
Tuesday July 10, 2012
Few places are as social as a safe harbor in a storm. I cut short my planned exploration of the gorgeous, glacier-sided Endicott Arm and beat a hasty retreat through eyelash-bending fog. The forecast indicated that wherever I spent Monday night would be home for at least Tuesday as well, maybe longer. I was anxious that that place should be within striking distance of Juneau.
I’ve extended my daily paddling range, doing more 30-plus mile days in Alaska than was possible further south. Here, tidal currents have less impact because the water is deep and wide, so my schedule is not driven as much by the turning of the tides. Campsites are more abundant so I can push on, confident I will find a place to stop. And the landscape is huge, I can take it in as I paddle hard, so long as the fog allows. But those long days depend on relatively calm waters and winds, and that, I knew, was about to end. (more…)
Posted on July 11, 2012 - by Nadia
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Entrance Island, Hobart Bay
The water ahead of me began to bubble and spin and I threw it in reverse. This was getting crazy. I was hemmed in between a kelp-draped rock pile and a couple of energetically feeding humpbacks. My right paddle blade was literally on the rocks and my bow, well, it was retreating as fast as I could make it. The whale surfaced on its side, leading with its long, white and grey striped pectoral fin held high, then it let the fin flop onto the water, rolled to expose its blow hole, took a gulp of water and slid under the surface. It was about 10 yards away. I could see into its blow hole. That’s more intimate than I need in my life with whales.
“Come on, you two, take it to deeper water, will ya?” I asked. They had been in deeper water when I started around the point and I figured they would pass on by. I had gotten a late start. I had lain in the tent, wishing it would stop pouring rain. When I got up I saw the tide had left and all I had to show for it was a long drag over sharp, slippery rocks. I had camped on a mossy shelf near a spring and the rain and spring rose up into a sop of tea-colored water around and under the tent. It was an awkward and soggy morning and now I had whales to contend with.
It had been shaping up as a whale weekend.
Posted on July 11, 2012 - by Nadia
July 4, 2012
Wrangell to Le Conte Bay
I could see the parade from a half-dozen miles away. In bright contrast to the silty, grey-green shallows of the Stikine Delta they appeared in a line, bobbing to their own rhythm. At first, I thought they were white power boats, sleek and low to the water. That was strange. I hadn’t seen a boat since leaving Wrangell; virtually everyone was in town for the festivities. Then it struck me. Icebergs! The white shapes were icebergs marching out of Le Conte Bay. It was true! The southernmost tidal glacier was a prodigious calfer of bergs! There was no stopping me now, I thought, and I started the sweeping seven-mile crossing to the bay.
Posted on July 4, 2012 - by Nadia
If the ferry comes in at 7, the garnet stand is open. If another’s right behind the first, the garnet gang delays breakfast. Competition for ferry business is tough at the crossroads at the ferry ramp. Since most people walk off, sales opportunities are plenty, predictable but brief. In Wrangle this morning, there are two things for sale: Coffee, and coffee only. And garnets.
Garnet gathering is a family hobby for some Wrangle families. There are rocky fields near the mouth of the Stikine River rich in the angled marbles, which come, I am told, in all colors but blue.
This morning, it was boys versus girls at the corner. There’s are a little nicer, one girl admitted. But, she countered, mine all have price tags.
Warriors used to wear garnets for strength, so I got a little one for myself, and one to replace the holstein rock that traveled with me from Port Townsend to Alaska, where it mysteriously jumped ship. Sorry, Mark. I got you a nice garnet from the sweet, smart alec salesman.
Posted on July 3, 2012 - by Nadia
July 3, 2012 Wrangell, Alaska
Independence Day is a four-day fling that builds in intensity here in Wrangell as soon as June is history. I arrived two days ago to the log rolling contest; sadly, I watched the canoe races start while I was at the chiropractor; now I hear live music from downtown while I watch skinny kids fling themselves off the dock, off the cargo containers on the dock, into the mid-rising tide at the center of town. Celebration, hoc and ad hoc is in the air. This morning, I listened to women discuss their Fourth of July outfits – one if it’s warm, one if it’s not. There is much discussion of how long it took to warm up after last year’s parade when a hard, cold rain relentlessly fell. Everywhere, people greet and part with, “Happy Fourth!” and “Have a safe and happy Fourth.” Wrangell is a funny blend of bruised knuckle working town and tourist stop, and it has been since Josie passed this way. George Vancouver cruised through in the 1790s. Then the Russian’s came in the 1840s and erased his names and plunked down their own, engaging in a bit of a mini-great game over control of the mighty Stikine River, which empties here and gives whoever controls it – Tlingit, Russian or Brit – a sense of merchantile control over the unreachable but rich interior of British Columbia . Josie may have stopped here. Many of the Klondike crowd did, sleeping in tents pitched in a clearing near the church. Thousands of them took a forced rest here as steamships stopped for fuel and supplies at a town so richly situated that it has served as a supply stop for more than 1,000 years. They were a scary crowd to some, who told their daughters not to stray across the mid-line of town because you never knew what ne’er do wells were among the gold rush crowd. For awhile, modern Wrangell was a town that timber built. As I type, two guys are on the dock, turning big logs into big discs with extra long chain saws. It seems to be part of the Fourth, but there is no crowd. Maybe they’re chunking up the podium for the Queen of the Fourth competition, which is hotly contested, judging by the posters in windows and the number of contestants and their emissaries who have asked me to buy raffle tickets, the sale of which seems to be a measure of one’s royalty. As timber faded, and the Stikine fishery was put on a greatly reduced limit, tourism grew. The couple at the table next to me sound British, and are very seriously instructing their children on the importance of seeing wild animals in nature and not a zoo. Apparently they took a tour of the Annan bear reserve, just around Wrangle Island from the town itself. Bears are big business on Wrangle, and an even bigger presence on the mainland just a short blast away. Bear Fest comes in two weeks. It’s hard to imagine how it measures up to the Fourth, but it has quite a buzz and attracts bear experts from all over the world and hungry bears from as far as bears care to travel. It’s all tied to the salmon run, of course, but you can’t buy a bite of salmon in town. The salmon have started running late this year. I’ve spoken with many anxious trollers on my trip, hoping the salmon at least pay for the effort to catch them. But now, the kings have started to run and people are bragging about big hauls and going back out. The salmon that slip through the fishing fleet and make their way back up the rivers, those are the salmon that bring the bears that bring the fest that fuels the tourism edge of Wrangell after the Fourth is done. I will leave these kings and queens behind and spend my fourth where the sparks that fly are ice chips. I’m going to ride high tide over the broad Stikine River delta at mid-morning tomorrow and head toward the LeConte Glacier, which is known for such prodigious calving that I won’t try to see the face itself but be satisfied, I hope, if I can just glide among some icebergs and camp where the bears would rather not go.
Posted on July 2, 2012 - by Nadia
Saturday, July 1
Zimovia Islets to Wrangell, Alaska
I mentioned earlier that self-perception takes two forms out here. One has to do with scale and where I am on the landscape. The other, which I pondered earlier, has to do with internal references and where the landscape settles in my brain.
The former has to do with maps. Choosing what scale map to use on this trip is an interesting exercise for life. It asks a pretty deep question: How much detail do you need to know about what your future holds?
Most people in boats use charts, which show buoys, lights and water depth. They tend to use the 1:40,000-foot scale, which fold up to the size of a checkers board and cover one or two days’ progress. At that scale, carrying the 40-plus large maps required for this trip becomes a logistical challenge. They don’t all fit at once, so people send them ahead in resupply boxes. That obligates the paddler to stopping in a given town during post office hours. It also means you change maps in the map case more often and have more clunky maps to lug around when you’re done with that part of the trip. Clearly, knowing my future in greater detail is not my style.
After talking to people who have done this trip, I chose to use maps, not charts. These have less detail about the sea, but more about places I might camp – such as topography, which shows flat spots for tents, and streams for water. I use the quarter million scale, or 1:250,000. They fold up to the size of an Uno game and it takes 16 of them to cover my trip. I chose not to send resupply boxes. I have all my maps with me, and am free to stop as I want. But I sacrifice a fair amount of detail in the maps. Which is to say, I may be more surprised by what my future holds than a chart user, but I’m more nimble getting there. Or, as I joke to myself during moments of hyper vigilance brought on by steep anxiety of what’s to come: Ignorance is the backbone of adventure.
This compromise of detail has not been much of a problem. By and large I can see what lies before me. If I can’t, it’s too foggy and I stay put. But there have been a couple of days when I’ve been just baffled, threading my way through divergent passages, each decorated with their own archipelago of islands. In short, there are days I am totally surrounded by islands that don’t show up on my maps.
The lead in to Wrangell Island was that way. I leapt across a series of big crossings – two, three, then four mile wide bays and passages. By happy accident, I was on the water at 5:15 (I forgot to change my second watch back an hour for Alaskan time.) This gave me a full, very calm morning with a rising tide to carry me to my destination. When the wind did come up, it was at my back and gently helped me along. So I took the bays close to their wide mouths rather than paddling in deep for protection, and I took a running tangent skimming the broad southeastern edge of the X formed where Ernest Sound and Zimovia Straight intersect. And it was that flying leap that left me in the middle of I knew not where. The wind came up and I beelined it with some intensity to the nearest sheltering island.
I thought I was headed for Deer Island, and I got there in time for a totally unprecedented burst of sunshine, complete with the lowest rainbow I’ve ever seen. It kept raining, don’t worry. I ate lunch and pondered the map. The north western half of Deer Island filled the lower right corner of my map. Its south east edge, what came before that, or what led up to that flank, was not on that map but on a map I did not own. I really couldn’t tell where I was on Deer Island, or even if I was on Deer Island. Assuming I was, my next step was to find an island called Found Island, which my map showed was a couple of miles across the afore mentioned intersection of straight and sound. But where, exactly, had that intersection gone?
I compared the map with what I saw. I looked down and up. Map, reality, map, reality. Things did not jibe. I saw only one big body of water. Which was it? Ernest or Zimovia? It seemed clear during my crossing, but now I was not so sure. I checked the compass and contemplated the always fascination question of magnetic declination. (If magnetic declination, the difference between where a compass points north and where a map points north, was 29 degrees in 1960, what is it now, and does that mean true north, 360T, map north, is more east or less east than the 360M that the compass reads? I have this conversation when I run out of other things to talk to myself about.)
Finally, I dug out the GPS and turned it on. Plugging waypoints into the GPS prior to my departure almost cost me my sanity, and I owe it to the guys at Montana Hunting GPS out on Russell for nudging me ahead. Go see them if you want the pros to program your next hunt into a GPS. Anyhow, I’ve only used the GPS a few times, usually to confirm my precise location at the end of the day. But a few times it has confirmed that I was off base. Once before, in the Gulf Islands, it helped me weave through a similar labyrinth of tiny islands. When I need the GPS, I’m sure glad to have it.
Searching for Found Island was the first time I’ve had to use the Go To function and just follow the purple line. I was not on Deer Island but was two tiny islands removed from my target. Ignorance: Gateway to ah-ha moments. I put my faith in the purple line although it seemed a bit counterintuitive until I could see the two parting waters and my destination. I crossed to Found Island and in doing so, more completely onto my map.
At Found Island I ran into Bill Sr., Bill Jr. and Caroline out fishing with the kids and Dogzilla, who, like all dogs, found the half-woman, half-boat figure of a kayaker very disturbing. Bill Sr. worked on fishing boats in these waters for years and harbors an unfulfilled dream of paddling the Inside Passage himself. These days, he scratches that itch by inviting kayakers in for dinner and so he gave me directions for weaving into the secret tidewater sanctuary that shelters cabins off Zimovia Straight.
I wound around tiny islands, up shallow notches where the end of the ebb tide created a rushing current, and found Bill’s getaway cabin. The tidewater pockets dry almost completely at low tide, leaving a basin of mud colorfully ringed with uniformly yellow pop weed, a sliver of sharp, slate grey rock, then bright grass, then trees. It was pouring rain and the mud underscored everything in a way it hasn’t elsewhere.
Maria was cooking inside and dashing outside to enjoy her new deck whenever the rain cleared. We talked kayaking and rightly so – with these backwaters and the broader Zimovia, this place makes for terrific exploration by kayak or canoe. Maria is a retired teacher from Monterey. That she married Bill and moved to Wrangell shows the depths of Bill’s charm. The cabin in the popweed was a long way from Monterey.
Bill and the fishing boat had punched their way through the narrows and returned. My presence in the little cabin meant it was packed full, making it lively and warm. We feasted on roast chicken and quinoa and – the greatest luxury of all to me – a crisp salad. Then I was off to bunk down on the couch at a neighboring vacant cabin. Maria and Bill slept on the bigger boat, which made room for Bill, Caroline, the girls and Dogzilla in the cabin.
Wrangle Island is bear central and Bill helped me attach my kayak to the dragline and pulley it, like the laundry, out to the middle of the lagoon. I had been wrestling with the bear question since entering these lagoons. It was too rainy, too muddy, too far, too late for me to willingly unload the food from the boat, too obviously a bear haven not to. I mean, the cabin next to me belongs to one of the Craigheads, bear researchers known throughout beardom, including Montana and Wyoming.
No sooner had a snuggled into my sleeping bag and turned to look out the cabin window then a roly-poly black bear sow appeared, slowly grazing the far bank of the lagoon as her three cubs of the year followed behind. They ran and tripped over each other and every wrinkle in the ground as they scrambled to keep up with her and still explore the wide banks. My kayak floated, secure, 20 yards from every bank.
Dawn was at about 3, low tide at about 5. I woke up and things were as I had secretly known they would be: My kayak, alone on an expanse of mud. Further now from water than it had been from shore. Luckily, these bears had better things to eat than Pateel’s curried lentils, or they just don’t like the feeling of mud between their toes.
I got up, slid into slick and smell neoprene and slid the boat to water to make a silent exit. I didn’t need a marine chart to find water deeper than this to paddle.
Posted on July 2, 2012 - by Nadia
Friday, June 29
Niblock Hollow to Vixen Harbor, off Earnest Passage
The logs and twisted stumps become ancient, contorted skeletons lunging from the bank. They become Sasquatch and innumerable seals and whales tails that never move. A kelp ribbon is an otter. A new fangled high rise boat is coming at me fast (Oh, no, that’s the current, picking up and carrying me fast straight at that … buoy).
Today, a log bobbed up ahead of me and I thought: log. Then it rolled on its back, gave a hissing bark and bared its teeth. I braced and turned abruptly. Geez! Stellar sea lion. Then it did it again, alongside me: rose up, rolled over to show its long snout, its little dog ears and all of its teeth. And it snorted. Yikes! That’s a drowning bear! I took off and didn’t look back for a while. Probably, it was a sea lion. But it had such a long, dog-like snout and seemed to be struggling so. But no, a drowning bear would be a very strange thing. Still, clearly, I’ve got bear on the mind. This landscape, huge, long drawn and cluttered, puts the psyche on stage.
There are two sorts of dizzying self-perception that go on out here. One has to do with scale and where I am on the landscape. The other has to do with internal references and where the landscape settles in my brain. I’ll tackle the issue of scale later. Today, the question is what things are and what they seem and what maybe a question of the energy they emit.
On the water, floating logs assume all sorts of disguises. Most often they seem to be benign sea mammals: seals, otters, whale parts, or, just once, a real sea lion seems to be a drowning bear. Then they go back to being logs, or the sea lion and seals slip beneath the surface. On shore, however, the dark, moss draped woods are so clearly inhabited by spirits that it is impossible that they should not manifest themselves visibly.
The shoreline has opened up north of Ketchikan. Although there are still miles of the impenetrable shoal-cliff-tree combination, now there are landable beachs every couple of miles. The forest rims the beach, and appears to offer refuge. Step behind the drift logs and up, into the spongy muskeg, and it takes the mind time to adjust. Refuge is not always the first thing that comes to mind.
My eyes refocus, from the long reaches of water to the looming, present woods. What seems solid, is not. A mossy log gives way to a spongy gap, a branch twists silently into moist crumbs. Shapes loom. As I evaluate a campsite I look for bears. They leap out of the trees: mossy bears, dancing bears, corpulent bears. I haven’t seen an actual bear at a campsite since I left the Vancouver Island end of BC, but I see bear shapes everywhere.
Yesterday, winds and surf booming on offshore shoals in Clarence Straight eventually encouraged me to stop at noon, after a blissfully calm, early crossing of Behm Canal. At this spot, the woods were dense and unforgiving, filled not only with ghost bears but with evidence that the real thing call this home: Piles of shell-fragment filled poo.
A well-worn trail connected two coves of slurring surf and low tide pools that are fast food stops for hungry bears. That trail went steeply up and over a cedar-filled hump connecting the coves and the only clear spot for a tent was just along the poop path, next to, I swear, a bear den. I spent the better part of and hour heaving my bear line high above the trail, getting it tangled in the mess of branches overhead, and pulling it back down on my head.
Done with that, I went to check on the boat and realized the winds had dropped and the sea was calm. I reloaded the boat in a flurry and squeezed around another point and cove before the winds came back up.
My second site of the day had absolutely no sign of bear. But it was full of spirits. A fire-scarred, soaring ancient cedar protected a clearing big enough for my tent. The fire scar was deep enough to give shelter from the never ending rain while I ate, and was a locker for my padding gear. But clearly, this cedar was at the center of a sacred space as well. Around it, the forest seemed especially still and free of specific specters – no skeletons, mossy bear or Sasquatch. Instead, the specific spirit of this tree and two others beyond the reach of each other’s branches, created a still space in the usual chaos of the woods. At the foot of the tree was an abalone shell. I have only seen abalone shells in the forest in one other place on this trip – the midden camp just before Port Hardy. It, too, was clearly a special place.
Here, behind the grand cedar, was a pile of fish ivories. I’ve asked around and it seems maybe the Yellow Rockfish has ivories like these – butterfly shaped, the size of joined twonies, the big Canadian two dollar coin. These ivories are not bone but harder and stronger ivory. They have to be carefully located, removed and kept while cleaning fish. Their proper name is otelisk, though I don’t know how to spell that and neither do any of the fishermen sitting around me as I write. Halibut and other deep diving fish have them in their ears, I understand. Many people collect them.
These were not a casual offering, like the inland crab shells left by eagles or the urchin shells bears drag ashore. These were left for this cedar.
The cedar’s broad reach protected the only space large enough for a tent. For some reason, although I was only a few miles north of the earlier camp, the bears left this area alone. I asked the cedar to keep it that way for one more night. It had rained all day, I had made two camps, I was cold and tired and I slept soundly through a night of hard rain, protected by a tremendous tree, and the spirits inside it.
Posted on July 2, 2012 - by Nadia
Tuesday, June 26
Aboard the ferry Matanuska (filed from Wrangle)
Handling a sea kayak on shore is like taking your dolphin for a walk. It thrives in the water, but is just a nuisance in the parking lot. I fell asleep at the hostel in Prince Rupert aware that I was planning to take a ferry the next day to Ketchikan that would arrive at 11:30 p.m., and yet I had no ticket; nowhere to stay in Ketchikan and no way to move my kayak and all her contents away from the ferry dock. Towns are very stressful.
I awoke and fired off emails to a couple of sea kayak tour operators in Ketchikan, asking for advice or help. I tried to buy a ticket, but it was too late to get one online and too early to get one on the phone. I went to breakfast and hoped for the best.
The best arrived in the form of Thomas and Howard of Ketchikan Kayak Tours, who said they would meet me at the ferry, help take care of my kayak and take me to wherever I was staying for the night. I am eternally grateful to the strangers who extend a hand on this trip. Many of them become friends. All of them offer me the opportunity to be better to strangers myself.
On the ferry, I got a call from Dale at Eagle View Hostel in Ketchikan. He had room if I wanted it. I did.
And, of course, I got my ticket. The Alaskan Marine Highway, also known as The Ferry, leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the immediate competition is the British Columbia ferry system. Let’s just say a cart, or even a nice employee willing to lend a hand, would go a long way in improving customer service where kayakers are concerned. Kayaks are not laptops, but that’s pretty much how the ferry treats them: You brought it here, you get it on board. I’m keeping my comments on this short, but the ridiculous lack of accomodation triggered what my brother calls my Rambette personality disorder. I commandeered a ferry handcart, used my fleece jacjet to protect my kayak from its sharp edges and bungeed the boat to the dolly. Then, piling my big bags on top of the boat, I did my best to make the awkward shuffle to the boat look effortless. It must have looked easy because not a single soul offered to help.
I got it aboard in one shot, but I’m not feeling the love for the Alaskan ferry that I still feel for the BC one.
As I’m about to post this from Wrangle, I realize I’ve made a major leap without filing an update. Towns, where I can file, also create a flurry of logistical demands. I jumped from Butedale to Hartly Bay, a native community that really demands its own blog post. I caught the town high speed taxi from there to Prince Rupert, where I executed a very fast turnaround to Ketchikan. I arrived Ketchikan late at night, spent one day on logistics and left early the next. Each turn around was so tight that I didn’t stop to post an update. Neither town offered up much of a story, though I did see all the boaters from Butedale in Prince Rupert: Deb and Neal, Ramona and DC, Donna and Mike and the elegant fishing boat Tink. I arrived Prince Rupert with Herman, a kayaker from Baja, but left him there to get his own errands done and traveled on solo. That catches you up to speed.