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.