Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
My outstretched hand shades my squinting eyes as I watch the Fairweather Express boat shrink into the horizon. I stand at the water's edge on a small island by a pile of gear stuffed into waterproof bags next to a dark blue double kayak. I am alone and embarking on a 70 mile trip up the East Arm of Glacier Bay and then south to the lodge. I only have four days.
The main purpose of my trip is to revist McBride Glacier and White Thunder Ridge. The 2000 foot cliff that connects the sky to the water and echoes the thunderous cracks and calvings of ice as they splash into the sea, commands respect and evokes awe for the surging pulse of Nature. The trip is going to be epic. The sun is shining and the water is calm. I figure the glorious weather will continue. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The strokes of my paddle create a constant background rhythm behind the cool distant curves of Casement Glacier, the graceful dives of playful porpoise, and the unified flight of hundreds of waterbirds across the channel. Splish. Splish. Splish. Splish. My strokes become my heartbeat and the pulse of my universe. I feel alive.
One. Two. Three. Four. How many strokes in a minute? How many in a mile or back to the lodge? I watch the band of birds unperturbed by the rhythmic splashing of my paddle. Is this how the planet once looked? Was the world this wild and abundantly populated by birds, whales, and cottonwood seeds that blanket every surface with a snow-like layer of accumulating mass?
The mature forests transition to younger trees and alder bushes as I paddle further up the East Arm of the bay. When Muir Glacier retreated to its current location at the top of the arm, plant succession occurred where colonizing plants sprouted on the fresh rock exposed from the melting glacier. As decades unraveled, mature species emerged and dominated. Kayaking north in Glacier Bay is a living scientific laboratory that proves theories and observations often only discussed in classrooms. I feel like a present day explorer.
Splish. Splish. Splish. Splish. The sun illuminates the turquoise blue of the water around me, and ahead lies a series of points and isthmuses that mark the greatest stretch of land on a shoreline or the divide between the East Arm and various inlets.
With each stroke, the green blur of the nearest point becomes the outline of trees, boulders, and red white and black bands of the intertidal zone. I pass Adam’s Inlet, Wachusset Inlet, Sealers Island, the view of Rigg's Glacier and Wolf Point, and then the startling view of White Thunder Ridge and the iceberg-choked entrance to McBride Glacier.
I continue to fight the tide as my muscles strain to maintain my pace. My wrists hurt, my forearm throbs, and my shoulder aches. Parallel to the cliff face of White Thunder Ridge, I look up to the sky. Gusty cold glacial air mists my face. I shiver and adjust my beanie and cinch the hood of my windbreaker tight against my skin. The narrow entrance to the lagoon and the face of McBride is a flowing river as the tide goes out, shooting icebergs into the bay.
I pause. How do I enter? Do I wait for slack tide? Do I walk along the shore pulling my kayak through the water? I examine the steep banks of the shore. Falling into the icy water would mean hypothermia.
I decide to wait on the shore. With limited layers of clothing, I keep my bulky red life jacket zipped over my raincoat for warmth. The land and water are covered with chunks of ice.
Paddling into the ice-filled lagoon, icebergs crackle and trickle droplets of meltwater into the sea and cover the beaches from the high tide line to the water’s edge.
Crash! The thunderous cracking of ice from McBride Glacier resounds over the water and echoes off the mountainsides. Birds call and fly about the melting icebergs that flip in the lagoon. My paddle splashes in the water until the nose of my kayak meets the only sandy beach I know in Glacier Bay. I pop out of the kayak, spray skirt dangling to my knees, and drag the boat above the beached melting sculptures of ice. I hike up a steep open hill overlooking the glacier and set up my tent. Exposed to the elements, my campsite is not suited for the approaching storm.
The pitter pattering of rain on my tent is only interrupted by the thunderous booms echoing from the glacier or the crashing tumbling icebergs that collide in the water.
With the sunrise, I wake in my tent shivering. Buckets of water collected in my tent. Most of my clothes are soaked. I am fifty miles from the lodge in a storm with a bum wrist, an aching shoulder and wet clothes. I grow concerned and wish I packed more layers. Hypothermia could become my reality.
I step out from my tent to the fog and rain. I trudge through puddles and push through alder thickets to descend to the beach. Although panic instinctually tries to pervade my consciousness, I choose to find solace in the beauty of the fog and the turquoise color of the icebergs. I force myself to seek serenity and see beauty in the rain. The outdoors teaches the finest life lessons.
I boil stream water for rich hot coffee and a dish of oatmeal. I collect rocks and investigate wolf tracks on the beach.
As high tide nears, I dismantle camp and paddle off into the iceberg laden lagoon and consider the dangers. The rising tide lifts icebergs from the shallow sea floor where they join the other boulders of ice in a crashing and crackling sea. The double kayak is cumbersome to maneuver around the ice. Icebergs slam into me threatening to puncture my kayak. My heart pounds. I grit my teeth and tie two bandanas around my wrist for support and weave in and out of ice and into the bay.
Splish. Splish. Splish. Splish. The paddling begins smoothly until Sealer’s Island. Dark stewing clouds descend with horizontal rain. The calm seas sweep into a frenzy. I tighten the bandannas on my wrist, pulling with my teeth.
The wind is murder and my progress flatlines. With all my might, I round Sealers Island and into Goose Cove where white-capping swells slam my kayak from every angle. My arms burn and my legs straighten and bend struggling to control the rudder.
Panting for breath, I escape the cove and pull my kayak to shore. What do I do? I’m miles from my camping destination. If I wait for better conditions I’ll freeze.
Soaked from the rain, I hike along the edge of the forest looking for a sufficient site for a tent. A beautiful pond appears through the waist-high grass, and there buried in detritus I find a faded blue poncho with rusted buttons. My spirits soften. I found mercy in the midst of the storm.
With poncho in hand, I hike back to the beach. My eyes search the seas for ships or kayakers. What is the weather forecast? If I find a ship I consider asking for help; the storm might prevent me from exiting the East Arm. A hint of desperation plasters across my face and my eyes scan the endless waves breaking in the sea. From nowhere, determination floods me and I enter the water to continue battling the white-capping swells.
My progress is pathetic. If I pause, I’m swept backward at three times my forward speed. For the day, I acknowledge defeat.
I maneuver the waves and aim for the shore. Water crashes onto my back. Adrenaline surges and all pain subsides. Like gears of a machine, my arms paddle my kayak to shore where I surrender for the night.
My newfound poncho becomes a windbreak for a fire I miraculously start with wet wood. I warm my waterlogged feet and hands.
The following morning I wake to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. The seas have not changed. I face another day of torturous paddling, but I am resolved to exit the East Arm.
The backcountry of Alaska is a world of challenge. I embarked on this adventure ready to test my physical and mental capacities, but now in the face of the cold, wind, rain, storms, dangerous seas, and limited food, I look to the sky and ask for mercy. I want to survive.
I fight the winds for hours and stop to rest at the main arm of the bay. I drag my kayak over the smooth, polished, wet rocks on the steep shore of Mount Wright. Not a moment later, my kayak shoots down the shore toward the tumultuous water. I scramble over rocks and dive for the nose of the kayak. I begged for mercy, but the battle continues.
Thirty miles to the lodge, fog fills the bay. I rummage through the bags on the kayak and grab my compass. I take a bearing of the distant vista before I’m surrounded in fog and lose sight of the shores. I continue paddling. Splish. Splish. Splish. Splish.
The absurdity of this trip is unbelievable. Without my determination and physical dexterity, the countless obstacles would have defeated me.
The winds die and I pass islands and North and South Sandy Cove -- beautiful green oases and coves that beckon the unknowing camper. However, I know better. Both locations are closed to camping because of the overwhelming population of black bears. I steer toward a distant shore separated from the closed coves by a cliff that dives into the bay. Eleven hours of paddling and I need to set camp. The restless water continues to toss my kayak, side to side, back to forward. The water is now dark like the sky. I must beat the setting sun; I refuse to paddle open waters in the dark.
At my final camp, the storm finally subsides. The gray clouds that defined my trip are now broken by rays of sunlight from the dying sun. A clearing in the clouds reveal a bandwith of mountains and sparkling inlets. Ironically, the seas that terrorized me on my trip now reflect the sunset perfectly.
With four hours of sleep, I wake for the final stretch of my journey. The water is glass. My paddles create ripples that flow across the bay and my wake quietly stretches out to the shores. The barking of sea lions from South Marble Island resume to welcome the sun. I thank the Gods for the blissful day.
Entering the Beardslee Islands, humpback whales surface and blow feet from my kayak. Pooooof! On my right two orca blow, their distinct black dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water. The orca are hunting and seals that normally surround me in my kayak are nervously flopping on the beach.
Rounding the final few islands of the Beardslees, I finally reach "The Cut" – the passageway that leads to the lodge at high tide. A take one final look around at the trees, the water, and the sunshine. One final moment of my epic solo journey before my final strokes deliver me to the lodge. Against all adversity, I finally made it home.
Alaska challenged my every ability. I escaped hypothermia. I navigated the fog. I battled storms. My determination and skills delivered me to the lodge in four days. Just as my life seemed impossible, I left the lodge and embarked on this trip and discovered my determination and undying strength. I need not be fearful of my future. I do not know what will unfold, but I know that I will survive. All I need is myself, and that is the lesson Alaska taught me.