Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A week on, some thoughts.

The Flu that I picked up in Juneau full force is still sticking around in the form of a hacking cough, and some congestion. I have had it for close to 19 days, and everyday it gets a little bit better.

I have done quite a bit of driving since arriving in Skagway and as I type this I am at one of the Lodges in Yellowstone National Park, drinking a whiskey, and trying to pull together all the thoughts that have run through my head while driving for the past week.

First I have to say that being at Yellowstone after 21 days kayaking unsupported in Alaska is a little like going to Disney after walking across the desert. There are so many people here it is a little overwhelming. While the scenery is very beautiful it feels sort of like someone put a national park at a shopping mall. And honestly, my four season tent looks a little out of place surrounded by massive RV's. Tonight I will be cooking dinner on my whisperlite while I suspect my neighbors will be using their microwave. And it took every fiber of my existence to listen to the lecture on bear safety in our campsite (E170) from the lovely woman who checked us in.

My first, and overwhelming thought is that this route - the protected, docile, inside passage route - is anything but. We paddled with some big winds, some on our bows, but mostly - thankfully - on our sterns. We paddled some big water, and some very surprising and very powerful currents. This is not a route for the faint of heart. There were a number of times that Sarah and I chose to take a more aggressive line and a couple of times it almost bit us in the behind.

My second thought, which ties into the first, is that this is a route in desperate need of a designated water trail. So much of the information that I had, from many sources, was either - wrong, outdated, or wildly inaccurate. With the exception of the Alaska ferries (The Alaska Marine Highway System) and most of the Harbor Masters we dealt with, there is very little support for kayakers. The vast majority of the 'possible' campsites that I gleaned from various sources were not campable beaches. We camped on several perfect beaches that I had never come across in my research. If a group of concerned locals would band together from Ketchikan to Skagway (and maybe an arm off to glacier bay) to create designated campsites, and reliable information and a support network - I would have gladly paid for an official guide book! - More people would do the route which would provide more revenue to local merchants.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the experience was wonderful. The scenery was beautiful, amazing in fact. We saw humpback whales most days. We saw bald eagles every day - multiple times a day. Seals and sea lions where nearly constant companions. We saw a few sea otters, and for the first time for me we saw a pod of Orca. Granted they were at a distance, but it was still nice to see. But every time I paddle Alaska I am amazed by the scale. This is an actual conversation:

Paddler A: ice berg, left side, a few miles off.

Paddler B: I see it.

Paddler A: wait. I think that is actually a cruise ship.

On our last day, paddling into Skagway I saw what at first I thought was a pair of white buoys. Small one's marking a crab pot or something like that. A few minutes later I realized that they were 50 foot long sport fishing boats.

the scale of what you are seeing around you is so massive it distorts your perceptions. I can't explain why this doesn't happen paddling the BC coast - which is breathtakingly beautiful - but it doesn't.

If you haven't been to Alaska you must go. I don't know how many times I have been, but I will return and it will always be amazing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Bear

Probably my biggest - unfounded - fear prepping for this trip was bears. Bears are always a concern but some of the areas we would be paddling through have significantly high bear populations. And while I don't mind black bears so much - they are really very timid - We would be dealing with Coastal Brown Bears*.

I did a lot of research before going. I contacted a number of kayaking instructors that I know from the National Outdoor Leadership School to see what NOLS does regarding bears and sea kayaking and it took me a while to figure out that NOLS isn't too worried about it because they tend to stay away from the prime Brown bear habitats.

All of our food was in plastic bags, then inside dry bags (bear canisters don't work in kayaks). But the problem was that there was so much of it. 80 pounds or so for the two of us. When Sarah and I talked about this we realized that hanging 80 pounds of food would be incredibly difficult (we later realized that the trees along the coast weren't suitable for hanging). We decided to do what NOLS does, which is leave the food inside the kayaks. This would keep little critters away, and we would just have to remain aware in case of larger critters.

Both of us carried bear spray, and we were both pretty careful about odoriferous items in the tent. Oddly, One evening while looking at our cans of bear spray I realized that my 'American' bear spray was 2% capsaicin. While her 'Canadian' spray was only 1%.

We saw the occasional bear print. We actually camped one night about ten feet from Bear scat - though it was fairly old. We saw three bears walking the coast while we were paddling. Two black bears and one Brown. We were never really concerned.

Until that night.

We had come ashore at around 4 on an amazing sunny day. We had taken the opportunity to lay some clothes out to dry. Sarah cooked an amazing dinner. The kayaks were about 10 feet from a large rock outcropping. Tied to a tree in case of a storm surge wave. The tent was at the same height vertically up the beach, but about 30 feet away. The door of the tent was facing the water. It was 8:24 when I heard something moving through the forest behind our tent. It was the sounds of branches snapping. It was still completely light out. I poked my head outside the tent but didn't see anything. The sounds came and went for a couple of minutes. Sarah was just dozing off next to me, and I was reading. I heard another sound of something moving through the woods, unzipped the back door, poked my head out, and was looking directly into the eyes of a very large - and really quite beautiful - Brown bear. I got back int he tent, Sarah woke, I am sure sensing the change in energy in our small space, and said "what?" To which I calmly replied that there was a brown bear standing on my kayak.

My kayak was closest to the tent. They were separated by about two feet. Sarah's cockpit cover was off. The bears rear legs were on the ground. His front paws were on my kayak. With his right paw resting on the hatch cover. He was big. probably 1400 pounds. With his front paws on my kayak, and his head erect - looking at me! - his head was probably 8 feet off the ground. He was not being threatening in any way. He just looked curious.

I got out of the back door of the tent, Sarah got out the front door. We both held our bear sprays with the safety caps still on. We began yelling for him to go away. We yelled for about 30 seconds and he just stared at us. Then I realized I was standing on a rock covered beach. I picked one up, about softball sized, and threw it at him. I have no throwing arm and missed, but he started walking away. He walked towards the rock outcropping with us still yelling. I threw another, and he moved another couple of feet. A moment later I threw a third and he very gracefully climbed the rocks and walked into the woods.

I can only explain the expression on the bears face as similar to my dog when I tell her to leave the kitchen - "what? what did I do? Okay, Ill go."

Sarah looked at me and said "I think we should go" and we did. We were on the water 30 minutes later.

The bear was standing on the hatch with all of my food in it, but he had walked over Sarah's kayak - stepping in the cockpit and popping her cover - which also contained food. As we were paddling across the water to another beach - and we saw him several beaches further north - I realized what I think drew him in. We were one day from Juneau. One day from completing the longest uninterrupted section of the entire paddle. Which meant we had a lot of garbage - food garbage, and food packaging. It was all in plastic bags inside a dry bag, but it was in the compartment he was standing on. I think if we had given him another 30 seconds he would have located it and tried to get it.

We dumped our garbage the next day in Juneau, and were much more stressed over bears the remainder of the trip. We could have dumped food garbage during crossings in the water. Though this is against LNT it is biodegradable and wouldn't have caused too much harm. If it had been two days to Juneau I might have done that. But we still would have had other garbage on board. There really isn't much we could have done differently. As encounters with large brown bears go, this was a fairly good one.

*The Coastal Brown bear has a close relative the Grizzly bear, and is commonly mis-identified as such. Grizzly bears however live inland whereas the Brown bear lives at the coast. Browns are larger than Grizzlies and somewhat more aggressive. A close relative to the Brown, is the Kodiak bear which is larger still, and only second - size wise - to the Polar bear.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ketchikan to Skagway

June 26th through July 16th
18 days of paddling
3 rest days

I have a lot to write, and a lot of video to edit. But first some quick notes.
This route which is billed as easy paddling and no real technical challenges was anything but.

We paddled some very big water, and had to deal with some very high winds. This was a very challenging paddle, and lets not even get into the brown bear that stood on my kayak.

We completed the paddle - the mileage still needs to be computed - with very few hitches in 18 days.

I need to take some time off as I am exhausted and have been sick for the past ten days. Tomorrow morning I will see a doctor and then head south from Skagway.

Thanks for keeping track, lots of info to come.