Monday, April 30, 2012

Lava: Six.

I slept a little light with a lingering dual hope/fear that the tide would come up and inundate our camp. That'd be a crappy way to wake up and a great way to leave camp--by floating.

Alas the water never came within sight, so once up and moving it was back to schlepping through slop. Maybe 100 yards of every mile was actually ridden. Even when we were able to "float" atop the muck it was often tough to maintain traction--the rear tire would usually simply spin, and as it did so it would break through to the underlying (and more sticky) layers, immediately gumming up tire, then frame. So unless it felt really, really solid underfoot, we tried to resist the temptation to try.

And though this will sound like so much anathema to some, I don't mind walking--I get to keep my head up and look around more than when riding. The difference may seem subtle but even when riding non-tech beach and mank a certain level of focus is required, and as such you miss some of the subtleties underfoot.

A word about rim width, tire volume, and tread selection. Dave is one of the Big Brains at Surly, responsible for much of the R&D that happens behind those partially ajar doors. Not surprisingly, he rode one of the first Moonlanders ever to breathe ocean (or any) air, and he shod it with 100mm wide Clownshoe rims and Surly BFL 4.7" tires. That's the floatiest combo available now, though at the time they were unobtanium, and all of internet nerddom was outnerding itself trying to sleuth out their salient details. Pete rode a ti Fatback with choppahundy 100mm rims, Larry 3.8 up front, Endo 3.7 out back. At the time this was the floatiest combo that non-Surly employees (read: the rest of the world) could buy. I rode a stock Pugs frame and fork, with preproduction Marge Lite 65mm wide rims, and a set of preprod BFL 4.7 tires. Basically, my setup was my take on the best of both worlds--super light rims with massive air volume tires. It was also untested, and as such a decent gamble.

On days like today, with slick, sticky muck, no one setup was a clear winner. But there was *definitely* a clear loser: It was surprising to note how often Pete's rear Endomorph would spin out and force him to walk. Pete is world-class when it comes to coaxing traction and float out of fat tires on soft surfaces, and has a practical doctorate (perhaps subconsciously, but still) on body english and how to effect subtle weight shifts to maintain traction. That knowledge (along with his massive motor) have propelled him to more victories in the world's biggest and baddest winter ultramarathon than anyone else, living or dead. Point simply being that Pete knows how to ride soft stuff, but that confounded piece of Endo had him off and walking much, much more than Dave or I. Lesson learned.

When we were back on sandy, gravely, cobbly beach, as it got softer I'd usually be struggling to keep momentum first, the result of my narrower, rounder tires losing traction and/or sinking in. Pete would flounder next, and Dave would keep motoring ahead, blissfully unaware that anything had changed beneath his wheels. Until he looked around and realized he was riding alone--and then saw how far back we were, walking. No big surprise there--more air volume keeps you floating, wider rims give tires a more square footprint, helping to keep from breaking traction.

Dave riding more than us wasn't surprising--his rim/tire choices made it so. Pete slipping out most often was not surprising--his poor rear tire choice virtually guaranteed it. What was surprising was how well the blend of the new big tire and mid-width rim I was riding bridged the gap between the two. For beach riding it sure seemed like a great compromise. Nice when a gamble pays off.

/nerd out.

Mid-morning we turned a literal and figurative corner. At the NEsternmost point of Mud Bay we portaged a small river and on the far side found rideable gravel beach. First time in over a day that we'd been able to 'just pedal'. Zinging along the beach we made quick work of the last of Cape Rozhnof, arriving at Ross Point midday. There we found light winds, calm seas, and good visibility, and committed at once to the crossing to Deer Island. Within an hour we were across and packing up on more rideable beach. Slap, bang--things were looking up.

I used the GPS to determine that we could head a short distance west along the beach to the narrowest point of the island. The overland crossing from there to the south shore looked to be a literal stones throw, and then we would paddle across Hague Channel and be back on the mainland. We could have ridden clear to the SEsternmost end of the island (Doe Point) and shortened our paddle from 3.2 miles to 1.3 miles--that's worth over an hour of paddling. But starting there would have us putting in to considerable tidal current immediately, and we'd be swept miles out into the greater bay no matter how hard we paddled. As brilliant as packrafts are, their ability to fight currents (wet or dry) is nonexistent.

Thus, as we readied to paddle the 3+ miles across the Hague, I used the GPS, our tide tables, considerable pre-trip map geeking, and a tiny bit of experience to plot a course. I'm comfortable with the use of a GPS to navigate in the backcountry (i.e. on the ground) but less comfortable when wind, tides, and channeled water are part of the equation. I knew that when we hit the ~midpoint of the channel we'd be in heavy outgoing current, and I made sure that Pete and Dave understood this as well. What none of us could know was how that current would manifest itself--as a hard eddy line or a more gradual fade in. With that uncertainty we agreed that staying close to each other was mandatory--the better to help each other if needed. To an extent, I was guessing on the heading we'd need to take, and as such was justifiably anxious about making the call. There was an obvious eroded headland visible from water level that seemed a safe bet to aim for, leaving some margin for error (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 mile) before getting sucked out of the bay. We all looked at the headland, agreed it made the most sense to head for the upcurrent end of it, then went back to rigging the boats.

A minute or two later, boat packed and ready to go, I made a point, potentially one time too many, of asking for verbal verification from both of the guys on where we were headed and what our protocol was while working our way there. I was nervous as hell--I figured this was the crux point of the whole trip and it seemed like it could go smoothly if we had a solid plan and stuck to it. The flip side is that a simple mistake--an error in heading, a gear malfunction that forced us to stop paddling to attend to it, or, worst case, a capsize for one or all--could be disastrous. What I hadn't accounted for is what stats geeks like to call the human factor. No one can say for sure why what happened next happened.

Pete was packed and ready to go a few minutes before Dave. Pete had been slower paddling his smaller boat than either Dave or I on each of our previous crossings. I can't recall if Pete suggested taking off first or if I recommended it, but it seemed like a good idea regardless--he could get a head start, paddle easy for a bit, and we'd catch him long before the channel. So as Dave fit the last puzzle pieces into place and cinched 'em all down, Pete tempered his boat and shoved off.

I took the opportunity to walk up to the veg line and snap a few flora pics, and when I turned back around Pete was being pulled out of the bay.

I whistled loudly to get his attention--thinking it not too late to ferry back to our side. But he was already out of earshot. I assumed that he'd hit heavy current much sooner than planned, but staring hard at him revealed a confusing truth: He was being pulled out because he wasn't ferrying at all--his paddle lay inert across his lap.

Dave and I were in the boats and paddling hard moments later. It quickly became obvious that we were not going to catch him, and that he was going to be pulled out of the bay. Left unsaid but dominating my thoughts was the fact that once he left the bay he'd be getting further from reachable land by the minute, and there wasn't a thing that Dave or I could do for him. The word triage sat acidic on the tip of my tongue. We did the only thing we could do-- paddled hard for the agreed-upon headland, staring hard in his direction and willing him to ferry. And hoped like hell it might not be too late. When the wind and bowspray weren't in my eyes I could still see him--well enough to see that he was, at best, still lazily paddling and not making any headway.

Sorry, I'm making this more dramatic than it needs to be...

Maybe 90 minutes later we were all back on dry land, safe and unharmed. Pete finally snapped to when the tidal current whipped him past a channel marker at better than 7mph. All along he'd assumed he was mostly sitting still, just waiting for us to catch up. With the realization of where he was headed he dug hard on that paddle. Better than a mile out of the bay the current released him to an eddy, and he used the overflow of adrenaline in his system to move along that eddy, back to where we stood anxiously watching and waiting.

I coulda knocked his block off if I hadn't been so happy to see him still with us.

But why--how did this happen? Did he really not notice our agreed upon headland sliding past at an alarming rate? Was I somehow unclear on the reasons behind heading for that spot? Could he not see Dave and I moving in a very different direction? Did he not encounter either of the eddy fences that we crossed (while puckered due to the speed differential between sides), indicating the start of real current?

There weren't really any answers, just questions that formed more questions.

The scare seemed to light a fire beneath Pete. Throughout the afternoon and evening he was out in front scouting for the firmest surface as we traversed a ~14 mile E->W stretch of coastline. Often rocky, sometimes mucky, the further we went the more fun the actual riding became. There were sections of slick bedrock canted into tidal pools, requiring balance, timing, and precise shifts of weight to maintain traction. Often line choice was made on the fly, dealing with each additional choice as they presented themselves rapidfire. The wildness of the place (fresh bear sign everywhere, whale bones on the beach), a freshening wind, a persistent but increasing drizzle, and our brakeless bikes all upped the challenge, and we each found a place of concentrated bliss as those moments bled into hours.

At the onset of evening we arrived at a dilapidated shack poised above a steaming hot spring pool. The chill drizzle made the shack and pool oh-so-inviting. But we were a day behind schedule, low on food, and still had a full day, maybe more, to get to Port Moller. There we would meet Brian and resupply on food, maybe even dry out some of our sodden gear. So we faced a choice--stay the night here, availing ourselves of the roof, walls, and hot water. That sounded dreamy. But our low food situation and the possibility of the freshening wind pinning us here was reason enough to move on. Without so much as dipping a toe in the rock pool we headed down to water's edge and began rigging the boats.

Alas, 15 minutes offshore the GPS showed we were being blown 120* off our intended course. I did quick sums in my head and deduced that not only would we end up further from Port Moller despite our best efforts, fighting the wind meant we'd likely not make landfall until well after dark. With that we turned and cut an angling course back toward the hot spring, catching the edge of the bay and walking the rocky beach back to the shack as the last light faded.