Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lost and Found: Seven.

For the first time on the trip I managed several solid hours of sleep. Then Eric rolled over and farted at ~4AM, loud enough to wake me (zzzzz... ...brrrrrrrRRRRRT! whaaaaa?!... ...bear?!?). Once awake I wasn't able to turn off the stream of thoughts that rushed forward. Chief among them: La Perouse glacier just a mile or so down the beach. The chill in the air came courtesy of that surging river of ice.

I lay in my bag, eyes open, counting mosquitoes in the top of the 'mid (<200: Average) and reviewing what we 'knew' about the approaching crux: Andrew Skurka, Dick Griffith, Hig and Erin, and Dylan's boss had all walked the beach in front of it. Some even did it at high tide.

Given that--a breeze, it seemed--we should have had little to worry about.

But my traveling partners had mentioned it in hushed tones and uncertain terms several times in the previous days, giving me these hours of horizontal time to wonder what was bugging them.

Up and at 'em, we blew up boats and paddled easily across a nameless creek, then had an unimpeded view of the glacier for the next ~mile. Watching Dylan and Eric shrink in size as they approached it bumped my blood pressure.


Rather than go down the needlessly-anxious road, I looked away, fixating on the waves crashing into shore.


And was surprised to note that about every 20th wave, in one ~60 foot section of beach, did not rise, dump, and crash but turned to mush and just washed up on the beach. Noted.

Dylan's body language says it all.


The glacier had apparently surged forward since our route benefactors had passed; what we found were house and building-sized chunks of ice calving into tidewater. But the tide was still going out, so we backtracked out of the shadow to batten down the hatches and wait for low tide. Maybe, just maybe it would drop enough for us to squeak by.

Terse discussion focused on the hope of walking the beach. But we had to be realistic--it wasn't likely to go. In his inimitable way, Roman suggested that we could just hop, skip, frolic over the glacier. Pffft--nothing to it, he wanted us to believe.

And he might have been right. I couldn't get past the idea that we'd be doing this in tennis shoes, with laden bikes, no rope, no glacier gear at all. Seemed plumb crazy. I kept that to myself.


A guy can only do so much gear fiddling before the heartbeat banging in his ears gets to be too much. I walked away from my bike, camera in hand, to focus on anything else. Eric had done the same, scrambling up for a better view of Plan B.




Mercifully, low tide arrived and we marched down to the water. No pics here--everything was lashed tight. The water *had* dropped substantially, giving all of us reason for renewed hope. We committed, threading our way through blocks, wading out waist-deep in surf to get around and through the jumble. My heart banged like a kettle in my ears--easily audible over the crashing surf. Maybe 5, 6 minutes in we came to an opening, were able to actually get back onto beach gravel for ~100 yards, albeit under an overhung wall that spit cobbles and frozen chunks every few seconds. Tense.

At the end of that stretch it was back to the labyrinth--into and out of the surf, pausing, timing dashes between breaking waves, hoisting the bikes over bergs half-submerged. I don't believe my HR ever came below 180 through here--just pinned.

Next time I looked up Eric was coming toward me, fast. As he came abreast he threw a look over his shoulder, "Totally blocked--let's get the eff outta here."

There was relief in retreat, but we still had to make it back. The section of gravelly beach seemed a safe haven--we relaxed slightly, caught our breath while moving slower, preparing for the last rush out. Eric and Roman hit the exit chute first, Dylan and Doom shortly behind.

C-c-c-c-r-a-a-a-a-a-c-c-c-k-k-k-k...

We all heard it at once, didn't need to look to know. Eric and Roman were out of harms way, but the van-sized hunk of ice was falling toward Dylan and Doom. They broke into a run--forward and sideways--doing what they could to put space between them and it. The many-ton chunk of ice concussed gravel (we could feel it in our chests), spraying softball-sized shrapnel our way. Dylan and Doom took some glancing blows and kept running.

Minutes later, catching our breath and gathering wits on a sun soaked beach, all that remained were cotton-mouths and a scared-straight adrenaline hit. It had been close.

Now what?

Roman lobbied for the over-the-top approach. Dylan seemed to tentatively agree. Eric thought we might be able to surf launch. Doom said nothing, I followed his lead. All of it seemed uncertain, tenuous at best. How far over the glacier? Would we have to camp up there? Could we stay warm with light summer gear and no fire atop a sheet of ice? What if it was cliffy on the far side--forcing retreat in a day, two days?

Lots of unanswerable questions.

Roman asked my opinion, perhaps sensing that I was undecided and might be able to tip the vote. I pointed out my uncertainties about the glacier, our lack of appropriate gear. Point for point he dismissed my arguments, often with good logic, sometimes (crevasse rescue?) with nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

I mentioned the section of beach I'd noted earlier, and the possibility of surf launching there. It wasn't far back, so we saddled up and went to have a look.

45 minutes later Eric and I were inflating boats and cinching things down tight. Raingear on, cameras double drybagged and stashed in packs, boats tempered as hard as possible given the hot air and cold water. Eric was ready first, dragged his boat ankle deep and waited. The agreement to try this route hadn't been unanimous, hadn't even been an agreement. Roman wanted to see if Eric or I could do it at all--feared that his little boat would prove hard to enter, harder to punch through the waves. Dylan was rightly concerned about swamping; his boat lacked a spraydeck.

We agreed that there was no hurry: It mattered only that we all make it out through the breakers--once out we could regroup, bail the water from our boats, proceed.

The waves rolled in, cycle after cycle dumping and crashing at our feet. The occasional mushburger lapped up on the beach, but never with enough warning to rush through it--always another dumper right behind. Eric finally committed, perhaps prematurely, pushing his boat through a chest high wave, filling it and soaking himself. In a heartbeat he was inside and furiously paddling, past the surf zone. Success!

My turn. Doom stood at my side, ready to help shove me out when the time was right. So hard to read the waves--just a split second to decide whether to commit or wait. Many, many times he was already pulling and running forward as I held my ground and pulled back. Throwing me to the wolves it felt like! Finally we committed at the same time, but three steps in the wave reared and dumped, filling my boat instantly. We dragged it in, emptied, then started again.

Maybe 5, 6 long minutes later the right break came and we were on it. Doom was so amped to get me out past it that he gave one last shove as I tried to pull myself into the boat. I stumbled, the bottom was gone, nothing to push against, it was all I could do to pull myself to the boat, then up and in. But I did get in, did paddle hard, did make it out to where Eric bobbed along grinning. He handed over a water bottle and I bailed the errant water from my boat. Two for two.

In a very short time all 5 of us shared smiles, congratulations as we rode the swells along the face of the glacier. Roman: "It was cool and felt clever, sneaky almost, like we were getting away with something risky as we paddled a few miles of the Pacific Ocean past a huge glacier."

Pushed along by a ~3mph current, Eric offers thanks to his Sheri Tingey™ bobblehead, while Doom tempers.


It did feel cool, clever, sneaky to sit high and dry in our little boats and spectate the passing of the glacier. Visually inspecting the route we might have taken over the top gave me the jeebies.

Eventually we came to the end of the glacier, to lumpy moraines and chunky boulders, then gravelly beach. Time to land. As we angled in toward shore the swells grew larger and faster. Hmmm.


I spent an autumn living in Hawaii, learned the most rudimentary basics of surfing in that time. Most of the study there had been on the faces of the waves--how to read which ones to commit to for the best chance of a long ride. This was different--we wanted the opposite of what a surfer wants, but needed to commit to the surf zone regardless. As we followed Eric in I quipped to Doom, "This is pretty much a crapshoot, isn't it?!" I looked toward him to see his response, but never got one--his eyes grew big as saucers as the wave behind us stood up and started to break. I can't remember what he yelled--something loud.

As in so many other critical moments of my life, I hesitated. Doom spun and paddled hard to get behind it, Eric did the same. As I sat frozen with indecision Eric motored past me, calmly uttering "I'm outta here" as he passed. When finally my brain convinced my arms to move, I managed but two or three feeble strokes--hardly enough to gain any momentum--then the full force of the wave came down. I flipped, got maytagged along the bottom, then swam a few strokes to where I could stand. Dylan came running down to help collect my strewn gear. As we tossed the last of it ashore, Doom and Eric glided gently in on a lamb of a wave, stepping out scarcely ankle deep.

Fortunately it was another sunny day. An ~hour later all gear was dry but for one of my DSLR's--it never would breathe again.


We packed up and moved on, riding a mix of sand and gravel, walking a bit, easily crossing several rivulets but forced to confront two (three?) more gnarly streams pouring off of Finger Glacier. Two of these we waded to ~midway, hastily aborted, then hiked and stumbled upstream to find a paddleable channel. So much easier to float than flail, but not always an option.

Dylan appreciating the Fairweather Range--now that we're past it.


The closer we got to Icy Point the more fun the riding became. Stretches of walking were short; skill and oomph and desire were sufficient to keep us on our bikes for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch. It was technical but doable--even with our non-technically adept (brakeless, single speed) setups. It was fun.




At Icy Point, Astrolabe Peninsula lit up on left horizon.




Roman and Doom raced ahead, friendly rivalry developing as they tried to ride more and harder lines, each pushing the other to ride better, cleaner.


We made camp on a gravel bar at Kaknau Creek, spectating sunset cloud pyrotechnics while congregated around the fire, laughing with relief about a most memorable summer solstice.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost and Found: Six.

The difficult travel of the previous two days took a toll on all of us--or at least that's the way it seemed as we lollygagged around camp until late in the morning. We stoked up the fire, made coffee, told stories, made more coffee, and just generally seemed in no hurry to get back at it.


Some of this might have been trying to time our crossing of nearby Lituya Bay on an incoming tide, but it seemed like everyone just wanted to rest and decompress a bit. That, and the beach looked to be nothing but pushing right out of camp. Dylan finally got us motivated, without a word, simply by taking the initiative to get up and do the dishes.


And push we did--for all of the 2+ hours it took to get to Lituya. But nothing this morning seemed remotely as tough as all of yesterday--today was just hard walking.


We thoroughly investigated every bit of beach booty we found that morning, partly out of genuine curiosity and partly just for the diversion from pushing.




The routine upon arriving at a water crossing was fairly predictable, but it was anything but scripted. Seemed like each and every time we blew up we'd all figure some better way to rig the boat, or lash the bike to it, or at the very least we'd give some new twist a shot even if it failed. Here at the put-in for Lituya, Roman demonstrated a novel 'roll 'er on in' approach. You'll have to ask him how it worked out.


Crossing Lituya Bay was uneventful in an anxious sort of way. We stayed far enough upstream that the visible crashing breakers at the mouth were never a concern, but ~2/3 of the way across we entered the rushing outflow of the river-within-the-bay where it met the far greater force of the incoming tide. When I saw the obvious line between calm and chaos Doom was just sliding up next to me. After rifling through my memory banks for any clue to what I was seeing and what we should do about it (and coming up empty) I asked him what he thought.

"Dude...

...I have no idea what that is!
"

...was his response, which wasn't quite the guidance I'd been looking for. My lack of experience at river paddling had me a bit puckered crossing the eddy fence between incoming and outgoing, and having done it just the once made me no more comfortable, minutes later, when we needed to do it again. Ferrying powerfully came naturally--the adrenaline surge virtually demanded it. Such a unique sight to see so much opposing current channeled so tightly in this wide and otherwise calm bay.

We eddied out and packed up, tanking up on water for what felt to be a scorcher of an afternoon approaching.


Rather than following the shoreline around to the mouth of the bay we cut the corner through the woods, angling in what felt like the most direct direction, but needing to do lots of 'schwacking to get back to the beach. Many good bear trails in that forest, but none of them seemed headed our way.


Even once back to the beach proper it was boulders and cobbles, keeping us to an hours-per-mile pace. We each retreated into those familiar places deep in our own heads. And pushed.

From inside of the tree line the crashing of the waves was somewhat muted, allowing us to hear other sounds: Wind in the leaves, birds flitting or singing, and of course the constant drone of mosquitoes. But there was another noise--one that reached out to each of us several times, with us dismissing it until, finally, Eric asked Dylan if he heard anything. Dylan smiled an impish grin that didn't really answer the question. I thought I was hearing an outboard motor somewhere offshore. Eric dropped his bike and pushed his way out of the trees, then poked back in, eyes bright and smiling, and motioned for us to come look.


If you've ever heard the din (moaningroaningfartingsnarling) that sea lions make you can forgive my 'outboard motor' assumption. We crept as close as we dared, took a few pics, observed them NOT observing us, then crept yet closer.


Even at this distance they paid us no mind, likely because this haulout had proven a safe haven for generations. We couldn't get to them and they knew it.


It was neat to observe the ways they'd adapted to get up out of the water--usually waiting for an incoming wave to lift them most of the way before lunging. And even more fascinating to see the hierarchy once up on the rock. Brutally effective is the best way to sum up.


Then it was back to the slog. Within an hour the boulders gave way to cobbles, and then the cobbles got thinner. And thinner. And then they just tapered off to nothing.


We stopped there for snacks, rest, and the welcome chore of reinstalling pedals.




And then it was back to riding. The beach was soft for some reason that I couldn't deduce, but it was still blessed riding.


And it actually got much better--delightful even, with an interesting mix of techy rock and exposed bedrock dipping in and out of the intertidal. Truly wild riding.


The sun went away and the mist rolled in, changing the temperature as fast as the mood. The wind came up and stayed there. Suddenly it didn't feel like such a lark to be out here. I believe the term to describe the change that I felt is foreboding.


That feeling was reinforced at two difficult water crossings. This coast is steep and cut by rivers draining glaciers. The water roils from beneath ice, cuts through forest, gains energy, crashes forcefully into the sea. The sea crashes back. It is a timeless battle, the casualties of which are usually limited to erosion. Until silly humans with their toys and delusions of grandeur come loping along to get between the two.


The crashing, dumping breakers prevented us from just paddling out to avoid the rivers. The (lack of) depth and steep grade meant that we couldn't paddle across, either. The rounded slimy rocks and powerful current pushed us to undesirable places--sweeping my feet, causing Eric to stumble and drop his bike, forcing Doom back to reassess his line. Even Roman stumbled. We all had a tough time getting across. An exhausting, hyperventilating, stumbling, staggering, wide-eyed and cold-sweat kind of time.

I'm zoomed in on Roman in the pic above, thus you can't see the real width of the crossing. Nor can you hear the chaos of the waves crashing into the river, feel the power of the current preventing so much as one solid footfall. Perhaps most importantly, you cannot imagine the deep, numbing cold of the glacial runoff our legs are in.

I'm here to tell you that it was all real, it was real big, and it scared me.

Scared.

Later, after dinner, we talked a bit about the day's adventures, but everyone seemed knackered and at best the conversation was thin.


I was knackered too--probably more than the rest. But I wasn't sleepy, not yet. It took a lot of ruminating while staring into the embers to understand why.


There's this quote that I've been carrying around since college. It rears its disheveled head from time to time and I'm honestly never sure exactly what to do with it. The words are attributed to Nietzsche but have probably been re-worked ad infinitum. This night, I don't know if they leapt forward unbidden out of the musty depths or if I deliberately called them up.

The quote goes something like this: "We moderns, we half barbarians, we are in the midst of our bliss only when we are most in danger. The only stimulus that tickles us is the infinite, the immeasurable..."

Past altercations with these words have seen me torture them into some sort of quasi-logical justification for solo travel in remote places, for calculated risk-taking regardless of time or place, even as a Malloryesque quip to explain (without really saying a thing) why I'm drawn to attempt such seemingly difficult, dangerous, and frivolous endeavors.

I worked the words over in my head.

Added a stick to the fire...

Settled back down...

...and thought some more.

I may have just gotten tired, rummy enough that I didn't want to think on it any longer, and chose an easy way out. But that quote didn't really seem appropriate to this situation either. I wasn't in the midst of any bliss while struggling across those rivers. I was scared, really frightened, because I knew I wasn't in complete control.

That sounded right, if incomplete.

And then I laughed: out loud, tears rolling, belly jiggling--really laughed. At myself, of course. Because only at that moment could I clearly see what a farce the illusion of control really is.

Before I could get sucked down that rabbit hole I kicked the fire apart and went to bed.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lost and Found: Five.

Our campsite was chosen because it was the only ~flat ground nearby that was ~big enough to host two tents. We'd removed as many cobbles as possible, ceasing digging only when we reached bedrock. Then adjusting the layout of each tent and sleeping position accordingly. It was kind of a novel challenge.

But the spot we ended up with was mere inches above the most recent high tide line, which meant that whenever a wave crashed in the night I sat bolt upright in my bag, fearing that our gear was being pulled out or that we were about to be very wet and very cold.

I'm such a drama queen. The water never got close enough to worry about--all that was achieved with my worrying was a continued lack of good rest.

Packing up after breakfast.


I noted the fine condition of all of our chains and took the time to lube and drag mine. Always the optimist. It was a nice gesture but we rode so little this day it hardly mattered.


For a good chunk of the day we pushed and carried our bikes over and through this:


Again the others moved so much faster, more effortlessly through that I saw them mostly at breaks, or when the boulders had gotten so massive that they'd scout before proceeding.




I had a hard time determining whether they were taking breaks because they really needed them, merely wanted them, or simply felt bad for leaving me so far behind. There was nothing to be done for it, so I just kept plodding as efficiently as I could and tried to get a bit ahead whenever they gave me the chance.

No one likes to be the reason for slowing a group down, so I vowed to limit the amount of pics I took on this day--tried to make them really count. That was fine and it may have even helped some, but the reality was that they were moving so much faster regardless that it was almost a token gesture. Eric's legs are as long as I am tall, and he confessed to a compulsive need to move as fast as possible ("I just put my head down and GO...") when 'schwacking. Then off he went. Roman's bike was so light, and he so adept at choosing lines and hopscotching from boulder to boulder, that he was almost as fast as Eric. Doom and Dylan were just plain better athletes, I guess.


I vowed not to dwell on the speed I couldn't go, instead focusing my thoughts on how I could lighten my load to move faster on future, similar trips. A bigger pack was clearly needed. Less camera gear was obvious, but my heart wasn't fully in that--you can only get so much with a P&S. I knew that this would be my first and last bike and boat trip with a rear rack--it got in the way when paddling, got hung up in brush when 'schwacking, and gave me too big of a platform on which to place too big of a stuffsack. Without the rack I'd be forced to carry less, and in so doing would move faster for a host of reasons.


It was starting to make some sense.

Beach booty.




Slow as the travel was through the cobbles and boulders, near the south end of Cape Fairweather things actually got worse.


When I arrived here I didn't immediately see the others, and could scarcely imagine how they'd crossed this tangled mess and gotten completely out of sight so fast. They were practically underfoot--laughing and joking as always from a protected spot between two massive boulders.

Upon resuming we took a different tack--up into the woods.


From a certain perspective, it was a lot better up there.


We'd heard the bear trails through here were ab-fab, and for a person afoot with no bike, they'd have been stellar. But although bears make good trails they don't do so on their hind legs, nor do they schlep bikes along with them. We did lots of crawling, muttering, scrambling, head scratching, and backtracking. In reality, the progress up here was merely a change of scenery--no different in terms of speed or effort.

Can't remember verbalizing it, but as I snapped this pic I wondered how many generations of bears had trodden in those prints?


At some point Roman or Eric poked their head out of the forest and declared that the beach would probably be better now. Glad if only for a change of scenery and a new outlook, we stumbled and dragged ourselves back down.


An exemplary husband and dad.


South of Cape Fairweather the boulders gave way to cobbles, then shortly to beautiful black sand.


It was indescribably wonderful to thread pedals back on and then perch atop a bike seat, all weight removed from sore ankles, knees, feet. Doom and Roman fairly raced ahead in their exhilaration, while Eric, Dylan and I moved more sedately, perhaps simply savoring a peaceful end to the day.

After eleven we arrived at the spot they'd chosen for camp. A fire had been kindled next to a pretty little creek. We cooked, ate, and crashed.