This is part 4 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
One of my first observations upon living and travelling in this semi-wilderness area was that no two days are alike. In civilization, people have control over almost everything they do. You often fall into a routine that allows you to be comfortable, avoiding a large amount of adversity. That kind of system simply doesn’t exist in nature, especially in a place like Alaska. Each of our days was determined by the state of the weather, the sea and other measures outside our control. A small increase in wind velocity could greatly inhibit the day’s planned travel or activities. Weather, group dynamics and other factors would prove to yield to a string of less than pleasant experiences within the coming days. While the weather was beautiful as we departed Squirrel Bay, our day certainly didn’t go as planned. The leadership team, which included two others and me, had formulated a plan of 17 miles of travel that included a 4 -mile crossing of Knight Island Passage, to an unnamed island, just west of Knight Island. Travel was not particular arduous in the early stages as a current pushed us swiftly through the channel towards Knight Island Passage. We relished the fact that the bulk of our travel was in the channel, which helped protect us from the wind. Further exciting us was the humpback whale travelling parallel with us on the opposing shore. For at least two miles, it kept even with us, surfacing every so often and spraying water from its blowhole before waving at us with its tail as it dove deep into the water in search of its next meal.
Our problems began during our final few miles out of the channel near Fleming Island. After taking a beach break, the leader of the day (LOTD) decided that she wanted to contour along the shore line rather than ride the current, further from shore, which we had previously been doing. I was rather opposed to this idea because the tides were still moving out so the current in deeper water would provide for faster travel. We paddled through multiple eddies near the shoreline, which resulted in more strenuous travel as we paddled against their opposing movement. My lack of patience with others decisions had reared its head once again. I had yet to learn to fully accept decisions from the leader that were not in my control. Steve had produced wise words of wisdom about a week before that had stayed with me ever since. On one of our travel days, he was very uncomfortable in his cockpit and for a short time, he became irritable. He said that he quickly realized that he could complain and moan about it for the entire 15 plus miles or accept it and try to make the most of the day. There are so many situations in Alaska where you lose the element of control, reinforcing the need for tolerance and acceptance of adversity. Long open water crossings almost always guaranteed strong arguments and disagreements within our team. Throughout the crossing, there would be statements challenging our current path, our range line and/or whether or not we were drifting off course. With each opposing group believing that their logic and thinking was correct, it was often a struggle to communicate. So nonetheless, with a discontent verging on fury inside, I paddled the 4 miles across Knight Island Passage, our longest open water crossing of the trip at the time.
Upon reaching the other side, we immediately set about in search of a campsite. On our charts, there was a labeled campsite supposedly tucked back in a shallow cove. Our success record with finding these labeled campsites had proved to be quite high so far so we approached with high hopes. As beach boss for the day, it was my duty to get out upon finding a potential campsite, to investigate whether or not we would be able to camp there. As stated previously, the prime factors that one was to look for was access to fresh water, a place to put our tents (with a high preference to a minimal impact to the surrounding area), a place to poop and a place to store boats. As my assistant and I explored a few areas of this small cove, we were unable to find a spot to place all of our tents. We got back in our boats and set off to explore Italian Bay, desperately hoping to find a suitable site for the night. Having already traveled 17 plus miles, most of us were exhausted and hungry with fantasies of a scrumptious bowl of rice and beans dancing through our minds. Our search in Italian Bay was futile as well. The extra paddling resulted in over an hour of idling as we explored potential campsites and struggled to make a decision. After these unsuccessful efforts, we decided to return to the small cove based on the observations of another boat within our group who believed they had previously discovered a suitable location there where we could camp. We walked back through the boggy area of the shallow cove and through the trees up the hill, where we were finally able to establish camp, albeit on semi-wet grass. Our longest travel day to date, about 22 miles, had finally come to a close. With the stresses of my day behind me, I enjoyed the seclusion and natural beauty of the area surrounding camp, prior to departing early for my tent for much needed rest.
After a morning filled with first aid lessons, we dragged our boats to the water’s edge, preparing to load and depart. A sea lion watched us load from a few yards off shore in the ever shrinking tide. The tidal levels in Alaska are one of the most interesting natural processes I had observed throughout the trip. Tides in Alaska often have a difference of 8-12 feet. That may not sound like a big difference but that simply reflects the vertical change, so with a flat beach or only a slight incline, the difference in water levels could be hundreds of feet horizontally. We paddled along the shores of the west side of Knight Island, enjoying the cloudless clear blue skies. Four miles after departing camp, we stopped as Andrew, Ben and I went ahead to scout out Copper Bay. We had heard from others that Copper Bay was absolutely stunning so we figured we would check it out. Our only doubt was whether we would be able to travel through the narrows back into the bay. The terrain confused me and I couldn’t understand if we had already entered the bay as we moved farther along. Eventually, we rode the swift current through the narrow channel into this pristine bay, surrounded by mountains with multiple waterfalls that flowed straight to the water below. We marveled at the sights as the rest of the group proceeded to file through the narrows to join us. With the serene waters and picturesque mountains, this area seemed like some sort of hidden paradise. What I would to do to live in a place like this! I yearned to at least camp in this magical area for one night but it wasn’t meant to be. After taking about an hour to explore the waterfalls and other parts of the bay, we gathered for a quick lesson on towing, before paddling against the swift current of the narrows and out of the bay. Yet another open water crossing followed a few miles later, coupled with more disagreements, until we turned east into Johnson Bay.
Johnson Bay taught us that we could no longer trust the labeled campsites on our charts. Like the day before, we failed to find the campsite that the chart alleged to exist. A further scouting mission deep into the bay proved to no avail as we struggled to make a decision with the limited options we had. Our closest apparent option for camping was a beach three miles south, which we had passed by on our way. There was strong objection to going there as most did not want to move backwards. What choice did we have? If we wanted to maintain forward progress, our only other option was moving north 5 more miles to a potential campsite that may not even exist. We proceeded to discuss and look at the charts for over an hour, as we idled in the bay, hoping to find a solution. Based on the chart, we found out that there could be camping even deeper in the bay. Putting the charts away, we paddled a few hundred yards in order to glass the area. A beach! A small one at that but it looked promising. With high hopes we approached shore, where we found places to camp, cook and store our boats on the tiny shore. Heavily relieved, I unloaded my boat and began to prepare dinner for my group, thankful to end yet another frustrating day on the water.
As LOTD, I designated the following day as a layover day, which to my surprise was met with mixed responses by the group. This was my first time as leader throughout the whole kayaking section so I became somewhat unsure of my decision but proceeded anyway. In order to earn the opportunity to have Independent Student Group Expedition we had to complete our basic first aid training. By this point, we were fairly far along with our work but still had about two and a half hours of classes to go. With the vast amount of time we had due to the layover day, we were able to do just that as we spent the whole morning going through various classes. Free time was a treasured commodity by all and after enjoying my hikes on previous layover days, I made a point to schedule it. I set off down the shoreline away from camp with Ben, Asa, Jessie and one of our instructors, April. Moving higher into the brush off shore, Asa, Ben and I climbed further on as Jessie and April stopped to find and identify various floras. We plopped down on a grassy ridge where we chewed the fat under the bright afternoon sun. As the conversation drifted off, we did as well, falling asleep high above the bay. Eventually we arose, enjoying the majestic view for a little longer before descending through the wet grasses and along the rushing streams towards camp. Following free time, we had a session in the water with the kayaks to learn and improve our bracing skills. Feeling quite reluctant, I procrastinated and stayed on shore until I was one of the final students who had not yet gone. I had successfully avoided the water up to that point since my hypothermic incident in the beginning of the trip. My fears proved to be misplaced however, as I had a splendid time in the water, counteracting upon April’s moves to flip my boat. As another day came to a close, we moved one day closer to our lengthy expedition in the Wrangells.
We finally gained independence the following day. It was a tough battle to be free but we finally distanced ourselves from the opposition. To contrary belief, I am not talking about the instructors but rather the dreaded mud. During the morning, while we were loading our boats, the tide quickly retreated away from shore, leaving our boats above a muddy bottom. We realized this atrocity too late, resulting in fully loaded boats stuck on this sticky surface. I, along with a couple others, made multiple failed attempts to push the boats into the water but each one led to me sinking into knee deep mud, struggling to move any further. The singular futile attempts gave way to a dirty collective effort, where 8 of us were able to move each boat to safe (and mud less) waters. The instructors wanted to test our skills so they shadowed us for the 12 mile journey back to Point Nowell. We were faced with yet another long crossing across Knight Island Passage. As one could have predicted, there were arguments, easily occurring without the instructor’s presence. Even though many of us had developed a close relationship with the instructors, there was something about their lack of presence that provoked some to act differently than the previous days throughout the trip. At one point during our crossing, someone from the back shouted out that he believed we were off course and Asa, at pace, gave an infamous response, “I beg to differ but I’ll take it into account.” A good laugh was shared by all (well, almost everyone).
Our familiarity of the beach at Point Nowell allowed us to set up camp quite quickly, enabling us to relax and enjoy the sights on yet another clear day. The sunny skies allowed us to see miles into the distance, viewing the still snowcapped Chugach Mountains that lay further north across the open sea. A bald eagle decided to pay us a visit, swooping in to a branch above camp. The family who resided at the cabin was kind enough to give us a jar of smoked salmon after a fellow student had let them know how much we appreciated them allowing us to use “their” water. My vegan principles would have to be put on hold for the night as I savored the delectable treat. That night brought about an event I had tried to keep in the back of my mind for the whole trip. It was my turn to present in our game, spotlight. Spotlight consisted of a single member of the group talking about themselves, focusing on who they are not what they do, for seven minutes followed by seven minutes of questions. As someone who does not like talking about themselves to others, I did not particularly relish this opportunity. My peers knew the least about me at this point, with the only major thing they knew being that I played a lot of golf. I stammered through the seven minutes, talking about how my parents’ divorce affected me, struggling socially early on in school, my relationship with my siblings, how much I value my health and sharing some of my hobbies before fielding their questions and listening to their advice. In just over two weeks, this group of relative strangers had transformed into a tight knit community, where I was comfortable sharing the problems and values I hold in my life.
As I ambled out of my tent around 5:45 am the next morning, I walked down the small dirt path to the rocky beach below. I broke my stare at the rocks near my feet to look up, spotting a bald eagle perched on the rocky outcrop at the edge of the beach, no more than 15 yards from my position. It stood gracefully, observing the water, unperturbed by my presence. One by one everyone made their way out of their tents to the beach, where we were all able to observe such an astounding specimen. At 3 feet tall with an 8 foot wingspan and razor sharp talons, the bald eagle is a powerful overseer of the land and sea. Later during breakfast, it nimbly leapt off the rock, using its ginormous wings to propel it far off into the distance. The close encounter with the eagle would prove to be a bright spot in what was a cloudy day, both literally and metaphorically.
The waves caused us to bob up and down as we paddled along the coast, with the instructors shadowing us once again back to Lighthouse Point, in the ever increasing wind. Rain soon followed but we struggled to find a place of protection along the coast where we could pull over to don our paddle jackets. We took our chances, stopping in open water, exposed to the waves and strong wind. As we finished tossing our jackets over our PFDs (personal flotation device), a small boat of salmon fisherman came and pulled up alongside us. One asked, “Hey are you guys NOLS?” We responded yes and they proceeded to offer us two large, freshly caught salmon! What a treat! NOLS has a very positive reputation among the fisherman out there. Tucking the gifts beneath the cockpit, we continued paddling on to our destination. We faced no large crossings on this day but it was not one without dispute. As we paddled along, a growing frustration with the pace arose from half of our group. The first half of our travel had moved along briskly at about 3 miles per hour, even with the rough conditions. However, we had eventually slowed to about one mile per hour, leaving many in the group to mumble in the back about a change in pace. At a beach break, an ill prepared discussion between the member of the pace boat and another student rapidly turned south, resulting in somewhat of a heated argument. This is one of the moments of this section that I look back on with great disdain. There I was attempting to practice patience and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty yet I couldn’t handle a somewhat slower pace. What was the rush? What if I was in that position? One truly does learn from failure.
The rain began to pour down on us as we continued to travel the final couple miles to Lighthouse Point, destroying any positive emotion that remained. Reaching the beach, I was relieved to be in an area of familiarity, a beautiful one at that, once again. As we were setting up tents, it happened. One of the groups was missing one of their tent poles for their tent. We searched through all our bags and the boats multiple times, coming up unsuccessful each time. The frightening thought entered my mind that we would all have to travel back to Point Nowell to search for the missing pole. I tried to offer one of our poles to the group, I’d have been happy to give up one of ours. But we were told that that wasn’t a viable solution, we would be leaving no gear behind. Steve had told us earlier in the section how on one course, he had traveled over 30 miles in one day with students, in order to recover a small piece of gear they had left behind. Would we all have to go back to Point Nowell to search for it? How would they select people to travel back? What about our Independent student group expedition that was to begin the next day? The leadership team attempted to quickly formulate a plan, while I awaited the answers to my questions under my tarp with one thought in mind. Please don’t pick me.