NOLS Semester Part 5: Beauty, Anguish, Hunger and Independence

This is part 5 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

A team of four was ultimately selected to make the 26-mile round trip trek, back to Point Nowell, to retrieve the lonely tent pole.  Three students, from the tent group with the missing pole, would travel with Steve returning the following afternoon, while the rest of us would remain at Lighthouse Point to enjoy an unexpected layover day.  Unfortunately, this meant that our independent expedition, set to begin the following morning, would be cut short a day.  I found this very disappointing but the situation was out of my control so there was nothing for me to do except move on.  Without the other students present, we couldn’t complete our remaining classes, so we ended up with a large block of unstructured time.  One could argue that I used this time very productively as I laid my head down on my pack, falling asleep on the beach in the warm afternoon sun.    I awoke to a hot meal, followed by a lengthy discussion about the difficulties of the day, including both the confrontation about the pace and the tent pole mishap.  The conversation quickly transformed into an emotionally charged discussion, filled with tears, accusations and inquiries before finally ending hours later, with words of forgiveness. One of the last things I thought I would have learned during my time in Alaska is how to sew. Yet while lounging around camp the next morning, April called me over to see if I wanted to assist her in repairing one of the kayak’s seats.  I finished up the repair work soon after learning and observing her handiwork.  This would prove to be a useful skill to possess throughout the whole expedition.  During the time we were waiting for the rescue party to arrive, we hit the water to learn what would be our final kayak rescue skill, paddle float rescue.  I reluctantly hit the water for the final time, submerging into the icy water and climbing back in my kayak, before retreating to bask in the sun on the dry beach once again. 

Lighthouse Point.  That's a main holding boat for salmon fishermen.  Smaller boats collect salmon from the nets and then return their loads to the main boat.
Lighthouse Point.  The boat in the distance is called a purse seiner.  The boat drops a net in a circle before enclosing the bottom like a purse, capturing salmon or other fish.

The return of the other group brought about our final few hours of classes, consisting of more first aid, more navigation skills and how to use the safety gear.  During dinner, a boat of 2 fishermen approached shore to offer us some salmon, which we graciously accepted.  The waters surrounding Lighthouse Point had been filled with dozens of boats the past couple days, denoting the start of the salmon run.  We spent about twenty minutes conversing with them about the current season, their lives and our expedition.  As we bid each other farewell, we wished each other luck in our respective journeys.  A final discussion preceded the end of the day, the last task before our days of independence beginning the following morning. As a group, we planned to travel for two days back to Point Cochrane, stopping for the night at our previous campsite in Culross Passage along the way.  The most difficult part of our route would be at the outset the following morning, dodging a number of fishermen and rough waves as we would attempt a long crossing. This independent expedition would provide us a chance to practice the skills we had learned throughout this section and the opportunity to further bond as a group.  With no more classes and easy waters ahead, I was eager to begin.

Sunset at Lighthouse Point.
Sunset at Lighthouse Point.

Bidding the instructors adieu, we loaded our boats and set off for our independent journey.  As a pod, we paddled along the shores of Lighthouse Point, paddling into position to tackle our first major challenge of this mini-expedition.  We would be crossing over Port Nellijuan, in order to reach the other side, to begin heading north up through our old stomping grounds, Culross Passage.  This crossing proved to be a formidable opponent.  Not only did we have to cross open waters filled with high boat traffic, but we would also have to battle the dangerous and unpredictable waters towards the north end.  At the north end, near Applegate Island, the depth of the water drops from around 800 to over 1000 feet.   The rapid change in depth creates an area with a strong reaction to tides.  However, prior to our crossing another fisherman pulled up and asked if we would like a sockeye.  These fishermen sure do love to give out salmon!  While we were waiting for him to filet them, we drifted hundreds of yards back east towards Lighthouse Point.  Making what was already a long crossing at 2.5 miles, even longer. Our attempt across was a fierce battle between us and the strong current.  We were angling the bow of our boats at least 30 degrees off our intended destination, trying to maintain a straight path. 

All hell broke loose as we neared the end of the crossing.  The deep depth of the water had produced choppy waves with sporadic white caps.  Multiple charged opinions and statements were shouted out as everyone believed they had the solution to avoiding these tough waters.  Somehow Bridget, the LOTD, managed to keep it under control, confirming the decision to maintain our current route.  Mentally drained, we made it out of the rough waters into the flat flowing waters of Culross Passage. Another potential crisis barely averted. As the tide moved in, the current pushed us swiftly through the channel, allowing us to relax and enjoy one of our final days on the water.  We happily glided along in both our boats and conversation as the sun shone down from above.  Now that we were in familiar territory, we could paddle carefree along the coast until we reached camp, a few miles further north.  We pulled over to a beach on the west side of the passage, about halfway through our journey, for a beach break.  Without the instructors present, we felt carefree with regards to the time, lying on the rocks as we discussed food (our favorite topic), movies and other unimportant indulgences.  Some wished to stay put but we ventured on, eventually stumbling upon our former campsite.  As we got closer to the former site, we struggled to distinguish where it was in real life compared to the map.  According to the map, we should have been within a hundred yards but nothing seemed familiar.  But alas! The map doesn’t lie and as we peered closer at the shore line it turned out that we were idling right in front of the beach!  The lack of snow pack behind the beach, as well as the lack of the high flowing stream through the middle of the beach, had caused us to become slightly confused.  Nevertheless, we happily pulled in and unloaded our boats as we prepared to enjoy a blissful afternoon without a stress or worry. 

Lucas and I quickly decided that we would go on yet another hike.  With time finally on our side, our goal once again was to hike to the top to the highest point on the island. The snow behind the beach had melted, which previously had been close to two feet deep, leaving in its wake wetlands of grass and moss.  We scampered across these wet fields in our crocs, as we headed north through the brush in search of the highest point.  As we climbed higher, we encountered more patches of snow and tiny ponds, from melted snow.  We skirted around these obstacles while finally gaining some significant height.  Looking south towards camp, we hollered out towards our comrades as we were able to see the gravel of the beach.  A final rocky slope proved to be the last obstacle to the high point of this island.  Climbing up, we reached the small mossy top, astounded by what we saw.  The sight was unlike anything I had seen before.  Our view to the north was of the immense, glaciated Chugach Mountains.  To the west, we were graced with the presence of beautiful mountains and glaciers in the late afternoon sun.  Behind us to the south, we were able to view the beautiful Culross Passage, the route we had just traveled.  While to the east, was a vast expanse of sea.  The air was calm and there wasn’t a sound in the air while we stood breathless.  As we took in the heavenly views, Lucas discovered an eagle’s feather at our feet.  The large species of prey had enjoyed this spot sometime before us, adding even more value to the moment.  With the majestic scenery imprinted in our minds and on my camera, we made our way back to camp.  Happily sharing the natural beauty we had witnessed as we enjoyed an evening of bonding and leisure.

Paddling in Culross Passage. Chugach Mountains in the distance.
Paddling in Culross Passage. Chugach Mountains in the distance.

The following morning brought about the final day of our independence.  We paddled around the coast, waving to the instructors at their camp, before continuing on to take a beach break at a potential salmon run location.  A group of us eagerly stepped off the beach, bounding across the snow to the small creek behind the trees.  The creek turned out to be without salmon, but we were not disappointed as we saw hundreds of bear and bear cub tracks, littered throughout the snow field.  If it had been a few weeks later, we may have been lucky enough to witness a true Alaskan experience, viewing a salmon run along with the potential for brown bear sightings.  Not this time however, and we joined the rest of our expedition mates on the log back at the beach.

In the early days of NOLS, the courses would culminate with a 5-day independent expedition where students would have to support themselves while finding their way to the road.  This meant that students would have to forage or hunt to find food and create their own shelters among other things.  The school eventually moved away from this, which I presume the motive to be creating a more appealing program, but I decided that I would create my own type of challenge.  One of the reasons I decided to go on this course was to challenge myself but the kayak section to that point had not yet proved extremely challenging.  Since I received and applied the criticisms of my stroke from April, daily travel hadn’t proved to be as physically arduous.  With the lack of physical exertion and ample free time ahead, I found myself not living the struggle I envisioned prior to the course.  Therefore, I made the decision that I would fast for three days, from the morning of the second day of our independent expedition to the time we would get our lunch on the bus back to the branch, outside Whittier.  After devouring my final few bites of salmon at the beach break, I began this self-imposed battle, unsure of the challenges I would face. Our crossing of Blackstone Bay was a testament to how much we had accomplished in such a short time period.  Almost 20 days ago, we made this same crossing, zigzagging and playing bumper boats, taking over an hour to make it across.  We now moved as a tight pod, making the crossing swiftly in under an hour as we paddled toward our next potential camp at Surprise Cove.  We were once again turned away due to an occupied beach and were forced to return to another familiar sight just around the bend, Point Cochrane.  The instructors arrived soon after and we greeted them as we shared our experiences from our time apart the past two days, before delving into an afternoon filled of paperwork and evaluations as we attempted to finish up the final necessary work for the course. These two days prove to be two of the best from the kayak section.  The relatively easy travel, beautiful weather and ample amount of free time provided an opportunity for us to relax in the pristine environment.  

High above Culross Passage.
High above Culross Passage.
That would be me. Above Culross Passage
That would be me. Above Culross Passage
Best view of the entire expedition.  Looking out over Port Wells and Wells Passage to the Chugach Mountains and glaciers in the distance.
Best view of the entire expedition. Looking out over Port Wells and Wells Passage to the Chugach Mountains and glaciers in the distance.

Our brief journey was not without its challenges, such as poor communication, but our lessons from the previous 20 days had provided us with the proper base to work through them effectively. Both the afternoon and evening proved to be a true test to my mental strength.  I was only somewhat hungry, but the constant talk and activities centered on food provided a true test to my grit and determination.  Yet, I managed to pass this challenge, heading to bed with an empty stomach, feeling lethargic and sore. The final full day in the Sound had arrived.  Our previous activities and adventures over the last three weeks seemed like a blur as we paddled the short eight miles to our final campsite in Emerald Bay.  From the start, I felt very lethargic, dreading the short day of paddling.  I warned Lucy, my boat partner, that I probably wouldn’t be talking much that day, leaving her fearful about my state of being.  Paddling proved to be as dreadful as I expected and while everyone was cheerful, happily conversing as we paddled, I remained silent in the stern of my boat.  At a break about four miles from our destination, the temptation proved to be too much.  I ended my fast snacking on the glorious feast of a soggy pancake and unsalted sunflower seeds.  I had failed but I was happy with my ability to last over 28 hours under the circumstances.  It ended up being for the best, I was able to enjoy the final day in camp with my peers. Fasting provided the challenge I was looking for within this section, but I ended up lacking the self discipline to follow through with my goal.  Travelling with minimal to no food intake only compounded my hunger, leaving me in a poor state in my kayak and on the shore each night.  The ending was bittersweet.  I hadn’t lived up to my goal yet I managed to create an intense challenge for myself that I was able to push through.  With the meals at the NOLS branch in Palmer quickly approaching, fasting was something that was not going to happen again anytime soon.

Best View 2. Looking towards Whittier
Best View 2. Looking towards Whittier

Lying on the rocks off shore, we reflected on our journey as we took in the spectacular scenery for one of the last times.  A large cruise ship passed by and I was reminded of the stresses of civilization as I saw the light of dozens of plasma television screens dancing through the windows.   Three weeks in Prince William Sound had changed my idea of entertainment.  No longer was my ideal form of enjoyment provided by an electronic device but rather the eagle that was perched high in the tree or the sea otter swimming off shore.    I pondered these thoughts before heading back towards the beach and into my tent, enjoying one more night falling asleep to the sound of the waves, prior to our brief return to civilization.

Stupid cruise ship.  It was never fun seeing these monsters.
Shotgun Cove and a stupid cruise ship. It was never fun seeing these monsters.

Another unseasonably sunny day greeted us for our final 5 miles of paddling back to Whittier.  We paddled through the milky water, a result of the nearby glaciers, coming across a plastic milk jug floating along.  I became upset upon learning that the expiration date on the jug was 2003.  This product, as a result of our wastefulness, is just one of millions floating throughout the ocean, damaging the environment, both biologically and aesthetically.

Paddling along the outskirts of Whittier, we witnessed two men in a small vessel struggling with what appeared to be a large fish.  My boat and two others stayed back, while the rest of the pod continued to shore, to witness this fierce battle.  With the rod looking like it was about to snap, the man pulled something out from the deck.  It was a gun!  The man without the rod pointed the weapon at the water, steadying his aim.   A moment later, a shot rang off, quickly followed by another one.  The halibut on the line had lost this battle.  With two shots, the 108 lb. beast’s struggle was ultimately ended. Arriving at the beach, we proceeded to organize our gear while waiting for the bus to bring us back to the branch.  I happily indulged myself for the rest of the day, enjoying six PB & Js on the bus and later stuffing myself until I was in pain and couldn’t move any longer.  While it was nice to speak with my parents and enjoy a large meal of fresh food, I yearned for our next adventure.  I had grown to love the slow life, enjoying the small moments and movement of the day.  I was itching to start our mega adventure, yet unbeknownst to me was the constant struggle and ultimate adventure that would take place.  

Mountains behind Whittier.
Mountains behind Whittier.

NOLS Semester Part 6: Gold!


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