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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
With the sea calming and the departure of our fellow traveler, we continued upon our journey out of Eshamy Bay towards Point Nowell, our destination for the night. We had tackled a large part of the mileage the previous day, after the storm, so today’s trip would prove to be short and sweet. The short 4 miles soon passed and the majority of us waited on the water, a little ways off from the beach of Point Nowell. A small team had gone to scout the small bay on the other side of the peninsula, for a potentially better campsite. As we sat in our kayaks among the calm waters, we stared through the overcast sky across the bay at Knight Island, wondering what the mountains looked like above the clouds. Upon the return of the scout team, April brought out something quite large from the cockpit of her boat. They had caught a huge salmon! No they hadn’t, but a fisherman in the opposite bay was kind enough to give it to them, also offering use of the water at his cabin, located in the bay. What a treat!
The tide line from the previous high tide forced us off the beach and into the woods to look for locations where we could pitch our tents. As luck would have it, there were already tiny square plots, perfect for camping, directly off the beach. We quickly set up our tents then set about erecting what we dubbed tarp city. Tarp city was a complex, engineered structure. It was the ultimate result of all three student tent groups deciding to set up and connect our tarps together, forming a mega tarp for the mega tonz (our self-chosen expedition nickname). With camp activities complete, I was once again sent on a quest for fresh water with the help of a fellow classmate, Bridget. We climbed through the brush and dense overgrowth behind our tents, gaining and losing elevation as we scoured for any sign of the cabin. Upon reaching the rocky shore of the bay on the opposite side, we were still yet unable to discover even a single clue as to its location. Turning back, we proceeded to search further inland, finding nothing but a sign labeling a protected eagle’s nest, before returning to camp. Steve accompanied us as we took a new route, venturing further down shore from camp. After investigating a weathered and abandoned cabin just off the beach, we found a path that led through the brush to the cabin. What a stunning place to live! Surrounded by beautiful wilderness and having no obligations besides catching fish! While we collected water, we spoke with other members of the family who lived there, discussing their cabin, their large variety of pets (dogs, chickens, roosters and more!) and the state of the salmon run that season, before making our way back to our respective side.
After Andrew demonstrated to all of us how to filet a salmon and a scrumptious dinner for all, we had a discussion about current salmon populations and a class on decision-making. Most days after travel were followed with setting up camp and dinner, ending with the instructors delivering a class on leadership and a group member providing some form of entertainment. We filed into our tents early that night, in order to get some rest for our long 17-mile journey the following morning. As I lay in my tent, I found myself once again thinking about that first big meal back in Palmer (the branch). I was finding myself hungry each day. The two small meals, with a small snack for lunch, had not proved to be enough so far, leaving my mind to constantly think about food. I felt as if many shared this sentiment due to the fact that food was our number one topic of conversation. I was hoping things would improve.
As pace boat, I led the group away from Point Nowell down Dangerous Passage the following morning. Paddling in a solo kayak that day, I quickly became frustrated with my own pace. Lucas, who was also in a single, and a couple other doubles were moving at a slightly faster pace than me, only paddling about half the time so that I would stay in the lead. I was paddling with all I had, but couldn’t seem to be making any headway. This is one of the largest potential frustrations one can have out front as pace boat, because the pacer will try to work harder to maintain a faster speed, eventually resulting in both a physical and psychological battle. I soon relinquished my duties as pace to Lucas and quickly fell to the back of the pack. Moments later, I commented to Andrew how I thought there was something wrong with my stroke. I felt like I had lost a lot of power overnight. He quickly shot down that comment and said that we were travelling at about 7 mph, a lot faster than usual. That made me feel a bit better but it did little to quell my immediate problems as I remained in the back of the pack. Things started to become worse when one of my knees began bothering me. On some days, I had not been able to get comfortable in the cockpit of my kayak, resulting in a feeling of being cramped and pain in my knee. We stopped at a large opening and I stretched my legs as we looked for a group of porpoises that someone had seen surface. No luck. I trailed the sweep boat in the back of the pack, gloomily paddling without conversation or companion. If I was to complete the day’s travel on my own, I would have to withstand the formidable and nagging obstacle. We continued down Dangerous Passage for a couple of hours until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. The pod was halted and I performed an on-water boat switch with Ben, moving from my single kayak into the double. Even though the pain in my knee remained, this transfer drastically improved my mood, due to the fact that I didn’t have to rely on my own power to keep up and I was able to stretch out my legs.
After 17 miles of arduous travel, consisting of a 4-mile crossing and long periods of travelling without breaks, we finally arrived at camp at Whale Bay. In the process, we had paddled through a pristine area, spotting zero boats the whole day and passing multiple waterfalls, fueled by the melting snow. During our last mile, we even had a close encounter with a sea lion bathing in the sun, watching us as we paddled by. Our camp at Whale Bay had no trouble competing with our previous campsites for the title of the most scenic. It almost felt like it couldn’t get any better, with large rocks near the sea that provided viewing opportunities of the bright blue water surrounded by the picturesque snow-capped mountains. Fully decked out in rain gear, Ben and I ventured over to a raging waterfall that landed on the beach, hoping to obtain some fresh water for dinner without taking an unwanted shower. Little moments like these during the day, offered us students a chance to laugh and interact with each other, providing yet another opportunity to develop our ever increasing bond. With each passing day, I felt as if I was becoming more connected to both the individuals and the group as a whole.
We had a couple emotionally charged discussions and a reflection on the day. Many in the group had felt that we had been rushing through each day up to that point. And for what? Yes, we were choosing to make the distances each day, but there always seemed underlying sense of urgency. To go, go, go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, as I too had felt somewhat uncomfortable at certain times, but that’s what I was there for right? The challenge. With each of us having varying levels of comfort and reasons for going on this expedition, where would the line be drawn? We were certainly all glad to be aware of each other’s feelings on this issue, and vowed to be more conscious of it going forward.
Physically and mentally exhausted, we sat on the beach to enjoy the pod of whales breaching the surface a mere few hundred yards away. There was a group of at least 5 humpback whales that kept circling around breaching the surface with the occasional spray from their spout. Soon after, Asa reached into the shallow waters near shore catching a small fish with his bare hands while he was brushing his teeth. How about that for talent? I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this difficult day.
It’s amazing what a difference a day makes. With a good night’s sleep, the body regenerates both physically and mentally, dissipating the stress and fatigue from the previous day. Yesterday, everyone felt tired and strained as we slogged through the 17 miles to our camp at Whale Bay. Today, after a choppy first mile, we made our way into Bainbridge Passage having a jolly good time as we paddled with the current. The sun and everyone’s smiles shone bright as we viewed the countless waterfalls on our right, raging with fresh snow melt, with the beautiful snow capped mountains on our left.
There is much that is written about Alaska, its diversity of wildlife, extreme climate and geography. In Prince William Sound, the summer season usually brings about a large amount of rain. However, that hadn’t been the case for our journey up to that point as we reveled in the seemingly endless days of sunshine. As we changed and developed as a group, the climate changed with us. The large banks of snow off the beach, which we had faced since the outset of our journey, continued to melt in the hot sun as the days became warmer and warmer. The geography of the region is something to behold. Inlets, channels and the open sea go ever which way around the small coastal mountains and numerous glaciers that border its waters.
My boat partner for the day was April, adding even more brightness to this golden day. April was one of, if not the, most skilled kayakers on our trip and she helped me out tremendously throughout the day through one-on-one coaching. By the end of our travel for the day, I had felt like I had used almost no effort with my much improved powerful and efficient stroke. April and I believed that the development of my stroke had taken a turn for the better, contrary to Andrew’s jabs that my lack of fatigue was due to my highly skilled partner. We initially reached our first camp site, 9 miles from Whale Bay, very early in the afternoon due to our quick pace. I prodded the leaders to make the decision to push on, so that we could take advantage of the strong current at our backside in order to cut the mileage for the following day. After much deliberation, they finally agreed and we were off 3 miles to new territory at Hogg Bay. Besides the countless waterfalls, there were also an innumerable amount of bald eagles soaring through the sky. By this point in the trip, we had seen so many bald eagles that when someone spotted one, they would just say J.A.B.E (just another bald eagle). It was not uncommon for us to see over twenty within one day.
The channel opened up to Port Bainbridge, where we were met by another tidewater glacier on our starboard side and a series of small caves on the left. The terrain was definitely changing as we moved closer and closer to the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, now only about 3 miles away. Hogg Bay proved to be yet another beautiful campsite with a large lake and waterfall located behind camp. During our campfire discussion later that night, we were interrupted multiple times by rocks falling from the mountain behind camp. Our first avalanche sighting! I don’t think many people can say they have seen an avalanche, a whale, a glacier and a bald eagle within 24 hours. Things were on the upswing once again as we approached the second half of the kayaking section.
It seemed like the past few days had been somewhat of a constant yo-yo as our daily morale often fluctuated, but overall things were great. There is often not much to complain about in Alaska. The quiet and natural beauty makes for an environment that is drastically more peaceful than civilized areas.
The following day would present itself as another opportunity of many, to test our patience. Our initial plan for the day was to travel 4 miles to the open sea, where we would hope to camp on black sand beaches. As we moved out of Port Bainbridge, south to the Gulf of Alaska, the waves became choppier. For the majority of our travel to that point, we hadn’t faced much exposure, thanks to protection from the coastal mountains. Out in the open, we would lay exposed to the wind and the sea’s potential fury. After sitting idle in the water two separate times, waiting while a scout team moved ahead to judge the conditions, we advanced into the open water. Reaching the open water we were faced with 8 foot swells, bobbing up and down as we paddled perpendicular to the waves. With these swells, we thought it would be necessary to send a scout team to check out the beach. Large swells would likely result in big waves crashing on shore, requiring a surf landing, which if undertaken, would likely be a greater risk than necessary under the circumstances.
April and Andrew set off for the beach, while the rest of us sat in the open water. The sea showed no sign of relenting and we continued to move up and down with each passing swell. As time progressed, a few others and I grew somewhat sea sick. Restless and impatient, we sucked on Lifesavers, hoping to quell our nauseous states as we waited out the scouting duo. The beach turned out to be located much further than it had initially appeared and we ended up waiting 2 hours for their return. Another hour of sitting idly followed, as the leaders struggled to make a decision. At this point in the section, we as students had stepped into our own roles on the leadership team. The leadership team was comprised of three students, who fulfilled the role of leader of the day (LOTD), beach boss and assistant beach boss. The leader of the day main role was to select a route and destination for the day, while also leading the pod in navigation on the water. Upon reaching our destination, the beach boss and their assistant inspected each potential area for possible camping by evaluating potential tent locations and whether or not there was a water source, among other factors. At our final destination, they would choose the location for our tents, tarps, group gear and kayaks. With students being rotated in each day, the roles on the leadership team provided each of us with an opportunity to put our lessons into practice and test our skills.
The beach landing had been determined unsafe, meaning that our only option would be to press on for an additional five miles to a potential campsite in Squirrel Bay. This really demoralized a few of us. Half of us had become sea sick, feeling downright miserable, both mentally and physically, with no favorable solution in sight. The high swells, coupled with the resulting nauseating feelings, had taken a lot out of us and the last thing we wanted to do was paddle another 5 miles. As we paddled towards the potential campsite, tension mounted with a couple heated arguments taking place between the leader of the day and other students. Some of the other students were beginning to lose their composure, after experiencing a day filled with adversity. As we slowly moved behind nearby mountains into protection from the open sea, the swells began to decrease, making travel easier and boosting everyone’s spirits in the process. After a final mile-long crossing, we entered Squirrel Bay, promptly selecting the most conducive area to camping and unloaded our boats on the black sand beaches. What was supposed to be a day of easy travel, resulted in a day long struggle. With Mother Nature at the helm, I was learning that it was tough to predict what could happen on any given day out in the wilds of Alaska.
Nature posed a final challenge before we could retire for the day. Not wanting to disturb the fragile beach grasses, we boldly set our tents at the edge of the previous high tide line. As the tide continued to rise, it became apparent that if we did not move we could find ourselves swimming in our sleep. A quick decision resulted in the relocation of our tents back to the beach grasses. I didn’t think anybody would have minded us disturbing these grasses for a couple nights so that we didn’t have to sleep in the water.
The halfway point of our kayak section had finally come. The morning was filled with assigning new tent groups as well as re-rationing food for the second leg of our trip. With the large expedition sea kayaks, we had the luxury of having a large carry capacity, which meant that we could travel without any outside support. In the afternoon, I took to the forested area behind camp with Lucas. Off on yet another exploratory mission, as we once again tried to climb to the top of a nearby mountain. Like we had discovered at Lighthouse Point, our ambition proved to be too high and we found the brush covered route to be too arduous as we attempted to climb to the top. On the way up, we happened to startle a big porcupine, prompting it to quickly dash off through the brush. At first I had thought it was a small bear and even though I was proven wrong, we stayed on high alert for the rest of our hike.
In the evening, we were given the opportunity to plan the rest of our route. It was very empowering that we had so much input and control over the trip. We could choose one of three unique route options that we had discovered for the remainder of our travel this section. The first was heading up the west side of Knight Island and back through our previously travelled route, Culross Passage, to Whittier. This route was the shortest of the three and we would be covering familiar territory, but it provided the most flexibility for options such as off water exploration, as well as the potential for Independent Student Group Expedition. The Independent Student Group Expedition is a distinct and culminating opportunity of NOLS’ courses. If the instructor’s deem their students to be sufficiently skilled, responsible and prepared, they will grant them the high privilege of travelling alone for a designated number of days.
Another option for the remaining travel was doing a somewhat similar route to the first but heading up the east side of Knight Island. Contrary to the previous option, this route would be much longer and would pass through country previously unseen in our previous travel. The final route involved travelling over to Montague Island, a few miles east of Knight Island, before heading north to Passage Canal. This was the most adventurous of the three options. Not only was it the longest route, but it had the thrill of the island’s historically feared and famed bears. Montague Island is famous for the savage brown bears that roam the mountainous terrain of the island, haunting visitors since the early 1900s. A previous NOLS course that had stopped to camp there was forced to stay on guard throughout the night, waving torches to ward off the bears contemplating an approach to their camp. Safe to say, many did not wish to go to that trouble, and we settled upon the first route because of the flexibility. With the first half of our trip in the books, we were more than ready for our final days of adventure through the beautiful waterways of Prince William Sound.
The current pushed us swiftly along as we made our way down Nellijuan Passage. Everyone was in high spirits because of the decision that was made. We were also just simply having fun. For the first time on a travel day, the zigzagging and crashes had been drastically minimized, reducing the need to fear for your life. We were travelling quite a ways out from shore in order to catch the full push from the current, which was a result of the tidal conditions at that time. The previous travel days we found ourselves only moving 1-2 mph but at that point we were moving near 5 mph. Making things even better was an on-water boat switch between my partner, Steph, and Asa, another student. The switch evened out the boats in terms of weight, resulting in both greater control and power. After a few hours, we had already covered a majority of the distance, making our way back into Derickson Bay. The air became noticeably cooler as we moved closer and closer to the glacier. We continued paddling past the drifting pieces of ice while also observing the majestic waterfalls that sprouted off the nearby cliffs. Initially, we struggled to find a campsite because our initial X (on the map) was still covered in a few feet of snow. Each day we marked our selected end destination with an X on the map. This was determined by evaluating the maps and some previous experience, on the instructor’s part. Initially, the instructors took control of this task, but in the coming days we would relieve them from this role, among others. The glacier seemed to have a large cooling effect on this area, preventing the last few feet of snow from melting away. Some had started to complain while the instructors were formulating a plan. Drifting idly a midst miniature ice bergs in the bay this was obviously not helpful, achieving nothing beyond raising the tension and level of annoyance from the majority of the group members.
We eventually moved on to the other side of the bay and were able to find a campsite with spots for our tents that were absent of snow. Like all other campsites to date, the area was absolutely stunning. A rushing waterfall flowed into a pond a couple hundred yards behind our tents. The cold weather, as well as minimal activity in the kayaks for the past hour or so, had caused a couple members of the group to enter the beginning stages of hypothermia. To combat this, our first priority after unpacking our kayaks was to start up our stoves to boil water and cook a meal. Hypothermia is a disconcerting prospect in the backcountry and something that is to be taken seriously. With a shelter that doesn’t have a regulated temperature or endless dry clothes and food, we had to take the necessary precautions and steps to ensure our well being. Thankfully, with movement and food they were able to warm up before we all headed to bed early, in preparation of our half-mile paddle, to the face of Nellijuan Glacier, the following day.
The tide was heading out as we paddled against it, through the connecting channel, deeper into the area of the bay that housed the glacier. Icebergs, large and small, were plentiful throughout this area, drifting in the open water. These icebergs usually contain most of their mass beneath the surface, which meant that any slight adjustment or nudge could result in them quickly flipping over. Our fear of this happening resulted in us attempting to maintain a “safe” distance from these hazards. Lying on and swimming around these icebergs were a ton of sea lions. There were numerous babies among these families that were quite the sight to behold! Every so often you would see one watching us, with its head barely above the surface, before stealthily slinking back into the cold water. They came up so often, and in a circular pattern, that I swore they were going to attack us! Moving further back into the bay, we finally came within view of the glacier. We were met with a massive wall of ice that marked the end of the bay. It was the first time that I had ever seen a glacier. Not knowing much about them previously, I marveled in the beauty of the portions of blue ice. Blue ice signifies ice without any oxygen. This happens over time as snow and ice continue to compact and compress layers of the glacier. A portion of the ice fell off and crashed into the sea while we were watching, adding even more awe to the moment.
As time passed, we became cold once again, turning around to make our way back to camp. However, we faced a problem upon reaching the small channel that connected us to the main portion of the bay. The tides had switched while we were viewing the glacier and we would now have to paddle against a very strong current if we would want to get back to camp. After the instructors had scouted, we filed into a single file line and began to paddle with all our might against the strong current. We were literally paddling as hard as we could and were barely making any progress. Words of encouragement filled the air as everyone shouted trying to motivate each other to pass this strenuous challenge. We finally made our way out of the channel and into the calmer waters of the main bay. I was most impressed with those who had made their way out in single kayaks, especially one of the girl students. This really showed the grit and determination of the type of people that participated on this expedition. There was no room for weakness.
The glacier was calving throughout the night and into the morning. It is an unreal sound in person, similar to thunder. I had a conversation with April about it and we couldn’t quite figure out what caused it to crash more at night rather than when we were there earlier in the day. We travelled 12 miles during the day, back in the direction we came, to Lighthouse Point, a beach that was located across the water from Applegate Island. For a majority of the day I had the pleasure of being the pace boat. In our pod, we have a pace boat at the front and a sweep boat at the rear. The main duties of these positions are setting an adequate pace and making sure we don’t become too spread out. It was especially fun being pace boat on that day because I was able to lead the group in the crossing of McClure Bay. What are the odds of that? After the crossing, I relinquished my duties and received feedback on my stroke from both Andrew and Steve. My work with them really helped develop my stroke even more. I felt as if I possessed a lot more power and control of the boat compared to earlier, when I was mainly trying to keep up and avoid crashing into other boats.
We arrived at Lighthouse Point’s seemingly endless gravel beach and set up camp before enjoying our first campfire. At the time, we established that this campsite was the best we had found to that point. Of course, that didn’t hold much merit, as we made the same proclamation each day. Behind camp was a fresh water pond being fed by a waterfall gushing fresh snow melt on the far side. And of course there were mountains in every direction you looked. Natural beauty at its finest.
An action packed layover day took place the following day. It was nice to finally have a day with zero travel where we could relax and have some free time to ourselves. During the afternoon, I went on a hike in the area behind the gravel beach with Lucas. This seemed to have become a regular occurrence and it was nice to have a partner who was eager to explore, like myself. Our initial goal was to climb a mountain in the distance, but after realizing that it was much further away than it appeared we decided to just explore the surrounding area. Bear scat and prints were plentiful across the sparsely snow-covered moss and grasses. There were a few places where there were splashes of red, which we figured to be blood from a kill. I was hoping that we would see a bear but it’s probably best we didn’t. Later in the evening, we spent time in the rainforest off the beach exploring our senses. We each found a spot, closed our eyes and listened to Steve guide us as we examined each sense, using the area around us. This time was so peaceful and I felt as if I was part of the land. In case you were wondering, the taste of moss is very bland!
Animal life is plentiful in Prince William Sound. By this point of the trip, we had seen sea otters, sea lions, arctic loons, bald eagles, humpback whales, and a variety of other birds, too many times to count. It was amazing to watch the bald eagles while they were flying, as well as when they were perched high above on a tree. Their way of speaking is very interesting and is not a piercing call, contrary to popular belief. We would point out wildlife to others on shore and on the water with our signal of moose ears. However, the natives never pointed at the bald eagle out of respect, so we didn’t either, gesturing toward the bird with our head or lips. We all became silent, watching the wildlife which was usually watching us. I found that silence truly is golden in the wilderness with happily received interruptions from natural sounds.
The sea and weather conditions were continuing to become worse and worse as we traveled to our next camp at Point Nowell. I had been frustrated with the pace for the first section of our travel that day and the weather was doing little to improve my mood. We pulled into a small bay, attempting to gain protection from the now white-capped waves and formulate a new strategy. A small group went around the jagged rocks, back into the exposed water, to scout a beach we had passed while the rest of us idled in the calm water. After about an hour, a decision was made to head to the beach to wait out the storm. We paddled through the rain and rough waves, water splashing all over us, until landing on shore by means of a surf landing, which is a landing with waves. A group quickly erected our circus tent and I went on a mission to find fresh water. Luckily, I was able to find a small source in the dense forest off the beach. After finally organizing everything, we all piled into the tent to wait out the rain and the rough sea. Initially, some people were in a mild state of hypothermia, so once again there was a big effort to boil water and eat food. Two or three hours later, the sea had become mellower. The instructors gathered together to make a decision on whether or not we should continue. I was wet and miserable, silently hoping that we wouldn’t push on. Alas, we continued on paddling for a few hours before pulling into Eshamy Bay to find a campsite. A few people were impatient at the time it took us to find a camp, the amount of exposure to the rough conditions sure had taken a lot of energy from us. We managed to find a small area that would be doable, tucked deep into the bay. It had a small gravel area where we could place our tents, on the other side of a trickling stream from a pond. About an hour or so later, members of the group came back from the tents to our tarp area soaking wet. What did they do? The trickling stream had turned into a deep creek with the rising tide and we had to find a new way to our tents. The rising tide was also slowly making its way into our tarp area. Utilizing knowledge gleaned from a previous lesson, we attempted to calculate how much more the sea would rise in the last two hours before it reached high tide. We waited and watched until we determined that our gear would be safe from the ever increasing water line. Despite our best estimates, the water continued to rise and I had a good laugh, sadistically watching one of the other group’s tarp anchors, a log, float away in the water, collapsing their tarp. I paid for it later when I slipped and fell on a muddy slope, trying to find a new way to the tents. In the future, we would definitely have to pay more attention to the trickling streams at potential campsites to avoid these camps with “hidden” rivers!
During a meeting the following morning, we learned that one of the students, Parker, would no longer be continuing with us. A boat came by soon after to pick him up as well as one of the single kayaks. Apparently he said he had been having suicidal thoughts and was feeling pretty depressed. His departure was tough for a few but honestly, I was pretty happy about it. Some of his actions and words weakened the group’s morale and outlook. Travelling and living the wilderness is hard enough as it is without the outside factors. To survive and thrive, a group benefits from a tight knit community that has positive responses to adversity. With his departure, our group somehow felt a lot smaller but we intended to continue strengthening our relationships as we continued through the first section of our grand adventure.
In the summer of 2013, I left my suburban home in Illinois to embark on what would be the journey of a lifetime. My destination was Alaska, where I would be joining an expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. I elected to take the mega semester, which had three sections: sea kayaking, backpacking and mountaineering. Our group, of 12 students and 3 instructors, would spent 75 days in some of the most remote wildernesses left in the world. Learning essential back-country and leadership skills while travelling by kayak, foot and ski. Our trip took us high and low, from sea to the top of mountain peaks, across miles of land untouched by man. I have documented my journey and this post marks the first of seventeen installments that cover the whole trip. I hope you enjoy my writings.
After scampering down the hill to the bus’s location at The Anchorage Train Depot, I nervously stepped on. I had arrived in Anchorage the day before, spending my time marveling at the beauty of the mountains surrounding the city. The few students who were already there greeted me and we exchanged names as well as a basic background about ourselves. I had no idea what kind of people to expect on this trip, since it was so far out of my own element. I had never been on any serious outdoor trip, not even backpacking. Yet, here I was about to embark on a trip with these strangers where we would travel into one of the most intense and wild environments left in the United States today.
The conversation became much louder as the other students began to file on and fill up the remaining seats of the bus. At some point I realized that I would be spending every moment of the next 75 days in close quarters with these complete strangers. As an introvert, I have never been great at making a connection with others right off the bat so I was somewhat anxious and unsure during these initial discussions. How skilled were the others? Would I be able to make any friends? Time would sure tell. We continued to learn a little bit about each other as Veronica, the bus driver, pulled away from the station, after everyone had finally arrived and become situated. My Alaska adventure had officially begun.
The bus dropped us off at the school’s branch in Palmer, about an hour north of Anchorage where we were met with hugs from our instructors to be. Our day was filled with activities at the branch in Palmer to prepare us for the upcoming twenty three days kayaking in Prince William Sound. We learned basic camping knots, how to set up a tent, proper bear protocol and organized all of our gear. I lay out my foam pad on the concrete under one of the outbuildings preparing for bed. The minute I laid down in my sleeping bag, I was introduced to Alaska’s unofficial state bird. I heard the buzzing of mosquitoes as they attempted to find the best place to obtain their nightly snack. Later in the night, I awoke to find a full moon over the mountains.
Prince William Sound, located on the coast of south central Alaska, is a bay containing numerous islands, coastal mountains (including the towering Chugach Mountains), bays, tidewater glaciers, and fjords. These natural features provide habitats for the numerous terrestrial and marine wildlife found in the region. The area is often most notably known for the disastrous Exxon-Valdez oil spill, which leaked somewhere between 250,000-750,000 barrels of oil into the bay, damaging the environment and killing thousands and thousands of wild species in the process. While catastrophic, this incident brought about a heightened level of awareness and need for conservation to the area, as it allowed others to examine its pureness and beauty for the first time. The Chugach National Forest bounds much of the area, ensuring some level of conservation for the future.
The following day, we piled into the bus once again to make the two hour trek east from Palmer to the town of Whittier. Whittier is a small one building fishing town, located in the northwestern corner of Prince William Sound. Literally. Everything is in one building. This would be the place where we would set off on the first section of our trip. After passing through the mountains that encompassed the town by means of a 2.5 mile tunnel, the second largest in North America, we arrived in Whittier. Moving past a number of fishing boats and equipment, we made our way over to a loading ramp, where we unloaded our gear and kayaks from the bus as we waited for the boat taxi that would shuttle us and our gear to our first campsite. Whittier itself is located in a picturesque location with mountains springing up directly behind and opposite the small town. The other side is bordered by Passage Canal, a water passageway leading to the rest of Prince William Sound. The weather had cooperated so far with slightly overcast skies and occasional drizzles. It didn’t seem as if we would find out why the unofficial slogan in Whittier is, “Everything is shittier in Whittier,” on that day. The boat came soon after our arrival as the rain began to fall once again. We loaded every possible empty space with our gear before hopping on ourselves, backing out of the loading dock and making our way to our first camp. I sat in awe, inside of the boat, as I stared out the window at endless snow-covered mountains in every direction. It was easy to see and appreciate the beauty of this country even with the overcast and rain falling from overhead. I still had a sense of nervousness around my new classmates, unsure of what to expect, both from them and myself. About 45 minutes later, we pulled into our selected camp for the night at Point Cochrane, after finding the beach area at Surprise Cove, our original destination, already occupied by a camping party. We moved our gear from the boat onto the rocky shores of the beach and waved goodbye as the boat moved back into open waters. We were all alone now. Well, that is until the boat came back a few minutes later to drop off a forgotten fuel canister.
The rest of the day was filled with setting up camp and more classes that taught a number of necessary skills for the coming weeks. For one of the classes, our instructors took us back into the rainforest behind the beach. After finding a naturally secluded spot, April, one of our instructors, dug a square hole and taught us how to poop in the wild. There was no actual demonstration, but the lesson was entertaining nevertheless. Returning to camp, we settled down under the large circus tarp to cook dinner. My tent group and I had a lot of trouble setting up our tent for the first time. It was frustrating working as a group, trying to find places where we could tie our tent down. We didn’t know how to communicate with each other, or how to use the natural materials around us. The instructors maintained hands-off observation as we struggled through this first task as a team. I quickly learned how important patience and open-mindedness towards others would be in this type of environment.
After we had eaten under the circus tarp, I took to exploring the area behind the beach with a couple of the other students, Lucas and Parker. There was some complaining about the classes and the various work around camp we had to do, which bothered me but I decided to let it slide. It was a school after all and I came in thinking we would be challenged with physical and mental obstacles. After the frustrations of setting up the tent, I had vowed to keep an open mind with regards to my new classmates. It was not the place to hold grudges or struggle with others, as we would all be sharing close quarters for the next two and a half months. My new expedition mates and I post holed through the lingering deep snow to a rocky cliff overlooking the vast expanse of Cochrane Bay. Admiring the still ocean surrounded by coastal mountains, we had our first sight of a whale. The tail of a humpback briefly breached the surface, before disappearing back into the dark blue water.
A foggy overcast greeted us again the following morning for our first day on the water. Initially, we split up into our pre-assigned boat assignments, paddling around near shore with our instructors. I have to be honest: I was pretty bad at that point. Like I have discovered in many other sports from my youth, I am not one for natural ability. My partner, Steph, and I had little to no control of the kayak and to top it off we were frustratingly slow. Andrew, another instructor, challenged us and Lucas, who was in a single kayak, to a race. Let’s just say that by the time they reached the finish line, our boat was barely halfway there, even with the power of two people. Needless to say, there was a lot of room to improve.
The afternoon arrived and with it the activity that I had been dreading for the past 24 hours. We would be practicing wet exits in the water, first with a partner then solo in a single kayak. Wet exits occur when your boat flips over and you push yourself out of the cockpit, in order to swim back to the surface. This is vital knowledge before doing any serious kayaking (or any kayaking really) because without proper knowledge of how to exit the kayak, you’ll drown. Simple as that. My exit partner, Nomi, and I watched a couple of others go first before we decided to go in order to observe and potentially create a strategy. Sitting on the smooth rocks of the shore, the practice didn’t seem difficult as we observed others test multiple techniques. I soon found myself on the water, seconds away from action. Before I knew it, we had flipped our kayak and I was now upside down under water. It was the coldest water you could imagine and after I pushed out of the cockpit, I came up gasping for air as the freezing water made it difficult to breathe and think. My muscles were becoming slightly numb as my partner and I struggled to communicate with each other. I had taken cold showers for a few months prior to the trip to prepare for something like this but I guess I should’ve known that water from a pipe in Illinois is not really similar to water in Alaska that comes from snow-melt or a glacier, not to mention the frigid winters. With our first attempt, we struggled to balance the boat on re-entry and plunged back into the water. If it was difficult the first time, it would be much more difficult now. I became colder with each failed attempt, as a result of more exposure to the water. By this point, I had already started shivering in the water making matters even more frustratingly difficult. After five or six failed attempts, we were finally able to get back in the boat, pump out the water flooding our cockpits and paddle the short distance to shore. However, it wasn’t over yet. Still shivering, I prepared now to do the same exact thing again on my own. The cold had already drastically affected my ability to move and I fell back into the water twice, just as I was attempting to get in the boat in the shallow water near shore. Another member of the group helped me out and I paddled out to meet my maker once again. Just as before, I struggled to balance the boat as I attempted to re-enter. After a couple failed attempts, leading to more time in the icy water, another student helped balance my boat so I could get in. I quickly went back to shore, shedding my freezing personal floatation device (PFD). I stood, only in my boxers, in the meager rays of the sun to warm up. It was not helping as my body was still very much shaking from the cold. After a few minutes, Andrew came up to offer some assistance. With snacks and movement, he was able to finally get me out of hypothermia, thirty minutes later. My fear had come to fruition, but I didn’t let it discourage me and I looked forward to begin travelling the next day.
Our first day of travel would take us 7 miles east from Point Cochrane to a tucked in beach located on the west side of Culross Passage. Unfortunately for us, the initial part of our travel required a crossing of 2 miles across Cochrane Bay. For inexperienced kayakers, this was a nightmare as we lacked control of our boats, zigzagging back and forth in each direction, narrowly missing t-bone (right angle) collisions and crashing into each other frequently. A tight formation of our boats was essential on the water as it provided us an easy way to communicate. Our ideal formation of kayaks as a compact pod was two single kayaks in front, three doubles in the middle and two doubles in the rear but today was anything besides that. It took us quite a while, but eventually we made it across and into Culross Passage to our campsite.
I couldn’t be happier with how the trip had gone so far. Not counting the poor control skills on the water, the day turned out to be quite the adventure. On a beach break after the crossing we discovered a sea otter skeleton lying on the shore of the beach. It led me to wonder how the animal had met his demise. While paddling, we also happened to spot two more whales. The land that we were travelling through was absolutely stunning, with outstanding views of coastline and mountains around us and every bend. For a suburbanite from the highly developed and commercialized flatlands of the Midwest, everything was pristine.
The majestic scenery didn’t make setting up camp life any easier though because it took our group close to two hours to set up our tent at what was a difficult spot on the rocks. With no place to stake out the tent or tie off the guy lines, we would have to build dead man anchors. This meant that we would have to get an anchor, such as a stick, and bury it in a hole under a mountain of rocks. Talk about aggravating! We had to learn to work with each other and problem solve right from the get go with a limited skill set as the instructors weren’t doing any work for us. Over the past few days, I had learned that while we each had brought varying levels of skill to this course, the environment, travelling and our tasks still provided all of us with our own respective challenges. Before heading to bed, I took advantage of our location and sat down on the smooth rocks of the beach, watching the sunset. The sea otters randomly popped up off shore, from time to time. They sure are curious little fellas. Although, I guess I would be too if a stranger was moving about near my home.
The clear sky made for a cold night in our tents, especially with the breeze that came off the still remaining snow pack behind camp. I was still surprised to find myself waking up there every day. It hadn’t hit me yet that I was actually in Alaska. Living out my dream.
As every other morning on the trip so far, we arose bright and early for our daily conditions check at 6 am. The conditions check happened every morning to monitor the status of the weather, the terrain along our route that day, the sea state and the human factor. With these subjective and objective measures, we were able to evaluate whether or not we should travel that day or if we should proceed with caution, i.e., stay on shore. Steve, an instructor, provided some wise words that helped us learn the importance of this practice, “I’d rather be on shore (here), wishing I was out there. Than out there, wishing I was here (on shore).”
We traveled a little further that day, moving 9 miles through Culross Passage and making camp at Applegate Island. I took control of the stern (rear) today and we travelled much straighter than before. I felt a lot more efficient and powerful with my stroke due to some late night lessons from Steve the previous night. On the other hand, one of my knees had started bothering me and it was painful being somewhat trapped in the cockpit. Also, to my considerable annoyance my partner wasn’t paddling at least half the time, so I was forced to exert more energy than I had planned. By the end of the 9 miles my shoulders and triceps were fried, from my inefficient arm powered stroke. I quickly learned once again that there would be a lot of times to practice patience on this expedition.
After setting up camp and eating some delicious lentil soup, we each set about to enjoy the nature around us. Lucas and I went on a small hike to judge conditions for tomorrow’s route before returning to watch a bald eagle, perched on a tree high above camp. One can easily get used to life filled with natural beauty.
We were met with another beautiful day upon awakening as we made our conditions assessment. Laughter filled the air, as everyone took their time going about their morning routine. Yet by the time we had finished breakfast, clouds had swept in with a strong breeze causing whitecaps out in the open water. The decision was made to paddle a little less than half a mile to a nearby point, in the opposite direction of our intended travel, hoping to get a better view of the weather conditions and the potential storm. We walked around on shore, attempting to analyze the sky and water in the distance. Over the next few hours, things gradually calmed down and the instructors brought us out into the water, a few boats at a time, to practice in rougher conditions. The white caps died down soon after and we decided that it would be safe enough for us to travel. After sprinting and yelling down the beach a couple times to warm up, we piled into our kayaks, eager to continue our day. Past Culross Passage, a little over a mile since we had left, we pulled into a nearby cove and faced a decision. It was already 1 pm, pretty late for a travel day. Did we want to push on 14 more miles, the longest yet of our trip, to our next destination near Nellijuan Glacier? Or should we just make camp where we were, for the night? We (the students) debated amongst each other about the decision with perspectives from each side. I made the statement that this is the type of challenge and hardship where great memories were made. Others thought it would be too long and that we were already exhausted. A few minutes later, the instructors asked us to cover our eyes and put our thumbs up or down if we wanted to go. Moments later, we opened our eyes to find everyone’s thumb sticking up in the air. We would push on.