Holding my breath, floating upside-down just a few boat lengths from the gathered friends on the Gustavus shore, I thought to myself: darn, my long paddle is in danger of ending as ignominiously as it began.
The 20-mile crossing from the Hobbit Hole to my hometown had been fogged in for most of the day. With my buddy Nate, I’d taken a compass bearing to point us across the 5-mile wide mouth of Glacier Bay, the far side being totally awash in low grey clouds. But by the time we reached Point Gustavus, things were lifting and brightening up, revealing the long shore of the Gustavus forelands — I was now just a few miles from home. My first reaction wasn’t nostalgia or bliss or relief, but surprise: after 2000 piedmont miles walking and kayaking along the steep coastal mountain ranges of Western North America, I was struck by the thought that Gustavus is flat as a damn pancake! My hometown is built on the outwash plain of the great glacier that 200 years ago filled what would become Glacier Bay. Although mountains surround us, here the shifting braids of the silt-laden glacial river laid down one of the only flat stretches along the entire coast. After all the miles of impossibly steep rocky coastline I’d passed, desperate to find a little beach were I could take shelter, how easy it would be to land my kayak here and lay out my tent on a nice, flat, welcoming campsite! Read more
We call it “The Gut”, the Hobbit Hole’s narrow entrance through which the protected cove ebbs and floods, and trollers and skiffs of all sorts have passed for decades, and Tlingit canoes before that. Watch for rocks — big boats can’t make it through at low tide, but a kayak can paddle into the Hobbit Hole most anytime. And after 2000 miles, The Gut swept me in like the opening lines of a favorite book. The Inians loomed 1000 feet above me in the fog, the cove opened up wide, and the Hobbit Hole revealed itself one structure at a time: dock, guest cabin, workshop, Greg and Jane’s house, Fred’s house. What character is invested in this little spot in the Wilderness! I felt all the long miles in my body as I pulled up to the dock, knowing this was a rare sort of gratification.
The boat sat mired in wet mud, slouched over on her starboard side. Through patches of morning fog, I looked at her curiously as I paddled by. Had somebody anchored her way out here, leaving her to go dry on purpose? Then, thinking I heard a voice, I set down my paddle and coasted through the muddy water, listening. Between the squawks of gulls, I heard it distinctly this time: “Can you row over here, just for a minute?”
Uh-oh — she definitely was not left here on purpose. “Yeah! Yeah, I’m on my way.” As I approached, he called out, “I was motoring in the fog this morning. My GPS is out, so… here I sit.”
Alaska. My dear friends, I’ve hit my homeland. It’s not so much a state as a realm, a subcontinent. Or perhaps a state of being: as an old saying has it, where the women are men and the men are animals. I did my atavistic chest pounding when I paddled across the border — then I ate a snickers bar. And I tell you, everything has changed. I didn’t see a single bear on my entire tour through B.C., and wouldn’t you know it, my first day in Alaska I spotted a big one ambling along the beach. And that night, a lone black wolf loping on the grass out in front of my camp, from the river to the intertidal and back. We stared at each other, and it went on its way into the night. The weather has turned more severe too, here in Alaska. I managed to pass through the exposed coastline of Dixon Entrance before the storm really hit, but about 20 miles shy of Ketchikan, after a harrowing 2-mile crossing in windy 5-foot chop, I had to take shelter from the storm in a Forest Service cabin at Alava Bay. Hanging up my wet gear and stoking the fire, I listened to warnings on the radio (… be vigilant over the weekend, as 3-6 inches of rain may cause streams to rise … Check that bilge pumps are working on boats … gale warning in effect over inside waters through Sunday night …). But hey, this cabin ain’t a bad place to wait out the storm. As long as I’m stuck here, maybe I’ll take the time to write about something that’s been on my mind.
I have to admit, it’s a pleasure being in Canada. To my friends with Canadian roots (Jess, Mandy, Alexis, Chris Leader) — your countryfolk are doing you proud, with hospitality that wells up like a spring. Last week I pulled up to a small dock on a small island among thousands, taking a rest and looking for somebody to ask whether the thin channel on my old chart from the 1980s still goes through. Turns out it doesn’t (Not since the big earthquake, eh?) — so I’d have to go around. But Hal quelled my disappointment by inviting me in for a mug of cocoa and a plate of fresh baked bread, veggies, and butter. I told him this meal would motor me right around the island. “Yeah,” he agreed, “you’ll feel like ya got a 50-horse on that kayak, eh?” and sent me on my way with a thick roll of homemade venison sausage. And just the other night, I passed the lighthouse on Addenbroke Island, 100 years old this May, and hailed the caretaker on my VHF radio. Dennis hoisted my kayak up on the dock with his crane, and invited me to stay for the night, feeding me a sumptuous whitefish dinner and making up my first real bed in 3 weeks. But the best hospitality has come, as it were, from the Canadian Gods: the weather has finally turned! The northwesterly winds, which tormented me for 10 days as I crawled my way up the coast of Vancouver Island, have finally laid down, and at times even turned around and helped push me towards Alaska. Compared to the early going, for the past week I’ve been flying, and it surely does elate the spirit.