Day 57: Conundrum
I have a secret to tell you: when I arrived in Port Angeles, I didn’t simply stay there resting and gearing up for the Inside Passage, like I said. Actually, I flew straight back to California for a wedding. Over long trails and highways, I had debated whether I should go — something about it seemed incongruous with the premise of this whole trek: going home to Alaska under my own power to start a field school dedicated to ecology and sustainability. Should I really board a commercial airliner right in the middle of it? Would this act somehow pollute my journey, tainting its purity to a grubby off-white?
Then again, I’m missing no fewer than 6 close friends’ weddings to go on this summer’s journey (at 29, I suppose it’s just that time of life!). Should I really miss every one of these special moments, or couldn’t I find a way to attend at least one, like a good friend? After all, Mike and Katrina seemed delighted to see me, and other unsuspecting friends got quite a surprise when I walked in the church doors in Palo Alto. Not only that, but the wedding was a chance to see my girlfriend in California — and what kind of guy would up and leave for 5 months without so much as a visit? So surely, in the final balance, attending the wedding must have been a good thing, right? Such was my rationalization as I touched down in San Francisco, ungluing from the window, where in one hour and forty minutes my eyes had re-traced the entire coastline of 3 states it had taken me 55 days to walk.
I keep encountering such conundrums as I make my way around this modern world. Take my research, for example. Surely it would be hard to argue that studying the effects of warming and diminishing sea ice on Arctic ecosystems isn’t a worthwhile thing — in fact, I’d have to say we don’t devote nearly enough energy to it. Yet what do you suppose is the carbon footprint of 3 flights up to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, followed by 5 weeks aboard a 420-foot icebreaker (a vessel designed to be inefficient, burning a waterfall of diesel to muster the power to crack meter-thick ice), followed by another 3 flights back to California? I haven’t calculated it myself, finding it nicer instead to think of the adventure of drinking meltwater from ponded sea ice at 77 degrees North latitude, or squinting over the rail at an approaching polar bear in the uncanny sunshine of the night shift at 1 a.m.
And how about the dilemmas of my everyday life? I went through my PhD at Stanford without a cell phone, television, watch, car, tablet, or laptop computer. (Even more surprising to some friends is that I got through without drinking coffee…) In this era we call the Anthropocene, where consumption of the newest thing in the greatest quantities is the official dogma, simplifying to the extent I did must surely be a good thing. If nothing else, it was worth it just for the good conversations it aroused. Yet what should I do when, for all they love my values and my anachronism, some friends and lovers begin to get exasperated with how difficult it is to reach me? And when I borrow a friend’s cell phone for this or that quick call, does that place me somewhere on the hypocrisy line? I’m not sure.
And that’s just my point. So often, it’s hard to tell how best to act in this modern world, where globalization and specialization tend to obfuscate simple cause-and-effect, and where the best intentioned acts have strange externalities on distant continents. My holds are stowed with some two dozen new items as I paddle north to Alaska “under my own power” (SPOT GPS, VHF radio, sleeping bag, bear canister, bear spray…), each with their own hidden footprints in materials, manufacture, and shipping, while meanwhile, the plane to Alaska that I didn’t buy a ticket for is taking off anyway.
Oh well, it’s too late to wonder about such things now: my paddle has begun! My two weeks of visiting, planning, packing, getting drunk, watching movies, and enjoying good company are over. I’m alone again, at the start of another 1000 miles. And the start was a little intimidating, like a 4-year-old jumping in the deep end of the pool with no water wings: from Port Angeles, my route was straight across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island, 15 miles of open water battered by storms and pulled to-and-fro by tides like gasping breaths, and crissed and crossed by a battery of supertankers and container ships, globalizing Seattle and Vancouver with every trip, to whom my kayak must be about as conspicuous as a scrap of kelp.
Despite being up drinking past midnight around the fire pit, 5:15 was as long as I could sleep. I got about my last-minute preparations, my nerves rattling like a snare drum. By 9:00, we were all assembled at Angeles Point, looking across the still grey water at Canada: David, my best friend from college, and his family (whose house in Port Angeles had been my indispensable recuperation and staging area since I walked up the driveway on June 18), plus a few other wonderful friends from the area, and Joe Charles in the distance, staring malevolently at us whites who had used his private road on Indian Reservation land without permission to get here.
The gear was stowed, wetsuit donned with great squeezing effort, the hatches were battened, and hug after hug had enveloped me. It was time to go. Dragging the boat through the shallows, I contemplated the little swell that, despite the stillness of the air, carried onto the beach the last energy of some forgotten storm in the Pacific. Picking my moment, I hopped in (steady now!) and paddled past the breakers, taking a slosh or two in the boat before securing my sprayskirt. Safely out of the surf zone, I turned to wave back to the little gathering on the beach, hoisting my red-bladed paddle into the air triumphantly… Oh, shit. Bobbing back in the waves, I spotted my water bottle — had a wave wrested it from its bungee on deck? I paddled a few strokes back toward shore, thinking perhaps I’d better go get it. Suddenly I felt myself lifted irresistibly by a wave, and began speeding down its face. The thrill of surfing my new boat gave way instantly to panic — I knew, without ever thinking the thought, that the wave would surf me right into the cobbles on the shore. I turned in desperation, but this showed my broadside to the wave, and the next second I plunged helplessly headfirst into the surf.
I felt no cold. Just one clear thought: it’s too shallow to roll, too dangerous that I might hit my head on a rock. I fumbled for my sprayskirt handle and bailed.
Oh, the ignominy! Mortified to have soiled my glorious sendoff this way, I righted the boat and pulled it to safety, sheepishly grinning at my gathered friends, and started bailing out the bilge and draining my boots. Down the beach, I spotted David stripping off his pants and wading out into the surf. David, Jeez, I thought, I don’t care about my water bottle anymore, just let it go. But moments later he emerged carrying not only my water bottle, but my paddle — My God, I’d completely forgotten about my paddle in my embarrassment!
“You’re gonna need this!” he said as he trotted up, and I grinned again, shaking my head. Thanks David, you life-saver. The little crowd seemed to shift and murmer awkwardly, and as I finished bailing the boat, I wanted to close my eyes and shout “I PROMISE I’M REALLY PRETTY DARN GOOD AT KAYAKING!” Had I shattered their confidence? Had I shaken my own? I met the questions with one last smile, and paddled away, duly chagrined.
The crossing was calm and easy, with visits from rhinoceros auklets and harbor seals, and it wasn’t until landing on Vancouver Island that I noticed my SPOT GPS device wasn’t blinking its happy green lights anymore. Had it broken when I dunked in the water? It’s supposed to be waterproof! Turning it over in my hands, the rubber cover of the computer plug-in port lolled open, and saltwater leaked out, dripping away the life of the device. Double shit! Several satellite phone calls later, my brother had tracked down a replacement in Victoria, 10 miles to my North (which is why, if you happen to have checked the Where is Zach Now? map lately, there’s a long gap between Port Angeles and Victoria with no tracking). Well, I figure as long as I have people like David and my brother around to save my butt, I should complete this journey just fine. $200 later, I was back in business with a brand new SPOT GPS, and my bank account was down to $93.16 and falling. Dear Ma, I’m coming home, aren’t you happy?! I know — I, too, thought that a PhD from Stanford would be my ticket to gainful employment. All in good time! For now, can you feed and house me for awhile?
That night, camped on a gravel beach among a flock of Canada Geese, I reflected on my mistake, bringing my kayak back into the surf zone. It was just a small wave, but it was certainly enough. Goodness, I haven’t been that embarrassed since the first day of my walk, when I was nearly arrested in Burlingame! That’s an interesting symmetry: the first day of each leg of the journey was brutal in its own way. But perhaps, I thought, that’s just as it should be. When starting a journey of 1000 miles, you have to be humble before the task. These two mistakes, stinging like slaps to the face, ground humility into me from Day 1. Perhaps they’ve given me just the mindset I need to complete my trek.