Day 97: Reliance
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.”
I’d left the town of Wrangell a few hours ago, knowing I had a new obstacle to contend with this morning: the mighty delta of the Stikine River. It carries enough sediment to cloud the water for 15 miles, and over the years, it’s all laid down into expansive mud flats that go dry at low tide. I’d woken up at 4 a.m. to cross this area with enough water under my keel. Walking out of the First Presbyterian Church youth hostel in pitch darkness, tired and grumbly, I at least had the presence of mind to be thankful it wasn’t raining. I slipped off the dock as the first glow backlit the clouds, and paddled hard. They say time and tide wait for no man. By 8 a.m., more than halfway through the dreaded mudflats with the tide still up, I was confident I’d made it through. But the aptly named “Dry Strait” had got itself one victim this morning.
His name was Jim Ericson. He might’ve been 60, his grey beard streaked with remnants of black. Pulling my boat up next to his, I walked right up to his cabin window — a strange sensation. “Yeah, all my instruments are out,” he said with a good-natured, gravelly old growl of a voice. “I dunno if this tide’s gonna get any higher or not!” I told him the tide had been on its way out for 2 hours now, so he was only getting stucker. How on earth, I wondered, do you find yourself in a place like Dry Strait without knowing what the tide is doing?
“Is there anybody I can call for you Jim? I’ve got a satellite phone.” His iphone had no reception out here, but he was nevertheless able to pull up a friend’s number, and in a moment I was talking with Richard, out purse-seining today. “Richard? Yeah, I’m here with Jim Ericson. His boat’s gone dry in Dry Strait.”
“Uh, say again?” As usual, the satellite phone connection was a little tenuous.
“Jim Ericson,” I repeated louder. “His boat’s stuck in Dry Strait.” Muffled laughter drifted through the line.
“Right… well, tell Jim it’s supposed to blow tonight, so I’m coming back into town. I’ll check on him. Tell him to keep his radio on 16.”
As I hung up and relayed the message, Jim said, “He’s never gonna let me live this down, is he? Richard’s 82 years old, still out doin’ it. But he did put our boat on the rocks last year, so at least I got that on him…” He looked around at the points of land showing through the fog. “Before you go, seeing as I got no GPS, bear me up here, will ya? Which way is Petersburg?”
My jaw nearly dropped at that one. He’s completely disoriented! In looks and spirit Jim plays the part of a wise old salt, but losing his technology has got him totally flummoxed! I pulled out my chart and pointed the way. “Petersburg is to the Northwest. The next high tide is at about 6 p.m., and it’s bigger than this morning’s, so it should float you. So I guess you’ve got about a 10 hour wait.” Pointing west, I said, “That’s Mitkof Island. If you keep that on your left, it’ll take you all the way into town.” Ensuring he had food and water, I left him my tide book, shook his hand, and hopped back in my kayak. The fog was back, so I set a course of 290 degrees on my compass and paddled on into the bright cloud.
It was an encounter that reminded me how over-reliance on technology can get us in trouble sometimes. I was awfully surprised to find an experienced fisherman so lost in his home waters, just because his GPS failed him. A GPS is a fine thing, but your brain should be more than adequate backup. Given a map, a tide table, and a compass, I got through Dry Strait just fine, my first time ever in these waters.
Of course, I shouldn’t get too smug about it — after all, my lifejacket is strapped with a SPOT GPS, a VHF radio, and a waterproof camera, with a satellite phone stowed in a dry bag astern. My raincoat, my paddle, the very boat itself are all examples of modern technology that I rely on. But the difference is, I like to think I have my head on my shoulders pretty good, and that if these devices failed me, I’d know where I was and how to get myself out.
Take later today for example, when I pulled into Petersburg. The harbor master told me to moor up to a little float in North Harbor. I hopped out, feeling elated, stretching my arms for the sky, and unloaded a thing or two. I turned to activate my SPOT GPS “check-in message” and stepped out of my spray skirt. Turning back, I found that my boat had drifted away from the float. “Shit!” I yelled, grabbing my paddle and reaching fruitlessly for the boat, slapping at it with the tip of the paddle and succeeding only in pushing it farther away. “Shit. Shit!” A couple passed by me on the dock, chuckling. “Man, that’s the first time the boat has got away from me in 42 days on the water!” I said, trying to save some face. I stared as the boat drifted slowly out of reach. The harbor master offered to go grab my kayak in his skiff, but I declined. I could see it was drifting for the beach right across the way. Grabbing up my paddle, I climbed up the ramp on this side, down the dock ladder on that side, and retrieved my boat back safely. My point (as this silly story doesn’t really illustrate) is that things may happen — some of them may be a little embarrassing — but I try to practice self-reliance, and get through them without overdependence on technology that might choose to abandon me any moment.
The idea of a dangerous reliance on technology reminds me of my stop at Meyers Chuck a few days ago. It’s a quirky community of about 37 people making it home. They love visitors, and Carol and Dan invited me to dinner with several other guests — halibut, potatoes, green salad (oh, how I crave greens these days…) and chocolate chip cookies. Our plates emptied, and ourselves full up with wine and beer, lots of wonderful stories were told. One was about a Californian recently coming up to Alaska for the first time. “He had his cats and dogs and every damn thing loaded into his truck, and put it on the ferry. So they arrive and he’s driving it off, and his smart phone tells him to go right, so he turns and drives straight down the boat ramp into the water!” Guffaws of laughter followed all around the table. “He failed the Alaska test. Go back to California!” “… No, I’d say he failed the life test! That’s worthy of a Darwin award!” Still chuckling, I shook my head. Is this where we’re headed? Will people soon not know the name of a single street or neighborhood in their town? Will they not know their own address, or how to get there? They crack their iphone on the pavement and are suddenly as lost as a blind man on a foreign street, groping in the darkness? Will people forget how to read an honest-to-god map, or that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west?
The irony was that sitting next to me, laughing right along, was a young Google employee from Silicon Valley, a director of the self-driving car project — perhaps the ultimate example of blind reliance on technology. While things were in production phase down in California, he was up in Meyers Chuck for the summer building a cabin. He said he got in one of the cars and rode for 45 minutes on Freeway 280 without touching a thing. “They say self-driving cars are gonna be deployed on a big scale in 2020,” he told me. “They’re coming sooner than that.”
I’m sure the technology is beyond belief — that it will reduce accidents, increase efficiency, and even keep us from driving straight off the boat ramp into the ocean. Still, I worry about what happens when the self-driving car grinds to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Just how dependent will we allow ourselves to get? To those of us who live in cities, does it bother us that our food and water are piped to us in complex supply chains that we don’t begin to understand, much less control? Is it worth wondering what happens if those supply chains break? Can I imagine a time when nobody knows how to procure their own food — not even farmers, who are busy producing monocultures of commodity corn and soy? Or when — I hesitate to even think about it — when kids in school aren’t taught to write with a pencil and paper, skipping straight to digital?
Then again, maybe I’m being too harsh on us modern-ites. After all, if the director of the self-driving car project at Google comes to a place like Meyers Chuck Alaska to build his own cabin, then I suppose we all still have skills with our hands and our minds that transcend our technology. I just hope we don’t completely forget about the basics. Hidden somewhere among them is a taste of what it means to be human.