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A Trip North

A Trip North begins!

This is probably not a great idea.

The plan to travel from Stanford to the Hobbit Hole under my own power after finishing my PhD, walking 1000 miles to Puget Sound and kayaking another 1000 miles up the Inside Passage, came about naturally enough, chatting with a couple of friends walking back from lunch one day.  Jess mentioned that when people are trying to raise money or awareness about a cause, sometimes they attempt some sort of heroic physical feat.  Think of the Boston Marathon’s “Miles for Miracles,” or Kevin and Hunter Steele, who are hiking the Appalachian Trail right now raising money to build a center for the treatment of veterans.  The idea appealed to my reckless nature immediately.  I already knew that I was heading home to Alaska.  Why not go under my own power?  I could meet new people, spread the word, and maybe even give a few presentations about our plans for Inian Islands Institute along the way — brilliant!

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Day 1: The Fuzz!

Off to a great start — Day 1, and I already had the cops called on me!

It was getting on in the afternoon as I hiked up El Camino Real, historically connecting the Spanish pueblos, missions, and presidios of the California colonial period, now a paved strip hosting a bewildering array of nail salons, fast food joints, and Mexican restaurants.   The last of many City Limits signs I’d passed (Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo…) read Burlingame, about halfway up the peninsula to San Francisco.  My feet and shoulders were starting to ache, and I was looking around for a place to camp for the night — but public green spaces are in short supply in the area.  I decided to turn to a different strategy: find a nice person who would let me camp out on their lawn.  It’s a strategy that has worked for me hitch-hiking in Scotland and in small towns from place to place… but I don’t recommend it in the wealthy communities of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

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Day 4: Marin

Getting past San Francisco felt a bit like a game of Frogger, hopping across railroad tracks and highway interchanges, hoping not to get squashed by the oncoming traffic.  Reaching Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, things have slowed waaaay down, thank goodness.  Early this morning after leaving Muir Beach, a bobcat scampered silently down the trail in front of me — I’m not in Palo Alto anymore!

Now that I can hear myself think again, I thought I should tell my few followers a little more about what this trek is all about.

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Day 6: Oysters

I finally made it to Sonoma County, land of rolling hills, coasts and vineyards.  For me, it conjures images of handsome, vaguely rugged-looking white folks riding horses along the sand, with a blanket and a nice bottle of chardonnay in the saddle bag.  Walking into Bodega Bay, looking for a map of the area, I picked up a brochure titled with the catch phrase, “do you speak SONOMA?”  I don’t, but I learned a few key words inside, including “Coasting: v. Strolling, surfing, and staying where the sand meets the sea, the vistas are endless and the experience a natural wonder.”  Ignoring the questionable grammar, it sounds like I’m in for a good visit in my new county!   And my favorite: “Bodayglo: adj. The bright and sunny disposition one exudes after spending a summer afternoon on the Sonoma Coast.”  I’m pretty sure it should actually be a noun, but then, I don’t speak Sonoma.

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Day 11: Geology

Apologies for the long radio silence, it’s been an expansive stretch of coastline with no computers to check-in on!  Although I’ve passed through many colorful communities — Gualala, Manchester, Elk, Albion — most have little more than a grocery store and Post Office, and the one town large enough to have a public library, Point Arena, I happened to pass through on Sunday when everything was closed and quiet.  But in the past few days, I made it through Sonoma and into a new county, Mendocino, this afternoon reaching its picturesque eponymous town.

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Day 13: Russians

Reaching Fort Bragg, at over 4000 residents the largest town I’ve hit on the coast since San Francisco, I had a lovely gift waiting for me!  My girlfriend sent me a care package, general delivery to the Fort Bragg P.O.  I never knew about this service provided by the USPS — if you’re on the road, anyone can send a letter or package to a town’s local post office, and they’ll hold it for free until you arrive.  Pretty sweet, and it’s a welcome moment for the weary and lonely traveler to rip it open and see what’s inside.  Mine held almonds, even more almonds (the chocolate-covered kind), dried mango, dried lentil soup, triscuit crackers, Inian Islands Institute cards to hand out to folks on the road, and of course, a love note.  Ahhh, Emily, you’re the best!  Not too many girlfriends would be so understanding about being gone for this long, and send care packages to boot.

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Day 20: Academia

Well my friends, I made it through the 80 or so miles of California’s Lost Coast, a stretch rugged enough that it has defied road builders for over a century.  Highway 1, my constant companion for two solid weeks to the south, finally cut inland down by Westport, and I wasn’t sad to see it go.  Since ditching the highway shoulder, I forded dozens of rivers, topped big ridges, and got trapped by tides behind sandstone outcrops jutting into the sea.  I watched sunsets sparkle off the ocean between tall black sea stacks, alive with the endless barking of California sea lions.  Although I passed by many fellow hikers and a few private homes, and although this is nowhere near as remote as most parts of Southeast Alaska, it warms my heart that there is a coastline this wild in our nation’s most populous state.  A mix of National and State protection (the Kings Range National Conservation Area to the North and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park to the South), it took a lot of heroic individuals working doggedly over the years to save this beautiful area from development, and that should not evoke snobbish comparisons to my even wilder home — but rather my respect and gratitude!

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Day 22: Logistics

I’ve been 3 weeks on the trail, and still no Forrest Gump-like following walking along behind — it’s still just me.  I’ve been secretly hoping that some young, idealistic man would run up exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s really you!  … here’s somebody who’s got it all figured out.  Here’s somebody who has the answer!  I’ll follow you anywhere Mr. Brown.”  And then another would join, and another, until by the time I hit Alaska it would be a whole legion of adoring disciples, walking North in eager anticipation of when I preach my message.  I love that scene from the film, when Forrest finally stops and turns, his long beard moving in the desert breeze.  Everyone gasps noiselessly, as one of them whispers, “Quiet, quiet he’s gonna say something!”  Staring blankly, Forrest finally says in his southern drawl, “I’m pretty tired… I think I’ll go home now.”  And the confused crowd parts as he slowly starts walking back to Alabama.

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Day 25: Cars

Caught in another big rainstorm at the mouth of the Klamath River, I huddled under the protective cover of an old, run-down gas station, eating a Snickers bar for comfort.  I wondered idly to myself how long the place had been out of business — the Gas 4 Less sign, now partly covered in moss, read $2.25 per gallon.  I stared at the rainsplashes in the driveway puddles, ignorant of the forecast, but looking for a sign that things were letting up.  Before long a Subaru Outback pulled up, no doubt lured in by the old sign’s false promise of amazingly cheap gas, but they kindly used the fruitless detour to ask if I needed a ride somewhere.  “No thanks, I’m all set,” I said, for perhaps the 10th time this trip.  “Stay dry!” she said with a smile as they pulled back into the traffic of Highway 101.

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Day 28: Trees

We’ve all got those childhood stories — those lighthearted, slightly embarrassing stories of things we did as kids, that we cringe as our parents re-tell again and again.  For me, the story is about trees.

I was a big-headed 5 years old as we set off on a long family road trip from New Mexico back up to Alaska.  We decided to detour into the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, winding our way up into the hills where the big trees live.  Despite my parents’ promise of Giant Sequoias, trees so big that it would take a dozen people holding hands to make a ring around them, I was unimpressed — the long drive and the winding road were making me grouchy, and I whined and howled.  Finally, arriving in Sequoia National Park’s remarkable Giant Forest, I got out of the car, a tiny 5-year-old with crossed arms and wet cheeks, looked up and proclaimed, “I’ve seen lots bigger trees than these!”  And with that immortal phrase (because my dad just won’t let it die!), I got back in the car and slammed the door.

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Day 33: Oregon

I’ve taken over 1 million steps on my trek so far.

The other day, I used the highway markers to pace out how many steps I take in a mile.  Using my fingers to tick off the hundreds, I found the final total to be 1,970 steps.  Walking all the way to Port Angeles, where my kayak waits, will be about 1,000 miles — enough, when you count all the extra wandering, to add up to about 2 million steps total.  And crossing the Oregon border a few days ago (Woo-Hoo!) was about the half-way point of my walk — hence, over 1 millions steps so far.

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Day 35: Bottle

Be warned: this post is a rant.

As I walk the grass, sand, and concrete of the Pacific Coast, I’ve been picking up plastic bottles.  I might’ve grabbed a few hundred by now (maybe 10 per day — some days on secluded beaches I only encounter one or two, some days on highways I find dozens).  This is one of “The Rules” of my trek that I forgot to tell you about: beer cans, paper plates, bubble wrap, and even styrofoam I walk right by — but I try never to walk past a plastic bottle.  Sure, it’s a little arbitrary.  But I figure it’s better than doing nothing, and if I tried to pick up all the trash I passed, I’d still be making my way through San Francisco.   Strewn here and there are the big 1.5 liter soda bottles, the Powerade bottles like I carry, the little vodka bottles, and a surprising number of milk jugs — some are sticky, most are wet, and one even had a couple of hypodermic needles shoved inside (bonus!).  It can get a little awkward to carry a bunch of bottles, and I sometimes find myself walking with a couple under my arms and more wedged between each pair of knuckles.  Happily, I can usually find a discarded plastic grocery bag on the roadside that makes them easier to carry.

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Day 39: Whale

“Hiking up the coast, huh?  You must’a seen tons of whales!”  It was the same phrase, almost word-for-word, that I’d heard several times along my walk.  Yeah, I had seen a few spouts out there, but mostly I’d just heard everyone talking about the whales.  Up and down the coast this spring, headlines were breathless: Gray Whales Parade Close to Bodega Head, Unusual California Whale Sightings, Ocean Buffet Open for Business, and on it went.  Strong early-season upwelling, or perhaps strange currents carrying huge numbers of krill and squid right up to shore, enticed humpbacks, blue whales, and orcas in close, joining record numbers of gray whales migrating up the coast, and they were putting on a show.

Although I try to resist, it’s tempting coming from Southeast Alaska to feel a bit of snobbery when it comes to whales.  Here on the coast of the “Lower 48,” I envision a distant, barely-visible spout sending quivers of excitement through huge crowds of onlookers armed with 3-foot camera lenses.  But up North, a local fisherman would hardly look up, even if the spout were so close that the salty-fishy spray beaded on his beard.   Read more

Day 45: Beer

“Are ya lost, hon?”

I looked up from my guidebook, surprised, and gave her a smile.  “No ma’am, I just want to get a beer!”

“Yeah Annie,” chided one of the locals seated at the bar, “he just wants to get a beer, give him a break!”

“Well I’m sorry,” she replied in a delightfully endearing countryside voice, “I figured nobody comes in here, this is a nowhere place!”

She wasn’t wrong — Smith River, California is one of those barely-noticeable, instantly-forgettable crossroads towns surrounded by ranchland.  The Bank, as the little tavern I’d stumbled into was called, sat on the northwest corner of the town’s one intersection.  I stretched my sore legs before sitting down, noticing framed black & white photos of the old-timers, loggers and cattlemen.  But I wasn’t here for a history lesson — it was Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, and I’d walked hard all day to get here and reward myself with a beer.  Read more

Day 50: Salmon

I’m deep in the Pacific Northwest now — Bigfoot territory.  Walking into Astoria, the northernmost city in Oregon, I started asking around for a boat ride across the river.  Down to the docks and among the charter fleet, I finally ended up at the Harbormaster’s office.  “If you were here in August, during fishing season, there’d be all kinds of boats heading back and forth, but it’s pretty dead out there right now.”  Following her gesture over the water, I could see she was right.  It looked as though the bus would be my only option to get across the Astoria Bridge — I’d been warned that it was impossible (and strictly illegal) to walk its 4-mile expanse.  So I followed the train tracks further into town, stopping for a veggie burrito, soon reaching the bus terminal, and scribbled in my journal to wait. Read more

Day 55: Patience

My dear friends, I’ve made it to Port Angeles!  My long walk is over!  My shoes, brand new at the start, are now in tatters, and I rolled into town on fumes after Olympic National Park — my only remaining food (no kidding) was half a stick of butter.  But walking through the Olympic Mountains was stunning, making quite the capstone to the first leg of the journey.  No more highway — in fact, no other people period — just a 44-mile trail right through the heart of the park, lined with big Douglas fir and delicious salmonberry.  This stretch had the aded bonus of bringing me along the Elwha River that now runs free — the site of the largest dam removal project in history.  As an environmentalist, it felt like a pilgrimage to a sacred land.  I broke into the construction site to poke around, marveling at the river tumbling through the gorge below.

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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?

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Day 65: Tides

I wonder whether I’ll have those manly 6-pack abdominal muscles by the time I reach Alaska?  Back in high school, muscle definition (as well as $140 basketball shoes) somehow seemed very important at the time.  But though I spent long hours in the weight room for basketball training, I never did develop the coveted 6-pack.

I haven’t given much thought to my ab muscles for the past decade or so, but now, on my paddle up the Inside Passage, I’m using them more than ever.  Read more

Day 71: Station

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.

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Day 90: Are We Screwed?

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.

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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.”

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Day 111: Ice

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.

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Day 113: Home

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