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!
But forget it, there’s no stopping now — I knew my camping days were over for awhile. As Nate’s GPS ticked down the miles to the waypoint at the Gustavus dock, 3… 2… 1…, I started getting excited and a little nervous. Would there be a crowd, or just a few friends and family? What on Earth would I say to them? And after 58 days without capsizing, would I remember how to do my Eskimo roll? I’d promised some friends that I’d roll my kayak as I approached the beach, just for the fun of it — but now, as the final moment arrived and the crowd came into view, and as the first shouts and cheers drifted out from the beach, my mind went blank. I tried to rehearse the motions in my head: flip over, paddle to my side, blade tilted to the surface, big sweep outward, hip-flick, head comes up last. What the hell?, I thought, and with a big smile and wave, I plunged headlong into the water.
From the first moment, I knew something was wrong. My head surely was in the water, but I wasn’t upside-down — not all the way. Something buoyant was keeping me partially upright, and thus suspended, I was helpless to “set-up” for my roll and right myself. Was it the air in my drysuit, or my paddle float? Twisting my torso this way and that (God save me from another embarrassing swim to shore!), I finally convinced the boat to settle all the way over, keel up, the duct tape patch from one too many rocky encounters pointing at the sky. But the paddle had spun around in my hands; not knowing its orientation, I brought it to the water’s surface and tried to sweep — and failed. I gave it a little rotation, a little more — that ought to do it. I swept again, and in a flash the world became bright once more, water poured off my body, and I saw the crowd cheer. The whole thing had only taken a few seconds — they probably thought I’d been in complete control the whole time, that the roll had worked perfectly without a hitch. I decided to let them go on thinking that, and with an inward sigh of relief, I surged confidently forward towards the banner saying “FINISH.” My bow slid onto the sand, and friends pulled my boat up the beach to safety. I thought gratefully, It’s over. I’m home.
I can hardly remember what happened next; there were wet hugs, cupcakes, beer, questions and exclamations and slaps on the back. Finally I gathered myself to say a few words. They might’ve been totally incoherent — something about how the trek was long, not always fun, not always safe, but it was worth every mile just for this moment. And I said something about the Hobbit Hole, and our dream to use that special homestead in the Wilderness to create a public institute for education and research. And then some thank-yous, because while the trek might’ve been under my own power, I certainly wasn’t on my own out there. And as I wrapped it up and my friends gave one last cheer, that’s about when I realized how bad I had to pee. I was wearing my buddy Nate’s drysuit, and I fumbled with the watertight zipper, then the wrist gaskets to free my arms, then the mercilessly tight neck gasket — extricating your head from the suit crushes your nose and tugs at your hair, a dark and claustrophobic squeeze reminiscent of the birth canal. At last all but my legs were out of the suit, and I shuffled past the crowd of friends, now taken up in their own conversations, to the rye grass at the edge of the beach and relieved myself. Coming up from behind and snapping a photo, my friend Kim joked, “I bet you can’t do that in Palo Alto!”
At some point it occurred to me that since leaving Stanford 4 months ago, I essentially traversed the entire length of the coastal temperate rainforest of North America. Situated on the seaward edges of continents, flanked by mountains, with cool summers and mild winters and lots and lots of rain, with beautiful reciprocal interactions between land and sea, accumulating more organic carbon biomass (acre-for-acre) than any other ecosystem — these are the characteristics of the world’s coastal temperate rainforests. They used to be more common: can you picture the rolling hills of grass and heather in Ireland and Scotland, dramatically revealed in the first moments of Braveheart? These open green highlands seem so iconic and timeless, yet not long ago they were covered in dense temperate rainforest. They’ve been utterly transformed by a few millennia of wood cutting and grazing. Less than half of the world’s “original” coastal temperate rainforest remains — this ecosystem can be still found in New Zealand, Norway, some in Japan, lots in Chile — but by far the most extensive stands in the world today are found in Northwestern North America, from central California to Southeast Alaska.
Although my entire trek traversed coastal temperate rainforest, it certainly wasn’t all the same. I saw the rainforest through many gradients. Moving northward, temperatures cool, coastal mountains rise, rain increases, days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Starting from Stanford, I watched the dominant conifers change, from coast redwoods in Northern California to the Douglas fir of Oregon and Washington, then the western redcedar and madrone of southern British Columbia, finally giving way to Sitka spruce and western hemlock by the time I hit Southeast Alaska. Most of all, the further north I got, the wilder things became. That was the clearest, most wonderful gradient of all: the diminution of man and his works, from the fraught rush of greater San Francisco to the silent Wilderness of North Tongass and Glacier Bay. This is rain country. The rain makes it what it is, by filling the rivers that bring the salmon that fertilize the trees that grow in the valleys that were carved by the glaciers that calve into the ocean that evaporates into rain. And the rain keeps the country what it is, by scaring off the sun-kissed millions that would otherwise throng here. Only the hearty come up to stay.
My 2000-mile trek across the span of the coastal temperate rainforest of North America is over, but the adventure of Inian Islands Institute, as they say, is just beginning. The next Stanford Sophomore College course will come to the Hobbit Hole in summer 2015, as will our first high school course and our first researchers. We’re charging on with this dream, but our biggest hurdle still remains: securing the funds to purchase the Hobbit Hole property, so that Inian Islands Institute has its home. If you’d like to contribute we are now accepting tax-deductible donations on our website! Even better, we’re eager to find our angel — a visionary who can help us purchase this special property, the Hobbit Hole. This person will know they’ve protected a special place for a good purpose in perpetuity, sharing in a lifetime connection to the unique science and education going on at Inian Islands Institute (and it ain’t a bad place to bring the family for summer retreats or fishing trips!). So if you have any leads on such a person, by all means let us know!
Well, I’m wrapping up here. I’d like to thank some people and organizations, in no particular order, without whom this trip would never have been possible. First, I’d like to thank Seaward Kayaks of British Columbia, they were fantastic to work with (a good Canadian company, eh?), and my boat, the Tyee model, was a stable and roomy companion all the way along. I would also like to thank Patagonia, and especially Logan McCoy, for a box of warm and comfy clothes from their “lightly used gear” program. Thanks to Walt Roberts, Nancy O’Harrow, Marline Lesh, and Judith Aftergut for organizing a donation of some simply indispensable kayak gear to Port Angeles. Max Stanley also loaned a sail and charts that were beyond helpful. Hooray for visits and care packages! …lots of people to thank for these: Dave and Jess, Kim and Melanie, Dan Brown, Carolyn Elder, Fran Moore, Hari Mix, Ronan Arthur, Mike and Caroline, Mike and Katrina, Emily Brault, Jeremy Caves, Jessica and her dad Bob Johnson, The Delmar Family, Mike and Maggie Rivers, Alice Montgomery, Kathy and Craig, Hank-Dood, Ben and Sheldon from Sitka, Ian from Reid Island B.C., the caretakers of Addenbroke Lighthouse, Cory from Butedale, Hakai Beach Institute, Salmon Coast Field Station, and the Alaska Whale Foundation. Thanks to the U.S. Forest Service for providing cabins and shelters along the coastal Tongass that got me in out of the storms. Auntie Kay, you’re the best. Special thanks to Nate Borson for joining me for the last week of the paddle on the rough outer coast of Chichagof Island, a region he knows like the back of his hand. I received great logistical support from Judith Aftergut and the Debey Family — I love you David and Suzanne. Thanks to the Inian Islands Institute team, our advisory council, all our supporters from our last fundraiser, and the Hobbits themselves: Jane, Greg, and Fred. Most of all, thanks to my brother Dan Brown and my mom Carolyn Elder. They were watching me all the way along, and helped me whenever I got in a fix, or when I just needed someone to talk to for a few minutes on the satellite phone. The times I felt crushingly alone out there, I knew they were with me.
Take care everybody! And until my next post, keep the Alaskan Wilderness in your heart.