Sunday, July 22, 2007

Back to Reality

After our excellent Alaska adventure, H and I were ready to paddle our own kayaks on our own turf. Narragansett Bay may not have the pristine grandeur of Glacier Bay, but it does offer plenty: varying and challenging conditions, access to good food, and most importantly the chance to paddle with good friends.
H spent the week fretting about the trip. She was uncomfortable with the "bring helmets" declaration on the trip description. She also was not keen on paddling around Brenton Point because she has not really been in challenging conditions yet this season. Despite the time of the year, life conspired to keep her off the water.
So, we decided that while we really wanted to hang out with the gang, it would be best if we did a different paddle. The plan was to paddle out of Wickford harbor so we would avoid any peer pressure to go on the RIC/KA trip.
On the way, we heard from the Bs. They were planning on launching from Ft. Wetherill, the RIC/KA trip's launch, but well after the RIC/KA trip left. It was a stroke of brilliance. We'd avoid peer pressure and get to hang out with the gang!! It also meant conditions that could offer a bit of thrill.
Getting back in the Q-Boat and wielding my new mighty stick was pure joy. I nearly capsized a few times while making ridiculous turns, but it was worth it just to be able to edge the kayak. I recovered quickly enough and was psyched to get out on the open water. I think we all shared similar experiences with reclaiming our rides.
We started off towards the Dumplings. The tides were such that there would be very little happening at the Dumplings, but the chance to paddle a little more distance made the trip worth it. We checked out the Clingstone House that sits on a dumpling. It looked like someone is fixing it up. I can remember when it looked like the condemned frat house I lived in at WPI.
From the Dumplings, we turned around and paddled along the coast to Mackerel Cove. It was a pleasant paddle. PB and I stayed close to the shore and found rocks to play in while the girls stayed a little further off the coast. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity readjust to the Q-Boat's lively feel.
We lunched just to the right of the public beach in Mackerel Cove. We were very careful to avoid the swimming area and any private land. The only thing I don't like about the eastern coast of Jamestown is the limited landing spots.
From lunch we continued down the coast towards Beavertail. The plan was to turn back well before we got to Beavertail and we did a good job sticking to the plan. We turned back towards Ft. Wetherill about half way between lunch and Beavertail.
To get back to the launch we decided to make a bee line. It was getting late and we didn't want to miss the RIC/KA crew. The crossing was fun. There was just enough swell and wind to keep us on our toes.
We kept checking the Newport coast hoping to catch a glimpse of the RIC/KA crew as they made their way home. We thought we spotted them and tracked them as they passed Castle Hill. Given their position we figured we easily beat them to the cars.
When we paddled into Ft. Wetherill we were greeted by the RIC/KA crew!! They were packed up and waiting for us... That didn't stop me from my post paddle rolling ritual. A roll is a precious thing and must be practiced...
Once we got our kayaks and gear stowed, we headed into town for dinner. PB passed around his Alaska photos - excellent!! We then grabbed some ice cream and listened to some music down near the water before heading back to the work week.
It is good thing that we have a hobby and friends to renew our spirits before each week.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Alaska by Car

After our kayaking adventure in Glacier Bay, H and I were ready for some luxury sight seeing. We at least wanted to sleep in beds, have showers readily available, and have our meals cooked for us. This was a honeymoon after all...
On the plane from Gustavas to Anchorage I discovered that my iPod was not working. I feared that it had been damaged while in storage. On landing in Anchorage, we discovered that our gear bag did not make it all the way with us. It had been taken off the plane in Juneau.
At least the rental car was ready and the bed at the hotel was soft.
We grabbed dinner at Today's Pizza. It is a standard pizza joint, except that it is run by a Chinese family. It caught our tired and hungry brains off guard. It didn't really matter. The pizza and the service were excellent.
After doing some laundry and making several phone calls to track down our missing luggage, we left Anchorage and drove down to Homer. The drive is winding and takes you along some of the best looking coast I've ever seen. The best view was just before entering Homer. You crest a hill and stare down on the town and across an expanse of water bordered (Cook Inlet) by jagged, glacier covered mountains.
Homer itself was cute. We went in the Salty Dog and also did some shopping. We also managed to finally get our hands back on our gear bag.
After one night in Homer we drove to Seaward on the other end of the Kenai Peninsula. In Seaward we took an excellent boat tour into the Kenai Fjord's National Park with an outfitter called Mariah Tours. The boat was only 42' and carried eighteen people. We saw tons of sea birds. Puffins are much smaller than I thought. They are like footballs with bright beaks.
The highlight of the tour was the whales. We spotted a Humpback and her calf feeding. While we watched, the calf put on quite an aerial display. He kept breaching and rolling his flippers up. This went on for a good half hour to forty five minutes!!
We also went out to Exit Glacier. The ranger spent a lot of time telling us about the different types of glaciers before we walked out to the glacier. The trails go all the way out the glacier's face. I snuck off the train and touched it!!
Before leaving Seward, we went to their marine center. It is quite a place. They do research on cold water marine environments. They also have a number of great exhibits. The highlight of the day was visiting the marine bird room. An evil puffin was on a rampage against the Muir and duck population.
From Seaward, we drove to Denali National Park. We only had one day to explore the park, so we decided the best option was to take one of the shuttle buses into the park. The shuttle buses travel the same route as all of the tour buses, but cost about a third the price. The big differences are that the shuttle buses do not provide lunch and the shuttle buses will stop when asked.
The park was awe inspiring. It is impossible to do justice to its enormity with words. We saw a good amount of wildlife: grizzly, hoary marmot, arctic ground squirrel, caribou, falcons, ptarmigan.
Our last night was spent in Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a small town about half way between Anchorage and Denali. If you are not familiar with small (very small) towns, it is an odd place. During the summer, like a lot of places in Alaska, the town gets a lot of tourists. However, there are plenty of locals.
As we were packing up to leave for the airport, the elusive peak of Denali (Mt. McKinley) showed itself. Seeing the mountain is a rare event. Its size relative to the surrounding peaks generates odd weather patterns. These patterns typically result in a heavy cloud cover that keeps the mountain under wraps, particularly in the summer.
The sight was a perfect token to take home.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Glacier Bay: The Finale

We woke to a cold, dreary morning. The weather kept us motivated to break camp and make the short trip over the pick up. It was only a half mile, so nobody was too worried that the double, with the gash in its side, would have trouble. Just in case H and I packed as much of the gear as would fit into our singles.
The pick up spot was a buzz with activity when we arrived. There were six other people being picked up. Three of the people were a family who had taken their six year old back country camping for ten days!! He seemed happy as a clam and was looking forward to starting another ten day camping trip in a few days.
The day boat is a large catamaran that runs daily sight seeing trips in Glacier Bay. It also does pick up and drop off duty for kayakers at two designated locations. To drop off and load up, the captain drives the ship onto the beach. Gear and people are moved from shore to ship on a step ladder. Kayaks are hoisted onto a rack on the back of the ship.
Re-entry was a bit of a shock. Initially I was overwhelmed by paper work, getting our gear secured, getting some coffee, and changing into dry clothes. Once I got a chance to stop, it hit me. I was surrounded by strange people asking questions and wanting to make small talk. I'm not a huge fan of crowds to begin with... going from no people for four days to a crowd....
PB, wisely, avoided the whole situation by retreating to the top deck where only the hardiest of the tourists roamed while the ship was underway.
The tour took us up close to the Grand Pacific Glacier (looks like a lava slide), and Margerie Glacier. The glaciers are impressive and eerily noisy. They are constantly crackling and occasionally thundering when a piece calves into the water. We also got to see a seal, some grizzly bears, and a lone orca.
It was not quite as exciting as being in the kayaks. On the plus side, the food was excellent, there was plenty of coffee, and if you got cold you could slip inside the cabin.
The boat was late getting back into port, so we had to rush around to make our flight. Fortunately, the jet was delayed due to fog and rain. We made the plane, but not without a good amount of confusion. We just hoped that all of our gear would make it to Anchorage with us for the land portion of our trip...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Glacier Bay: Day Four

We woke to a sun and a faint breeze. It was still early, but there was not a cloud in the sky. Relieved, we set about making breakfast and planning for the day.
Kayaking was considered, but tossed aside. The weather was so nice that nobody relished the thought of putting on soggy kayaking gear and paddling the barges. Instead we all decided to kick back and just enjoy the island.
In the morning the Bs (no relation) took off to the west side of the island to try their luck at catching a salmon for dinner. H and I just kicked back and read for a bit.
At some point in the morning, I spotted a kayak approaching. The couple had run into the Bs and wanted to use our radio to contact the ranger station in Gustavas. The kayak they had rented had a gash in it and the couple had not realized this until after they had been dropped off by the day boat. We tried to hail the day boat, but to no avail. After failing to hail the day boat, the couple decided to make camp down the beach from us before trying again.
After lunch, H and I did some of our own exploring. We watched as a family of terns ran off a bald eagle. We saw some of the biggest barnacles ever. We also spotted huge, blood red starfish.
While we were off exploring, the Bs were able to raise the ranger station with the help of Sailboat Bob (our little radios did not have enough juice to transmit all the way back to the ranger station), and arranged for the couple to take two of our single kayaks. We would paddle the holed kayak the half mile back to the pick up and take it back to port with us.
Dinner was a fire seared wild salmon (I had a chicken curry). It was a perfect way to end our time in the wild.
For PB's take on the day read Kayaking Adventures:Glacier Bay Day 4

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Glacier Bay: Day Three

The day dawned clear and crisp. Our pristine camp site was transformed by the day light. There was plenty of green grass and colorful wild flowers. The sky was a crisp blue and the distant mountains reflected off of the calm waters.
The first sign of trouble was me being buzzed by a humming bird.
The second sign was the look of concern on PB's and LB's (no relation) faces. They had listened to the AM weather forecast. It was not great. The forecast for today was for light winds and sun. The forecast for the tomorrow called for gusty 20knt winds and rain.
Our original plan called for a 10 mile paddle to Sturgess Island today and then paddle another 5 miles to Garforth Island tomorrow. We would get picked up the following morning, July 9th, about a half mile from Garforth Island.
If this were a series of day paddles in the Bay, I would be perfectly happy with the forecast. However, we were 15 miles from nowhere in unfamiliar kayaks, we had only our tents for shelter, and our handheld VHF radios could not transmit a call back to ranger station. To make matters worse the coast between our current camp sight and Garforth Island was closed for camping due to heavy bear activity.
Getting caught out in a major blow with no options but to sit it out didn't sound like a great option. We had limited food and could stay out maybe one or two extra days if we needed, but we would miss our planes. This was supposed to be fun and it sounded like the fun could end abruptly.
The options passed around were either stick to the original plan or to head back to Bartlett Cove and camp there for the rainy day... Despite the obvious answer we debated all possible angles because heading home early felt a little like defeat.
Then LB mentioned that it was too bad that the pick-up was too far from Sturgess Island to paddle on the last morning of our trip because it would be nice to have a layover day even if the weather turned out to be nice. Half-joking I suggested that we could get a layover day if we just paddled the 15 miles to Garforth Island in one day. If we were home, this option would be a no brainer. But, we were paddling laden barges on icy waters with strange currents...
Surprisingly, the group went for my crackpot idea and we steeled ourselves for a marathon day on the water.
Before we could even begin the marathon paddle we had to get the kayaks, and all of our gear, to the water. The tide was going out, rapidly, and the shallow beach was growing like mold after Katrina. H commented that she getting better cardio workouts launching the kayaks than she ever did at the gym. To make the task manageable, we broke it into three stages: Move the gear to a pile about 3/4 of the way down the beach. Move the kayaks to the edge of the water. Pack them very fast so that we wouldn't have to carry them full of gear in the mud to catch the retreating water. It took an hour and I was ready to nap before we even launched.
Our first leg for the day was a 5 mile crossing to Leland Island. The sun warmed us and the light breeze kept us cool. The water had a slight bounce to it - just enough to make the kayaks glide along the water easily. The only downside was that the forecasted tailwind turned out to be a headwind. Being on the open water surrounded by an unspoiled wilderness was breathtaking. In the distance you could see huge peaks that jutted out of the water thousands of feet. The only sounds were that of the paddles lapping on the water and the happy voices of our little crew.
After a quick lunch, we started the 2nd leg our marathon paddle: a 5 mile run to either Sturgess or Puffin Island. I had hoped that we would paddle closer to the coast line. The scenery begged for some ogling. Unfortunately, we decided that since we were not eating up miles at a good clip, it would be best to take a more direct route. We stayed a good mile off shore and made a bee line for the point that hides Puffin Island. What we could see was beautiful, but a little more nature watching would have been nice. I was beginning to curse the guy who came up with this silly plan...
We stopped on Puffin Island for a 2nd quick break and to listen for the forecast from the Ranger Station in Gustavas. (We had paddled about 10 miles in just under five hours.) The views were spectacular, but the forecast was not. It sill called for high winds and plenty of rain.
The final leg of our marathon was a 5 mile paddle to Garforth Island. Along the way we needed to locate a fresh water supply to refill our empty dromedary packs. This meant that we would have to hug the coast. It was fine by me. The coast between Puffin Island and Garforth Island is dominated by sheer cliffs that rise from the sea floor 500' below to 3000' in the sky. It is pocked with gravel slides and the occasional stream.
The group, while awed by the landscape, began to worry about the prospects of finding water. We saw plenty of streams, but they all vanished beneath the rubble before reaching the shore. About 1/3 of the way to our destination, PB, the water boy, found a stream that wound it way to the shore. He pulled up to the steep shore, and, with a little help from LB, filled our water sacks.
With our water supply replenished, our limbs tired, and our stomachs empty we made a bee line for Garforth Island which was still a few miles away. The tides had turned and were paddling against a building current. However, motivated by the promise of a hot meal and toasty tents, we made excellent time.
PB and H hopped out on the first amenable looking spit of land on Garforth Island. Meanwhile, LB and I drifted with the current towards the northern tip of the island. The southern tip that PB and H checked out was pleasantly wooded but looked a little damp. The northern tip was more exposed point that offered great view up Muir inlet and across the Bay. The northern tip also had tons of sandy beach: ideal for kitchen and bathroom use.
As the sun leisurely slipped behind the mountains, we set up our camp, ate a quick dinner, and slipped into our tents. We were too tired to worry about the prospect of waking up to a cold rainy day.
For PB's take on the day read Kayaking Adventures:Glacier Bay Day 3.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Glacier Bay:Day Two

We awoke to a crystal clear morning. We could see mountains off to one side of our camp and the Beardslee Islands off to the other. It was a far better setting to eat breakfast and enjoy a cup of joe than any coffee shop I can imagine.
We finished breaking camp and launched about an hour and a half before low tide. It was a chore to lug the kayaks, and all of our gear, from their perch above the high-tide line. The beach was not muddy so we had sure footing. Having experienced long slogs through mud while kayak camping in Maine, I know first hand how much a slog through sucking mud with gear can drain the fun out of car full of clowns.
Our plan for the day was to head west and paddle along the outside of the Beardslee Islands in the hope of spotting whales. We saw plenty of breathtaking mountain views, some wild life, and a lone tent, but no whales.
The paddling was relaxing and didn't feel too stressful. I tried to use the rudder on my kayak at first, but again grew frustrated with it. I pulled it up and vowed not to use it again for the rest of the trip. The kayak tracked well so I didn't have to do much course adjusting. The kayak was also surprisingly responsive for a barge. I could turn it without too much effort if I needed. Without being able to find a solid foot hold, I wasn't confident in leaning or bracing. Fortunately conditions did not require either.
We stopped for a quick lunch a rocky beach looking out across the Bay to Willoghby Island and Berg Bay. Lunches where were H's bear can key fell short. We had done a good job of marking down which cans had the dinner's, the toiletries, and lunch/snacks for H and I. We had not done such a good job with the B's lunch/snacks or with morning food. So, we resorted to opening up all of the unidentified cans to find food (we did not update the key as we went along). This is a huge no-no in bear country. You are encouraged to only have out the food you need and leave everything else locked down. We were on an island far away from the mainland - what was the chance we'd see a bear?

After lunch, we headed back into the safety of the Beardslee Islands. There was some concern that the currents along the outside of the islands could get treacherous. Discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to forgo better whale spotting opportunities for group safety.
The paddle among the islands was leisurely. We took plenty of breaks to check out seals, eagles, and the scenery.
After 10 miles of paddling, we left the Beardslee Islands and entered Beartrack Cove. We were growing tired, there was an ominous squall brewing to our west, and much of the coast to the north closed due to bear activity. We decided that it was a good time to make camp. PB checked out a spot at the entrance to the cove and initially thought it looked promising. LB, who has the most experience with bear country camping, looked it over and wasn't sold. We moved into the cove a little further, and the Bs (no relation) checked out another spot. It was less promising than the first location. They checked out a third site without luck before settling on a spot at the very entrance to the cove.

The site was perfect. It was lightly treed, had a great view, and plenty of dry tent sites. We set our tents a little further apart than on day one. H and I were feeling more comfortable about bear encounters. LB then told us that moose were actually more dangerous than bears and that there were plenty of moose signs about...
While we were settling in to camp, two men in a double kayak pulled up on our beach. They wanted to let us know they had seen a bear heading up the shore towards our site. PB came up to tell H and I about the bear approach and we all moved down to the beach. The visitors told us about there travails:
They had been accosted by a satanic oyster catcher the previous night. Their every attempt to find fresh water had been stymied by bear sightings. They had been unable to find a spot to camp and were pooped.
Since there was plenty of room on our point, we invited them to set up camp near-by. They were pleasant and kept to themselves.
We set about eating LB's yummy burritos. As we ate the wind died down, the squall dissipated, and the animals came out to play. There were a few sea otters feeding and playing. There were a few seals frolicking about. A pod of Stellar sea lions buzzed our camp.
We kept hearing a loud honking sound. Initially, we thought it was the sea lions. Later, LB said that it might be a whale with a cold. When we saw a few blows in the far distance, we knew it was a whale. This stoked our hope that we'd see some whales while we were kayaking.
Just after dinner, the visitors stopped by to saw there was a bull moose feeding over near their camp. We all rushed over to check it out. The moose was very impressive and undisturbed by his audience. Before long, he moved into the woods and out of view.
A few hours later, after enjoying a fire built out of soggy driftwood, we got ready for bed and started repacking the bear canisters for the night. As H and I cleared the knoll separating the can cache from the beach I spotted the moose again. he was feeding in a clearing about fifty yards away. We, quietly, called the Bs (no relation) over and watched the majestic beast munch.
For PB's take on the day read Kayaking Adventures:Glacier Bay Day 2.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Glacier Bay: Day One

H and I like a little adventure in our lives. (I probably like it a little more than she does. Her caution helps keeps me alive.) So when PB and LB (no relation) asked us to spend some of our honeymoon camping with them in Glacier Bay National Park, we jumped at the chance. Four nights in the vast wilds of Alaska with friends - what could be a better way to honeymoon?
This trip, however, required a little more preplanning than our previous trips. We had to make sure our gear was in order, pre-purchase and send out our food, etc. It was just one more thing to toss into the mix of wedding planning, house purchasing/occupying, and crazy work schedules. Somehow we managed to do an OK job of it. We only forgot a few little things. Fortunately the Bs were much better prepared than we were.

The adventure began at the airport in Juneau. We flew in a small plane to Gustavas, which is the only town near the park's entrance. Space on the plane was limited, so we faced tight weight restrictions. Neither the Bs or the Js were feeling confident that the bags would make it under the 150lb/couple weight limit. We, barely, made the weight cut, but not the size cut. One of the bags would have to fly over on a second plane. Fortunately, we could pick the bag and picked a non-essential one.

I have never flown on a small plane. It was a trip. There was a lot of low cloud cover so the views were not as spectacular as I had heard. However, they were more spectacular than any I'd seen from a plane before. The area between Juneau and Gustavas is empty. All you can see is trees, ice, and water. You could see spots where there had been logging activity, but they were far and few.
Once at the ranger station, the running around began:
We had to watch Don't Feed the Bears: Humans are Bad for a Bear's Digestion.
We had to register with the rangers and get our bear cans.
We had to stuff all of our food into magically bear proof plastic tubes. We sorted the food into sensible categories and H made made a key for future reference.
We had to secure the late arriving bags and lock up any gear we were not taking with us. Since H and I were heading straight to Anchorage after the camping, we had plenty of extra gear.
We had to buy stove fuel and bear spray. Fuel was not a problem, but bear spray was scarce. LB managed to procure some from somewhere.
We had to go through kayak orientation where we were fitted for full-body rubber rain gear and introduced to our transportation for the trip: 4 slightly beat up 17' Easy Rider Eskimos. They are wide, deep and equipped with rope controlled rudders.
We had to pack up the kayaks.
We left later than we had planned and had to fight the current. Tides in Glacier Bay are 10' to 20' and the currents can be pretty significant. The current we fought was not too bad, but being in unfamiliar kayaks added to the strain.
It did not take long for the rudder in my kayak to grate on me. I'm not used to the constant attention a rudder needs to keep straight or the lose foot peddles. I was also having a hard time finding a comfortable position for the size 12 rubber boots I was wearing. So, I pulled up the rudder. The others persevered with their rudders.
A half hour out of Bartlett Cove PB spotted a bear feeding on shore. We weren't sure what kind of bear it was, but we all agreed that we didn't want to get any closer. It is cool to watch a bear from afar. It was a little unnerving to think that there was a chance that we may come face to face with one his brethren.
After an hour of paddling we decided to look for a place to camp. It had been a long day. We found a small island that looked promising. It had some bear signs, but they were old. The island also had a very clear bear path, so we could easily position ourselves and our gear away from it. The site also had a built in early warning system - nesting oyster catchers. We figured they would raise a racket if a bear approached.
We set up our tents very close together. H could exit our tent and hop into the B's tent without leaving cover... almost. The closeness gave us bear novices a sense of confidence. The rest of the camp site was set up in a loose triangle. The bear canisters, with all of the food and toiletries, were hidden in bushes about 50 yards away. The kayaks were tied down closer to the water, but above the high tide line.
The kitchen was set up below high tide line so any waste and scents would wash away. I pulled out my stove, placed the pump in the fuel bottle, and started to pressurize it. As soon as I started pumping, a clear trickle started flowing down the side if the rock... I reset the pump on the bottle to get a better seal and tried again... Same story. A close inspection revealed that my fuel pump had a crack in it.
Fortunately, PB had brought along his new MSR Whisperlight International stove and had tested it out before brining it with him. He fired up his stove and H cooked up some fantastic mac & cheese with peas and ham.
Exhausted and full, we settled into our sleeping bags under the dusky glow of the midnight sun. According to people who don't sleep like the dead, our early warning system proved to be a continual false alarm.
For PB's take on the day read Kayaking Adventures:Glacier Bay Day 1.