Audubon published an excerpt from The Sun is a Compass! Read about our journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge here: Wildlife Biologist Brings us on an Odyssey. Among bird-lovers, there is no greater compliment!
Feeling a bit of spring fever? You’re not alone! Check out a short piece about birds, spring, and migration I published in the LA Times Op-Ed section this morning: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-van-hemert-migration-birds-spring-20190310-htmlstory.html
I have a short piece coming out in the current issue of Sidetracked. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this adventure/travel outlet, it’s a beautifully designed magazine full of photographs and stories sure to inspire wanderlust. You can find more information here: https://sidetracked.bigcartel.com/product/sidetracked-volume-14
A travel van the size of an American suburban. Two boys with joie de vivre that never stops coming, and with it a steady stream of shouting, tears, laughter, and chaos. Four sets of toes touching in the night. A Christmas spent hiking over a remote mountain pass, my two-year on my back, my four-year-old discovering how far his legs can carry him. A front seat office crammed with duffel bags, Legos, water bottles, and the clothes we’d recently shed. Eight hour trail runs that took Pat and me (on alternate days) into the mountains and forests, where we could think, and feel, and sweat in the privacy of our own company. The Bar-tailed Godwits that flew from Alaska in the ultimate test of endurance. The lakes that were impossibly blue, even without rose-tinted sunglasses. The backcountry huts where we hushed our boys to sleep and I bivvied when a mountain run turned epic. The Morepork owl that chased moths in the dim porch light of a neighboring cabin. Days spent mostly outdoors in an island nation with so much to see. This was our New Zealand.
Perhaps I could write a guide on how to travel with children if you care little for personal space, quiet time, or locating a pair of clean socks on any given day. Ironically, I care a lot about all of these things, and yet I’m learning, little by little, to let them go. Our year of travel as a family has been less one of indulgence than restraint. Don’t yell, once again, about the fact that our clean spoons are being used as earth movers. Don’t groan when Huxley says he needs to use the toilet five minutes after we’ve stopped for a bathroom break. Try to ignore the messes and noise while typing a professional email from inside of a cluttered van or a tiny sailboat. In exchange, I’ve been offered the gift of watching my boys create imaginary worlds with sticks and mud. I’ve been humbled when Huxley notices birds before I do, and instructs me on how to avoid a slippery root in the trail. I’ve been privy to Dawson’s running commentary about trees and sheep and the dried figs he loves as he chats happily on my back. These are rare moments, I know. All too often, I’m guilty of forgetting the fact that childhood is short, and our time as parents to young children even shorter. On our multi-day backpacking trips in New Zealand, we met few families but many parents whose children are now grown. In those encounters, nothing and everything was said at once. The eyes of a mother lighting up at the sight of our chubby, towheaded toddler told me that I was fortunate, indeed. The grandpa who smiled at Huxley’s shyness, much like his own son two decades earlier, reminded me of the virtues of patience. The parents who said, again and again, “You will never regret this. Time passes much too quickly.”
Our trip to New Zealand is over, but our year is not. We’ve spent a couple of weeks in the Methow Valley of eastern Washington, staying in a lovely cabin that has allowed us to get our feet on the ground again, play in the snow with friends, and enjoy the fact of not packing up the van each day. Soon, we’ll head back to our cabin in southeast Alaska to see what winter on Lynn Canal might bring. We also have more travel in store this spring, in part due to my forthcoming book.
For anyone who doesn’t know, The Sun is a Compass will be released in late March and I’m looking forward to celebrating, in Anchorage and elsewhere. I have an event at the Anchorage Museum on March 20th: Book launch. I hope you can join me, and, if you’re interested, please consider pre-ordering: The Sun is a Compass. (I apologize for this shameless plug, but pre-ordering really does help authors as the strange algorithms that control the buying and selling of everything these days apparently do much of their work before a book has even been released into the world.) Thanks so much for the support and I look forward to seeing many of you soon!
We’ve taken a break from the northern hemisphere winter and are on the North Island of New Zealand, living in a small camper van, and exploring a wildly different environment. Thanks to whining kids in the backseat, and a deluge outside, we made a recent detour that has so far been the highlight of our trip. Sometimes a 4-year-old knows best (as he regularly reminds us), and this time he was right: a small, family-run dairy farm was the perfect place to wait out the rain.
Without kids, we likely wouldn’t be traveling through New Zealand by van in the first place, and certainly wouldn’t have stopped at a place called The Farm simply for the novelty of it. We wouldn’t have met Mike, the farm’s lively owner, or seen the free-form operation he runs with his wife, children, and whoever else happens to be around on a given day. We’d likely be camped on a glacier in the snow rather than mucking through cow patties and watching pigs squabble over bread crumbs. We’d probably be fitter, and arguably tougher, at least in the physical realm, but no further from our comfort zone, no wiser to the many ways of making a home or building a family. Here, home consists of a sprawling farmhouse, 1,000 acres of marginal grazing land, outbuildings in various states of disrepair, two hundred dairy cows, a few dozen pigs, and a hodgepodge of cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, and ponies. Family means more than just parents and kids. When I asked Mike how many children he has, he hesitated, and turned toward one of his sons. “What are we up to these days, anyway? We used to say 9, but I guess it’s really 11.” Only 4 are biological; the rest came to them by various means: a family friend’s death of cancer at 50, foster care, the fact that there are few places more welcoming to a traveler stranded on the roadside or a child in need of a home.
The scene is chaotic, but somehow it all works. The pigs get fed, the cows get milked, the floors are clean each morning. And everyone seems happy doing it, largely unbothered by the general state of entropy. All around the compound, there are motorbikes and old sheds and leaking roofs while every variety of animal grazes or rests nearby. Entire buildings look like someone’s junk drawer, housing an eclectic mix of the domestic and the industrial: sailing trophies perched atop a broken washing machine, an antelope head mounted next to an ancient piece of farm machinery, steel drums serving as a clothesline for a pair of jeans drying in the sun. There are tractors missing a track, cars missing a wheel, gates with broken latches, and doors coming off of their hinges. Yesterday morning, while we ate breakfast on the porch, a dozen cows ran frantically through the yard. A fence had been left open, or a latch was broken, or who knows what, but all of the cows had escaped during the night and Sunday morning was spent in pursuit of the wanderers. Most people would be floored, or at least annoyed, but when Mike drove up in a 4-wheeler pulling two trailers held together with wire and duct tape, he grinned hugely and shouted, “Good morning, how you all going today?” He and his sheep dog were covered in mud, sweating and panting respectively, and undeniably giddy. This was apparently the excitement they lived for, even if it meant that the many other tasks on his endless to-do list would have to wait another day. And yet he found time to show our boys how the milking shed worked, to instruct one of his trainees to get milk to feed the calves with us (also slightly askew as the boy’s floundering math skills left him with twice the volume he needed and later wondering why the calves weren’t more hungry), and to show us his giant pet steer, “Frosty” who weighs more than a ton and is as gentle as a house cat. What more could a kid wish for on a weekend? Does hospitality get any better than this? I can see why many people never leave, as it’s both the most welcoming and the most unassuming place I’ve ever visited. And on what other farm does morning milking happen at 10 am?
We’ll stay another day or two, then head a bit farther north before turning south again. After a long first week in Auckland, shopping for a camper van and getting sorted with the basic logistics of living in a new place, we’ve found a rhythm in our funny little van. We can all sleep inside, just barely, with the collapsed car seats extending the bed into a modified queen. Head-to-toe, with Pat’s legs serving as referee between the boys (they even manage to fight in their sleep). We’ve mostly been traveling through areas more rural than remote, but have stumbled onto our share of hiking trails and quiet coves. Of course there’s no shortage of new things to discover, especially from a kid’s perspective. We’ve waded thigh-deep in an underground stream, hiked along narrow sea bluffs, and wondered at the odd shape of the moon from the perspective of the southern hemisphere. The trees are exotic and the flowers abundant. Mornings are filled with birdsong that I don’t yet know. Some of the birds have come here for the winter warmth like we have, while others are just beginning their breeding season. I spotted my first Bar-tailed Godwit (an Arctic migrant) several days ago and last night heard the calls of a resident owl with a name that can’t help but make you smile (Morepork). Watching gannets dive is a favorite family pastime, or at least a favorite in my book.
We have our sights on the mountains of the South Island and will likely head there soon, but not until after a few more adventures on the northern coast, hopefully with a stop at the Miranda Shorebird Centre. It’s a sister organization to the Alaska Science Center (where I work), and they collaboratively track the amazing migrations of Bar-tailed Godwits and other shorebirds that transit the globe. For the next six weeks, we have no real itinerary, and only a little work to attend to. Life in a van with a 2- and a 4-year-old won’t suit us forever, but we’ll take it for now. Sending good winter wishes to everyone up north!
Our son, Huxley, was five weeks old when a local pilot landed on the beach in front of our cabin in his Super Cub. We’d last seen him when he delivered a food resupply to us in Glacier Bay the previous spring. At the time, we were on a ski and packraft traverse from Yakutat to Haines, at the peak of our backcountry wanderlust, and seemingly far from being the parents of an infant. A year later, as I walked down the beach to greet the pilot, I wondered what he might say when he saw that we had a baby. He isn’t known for niceties, or small talk even. He’s more apt to curse at you than to ask how you are, though he’s kind behind his often brash manner.
“What’s going on?”
“Not too much, just got out here.”
And then he notices. “What the hell is that? A baby?”
He’s a father himself, though certainly not without his tortured moments of parenthood, about which we’ve heard plenty while in the air with him or prepping gear in his hangar. Waiting for a snide comment, or a “now you’ve done it” look, I brace myself. Instead, I see something soften in his face when he says, “Oh, you’ve got to do it. It’ll make you a better person.”
He’s right. It will make you a better person. It makes me a better person every day, even during those moments of wanting to pull my hair out, or yell, or recruit a babysitter so Pat and I can have a few minutes of quiet. Or those less-proud moments when I do lose my temper and shout because our kids are fighting, for the twelfth time, over who gets to close the door. Because it’s been raining for a week straight. Because two boys in a small cabin are impossible. And yet I can’t imagine it any other way.
On the mornings when current political realities feel suffocating (as they often do lately), I can’t help but smile as footed pajamas come padding down the stairs. It’s a new day, and there’s no denying it when a 2- and a 4-year-old wake up ready for adventure. It’s raining buckets, but they don’t care. There’s the same bad news on the radio, but they’re too busy listening to the patter on the roof and the wind in the trees to notice. Their energy is spent battling over who gets more raisins, figuring out how we will join three toys with a single piece of twine, or pondering why crabs don’t live where the waves crash on the beach. For this, I am both driven mad and infinitely grateful. Their world view dwells entirely in the present. Though Pat and I can’t attest to the same, when we are with them we are forced into living in the now, and nowhere else. It’s a chaotic sort of Zen.
Over the past several days, our local lighthouse has been reporting gusts of 50 knots, every bucket and barrel is full to overflowing, and our beach froths white with surf. It’s fall in Lynn Canal, which means rain, wind, and big seas. Five years ago, I would have snuggled up by the woodstove, pulled a favorite novel from the bookshelf, and settled in to watch the storm splatter rain against the windowpanes. Today, I am reading children’s books and cleaning playdough from the cracks in the floor. After a summer that never seemed to end, we have no grounds for complaint about the recent stormy weather. But cabin fever takes on certain intensity with two active young boys sharing our space. Sipping coffee and daydreaming on the couch is not in our current life plan. Fortunately, after four months spent largely outside, the boys don’t think much about suiting up in raingear and playing with trucks and sticks in the deluge. Ironically, in a rainstorm, the most popular activity seems to involve buckets of water.
Since Pat put up the electric bear fence, we’ve had only two breaches—a brazen black bear that either didn’t get shocked the first time, or didn’t get the message that nuzzling a charged wire is uncomfortable. On the first occasion, the bear didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary as it ambled past our porch. The second time, it came barreling through, hightailing out the opposite side, perhaps a sign that something about the fence finally registered as a deterrent. We haven’t seen it since.
We had a glorious September, with more sunshine than I thought possible for a southeast Alaskan fall. Between catching up on work, writing, and cabin projects, we’ve enjoyed lots of mini-adventures at Glacier Point and nearby. As usual, we’ve had more wildlife than human visitors, although a fun week with cousins from Seattle almost bucked that trend. Large rafts of scoters have come and gone, a coyote trotted just a few feet from me, sea lions have toyed with our crab pot, and half a dozen bears have wandered by. We’ve taken trips to the nearby islands to beachcomb, tested our rowboats with all four of us on board, and hiked to the Davidson Glacier.
Beyond the many idyllic cabin scenes, however, is the looming prospect that the University of Alaska will finalize the timber sale they’ve been threatening. So far, they’ve been unwilling to disclose any details, other than the fact that all of their holdings in the area are up for negotiation, including parcels neighboring ours. We’re surrounded by nothing but water and trees for miles, and yet sometimes it feels like the chainsaws and loaders could come at any moment. So far it’s only been a crew of five timber surveyors, snarling at me when I walked over to say hello. We’re trying not to let these facts gnaw at us, and, as with all the rest, kids are a good antidote to worrying too much about what might come.
A fall backpacking trip in the Haines Pass also reminded us that wilderness travel with a toddler and a preschooler is possible, and even fun. Huxley impressed us all by hiking more than 5 miles a day, with glacially-fed creek crossings among his highlights. At that pace, we could actually make it somewhere. Even if the distances aren’t large, and barely a quarter of what Pat and I became accustomed to traveling on our own, several miles off-trail is far enough to find a bit of wildness. In this case, it came in the form of a stunning glacial valley, a black wolf loping across the tundra, and blueberry bushes still thick with berries. After a few days in the mountains, we were inspired to try more of the same. Though it’s literally on the other side of the planet, we’d been toying with the idea of traveling to New Zealand, in large part because of the many easy opportunities for backcountry travel, especially with kids. Finding mileage tickets pushed us over the edge and we are now officially going! We have been reluctant to leave Glacier Point after looking forward to spending much of the year here, but a week of intense rain and wind is helping to convince us that taking a little break won’t be so bad. We have no real itinerary, other than spending most of our time hiking and camping.
So, in a month, as I’m wondering what I’m doing on an extended road trip with a toddler and a preschooler, listening to more depressing political news from home or worrying about logging in my backyard, I will remind myself that I am in training to be a better person. A more compassionate person. A person who can take in all of what the world has to offer, in its ugliest and most beautiful forms, and still ask hopefully, “a few more raisins?”
There are some old souls in this world. Born to do the things that typically come with old age (or at least retirement), an old soul will tinker, sit in a nice chair on the porch, and observe the slant of light on the mountains. Huxley is 4 going on 65. He has all the energy and curiosity of a preschooler, yet tends toward the geriatric in his interests. Left to his own devices, he’ll tie knots, hammer in the workshop, sort his carefully archived treasures, or walk in the woods immediately behind our cabin (with a thoughtfully selected hiking stick, of course). In the name of a good project, he persists with jobs that others might find unpleasant and tiresome. Haul brush the same size as he is. Tie the same knot twenty times before it comes out right. Trip over a trail of endless roots. He’s a boy in heaven at a remote cabin site. The only problems arise when someone interrupts his work to say that it’s time to eat dinner, or go back to the cabin, or put on his pajamas. “But I’m working on a really tricky knot right now.” Fair enough, but even an old soul needs to eat.
Dawson, on the other hand, is the embodiment of free-wheeling youth. Laugh hard, leap high, poke everything and everyone (including his brother) with sharp objects to see what will happen. Fortunately, Huxley seems to find many of these behaviors, minus the poking, more humorous than we do. Together, they make a good pair. Cabin life would be much more tranquil, but infinitely less exciting, without their company.
Landing at Glacier Point after a summer on the sailboat has definitely felt like a homecoming. It’s been quiet, but not dull. There’s so much to explore and see, even on the micro-scale that seems to be our range these days with the boys. A cozy cabin and endless beach and woods to roam have allowed all of us to stretch our legs and spread out after months of confined quarters. We miss much of the simplicity of Chaika, but being on dry land is also a welcome change. Since we arrived, we’ve been neck-deep in projects, which seem to define our existence out here. A few of the projects, at least for me, are related to writing and work. Most of them, however, attend to the basics of a remote, off-the-grid existence.
Modern homesteading, like sailing, depends on a large number of systems. Water systems. Power systems. Boat systems. And, because I’m trying to work from this remote site, satellite and computer systems. Every one of these is unconventional, finicky, and often assembled in an iterative process of learning from our mistakes. We conceived of many of these a dozen years ago, when we knew much less and had little money to throw at fancy equipment. As a result, most things work, but not without some serious muscle and a few magic spells. We have a mooring anchor with a running line but because of the fact that the mountains act like a wind tunnel here, we frequently have to haul our 18’ skiff onto the beach. Enter the trailer (hauled in pieces on the skiff), the ancient smoke-belching gas-powered winch, and the deadman log buried five feet under the gravel. We collect rainwater from the roof, which fills a 550-gallon tank sitting beneath our kitchen floor. Don’t look inside too closely or you might notice the green slime. We have a bathtub indoors, but it’s currently serving as Dawon’s bed. Instead we shower outside with a tiny on-demand water heater that is among the most modern of our machinery fleet, and the most reliable. Pat and the boys have almost finished setting up a bear fence to help keep our large, furry neighbors out of our compound. We charge our battery bank with solar panels and will add a wind generator this fall. There are a lot of moving pieces in our lives, besides a 2- and 4-year-old
For years, we’ve battled various systems for getting phone or internet connectivity. Most recently, I had resorted to taking the half-mile walk to an old plywood boat that washed up many decades ago near the lagoon north of our cabin. This location, which we’ve dubbed the “phone booth,” offers spotty cell service, although sometimes sending an email can take two hours. We’d tried satellite once before; after following many complicated and confusing instructions from the local installer, we managed to wrestle the dish into place and pick up a signal, but the company folded just a few months later and the large dish we had hauled out there was useless. We’ve also employed various antennas and boosters, all without any success. This time, we needed a better solution because of my work and the fact that we plan to be here for much of the year. Plus, the “phone booth” had obviously experienced a hard winter and was missing its roof when we returned this season. So satellite seemed like a necessary evil again. We were surprised to find that the set-up was much easier than the first time, and we soon had a signal. After finishing, triumphant and now connected to the outside world from the comfort of the cabin, life suddenly seemed a bit tamer. But then Pat took a trip to the outhouse, scared a brown bear out of the woods, and the wild again felt very close to home, satellites orbiting above us or not.
We arrived here later this year than ever before, and many of the birds have already left, the beach strawberries have come and gone, and the first yellow leaves are dropping from the cottonwood trees. Fortunately, we weren’t too late for the fish, and caught a winter’s worth in a single morning. We use a small drift net (similar to commercial gillnetters, but only 1/10th of the size) to haul sockeye salmon from the Chilkat Inlet. After a day of processing, our freezer—powered by the solar panels—is stocked and we are rich in one of the best wild foods out there. Now we can join our old soul on the porch, watching the waves with full and grateful bellies.
Thumbs up for pizza dinner.
Lynn Canal never fails to welcome us home with its own version of tough love. Eldred Rock, a lighthouse just a few miles from our cabin, typically reports stronger winds than almost anywhere else in southeast Alaska. Yesterday was no exception. We zoomed north for 35 miles, often hitting a speed of 8 kts/hr (usually, we’re happy to make 4-5 under sail). The sun broke through the rain clouds and lit up the steep peaks and hanging glaciers that line the canal. As we passed familiar terrain, I felt the first real nostalgia about reaching our destination. But there wasn’t much time to contemplate the views—between managing kids and managing sails, our hands were full and we had to savor our homecoming in brief bursts. Arriving to the Haines harbor was equally hectic. The wind howled from behind and Pat had the engine running in reverse to slow us down. Shortly after blowing in, someone clocked a gust of 40 knots. Of course the boys wanted to see our final arrival, which always adds to the chaos. As Pat put it, having the boys (especially Dawson) up on deck when we’re trying to take down sails or wiggle our full-keel, 20,000-pound boat into a narrow slip in the wind feels a bit like someone has released a raccoon in the cockpit. Manage the crisis before you, and keep the raccoon from causing damage. But now we are here, all intact, despite Dawson’s final hurrah of taking a full somersault dive down the companionway steps shortly after we arrived (apparently he was saving his best performance for last).
Just in case we had started to feel overly confident after getting a few miles behind us, two recent August storms pointed out the fact that we are a small boat in a big sea, and still learning our way around the many nuances of sailing. A wave into the cockpit, a crashing drawer full of silverware, and a hasty second anchorage were all reminders that we should not be complacent when it comes to the whims of the North Pacific. After the worst of the first storm passed, we poked our bow out for a short run to another bay a few miles away. We raised the jib, caught the stiff breeze, and all seemed fine until we turned the corner into a confused, choppy soup. Waves ran broadside to the wind and, suddenly, just one headsail seemed like too much. A big set brought a wave that drenched Pat in the cockpit, sent a drawerful of silverware, knives, and tools flying to the floor, and left the boys hooting with excitement. They seem to find these moments of stress quite entertaining. Fortunately, everyone fared fine, the drawer went back together, and we were able to find protection soon after, but it left Pat and I a bit humbled. Chaika undoubtedly can take much more than what the recent gales delivered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can. So, when the next gale was forecast, we found an anchorage that seemed decent, if a bit open to the east. We took a short trip to the beach to explore, stared out at all the water before us, and decided we’d better make a push to somewhere more secure before dark. We were happy we did so when the wind started to howl later that night, and realized we would have been hit squarely with 30-40 knot gusts at our first site. Instead, we swung around in a tight bay surrounded by forested slopes.
The last week of our trip brought rain, wind, whales, long sailing days, and a growing desire to stretch our legs in a slightly larger space. Seeing whales surface nearby and watching a bear at close range from the safety of the dinghy were among our farewell gifts. We also managed to catch the annual community party in Tenakee Springs, and were invited for hot dogs and music as we walked by. It’s amazing how easily our minds adjust to expectations. Had we planned to continue sailing for another two months, or six, I’m sure we would happily do so. But once we got a whiff of home, our bow pointed due north and we all longed for the wood stove, our familiar beach, and a little quiet morning time, alone (at least for me!). There are quite a few chores to finish before we can truly settle in—one of the first among them is putting up the bear fence—but we’re close to being home. We’re also grateful that we made the trip without any major mishaps, and only an alternator replacement for mechanical repairs
We had considered a quick stop at our cabin before docking in Haines, but with our exposed coastline and the stiff south breeze, there was no chance of anchoring here, even temporarily. We will wait to say hello until we come out by skiff, sometime in the next few days. Losing Chaika at our final stop would be a bummer of a way to end the trip. So we’ll take care of our town errands—wash several loads of laundry, pick up mail, haul a trailer-full of food and supplies to the dock (and then to Glacier Point)—and get ready for our next phase of the adventure.
We haven’t decided where we’ll take Chaika next, but Haines will be her home port through the winter. It will also be our floating base for when we come to town to resupply and get stuck by weather (as we often do). This will be our first fall at our cabin, and we’re excited to see the seasons change, although hopefully we can hang on to the tail of summer for a little bit longer. In the company of bears, wolves, otters, and other creatures, and minus the usual amenities of dishwashers, electric heat, flush toilets, and refrigerators, this version of home will be an adventure in itself, especially with our boys. Huxley has been waiting all summer to get to the cabin so he can build a treehouse and work on various projects. Dawson thinks that anything Huxley does is cool, made even better by pulling his hair, poking him, or doing whatever little brothers do to annoy their siblings. Dawson turns two in a few days, and is still wondering who is coming to his birthday party. I haven’t yet broken it to him that it will just be us (meaning mom, dad, and brother). We’re short on neighbors of the human variety at Glacier Point. But he can still count on a cake and presents, and I’ve promised a trip to see cousins and friends soon. Anyone up for a visit?
Thanks for sharing our sailing adventure with us, and please stay tuned for updates about life at Glacier Point.
Ten years ago (actually, yesterday!), on a similarly blustery day, Pat and I stood on the beach at Glacier Point while my sister read our vows. A few dozen of our hardiest friends and family members donned their wool socks and long underwear to join us at our not-quite-finished cabin for a not-quite-formal affair. That summer, we were three seasons into the building of our log cabin on Lynn Canal, which, like every such project, was slower and harder than we had first imagined. We cut and stacked the trees by hand, poured concrete footings with water hauled from a creek and gravel collected from the beach, and learned the many nuances of living in one of the windiest stretches of coastal rainforest in southeast Alaska. Just days before our guests arrived, the place looked like a bombed-out construction site rather than a wedding venue. But, with some hard labor from a small super crew of helpers, we avoided any calamities and spent a glorious weekend feeling loved, honored, and truly blessed.
Although neither of us are particularly sentimental, it’s impossible not to think about where we’ve come in a decade. So many things have changed. So many things have stayed the same. Back then, our laundry consisted of fewer pee-soaked items. Our mornings were quieter. Our hours were spent chasing our own wild desires, not those of two tiny dictators. But, even now, our evening conversations still follow a familiar trajectory: which adventure, where, how? The cheap box of wine seems to disappear just as quickly, while oatmeal remains our breakfast of choice. Communications are spotty, and we’re again a bit behind on our professional commitments. We’ve since traveled many more miles together and now have two boys, who make sure we will never again take ourselves too seriously.
I can’t remember what element or precious metal is designated to mark the ten year anniversary, but we’ll settle for oatmeal and strong coffee. I’m sure the boys have a celebratory dinner planned, and have arranged for a babysitter. Or maybe they’ll be pulling their usual routines, sobbing over a broken banana, chasing salmon in the shallows, woo-hooing when we hit big waves and go “rocking and rolling.” It will be just another day, but one for which I am infinitely grateful.
We have taken our time working our way up the east coast of Baranof Island, which so far has been rich in whales, salmon, bears, waterfalls, and hot springs. From here we’ll continue up Chatham Strait, possibly taking a detour into Icy Strait before heading into our home waters of Lynn Canal. We left Bellingham exactly two months ago, and we’re nearing the northern end of the Inside Passage. After more than a thousand miles on the water, we still haven’t figured out how to draw more time from each day, especially alone adult time, but we’ve certainly found a rhythm in our constant movement. I won’t miss the many hours spent each day planning, and re-planning our route, the fact that I still can’t get a dozen feet of separation from any of my family members, or the duffel bags of clothes that swallow socks and underwear. I will miss (and already do), the feeling that came in the first weeks of the trip when we had no real agenda and no rush to get anywhere. I will miss exploring new places each day, and needing only as much as we have with us. But the cabin will be its own reward, with its 700 square feet of living area feeling more spacious than ever. The 3-6” of rain expected to come with this latest storm might help nudge us in that direction as well! From there, we can scheme about where to go next, and how. Or perhaps we’ll just stay put. Our upcoming year is a mostly-open slate, with plans still to be determined. This uncertainty is by design, and we are excited to make good use of the months ahead.
What’s a person to do when there’s an appealing sandy beach on a distant island but no way to get there? Apparently, find a log, some flat rocks, and get to work. At least that’s what my four-year-old informed me yesterday when he discovered that a small ocean passage separated us from the beach he intended to visit. I tried to explain that we hadn’t gone to that beach because it was very windy and we needed to watch Chaika to make sure the anchor didn’t drag. Huxley didn’t seem impressed by my comments and began devising a solution that the grown-ups, in our short-sightedness, had obviously failed to consider.
Here’s what I was thinking, mommy: We can float over on a log.
OK, but how will we paddle?
Here are some flat rocks. These will work for paddles.
How will we get the log into the water?
You push, I’ll pry with this stick.
It’s a long ways to the water.
Maybe we could get it into the pond right there and float it to the ocean.
It’s very heavy.
Well, I’ll need you to push harder. Dawson, can you help us too?
For anyone who knows Pat, the resemblance might be striking. I need a cabin. The trees over there will work fine. I’ll just stack them up, put a roof on, and climb inside. I’m not cut from the same cloth as those two, but I’ve been suckered into chasing a few of their “good ideas.” Huxley and I didn’t make it over to the sandy beach on a log, but it was certainly not for lack of trying.
After traveling through narrow Rocky Pass on the east side of Kuiu Island we’re waiting out a gale in Big John Bay, a classic Alaskan scene with black bears browsing the intertidal, salmon jumping near the boat, and mist hanging low against the spruce trees. I know it’s poor form to complain about the heat in southeast Alaska, but after two weeks straight of 80 degree days, horseflies, and no or only rough upwind sailing, I was ready for a change, at least briefly. Now we have it. Yesterday the clouds came as something of a relief, though the rain is another matter, and I’m sure we’ll soon be wishing for the hot sun again. In the meantime, we’ll dig out our rain gear and wait for the mildew to make its usual appearance. My biggest regret so far is not making better use of the sun shower when we had the chance. Bathing seems to fall increasingly low on our list of town priorities when we stop to resupply.
Several days ago, we took a brief respite from the heat by exploring a cave on the west side of Prince of Wales Island. The El Capitan limestone cave is reportedly the deepest in North America. With several miles of tunnels and caverns, and a depth of 600 feet, it’s massive, though we only saw its opening passage. Huxley loved his first experience spelunking and would have continued much farther if given the chance. Dawson simply thought it was cold. The 345 wooden steps that lead to the cave’s entrance were another matter in his opinion. His well-reasoned, almost-two-year-old strategy for descending was to throw himself off of the edge of each one, never mind the fact that he hasn’t entirely mastered jumping yet. Fortunately blueberries provided enough distraction after the first couple of flights to save our backs from trying to prevent a serious tumble.
While at the small US Forest Service dock near El Capitan, we had another near-miss, this time with a bowl full of pumpkin bread. I was in Chaika getting dinner started, Pat was on a run, and the boys were fishing from the dock. Suddenly, I heard a huge bout of screaming. From a distance, it must have sounded like a true emergency, but since both boys were yelling, and I hadn’t heard that long, scary silence that comes with a real injury, I figured everyone was likely OK. Still, the screams still had me clambering quickly up on deck. There, floating behind Chaika, was Dawson’s blue bowl, bobbing away in the wind. The boys were beside themselves, perhaps equally upset about the loss of the bowl and the now water-logged dessert. I wrestled Marshmallow off the dock and into the water, rowed to retrieve the bowl, and became their hero for the day when I returned with the soggy pumpkin bread. At least we’ve instilled the lesson that losing things overboard is to be avoided, though they are apparently still learning to scale their response to the seriousness of the situation.
We had to abandon our plans to take the outer route to Sitka due to the recent weather. A 30 knot headwind and thirteen foot seas along an exposed coastline didn’t sound like a good mix, even for our stout boat. The high pressure system bringing strong NW winds has finally weakened but a low chased hotly behind, quickly building to a south gale with 45 knot winds. More mellow weather is in the forecast but tonight it’s blowing hard as we swing back and forth on anchor. We will likely work our way up Chatham Strait and skip the outer coast unless conditions stabilize soon.
Finally sailing again!
Scouting for channel markers.