New Zealand by Caroline Van Hemert

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!

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A better person by Caroline Van Hemert

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.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“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?”

 Hiking to the lagoon.

Hiking to the lagoon.

 Bouldering near the Davidson Glacier.

Bouldering near the Davidson Glacier.

 Bucket swing.

Bucket swing.

 Cabin life.

Cabin life.

 Calm evening campfire.

Calm evening campfire.

 Wooly bear caterpillars loved this fall too.

Wooly bear caterpillars loved this fall too.

 Somebody likes crab!

Somebody likes crab!

 Our first family rowing trip.

Our first family rowing trip.

 We landed at a favorite beach, pulled the boats above the tideline, and began to wade in the water. Our time there was cut short, though, when a brown bear decided that it would also like to linger at this lovely spot.

We landed at a favorite beach, pulled the boats above the tideline, and began to wade in the water. Our time there was cut short, though, when a brown bear decided that it would also like to linger at this lovely spot.

 A good explorer can sleep anywhere.  

A good explorer can sleep anywhere.  

 Haines Pass adventure.

Haines Pass adventure.

 Blueberries! 

Blueberries! 

 Small boy, big land.

Small boy, big land.

 View from the tent.

View from the tent.

 Dawson pleased with his sleeping bag.  

Dawson pleased with his sleeping bag.  

 Huxley was tired of hiking...until he came to this glacially-fed creek crossing.  

Huxley was tired of hiking...until he came to this glacially-fed creek crossing.  

 Backcountry bliss.

Backcountry bliss.

 Bath on the beach. 

Bath on the beach. 

 Not a bad way to dry out.  

Not a bad way to dry out.  

 My paddling partner.  

My paddling partner.  

 Barefoot tide pooling (in late September!).  

Barefoot tide pooling (in late September!).  

 Our neighbors.  

Our neighbors.  

 Working on my birthday present. Pat is a master of kid-friendly projects.  

Working on my birthday present. Pat is a master of kid-friendly projects.  

 Pat’s preschool. Painting day.  

Pat’s preschool. Painting day.  

 Uncle B and the cousins come to visit! 

Uncle B and the cousins come to visit! 

 How many boys are in the bath tub (aka fish tote)?

How many boys are in the bath tub (aka fish tote)?

 I stole a few days with my dear friend Karen to celebrate my birthday. 40 isn’t looking too bad from here!

I stole a few days with my dear friend Karen to celebrate my birthday. 40 isn’t looking too bad from here!

 The end of summer.  

The end of summer.  

 Sunrise over Lynn Canal.  

Sunrise over Lynn Canal.  

 Fall is here! 

Fall is here! 

 Another one of Pat’s genius ideas. The recirculating water pump. 

Another one of Pat’s genius ideas. The recirculating water pump. 

 It’s a new day! 

It’s a new day! 

 Thanks, boys.  

Thanks, boys.  

Cabin life by Caroline Van Hemert

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. 

 

 Living large in Haines. 

Living large in Haines. 

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Thumbs up for pizza dinner.  

 Hauling a load to the cabin. 

Hauling a load to the cabin. 

 Boating is hard work.  

Boating is hard work.  

 Attending to the essentials. 

Attending to the essentials. 

 Pulling our skiff (“Tubby”) up the beach. 

Pulling our skiff (“Tubby”) up the beach. 

 Helping with rope management. 

Helping with rope management. 

 Watching the clouds go by. 

Watching the clouds go by. 

 Sleeping in a bathtub is fun!

Sleeping in a bathtub is fun!

 Sunny morning. 

Sunny morning. 

 Happy birthday Dawson! (we forgot the candles)

Happy birthday Dawson! (we forgot the candles)

 Happy to be 2!

Happy to be 2!

 Who’s in charge here, anyway?

Who’s in charge here, anyway?

 Workshop bath. 

Workshop bath. 

 Ready for work.  

Ready for work.  

 Building the bear fence. 

Building the bear fence. 

 Helpers. 

Helpers. 

 Buoys in the boat house. 

Buoys in the boat house. 

 Paddling to Hawaii.  “We’ll meet you there, Mommy.”

Paddling to Hawaii.  “We’ll meet you there, Mommy.”

 Going fishing!

Going fishing!

 Setting the net. 

Setting the net. 

 Salmon!

Salmon!

 A good haul.

A good haul.

 Cleaning fish on the beach. 

Cleaning fish on the beach. 

 Another fishing trip.  

Another fishing trip.  

 Moments before a face plant.  

Moments before a face plant.  

 Workshop at twilight. 

Workshop at twilight. 

Home port by Caroline Van Hemert

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.

 Humpback feeding in Icy Strait.  

Humpback feeding in Icy Strait.  

 There it is! 

There it is! 

 Digging for roots.  

Digging for roots.  

 Oh, those bugs!  

Oh, those bugs!  

 The boys’ favorite part. “The bear pooped!” 

The boys’ favorite part. “The bear pooped!” 

 OK, the show’s over, folks.     

OK, the show’s over, folks.  

 

 Party at Tenakee Springs.  

Party at Tenakee Springs.  

 View from shore.  

View from shore.  

 Improvised teeter-totter.  

Improvised teeter-totter.  

 Hike on the beach.  

Hike on the beach.  

 Waiting out a storm.  

Waiting out a storm.  

 Rainy day hike.  

Rainy day hike.  

 Hooked a big one...and then it got away! 

Hooked a big one...and then it got away! 

 Fun in the V-berth.  

Fun in the V-berth.  

 Last night at anchor.  

Last night at anchor.  

 Misty morning.  

Misty morning.  

 Eldred rock lighthouse.  

Eldred rock lighthouse.  

 Exciting day in Lynn Canal.  

Exciting day in Lynn Canal.  

 Sailing into Haines harbor.  

Sailing into Haines harbor.  

Anniversary by Caroline Van Hemert

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.

 Limestone sea cave on Kuiu Island.  

Limestone sea cave on Kuiu Island.  

 Watching a brown bear on shore. 

Watching a brown bear on shore. 

 Salmon under sail!

Salmon under sail!

 View from the mast. 

View from the mast. 

 Flying our 1970s-era drifter (a light wind sail). 

Flying our 1970s-era drifter (a light wind sail). 

 The crew. 

The crew. 

 Baranof Warm Springs. 

Baranof Warm Springs. 

 Hot springs tub soak. 

Hot springs tub soak. 

  Hiking up a salmon stream to a waterfall.

 Hiking up a salmon stream to a waterfall.

  “Can we take a shower here?”

 “Can we take a shower here?”

 Rainy day beach adventure. 3-6” of rain was expected in two days. 

Rainy day beach adventure. 3-6” of rain was expected in two days. 

 Happy hiker. 

Happy hiker. 

 Rainforest climb. 

Rainforest climb. 

 Rough water sailing. Pat took a wave over the cockpit. 

Rough water sailing. Pat took a wave over the cockpit. 

 The end of the storm. 

The end of the storm. 

 Lunch of choice. 

Lunch of choice. 

 Anniversary hike. 

Anniversary hike. 

 Blueberry picking. 

Blueberry picking. 

 My hiking partner. 

My hiking partner. 

 Chaika from above. 

Chaika from above. 

 Berry bliss. 

Berry bliss. 

 A tired sailor.  

A tired sailor.  

Let’s float there on a log... by Caroline Van Hemert

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.

 

 View from the west coast of Prince of Wales Island. 

View from the west coast of Prince of Wales Island. 

 Breach! 

Breach! 

 Quiet anchorage.

Quiet anchorage.

 Shrimp in the sunshine.

Shrimp in the sunshine.

 Whale watching.

Whale watching.

 Spelunking in El Capitan cave.

Spelunking in El Capitan cave.

 Dawson’s special. Jumping down each of 345 steps.

Dawson’s special. Jumping down each of 345 steps.

 Popular pastime. Boat within a boat.

Popular pastime. Boat within a boat.

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Finally sailing again!

 Yellowlegs at home in the mud.

Yellowlegs at home in the mud.

 Happy at sail.

Happy at sail.

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Scouting for channel markers.

 There must be a moose around here somewhere!

There must be a moose around here somewhere!

 Waterfall ascent.

Waterfall ascent.

 Leaving Hole-in-the-Wall anchorage. (It’s narrower than it looks!)

Leaving Hole-in-the-Wall anchorage. (It’s narrower than it looks!)

 Big trees, good climbing.

Big trees, good climbing.

 Low tide exploring.

Low tide exploring.

 Brother love. (Followed by an aggressive wrestling match.)

Brother love. (Followed by an aggressive wrestling match.)

 “OK, now here’s our log.” 

“OK, now here’s our log.” 

  “Here are the paddles.”

 “Here are the paddles.”

 “Now, mommy, help us push!” 

“Now, mommy, help us push!” 

 Turnstones on the move.

Turnstones on the move.

 Who needs pants, anyway? 

Who needs pants, anyway? 

 Contemplating the rain.

Contemplating the rain.

 Playing with sticks.

Playing with sticks.

Dinghy adrift, grandparents, and orcas by Caroline Van Hemert

We are now solidly in Alaska, cruising up the west side of Prince of Wales Island. We’ve had an incredible stretch of southeast sunshine, eight days and running. With the sun, though, comes the northwest wind, which has made sailing difficult or impossible many days. We can plot our course by looking up at the wind vane: whichever way the wind is blowing is opposite the direction we intend to travel. But for now, we will take a little motoring in exchange for what feels like a pleasant, cooler version of the tropics, with spruce and cedar forests, black bears, wolves, and salmon. This morning, Pat woke up to a humpback blowing in the cove where we were anchored and, soon after, we heard sandhill cranes, and spotted a black bear on the beach. On the southern part of the island, which is a designated wilderness area, there is little sign of logging or other disturbance. By the time this posts, we will likely be a bit farther north, near the communities of Craig and Klawock. We’ve had a full week and a half, with the crossing of Dixon Entrance into Alaska, a visit from our first sleep-aboard guests, and more wildlife sightings as we travel north.

Six years ago, we spent several nights camped at Cape Fox, a small point of land that juts out into Dixon Entrance just north of the Alaska-Canada border. On that trip, we were traveling north in our 18’ rowboats in April. We hadn’t seen another boat for days. We stopped at Cape Fox to take shelter from a gale that quickly turned into a storm. After the first night, we thought the weather might be improving so poked out several miles before being chased back, frightened and humbled. Soon, the wind blew so hard that ferries were cancelled, sea spray reached us far inland, and we clearly had no business being out in small boats. This time around, in mid-July, the sun shone and the water was as still as Dixon Entrance ever is, with just a low westerly swell that rose to meet the rocks with a quiet, steady crash.

To assuage our sentimental sides, and give us all a chance to stretch our legs after 2.5 days straight on the boat, we decided to stop here with the boys and visit our old campsite. We anchored in the small, sheltered bight between Fox Island and the mainland, then rowed Marshmallow to the same beach where we’d landed our rowboats, desperate and relieved. The afternoon was warm, and we planned on a quick stop so took only a basic shore kit. With the boys, we passed our old campsite by the enormous cedar tree, then hiked over to the other side, where a quarter-mile long beach offered tidepooling, sand running, deer tracks, and memories. But just as we began to eat our sandwiches, the sky unleashed. Within ten minutes, we were all drenched. By the time we got back to Marshmallow, two inches of water stood on its bottom.  As we climbed onto Chaika, I heard: “It’s good we have our water shoes on for all this rain, isn’t it, Mommy?” Huxley‘s knack for pointing out the seemingly obvious, with a toddler’s version of the profound, is becoming legendary in our family. Most recently, while relieving himself overboard, he commented, “When we pee in the ocean, it gets fuller.” 

That night, we anchored at Foggy Bay, where we met a friend-of-a-friend from Haines, whose 27’ boat was moored near ours. They had been waiting for four days to cross Dixon Entrance so we considered ourselves lucky to have a quick transit, with only moderate swell. The next morning, we went to explore the interesting reef and coastline. Pat and I often take turns exercising on shore. One of us hunts for crabs or goes for a mini-hike with the boys while the other comes up with a workout of sorts—beach sprints, dips on a log, push-ups in the sand. Anything to keep us from feeling too boat-bound and sedentary.  That morning, I exercised, we swapped, and then it was Pat’s turn. There were berries on shore so the boys and I were busy picking. Pat was occupied by squat jumps when he looked up and saw Marshmallow, our dinghy, floating away with the wind. We always tie off Marshmallow, even when the tide is falling, in part because adventures with the boys carry us to unknown destinations with an unknown schedule (though we can pretty much count on everything taking longer than we ever imagined). Except this time of course. There weren’t any logs or rocks nearby for a convenient tie-off so we carried Marshmallow high up the beach and figured we would be right there to watch her anyway. Famous last words. As Pat sprinted down the beach and into the water, the boys squealed with excitement, “Go daddy, go!” Pat managed to reach the dinghy just before he had to start fully swimming. With the only neighboring boat now gone and a mile-wide bay for a dinghy to drift across, it could have been an epic morning instead of an entertaining spectacle for the boys.

We arrived in Ketchikan the next day to check in with Customs, resupply, and meet my parents who would be our first sleep-aboard guests. Unlike our last stop there in April, the city was in full summer swing, with more float planes, cruise ships, and fishing boats coming and going than I’ve seen just about anywhere. After encountering few people and little such activity for quite a few days, the busyness felt jarring, but the visit from my parents made up for any culture shock. The boys were thrilled to see Yaya and Bumpa and kept them busy on the boat and on shore, teetering from one side of the deck to the other, turning over every rock on the beach, “watering” weeds on the dock, and providing instruction on how the various parts of Chaika work. “OK, Yaya, now step here, and hold onto this rail, yep, right here, OK, now over the lifeline, see how I’m doing it.” Like ususal, my parents seemed to find the accommodations just fine when we headed out for an overnight sail to southern Gravina Island. As Huxley had so carefully planned, our family of 4 squeezed into the V-berth and my parents got cozy on the fold-down table. Huxley has developed the habit of migrating out of his nook created by a lee cloth and sleeping squarely in the middle of the V-berth. The fact that two adults were now occupying this space seemed to do little to discourage him and both Pat and I thought we were shoving each other out of the way when in fact it was Huxley we were wrestling all night. A small person with a big presence, even while sleeping.

But size, of course, is simply a matter of perspective. Pat happily informed me one evening while we were in Ketchikan working late in an attempt to finish all of our town tasks, “The boat has been feeling much bigger to me lately.” All of the hatches from the engine compartment were piled on our bench-turned-bed, an assortment of electronics, kids’ books, and dirty dishes were covering our single table, and the groceries we had just bought and not yet stored away covered the modest galley countertop. Spacious wasn’t exactly how I would describe our surroundings. Incredibly, he wasn’t joking, or even speaking in metaphorical terms. The boat just felt big. Go figure.

We woke on our last morning in Ketchikan to the fog horn blowing through a sky of mashed potatoes. By the time we pulled away from the dock, the sun had largely burned off the fog and we were happy to steer away from the busy channel. The fog worsened, though, just a couple of miles from town and we fine-tuned the operation of our radar, squinting to make sense of boats, reefs, islands. And, as it turned out, whales. Out of the mist to our port rose two orcas, likely a mother and calf judging by the size of their fins. Close enough to see even in the dense fog, the whales paralleled our course for several minutes before disappearing again. When two specks danced across the screen a few moments later, we worried that an unseen boat was approaching until we saw the whales surface again, this time with a third companion. For the next hour the trio swam near Chaika. Their sleek black fins rose magically from the surface before slipping into the fog, then appearing again as blips on the radar screen.

We plan to head north along Prince of Wales before veering west toward the southern tip of Baranof Island, making our way toward Sitka via an outside route. However, if the winds continue to blow against us, and strengthen as predicted, we may need to change course.

 

 Leaving Cape Fox in a deluge. 

Leaving Cape Fox in a deluge. 

 Learning from the knot master.  

Learning from the knot master.  

 Raising the main.  

Raising the main.  

 Nearing Ketchikan.  

Nearing Ketchikan.  

 Does Mustang need a mascot? 

Does Mustang need a mascot? 

 Good morning! 

Good morning! 

 Sailing with my parents.  

Sailing with my parents.  

 Dad & daughter.  

Dad & daughter.  

 Grandma comfy in the bowsprit.  

Grandma comfy in the bowsprit.  

 New Marshmallow captain.  

New Marshmallow captain.  

 On board entertainment.  

On board entertainment.  

 Bye, Yaya! 

Bye, Yaya! 

 Crab hunting, one of our main pastimes.  

Crab hunting, one of our main pastimes.  

 Watch out, world! 

Watch out, world! 

 Misty morning.  

Misty morning.  

 Orca in the fog.  

Orca in the fog.  

 Rainforest hike.  

Rainforest hike.  

 Prince of Wales blueberries.  

Prince of Wales blueberries.  

 Whale watching.  

Whale watching.  

 Humpback putting on a show.  

Humpback putting on a show.  

 Another southeast swimming day.

Another southeast swimming day.

 

 

 “I’m gonna catch our dinner.” 

“I’m gonna catch our dinner.” 

 Dining on deck.

Dining on deck.

To Alaska...with a new alternator by Caroline Van Hemert

A boating blog wouldn’t be complete without some sort of engine trouble. A week ago, Pat and I rose early to slip away from Shearwater before the boys woke up. We made good time and were already ten miles into our day when we could no longer ignore the fact that our batteries still weren’t charging. This had been a recently nagging problem we hoped could be explained by a combination of sailing more (and thus running the engine less), a bout of rain (which meant less sun for our solar panels), and slow discharge over time (we hadn’t done a full charge since Bellingham). But after motoring for two hours and consulting with a friend who is savvy with all things boat-related, it was obvious that the alternator was not doing its job. As we throttled back the engine to decide what to do, Huxley climbed out of bed, looked around, and started wailing. “I wanted to see the docks before we left!”

Well, this time he was in luck as back we went to Shearwater. It was a Sunday, so other than finding available dock space where we could charge our flogging batteries (we’d previously been tied to the breakwater with no services), there was little to do besides visit the local playground again. We resigned ourselves to an indefinite wait for parts and a potentially expensive repair, while being grateful that the alternator had the courtesy to go out within shouting distance of the only full-service marina in the area. Lucky for us, we learned early Monday morning that the parts shop had a suitable replacement on hand. They had ordered a compatible alternator for a different boat and never ended up using it. By afternoon, the alternator was in, Pat had learned a bit more about diesel mechanics, and the boys caught a few more fish from the dock.

Two days and ninety miles later (many of these upwind sailing in stiff but steady offshore winds), we pulled into McMicking Inlet on the west side of Campania Island, where Caamano Sound meets Hecate Strait. These outside islands see strong wind and surf, which make for dramatic scenery, rocky islets, and lots of sand. Just outside the largely protected inlet are a series of white sand beaches frequented by wolves, deer, eagles, and gulls. Harlequin ducks, red-throated loons, murrelets, and guillemots use the clear, protected waters where hundreds of tiny sandlance and other forage fish can be seen schooling below the dinghy. Hidden behind a thick fringe of cedars, the island also hosts an extensive peat bog forest, with bonsai-like fir trees surrounding big mounds of granite. It’s a fairy land of sorts, where wolves and marten leave their tracks and small boys scramble up one rock after the next. This was backcountry hiking we could manage.

Our first afternoon at the inlet, we met Paer, a Swedish sailor, photographer, and filmmaker who has been cruising in his 33’ sailboat for more than three decades. Most recently, he’s been living aboard year-round in British Columbia, exploring the coastline in search of wolves, wilderness, and, apparently, solitude. He connected immediately with our boys, and we soon learned that he had spent several years cruising with his wife and two sons. The boys are grown now, and his wife prefers to stay home in Sweden pursuing other passions, but he recalls his family’s sailing days as the happiest of his life. With no fixed itinerary other than needing to resupply every month or so (he’d been out for six weeks when we saw him), Paer seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. He told us about a month he spent in an uncharted lagoon just south of where we met him, after entering at high tide and later realizing he wouldn’t have a suitable exit for four weeks. “It was quite nice,” he said. Like Pat and me, he and his wife began sailing in part because they didn’t want to stop exploring wild places when they had children. But Paer’s first passion for sailing came when he and his brother hitched a ride south on a research vessel leaving Svalbard in 70 knot winds and were put on watch and instructed to wake the captain if “anything happened.” Twelve meter seas and black water crashing over the bow were apparently within the realm of normal as the boat pounded on, the waves curled and broke, and yet “nothing happened.” He explained that the boat would come to a near-complete stop when hit with a wave equivalent to the height of a 4+ story building, then, with a gust, sail on. This, Paer said, “impressed him severely” and he decided that someday he would get a boat designed by Colin Archer, the builder of the Svalbard ice-breaker. So came Sjoa, which he constructed himself. Our Westsail, similar to Sjoa, is also a product of this man’s sea-faring designs (based on Rescue Boat #122, which was among Archer’s 200+ boat designs).

The boys continue to be in their element out here. They play hard, get dirtier than they’ve ever been, eat sand in their dinners, melt down in big, dramatic displays, laugh and cry and generally see nothing the slightest bit odd about life on a boat. Huxley’s first words to me this morning when he woke up to the anchor chain droppping in by his head were “Mommy, big clumps of seaweed mean there are rocks underneath.” Both boys have been embracing the cold water, and we had to drag them out of the surf at 9pm the night before we left McMicking Inlet. Dawson’s favorite phrase lately has been, “Big big ‘pash! Hoooj ‘pash!” (Translated as “big, big, huge splash,” which he has perfected as he jumps up and then immerses himself to his armpits in the water.)

We are now on the move again after three days of exploring. We’ll likely cross into Alaska by the end of the week, assuming Dixon Entrance doesn’t blow a gale. My parents will meet us in Ketchikan for some grandparent time and we are excited to see them soon. Huxley asked just a few minutes ago, after waking up to us on the move again, “Mommy, where are we trying to go this day? How about, this day, we go to see Yaya and Bumpa?” Yep, we’re on our way.

 

 Happily working again.    

Happily working again. 

 

 First catch. 

First catch. 

 Campania Island beach

Campania Island beach

 Paer, our first dinner guest.  

Paer, our first dinner guest.  

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Clear water fishing. 

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Dawson. No words needed.  

 Wolf tracks in the sand. 

Wolf tracks in the sand. 

 A person could get used to this life. 

A person could get used to this life. 

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Amazing seaside scrambling. 

 Peat bog forests. 

Peat bog forests. 

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Wolf signs everywhere. 

 

 “Summit” views.  

“Summit” views.  

 A new friend.  

A new friend.  

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Goodbye Campania Island. 

Endurance by Caroline Van Hemert

Before having kids, my concept of endurance dwelled almost exclusively in the physical world. Endurance meant marathons and long, hard days in the mountains. It meant the taste of blood in the back of my throat, tendons aching under impossibly heavy loads, joints protesting over too many hours of abuse. It meant forging ahead even when my body said, “enough,” and “enough again.” Each time, coming out the other end, often slightly bruised and battered, but somehow enlightened, I felt the deep satisfaction of overcoming a personal challenge. As anyone who has ever set out to reach a physical goal knows, be it one mile or one thousand, such endeavors can teach us much about ourselves, and the world. When muscles can’t possibly manage another paddle stroke, blistered feet won’t bear another step, the mind has hit its metaphorical wall, there is no choice but to continue. Push beyond your comfort zone, and eventually there comes a moment of euphoria. This, I always thought, was the essence of endurance.

Here, on this boat, with a family of four, I am beginning to conceive of a different form of endurance. It fits more closely, perhaps, with the textbook definition: “persisting through unpleasantness.” Like when one child, and then the next, spills milk all over the cushions that can’t be washed, while yelling mommy, mommy! (as though I was the one who caused the cup to tip). Or when one child, and then the next, vomits all over the inside of our boat, conveniently spewing into the cracks and crevices of multiple hatches. Or when I want desperately to wake up and stretch and fix myself a cup of coffee, alone. But when I tiptoe the three steps to the stove, the floor creaks and I bang the tea kettle, and soon the whole boat is awake. There are no doors, no fore- or aft-cabins, no my space and yours. It is, in all of its tiny glory, simply our space, all of the time.

We are traveling along serene and often remote stretches of shoreline, anchoring in coves occupied only by rattling kingfishers and resting seals, but the volume of my life is louder than it’s ever been. Two boys with energy to burn and voices that want to be heard—more, now, me! The only quiet times are in those short evening hours when sleep finally comes. Those hours when Pat and I have a million small tasks to attend to. Scrub the dishes. Fix the leaking hatch and empty the sea strainer. Clean the sour milk from the unwashable cushions. Listen to the weather forecast on the VHF. Plan our route for tomorrow. Breathe.

Of course we’re here entirely of our own choosing. We’re here because we have sacrificed much of our “regular” lives to make this happen. We have saved and studied, packed and planned, and spent many late nights preparing for this trip. Still, every day begs the question of just what we have gotten ourselves into. Why give up our personal time, our fitness, our jobs, our proximity to friends and family for this constant chaos?

Fortunately, between gritted teeth, answers come frequently and definitively. Peer into the V-berth when two small boys are sleeping, bottoms raised, hands draped across their faces in that deep slumber that comes after a day of playing hard. See them discover, with great delight, that sea anemones squirt if you poke them. Try to keep a straight face when Dawson pees for the first time in the ocean, surprising himself most of all. Watch Huxley encounter death in the form of a squashed crow and hear him tell you, “I wish if it would fly away.” Feel the power of a humpback as it surfaces thirty feet from the boat. Listen to two tiny voices shout, “Raise the main, daddy!” Feel a soft warm body curl itself against yours as it burrows under your sleeping bag in the quiet morning fog. Tune your ears to a cacophony of voices, wavering between toddlers squealing from the beach, an eagle calling from a cedar snag, and thunder pounding its drum in the sky. Slow down long enough to realize that this time together is precious, and rare, and ever so fleeting.

So while my body doesn’t have that familiar, pleasant ache that comes after a long run or a day of skiing, the rewards of endurance are unmistakable, even out here. Endure, and euphoria shall follow. Eventually.

 

 These two could tell you something about endurance.

These two could tell you something about endurance.

 Huxley’s first fish.

Huxley’s first fish.

 Rockfish chowder.

Rockfish chowder.

 Proper 4th of July beach BBQ.

Proper 4th of July beach BBQ.

 Makings of a sailor (maybe he can teach us a thing or two!)

Makings of a sailor (maybe he can teach us a thing or two!)

 Sailing in the sunshine.

Sailing in the sunshine.

 Pelagic Cormorants in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Pelagic Cormorants in Queen Charlotte Sound.

 Tidepooling on Hunter Island.

Tidepooling on Hunter Island.

 Sunset swim.

Sunset swim.

 The shovel goes everywhere.

The shovel goes everywhere.

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Morning snuggles.

 All seriousness here.

All seriousness here.

 Tied to the breakwater at Shearwater near Bella Bella. Dock space was full prior to the fishing opening.

Tied to the breakwater at Shearwater near Bella Bella. Dock space was full prior to the fishing opening.

Mommy, are we in Hawaii? by Caroline Van Hemert

We crossed Queen Charlotte Strait and rounded Cape Caution four days ago, officially marking our journey into northern waters, where there are more bears, more lichen-draped trees, and many fewer communities. The stretch of open water between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland is notorious for big swell and “boomers,” submerged reefs that explode when a wave passes over them. When we made this crossing in our rowboats six years ago, Pat and I would lose sight of each other behind each large swell. In our 32’ Westsail, which is capable of serious offshore sailing, we had little to worry about besides operator error, but the power of the ocean is unmistakable here. 

Fortunately, we had no seasickness on this bout of marginally rough water, only a minor case of sea-boredom. It can be hard for everyone to stay cheerful when sailing or motoring for long stretches, especially when we haven’t had a chance to stretch our legs all day (or sometimes two). The boys are fairly tolerant, and have yet to question the fact that we now live on a small boat, but they have energy to burn and Pat and I sometimes run out of creative ideas for entertainment.

Although I think we’re doing reasonably well considering that there are 4 people sharing a space the size of a large utility closet (and two of them are under the age of 4), our differing versions of time continue to frustrate us all.  Pat and I conceive of plans for this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, and next month. Huxley also has plans, but these revolve around next dinner, last dinner, the knot that he’s taking five minutes to tie as we’re all waiting to dock, or one hundred and eighty eight days from now. Dawson finishes breakfast and before he’s even dressed, he says “Nack?” Neither of them care much for our adult version of time, which is alternately too slow or too fast for their liking.

While underway, we rarely have emergencies, but we often have urgencies. Things must sometimes happen quickly, and correctly, and without small fingers or toes in the way. Sails can’t be left half-raised, our course can’t deviate into a rock or another boat, hatches can’t be swinging wildly or dumping their contents when we are heeled over. 

But urgency does not exist in toddler time. There is only now, in the slow, suspended moments of the present. The pace is set not by external forces like the size of waves or the strength of the wind, but by very particular desires and intentions. My sandwich must sit on the plate exactly like this. The fishing pole I am using should be strung, yet again, around the lifelines. I NEED to walk up to the bow of the boat in the most difficult way possible, even if it means I will trip on the sail lines and nearly knock my teeth out on the windlass. 

Nearly a week ago, on our way to a resupply at Port McNeill, we had an urgency borne not of sails or wind or a finicky engine, but of poop. It was a beautiful morning, with a hint of a breeze that hadn’t yet materialized enough to raise the sails, and we motored slowly, fishing along the way. All was well until the head clogged and we were suddenly running buckets onto deck. Meanwhile, Huxley needed to go, NOW, and Dawson had already gone, with a mess to follow. Suddenly, it was all hands below deck, with no one left to steer the boat. So we did the only logical thing: check for hazards, stop the engine, and start cleaning. Just when I was ready to lose my temper entirely, as Dawson thrashed around on the changing pad and Huxley whined to Pat that he wanted to put the toilet seat down in a different way, we heard a whoosh outside. When I peeked out the companionway, there was a humpback surfacing nearby, and we watched its tail fluke rise against the horizon as it dove.

So we found ourselves whale watching on a beautiful stretch of ocean, in the midst of poop. Life could certainly be worse, even if we had a bit of stink to deal with. As though on cue, Huxley piped in, “That sure was good we stopped, wasn’t it mommy? So we could see the whale.” Leave it to a 4-year-old to remind us of what we’re doing here.

We are now in the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy adjacent to Calvert Island, where there is a research station and a small network of trails that lead to picturesque beaches and rocky headlands. After a stretch of rain, we woke up this morning to blue skies and the longest white sand beach anywhere on this stretch of coastline. Huxley asked me this evening whether we were in Hawaii, and upon learning that we weren’t said, “Is that where we’re going next?” Not exactly, but except for the trees, we could certainly pretend.

 Crossing Queen Charlotte Strait.

Crossing Queen Charlotte Strait.



 Somebody loves sailing.

Somebody loves sailing.

 Midden beaches at Fury Cove. The white shells almost make it look sunny. 

Midden beaches at Fury Cove. The white shells almost make it look sunny. 

 Rainforest hike. We don’t make it far these days when bushwhacking is involved.

Rainforest hike. We don’t make it far these days when bushwhacking is involved.

 Fish Egg Inlet. 

Fish Egg Inlet. 

 Knot master.

Knot master.

 Almost Hawaii. 

Almost Hawaii. 



 Beach time.

Beach time.

 Life is good.

Life is good.

No time for Kombucha by Caroline Van Hemert

We spent last night at Echo Bay, a small marina with several float homes and a tiny elementary school where children in the surrounding area are transported not by school bus, but by school boat. In the summer months, the friendly harbor attracts everything from kayakers to 100’+ powerboats, including one rumored to be piloted by Jimmy Patterson.  Yesterday, it might have been the site of a classic sailboat show, with a dozen beautiful boats that had been sailed everywhere from the tropics to Newfoundland. During our short tenure at Echo Bay, we were hands-down the loudest, the stinkiest, and the most obtrusive presence on the docks. Two little people can make quite a scene. Fortunately many of the other boaters were of the grandparently type or young and free enough to feel happily unencumbered when they saw our reigning chaos.

A fellow biologist, also heading with her partner to Alaska, kindly gave me starter for brewing Kombucha tea. The instructions she provided were simple, but by step 3 (hold in a secure location in a large glass jar), it was obvious that its preparation could pose a problem on our boat for two reasons: 1) it takes time, which I have precious little of at the moment; 2) it requires that no one put their hands in the jar, spill its contents, or send it flying across the galley to break into a hundred shards. However, I needn’t have worried about the technicalities. We hadn’t even made it through breakfast clean-up before the Kombucha starter was no more. Pat saw a Tupperware full of what looked like the same sort of slime that accompanied our usual messes (somewhere on the spectrum of dirty diapers, pre-chewed food, and spoiled milk) and chucked it overboard. He didn’t bother asking what it might be, as the answer seemed obvious: something the kids produced, and something we didn’t want in our lives. No Kombucha for this crew. 

Yesterday, more than usual, I needed a long, solo run. (Actually, I needed a quiet cup of coffee, a few hours to work, and a long, solo run, but one out of three isn’t bad). To stretch our legs and burn off recent boat confinement, Pat and I took turns exploring the trails around the cove. These turned out to be largely overgrown, so calling this running was perhaps a stretch, but at least it involved sweating in the woods with no one hollering nearby. 

Despite the persistent high volume and high energy state of Chaika, she has taken us to some very serene places in the Broughton Islands. We’ve been tide pooling, rock hopping, rowing, and fishing in forested coves and along white shell midden beaches. After a number of days of this, we’ve established a fairly standard shore routine. As soon as we land, Huxley sets off up the steepest rock or into the thickest patch of forest while Dawson grins, attempts to follow his brother, and then quickly asks about a “Nack” (snack). Olives, freeze-dried peas, and dehydrated cherries are among the current repertoire of favorites. For us, each day offers new sights. For the boys, each day delivers a brand new world. They are not only rolling with the changes, they are rollicking, somersaulting, back-flipping, and generally loving life in the way that only kids can do.

Tonight we’re anchored at a quiet cove on Eden Island, where we were greeted by red-throated loons, great blue herons, and marbled murrelets. We will wake up tomorrow with an eager and noisy crew, ready for whatever adventure finds us.

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Huxley the climber. 

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Dawson ready for a snack. 

 Fishing off the docks at Echo Bay. 

Fishing off the docks at Echo Bay. 

 Family hike. 

Family hike. 

 Trail “running” on Gilford Island. 

Trail “running” on Gilford Island. 

 Giving it a good college try.

Giving it a good college try.

 Name that knot. Or ask Huxley. 

Name that knot. Or ask Huxley. 

 Sailing Johnstone Strait. 

Sailing Johnstone Strait. 

Deckhands by Caroline Van Hemert

While Pat and I are distracted by other tasks—steering the boat, hoisting sails, attempting to keep this hungry crew fed—Huxley and Dawson are busy making their own contributions to our northward progress. Everywhere, there is evidence of their work. Go to pull the staysail line and you might find a series of meticulously tied knots. Close the companionway hatch and down come a waterfall of clothespins. Look for a life jacket in the on-deck sleeve and instead encounter a collection of shovels. It’s not an easy job for these boys to continuously rearrange our attempts at order. In fact, each time we insist that the boots don’t go in the sink or the knots can’t be tied in every available on-deck line, there is usually severe protest. We are clearly messing up their systems. It’s a wonder they keep us at all. 

After several indulgent summer days on Hornsby Island, reveling in hot weather and swimming, the winds switched and we continued our passage north. We’re now most of the way through Johnstone Strait, which is known for its orca whales and strong northwesterlies in summer.  Currents in this area are impressive, in some places exceeding 14 knots. This means that getting our timing wrong is not an option as many of the narrows have rapids and whirlpools if attempting to transit at their peak flow. We went through Seymour Narrows and Current Passage yesterday without any trouble, and managed to sail most of the day with decent southeast winds. The wind switched abruptly in the evening, suddenly gusting hard from the northwest. We took down the sails, pounded into the waves for an hour and a half, and tucked into Port Neville on the eastern side of Johnstone. This time, I was wise enough to insist that we all get on deck as Chaika started to rock, well before the funny taste appeared in anyone’s mouth.

We also recently passed some of our old “cruising grounds,” where we had our first sailing adventure, of a very different nature than the current one. Fourteen years ago, we took a 27’ sailboat (Sirocco) up Bute Inlet to climb Mt. Waddington from the coast. This summer, such a plan seems like something from a different life entirely, though it’s hard to imagine that more than a decade has gone by.

The forecast is for more northwesterlies, so we’ll probably spend a few days exploring the surrounding area, including the Broughton Archipelago. We’ve been fortunate to find decent hiking and running options along the way, for Pat and me to nurse our sanity and maintain some semblance of fitness (beyond hoisting 30- and 40-lb boys over the lifelines). However, as we head north into wilder areas, with fewer trails and more cougars and bears to keep an eye out for, we will need to find more creative solutions. Packrafting, beach combing, and push-ups may be in our future.

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Summertime fun.

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Our sometimes cautious child has taken to the sailing life with gusto!

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Dinghy exploration of a “secret” cove.

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Lots of bald eagles, great blue herons, and belted kingfishers in the Gulf Islands.

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Scenic trail running on Hornsby Island.

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Swimmers!

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One of Huxley’s main birthday requests: climb the mast!

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Father’s Day sunset.

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All seriousness on this boat.

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Canopy views.

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Where old growth still stands, it is the land of big trees.

Seasickness, shovels, and birthday cake by Caroline Van Hemert

...fortunately not all at the same time. Yesterday brought our first day of big following seas in the Strait of Georgia. We were downwind sailing and all seemed well until things got just a little too rough for comfort. Chaika of course didn’t mind, but when Huxley said he had a funny taste in his mouth we knew it was time to pull in some sails. Turned out to be too late and breakfast ended up all over the galley floor. Dawson followed suit as soon as I had finished cleaning up the first mess. Once they went on deck and we resigned to easing the rocking with some motor assistance, everyone felt much better. I’m not sure what lesson we learned exactly, except that we all have our limits, and kids don’t necessarily know how to tell us when they are nearing theirs. This was the first sign of seasickness we’d seen. It was also a reminder that “all hands on deck” comes in a very reduced form for us, meaning that one person needs to be able to manage just about everything single-handedly.

Today we celebrated Huxley’s 4th birthday at a sandy beach on Hornsby Island. We had gorgeous sunshine for tidepooling and digging. Shovels continue to be one of our primary modes of entertainment, and, despite the fact that they are identical except in color, a source of incredible sibling strife. Red vs. yellow is apparently worth fighting for, and fighting hard.

Back on Chaika, we used the galley oven for the first time to bake a birthday cake. The 350 degree setting ramped up to 500 and the store-bought frosting was so sweet it made my teeth hurt, but the cake was deemed a success by the guest of honor. He had also requested kale salad and because we are now well-stocked on fresh produce after our stop in Nanaimo, we each had our serving of kale to offset the sugar. 

It continues to amaze me just how much time and energy it takes to keep an almost-2-year-old and newly-4-year-old occupied, happy, and safe on a sailboat. I have all the more respect for families who have forged this path ahead of us. It’s an odd mix of endless time and no time at all. I imagined I would have at least an hour or two a day to read and write, and instead we find ourselves squeezing in basic tasks late in the evening, between washing a pile of dishes, familiarizing ourselves with boat systems, checking weather and charts, and, yes, dealing with dirty diapers. It’s largely a matter of adjusting expectations, but it’s hard to know what falls in the realm of reasonable when reasoning is not always a toddler’s strong suit. (Or mine, for that matter, when it comes to having a screaming match over who is going to climb out of the dinghy first.) The strong north winds that brought in the sunshine are likely to stick around, so we’ll have a chance to see how it feels to be at one anchor for multiple days. The boys will no doubt wake up ready for another adventure tomorrow, none the wiser about weather, schedules, or anyone’s plans but their own!

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Dawson finding his sea legs.

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Fun at anchor.

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Huxley recovering from a bout of seasickness.

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Digging for sand dollars.

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Hiking with a color-coordinated shovel.

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Cool sandstone features along this island’s shore.

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The makings of a sailor.

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Happy birthday!

The basics by Caroline Van Hemert

Daily life on the sailboat spans the gamut from amazing to completely ordinary. We are in the Gulf Islands enjoying the early days of summer, which means catching crabs (so far only tiny ones that have crawled onto our toes), hiking through madrone forests, and watching seals, otters, and orca whales. Besides sailing and shore excursions, we are never far from the basics. As it does on most days, in most places, our schedule revolves largely around three things: eat, sleep, poop. The eating occurs in impressive abundance given that two of our crew are still under the age of 4. They are hungry boys indeed. The sleeping happens after a lot of wrestling in the V-berth, where Dawson behaves like a wound-up toddler in a padded playpen. This is essentially the nature of their beds so it’s easy to understand the confusion. Little brother is now relegated to some quiet time on the galley floor while big brother goes to sleep. The pooping happens in equal abundance as the eating, and only partially in the toilet (namely, Dawson). This means a lot of hand sanitizer, compostable diaper inserts, and opening of portholes. But, mostly, having all four of us crammed into a small space is a gift. We are together in a way that happens only rarely amongst the bustle of work, school, friends, and errands. Our attention is diverted, no doubt, by figuring out a new boat, remembering how to sail, and keeping one eye on the weather and waves, but the boys have us, and we have each other, always at arm’s reach (except for those occasional hours when Pat or I escape for a run or a little alone time on shore). Huge thanks to Will and Joan Miller for shepherding Chaika to us in such good condition, and for filling the boat with love and care. We will do our best to continue the tradition.

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Chaika at anchor in James Bay, Prevost Island.

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 “Fishing” off the dock on Wallace Island.

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The captain takes his job seriously.

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The clown attempting to escape his confines.

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Our dinghy, christened “Marshsmallow” by Huxley.