Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Half Moon Island, Svalbard, Norway

It was well past midnight, but at 79° north, the sun only skims the horizon. Sailing under gloomy skies toward the old trapping station on Half Moon Island, Heinrich and I spotted something in the water. He slowed the boat and a young polar bear swam towards us for a closer look.

The bear was clearly curious, and not much put off by the ruckus set off as we scrambled for position. I dropped down into the Zodiac, watching as he swam closer. And closer. And closer. His face filled the viewfinder, and I started getting nervous. At ten feet, I slowly sat up and murmured something like, “nice bear....good bear...easy bear...”

That was as close as he came, at least to me. He dog-paddled over to a nearby iceberg, scrambled up to a perch where he could inspect the boat at his leisure.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Kukak Bay, Alaska

When the tide chart says 20 feet. It means 20 feet. And it means that you shouldn’t stash your dinghy and outboard back around the 12 foot line.

The rain finally relented for a few hours Sunday, and I grabbed my gear and headed for shore. A lone bear stood digging for clams in the tidal muck along Kukak Bay, and I pulled around to a far rocky outcrop to conceal my approach. I dragged everything up to the tide line, give or take, and headed out. As soon as the bear spotted me, he bolted for the woods.

So much for that, but off in the distance I could see one bear, then two in the tidal flats. As I hiked over, I could see them standing together and sparring. I walked as fast as I could through the gluey muck, and arrived just in time to watch them stop everything and start feeding on grass for an hour or two.
I slowly worked my way in closer, to one rock, then another. So at least I had someplace dry to sit and wait. They did finally start to spar and wrestle in the tall, wet grass, cuffing each other playfully with blows that have tidily removed my head. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, though. I stood around and watched until the tide turned in earnest, only barely managing to make it back to the mainland by walking the last bit on tip-toes with rubber boots nearly filling with water. Then there came the small problem of where the hell did I park? With the water rushing in, nothing looked familiar, and I wandered down the coast dumbstruck.

I finally found the right island, but it was now separated by a hundred yards of cold water.

Swearing didn’t seem to help, so I dug out my VHF and called a passing tour boat. I offered that there was a nice bear pair down in my neck of the bay if they wanted to come look, And also, could they take me to my boat? They were good-humored about it, anyway. I hopped onto their fancy landing craft with its custom descending bow and went looking for the boat.

It’s got to be here someplace...

Oh yeah, there. Floating upside down, with the gas tank drifting away on the tide.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hallo Bay, Alaska III

After three days sitting in the rain and bobbing like an overpriced cork in Hallo Bay’s meager protection, I start thinking about making my break. But only after a long morning of tidying up around the boat, trying to dry out soaked gear and even a bit of personal hygiene. I boiled a pot of water, spilled it on the carpet, cursed mightily, boiled another pot and took a quick shower. Alternating scalding hot water with icy rain drops, I felt suitably invigorated.

And I managed to get the smell of stale sweat and fear off me.

I concentrated on performing one task at a time. Fill up the generator fuel tank, then the boat tanks, port and starboard, and finally the dinghy’s small tank. Boil water for cocoa. Make lunch. Eat lunch. Work on computer projects. Finish last night’s movie. Read a chapter of my book.

One. Thing, At. A. Time.

The weather closed in and lifted. The land disappeared entirely, then slowly revealed itself under the low deck of clouds. The wind howled and drove cold rain before it. The sea calmed to near flatness.
I decided to see how things looked around the cape. The run out to Cape Nuksak was far easier than anything since I arrived. I threaded the narrow channel between island and point, nervous that I’d run over some hidden spire and be dipped into the shit for real.

At first the island provided sheltered water, but as I rounded the headlands I picked up a scary following sea, waves sneaking up behind me and driving me forward. Maybe I need a refresher on this, because it sure as hell got my attention as the boat slewed and sped into the next wave face. I practiced different techniques, racing up the backside of a steep wave then slowly mounting the crest and not pitching down into the trough, feathering the throttle constantly. When I hit relatively flat water, I run like hell, hoping to cut the time I was out there.

The coast along the peninsula is covered with rocks and spires jutting out of the sea for miles offshore. I studied the gps chart and the depthfinder, and managed to find my way into the mouth of Kukak Bay and into a small cover where a small old cannery lies rusting and rutting. The land surrounding the bay rises in emerald hills, covered in lush, verdant brush. After days of staring out at the gray sea, gray sky and distant gray mountains, the colors seemed to glow.
I slowly poked around the bay’s edges, looking for signs of life.

The only bears I saw were in a small meadow near the bay’s northwest corner, four bears and more than twice as many tourists from one of the tour boats.
So much for my pristine wilderness.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Hallo Bay, Alaska II Video

Every single day, this place finds a new way to scare the crap out of me.

When the storm rolled in two days ago, it was the simple prospect of sitting out here in the middle of the bay as the winds built, rain poured down and the boat rocked and pitched through the night. I sat up until past midnight, moving the anchorage twice hoping to find better shelter, but the boat still bobbed like a cork. I didn’t feel sick exactly, but I sure wasn’t happy either. I finally curled up in my sleeping back, lodged my knees into a small nook in the cabin wall and slept fitfully. For about ten hours. But with a whole lot of waking up and looking nervously around.

I made the alarming discovery yesterday that with all of my planning and organized packing, I neglected to bring along more than two slim books. I have a library of close to 1000 books in my house, a pile of unread reading material that must weigh close to a ton. But it’s all safely tucked into the shelves at home.

And now I’m looking at the prospect of more than two weeks without reading material. My brain is toast.

Instead, I spent nearly all day watching ripped dvd’s and reading a book on Timothy Treadwell’s obsessive love of Alaskan bears. Good background material if I'm thinking of getting eaten.

When the wind calmed a bit midday, I checked my charts and decided that I’d be better off in Kukak Bay, just to the south. It’s only seven miles as the crow flies, but the crow doesn’t have to go out into Shelikof Strait.

Every time I tried, it wasn’t so very long before I got homesick for my crappy little unprotected anchorage. Outside the sheltered water on the inside of Nigishak Island, the seas were a whole lot less forgiving. The normal swell from two days of northeasterly wind mixed with the shallow water here and set up breaking waves from every direction. It never got truly scary, but I never made it more than three miles out, either. The waves were just too big for my comfort level. I’d rather be at a crappy anchorage than battling for my life in a capsized boat miles from any prayer of rescue.

In the relative shelter of the bay, I got bored and eventually threw my gear into the zodiac and went to shore. In short order, I was thoroughly cold, soaked and bored with the one snuffling bear scrabbling around after clams. In that short period of time, two and three foot breakers had begun crashing into the shore, ugly curling things that looked plenty big enough to flip a small inflatable and dump its contents and proprietor into the 47° ocean.

I stared at the ocean for a good long time, trying to find some pattern to the breakers. I counted more than ten big waves before I got hypnotized by it all. I could picture disaster easily enough. The boat pitching over in a wave, everything dumped into the water, me getting soaked and cold, or worse, filling up my waders and struggling to stay afloat.

I stared at it for a while longer, then packed up the gear and moved it to the water edge and waited. Big waves washed up to me, and I waited, watching one curl after another form. Finally, in a calm patch I pulled the boat into the water and waded out. I pushed through one swell, then a second before swinging up into the boat. I had to get the motor down and started. A big wave hit and I fell the boat start to roll over me. I pitched all my weight forward, barely managing to keep from flipping. Then I started yanking on the outboard and dropped the prop into the water. I was away. And shaking like a bloody leaf.

It was still a long 45 minutes back to the boat, taking the crest of wave after wave in the face and into the boat. When things calmed down I flailed away with my kayak pump to clear out some of the water. But mostly I hung on in desperation, making imperceptible progress toward the small island. It was ages before I could finally make out the pinprick white spot of my boat. It looks comically small in this vast landscape.

I feel like I’m in way over my head here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hallo Bay, Alaska I

The midsummer night came and went in about four hours, and the day broke with flawless blue skies and alpenglow already coloring the highest glacial peaks. Even with coffee though, I was moving a little slow.

Sunrise coincided with low tide, and Hallo Bay’s tidal flats extended hundreds of yards offshore. It took more than a hour to load up the zodiac, motor to shore, carry everything across the flats and over a barrier island, across a cold meltwater stream and up another steep cutbank before finally, finally seeing some bears.
I walked up the river bank and immediately spotted two large, dark brown bears feeding on the sedge grass.

The meadows are flat and manicured, and aside from the predator population it could all be a Scottish golf course.

I sidled in, doing my best if still unconvincing bear walk. Head off to the side, ambling slowly in, just minding my own business, checking out the grass. A large sow barely gives me a second look. She just kept on eating, stopping time to time to admire the scene or take another enormous dump.

It wasn’t until another, adolescent male ambled up and started taking bluff charges at me that I tried to remember where I put the pepper spray.