Sunday, July 25, 2010

Icy Strait, Alaska

I hate boats.

I hate the smell, the damp, seasickness, the cramped spaces and the marginal personality types all found out on the water. I'm not the first to say that going to sea offers all the benefits of prison life, with a better odds of drowning.

And yet here I am, charging around the Alaska panhandle in a 22-foot C-Dory cruiser. My living space extends no bigger than a six foot cube. I've been in larger phone booths. But it has all I need for a summer exploring the wild corners of coastline here. I have a bunk, a stove, some heat from time to time, an icebox for the beer and a steering wheel that takes me in whatever direction I'm foolish enough to point it.

The fact that I know fuck-all about boating is not the hindrance you might imagine.

Boat life means having all of the adventures that saner souls leave behind upon departing the cub scouts. Imagine a cross between dorm life and homelessness. Avoid bathing for weeks on end. Crap in a bucket. Sleep on the sofa. Drink alone and to excess. Jabber to yourself and try to avoid law enforcement types.

I finally understand why guys go fishing. It's not about the stinkin' fish.

One more upside? Stuff to buy. And new words for everyday household items which, due to their maritime provenance, have an extra zero tacked onto the end. You need maps (charts), lots of rope (line), a GPS (chartplotter) and several truckloads of additional silly shit. It's like learning a new language, but it's still English.

When I first bought the boat I wandered the aisles down at West Marine with eyes glazed in retail narcosis. It's easy to go a little crazy at first. How else can I explain three zodiacs, four anchors, an arsenal of flare guns and the entire chart set for the Northwest Passage.

But the thing I love most is a chance to go off on my own, into an entirely new wilderness, and explore. Mercifully, there are still places in this world without an RV hookup or Walmart. Riding around in the boat offers the chance to scare myself witless on a regular basis, see cool new stuff and never be at a loss for something to complain about.

They might be a normal person's definition of heaven, but it's pretty close to mine.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Alaska Highway

I first drove the Alaska Highway 24 years ago. I can't even say why.

It's not like I set out looking for someplace cold and remote, lonely and expensive.

It might have been as simple as looking at my untidy romantic situation, looking at my road atlas and figuring out how to put as much distance between the two as possible. I took all of my accumulated vacation, comp time and sick leave, stuffed my car with snack food and borrowed camp gear.

With credit cards in hand, I set off for the wilderness.

I covered more than 11,000 miles through Canada and Alaska in less than three weeks, and my little Honda two-seater was never the same. Neither was I, for that matter. Within a couple years I uprooted my city life and flagging career prospects and moved to Anchorage.

I'm setting out again this summer, towing a 22-foot C-Dory boat behind my overstuffed truck. I leave town in an attention deficit flurry, my orderly packing list devolving into a final shoving match of random crap into already occupied corners. The rear suspension sighs in disbelief.

I drive north, dragging two tons of maritime expenditures and unrealistic expectations. I plan on chasing humpback whales in Southeast Alaska, swimming with belugas in Hudson Bay and mingling amongst the grizzlies along the Katmai Coast. Even the most perfunctory reading of a roadmap belies the lunacy of my ambitions, but I drive north cloaked in a familiar air of denial.

It's a quick run to the Canada border, but I forget the enormous expanse of geography that British Columbia occupies. Just reaching the Alaska Highway's start is 800 miles hard driving. I wind slowly up the Fraser River valley, cross the Rockies and continue rolling north through more than 1000 miles of boreal forest.

Too cheap to get a hotel room, I slept fitfully in the boat at a roadside pullout, jarred by passing trucks and the unfamiliar bunk.

At dawn Emily, the British voice inside my GPS offers the briefest instructions. "In 679 miles, turn left."

It's going to be a long day. On the upside, I won't get lost.

The highway unwinds like an endless repeating loop of two-lane asphalt and scabby spruce forest. The scene is enlivened by an occasional moose, beaver dam or foraging black bear. The FM radio scans the ether without catching a signal for hours.

It feels like I'm driving to Godot, getting 11 miles per gallon.