Thursday, July 31, 2014

Let's Build Us Some Boats!

Tents up, it's time to put the boats together.  Much as I love my own fiberglass kayak, it would be tough to bring her here via float plane, so we're using a backpackers version, frame and skin kayaks that fold right up into manageable packages. To give appropriate credit to an amazing original design, let's start with the tried and true, if slightly cumbersome Klepper.  

"Alongside the VW Beetle, the jukebox and Vespa now there is presented another design icon of the 1950s: Klepper Wandereiner. The archetype of the Klepper folding kayak was invented around 1900 by a Munich architecture student. In the 1920s it was refined to become a very early example of system design, which did not become widely accepted until the 1950s and 1960s. Its easy handling, great flexibility, diversity and reasonable price made the elegant ash wood boat a popular choice, and in the decades after World War II it was used the world over. For many nature enthusiasts and sports fans it became a symbol of regained freedom." 

So here we are in 2014, using the same (or a very similar) design.  Truth be told kayak crafting is really much older than that and credit goes where "necessity is the mother" and the inventive genius of the Aleut people and their elegant Baidarka and the Inuit, Greenland style skin boats.  Made of driftwood and sea mammal skins, these were effective vessels in treacherous waters.  Personally, I am ok with some of the modern improvements!  The next post will show you more recent modifications to the "state of the art" according to Feathercraft, another folding boat manufacturer.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First things First

Here we are on the north end of Long Island.  At first glance it’s about as far from New York scenery as we can get, but there are some similarities.  Spruce skyscrapers tower above us and there is a traffic jam of sea otter milling around the best kelp restaurants.  Sadly, there are also a few shadowed areas where muggings have occured.  We’re talking ursine muggings here.  The first task for our field expedition is to evaluate this site for human use & impact since this location is frequented by bear hunters.  Clearly they have forgotten the prime wilderness tenant of  “Leave No Trace” so our job is to clean up their mess.   I’m not commenting about the practice of hunting for fun, it’s enough to say that wilderness is not a place to muggle up with the evidence of your passing.  It seems that “leaving our mark” is a very difficult human characteristic to subdue.  Unfortunately peeing on a tree just isn’t enough for many humans and thoughtless actions are a blight if not outright damaging to both the concept and reality of wilderness.  It’s important that we evolve beyond the ego-centric need to mark our presence everywhere we go.  It’s time to consider the higher value of maintaining the pristine quality of a wilderness in short supply.  For wilderness to exist in the face of ever increasing humanity, we all need to embrace the LNT (Leave No Trace) mantra.  That doesn’t mean we abandon our creative outlets, in fact it means we become more creative in how we share them.  Go ahead, make a wilderness kitchen to use while you visit, but use what’s there and return it as you found it... the bears don’t need a kitchen and I can make my own.

Karisa planned our trip to take care of the less pleasant business first but I have to say that in comparison to what we see in WA wilderness areas, this was not so bad.  I want to give a thankful shout out to ALL those hard working Forest Service & NPS personnel (and volunteers) who clean up after the human mess makers and for the rest of us.... remember that LNT and wilderness go hand in paw, flipper & wing!

Sunday, July 20, 2014


The workhorse of the float plane stable is the Beaver and since an Alaskan style “road trip” is often by air or sea, it is a favorite mode of transport.  Our departure day dawned with typical Petersburg weather - unpredictable. We were bumping the ceiling with clouds advancing from the south, but still working within the Forest Service’s well defined VFR (Visual Flight Rules) so we quickly load up John’s plane, don our flight jackets, get the safety run down and off we go into the wild grey yonder.

I’m not going to lie, I am not the best on land, sea or air when it comes to a bumpy ride in stuffy, confined spaces.  I had a moment of panic realizing I hadn’t come prepared with my trusty ziplock barf bag.  What to do?  This pilot was supposed to pick us up, it seemed very poor form to hurl all over his airplane.  I settled on my baseball cap, since I could always rinse that out later.  Thing is, I really love flying in small aircraft and looking down at the scenery..... There’s Port Camden & Bay of Pillars.... that’s our pick up site near Happy Cove, but I’m afraid I did have to invoke zen concentration mode for part of the ride.  I managed to hold it together and we dropped into calm waters off the north end of Long Island.

Wow! look at that estuary system and so many islands to explore, woohoo!  Welcome to Long Island and Tebenkof Bay!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Prep, Plan, Pack

I know you’re anxious to get out into the wild but attending to the three “Ps” comes first.  Good preparation, packing and planning make for safe and successful wilderness trips.  While we will carry a satellite phone and Forest Service regulations require regular check ins, we need to be our own 911.  Personal gear has already been packed (reliable rain gear, layers (no cotton) and Xtra Tufs top the list, don't forget camera and art kit).

Food is our next priority.  It’s true, I eat way better when I’m on an outdoor trip than I do at home!  Eating is an all day affair, hot breakfast to get us going, first lunch to keep us going, second lunch to keep us happy, hot dinner (with local embellisments as available) and chocolate, what more could one need?  Everything gets repackaged, either to eliminate packaging redundancy or to put in resealable bags.  Wow there is a lot of packaging!  It’s ideal to buy in bulk when possible.  I rarely ever eat as much as I think I will, except for the chocolate, but a litte extra garlic mashed is efficient back up in case we get stuck a few extra days.  (it’s always a good idea to plan for that possibility.)

Karisa and Nick have already delt with many more requisitions, protocols and check lists.  There’s just some FS paperwork and getting up to speed on flight requirements for me to do.   Only thing left is to collect group cooking gear, tents, med kit and folded up kayaks (more on those soon), paddles & skirts and pack up the truck for tomorrow’s flight out.  Then I get to do a little more exploring in Petersburg.

 Wild edibles that may spice up our outdoor cuisine include salmonberry.  Unfortunately we are a bit early for some of the more delectable berries like thimbleberry and blueberries.  The lower image features Wrangell Narrows emptying into Frederick Sound.  Fishermen in Petersburg are haunting the harbor waiting for the spring salmon run which appears to be late this year. The ubiquitous Cow Parsnip in the foreground decorates the edge of sea and shoreline throughout the region and is very showy this time of year.  The last shot is of the FS bunkhouse compound where I stayed both before and after the trip.  This is where seasonal rangers and volunteers are housed... very comfortable, even if I am having trouble with daylight showing up at 3 AM.  It is the summer solstice and nights are short around here!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Moving Forward

Looking back and reliving my recent wilderness jaunt is wonderful, but life continues to move forward.  Here's a little painting I made to honor Kelsey Weeks high school graduation.  Not a perfect likeness, but the feeling was right as Kelsey & Sport look forward to a future of big changes on the horizon!  Time, like the tides seems to ebb and flow, but it is certainly relentless in its passing!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Petersburg Alaska

A quick shuttle from the ferry dock to downtown Petersburg finds me in a great apartment at the Forest Service Bunkhouse where the seasonal staff and volunteers are housed.  It's about 9:30 or so but still light and a soft, warm rain falling.  I unpack and go for a walk in the stillness of a rain washed town asleep this Sunday evening.  My first impression is that this is the cleanest and tidiest downtown I've ever seen!  Bright rosemaling, hanging flower baskets and numerous wall murals brighten Nordic Ave. the main street paralleling the harbor.  The Federal Building, housing the FS office where I'll meet Karisa in the morning, has two Tlingit totem poles displayed in front.  There is public art everywhere, I like this place already!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wrangelling the Narrows

It takes the better part of the afternoon to dry my gear after the SoWester in Ketchikan, then we arrive at the infamous Wrangell Narrows.  The ferry is the largest boat to negotiate this channel, effectively keeping large cruise ships away from Petersburg.  Between current, tide and wind it takes a skillful pilot and watchful crew.  We pass the Rocky Point fishing lodge and get a fireworks salute.  

Karisa picks me out of the handful of folks coming down the ramp, already advised about who I am since I had become notable for sketching while on the ferry.   Seems a little sad that sketching is noteworthy,  since it's such a great way to relax and pass the time.  You can see by my sketch that reading and photography were other popular pastimes.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Time to Reset

Not being particularly attuned to entrapment on a confined vessel with thousands of people, holiday on a mega cruise liner has not been high on my bucket list.  That said, there are distinct advantages to traveling up the inside passage via ferry.  For one thing it helps reset your clock, not just to Alaska time (yes, they have their very own), but to that of the tides and the light and the weather.  Attune-ment takes time and the monotonous drone of the ferry engines acts as a pacemaker. (and provides white noise so you don't hear all those people harping at their children, stop running, don't do that, sit Down!  A few restless souls did join me on the outer wind swept rail, letting the rain slap our faces instead of the voices inside.

Endless shorelines, a refreshing damp mist, the way real air should smell and wildlife that we disturb more or less along the way all mark time passing. (two nights and a bit over 2 days to Petersburg)  Pacific white sided dolphin surf our wake, orca & humpback blow fish breath on us.  A black bear swam all the way to the middle of the channel to meet us (and then was turned away).  I'll remember those powerful strokes when I'm in my kayak and he has a say about who passes where and when.

Near Wrangell, where the Stikine River meets the ocean there is a prominent "halocline" caused by the dramatic difference in salinity as fresh water meets salt.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Traveling the Alaska Marine Highway

Alaska Marine Highway on the MV Columbia
I wouldn't go so far to say that getting there is half the fun, but the prep and travel is an adventure of its own, especially if you're talking about a relatively remote location.  That's one of the reasons I'm so thankful for the NP-AIR (National Parks, artist in residence - see my GAAR sketchbook in the link) and the Forest Service's  VOTW (voices of the wilderness) programs.  Without their assist it wouldn't happen for me, so it's my responsibility to come prepared.

Traveling to SE Alaska is not nearly so arduous as it was in the not-so-distant past, but it does require several modes of transport.  Packing the XtraTufs can be a challenge, not to mention tent for the ferry, sleeping bag & pad and plenty of rain gear.  Let's just say, it pays to be a "have tent, will travel" sort of person.  Travel Tip #1;  the Kitsap Airporter is a wonderful service, it takes you to SeaTac where you can pick up the BelAir Shuttle which takes you directly to the AK ferry terminal in Belligham... auto transport, check!  Waiting for the ferry we were entertained by search dogs (please do not pee on my stuff) examining our bags for bomb makings or drugs (one fellow was busted, good dog).  A sunny day to apply your tent to the ferry's back deck is a good thing.  Travel Tip #2;  I recommend Gorilla Tape.  We developed the perfect secure staking method, no tent flying overboard thank you, believe me it was tested!  (Ask me if you'd like details)  There is really only one weather report for SE with minor modifications and that is rain: possible, likely or downpouring now.  That is after all why god made goretex and we are greatful.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Transition; Back to Front

I'm home with my "Fernwood wolf" and already the demands of the front country seem to overtake my recent incredible back country experience in SE Alaska.  I won't give it up that easily though!  As I catch up with town life, my plan is to revisit my experience of a Forest Ranger's life in the Tongass Wilderness with you here on this blog, so stay tuned for more photos, sketches and reflections.   FYI, If you're reading this on FB you can get a more direct version by having the blog delivered to your email, see sidebar on the right.