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The Trip That Wasn’t (Part 2)


Feb 27, 2006
Another in my "Paddling the Past" trip reports about voyages of yesteryear. Crossposted at philiptorrens.com

August 20, 2001

Though I had set my watch alarm for 6:30AM, when my bladder alarm went off at 3:30AM, the wind was howling fiercely through the trees and the barometer had continued to fall. I switched off the clock alarm and slept in until 8AM – which was fine: as it turns out the wind continues to blow against me and whitehorses gallop north through the passage as far as the eye can see.

The first order of business this morning was to scuttle across the low land bridge between my islet and Anger Island left by the falling tide. Right where the terrain suggested there should be, I found a creek to replenish my depleted water bags. Taking advantage of the fact I’m not going anywhere today, I gave the stove a thorough cleaning, used it to heat water for a leisurely shower and lingered over a pancake breakfast.
img201 tidal bridge.jpg

The first pancake came out doughy and soggy (I still ate it, but with enough butter and sugar on it, I’d probably eat anything). But with the batter thickened and the pan made hotter, Philip’s Provincial Tarp Of Pancakes was in business, with the chef warming his fingers over the heat escaping between the frypan and stove windshield. At no point on this trip has the weather been warm enough to melt the butter in its container; on the plus side, that means the food is keeping well.

Full Gore-Tex pants and jacket is the rig of the day for any crew on deck or on the beach: the wind is whipping squalls and showers through on a regular basis. The tide has filled the little basin between my islet and Anger Island, with the water running through the narrow channel at Grade 2-3 whitewater at times.
img197 rescan cleaned storm lst day.jpg

With a mixture of dread and hope, I tried the VHF again this morning. Hope because it might work, and because, in addition to the valuable weather data it might provide, it would be nice to hear a voice other than my own. But again, nothing. I’m at a loss: the static seems to indicate the batteries are working, but it’s very hard to believe Prince Rupert weather radio would be off the air for this long, or that I shouldn’t be able to receive them in such an open area.

I’ll try to dwell on the positive: the conditions are such that I’m not vaguely wondering if I’m being a wimp by not paddling today – it would clearly be pointless at best and dangerous at worst. I have a reasonable campsite, with room for my tent and with the kitchen site on the lee side of the island. It is nice to stay clean for a while after showering. I’m sure it will do my body good not to be in a wet wetsuit and damp footwear for a day. It won’t hurt my joints to have a day off either. I have access to unlimited water every twelve hours or so. I’ll have hot soup with lunch and make one of my more elaborate dinners for supper. I can take a nap this afternoon and I have a good book to escape into. While reading it, I’ll wear the light gloves Leanne gave me; wearing them will make me feel connected to her even across hundreds of miles. It’s hard to put into words how much it means to know someone out there loves me and cares whether I make it back or not.

Update: 15:30 hours the same day. I tried the radio again just now. A huge wave of relief swept through me as I picked up the weather broadcast – faint, staticky, and often unintelligible, but definite! So glad the radio’s not out. The fact that not just a storm warning, but a full-on gale warning is in effect for this afternoon validates my decision not to paddle today.

The bad news is that strong SE winds are predicted for tomorrow. I’d toyed with the idea of a radio-telephone call to Leanne, but with reception and transmission so poor, I’m afraid I’d only be able to communicate enough to cause alarm.

The rain is being whipped along the waves just about parallel to the sea surface and ground. At about 15:30 I head to the tent for a nap, grateful for the yellow tent fly, which creates the cheerful illusion of a sunny day outside even when the reality is gray and grim.

Update 20:46 The storm continues to rage, but my morale has been so improved by establishing “contact” on the radio that I can now appreciate the spectacle. At lower tide, the channel between my islet and Anger Island is bare, and I watch several clumps of rockweed being torn off the rocks by the wind and bowled along like desert tumbleweeds. As blasts of wind and spray hit the water in the tidal basin, they repaint the sea’s surface from translucent to matte, as though jets of some opaque fluid were being shot through the water. Elsewhere, the wind sweeps sets of small swells along, making it look as though schools of large marine mammals were racing just beneath the surface.

The barometer has been falling for 24 hours, and continues to fall – something I’ve never seen before in more than a dozen years of sea kayaking.

I did manage an excellent supper of freeze dried pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes and applesauce (rehydrated from “fruit leather” I had made with my home dehydrator). Though the high tide predicted for early this AM is supposed to be lower that last night’s, I’m concerned storm surge will make it higher, so I’ve moved the boat and belongings onto the upland.

August 21, 2001

Having put in my ear plugs and taken a sleeping pill, I slept in ‘til 10:30AM. No harm done – I don’t appear to be going anywhere today, and possibly not even tomorrow. The wind has eased, but it’s still 15-25 knots from the SE and predicted to go gale force again tonight. Tomorrow’s outlook is moderate to strong SE, so maybe I could beat the wind out of here with an early morning start. That would also let me get out of here without having to run the channels of these tidal basins when they’re in whitewater mode.

I’ve discovered that by going to the cliffy western tip of my islet, grasping a tree branch in one hand, swinging out to dangle above the water, and raising the VHF high in my other hand in supplication to Marconi and the other radio gods, I get optimum reception of the weather channels. It’s like a dangerously convoluted version of the bizarre stances sometimes required to get the rabbit-ear antenna TVs of my youth to upgrade programs from complete blizzards to merely moderately snowy. Still, it pleases me; if you can’t be in control of the weather, it’s at least good to be in the know about it.

Later, I brunch on a slap-up feed of an orange, hot creamy coffee, and home-dehydrated tinned hash, which resurrects from its mummified state tasting better and crispier than straight from the can. With the frypan and dishes greasy from this meal and last night’s supper, a proper hot water wash is called for. During a lull in the wind and the rain, there’s even a few minutes of sunshine. I bask in it, reminded of the line from Ray Bradbury’s Death And The Maiden where they ate and ate and then lay “like two pies warming in the sun.”

Later, I had a most unexpected pleasure: a visitor. A battered “tin” outboard came puttering ‘round the bend, piloted by a figure in an orange Mustang floater suit, looking like Santa Claus in his slimmer summer mode. John The Hermit (as he introduced himself) lives in an inlet just a bit south of here, having left Vancouver in the sixties when it lost too much of its hippy, counter-culture vibe for his taste. He’s a hydroelectrican of some sort, occasionally leaving his personal refuge to work briefly on one project or other up and down the coast to earn the little hard cash his lifestyle requires.
img328 John and his boat small.jpg

We chatted about computers and cameras, then he had to leave – he’d come beachcombing for a particular log to convert into shingles, and the tide was high enough now for him to get it off the shore.

A bit later, I heard him land again at my kitchen site, but by the time I’d made there from the grove my tent is in, he was out of voice range (or pretending to be.) He’d left me a bunch of radishes from his garden. I was sorry to miss him as I had in my hand my copy of Galieo’s Daughter, which I’d finished that morning and realized I should have given to him on his first visit. If I don’t see him again, I’ll slip it in a baggie and tape it up where I’m sure it will catch his observant eye.

Just as I was writing the paragraph above, I heard John returning yet again – this time bearing a gift of a black rockfish. I was glad for the fresh supper makings and happy to have a chance to give him the book in person.
img753 fish and veggies.jpg

At John’s suggestion, I sliced the radishes (radi?) and fried them together with the fish in butter and onions, which made a grand meal. I still have half the radishes for future feasting.

I also transferred the last of the white gas from one of the Coleman tins to the stove fuel bottle tonight. The Coleman tins act like fighter plane “drop tanks”; once I’ve emptied them I can pound them flat to create more room in the kayak (of course, I’d never just drop them in the sea!)

The forecast calls for a return to SE gale force winds tonight and up to 45 knot SE winds tomorrow afternoon, with the outlook for moderate to strong SE the day after. My current plan is therefore to make my “breakout” in the early AM the day after tomorrow, and try to cover some miles before the afternoon wind kicks in. I will get up at 6AM tomorrow on the off chance I get a window to escape then.

August 22, 2001

No getting out of here today – it was blowing moderate to strong when I awoke and has whipped up to what I guesstimate is near storm force as I write this at 2PM.

At low tide, I slipped across to Anger Island and reloaded the water bags, which let me have a full-on fresh water shower – surprisingly painless even in cold weather when the water has been heated on the stove. I had a leisurely brunch of the last of the fresh potatoes and freeze-dried cheddar scrambled eggs, and some flat bread with jam.

While I was cooking, I watched a mink prowl the intertidal zone, extracting something from behind a water-logged tree that did not want to accept his invitation to come for lunch. A crab, I’m assuming, but couldn’t be sure as the mink was facing away from me. The rain, which had confined itself to the occasional shower this morning, is falling steadily and heavily now. The barometer has risen slightly over the last six hours, so I’m hoping the 4:30PM forecast will bring news of some kind of break in the weather. Tomorrow’s tides would be perfect for me to get an early start out of the tidal basin behind the islet. I’d like to get into a proper pattern of early starts to beat the afternoon anabatic winds, and to paddle as many hours a day if possible. I’ve been doing some “back of the envelope” calculations of mileages, and figure if I have 10 days of good weather and put in longer days, I should be able to make Klemtu.

Update: 21:00hrs. To receive the weather channel, I have to work my way to the front of my islet and the tide was not low enough to do so until after 18:00hrs. I stood on the rocks in the full force of the wind, the radio pressed so tightly to my ear that my arm ached afterwards. The forecast for tomorrow and the day after is gale force headwinds.

At first this filled me with bitter disappointment: nearly all my “storm day” allotment used up before I’ve gotten ⅓ of my planned distance on this trip. Then I reminded myself that I have choices: there’s no law requiring me to make it to Klemtu. I was reminded of the book Into Thin Air and Jon Krakauer’s description of the almost gravitational pull of the summit and how it clouds rational thinking. It is very hard to turn back when you’ve put so much time, effort and expense into reaching a goal. People died on that Everest trip because they ignored a decision they had already taken to turn back at about two o’clock, regardless of whether they had sumitted. The poignant scene of a dying Rob Hall patched through to his wife on the radio came to my mind, and blended with images of Leanne moving into what should be our new home together, but without me. If Klemtu is my summit, I realized, my two o’clock is approaching, and it’s not too late to turn around. As soon as I thought all this through, a great peace came over me.

Tomorrow I will look at my charts to see if I can find a route back to Prince Rupert that avoids the “camping barrens” of Ogden Channel. For tonight, I had a good supper: basmati rice, Hotchuk’s curry and chutney reconstituted from the fruit leather I had dried it into at home, all sprinkled lavishly with unsalted peanuts. Despite eating my fill, I have lots left over for lunch tomorrow.

Another upside to knowing I won’t/can’t paddle tomorrow is not having to hear my watch alarm, so I can use my earplugs to reduce the incessant howl of the wind. For now, I’m going to escape into the mysteries of The Nothing That Is: A Natural History Of Zero.

August 23, 2001

The wind is howling when I awaken around 9AM, then goes into a comparative lull after ten as I’m completing my camp chores. Perversely, I find this quite agitating rather than soothing: I’m seized by doubt that I might be missing a window of opportunity to quickly pack up and get “back in the game” enroute to Klemtu. I am therefore oddly pleased when the wind picks back up over the next hour or so, just as predicted by the radio. As Shakespeare noted through Hamlet, it is the agony of indecision that wears one down; once the die is cast one way or another, we are somehow calmed.

As I’m frying up my pancakes, I glance up to see the mink from yesterday (or a close cousin) making a beeline across the beach for me, drawn no doubt by the smell of food. When he gets close enough to see that another, slightly bigger critter has claimed this picnic, he nonchalantly changes course 90 degrees, with a metaphorical shrug to suggest that this had been his intended route all along.

Tired of reading (and running dangerously low on reading material – a situation almost as serious as running low on food: one must have provisions for the mind as well as the body), I start roughing out a magazine article based on my thoughts last night regarding mountaineering and the parallels to my situation. It feels wonderful to be doing something creative. Since I cannot knit with needles and yarn, I shall knit with words.

My work is pleasantly interrupted by a trio of deer bounding on the shore of Anger Island. They graciously wait while I extract my SLR camera. I’m sure the resulting pictures won’t cause the photographers at National Geographic to lose any sleep, but they’ll be nice souvenirs.
img185 deer two.jpg

With excellent timing, John The Supposed Hermit appears just as I’m finishing up writing and invites me on an excursion to see his homestead. Since my social calendar is far from full, I gladly accept. I’m bemused to note that his little aluminum runabout is missing its drainplug; John relies on the forward momentum of the boat to staunch any inflow most of the time, and bails as required when he’s stopped for fishing. It’s a curious omission from someone I will soon discover is a master of invention and improvisation.

John’s homestead proves to be quite a magic place and ingeniously constructed. It’s the sort of home any child raised on Robinson Crusoe would have imagined putting together when they grew up. The entrance to his kingdom is through a narrow set of tidal rapids, a tiny opening of the sort you could pass by a dozen times without ever suspecting anything much lay beyond. (However this entire coast of Anger Island is so guarded by reefs it’s unlikely many larger boats ever deliberately sail close enough to shore to even see this entrance.)

Once you shoot through the rapids, you find yourself in a large, placid tidal lagoon. On one side is a raft of beachcombed logs, supporting a generator which runs off the inflow and outflow currents. John proudly informed me it puts out about 5 amps on average. Next, we motored pass John’s sailboat to land at the foot of a path through the woods. This path more or less follows a stream up to a freshwater lake, crossing it via narrow board bridges in several places. John’s got to be in his 60s or 70s (he mentioned going to school in Kenya in the 1930s), yet he crossed these wet, slimy boards with much more agility than I did.

John’s been working hard to try and enhance the salmon run in this stream, which presently consists of only a few Coho.

At the lake end of the path and stream, John keeps a small dinghy, for access to the two tiny islets where he gardens. (The lake serves as a moat against the deer that would otherwise graze him out of his hard-earned harvests.) In large, homemade, soil-filled bins he grows radishes, boy choy, collards and other veggies. He fertilizes the bins each year with seaweed. At his invitation, I picked some collards and parsnips for myself.
img329 The Moated Garden.jpg

img161 John's Garden.jpg

Back at the lagoon, we motored across to the raft on which John has his house. This large one-room shack serves as kitchen, workshop and bedroom. A large woodstove in the centre keeps it comfortably warm even in the chilly August air. At one end is a sort of loft with John’s bed and a large assortment of shortwave and VHF radios, along with a laptop computer. These, together with a high-efficiency LED lamp, are all powered from the generator across the lagoon via a submarine cable. At the other end of the cabin, a floor-to-ceiling window gives a splendid view of the lagoon.
img224 John's waterfrond estate.jpg

My host kindly opened a bottle of preserved peaches, which we had with thickly mixed powdered milk in lieu of cream. This turned out to be more or less the first course of my four course supper.

After a pleasant visit, John motored me back to the islet while weather and tide still permitted. Enroute, he caught a large Ling Cod, and made me a present of a huge fillet from it.

Having had dessert first, the second course of my supper was Collard Greens, which I ate as a salad. I fried up the parsnips, together with the radishes leftover from the other night, then stirred in the rice and curry from last night. While I was enjoying this third course, I browned some onion slices and added the fish fillet. Attracted by the scent of the fish, a seagull loitered with intent on the beach as I ate. Interestingly, he was not decoyed when I threw the vegetable trimmings into the sea; he waited for the fish trimmings to be flung.

The current state of the wind is blowing away any lingering doubts I might have about returning to Prince Rupert. All I need now is a break in the weather to make my retreat.

The first chapter of this trip report is here.
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Then I reminded myself that I have choices: there’s no law requiring me to make it to Klemtu…if Klemtu is my summit, I realized, my two o’clock is approaching, and it’s not too late to turn around. As soon as I thought all this through, a great peace came over me.

Great analogy. Not having anything to prove is such a great stress-reducer. Some life lessons here!

I’d love to know what happened to John the Hermit. Would he be in his 80s by now? Satellite photos of his hidden basin show that his house might still be there:

Thanks for posting. What an engaging read! Especially for a kayak trip report where there was no kayaking involved.
That was a very enjoyable read! Thank you. Weather days on solo trips can be a bit daunting, but cooking elaborate meals, doing chores, exploring your surroundings, mending gear, and reading and writing can keep you occupied and happy for quite a while. And what a treat to have John visit you and show you around his little outpost in the wilderness! These are things that make a trip truly special, no matter how many miles you end up paddling. Some of my favorite memories from solo trips are those bizarre chance encounters with other free spirits. It seems like I only meet those kinds of people when I'm by myself in the middle of nowhere.