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PostHeaderIcon Back from 18 days kayaking in Antarctica

 

 

“It’s going to be blowing 60 knots, with 10 metre seas”, Zeek says very matter-of-factly. We all just look at him in silence, searching for his emotion to know if we should be worried, or totally petrified. I try to imagine what it would actually feel like to be blown by such strong gusts and bounced around by a swell – or multiple competing swells – twice the height of the tiny yacht. That’s force 11 – a violent storm with exceptionally high waves. “The sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam. Everywhere edges of wave crests are blown into froth”.   I had heard people talk with wide eyes about crossing the Drake Passage in 40 knot winds, so was 60 knots suicide? The notorious 500 miles passage from the Antarctic peninsula to Cape Horn takes around 4 days and 3 of those were likely to be “rough”. But we have flights to catch from Ushuaia so there is no way to delay our departure more than a day.  Zeek comes up with a plan to try to avoid the worst of the tempests which has the bonus of us spending an extra 24 hours in Antarctica.

Our home base the Spirit of Sydney yacht

Our home base the Spirit of Sydney yacht

We’ve made the most of our 18 days here and paddled 16 of those, covering close to 200 nautical miles. 4 times we camped overnight on the ice, feeling totally at peace and privileged to be sleeping on such a pristine, unspoilt wilderness, with views of craggy glaciers, towering icebergs and the resident penguins and seals. Our paddles varied from tracing the contours of ice cliffs a hundred metres from shore to visiting noisy, smelly, vibrant colonies of Adelie, Gentoo & Chinstrap penguins. From weaving in between low rocky islands, to open crossings dotted with multiple icebergs. We paddled 5 miles south of the Argentine islands to a small group of islands rarely visited due to the increase of ice that impedes travel further south. We bashed and dodged our way through dense rafts of bergy bits from cup-size to chair size, and temporarily adjusted our compass bearing to weave around larger bergs. The 5 mile journey to our southernmost point felt committing and wild and I hoped the settled forecast would hold true. A gentle swell rolled under the carpet of ice, and unencumbered by it’s dense load exploded onto the small rocky islets that broke up our journey. Get out points are rarely easy or abundant along the icy coast of Antarctica and lunch was spent at one of only 2 options – a rocky almost-beach on a small island that we shared with a couple of lazing fur seals. Back on the water, mist then snow descended and the mainland coast which disappeared from view behind soft swirling snowflakes. We noisily crashed though an almost solid barrier of ice and found our way around a barrage of grounded icebergs in the direction of land. Steep black spires slowly took shape again as we followed the impressive skyline north for a couple of miles. At the end of an atmospheric day, the yacht provided a home, a warm haven with fresh vegetables and delicious meals even at the end of our month away.
Blue sky days

Blue sky days

Our last day on the frozen continent was back in the Melchior islands, where we began 18 days earlier.  We’d already explored 3 of the 4 main islands on day 1 so my idea of fun was a 3 mile crossing due north to a tiny island that was shrouded in mist, and beaten by the swells that our anchorage in the heart of the islands filters out. As we paddled north, the increase in wave height and chop was instantaneous but the confusion of rebounding waves soon died down. It was an act of faith in our compasses for 45 minutes as nothing but bouncy waves and white sky lay ahead. Finally we heard waves crashing on the mystery island and 10 minutes later it’s black craggy outline appeared directly ahead as if in a mirage. Although I was confident of hitting our target, I confess a feeling of relief and excitement at finally seeing the rocky land. I tried to convince everyone that we we on a grand adventure and actually everyone enjoyed the challenge and variety – or did a very good job of humouring me. Our last day ended with some paddling along low icecliffs and black rocks, strewn with fur seals. Every so often we spotted a lone chinstrap penguins standing nonchalantly on the rocks, stragglers left behind after all the other parents and chicks have taken to the sea. Like us, they were amongst the last visitors of the Antarctic summer, perhaps like us, reluctant to leave the magical icy beauty of this frozen continent. We are amongst the last humans to leave Antarctica before the inhospitable winter sets in. Apart from a few scientists, everyone else migrates north with the whales and the Arctic terns.
Some of the happy campers!

Some of the happy campers!

Perhaps the timing is why we have such a stormy forecast for our crossing back to our family, friends and regular lives? We set off at 6am and are immediately slammed by a gale that the forecasters predicted would have already passed in the night. Dirty breakfast dishes are hurriedly slung into the sink and everyone disappears into their bunks. Some reappear with bags full of regurgitated conrnflakes, while others rush on deck or to the toilet to do the same. The wind gusts 45 knots over the shallow continental shelf. Almost everyone is sick. There is a respite and 12 hours later we have a lull in the wind. Most people reappear at the central table with some colour in their cheeks. On day 2, the wind gradually picks up and on my late afternoon watch I am encouraged to see that the wind is already 45 knots but the boat is coping really well and the ride is fairly comfortable. It gusts over 50 knots and we surge down a wave at 12 knots. Zeek has adjusted our course so that we are running with the storm. We are heading too far West but it’s a better option that trying to bash, crash and bounce through the powerful waves.
In the evening it gets scary. Zeek sends us all to bed and takes over the watch for the whole night. I lie in my bunk, unable to sleep as every 15 minutes a wave slams the yacht sideways with an alarming thud. Water rushes over the top deck, anything not tied down goes flying and I anxiously wait for that tipping point when the boats stops being pushed over and starts to bob back to upright. My brain analyses every noise for irregularities. Once we lean over so far that the cutlery, usually safely encased in plastic tubs flies across the kitchen and hits the curtain that protects my bed. I wonder whether I should put on my drysuit. In truth, the yacht is made for these conditions, it is us humans that struggle. In the morning, the violent hits are less frequent and we can see things are slowly improving. An exhausted Zeek says the maximum windspeed that he saw on his instruments was 67 knots and he confesses he was wishing he was sailing on the French canals with his family. When I thanked him for keeping us safe, he laughingly said that ‘he was keeping himself safe’!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
So as a grand month-long Antarctic adventure draws to a close, I again feel lucky to have experienced this wild, untamed land by kayak, which surely has to be the best way to see all the nooks and crannies. We have had time to linger, to take in the vast vistas and the tiny lichens. We’ve seen krill swimming and whales breaching, ice cliffs tumbling into the sea at the end of a thousands-of-years journey and penguin chicks ready to take their first plunge into the same ocean at the start of their own life. Our stormy journey back in some ways intensifies the whole experience, putting it in context, adding an extra edge of appreciation of life in general and specifically to the only continent where man is unable to live full time. We enjoyed visiting.
Our first campsite in Paradise Harbour

Our first campsite in Paradise Harbour

PostHeaderIcon Vancouver island Solo circumnavigation

Happy Happy happy

Black choppy waves thudded chaotically onto my deck, the frigid water smashing up into my face. Heavy rain hammered down noisily and stung my face, while a headwind blew the cold into my bones. The small island I was hoping to camp on was a few miles away but had disappeared into a black haze. Darkness would soon follow. Ahead of me was a long rocky carry with the kayak from the low water mark and I was already shivering. Why then was I laughing wildly into the elements, my Cheshire cat grin plastered with rain, my sodden hair hanging limp around my rosy cheeks, my tired body only just warm enough after 10 hours of paddling? It was day 5 of my circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and I felt truly alive. Wonderfully, happily vibrant and alive. I felt only joy at being immersed in nature, shrouded in a private wet and wild bubble. I had wondered how I would deal with challenges by myself, with no-one to help me, to delegate to or to blame. I surprised myself by my almost unwavering positivity – perhaps when there is no-one to moan to, the only sensible option is to get on with it?

Wet windy cold and happy

I set out from Orcas island in America on a warm, sunny, calm day at the end of April 2016. The current helped me across the international border to the Gulf islands. At a small marina, I phoned Canadian customs, gave my passport details and assured them I had no drugs, weapons or vegetables in my kayak. A gentle push from wind and current combined with first day excitement to help me cover 60km to Wallace island. This was pleasingly more than the 35km/ day I had to make to finish in the 32 days available to me.

 

Every day was different around Vancouver Island. Up the East coast, I often had a view on both sides as I threaded up through islands, admiring everything from small rocky outcrops to magnificent snow-capped mountains. I enjoyed jumping on conveyor belts of tidal current to accelerate my progress up the middle of channels, watching the large scale change in scenery as another mountain appeared around the corner or the clouds changed from whispy threads to puffy cotton wool pads. When the current opposed me, I loved dancing along the rocky shoreline, manoeuvring my kayak inches from the steep granite outcrops in the eddies, admiring the coarse crystals, bright red anemones & hardy lichens and sniffing the musty aroma of the many trees whose roots had found weaknesses in the rock.

One of my favourite campsites

I didn’t feel alone. Eagles made their piercing calls from the air while the evocative pining sound of the loon never failed to pull at my heartstrings. Seals slid into the water as I passed and quietly popped up behind me. Otters seemed able to detect me coming from at least 100 metres away, no matter how quiet I was. They would bob their heads up like Meer cats, looking for several seconds at this strange object coming towards them, before they disappeared into the depths. I never tired of seeing them carrying babies on their bellies, wrapped up in kelp or in rafts with dozens of others. Grey and humpback whales were frequent companions passing by with a pffff and a beautiful cloud of sparkling breath lingering in the air for several seconds before fading away to nothing. On the north coast, 5 orca cruised by the beach I was camped on, purposefully heading towards the horizon, one magnificent male with a steely black fin that cut the water like a dagger. On the East coast, dozens of sea lions lazed around on the surface, snoozing with their friends in the sun. Sometimes I’d slip by unnoticed, on other occasions they’d wake up with a noisy splash, followed by an even louder display of snorts and grunts. On the exposed west coast, their long craning necks often pierced the turbulent water besides me as I was concentrating on weaving though a boomer field. The more critical my route choice was the noisier and closer the excitable bobbing seemed to be.

Sea lions galore

I paddled for 3 weeks without taking a day off. This wasn’t through design. Headwinds slowed me down along most of Johnston Strait, but they were never so bad that I couldn’t paddle, and the forecast always promised a change for the worse, so I constantly thought I better make the most of being able to make progress while I could. Rounding Cape Scott was one of my rougher days, with 8 foot breaking waves slamming around my kayak at Cape Sutil. Off the notorious headland itself, the biggest challenge was a 5 foot swell exploding onto the many offshore rocks with an intimidating crash. The current had recently turned against me so I was trying to stay as close to shore as possible while avoiding the boomers. A 15 knot wind opposed the 1 knot current but conditions were manageable, with much smaller waves than at Cape Sutil. It was a matter of keeping cool and choosing a safe passage. I easily passed through 2 small tidal races, with breaking waves lapping over my deck. Still, I was very glad when I entered the safety of the next bay. I celebrated by successfully completing my first solo wee at sea. I managed to put a small glass jar through my pee zip and fill it. The only issue was that I usually filled that jar two and a half times so I had to be very careful about making sure I stopped the flow at the right times!

The wonderful Hot Springs Cove

Most days were well within my comfort zone with beautiful scenery and plentiful wildlife to keep me entertained and smiling. I was lucky that the swell was rarely above 1.5metres. I tried to do what I felt like every day whether that was paddle fast with the current, or meander all the way around a bay, landing on beaches to search for glass fishing floats or have a wash and swim in a waterfall pool. I talked to myself, I talked to otters and eagles and headlands. I laughed out loud. I’m not sure whether I needed to talk, or needed to be heard.

Relaxing on the Bunsby islands

I only felt lonely amongst people. In the wilderness, my expectations were of finding my own happiness from within and my surroundings whereas in a town I craved a meaningful human interaction and felt sad if none materialised. But mostly the people I met were wonderful, kind souls who laughed with me, fed me, put me up and shared stories. Carole cooked me prawns and squash in a remote cabin, Dan regaled me with stories of bears, cougars and near death experiences, Gina whisked me from a beach to her house and bbqed fresh oysters.

Fantastic camp kitchen on Catala island

A challenging day was the 45km from Vargas island to Ucluelet. A 3-4 metres swell hit my right side while a 25knot wind pushed me along in the right direction. I mostly stayed far out to sea but around headlands and boulder fields all my senses were on high alert. Making contact with one of those rocks with this much energy around would be a very bad thing. I paddled inside the line of rocks when it felt safe to do so as I like being in that zone where the energy is diluted. My heart was in my mouth getting there, as the waves increased in size over the shallower water. Even though I had been watching my route for 20 minutes and making sure it was clear, I was still afraid that a rogue wave would appear and tonnes of water would topple over and hit me like a brick wall.

Beautiful eddy hopping

I was nervous of paddling by myself. Would I get bored or lonely? Would I manage to get out of bed? Would a bear eat me? Would I be over confident and get myself into trouble? There are so many reasons why I could have backed out and not done it but I am so happy that I went ahead. I am a richer, more balanced person now. It’s great to know I can survive alone and enjoy my own company. I can achieve goals and be happy doing it. The trip also reinforced the feeling that I am never more content than when I’m immersed in nature, whether it’s sun warming my limbs or rain drumming on my cheeks. There is a simple, pure joy that comes when sitting on my very own beach at the end of a long, satisfying paddle, eating my dinner while watching the sunset and listening to the sea crashing onto the beach.

Celebrating rounding Cape Scott with my first solo wee!

I love good company on a trip. I enjoy sharing the physical and mental challenges and having someone to laugh, talk and share special moments with. My next trip will probably not be solo, but I will keep seeking out some time alone in the future.

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Leaving the fabulous Hidden Cove

I used a Valley Nordkapp sea kayak and Mitchell blades bombora paddles. On the water I wore a Kokatat Merdian dry suit with a drop seat and a pee zip, a MsFit Tour PFD/ buoyancy aid, Kokatat wool core thermals, and Keen Gorgeous boots on my feet. It’s the first time I wore these shoes and I loved them as they were lightweight and comfortable while being supportive with a good sole.

I had hand covers if it was sunny and Snapdragon pogies for cold days.

I used a fabulous Hilleberg Allak tent. It’s a 2 person tent so was a bit overkill but I decided it would be nice to have extra space if I had many weather-bound days – plus there was a bit more space between me and any bears or cougars that decided to investigate! Not that I had any visitors, or any weather-bound days in the tent! But the tent was super easy to erect and I loved the free-standing nature of it. I slept in comfort on an Exped DownMat 7.

I cooked on an Optimus Nova+ stove with an Optimus Terra HE pan set which I love due to it’s neoprene cover. I start cooking my pasta or rice, then put it in the neoprene cover to continue cooking while I cook my vegetables and sauce. This feature and the heat exchange on the bottom of one pan meant that I used less than 1.5 litres of fuel for the entire trip. Admittedly I cooked on fires a few times and was fed by others on occasions but I was still very impressed with how little fuel I used.

I also got some stylish fabulous blue KEEN Saltzman shoes which I had intended to wear on land, but they were too nice to cram into my kayak so I now proudly wear them around town instead!

Big thanks to Karel Vissel who sent me daily weather forecasts to help keep me safe and to Iridium for lending me the satellite phone which also allowed me to send daily updates. Karel has sent me forecasts many times in the past but it somehow felt more key this time as I was by myself and sometimes Karel was the only person I communicated with on a particular day.

Arriving back on Orcas island after 32 days

PostHeaderIcon Atka: a window through time.


sailingThe 5 day forecast showed an opportunity to push hard for 3 days and reach the settlement on Atka before some bad weather grounded us. We took the chance and paddled a couple of 10 hour days to put us 21 miles away on the third day. We started the day with a 13 mile crossing of a large Bay in a side wind. The sails helped us maintain a little over 3 knots, increasing to 3.5 when we decided to head inland slightly to improve the angle.

stella fur sealsA few people have made comments that we somehow aren’t kayaking if we are using sails. Or suggested that it’s cheating or against the rules. We don’t really have any rules and if it makes us quicker and therefore safer in this remote, windy, cold, unpredictable environment then I’m all for it! We are still paddling but the sails make us quicker in certain conditions, much like a longer, sleeker kayak would or even a rudder. In other ways, they make our journey trickier – gusts can offbalance you more eaisly and the sail and lines on our deck could get tangled or caught on rocks or kelp. Rolling with a sail up is something we aim to avoid as we need to release one of the lines underwater before attempting it.

Eating Sea UrchinsI digress…. I wanted to talk about Atka. I didn’t know much about this city of 75 people before coming here. I knew they had a fish processing plant, 3000 reindeer and an airport that is serviced from Dutch Harbour 3 times a week. Local resident Crystal Dushkin agreed to let us ship some food and supplies ahead to her. When we arrived, she arranged for many of the Atka folks to meet us at the beach and perform a traditional drum dance. The kids got to leave school early so they were happy! Both Sarah and I found it really moving to be greeted in such a dynamic and special way.Overall for me sailing is a new and exciting extra dimension to a paddling trip and I like the fact that we are travelling through waters that the Aleuts paddled hundreds of years ago. I’ve seen old photos of their iqyax (kayaks) with sails- so I somehow feel like we’re using good style.

Arrival on AtkaWe soon learnt that the dancing is just one way that Atka is a hotbed for preserving local Aleut culture. It’s the only place where the ‘Unangax’ language is currently spoken in every day conversation. They have a cultural camp every year where the youngsters are taught traditional skills like making kayaks (iqyax), weaving grass baskets, dancing and harvesting sea food. On our first night we were treated to Sea lion soup and reindeer bolognase. Last night we had battered halibut and three salmon dishes – breadcrumed, baked and smoked. Today Crystal and Danny took us to the seashore at low tide and we harvested sea urchins, chitons and sea weeds. They showed us how to eat the various parts so we can supplement our diet from now on along the chain. I really enjoyed the sea urchin eggs and will definitely be finding some more of them.

Traditional dancingIt’s always really interesting to chat to people who live in a remote and unusual place. Atka has a happy, friendly feel to it as well as having an important role in keeping alive the Unangax culture. The people seem to love being so close to nature, living from the land and their lack of ‘big brother’. I feel privileged to have spent a few days enjoying an insight into a way of life that is often overlooked in the fast pace of modern life.

We’ve had 3 days in Atka – the first two were too windy to paddle (a 25knots headwind). Today was still a headwind but more like 10-15knots. We simply weren’t organized enough to leave this morning after spending the first two days in a whirlwind of being looked after, fed, shown around and taught what goodies will help us survive if we end up stuck on a remote island for longer than our food lasts. In the end we decided not to rush off this afternoon, but to leave first thing tomorrow morning and have a full day of paddling… albeit into a headwind still.

South coastSo thanks to the kind folks of Atka for welcoming us so warmly. And onwards from here until our next brush with civilization in Nikolski, an even smaller community of about 16 people 250 miles along the chain. I expect this next leg to be our most challenging – with several long crossings through tidal passes with not entirely precise information about the currents. Once across, the landings are scarce and affected by the ever-present swell. While I’m looking forward to spending some time in this rarely visited part of the world, we’ll be hoping for some good weather to let us reach Nikolski before our food (or patience) runs out!

Reindeer on AktaYou can follow our progress via a tracker on Sarah’s website. Sarah varies how often it updates – often every 6 hours, but we might make it more often during the tricker crossings. Sarah’s blog is here.

I try to put up a photo on Facebook every day (it formats it weirdly if I do it onto my blog), and Sarah puts out regular tweets. I’ll also try to write a short blog post most days on here.

 

PostHeaderIcon Stiff legs, empty houses and warm hearts

big-jump“Knock Knock”, a knuckle rapped gently on the door of our borrowed house on Adak. I was just after 9am. I tried to leap out of bed, but my calves, thighs and shoulders screamed at me to take it easy. I hobbled down the stairs as quickly as I could and just caught Elaine moments before she left our breakfast on the doorstep. Inside, she put water on for coffee and tea while I rubbed sleep from my eyes. It took me a minute to realise that she was carrying enough pancakes, burgers and fried potatoes to feed a small army. Imelda, who cooks for 300 fish plant workers through the cod fishing season had taken time to made us a feast, knowing that we’d be tired and hungry from our 20 hours of walking over the last 2 days.

barren_walk

5 days into our stay on Adak, Sarah, Lucy and I have well and truly made ourselves at home. Our house is one of several hundred that were built by the US navy during the second world war to house the thousands of troops stationed here. They look like housing estates anywhere, except there are no signs of life. It’s quite eerie to walk or drive along the empty streets, with no cars, no washing lines full of clothes, no kids toys in the gardens, no people, no noise. The 100 permanent residents of Adak are scattered about in the houses, as are 100 contractors here as part of an on-going project to dispose of the many ordnances (bombs, mines etc) left on the island

overlooking_camel_coveWe’ve been busy sorting out our kayaks and kit – glueing, wrapping, consolidating, drilling, trimming and organising. We’ve packed enough food for 3-4 weeks because villages and food supplies are few and far between. We’ve even removed the edges off our dehydrated meals despite one friend commenting that we ‘shouldn’t be cutting corners on our expedition’.

snowy-gully6 months ago Sarah arrived from Japan in her rowing boat in a small cove on the South coast of Adak. To ‘join the dots’ of her human powered journey we spent the last 2 days walking there and back. It’s about 9 miles one way along a vague hiking trail, used more by the introduced caribou than by people. The island map said it should take 11 hours which I found hard to believe – surely we wouldn’t travel less than 1 mile/ hour!? After a couple of hours of route finding, stream crossing, bog-hopping, hill climbing and heavy panting I began to wonder whether it would take us longer than that. Fortunately it doesn’t get dark until after 10pm and it was an amazing walk through a little-visited wild island. I enjoyed becoming familiar with the small plants and lichens growing in this treeless landscape & I loved the ever-changing views, the sweet fresh air and the sense of adventure. We finally made it to a lovely campsite above Camel Cove after 9 hours. The return journey took 11 as we took a ‘shortcut’ through an unnamed pass which turned out to be a steep snow-filled gully surrounded by cliffs! CampspotNow we’re back in Adak town, we are being really well looked after by the locals. Elaine has lent us her truck, fed us caribou-dog from animals that she hunted last year and tonight we are going to have a Banja (sauna) at her house to ease our aching muscles. Imelda has been feeding us most days and others are showing us their warm hearts every day. It’s a privilege to have an insight into the way of life in such a remote island community.

Adak from the water towerKayaking – we hope to start on Sunday or Monday after Sarah’s fiancee Lucy flies home.