We did it! Sarah and I landed on Homer spit at 8.30pm after 101 days paddling along the Aleutian island chain and the Alaskan peninsula.
I’ve recently arrived home to Wales with a inner warmth and calmness that always comes after a wonderful wilderness journey. Many of my muscles are a little tight after 101 days of paddling, camping & being on the go, but my face is relaxed and the corners of my lips are hooked up into a permanent faint smile. I have so many happy memories, from watching hundreds of mother otters swimming on their backs, clutching their babies close to their chests to jumping between the driftwood logs along a vast empty sandy beach as the last of the sun turns the sky pink. Some of the paddling was really committing and we didn’t always know how long it would take us to buck currents and reach land. Other days were calm and sunny bimbles along skyscraper cliffs, brimming full of nesting birds.
It’s satisfying to have completed a long journey through challenging waters. We don’t know of anyone else who has blazed the way before us so it was exciting (and at times a bit nerve wracking) to discover the conditions for ourselves, figuring things out along the way. While there are small communities dotted along our route, I felt happy that there is still such a large swathe of mostly untouched wilderness up in Alaska and lucky to have spent over 3 months weaving our way along her shores, watching her burst with life during the short summer season, and seeing the landscape turn from the treeless, rocky volcanoes of the Aleutians to the lush, green spruce-ladden slopes of Kodiak. I hope that the inaccessibility and lack of log-able trees helps keep this special wilderness wild in the future.
Ortlieb dry bags stood up well to a long trip. The aqua cam case is my firm favourite for carrying valuable electronics. I won’t go on a trip without one. We used Reed spraydecks, socks and emergency hatch covers. Sarah had to use an emergency hatch for 2 weeks when the sea claimed her day hatch and it worked remarkably well. I used Reed waterproof socks on land between my thermal socks and my trainers. They kept my feet dry when it was wet out or when crossing rivers. This was the first trip for ages where I had a fixed 70P Silva compass. Usually I take one that attaches with bungy cords. Since we had sails which increased the amount of ropes on the deck, I was glad not to have to worry about the compass.
Thanks to Karel Visel for sending us weather forecasts twice a day. These helped keep us safe in this remote corner of the world.
Bosh. 50 miles on day 100. How about that for round numbers? Well actually the gps read 49 nautical miles but Sarah maintains that she paddled a half century.
Thanks goodness we had the gps lent to us by Travis from Venturess as the tides were strong and unpredictable making today’s paddle to the barren islands and onto the kenai peninsula challenging. Billy Pepper identified a weather window for us this morning and he was right, although we set off tentatively after turning back the other day. The Sea state was less this morning and the wind light although once we were 3 miles from shore the east going current turned SE which meant we made really slow progress, a lot of which was to the East rather than North. Once the flood kicked it took us NW which was more useful and we managed to hold a course taking us North right up the centre of the Barren Islands where the tide gave us a great push right behind us.
As soon as we’d made the decision to make the most of having 4 more hours of flood to try to get 13 more miles to the peninsula, the conditions got more challenging. A 15 knot headwind picked up and we passed through some feisty tidal races. That wasn’t too bad but suddenly the current was whizzing NW at 4 knots, despite a prediction of a maximum current of 2.9 knots today. At our speed of around 3 knots in choppy warter, we couldn’t find a course to take us towards land. Whatever bearing we tried had us heading NNW. We settled on a bearing of 45 true as that had us heading NNW at the fastest speed of 4 knots. Since land was North and NE of us, this was worrying, but at least we could try to get as far north as possible before the ebb started taking us SE so we could hopefully ferry glide to land. After 5 miles our heading was worrying me enough that i suggested we turn back for the Barren Islands. I thought we should be able to reach the westernmost Island. However when w e tried
the tide was too strong for that and we were heading West not SW as needed. So we reversed our track again. I could see Sarah was really worried when I said we weren’t able to get back to the barren Islands. We could have done eventually if we’d heels or best course until the ebb kicked back in but if we were going to do that then wet might as well do it in the right direction.
Fortunately after 2 or 3 hours the flood weakened and we were able to make good progress towards land. The ebb was also almost 2 hours later than expected which also allowed us to get further up the coast than we’d expected. Bonus!
I didn’t mean to write so much technical stuff, or to write much at all as I’m pretty tired after 16 and a half hours in the kayak.
We got up at 5am and it’s now after 1.30pm. We’re 32 miles from Homer. We’ll try to reach it tomorrow although we don’t know if the weather will allow that yet. It won’t be a mega early start as we’re tired and the current should be with us after midday. Watch the tracker on Sarah’s website if you want to see if we make it. It’s updated every hour. Www.sarahouten.com/the-mission/journey-tracker
From tired, achy but satisfied paddlers!
Those were the words in an email this morning from a friend in Adak. So close yet so stuck sums it up nicely! Today we weren’t tempted to have another go at the crossing to the barren islands as there were white caps in the protected passage between our small island and the mainland of Shuyak. It rained heavily until about 4pm and I didn’t go outside the tent until my bladder could take it no longer at after midday. Tomorrow’s forecast is no magic formula but we will wake up at 4am with enough time to get ready for the east going ebb if it feels calm enough, otherwise we’ll have another chance later in the afternoon. If not Thursday looks a little more promising in the afternoon at the moment.
Sometimes it’s good to turn back and recognise your limits.
We got up well before the birds at 3am to see whether yesterday evening’s unforecasted calm was still making a crossing to the Barren Islands a possibility. We could just see each other and the outline of the rocky shore when we launched at 4.45am. There was only a light breeze but the 4am NOAA forecast warned of E winds increasing to 25 knots this morning. Karel predicted 20 knots.
We decided to see what the sea felt like and decide whether to attempt a crossing or head East 4 miles to another headland. As soon as we left the shelter of our Cove we were being pulled gently North by the rolling swell of a half asleep tidal race, our kayaks bouncing down into the troughs with a light splash. It was a little disconcerting in the dark and Sarah turned to me and said she didn’t like it. We decided not to cross but to head East to Praline headland (not her real name but one chosen by the always-hungry Sarah). After an hour we were half way there and the darkness had lifted enough so we could see the waves. They didn’t look so intimidating now and the wind was still less than 10 knots from the ENE. We discussed options and decided we’d have a go at heading north to the islands. We’d try sailing and see if we could make rapid progress that way. If we could reach the Islands around slack water, we could hopefully avoid the tidal races. Even at the start of the flood
the wind and tide would be in the same direction so it should be calmer. Thankfully we’ve been lent a working GPS by the crew of the fishing boat Venturess who came to Blue Fox Lodge so we could measure our progress.
After half an hour of a 3 foot swell which was bouncy but manageable, we came up to an area of 6-8 foot waves that were breaking powerfully on occasions. I think this tidal rip coincided with a very shallow area on the chart so may well have been short lived but it was enough of a warning to me that we shouldn’t be attempting this crossing today. If that’s the sort of sea we could encounter at random then imagine what the notorious tidal rips that guard the Barren Islands would be like if the wind did pick up to 25 knots. I paddled up besides Sarah who said she really wasn’t enjoying the conditions. We turned around, dropped the sails and headed for a new campsite 4 miles east of our last one.
So here we are, camped up in the grass above a gravel beach which almost completely disappeared this afternoon under one of the largest tides of the year. There have been a few breaks in the rain today so Sarah made a fire and cooked dinner on it and we’ve been drying damp themals over the embers. Tomorrow’s forecast is for 30 knots from the East so we’ll most likely still be here. My flight home on Saturday is looking less and less likely but things sometimes change quickly here.
My friend Luke had been sending me limericks to keep me smiling! Here’s todays!
There once was a lady from Wales
Whose hardness was like that of nails
Her name was Justine,
She liked all things marine
Except force 7 North Easterly gales.