Michal’s Trip to Alaska – Part III.
Metal Prison Monday 09.07.2018
Another rest day.
It started to feel as if we were in one big metal prison with all the sleeping in a metal box on metal frame bed with metallic noise of nonstop working machinery all around us. Even our mats had metal springs inside them. We started to feel an increasing desire to escape.
There isn’t much to do, we ventured to our wifi spot in the centre of the village, in front of the library and post office, by community centre. The next building up the road was medical centre. I was just walking up and down the dirt track chatting to Natalie, while Freya was sitting on the grass in front of the library, when a lady who seemed to work in the library arrived. First thing she said wasn’t “hello, is there anything I can do for you? Sorry library is not open yet.” This is probably the most likely thing one would hear from a lady working in library in England. But no, not here, no. First thing we heard was, “you have five minutes to go, this is not a place to do loitering.” Ok, we went, but it still left me wondering where are people expected to hang around if not by all of those community buildings?
After lunch we walked to the shop to buy few things, mainly milk as we are planning to go tomorrow. We checked the weather forecast in Trident office, and it looks like it’s meant to be calming down. Talking about the weather, either we are quite sheltered here in the False Pass or it was much better then predicted. Freya spent most of the day walking around with one line only: “It looks good. We should be gone today. We would be thirty kilometres further.”
Maybe, but we are here and there is no point to stress about something we haven’t done. So to distract her we walked around the city, that’s how they call this village, through the bear territory. I don’t know how smart it is walking through bushes following bear footprints. Few times our conversation looked like from the Far Side cartoon “Do you think they are any bears there?” “I don’t know, shall we have a look?”
Photo by Freya Hoffmeister
Obviously as I am writing this, I can confirm there weren’t bears in the bushes above the village.
Now we are getting excited about the prospect of leaving tomorrow and are slowly putting things together to be able to pack swiftly in the morning.
Paddling Again Tuesday 10.07.2018
Yesterday evening I set my alarm for the first time on this trip. I woke up at 4:59am, one minute before alarm would go off. That was good it meant that I could get up without waking Freya. It was early but I went into town to make a call to Natalie. It was the last opportunity to get on wifi for a while. It was good to be up so early. When I came back I headed straight for breakfast, on time for the first time since we came here, it’s served from 5 to 7am.
While I was having pancakes I overheard two girls chatting at the next table. Topic wasn’t interesting at all, something about clubbing, tattoos and police but they were talking in Czech!
I was tempted to join in to find out how someone comes to work all the way here from the centre of Europe. But decided against it, we were just about to leave.
We said good bye to everybody in the office and left in the direction to north. First, we started with hugging the coast quite closely to avoid current and wind, both were supposed to change soon. Suddenly we could see something brown in the bramble. Is it a fox? No it was bigger, a bear. Once we came closer, we could just see the bear’s head. He appeared to be sitting and watching us taking photos, then slowly stood up and walked away. It looked so cute, just like a teddy bear. I’m sure if we had met him yesterday on our walk we would think exactly the same.
We started to paddle offshore due to the tide turning. For some reason the wind was more northerly rather than the forecasted westerly. And it was getting stronger, soon we were pushing into headwind and agreed that it didn’t make any sense to go out into Bering sea. It would be too big. We aimed for the northeast corner of the inner lagoon planning to land on a sand bar and portage. Wind was now solid F6, partly headwind partly sidewind. We were paddling hard and suddenly we realised that the water was becoming quite shallow. Tide was supposed to be coming in, so we felt quite confident we could make it very close to the corner. Suddenly we were aground. Not really knowing how much the water rises we decided to pull in the direction of what we assumed was deeper channel. For a really hard five hundred meters we sank knee deep into a combination of sand and mud in every step. Fortunately we made it and were afloat again. Just as landed, we could see bear slowly walking along the beach. Exactly where we needed to go. Fortunately, in the end it was wandering away from us, it took us couple of hours to empty boats and carry everything to the top of the sand dune.
When we could finally glimpse then Bering Sea our language turned French. We could hear the noise coming over the dunes but we still were not ready to see this wild messy surf violently crashing into black sand. Nobody can make me to go out in this, not even in my nice empty playful Xtra I have at home. In fully loaded expedition seakayak? Forget it. No chance.
Now sitting in the tent on the top of the sand dunes knowing there’s a bear walking somewhere around, sea crashing madly into the beach, we were wondering what is the chance of it all magically settling down tomorrow as forecasted.
I would almost forget, in the first ten minutes on the beach watching surf I found Japanese glass net float. We were told there are thousands of them on the north side and it looks like it might be true!
Walrus in the Surf Wednesday 11.07.2018
Freya was awake quite early and eager to go. Well sea was down significantly from the sea state we observed yesterday, but there was noticeable surf visible even from our tent on the top of the dunes.
While we were getting ready I thought “if we won’t be able to paddle out in this, we won’t be able to make it to Nelson Lagoon”. So it must be done, regardless how I feel about it.
When we were finally prepared to launch Freya asked who should go first. I volunteered.
As I put my spraydeck on, a wave came and took me. Set looked okay so I started to paddle out. Few strokes and I tried to free my rudder, nothing happened. Again few strokes to keep the kayak straight and I tried again. I had both hands behind me holding the launching string and pulling forward and down. Plop, suddenly the rudder became free. In that meantime I was being pushed to the right and a big set was coming. I just tried to stay upright, pushing hard agains each wave. I was going no where, being smashed, and surfed backwards, I was barely able to hold position. Twice I had to half roll but didn’t go in. Suddenly it looked like there was a break. I pushed hard. My muscles were hurting and I was breathing heavily trying do get in as much oxygen as possible. Few times I was lucky and managed to jump over the wave just before it crashed. It is interesting sensation to have fully loaded expedition seakayak airborne. Finally I was out. I would like to see photo of my fight but I seriously doubt, it even crossed Freya’s mind that she could take her camera out of her pocket while watching me struggling. Now it was her time.
I could see her standing on the beach next to her kayak for a while. Then she disappeared from the view. She is going out, I thought. Suddenly I could see her again, hauling her kayak back up on the beach. Again she was just standing there watching the sea. Then small set came and she was punching through the waves. This time she was lucky and we were both afloat. When we were side by side we chatted about our experiences. None of us liked it, we agreed it was one of our worst surf launches ever and Freya showed me the damage to her foredeck, which happened while she tried to paddle out unsuccessfully on her first attempt. After brief break to cool down from all the excitement we started to paddle.
There used to be village next to the place we camped called Old Morzhovoi village, it actually means Old Walrus village. I didn’t think much about it until Freya pointed to a big group of sea otters. They were really cute. At that moment big head popped out just on the other side. That’s a big seal. “Shit” seal doesn’t have tusks. This is fu..ink walrus! No, there are two big walruses, and they are heading for us! We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have a clue how walrus behaves and if they are aggressive. I was taking photos and when they were too close we just started to paddle away. It seemed like the only thing for us to do, although we knew there wasn’t a chance out paddle a walrus. Fortunately they decided not to follow. I have to admit it was quite scary to see big head with two massive teeth coming at you while you can only sit and watch.
By now we were passing the third entrance to the Izembek Lagoon. Our plan was to go in through the last entrance and land on the inside of the natural wave breaker. Passing two previous entrances gave us a great opportunity to observe where and how the surf breaks.
After long sixty kilometres we were heading in. Freya lead the way in the lagoon and soon we landed after zigzagging and dogging surf breaks.
We set our tent and went for short walk to get a different point of view from the shore and to look at the path we took through the surf.
Also it was good to see if there were any bears in the vicinity. Today we only saw their footprints. It was a pleasant walk combined with beach combing, we both managed to find three Japanese glass net floats!
Now the question was if we would paddle tomorrow, forecast was on the border line with strong offshore wind so we postponed any decision making till the morning.
Glass Ball Hunt Thursday 12.07.2018
Wind was shaking our tent and Freya didn’t wake me up, so I assumed we are not paddling and continued sleeping in till ten in the morning. At that point it looked like Freya would appreciate some help with fixing her boat so I finally climbed out of my sleeping bag.
After glueing some bits and pieces and having breakfast we reinforced our tent with more strings and brought some logs from the beach to weigh down the tent pegs. We were camping on the sand dune and wind was already gusting F6.
Now it was time for beach walk. Freya decided she will take her back pack because we may find more glass floats. I wasn’t that optimistic and when she asked how many I think we would find I said four.
It was low tide and strong wind was carrying lots of sand, fortunately it was blowing offshore and we stayed quite high on the beach. It was quite an impressive sight as masses of sand were flying just past us.
Soon I found first glass ball of the day. In the next few minutes I had three more and Freya found one too. We were walking along the beach and there and now one of us would start running and shouting “there, there, it’s mine!”
Freya’s bag was becoming full, now we were only excited if when we found four or five together, or if it had a colour we have not found yet.
We filled the bag fully, and Freya took off her waterproof trousers, we filled them too. When we started to fill her jacket I thought this was enough and introduced new rule. We could go further pass the last spotted glass ball only if we can see another one. We managed to fill the jacket too. We were dragging the bag, trousers and jacket full of glass balls back into an increasing wind. Now it was solid F7 and we were becoming more and more worried if our tent was still ok.
Photo by Freya Hoffmeister
By the time we got back it was gale 8. Tent was shaking violently and we knew we had to move it to a more protected spot behind a dune which was not far. That was good. Sand was hitting us hard and the only time we could open our eyes was when facing downwind. One hour later we were in our tent again. It wasn’t shaking too badly but sand was everywhere, in our eyes, ears, nose, clothed, pockets, sleeping bag, pots, tent. Just about everywhere. But we had dinner and were as comfy as possible again. Tomorrow is another day off, wind might last one more day.
Windbound Friday 13.07.2018
We had second day off in the row. That meant we have to stretch the few activities we could do here. Again I tried to sleep for as long as I could and get up half past ten. We kept reading for most of the day. Once we went for short walk on the beach but not too far. It was still pretty windy, probably F7, and we picked up all glass balls yesterday. Only new thing we found today was a skeleton of a small whale.
Main excitement of the day was counting and selecting glass net balls. We spread them in the porch and went through three times to make sure we have the correct number. Without much effort we harvested 101 glass balls! It’s obvious we don’t have a chance to take them all. So we spent another half an hour selecting the best ones. I have chosen 21 and Freya 31 of them. We will see tomorrow if we have enough space in our kayaks to take those.
Now is time to read again. I’m slowly running out of books on my kindle. Hopefully there will be a chance to download something new in Nelson Lagoon. If weather lasts we should get there on Sunday evening. Fingers crossed.
GPS Addiction Saturday 14.07.2018
Leaving Izembek Lagoon was easy. We had two and half days to observe the surf breaking on the sandbars and picking up the best channel. Our chosen line worked smoothly even with the tide running agains us.
Just after we passed the last breaker I spotted white crushing wave ahead. “That’s strange” I thought “we should be clear of everything by now”. One minute later a whale flew out of the water and dropped back with amazing splash. Wow! Whale in the air! I have seen whale airborne!
Shortly after as we started to follow sandy coast I noticed some boulders on the beach. I didn’t think much of it until Freya said that there are no stones here and we should paddle closer.
She was right, although we could not paddle too close due to significant surf, we could see bear walking on the beach with three cubs. Half an hour later another big bear was walking in the same direction. Until today we saw only three bears all together and now five in less then one hour!
Soon after that the tide turned, we had some current against us with cross wind behind. Sea started to be choppy and our progress dropped. Freya started to watch her GPS a lot. Every time I looked over my shoulder she was looking down on it. Sometimes I think she is really addicted to it. Or maybe there are just two lines showing on her little screen, “paddle in, paddle out”.
She started to complain that our speed dropped to four kilometres per hour because we are paddling in tiderace. I didn’t say much. Nobody should call one knot of flow with wind against a tiderace. What’s more, I couldn’t really say loud what I was thinking “Just put the paddle in the water and stop watching that screen!”
Freya was really proud of her forward paddling and she can paddle well. But when she starts to watch her GPS her paddling goes out of window. She would be such a good example of how not to paddle. When her head goes down to see the little screen on her spraydeck her whole posture is compromised. She stops rotating and paddle barely touches the water.
I wasn’t surprised when she indicated that she is tired and it would be best to call it a day. We successfully managed to avoid nasty breaking waves and surf on small set in to the beach. Now we are camping on the highest point of the beach just under crumbling sandy cliff hopping that tide won’t came too high.
Just as we were getting ready to sleep we could hear a noise which sounded like helicopter. We got up and as we were trying to open the tent to see it came straight above us. It was following the shore very tightly probably less then twenty metres high. Shame we were not fast enough and could take photos, we thought. And then we could hear it again. We got out and started to take pictures. It passed us, did big loop and flue over as again and disappeared.
Whales and Bears Sunday 15.07.2018
We started to pack when it was still almost dark with the aim to catch morning tide in our direction.
Surf was reasonable. Freya was going first this time. I was holding her kayak at the front just on the water edge. Then, when small set came, I helped her to pull it in the water as she jumped in the cockpit and continued pushing so she could get fast through the first wave without getting much water in the cockpit. Then it was my turn. I waited patiently for small set just on the water edge. When last big wave passed I quickly pushed my kayak on the water and jumped in the cockpit. Timing was perfect, I went over smaller wave which even didn’t splash in the cockpit and paddled out.
As we were paddling along the coast we started to discuss how and where we are going to finish this leg of paddling. More precisely where I will finish and Natalie will take over. After considering our options several times, we concluded that Nelson Lagoon would be best. Freya seemed to be tired a lot in the last few days. I have to admit that I’m tired too. But more mentally then physically. If everything goes well I might be able to fly back to London and see Natalie before she leaves.
Ok, we made a plan and I phoned Natalie to let her know. She was glad to hear me, but sounded were apprehensive about surf on this stretch of coast. It’s hard to say how much surf she should expect, we had two huge days of it, but today is really calm.
One thing I’m learning on this trip is to be patient and don’t stress myself with things I cannot change. Like Freya, nobody can change Freya. Just to give you one example from today. We agreed we will try to make as much progress towards Nelson Lagoon especially in the morning. We knew we will have tide against us and headwind in the afternoon. So we are paddling few hundred meters offshore to have help from tide and to avoid all shallow areas where waves were getting stepper. Suddenly as we turn small corner Freya goes and starts to hug the coast. Apparently, when I pointed out that our speed dropped by one knot, I was told it is more entertaining to see what’s on the shore. Ok, every kilometre we won’t make now when it is easy, we will have to make against the tide and wind. Who cares that this coast is as exciting as paddling south of Withernsea.
Later on we noticed some water sprouts in the distance. We came closer and were surprised to see a whale so close to the shore. It was also resurfacing and disappearing very very slowly. Now we could see some old pods or cabins on the shore and started to consider landing to have a closer look, we spotted bear family, mum and three cubs. At the same time second whale appeared just behind us. We did not know what to photograph first. Just in case it wasn’t enough, small plane came and started to circle above us. It was really intense moment, often there were hours of paddling without any interaction and suddenly everything happened at the same time.
Before we landed for the day we could see one more bear family, mother with two young ones, one more whale and a ship wreck.
Our camp was full of bear prints and a small baby seal was constantly climbing up and down the tall sandy beach.
We should make the last 37 kilometres to Nelson Lagoon tomorrow and Freya is trying to arrange our flight out for Tuesday. I hope it will all work out smoothly.
Nelson Lagoon Monday 16.07.2018
Morning was grey with drizzle and fresh westerly wind. Fortunately no surf, just some splashy waves, so launching was straightforward.
We had tide and wind with us therefore we were making nice progress even without much effort. Yet again we were following this low sand dunes with grass on top of them. We could not see much more through low clouds and occasional rain. But Freya still found it interesting enough to paddle close to the shore and kept either watching that or her GPS. I know why I became so tired and logging for break. It was all this waiting. It frustrates me when we should be making progress and I have to be waiting even when I am putting in just half of the effort. Ok, eventually this slow paddle was interrupted by whale. Again it was really close to the shore and just flapping around. When we where twelve kilometres from Nelson Lagoon Freya decided it’s time to switch her satellite phone on and check messages. No problem I thought we have plenty of time. Half and hour later she finally putt her phone away. We were sitting in the rain and wind slowly drifting while getting cold and she was texting like a teenager.
Eventually we landed by a dirt track road leading to Nelson Lagoon and my paddling with Freya was over. We walked to the village to find Justine who should put us up and help us to sort out logistics.
We were wondering between houses hoping that either we eventually meet someone or find official looking building and ask for Justine, who works for local government.
We found her in the Post office building, we walked in and there she was: “Hi, you are here. I’m Justine.”
After greetings we asked about flying out. She started to make phone calls and arranged for Grant Aviation to take us to Cold Bay the following morning. From there we booked PenAir flight to Anchorage. Next thing was to change my flight to London.
Next, we had to sort out the transport for our kayaks and equipment from the beach. Justine offered to drive, we loaded everything including our kayaks. We put them across the open back with me standing and holding them. Now it was time to drive into the village. It was tight but we didn’t lose anything, neither kayaks nor me.
Photo by Freya Hoffmeister
We stayed in lovely self catering, the signs around indicate that it is mainly used by anglers. We sorted all our gear, I made a list of things I’m leaving behind for Natalie and packed the rest.
Soon I will become quite anxious as there are three days of travel with multiple flights ahead of me to get to London.
Flying Out Tuesday 17.07.2018
This morning we woke up ready to fly out. The only hiccup was we didn’t know when would our flight be leaving. When Justine helped us to book the flight yesterday she said was leaving in the morning. “Ok”, we asked, “what time?”
“I don’t know” she replied, “I have to call them in the morning.”
So now we were up, quite early. Just in case. We were thinking what would be the best way to find out more. Then Justine phoned, “your flight is at 9:30am. I’ll pick you up at 9”.
We got everything ready and stopped at Justine’s place on the way to the airport to drop off bags with gear which will be staying here for Natalie and Freya to continue in ten days.
I was quite taken back by the amount of expensive stuff laying everywhere when we walked into Justine’s place, cars, lawnmowers, power tools, computers, huge tv, drones. Wow. I thought. All of those small places look really poor and run down from the outside. I wonder how people here earn the money. I mean living here is pretty costly. There is no shop here. Everything comes by plane, even bottled water. They have water supply which is absolutely fine to drink but they prefer bottled water!
No wonder that half of the village was on the way to the airport with us.
We climbed out of the car and watched the unloading process. Cars quickly surrounded the plane on gravel airstrip. Dust was slowly settling down and boxes were being passed to different cars. Boxes and boxes.
Boxes of beer, wine, vodka. I hardly could spot anything else being unloaded. I wondered, plane lands here three times a week, is it always like this? No wonder there is police officer here even if there are no more than 35 people living in the village.
We took off. Three of us almost filled the plane, Freya, I and our pilot. Soon we were above the low lying clouds and could admire number of snow covered volcanoes around. At some point, we paddled around most of them.
In half an hour we landed in Cold Bay. We are changing plane and the airline. We checked in, and were told that our handheld luggage is just too big to fit into the overhead lockers because plane is quite small. We made sure our bags were marked ‘fragile’, in the end they are full of glass balls. Then we went for a stroll through the town and stopped in a shop and library.
Our flight to Anchorage was briefly stopping in Sand Point. It was nice to see bits and pieces of coast we paddled around through the clouds.
In Anchorage we stood on the tarmac watching the plane being unloaded and waited for our handheld bags. There were not coming, I could see my check in luggage being transferred but our bags were nowhere to be seen. When the plane was empty it was time to move to the baggage claim desk, yes our bags were left behind in Cold Bay. Ours and two other. Great.
They worked out that they should be able to deliver Freya’s to Seattle on Thursday early morning. They seemed to have no idea how to get mine to London. Perfect, when it gets there it will be full of smashed glass. Anyway, it would be nice to be reunited with my helmet at some point. Sweet Rocker is not particularly cheap.
Now it was time to go to desk to check in. I went there straight as they opened. I handed my passport over, then my booking reference, and after a long pause I was told that there was no change done to my booking. So I am still on the flight leaving in ten days.
There is no one to help me I was told. I was advised to go and use public pay phone as mine doesn’t work for some reason. “Sorry, there is nobody to help you here,” this line was delivered with a look which clearly said, “and leave now, there is a queue behind you “.
Great. Bag lost. Booking messed up.
I spent few minutes thinking about what to do next. Even if I find a pay phone here it would be bloody expensive. Those phone calls take forever.
So I made my way back to baggage claim desk. If someone is going to be helpful it would be the lady I spoke to earlier. If nothing else she feels guilty about her airline losing my luggage.
And yes. She was incredibly helpful, let me to use their phone to call and call, after half an hour I managed to track down the guy who was updating my ticket yesterday. His response was simple “Yes, I told you that your booking was changed but it didn’t go through. I didn’t have means how to contact you “. What a ….. he had my email, too.
Ok, another half an hour on the phone talking to different people receiving similar answers, it was time to send message to the UK with hope that in couple of hours in the morning there will be someone much more skilled to do magic with airline tickets.
Good thing was that this airport had free WiFi so I could use my iPad to communicate. By one in the morning I had new ticket to London from Seattle for £145. Few air companies were still busy with last departing planes. I quickly researched online prices and went to talk to Alaska Airline, it didn’t take long and I had ticket to Seattle as well. On the other hand, this delay gave me just enough time to retrieve my lost hand luggage before leaving for Seattle.
It took a while, flights were long but two days later I finally touched down at Heathrow Airport. This adventure was over.
Ever since I agreed to join Freya I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sometimes I was quite nervous about it. For two main reasons. I often paddle with lots of different people but when it comes to more serious paddling I’ve always done it with just one person, my wife Natalie. Now I was meant to join Freya, who has paddled a lot, and on her own, and whose image is quite controversial.
Now, after spending weeks of paddling with her, I can say I am surprised how well we managed to get along.
Maybe, because expedition seakayaking is quite straightforward and although we haven’t paddled together before we had same understanding of what to do when. I was quite pleased to find out that although Freya had many more years of paddling experience I didn’t lack behind, neither physically or skill wise.
Probably best thing about this trip was that I didn’t have to worry about Freya. She is incredibly good in being able to take care of herself. Skill, which she honed during years of solo paddling. It was a new experience for me, doing all previous challenging kayaking with my wife meant, I was always really cautious about my decision making. Regardless of how good my wife Natalie is, there is always an extra responsibility when paddling with your partner.
Paddling with Freya was really good in that aspect. We were paddling as equal partners and it worked really well.
If it comes to that in the future, I would happily join Freya on her North America circumnavigation again.