Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tides and Yurts

Even though I feel the pressure of a couple tirades building, the MN and WI wolf hunt developments being one, and the travesty I witnessed on Monday Night Football the other night being another, I figure I better riff a bit more on the Alaska trip while it is still fresh in my memory.  There was lots of stuff that was fairly amazing to we guys from salt and shark free waters, stuff that makes me want to head back just as soon as I can pull it off.

Once the gale force winds died down we prepared to get out on the water and do some camping.  We did not have to pack tents, sleeping pads, and other camping gear for Delta Airline to abuse since we were going to reserve a yurt that was installed and maintained by a vendor to the Kachemak Bay state park we planned to visit.  A quick aside on airlines.  Travelers between Alaskan cities do not need to remove shoes, belts, watches, and pocket knives to board the aircraft.   We flew Era Airline from Anchorage to Homer and suffered a minor mechanical issue that forced us to return to Anchorage and change planes.  To compensate us for the inconvenience, Era Airlines served free beer.  Cans of Bud Lite or Miller Genuine Draft you ask?  Hell no.  The stewardess reached down and pulled out growlers of Denali Brewing Twister Creek IPA and started pouring.  We were happily stunned; was this some paralell dimension where the airlines actually gave a shit about their passengers or what?

 RonO thought it wise to take the water taxi over to the other side of the bay and we were on board with that.  They dropped our gear off at the yurt on aptly named Kayak Beach and then took us up to the head of Tutka Bay, about a ten mile run. We used Ron's two NDK boats and were provided two more, the NDK Explorers that had been used for the 2012 Aleutian Expedition, courtesy of Tom Pogson at the Alaska Kayak School. The tide, a neap tide apparently, only about half the size of the nineteen footer on the day of our arrival, was ebbing.  Our exploration of Tutka Bay Lagoon in those conditions meant we were paddling 'upstream' as opposed to downstream on a rising tide.  A 'river' that changes course and speed of the flow every six hours or so is pretty cool stuff for we big lake paddlers.  There was fishing along the way with handlines as well as on the end of the Homer spit earlier with traditional rods and reels.  We caught fish, recognized about half of em, and ate the ones that we thought we knew.  The flounders were recognizable and tasty.  We of course, thought they were 'little halibut' but were quickly disabused of that idea.  We thought we caught a nice Ling Cod and ate that as well but no one was really sure if it was a cod or not; it was delicious whatever it was.

We did not have to find a tent site, set up tents,  inflate sleeping pads, or hang the tarp so this afforded more time, perhaps too much time, for an extended, scenic, and somewhat raucuous happy hour. Supper was late and I don't recall exactly what it wa,s but then it was a couple weeks ago.  Morning found us tanned and well rested and fully 50% of the group paddled out and explored Yukon Island, Elephant Rock, and Sadie Cove.  Shore lunch was caught and devoured along with the traditional fried potatoes and we enjoyed the company of the next night's yurt occupants, two young sisters and the bf of one of them. 

It was an abbreviated although excellent little overnight.  We loved playing in the salt water with the tides and catching fish whose species we had no clue in hell about.  The scenery wherever we looked was breathtaking and the weather, 50F with a bit of drizzle now and then, was an absolute joy for we parched, 90F hating midwesterners.  While I don't see this being added to the long list of 'annuals' (technically however, it was the annual fall trip, a staple on the calendar since the late '90's) I really would like to go back. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Sand Island Adventure

Tales of Alaskan yurts, gigantic tides, and extremely ugly fish will have to wait.  Last weekend the VOR and I got back on Gitchee Gumee, salt and shark free as the T-shirt proclaims.  The guest paddlers were my sister WeezyDeb and bro in law AmericasCaptainDick.  Our sextet was rounded out by nephew TaipeiScott and lady friend CalamityLisa.  It was nearly a perfect fall Saturday and we hauled most of the fleet and a Passat double,rented from our friends at Living Adventures, up to Little Sand Bay for a day trip to the caves and the lighthouse.  The Lead Banana was already out on Oak Island with BDaehlieOfMahtomedi so we grabbed the Canadian equivalent.  Everything looked good for taking a couple beginners out in the double and TS and CL, both veterans of a couple of overnights on the big lake and the LAI intro course, paddling my Aquaunaut and the Delphin respectively.  The lake however, decided it needed to throw us a curve, give us just a little taste of the upcoming fall blows, and remind us once again who was the boss.

The crossing from LSB to the Swallow Point caves was very nice, although the southeast breeze at around 5-6 knots was enough to make the water in the caves bumpy enough to that only CalamityLisa followed me in.  No calamities resulted.  We took a break at Justice Bay around 1:30 and decided we had plenty of time to visit the lighthouse.  After rounding the point the VOR scouted out the ledge by the ladder that's in place to climb to the top of the cliff. She landed easily and apparently it was fine.  I decided to take the rest of the crew around the corner to a certain lee by the big iron cleat in the rock and the VOR stayed put and walk up to the light.  As we sat on the western side of the historic brownstone structure enjoying lunch, the wind decided to switch about 30 degrees to the east and pick up a bit.  When it was time to launch the wind was due east at 12mph according to the 3pm report from Devil's Island on NOAA.  The unofficial rule seems to be that 15mph is the absolute top end for beginners and I knew from personal experience that the rough seas that had popped up at the point would mellow out if we took a wide swing around and passed between the Sand Island shoal and the NE tip of the island so that was the plan.  I would pick up the VOR as she launched from the ledge.  Unfortunately she was stuck on the sandstone ledge with waves breaking and crashing on the on the extremely firm sandstone.  Being the VoiceOfReason she thought that attempting to launch the Avocet could result in a large gelcoat repair bill at Northwest Canoe.  I couldn't argue so I backed in close, tossed my towline over my shoulder with my best Kareem Abdul Jabbar sky hook, and she clipped on and I towed the empty Avocet around to the campground where the water was millpond flat and I would pick her up.

Meanwhile, out in the lake the crew seemed to be doing well as they made slow progress into the wind.  I caught them just as they were making the turn south which exposed them to the beam seas.  Cap'nDick was a bit nervous, being an experienced Windsor Castle captain, about turning broadside but quickly realized, as did the rest of the group, that the boats would take care of them if they focused on the horizon and kept that loose 'salsa hip' as FivePieceRoy recommends in his rolling instruction. I didn't notice any tight neck muscles or the inability turn the head that often occurs when new paddlers are suffering 'sphincter pucker.' This is a group that has no fear of the water, 65F water by the way, still very swimmable. TaipeiScott's high school trips to the state swim meet and number of spectacular water skiing crashes by both him and Cpt'nDick pretty much took any panic issues out of the equation, even though it was a first time on the big lake for a couple of the group. There was also the story of a memorable endo in a sit on top in big Domincan Republic surf involving certain group members. Those factors made me feel a lot better and much more confident when they ditched my ass at Swallow Point.

First a brief analysis of what not to do when towing an empty boat.  The cockpit cover was on and when I got it out of the surf zone I thought I'd just clip on my neat Gordon Brown style short tow and keep the boat close to me.  The waves were just bit enough that the damn thing kept attacking me however, two footers with a stray three footer now and then.  (Closed circuit to Weezy.....I don't recall a single six footer.  Maybe they were only by you guys....).  After being prodded in the elbow by the bow a couple times I turned the Avocet loose on the end of my waist tow.  This had it's own set of issues since it randomly veered to port then starboard but it really didn't weigh anything, put no strain on my waist tow, and stayed nicely upright.  I spotted the VOR in Justice Bay and headed in to touch base.  Since we were still facing east there was a surfable break going in and I had a bit of fun until the Avocet surfed past me on the tow line.  I realized two things at that point.  The VoiceOfReason could walk the little bit extra and I'd pick her up at the Sand Island dock, and that surfing with an empty boat affixed to my back was a good way to get harpooned, like an unfortunate seal, in the back by a rogue uncontrolled kayak.

Before I headed into the bay the quartet,  now paddling strongly and chatting with each other in a decreasing beam sea, had been instructed to 'wait for me around the corner'.  When I came around the corner of Swallow Point and looked west I didn't see them.  I did however see paddle flashes and the distinctive orange paddle jacket and orange Delphin of CalamityLisa making a beeline for the big white fishery boat house in Little Sand Bay.  Shit.  Double shit.  Do I sprint up and catch them, then head back with everyone to get the VOR?  Just go retrieve her?  I decided on the latter course.  I figured my sister, paying just as much attention to what I say as she always has thoughout our childhoods and adult lives, had just blown me off again and decided to 'head for the barn'.  Given their water experience, water temps, wetsuits, decreasing wind and waves, and LAI training for a couple of the crew, I figured the worse that could happen was that someone got wet.  I collected the VOR and we hammered it in, about 15 minutes behind the main body.

Our late arrival meant that when we returned the Passat to LAI we had to sneak past the closed sign in the driveway like thieves in the night, unload the boat and gear and leave it stashed next to the boathouse.  It also meant that my feast of pork chops and salmon on the grill would have to be replaced with the quick, easy, and delicious Patsy burgers and Keweenaw Widow Maker on tap which TaipeiScott, a grad of MTU in Houghton, found to be excellent.  Hungry paddlers need to have their strength and dangerously low blood alcohol levels restored quickly so that was a popular plan.

What would I do differently?  Probably listen to the aptly named VoiceOfReason and sit tight for another 90 minutes or so and wait for the wind to die down, although we were only equipped with two lights for five boats.  The other thing might have been to insist that everyone hung with me as I scurried around, although people were loathe to give up ground after the tough paddle into the 12 mph wind and not afraid to let me know it.  I'm not sure what I'd do differently trying to tow that empty boat so suggestions would be welcome there.  What I do know is that everyone had a great time, a little whiff of adventure, and wants to get out on the water again and I guess that's what counts in the end.
(all photos courtesy of Mr. S. Krahn, no rights reserved)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rolling With the Punches

Our Alaska adventure is over and we had a wonderful trip.  It was not quite the trip we had planned but in this as in most endeavors, flexibility is a very useful trait.  While the lake is indeed the boss, it's not nearly as bossy as the Cook Inlet and Katchamak Bay.  To say that the weather early in the week impacted activities would be on the same level as the question, "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs Lincoln?".  The same hundred plus mile an hour breezes that trashed Anchorage early in the week were experienced in Homer as well, only at about half that strength.  Still, 50 mph winds can make kayaking, bouncing around in a halibut charter, landing a Cessna 206 on a beach, or even a decent back cast with a fly rod more of a challenge than actual fun.  Since our goal was indeed to have fun we fell back on some worthwhile alternatives.

We did kayak however, and the BadHatter and I, along with Tom Pogson of the Alaska Kayak School paddled in the tidal races of Beluga Slough in some of those nasty winds.  It was a learning experience.  We learned some nice maneuvers for long boats in moving water, us fresh water boys got our heads around the whole tidal thing a bit more, and we discovered that making progress against the tide and a gale force wind was a losing proposition.  I also learned that wind driven salt water really stings when it hits you in the eyes.  If only we had remembered our Mach Schnell goggles, especially since the BadHatter is actually the 'Todd' referred to in the description. We were wet and salt encrusted when  we left the slough while RonO and RangerMark were pretty much shaking their heads at our poor activity choice from a warm and dry location.  I have to hand it to Tom Pogson though.  The last day of the British Sea Kayak Festival was cancelled and he took the time to find a spot for us to paddle and play in the tides and emerge relatively unscathed.  We did stick our noses out into the roiling bay for a bit where the BadHatter suffered some minor scathing, but we were well within the safety limits.  After loading up we retired to what became our go to backup spot, the Homer Brewing Company, where the Birch Bitter facilitated both recapping the days activities as well planning the next days sport.

We all did get out to paddle, stayed in the yurts, caught some fish, and got off the ground in the Cessna but that's another post.   There was plenty to do in Homer and we had the perfect base camp in the Heritage Hotel.  The mountains and volcanoes ringing the city were worth the price of admission, we met some great folks, and managed to eat plenty of seafood.  We also spent some time on the famous Homer Spit, a spot where multitasking is is the order of the day.  More, much more, to follow.  

Monday, September 3, 2012

Headin' north....way north

Lots of stuff going on in the Lake Superior are but RangerMark, the BadHatter and I came up with a somewhat different plan for our annual fall trip.  Our buddy RonO has been gone all summer so we decided to visit him.  Where is he located, you ask?  I guess I'll just let Johnny Horton tell you.  No posts for about ten days or so.