The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

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