Friday, August 12, 2011


Sunlight pours into the opening of my berth and I’m confused. It seems to be coming from the same direction from which the sun set last night. Then I remember that the boat is at anchor and must have rotated 180 degrees. Barbara is setting up the cook stove on the rear deck and I crawl out of my sleeping bag to a breakfast of oatmeal and hot coffee. It is a gorgeous day, or as Tim and Barbara call it, a Bluebird Day. The intense blue sky is brushed with the faintest strokes of wispy clouds and the atmosphere is filled with the clearest light I’ve ever seen. Nearby the Serpentine Glacier slumps into the cove, its lower slope covered with a dirty crust accumulated in its current almost stagnant phase. In one spot close to the shore a large chunk has fallen away to reveal its turquoise heart, and it rumbles and groans with the weight of movement we cannot see. After breakfast we stuff our gear into dry bags and Barbara repacks 4 of our bear cans with meals for a few days. Tim “battens down” the boat, we slide the other two kayaks off the roof and into the fiord and clip their tow lines to the railing. Passing gear from the deck to the swim step we stow it in the small compartments front and rear of the kayaks’ cockpits. Although the compartments seem small, they accommodate tents, sleeping bags, clothing, bear cans, art materials, the long heavy bag containing the rifle and 2 rubber water bags the size of baby seals.

Once again I’m a bit nervous as I see how easily they ease into the kayaks from the swim step, but when it’s my turn Barbara pulls alongside and leans over my kayak to steady it as I carefully center myself over the seat back and slide in. I tug the heavy elastic spray skirt over the rim of the cockpit, making sure to keep my water and camera, in its awkward waterproof case, outside it and accessible. I am glad of my crash course in kayaking in the warm waters of RI, as it isn’t long before I get my bearings and can relax into the exhilarating feeling of gliding over the smooth cold blue water of the fiord.  Surrounded by more snow covered mountains than has ever filled my field of vision, the effect is yet doubled by the water’s glass-like surface, which, when not mirroring mountains, reflects the bright blue sky.   

Our destination is Toboggan Beach, about 2 miles across the fiord. Practicing my best paddling form, I keep up fairly well with the expert kayakers, except when I stop paddling to take a few pictures, drifting as I fumble with the camera buttons in the thick waterproof bag. After a little less than an hour we approach the rocky shore, and I pull up my keel so as not to scrape the kayak on the larger rocks. Here I get another lessons in the tides. If the tide is coming in you will have to bring the kayaks well up on the shore or move them up every few minutes. If the tide is going out you can expect to haul them in a long mucky walk back to the water. 

It being high tide we keep an eye on the kayaks as Barbara and Tim study maps and consult a notebook compiled by the forest service of camping sites descriptions and photos. Then they check for the high tide line by noting the patterns of dried seaweed on the shore, (3rd lesson, never set up camp without researching the tide history). The shore is wide, but the lines of Rockweed stop only just before thick grasses begin, behind the grass is a steep mountain slope. But there is a higher rock berm with a slightly lower area behind it that is temptingly smooth and would seem like a great place to set up tents, if it were not for the pattern of larger rocks which spell out the word “F L O O D S !”. It is Forest Service policy to remove all trace of the human footprint from wilderness areas, but I question whether this is not a useful warning from the imagined soggy predecessors, and after all, the rocks are natural, and perhaps it should stay? But the decision is made to naturalize the area by kicking apart the rocks, and we  also collect half a dozen small items left behind by campers. Then we set up our tents, my cozy yellow dome and the Lydon’s slighty bigger blue and white tent, on the higher but rockier berm.

Now that we have arranged our beach as if we are the first humans to discover it, we can't help but be aware that it is, in fact, a well appreciated wilderness. Several boats pass by in the fiord, and we are startled by a low flying military jet. And by low flying, I mean following the fiord between, not over the mountains. But it is gone in a roar and a flash, and our next passerby is more to our scale. A kayaker passes and waves, and Tim greets her and invites her to join us for lunch. She is exploring and promises to stop by on her way back.
We set up the bear cans that make up our kitchen/dining area in the grasses 100 feet from our camp. Barbara opens one and sets out lunch as our kayaker, Suzanne, returns to take a seat on one of the large flat rocks in our circle. Tim and Barbara talk about the Forest Service’s management of the Chugach and the lack of progress on its Wilderness designation.


chugach wilderness from Kathy Hodge on Vimeo.

After lunch Suzanne paddles off and Tim and Barbara jump back in their kayaks to visit the neighbors. It's part of their mission to interact with those who use and love this wilderness, to represent the Forest Service, and spread the gospel about why it is so important to protect this irreplaceable environment.

I sit on a rock on the beach and watch their sleek yellow kayaks grow smaller and disappear behind a bend. I pull out my watercolor kit and place within arm’s reach my canteen, binoculars, marine radio, and bear spray.  From the beach I hear the thundering of three glaciers calving as well as the occasional roar of a rockslide on the mountain above Serpentine Cove. I have the best view of Surprise, which snakes its way through the center of my  painting, but everytime it grabs my attention with the roar of falling ice, I look up to see it solid and serene. It is so far across the fiord that the sound reaches me only after the fallen ice slips into the icy water then bobs gently to the surface. Icebergs from these glaciers eventually reach my shore, where the dark rocks reflect the heat of this long August day. 

I walk to where several boulder sized bergs have washed up and bring one back to sit next to me. I run my hand over its smooth cold surface. Its interior looks like someone solidified the upper atmosphere, but not before giving it a brisk stirring as it froze. 

The bugs, which until now were not noticeable, become so, then become bothersome, then annoying, and are just getting unbearable when Tim and Barbara return. Tim sets off again, this time across the fiord to check Dora Keen’s anchor. Barbara starts dinner. Tim returns and we share our burritos with the bugs, walking in circles as we eat in a futile attempt to throw them off our trail. 

Barbara and Tim, not done with exploration for the day, suggest a hike up the mossy cliff. I clumsily try to keep up, my xtratuffs sinking into the underbrush as I struggle to find footing on the steep slope. We find blueberries and signs of bears which spur stories of bear encounters. That, and the bugs which have followed us into the woods, make me a bit edgy so I’m not too sorry to descend to the shore where Barbara gives me a demo of the proper use of bear spray. Then I repair to my tent to paint a little watercolor from its shelter. 

Across the fiord, white flakes in the lowering sun, the seagulls are in a feeding frenzy, swirling and shrieking like children on the beach. Later I’m drawn out for another look. Clouds have gathered and glow with an opalescent light, glaciers and snow on the mountains complete this study in white.

Returning to my tent I stick my legs outside and kick off my boots, storing them under the fly. I arrange my gear for easy access in the dark. Flashlight, bear spray and glasses by my head, marine radio in the pocket at the tent’s peak, clothes by my feet. Then I climb into my sleeping bag and pull the hood snug around my head. 

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