Saturday, August 13, 2011


Saturday, August 13
I wake to Barbara’s morning greeting, as she passes my travel mug filled with hot coffee into my tent. I hadn’t expected room service but it sure is welcomed.  I pull on my boots and scramble out into a light rain, across rocks as black and shiny as seals, to where we’ve stored our food. I grab a bagel, then get some cream cheese from Tim, who is breakfasting in his tent avoiding the rain and bugs.

I was told before I arrived in Alaska that it has a way of changing your plans. Tim and Barbara have learned to be prepared for that as they always have several possible itineraries for each day, any of which sounds great to me. Plan A for today was to investigate reports of a bear-baiting station in the woods across the fiord, but the person who had reported it can’t be reached by marine radio, so that is saved for another day. 

Plan B is to paddle up Harriman Fiord to View Point, a rocky outcropping offering a view of several of the glaciers that shift, shove and drop into the narrow fiord. We lift the kayaks from where we had stored them between our tents and maneuver over the wet rocks to the low tide line. Tim grabs the front handles of two kayaks, I take the rear, a handle in each hand. I do my best to keep up, and keep my eyes on the ground to avoid slipping on the rockweed or tripping over the uneven rocks. 

Our landing at View Point is smoother, a small gravel beach lays near a high cliff of fractured, lichen and moss covered rock. Rockweed, decorated with snails the size of pearls, drape like shawls over the dark slabs of rock on our right. The tiny snails seem to be the only inhabitants of the tidal pools. Above the beach are bright green grasses and a patch of brilliant fuchsia fireweed, and incongruous patches of common dandelions. Barbara and Tim huddle over maps as I explore, following a faint trail over grass and mosses interspersed with more small pools of water. The path enters patch of pines below the cliff and I find a bush with several jewel-like Salmon Berries which are so beautiful I have to photograph them before I try my first. Very tasty. More abundant are blueberries and with them, more evidence of bears.

Photo|Tim Lydon
But we are not just here to enjoy the view or snack on berries, our Saturday morning mission is the same as many a suburban home-owners, we have come to weed the dandelions. Although Harriman Fiord is far into the sound and generally free of invasive species, all it took to establish this patch was a tent pitched on its shore with a stowaway seed or two from a more domesticated campsite. Now their deep roots grab into the rocks and challenge our spades to tear them loose. As we work bugs discover us and one by one we don our headnets. I work for about an hour before Tim and Barbara order me off to paint.

Thinking that the only defense against the bugs will be if I can find a breeze I head for a high rock near the shore. The bugs like it just fine, so through the green scrim of my headnet I paint a little gouache of the distant glacier, listening to the rumbling of massive slabs of ice plunging into the fiord. Every time the sound waves of the breaking ice reach me and I look up it's too late, the glacier stands innocently still. Some time after that, the waves race though the sound and the water agitates, slapping against the rock and leaping up.
Photo|Barbara Lydon
I take a break and l look back towards the beach, green grass and pink fireweed glow against the aqua water. Barbara and Tim are still hard at work, spades clinking against the rocks. I follow the little path further down into the damp woods, eating blueberries as I go.  The path ends in a little beach and I have traversed the whole width of the point. I return for a few more hours of painting while Barbara and Tim wrap up decimating the dandelions. Then it's time to “punch out” for the day and we decide to escape the bugs by heading back into the fiord to do a drive by of Surprise Glacier and explore the opposite shore. As if on cue, the clouds begin to break and their low white fringe clings to the velvet green mountains, bright blue sky and bright yellow kayaks the perfect complement to the reflection of all of that on the smooth water. 

Although we don’t come much closer than 2 miles, the water is icy and we paddle through slush, avoiding the bigger bergs. We continue on to a flat wide beach which looks like it has definite camping possibilities for later in our trip. We are now close to the waterfall that I had noticed from across the fiord. I had been curious about its sudden disappearance into a slope of talus. On closer inspection I can see how it reemerges though the thin woods at the bottom of the slope in a clear stream which spreads and splits across our beach. 

Icebergs the size of freezers have come aground on the shore, dense with a blue inner glow. I circle them peering into their blueness and feel like I'm looking into the sky. 

We explore a bit and fill our water containers in the stream. As we are preparing to leave, I hear cracking sounds in the distance. "Boy, I say, “sometimes the glacier sounds like a shotgun when it calves”.  Tim knows better, it actually is gun shots, most probably from an automatic weapon. A grey boat has come close to the glacier and someone is firing on it to try to force it to calve. Surprise is stoic and silent against the assault, refusing to give them the satisfaction. Tim attempts to contact them on the radio, to let them know that there are kayakers in the area and they should not be shooting, but they do not respond. Whether they have no radio, cannot hear it, or are choosing to ignore it, we don’t know, but suspect the latter. 

Tim paddles off to check on the Dora Keen and Barbara and I start back across to Toboggan Beach. Off to our right, the grey boat is gunning its motors away from the glacier, rather self consciously it would seem. Barbara takes photos as they cross our path but no name is visible on the boat. As they disappear into the distance we hear a huge rumble as Surprise calves, relaxing back into its natural rhythm.

With my vast experience of a day and a half of kayaking I think I’ve got this thing down, pulling up the keel and approaching the shore of Toboggan Beach with confidence. Too much confidence it would appear, as I attempt to disembark in water that’s just a little too deep. The kayak rocks, my foot slips in the rockweed, and I flop into 2 feet of cold water. The rocks are covered with sharp barnacles and as I push myself up, shallow scrapes bleed on my hands. I scramble to retrieve bear spray, paddle, and canteen and feeling very foolish pull my kayak in and squish over to my tent. I drop my soaked pants around my ankles, and pull off my water filled boots. My upper half has escaped a soaking, but my audio recorder, usually in a plastic bag, but not this time, has been submerged and is out of commission. 

I change into my only other pair of pants, the soft jersey ones I sleep in, and hang my wet pants and socks on fallen tree branches. I hide my bleeding hand so Barbara won't worry. This is the beginning of being damp and wet, I will not feel totally dry till I am back in the ranger station.

Luckily for me, Tim has missed my fiasco. He has been gone a while, and across the fiord, we can see that the gun-happy boat has also set anchor in Serpentine Cove. I am a little concerned about a possible confrontation, but after a while we see Tim paddling towards us. We make dinner and I paint as clouds gather over the glacier topped mountain on the opposite shore, a study in white seen through fading light. 

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