(Cook Inlet Expedition: Chisik Island to Cape Douglas)
Two and a half months into our Cook Inlet expedition, the red floatplane lifted off from Spring Point Lake, leaving my mother behind. Now we had three generations traveling together, through a landscape becoming more remote with every step.
Water beaded up on the remains of the sunblock that greased Lituya’s face, raindrops rolling down her cheeks as she napped in the raft. We’d asked Niki (my mother) to bring sunblock, sun hats, and sunglassess–virtually ensuring that the weather would turn.
On the rugged coast of the Iniskin Peninsula, we were looking for a campsite. Nothing looked good. And everything looked gorgeous. The cliffs were cobblestone roads to the sky–rounded boulders protruding from a matrix of dark grey concrete, rising straight up into the clouds. Waterfalls sheeted over them, spreading into a million strands of white around the dark lumps, rushing down across the entrances of caves. The caves lined the coast like secret tunnels, carved between layers of tilted rock. Seals hid in their openings, and lounged on the green-slicked shelves of low tide. If this coast was anywhere else, it would be written up in glowing terms in every kayak guide, complete with a list of the scant few beaches it might be possible to camp on.
But no one was there. And we just had to hope there were beaches to camp on.
The villages and fish camps and oil rigs were gone. The coast was growing sparse with people and thick with bears. Mudflats and tidal currents were pushed aside by steep cliffs, harsher weather, and pounding surf.
How could 10 yards be such an obstacle? Even in the gooeyist mudflats or the most tangled alder thickets, ten times that goes by in the time it takes to utter a single paragraph of complaints. But a band of surf could stop us for hours, or days, or simply send us on our way doused in cold ocean waves.
A packraft can bounce through more than most people imagine. But it can’t cut through anything, and getting it off the beach across a line of breaking surf is an exercise in luck, timing, and often futility. Kids only multiply the complication. How to set a kid in the boat, jump in, arrange everyone so paddling is possible, then escape into deep water before the next set of big waves?
We tried everything, finally settling on a complicated system where three boats launched a total of five times. I would launch across the surf in the smallest wave I could find, take a minute to get situated, then paddle back in as quickly as I could in the next small set. Meanwhile, Hig would be standing on a boulder or in the waves, kid held out in front of him, ready to drop the child in my boat when I arrived. The trick was to escape again, quickly, before the next wave came. Niki would repeat the process with the second kid. Finally, Hig would go out alone. Sometimes we would switch roles. Sometimes we would capsize in the attempt–once each on the course of the journey. More often, waves would swamp the boat on the way out or in. Sometimes, we couldn’t make it out at all.
That wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Hig and I spent our tenth anniversary watching the surf, camped on a gravel bench beneath the vaulting ceiling of a cavernous sea arch. It was as long as a football field, as high as a three-story building, and so wide a daring pilot could easily fly a plane straight through to the other side.
Outside the arch, messy waves hit messy waves, until the ocean became a hungry mouth of white-tipped teeth. Sea spray blew across our spit. We gathered logs, burned them, and then gathered some more, dancing around the shifting stream of smoke. The sea arch kept the rain off, but as we huddled against the damp chill of Kamishak Bay, the summer solstice celebration felt more like a winter solstice bonfire.
It was only the adults doing the huddling. Katmai ran down to the edge of the water, standing patiently as white foam sloshed around his ankles, dipping his driftwood ‘fishing rod’ in the waves and sprinting back up the beach to deliver a silver salmon or an octopus to some interested grownup. Lituya picked up pebbles as ‘medicine,’ curing us all of imaginary ailments.
The cathedral was dramatic, spacious, and almost entirely intertidal–only a narrow shelf of gravel above the latest swash line. We were pretty sure we’d puzzled the tides correctly. But as the midnight high approached, I listened as rolling cobbles crept closer and closer, hoping our calculations were correct.
Next to me, Lituya was a writhing black cocoon–entirely hidden her sleepng bag. Occasionally, a tiny hand would protrude from the narrow opening, expelling a fist-sized cobble or grabbing a new one from the tent floor. Writing in my journal nearby, I wondered how many rocks she had inside there by now, and when she might finally fall asleep. We hadn’t set up the bear fence. Any bear would have to swim miles of cliffy coast at high tide, swim under a sea arch, and visit our tiny patch of beach remaining. He’d almost deserve the food.
We’d managed to avoid the bears until mid-June–the cold spring and late greening of the tide flats keeping them high above our coastal route. But we’d picked up our last resupply at a bear viewing lodge. On this remote stretch of lower west Cook Inlet, bear viewing operations were almost the only human signs left.
Soon enough, we were seeing bears everywhere. Occupying every level of the ecosystem from detritus-feeder through top predator, bears seemed to BE the entire ecosystem. Used to living shoulder to shoulder with eachother, they seemed unconcerned with our passing. And with three adults, three cannisters of pepper spray, two flares, and an electric fence, we were more than protected on the open beaches.
We had three adults for a month, sharing our expedition with Niki. And it was hard on all of us. I like having company. But though we’ve often invited others to join us on expeditions, we’ve less often had takers, and our unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving schedule hasn’t helped entice them.
But with children, we move at the speed of a nomadic family. We are so much slower now. Closer to an ancient kind of normal. Maybe more approachable.
Yet what we do can still be so very hard. Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in asserting that our way is possible for anyone that I blithely skate across all the difficulties, dismissing them in a couple of offhand comments. It is true that children do well in the outdoors. It is also true that a month of travel down the remote coast of lower west Cook Inlet is not just “taking the kids outdoors.” Kamishak Bay is a stormy, unprotected, and unforgiving coastline. We spent one whole day hunkered in our 8 foot pyramid in a storm, and several others that we might have wished we’d been hunkered down. We paddled for hours and hours on end, when light faded but landing sites were nowhere to be seen. We crossed surf. We capsized in surf. We ran our food down to just popcorn, each “stuck day” paired with a day we had to paddle the packrafts for 15 miles or more. The kids didn’t have to worry about most of this. But the adults couldn’t forget it–and with Hig and I occupied with helping out the kids, we couldn’t smooth the way for my mother. It’s a testament to her toughness and adventurousness that Niki still talked to us at the end of this. Even enjoyed herself.
We ended this expedition, 800 miles from its beginning, even more simply than it began. One hop in a float plane, and 3.5 months were erased in a half an hour, dropping in the Seldovia Harbor, almost at our doorstep.
I walked into the yurt, ready to go through my evening ritual of unpacking every object we owned and arranging each one according to a pattern of practicality. Then I looked at the overwhelming number of objects around me–and did nothing at all.