Monday, May 23, 2011

A Perfect Day in Alaska

I just walked in from a little sunday bike ride and thought I ought to catch everyone up to the last few days of activity up in Alaska.   Lindsey and I set out this morning to retrieve our bikes which had been locked in the woods.  We start on walking down the shoulder of the road and make it about a quarter mile before the thumbs we have stickin out to our left take any effect.  A man in a pickup with a friendly looking husky riding shotgun offers a ride with the disclaimer that it may be illegal to ride in the bed of a truck so we had better keep out heads down.  We squeeze in sitting cross-legged and facing backwards and then just lay back to watch the tree tops whip by overhead as the man helps to hasten our would-be hour long walk into a 5 minute car ride... I guess I should mention the full story and explain just why the bikes were locked in the woods in the first place.

As I have mentioned before we had planned to go canoeing on saturday.  This required a little bike ride to meet Peter, the man with the plan, and Mike, also on bike, about halfway to our place.  We stash the bikes safely in the woods, jump in Peter's car and head out to meet the rest of the crew.  Justin and Claire have just finished getting ready when we reach the house they are camping out at.  I hop in their car to even the loads and we take off already towing 2 canoes.

We stop one more time to pick up 2 more canoes and apparently a dog. With one on top of each car, the canoes i mean...not the dog, we head out.  An hour later we are unloading the gear at the Upper Chena River and running the two-car-shuttle to the takeout point.  The canoes are split up with Peter and Justin both in solo canoes, Lindsey and Claire in one and Mike I in the last.  Nova, the dog, is riding with Peter.  He gives the last call for anyone needing a dry-bag to store their things and we head out.  Peter goes first being the most experience with Mike and I following, the girls behind us and Justin in the rear.  Mike has no canoe experience at all and it has also been a while since I have been in one.  Now this is where things got sticky...or should i say wet?

We make it about 50 yards downstream before the first few large sweeper logs and hard angles become evident.  We make it passed the first and come up hard on the second on the wrong side. I try like hell to avoid the log but communication isn't quite what it should have been and we hit it hard broadside.  I lean into it attempting to stay upright as the boat wobbles side to side. Mike has a slightly different reaction and as Claire later so eloquently put it, "He just rolled out of the boat like a potato" earning him the nickname "Tater".  Now the Canoe has tipped far enough to take on the water from upstream and it flips fast.

I am in the water grasping the log we hit with my legs pushed a bit further down.  My grasp is good but the water is far to powerful to pull myself back up on the log so I feel first for branches and and then, finding none, pass underneath to the next obstacle. A second log sticks out and there is a mass of branches after that.  When your stuck in the flow of a river branches can be the death of you by holding you fast underwater with nowhere to go and I know it.  As I hit log number two I use the momentum to hoist my self  up juts far enough to maneuver to the side and out the the free flowing water.  

Out there I see that Peter has gotten caught as well.  Just up ahead he ran up on a log with his canoe in an oddly vertical position. Nova has hopped to the dry area and waits patiently for Peter to tell her to unload before she even considers getting out.  He makes it to the gravel bar and secures his boat while I find my footing and fight the current to stay stationary.  

The girl's canoe is still upright and heading for me but they look freaked out... well Lindsey does but Claire is scrambling to get her camera out to document this whole ordeal.  I catch their boat midstream and direct towards the shore as Justin's canoe comes up fast and unmanned.  I missed what happened to him but later heard that he had a similar crash to what Peter did.  I get hold of the one of the ropes we tied on to each canoe and grab a log sticking out from the gravel bar in the other hand.  I grip tight but the rope slips and grip tighter.  With about a foot of rope left to go it holds tight.  I wrap it around the log and Peter jumps up to help me secure it. 

I am still standing in about three feet of and Peter shouts at me, "YOU get out of the water!"  Thats when I realize just how cold that Alaskan river water is so I get out.  Its probably around 40 degrees and parts of me are already feeling it.  I think the only reason I could hold the canoe in one hand is because my hand was numb and I didn't feel the rope burn right away.  I am wearing hip high boots and they have taken on quite a bit of water so my feet are feeling the weight as I drag them begrudgingly to the gravel bar.

Mike is already standing there and looks a bit lost. I see the girls have gotten out and Claire is clicking away.  Justin is further upstream but looks to be fine aside from being wet.  My canoe is the only one unaccounted for so I ask Mike and he points downstream about 30 yards to where I can see the bottom of our boat poking up a foot out of the water but sitting stationary.  I dump the water from my boots as quick as I can and head towards it.  Im thinking quicker now and remember that callout from Peter just before we put in about anyone needing a dry-bag. I hadn't answered and I regret that quite a bit now.  In my backpack was my camera, my phone, and my Ipod.  I would ask myself why did I even bring the phone or Ipod, but it is not the time to reflect yet.  

I move downstream and the water is only a couple feet deep where the boat is though still moving fast.  With some serious effort and most likely some adrenaline I get it flipped over to see my backpack still tied in but soaked through and through.  Peter works his way over and we dump the rest of the water and pull the canoe back to the group.  

I walk up and get the boat on land before looking around again.  Looking from person to person everyone has a sober look to them and in some cases downright panic. However, no one is hurt and only my sunglasses and Mike's sandals are missing.  From the relief and shear excitement of that last few minutes I just start laughing, and laughing hard.  Everyone loosens up a bit and we are all cracking up in seconds.

The rest of the day goes smoothly aside from the girls taking a quick dip in a much calmer part of the river when one of them looses her balance and sits on the side. We all dry out in the sun and even get to see a Moose midstream, a Bald Eagle in its nest, a few beautiful Harlequin Ducks, and a ton of various birds along the way. All-in-all it was a great day.  I wouldn't have changed a thing... well I would have used a dry bag but besides that, it was perfect.  

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