Wrangell got me for 2 days and 3 nights. Albeit a diminutive town where everything shuts down at 6 pm and nothing is open on Sundays, it is much more charming than Ketchikan. This is not due to the people, well, actually it is. Ketchikan has seemingly sold its soul to the cruise ships [as I spoke about in my last blog], whereas Wrangell still maintains its ability to be a year round functional town complete with people that let you bend [read: break] the rules from time to time.
To catch you up if you haven’t read the past few blogs, I had just finished paddling a whopping 75+ miles (precision mileage is usually difficult) in 3 days with one day being a 34 mile slogger through adverse conditions from morning til night. By the time we reached Wrangell, I was supremely thankful to not be in a boat for at least 24 hours. As is usual for me, I use the time on the water as soon as I get cell service to call people when I’m paddling to town knowing full well that as soon as I step on land I will be running errands and talking to new people.
Jay and Mikey were about a half a mile behind me this time as I pulled up to a dock with 3 men, some float planes and a whole lot of kayaks. I asked the fellows about parking my kayak there and they seemed amenable to the idea so I took the opportunity. One of them was a gentleman named Mike, the new manager of the Wrangell Public Radio station. He was awesome, explained to me where I need to go to get my shortlist taken care of, drove me to the hardware store (stop 1 on the list), and let me store my stuff in the vacant storefront he owned. While he offered me a quick drink at one of the 2 local bars in town, I abstained to be able to get my to-do list done before 6 pm when everything shut down. Being that it was also a Sunday the next day, I had to get everything taken care of in order to be able to leave.
I ran to the hardware store to take care of my first to-do: constructing a sail. To be honest, I’m just exhausted everyday that there’s a tailwind paddling behind Mikey and Jay because I have to paddle full tilt to even stay within 2 miles of them when they have those sails up. Even when I stop paddling with them, it will be a boon to my happiness to be able to utilize the wind more. It took me about an hour and a half to hacksaw the 1/2″ pvc piping, glue it together, double the window covering plastic and grommet it, then tie it all together. And those employees were incredibly helpful. I did it all in front of their cash register and they lent assistance when they could, even refunding me for the grommet set I’d bought because it didn’t have the female side to fit the final 2 male fittings. Unbelievable.
From there, I ran out sprinting to the grocery store which closed in less than 15 minutes. Someone yelled “Sonya!” behind me and I thought it was Mike, my new public radio friend, but it was actually Jay, who I’d lost track of during the docking process. It turns out that they were offered beers on a dock by some gill netters and immediately went that route and had been talking to them for the past few hours. You’d be surprised, but there’s been about 4 towns where someone just yells “BEER?” off the dock to you as you are paddling in and often, the cold brew touches your hand before your fit hit dry land. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about this.
We both shopped then I went to get burgers at the A&W, or Wrangell’s “McDonald’s” as I am told. Delicious. And they threw in extra pickles – THANKS A&W! From there, I opted instead of walking down the block to stay in the free digs with the Forestry people I’d met in Ketchikan to just crash at the hostel. It was $20/night, no curfew, full kitchen, hot showers, washer/dryer and a very nice manager named Nancy. Nancy, if you read this, I apologize again for our loudness on Saturday night. And so it follows that I had an extreme headache the following morning and some tendonitis in my right forearm from hauling the past few days in the ‘yak. I agreed with the two of them to stay another day and that day soon turned into another day due to weather.
Finally leaving Wrangell, Mike wished us well and hooked us up with a place to stay in Petersburg when we got there – the manager at their local Public Radio station. Now the real story begins… if you are squeemish at all about “woman” stuff or “shark week” as one of my good friends has coined it, then you should probably cut your losses now. I am choosing to portray an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a woman doing this stuff which isn’t always pretty.
Error 1: We left too late in the day.
We should’ve left 4 hours before the high tide and fought some minimal currents on the way to where we were headed: the Dry Straits, rather than 30 minutes after the high tide. This resulted in the guys taking off and me getting sucked into some strong E-W currents that run in the Sumner Strait/Stikine River Valley as they turn into sand and mud flats. Before we got to the really bad flats, the guys were already a bit ahead of me due to the nasty current I got stuck in. Luckily a crab fisherman was there pulling in his last catch of the season and handed Mikey 3 big rock crabs – one for each of us. I was incredibly excited to eat that guy later. As soon as he got them, they both took off again. I am admittedly slower than both, but fair better if I leave a half an hour before them to get a head start. Today was destined to be different though as I fell further and further behind. The last thing Jay told me was: we are heading to the cabins on the West tip of Farm Island (named thus because the cattle were literally herded across the sand from Wrangell to this Island to feed on the grass at low tide). I said okay as it’s happened before that I catch up with them at the camp site.
Error 2: I forgot to buy my, eh-chem, feminine products.
As I’m paddling, annoyed as all hell that I’m going so slowly, I feel a familiar rumble. Look down at my watch and think, “I knew I forgot something. In Wrangell for 3 days and still didn’t get the one thing I planned to get. Oh well, I’m sure this is just the warning and I’ll be able to get to Petersburg in time.” Nope, full-blown terrible menstrual cramps hit, causing me to throw up twice and generally hate life.
The result? I fall further behind and lose sight of the guys just as we round the corner to where it’s supposed to be the worst part of the sand/swamp/mud. I hit sand almost immediately when I get to the flats and still functioning off of the information that they are going to the cabin, begin to drag my kayak through ankle high to unexpectedly knee-deep mud and freezing water. Electing to not wear my dry suit that day because it was so sunny and hot out, my legs rapidly became red and painful from the 55 degree water, but, I figured, how much more would I have to walk? I’m sure not very far. There was no discernible difference between shallow and deep areas either due to the sand and silt in the water, the only indicators I had were thicker water ripples in some areas and even those weren’t tell tale.
After about 2 hours of dragging my boat further into flats, now fighting a pretty rapid current as the water is still ebbing out, draining the flats of all their bouyant material for my kayak, I am soaking wet, incredibly frustrated and in an all around foul mood. I’ve dropped my guide book in the water, the entire inside of my boat is full of water from having to get in and out to push my kayak against currents and there is still no sight of Mikey, Jay or this USFS cabin that I have listed on 3 separate maps (topo, guidebook and USFS cabin map). At 7:30 pm, with only an hour left before the sunset starts I have to make a call – could I camp where I was? Was the cabin just around the next bend? Or should I go back and try to force my way through the sand flats of the Dry Strait which presumable now had more water in it than it did before with the rising tide. I climbed a pretty steep mud bank to evaluate my situation.
Nothing but grass for miles. Oh, and muck, my current arch-nemesis. I opted to leave, muttering expletives to myself for wasting that much time going what I now figured was the wrong direction. As soon as I got back in my boat and turned the opposite direction, the heavy current turned my 2 hour long trudge into a momentary glide out to where I’d started. I somehow successfully navigated the rest of the Strait, only having to get out of my soupy kayak once to drag it forward. The rest of the time I used the “Paddle/Push as hard and fast as I can along the sand bottom” technique to keep myself moving.
It was 8:30 pm and I saw the sun falling, then beginning to get worried I wouldn’t find a site in time I started to check the maps. I had to get a bit further to be out of the sand areas on the topo map for the next day, so I tried my best to prepare for a short night paddle. My preparation included reaching behind my seat into the soup to get out my once-waterproof handheld gps complete with extremely corroded batteries and my phone with Navionics (mapping app) dying. So, I did what any adventurer does, got out my headlamp and hoped for the best.
By the time I got near land to begin looking for campsites it was twilight and almost completely dark. To make matters worse, all of the beach was sheer rocks or rocks too big for me to drag my kayak ontop of. Luckily as I’m started to get really freaked out, I find a small pebble beach beside a stream. Of course, it had to be a stream. You know who else loves a good stream bank other than kayakers? Yeah, bears.
I know I function in the bearitory anyways, but I’ve got a confounding situation to deal with at the moment.
1) It’s more likely that a bear will be here than other places because of the stream/delicious salmon.
2) It’s dark and I can’t look for signs of bears to choose a site.
3) It wouldn’t matter if there were signs of bear there anyways because it’s pitch black and I have to camp there.
4) I am actively bleeding, wearing the clothes I’ve bled in that day where, most likely, there are bears.
5) I am wet, angry, tired and now I’ve got to set up camp and safely secure my boat and equipment and food from bears, tide and other things that could happen.
I begin to sing, as I usually do when I’m incredibly bored, but this time it’s to serve other purposes: let bears know I’m coming and reduce my anxiety by covering up any weird sounds I hear with the weird sounds I am instead making. I sing my boat up the pebble beach; sing my wet/bloody clothes off; sing fresh ones on as I swat the millions of biting no-see-ums away from my body; sing myself into the dense forest with my Granite Gear dry bags; found two trees, you guessed it, while I sang and then slung my hammock up in the nest of devils thorn bushes, got in and was happy to not be in a boat. I put my anti-bear-anxiety ear plugs in which block out most ambient sounds that keep me awake thinking about what that could be, knowing full well I couldn’t stop whatever it was anyways.
My last thought before going to bed? Dammit, they ate my crab.
I’ll save you the drama of waiting for my next blog and let you know that: they did, in fact, eat my crab share (although they ensured me they felt guilty about it), they were camped about 2 miles North of where I was camped and I passed them the next day while they were still tearing down camp. I made it to Petersburg 2.5 hours before them fighting a strangely unexpected current and headwinds the entire way, but now am getting to stay at a radio station with a bed, shower, kitchen and 90′s rock being played over the speakers in every room. Home [for now].