[This concludes the posts on my summer vacation.]
Part 4: Rescued
The weather forecast was ominous, promising more rain accompanied by strong winds. We decided to travel back to Hoonah in two days, instead of one, to give us a better chance of paddling the difficult stretches during slack tide, when the seas were more likely calm.
Kelly wanted to join us on the first leg of our trip. As a solo kayaker, responsible for his own safety, he erred on the side of caution. “I’m a stand up paddler,” he joked. “I stay near the shore so I can stand up if I tip over.” It was comforting to have him along.
As we left Point Adolphus the next morning, a humpback gave us a dramatic sendoff by rolling and slapping the water, sending up a big splash. The whale blew out a column of air and hit the water again and again, sometimes with its tail and other times with its flipper.
After we’d paddled about nine miles, the skies began to darken and the wind picked up. We ducked in behind Burger Point in Flynn Cove, a sheltered spot with camping sites.
In a steady rain, we set up our tents, strung three tarps and collected wood for a fire. After eating dinner together, we gave Kelly the extra food we would no longer need. Wet and tired, we crawled into our tents looking forward to a hot shower in Hoonah the next day .
As I lay in my tent listening to the wind, I remembered our earlier trip on the east coast of Chichagof Island. The shore had been rocky and the water dotted with sea stacks—high, craggy pillars sculpted by water over the centuries. With breaking waves crashing in from the ocean, we had to paddle single file between the sea stacks and the rocky shore so our boats wouldn’t smack against each other.
Barbara, a strong paddler, had led the way. Sarah and I watched a wave sweep over her from behind. While Barbara struggled to stay upright, Sarah, who was only 14, powered through the channel. I followed, with one eye on Sarah and the other looking for Barbara. We all made it through safely but couldn’t stop until we reached Elfin Cove. There we learned it had been too rough for the fishing boats to go out that day.
I had vowed never to venture out in such weather again, especially with my granddaughter. Yet here we were, five years later, in the same situation. If we couldn’t get to Hoonah in time we’d miss our Bellingham ferry, which only ran once a week.
The next morning we awoke to yet more rain and wind. Almost everything was wet: the tents, the tarps, the dry bags and our rain gear. Craig had put his rainfly on upside down and spent the night with water seeping into the corners of his tent. When Kelly drained a puddle from one of the tarps, he accidently sent a cascade of water streaming down Peggy’s neck and into her boots. When he drained another puddle, he put out the fire. Nothing was going well that morning.
Yet we continued to make preparations for leaving. As we loaded the kayaks, we noticed three fishing boats anchored in Flynn Cove, seeking shelter. The official weather report reinforced our fears, predicting winds up to 23 knots. We tied up the boats and left them on the beach. Since our top speed is about four knots and the channel was too rough for commercial fishers, we knew we could not paddle. Kelly concurred.
We returned to camp, rehung two tarps and pondered our options. Desperate to get out that day, I looked over at the boats in the cove. Maybe one would give us a lift. No harm in asking. Craig and I climbed into a double kayak and paddled out to the St. James, anchored at the far end of the cove.
“Ahoy, St. James. Ahoy St. James,” I shouted, hoping that was indeed how you summoned the captain. When a man stepped groggily onto the deck in his bathrobe, I explained our predicament and asked if he could help us. “I’m not going that way,” was his terse reply. I apologized for waking him and we moved on to the next boat.
This time I dispensed with the ahoying, as the captain of the Shelikov was out on deck having a smoke . I explained there were five of us in three kayaks who desperately needed a lift to Hoonah. “The water is too rough for us to paddle and we want to catch a ferry,” I explained.
“We weren’t heading toward Hoonah,” he said. “We haven’t decided what we’re doing today.” It was the last day of a short King Salmon season; perhaps he hoped to fish if the wind died down. Just then his wife stuck her head out of the cabin window. I muttered something about my granddaughter being along and told them we’d be happy to pay for their time and fuel.
“We don’t want to be paid,” he said. “We just need to figure out what we’re going to do. Call me on your VHF radio at 2:00.”
Craig and I paddled back to the others with our report. We sat near the fire that Kelly had quickly restarted, drinking coffee and hot chocolate while we waited. We took back some of the food we had given Kelly so we could make a real lunch.
Promptly at 2:00 I called the Shelikov. “We’ll take you now,” the captain said. We cheered, took down the tarps and scrambled to our boats. We rolled the loaded kayaks down the beach on four small logs, as Kelly had taught us. We had never gotten underway so quickly.
When Barbara got to the fishing boat, the captain, Roger, and his wife, Zona, helped her climb onto the deck. They hoisted her boat up and urged her to take a seat in the cabin. When Craig and I got there, I was sent inside and Craig was enlisted to help haul the heavy kayaks. Peggy was hurried inside as well, but Sarah stayed out to help lift the last boat onto the deck. The captain had quickly identified the power lifters in our group.
Roger invited Craig to join him in the wheelhouse, where he talked about helping his father guide bear hunting trips. He recalled the time a bear kept coming at them after being shot in both shoulders. “We finally dropped him when he was only eight feet away,” Roger remembered. I’m glad Craig was safely onboard when he heard that bear story.
With our wet paddling clothes piled in the middle of the cabin, Barbara, Peggy, Sarah and I sat comfortably around a table drinking hot coffee. Zona said she’d been relieved when we’d asked for a ride. She had already taken note of our kayaks so she could notify the Coast Guard if we got in trouble. She dismissed our offers to pay them for the trip. “Just pay it forward,” Zona urged. “You’ll find someone who needs your help.”
Safe, warm and dry, I began to reflect on our trip. We had paddled among humpback whales, faced down a bear and survived stormy seas, all with the help of strangers who appeared when we needed them. When I began this adventure I wondered if it might be my last trip, but already I was imagining where we might go next year.