Baranof Island Solo Expedition, 2010

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July 27

In the middle of the dark night, camped peacefully on my perfect little riverbar, I roll over in my sleeping bag to find an inch of water splashing my cheek.  It takes my snoozing brain a moment to register what's happening.

"HOLY F***!"  I yell aloud as I stand up under the tarp in my (now very damp) down sleeping bag.  In my tired state last night, choosing my "perfect" camp spot away from bear activity on the river, I forgot to consider the extensive reach of an incoming tide.  Nothing this far inland indicates that the tide would ever reach here, but obviously it does, because salt water is quickly rising around my ankles and has flooded the underside of my tarp.  I strip off the bag, grab whatever clothes I can muster within arm's reach in the dark, and splash-splash-splash to the nearby river bank, throwing them into the grass on high ground.  Splash-splash-splash back to the tarp, dig out my headlamp, stuff every loose thing I can find into my pack (the water now 2-3" deep).  I splash-splash-splash-splash back to toss it ashore, my mind still reeling from the sudden jolt to my senses.  I pull the tarp out of the ground, recover the stakes, and toss the whole assembly onto shore, my thick socks squishing beneath me on the river rocks.

I climb the shore and catch my breath from the panic.  "Holy crap, what the hell did I just do?!?"  With the headlamp I gather my gear and lay it out, taking an inventory to see what I have.  "It's not all here. What am I missing?"  Within minutes I figure out that everything buoyant has been washed (with the river's current in the rising tide) out to sea, including...

1) My foam camp sandals (no biggie, I'll live without)
2) A stuff sack with my hat & fleece gloves (pain in the arse, but not devastating... another "live without" item)
3) A 2L platypus water bottle.  (It wouldn't be a huge deal, except that's part of my PFD floatation... I'll now be 2L less buoyant on the water.  C'est la vie, I'll have to do without, no other choice!)
4) My bear spray!!!  Crap!  Where the holy hell is my bear spray?!?  I splash-splash-splash one last time into the still-rising river, scanning up & down as far as my little headlamp will see, hoping beyond hope to see a red & white canister buoyed on some rock somewhere.  But no luck.  I look down the current to Fish Bay... it's out to sea by now.  F***.  There's nothing more to do.  I'm now bear-spray-less, with no means of calling for help.  What... in... the... hell... did I get myself into here.

I sit in the tall grass to calm my nerves and assess the situation.  It's obvious with the wet bag that I won't sleep anymore tonight (it's approximately midnight right now), and this stuff desperately needs to be dried.  I put on my shoes, and start wandering the forest by the light of my headlamp, gathering firewood.  Within twenty minutes I have a small roaring campfire, where I string my wet gear over a nearby set of tree branches, beginning the long process of drying out a down sleeping bag and fleece clothing.  I periodically drift the night away, alternating between gathering firewood and adjusting my gear for best exposure to the fire (not too hot to burn it, but hot enough to evaporate moisture... a delicate balance with lightweight materials), and kick myself frequently for losing the spray.

As hours pass, night fades to dawn, and dawn into day.  Luckily the weather is calm today, little more than a slight occasional drizzle that the canopy keeps at bay.  By now (with alternate routines of squeezing moisture from the down and gently rubbing it between palms to soften and separate it, baffle by baffle) my bag is only half-damp, and I'm actually pretty confident--if the weather holds--I can get it tolerably dry by day's end.  I'm tired, but this work requires persistent attention, and I keep at it through the morning.  Everything now reeks of smoke, but who cares.

I also take the time to locate and repair that tiny hole in my packraft.  Hey, it needs to be done, might as well do it now.

Once again, with no SPOT unit, my only choice for the big picture is to proceed (which is probably what I would've done even with the SPOT unit... lost bear spray does not require a rescue).  I'll have to be extra vigilant to avoid bear encounters from here on until I can reach Sitka and resupply.  By noon, the sleeping bag (and all my clothes) are dry enough to proceed, so I stuff the rest of my gear, pack it on the raft, and paddle my way across the bay, heading almost due South now, directly toward Sitka.

Day 4 Map

I am fortunate.  The river drainage I picked to traverse (I could've chosen any one of several) has almost no fish running in it, and bear activity is almost nil, with rarely a track seen anywhere.  But I keep close watch nonetheless.  It's amazing what one notices when they have to... "how old is this bear track?  Is it a single track, or a well-used trail?  Is there anything around here that would attract a bear in the near future?"  These questions run through my mind--consciously and subconsciously--in a continuous loop.  I cannot (in good conscience) recommend traversing such terrain with nothing but your senses to defend against a huge predator that crowds one per square mile in these valleys, but when there's no other choice, it's astounding how powerful your senses can become.  I discover a piece of myself I never knew was there.  Honed by eons of evolution, it's as if I've found--by necessity--an ancestor's inquisition of the terrain and the animals that inhabit it.  Had I been using this skillset yesterday, I'd surely have not flooded the friggin' tarp in the first place.

I only make a couple miles up the drainage before my tired, frayed nerves are not coping well with the tricky terrain.  I camp early near the river (this time much higher), hoping to get a good night's rest and get "back on track" tomorrow, heading the last stretches out toward Nakwasina Passage and finally out to Sitka in another 1.5 days.  Here's hoping.

(I'm very tired when I made this video, if you can't tell from the rambling narration.)

July 28

A long night's rest does me well, mending my nerves and giving a few small wounds some time to heal.  I took time last night to patch my rain pants and other gear... inevitably they've taken a thrashing so far this trip, and I've already used a full Gore-Tex repair kit.  I'll have to pick up more repair patches later in town.  By early morning I'm on my way, scaling the "brushy" side of the creek (steep, but entirely passable) and side-hilling my way along the ledges above the river.

Day 5 Map:
When traversing tricky terrain, I often have an internal dialogue playing out on my shoulders... I'm not quite sure if it's normal.  I constantly make decisions when navigating... go high through the rocks or low through the brush... climb over this logjam, crawl under it, or bushwhack around it... cross the river again or maintain this side, etc.  These decisions are nearly constant, and once I've made one, another voice in my head starts gently questioning it.  "I know you said stay high, but if we go low we could avoid a potential cliff-out."  Sometimes my original choice stands, but at times my "other brain" wins out, and plans change.  It may sound moderately crazy, but it keeps me sane out there, and I'm convinced it helps me make better decisions.  When the internal bickering gets annoying, I simply tell it to "shut the hell up."  Sometimes, that works.

As I near the shallow pass I encounter young patches of second-growth woods, and for a half-mile I 'schwack through hellish thick brush and young alder & spruce trees.  Eventually I reach a series of muskeg swamps (easy to walk if you don't mind wet feet) that make quick work of the rest of the pass.  The hillsides here were logged in the past decade, and the evidence (young woods and frequent landslides from unstable slopes denuded of live roots) is obvious everywhere.

Old Landslide on North Baranof, one of many

Over the pass I quickly make my way down to an unnamed lake, and am struck by its beauty and timeless silence.  I sit for a long time, eating some lunch and watching the small wildlife wake up around me.  Squirrels play in the trees and a couple large loons zig-zag their way across the lake, the male entertaining me with a song.

Kicking back for a bit, at the lake

Old Water Lily, washed ashore

Loons on an unnamed lake:

Loons and the old-growth woods, black & white

I spot an old cabin at the edge of a cove while crossing the lake, and curiosity forces me to pull over and take a peek for a few minutes.  It used to be a privately-owned cabin (legal on NF land under some circumstances) that's been abandoned for a number of years, and it shows its age from general rot and bear break-ins.

Abandoned Cabin on Unnamed Lake, Baranof Island

Crossing the lake on a cloudy but calm afternoon, I reach the Southern shore and make my way out on a decades-old logging road, lined by a straight row of red alders whose roots are well-adapted to grow in the old road's gravel.

On my way down to Nakwasina Passage, I hear a chopper approaching, and minutes later a large Coast Guard helicopter comes flying over the valley, low (almost at eye level) and cruises up toward the lake.  Holy crap, they're looking for me, aren't they.  I'm deep in the trees and there's no way they can see me (even if I wore Christmas lights), so the chopper flies on by, up the valley toward Fish Bay and (presumably) onto Rodman Creek.

An hour later I'm down at the shoreline of Nakwasina passage.  With the wind at my back and tidal currents in my favor, I hope to make 6-8 miles up the passage by day's end.  Shortly after getting in the raft the same chopper flies out of the valley just behind me and (despite my waves) heads the opposite way up Nakwasina Passage, directly away from me.  *Sigh*  Nothing I can do but keep going.

Jellyfish are profuse in this stretch of tidal current, and I'm making good time toward the bend in Nakwasina passage.  Two motor boats come flying up the passage a quarter-mile off, and nearly as they pass me they quickly stop the engines, make a quick right turn, and head immediately for me.

"Are you Mike?" calls one of the boats.  I instantly know who it is.

"Yeah, it's Mike.  Have you been looking for me?"  I respond, my question suddenly seeming a bit unnecessary.

"Whoo!" is the only response, and a moment later Don Kluting (director of the Sitka Mountain Rescue [SMR] team) helps me into his boat, where I get warm greetings and haul my gear aboard. 

After knowing I'm okay, they offer to leave me there (if I'd prefer to head into town myself), but given the past few days, and the fact that people at home were worried, I accept his offer of a ride back to town.  They call the base station, and the choppers (recalling the team that'd just been placed in Rodman Creek to do a "welfare" check on me), and feed me a few pieces of fried chicken they'd bought just before leaving town.  As I'd suspected and feared, my losing the SPOT unit did (in fact) greatly worry people at home, and yesterday the SMR--knowing I was "probably fine" but erring on the side of caution--began doing unofficial "welfare checks" to see if they could find me.  I am wholly embarrassed at the entire scenario, but they understand, and repeat again & again how much better it is (for them) to find someone alive and well like this.  "Best case scenario" is the term used.  Still, I'm embarrassed.

Once in town we stop by the fire station, where the S&R operations are based.  I talk with the team, watch them all debrief, tell my story a dozen times, show them my raft (they wanted to see it), and stay for about an hour or two while they wrap everything up.  The aftermath of my little S&R fiasco (along with the newspaper story ensuing) has been posted and discussed in this thread online, feel free to peruse there if you're curious.

At the end of the evening one of the S&R guys offers me a spot on his couch for the night, and I gladly accept.  It's been quite a ride so far, and I have some serious food for thought before embarking on my second leg.  I take a shower, do some laundry, and ponder the last few days before crashing for the night.  Tomorrow morning, I have a decision to make.

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