We returned “The Box” and headed back to the airport to pick up our Micro Car. Oh man did we feel vulnerable, but we fit everywhere. Heck, it even felt a little sporty. When a Toyota Yaris starts to feel sporty... it’s time to come home.
A few hours out of Christ Church towards Kaikoura we learned why people don’t frequently travel the coast to Nelson. The road has been damaged by earth quakes and the recent cyclones make it susceptible to closings when it rains and has “Slips” as the kiwis say. We might call them mud slides. The detour really did call for a Porsche or something worthy of the winding canyon roads the detour put us on. I frequently thought of my Nephew, Ian as I pushed the Yaris way past Lauri’s comfort zone. I knew Ian would go faster, brake later, but the rain, fear of live stock on the road and Lauri’s screams kept me at a lively, but safe speed. Fun stuff.
Surprisingly, after darkness was complete, we arrived only slightly late for our dinner reservations in Kaikoura. I was a Cheegan that night (vegan that cheats). Many of our meals in “The Box” were like elaborate camping meals so tonight we splurged a bit. We both enjoyed some fish and remarkable bread... Nice.
Lauri found an amazing Inn and soon after dinner we were relaxing in our Pacific Ocean facing suite. Not much to see at night, but holy wah, the next morning, were we in for a treat. The mountains got some snow overnight at peak elevations and it couldn’t have been prettier. I had a brief conversation with the owner to learn that it was not unusual to get snow in the mountains this time of the year. I shared with my German host that I thought it looked a lot like Switzerland and he said “yes, but ... we have the Sea!” Kaikoura one, Geneva zero.
In New Zealand you frequently see road signs that say “South New Zealand roads are different... allow more time” No kidding. If Google Maps said 3 hours we’d allow 4 and frequently blow that estimate. Fortunately, the country is beautiful and the road north is literally on the sea side. Frequent stops for one way traffic, due to construction, kept the road technically open, but just barely. It was easy to see why the road experienced so many closures. Earth that wants to slide on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. it was a long trip but after 4-5 hours we were on the outskirts of Nelson.
The town of Nelson is the third largest port in New Zealand (taxi driver fact) and container ships make port to get their share of lumber, apples, fruit and other NZ desirables. Nelson is also a fishing town and it attracts tourists with remarkable beaches that expand like magic when the tide is out. Miles and miles of beach. The town is nestled at the southern end of Tasman Bay near the north end of the South Island of NZ. Wellington, on the North Island, is a 30 minute flight to cover the 80 miles between the two cities.
If you examine a chart of the Tasman Bay you would guess that God is a sailor or kayaker. Travel East or West and you will see remarkable opportunities to anchor, camp, hike near the Sea. If you thought this was the perfect place to take sailing lessons... you would be right.
Monday morning had us stowing our packs in the V birth of “Breeze”, a mid 90’s Jeaneau 36’ that obviously had a owner that loved her. This boat was meticulously cared for and we could only guess her age by the craftsmanship you could see in the cabin and the presence of real wood.
Four of us would be striving for our “Day Skipper” accreditation from the Royal Yachting Association. Paul, a Veterinarian program manager for the NZ government and Chris, a Kiwi intensive care physician that practices in the UK, joined Lauri and I onboard. Our Instructor, Kat, is a young woman that moves about the boat as if she grew up there. After meeting and greeting, we learned why. She did.
At the tender age of 7, her parents started sailing around the world in a 55’ Steel hulled sailboat with Kat and her two siblings. 5 years later they finished. Later Kat would sail solo to Fiji, Australia and back to NZ. Kat’s amazing experience and solid communication skills left us in awe of our instructor as we anxiously prepared the boat for leaving the slip.
The winds were light Monday so we spent the afternoon maneuvering Breeze and feeling Prop Walk, Prop Wash, tight turning and docking. I think instructors call this Marina Bashing, but the wind and current gods were kind and docks were only kissed gently as we learned how to parallel park the 8 ton yacht. Mooring lines, Warps, Halyards, Spring Lines, Sheets, Head Sails, Ports and Starboards all started to make sense and worked their way into each of our lexicons.
In the early evening, we picked up a mooring ball in the harbor and settled in for the night. With our endless prompting, Kat kept us engaged with tales of her childhood aboard the boat. Young children adventures in the dingy, getting knocked down, sailing from Japan to Sitka Alaska. Simply amazing.
Day two had us leaving harbor and heading north into Tasman Bay. Light winds caused us to motor sail a bit, but soon we had a pod of dolphins enjoying Breeze’s bow wave. Magic happens when a dolphin family shows up. Mothers and baby dolphins move as if they had one brain guiding both of them. Mother would change course and the babies lag was not perceptible. Magic. Almost as if the pod derived pleasure from seeing us enjoy them.
Navigation, Anchoring, Man Overboard, Reefing, tides and currents... you name it we did it. Sailing Bootcamp. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday flew by. Thursday afternoon we prepared our charts for a night sail back to Nelson harbor.
One person on the helm (Lauri for most of the night voyage), taking directions from a navigator. No charts in the cockpit. No white lights in the cabin, only red... keep your night vision. Taking sightings to fix our position... is that an aid to navigation or another boat? Give it time, it will become clear. I was at the helm as Chris navigated us to harbor. With his British infused Kiwi accent, every time he asked me to go to “Port” I had the urge to get him a dessert wine.
Coming into harbor at night is exciting. A road crew was working on the highway just behind one of the aids to navigation that I needed to follow in. The crews working light was so bright I had a hard time lining up the nav aids with complete clarity. Between all of us looking at it and ultimately agreeing, we sailed Breeze easily into the harbor.
My turn to navigate. With sails dropped and Breeze’s small diesel pushing us forward, Paul took the helm. “Put red marker 9 on your stern so it lines up with the impossibly far away green light... you should be at 2 degrees magnetic... Lauri watched the depth gage closely as we were splitting a very narrow, shallow, unmarked, channel, Chris was up front directing us around mooring buoys and moored boats.... when these two lights on our starboard line up, turn to 25 degrees magnetic to stay in the deeper part of the mooring area. We successfully made the final turn and Kat ended the night practice. Very fun, Very educational... only somewhat stressful.
Friday allowed us to practice picking up mooring balls with current to disrupt the boat a bit and we each got to put Breeze into a slip, tie her up and then take her back out again. The wind and current Gods blessed us again and kept Breeze scuff free.
After cleaning up the boat we all said our good byes after thanking the Sail Nelson team for a wonderful week of sailing education. What a wonderful way to learn to Sail!
Learnings from Oceania
Church and a tour of the South Island by RV.... What?
Just the name, Christ Church, makes me feel guilty. It certainly doesn’t conjure up images of a large city with hundreds of hotels... all welcoming us with “no vacancy signs.” Hah, good thing we have travel wiz, Lauri on our team. We blazed through the most thorough custom and bag inspection of any country I’ve visited. Hiking shoes sealed in air tight bags... check... all luggage scanned / X rayed for any unfavorable bio hazards.... check. No invasive species are getting into NZ via the airport. Forget to claim that apple or pear or other fresh fruit and BAM, you get fined $400 on the spot. We were somewhat relieved that our energy bars passed muster and were able to accompany us into Kiwi land.
The cab line was short, but somehow our particular driver missed out on the famous Kiwi hospitality lessons. Lauri and I hoisted our own bags into the trunk and I surmised the driver wasn’t too excited about, what turned out to be, a fairly short trip... I didn’t say cheap... just short. We keyed the code to the lock box at the Airport Palms to extract our room key....and as the clock struck Midnight plus 45... we found the box empty. No key, no employees, no email, no text... no note saying. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Thorley, The credit card company would not approve your reservation because we put the wrong name on your reservation.... You are screwed.
Yea, we were a bit tired, but clearly we have done more difficult things, right? Did I mention it was 50 degrees and starting to rain? Quickly, we donned all the “extra” clothing that we didn’t need in tropical Australia. I was wearing 50% of all the clothing I packed... rain gear and all. What started out as a simple; Let’s just call another hotel, then call Uber and we will be comfy in no time... became, no hotel anywhere has a vacancy. 30 calls, 30 rejections. Hmmm. No big deal right? We will go back to the airport and wait for the sunrise. I’m bringing my tent, next time for sure.
The Uber guy picks us up and and feels awful for us. He has an AirBnB, but its rented. (Ya gotta love Uber drivers that have real-estate investments) He drives slow racking his brain and provides hotel names we have already been rejected by. He mentions that his couch is available if we can’t find another place. THAT‘S IT... the hospitality we were expecting. I can’t do it. The Uber guy is great, but this is a bridge too far. Somewhere there is an expensive suite or a room in a hotel outside of town. The city is called “Christ Church” for crying out loud, there has to be some place for wayward travelers. We will find something.
Our Angel just happened to be the gal behind the information desk. You know the ones. They are in every airport and no one is ever asking for help or even talking to them. At least no males are asking for help. She was awesome. She marched Lauri over to the kiosk with the brochures that nobody ever uses and grabbed a mitt full of hotel brochures. Seems like a waste of time... brochure vs google, brochure, google, hmmmm...but Lauri and I dutifully split the pile up and started the complex task of dialing NZ numbers from a US cell phone. Bingo, on my first try. The sleepy guy at “The Chardonnay Inn” reminded me it was 2AM and that we’d be paying $130 for just a few hours of rest. We were snug, dry and warm 45 min later in an interesting hotel room. Beggars can’t be choosers and after all, we’ve slept in way worse.
So now the “real” fun begins. Renting RV’s in NZ is big business. There all kinds of choices to be made and everyone travels this way... everyone. Lauri and I selected a modest size RV to rent months ago. Wait too long and they will all be gone we’d been told. We took input from Damon and Rachel, who toured here last year and there input was super valuable. Modest... just like Goldilocks... just right. Of course, a modest selection came with USA sensibilities. Tooling around Christ Church, modest was just a bit big, not too bad. We also selected a manual transmission with a torquey Diesel engine... I’ve been driving a stick shift for years... what could go wrong? The first round about had me rethinking the manual tranny as I entered the clockwise flow of traffic two gears too high, looking for my exit and suddenly realizing the turn signal was back on the left side. As my windshield wipers dragged across our dry windshield. Why to many things to think about... stay left, stay left, stay left. Whew... made it.
A modest size RV becomes a very large RV on the rural roads of NZ. We fit in the lane with inches to spare. Our favorite experience became the one lane bridges. Paved rural roads...100 kilometer speed limit (way to fast for a “modest” RV BTW)... single lane bridge ahead. When they say single lane bridge... they don’t mean the car and a bike or the car and a person walking. No, they mean... tuck in your damn mirrors Mr. Modest RV. Approaching the bridge is similar to playing chicken with the guy coming the other way. There is some obscure sign suggesting who might have right of way upon simultaneous meeting. Ahh stress free driving.
Intellectually, Lauri and I wanted to try living the RV life style. Emotionally, we wanted to be slinging our packs on our back and finding our route on some Topo Map as we hiked and climbed to our destination. Every day we made some joke about actually being in the motor home. Then we’d quiz each other why we couldn’t embrace it. The RV is comfortable, convenient, warm, dry and you can poop when ever you want without digging a hole. It has a shower with real hot water. One day we showered right after hiking. Right in the parking lot for the trail head. Blasphemy! There have been vacations that bathing was a weekly luxury. Would this RV thing soften us? Likely. Could we embrace it. Jury is out. I’m drawn to the dirt bag style of some of the smaller RV’s. These, do it yourself, conversion vans or trucks are unique to the owner. They make a statement I can relate to. Lauri must think I’m nuts.
So really the RV is just method of getting to really cool hiking spots. Each day we spend 3 hours on some challenging trail leading to a glacier or some amazing view. Then we sleep for the night before we drive for a few hours to set us up for the next incredible hike or Track as the Kiwi’s say. Nice. NZ is a right to camp country. They call it “Freedom Camping”... see a spot on a nice lake. Park the rig and call it home. Love the view from that two track. It’s yours for the evening. of course you can pay more and get a bit more at commercial camp sites or some of the government reserved land sites. Remember when I said “everyone” does this... everyone does. So in practice, the Freedom Camping thing could easily be a competitive sport if you wanted the best camping spots. Typically, we’d arrive too tired or too late to really care how close to the lake we parked. Often times camping looks like a rest stop along a highway and sounds like a United Nations meeting with all the languages and accents spoken. Pretty fun.
Day 8 of the motorhome experience... this thing has value. It’s been raining. We are dry. There is no condensation on the inside of “The Box” as we are now calling it. It was a bit chilly this morning and I flipped a switch and soon it was toasty and there was hot water waiting for us at breakfast. Very civilized.
We drove a fair amount yesterday due to the rain. We stopped and tried to see a beach that Penguins frequent. Well, we saw the beach, but no real evidence of penguins other than the signs telling us, in detail, how to act if we actually saw a penguin. Don’t get between the penguin and their nest. Just for your future reference. It was a very nice beach and completely understandable why penguins build their nests, raise their young and molt there. We are just a few months early or late to have a good chance of seeing them. Sigh... no penguin sightings. Sorry Damon.
The hike in was amazing. Both of us made comments about feeling like Hawaii as we strolled through a Jurassic Park like rain forest. Lauri became enamored with the tree like ferns and all the colors AND she had her phone/camera with her. When you see pics from the trip... you have been warned.
Have you ever driven a motorhome and wished you were in a Porsche? The roads are like that. Have you ever driven a motorhome and wished you were peddling with the unsupported biker /campers inching their way up the impossibly steep, narrow switchbacks, as tour busses and rookie RV drivers new to the “left” side of the road pass you? Yeah, me neither. These bikers were awesome!l Many looked to be in their 60’s and touring on mountain bikes with center frame packs, handlebar packs and maybe something hanging from behind the seat. No panniers or narrow tires for these guys. Through the rain, mud and all the crazy motorized obstacles; They all have hero status.
Meet ya in Port Douglass!
Cairns, David, Port Douglass and friends from the Windy City. February 22-27, 2018
The largest living thing in the world resides on the coast of Australia. Specifically, the North East Coast of Australia. “The Reef”..... the Great Barrier Reef. Feared by sailors and revered by divers, snorkelers and home to over 1600 species of aquatic critters. We are headed to the diving Mecca, but first we need to pick up David in Cairns, so team Kopf is back together.
8 hours of driving north on the coastline we get to Cairns, pick up David and find he has already scouted for dinning opportunities. It’s kind of his thing. He likes to eat well and is always up for new food prepared in interesting ways. We are in Australia so why wouldn’t we try Kangaroo, Gator/Croc and other local meats. Quoting David... Roo, is good, but not as good as beef. Gator tacos... “very good.” If you like good food, David makes an exceptional travel partner. No one is faster on the Google search, checking reviews and making reservations. Of course Lauri, Brett and Cortney are no slouches, but David exudes passion. Wake up in the morning and its a good bet the best coffee shop has been scouted, taste tested and a review is ready. Noosa’s local beach front cafe had the second best croissants David has ever had. I wanted one after hearing about it and I don’t even like croissants. Every meal not only is rated, but also put in historical and geographic context relative to other meals in other countries.
About an hour and a half out of Cairns is Port Douglass. A bit smaller town that appears to make it’s living off of diving, snorkeling, tours and rain forest excursions. AirBnB has provided us an incredible villa, with a wading pool, a couple of master bedrooms, outdoor showers and space for us to lounge around, cook a few meals and generally relax. Oh yea, there is a 4 mile sand beach 20 yards from the entrance.
By amazing luck, friends from Chicago were in town and we all gathered around the ample, outdoor, dining table and enjoyed an evening of laughter, stories, good wine and decent food. Gary and Nancy were treated as family as my shy and reserved daughter told disgusting sailboat bathroom stories. Cortney also got Gary to share his haunted house stories that were made even more creepy with Port Douglasses huge bats zooming around as darkness fell. Maybe huge doesn’t do a bat with a 2.5’ wing span justice. Let’s make that hundreds of bats. Definitely a good setting for a ghost story or two.
It’s funny, when we are playing in the surf, crashing into each other on boogie boards and even teasing each other on the sailboat... Cortney frequently is my little girl, but at dinner my fearless daughter morphs into a charming partner to a wonderful son in law. Smart, warm, engaging... go ahead pick an adjective to describe these newly weds. They are wonderful together and Lauri and I feel very lucky to see how happy Brett and Cort are. Just watching them adds a fun element to the trip.
The Great Barrier Reef... Let’s go diving! The Reef is about an hour ride north of the harbor on a very fast, insanely powered catamaran. It’s been a few years since Lauri and I have frolicked under the sea... well ok, about 14 years. Yikes. We’ve watched a few YouTube videos to refresh our memories of the finer points of breathing underwater. We show our credentials and fill out all the health forms. Emma, our dive master, returns a short time later after collecting our forms and asks if I have a note from my doctor to dive... what? “No, but my mom wrote me one” was the response rolling inside my head. “You need proof of medical clearance to dive”... I have deep, sinking, emotional response... “I checked with the Diver Alert Network and had all my heart valves checked for bubble transfer during a stress test. I’m good to go!” Emma relayed that they needed a signed doctors note. I was incredulous... Port Douglass has had five Crocodile attacks this year, three have been fatal. People regularly get transported from the beach to the hospital for Stinger wounds that are life threatening. Australia has “many” critters that can and will kill you... no permission slip needed. I’m intending to dive slightly deeper than the deep end of an Olympic diving pool and you are demanding a note from my doctor? Arghhhh!
Yeah, I blew it. Soon Emma is witnessing Lauri, Cort and my eyes leaking. The Mecca of diving will have to wait... at least for me. I soon shifted gears and focus on what I get to do and not what I didn’t get to do. “I get to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef!” It was amazing. I stayed on the surface like a voyeur and watched my wife and daughter effortlessly explore the “Finding Nemo and Little Mermaid” scene below. It really was fantastic. Lauri begged off on diving in the afternoon and shared the surface swimming with me. Ask Lauri about holding hands while snorkeling... Memorable. It was a nice afternoon.
On the ride back to harbor, Emma and I struck up a conversation and it turns out her boyfriend Camron, another dive master, and her are traveling the world and have some experiences in many of the countries that Cort and Brett are traveling to after Australia. With Lauri’s encouragement we invited Emma and Camron to dinner to swap travel stories. What a wonderful evening! Just watching, Brett, Cort and David share time with Emma and Camron was worth the price of admission.
After our experience in Alaska, Lauri and I will never miss an opportunity to share a meal with interesting people.
Port Douglass rapped up with a visit to the Daintree Rain Forest and a stop to check out Roos, Crocs, Koalas and many interesting birds at a nature center. Lauri wanted to bring a few of the critters home. There is something magical about a baby roo snuggling into their mothers pouch.
Feb. 27, we begrudgingly go our separate ways. Brett and Cort to Hong Kong, David to Port Lincoln, Australia and Lauri and I head to Christ Church, New Zealand. It was wonderful to spend the time with the kids, but New Zealand would ease us down with all kinds of new adventure.
Hoist the sails, Mate!
Airlie Beach and Whitsunday Islands, February 17-23, 2018
Airlie Beach. Access point to the Incredible Whitsundays Islands. Our next stop and our departure point for chartering a 43’ Beneteau for three nights. Lauri and I don’t always do things in typical order... many people take sailing lessons first and then charter a boat to get comfortable and figure out their likes and dislikes before buying a sailboat. Not us... first we buy a boat, then charter a boat, then we will end the trip with sailing lessons in New Zealand. it feels right to us. What can I say? The charter company checked us out while teaching us the intricacies of mooring ball pick up, anchoring, setting sail etc... Honestly, our knowledge base was fine, our experience base was lacking, but our enthusiasm was infectious. 3 hours into our boat familiarization, Terry, our charter representative climbed into his own dingy and motored away.
This is exactly what our Australian friends we met on the Kayak trip last summer told us to do. Talk a charter company into giving you a boat. If you need to take a captain for the first day, do it. Then figure out everything else. Large boats have a bunch of moving parts, but between the 4 of us we got it all figured out. Cort and Brett managed the mooring ball pick up and anchoring. Lauri kept a close eye on the depth gage as we sailed our way around some spectacular, tropical scenes. Me, I just plotted a very conservative course as we circumnavigated the islands.
Cumberland Charter, Cumberland Charter, Cumberland Charter, this is Olivetta... Twice a day we checked in with our home base on the VHF radio and got the weather report and updated them with our sailing plans. “On our way to Tongue Bay with a snorkeling stop at Butterfly Bay... Over.” Ahh... we can get used to this.
Selecting an anchorage turned out to be as much art as science. The weather was HOT, HOT, HOT and a the right bay could give us a welcome breeze, but likely give us some chop. Bounce or suffocate? Hmmm? What would you choose? I chose a bit of bounce with a side of cooling breeze, just off the most beautiful beach we’ve ever seen. Whitehaven Beach is pure white sand that goes on forever. Tidal exchange has sculpted the beach with swirls and inlets and shades of blue and white that defy imagination. Mother Nature has an Australian accent, I’m sure of it.
Thunder, lightning and rain had us scrambling to shut hatches our second night. Pitch black between lighting bolts. Anchor lights from other boats just confuse me... did a boat leave? Which way are we facing? Clearly the mooring ball isn’t dragging, is it? This isn’t a modest bounce. This is a wave induced bounce with a side of occasional roll. Hmm. Sleeping is difficult as our bodies lag the boats movement just enough to keep us awake. Morning light came quick enough and after listening to the VHF radio, we got off pretty easy. Our harbor mates boat got the mooring line wrapped around their keel and had the mooring ball banging against their hull most of the night. Not pleasant I assure you. This sailing thing is interesting... lots to learn.
All to quickly, Cort’s and My Birthday celebrations were over as we pointed Olivetta back to her home port in the Airlie Beach Marina. 30 and 60, respectively are in the books with amazing memories that will last our life times.
Oh yea.... we are coming back here, Cort wants to come by boat... (I love this girl) not sure that is in the cards, but we are definitely, definitely coming back.
Sydney, February 10-12, 2018
International travel always amazes me. Friends, family, whomever, can just converge on an agreed upon city... on the other side of the world and just “meet up.” Cort and Brett did the VRBO thing in Sydney and shortly after a reasonable flight. (Reasonable has nothing to do with length of flight, FYI) we were climbing out of a taxi and magically, Cort and Brett were greeting us at the condo entrance. Nice.
We stayed in the beach community of Bondi and Cortney assured us that the “right” body/time clock sync process was to stay awake until normal, local bedtime. In no time we were street hiking to the Opera House, viewing the infamous harbor and bridge and cursing our winter softened feet as our summer sandals took their toll. Dinner in Bondi came with entertainment as we watched surfers, skateboarders and took in the “beach” community vibe of this chic Sydney neighborhood.
Manly Beach, the following day, demanded the rental of boogie boards and umbrellas to immerse ourselves in the saltwater and sandy beach fun. Winter felt like a very distant friend.
So long big city, hello beach town. Noosa, February 12-16, 2018
A short flight to Brisbane had us meeting up with Brett’s brother David and picking up our rental Van that would provide us our transportation for the rest of the trip. Left side driving and right side steering wheel encouraged us to select the full coverage insurance option for the van. Driving quickly became a “team” effort with the passenger repeating the mantra of “Lefts are easy, rights are hard... stay left” at every course change we needed to make. Brett and I adapted to the driving faster then we did the turn signal being on the “wrong” side of the steering wheel. We kept a running count of the number of times the windshield wipers were engaged to signal an upcoming turn. Endless amusement for the peanut gallery.
Traveling with smart, well read and engaging thirty somethings, provided provocative conversation with valuable perspectives exchanged. Never a dull meal. It was awesome getting smarter as we traveled.
An hour or so north of Brisbane, we settled in a wonderful rental a few blocks from the most incredible beach near Noosa. Endless sand... endless beach... endless waves and we could swim, body surf, boogie board, surf, play cricket (yea, we did that) walk and just chill. We just couldn’t get out of the sun... opps. No shock, our 50 SPF protected us like, well, 10 SPF in the water and surf. Red was the color and everyone participated in our sacrifice to the skin cancer gods. Ouch. But it turns out they have surfing hats for guys that are folic-ally challenged. But who knew, as we headed further north the sea had some critters that would keep us either land bound or completely covered up in the water. The locals call them stingers, but you might know them as Jelly Fish. “Caution you may die.” Yup, these bad boys are just one of the species that Australia can throw at you to keep you on your toes.
Never the less, we enjoyed 4 days of beach bliss in Noosa.
We needed to head north to prepare for some sailing, but David, the elder Kopf brother, decided to head for Melbourne as we made our way to the Captain Cook named, “Whitsundays Islands” with a brief stop in MacKay. Then there were 4.
Australia has some interesting, rugged, four wheel drive vehicles running around and our drive to MacKay allowed us to understand the necessity of some of their unique features. Many of the 4WD SUVs have snorkels... they look pretty cool, but we honestly thought they were mostly for show. Who needs the engine to breath 6.5’ off the ground? Who would take an expensive SUV into that deep of water? On purpose? As it turns out maybe the Australians on the road don’t have much choice.
Making our way to MacKay we kept seeing elaborate road signs (like in Colorado... blah, blah pass is open) stating this road is “open.” Why would they close? There never is any snow. Then the rains came and the purpose of these signs came into complete focus. Wind, rain, lightning and even more rain. Soon there was enough water on the road to keep the tires from making firm contact with the road surface. We slowed down, but the massive semi tucks drove like they were immune from the laws of physics. Lightning was as frequent as the waves of rain... it was then we noticed these obscure measuring sticks on the side of the road near the ditches. Small marks evenly distributed up to 2 meters... holy shit. Why didn’t we rent a truck with a snorkel?
Brett and I shared the tense drive as we seemed to pace the speed and direction of the storm perfectly. Never a dull moment. The hotel in MacKay was a welcome sight.
One year ago. Just one year. Lauri and I were headed to Colorado to ski for the first time in several years, see Ricky, Jake and of course, Wynter. Celebrate our Birthdays in fact. Eldora was a warm up for a mountain from my childhood memories of my first Western skiing.... Snowmass. Shedding my “you crash, you die” blood thinners for a few days and warping around chasing my mentor and my wife down the vast runs of Aspens larger neighbor... life was good. No, it was better than good. After skiing, 2017 had hikes into the Grand Canyon, Mountain Biking and Hiking in New Mexico, Cortney’s wedding and the monster paddle to Skagway. It is hard to believe it is all behind us. It doesn’t seem possible. We crammed it all in and 2017 changed us, changed me.
I must be changed. I must be different. I am different. We are west bound for Los Angeles. Our bags are all packed. There is no tent. No seriously, there is no tent. This plane stops in LA and the next one stops in Sydney. Yea, that Sydney. Cortney and Brett are there already. They got a head start with stops in Bora Bora and Melbourne. They will vacation longer too. Lauri and I will do 6 weeks. Brettney will do 6-7 months. They are homeless. True vagabonds. The next three weeks will be used to explore Australia. Sydney, Brisbane, Whitsunday, Cairns and who knows where else.
There is no plan. No way points, no routes, no food drops (or food prep for that mater), no bear canisters, no satellite tracking. Oh sure, there is a couple of flights reserved here and there as if to put some punctuation on a very long sentence, but we are totally flexible. I will need practice. We are considering doing some sailing in Whitsunday and possibly some Scuba Diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe we will rent a SUV and explore the outback. Yea, that will be good. We will let Brett drive. You see, it’s more fun to watching him drive up a sand dune, listening to him giggle and seeing him smile and laugh with his whole face, then it is to drive myself. This will be cool. Maybe this will be a bunch of linked, mini adventures. This really is bucket list stuff. I wonder if I will miss my tent?
The following morning we carried, dragged and shlepped our gear and boats... it was the most dangerous part of our entire trip... seriously. But we still got a very early start in one piece... minus some gel cote donated from the kayaks.
One more night of camping just South East of Elder Rock light house and then on to Haines at 20NM in a hotel, then done at Skagway 15NM a day or two later. It felt like we were racing the weather. Not so much the wind this time, but "frozen mix" entered our weather lexicon for the Skagway area and candidly we don't have the gear to be damp... ok, wet... and have the temps fall that far.
As we left SE Elder Rock camp site we decided to hug the East shore and not cross over to the west/Haines side of the Lynn Channel until we had too. It turned out fog limited our choices anyhow... visibility dropped to a quarter mile at most, so keeping the east shore in sight was mandatory. We paddled tethered to shore all the way until we crossed the ????? River mouth as the fog began to lift. That's when I posed the question to Lauri.... "You up for a very big day and finish this thing ahead of the freezing rain?" I had not completed the sentence before she said yes! I warned her that 32NM was bigger than any day she had ever done and that we'd be out way past the 1PM witching hour for the wind to toy with us. Lauri was not fazed. We would finish tonight.
The best way to do something hard is distractions. We had plenty. The wind never kicked up. The tide was ebbing against us, so we hugged the most amazing shoreline... rock formations that were jaw dropping beautiful and waterfalls that thundered down 1000s of feet in seconds. And Lauri got a tribal name. She will forever be known as "The Rock Hunter" as she just could not get enough of the sculpted rock Alaska was showing us.
31 of our 32NM paddle was drama free and it was just starting to sink in. The trip is over. We were both expecting heavy emotional surges to play havoc with us as we pulled the kayaks to the beach one last time. A cruise ship leaving the harbor in Skagway had other ideas.
We approached Skagway as the Cruise ship backed out, Pivoted and started up the channel. Good, I thought, the harbor will be empty. Not Quite. 3 more of the behemoths awaited us as the harbor came into view.
Cruise ships are required to give a 15min Warning of their departure.... at our approach angle I'd been more comfortable with 30 min. As we studied the harbor a security call went out. We sat there studying each ship for signs of departure, but it turned out to be a water taxi leaving the harbor. After a brief VHF communication with the water taxi I confirmed the harbor entrance was indeed between two of the floating cities. We would get up close and personal with these ships to enjoy the safety of the small boat harbor. Game on.
Other then the brief bout of vertigo that was triggered by looking up at these ships as we paddled by, there was no issue. Except in all the last minute drama, Lauri and I had forgotten that the trip was over... no time for reflecting. Just a brief hug and a quick selfie video. We have arrived a few days early. Reflection will come, but now we need to find a place to stay.
Two days out of Juneau we paddled by a forestry cabin around noon and it just begged us to stay. It's shoreline approach was the most difficult carry to a safe tide zone as we encountered the entire trip, but there was a chimney and that meant there was heat.... ahhh maybe some warmth and the ability to dry some of our gear. Yup, too good to pass up.
We knew the cabin was rented for the evening, but maybe the rain and colder weather would keep them away. We guessed we could use the cabin for our comfort till maybe 7PM and Lauri placed bets of when the renters would show up. I never got comfortable, for whatever reason, and I kept teasing Lauri that there would be a bunch of teens using the cabin to party. We set the tent up so we could vacate the cozy cabin on a moments notice.
About 8:30PM a three person family with two dogs show up and phew, we are feeing pretty good about our "stay and dry out" decision. Lauri breathed a sigh of relief and we thought my apprehension was for not. HA!... not so fast. Later 4 more adults, three more children and two more dogs make the cabin their home for a night. 10 people and 4 dogs in this tiny cabin can't be comfortable and it became VERY uncomfortable for us. They partied loudly till 5:00AM keeping us wide awake in our tent just 25 feet from the parties epicenter. Sigh...
Sleepless and a windy, marginal forecast kept us on land the next day while we prayed the next nights cabin renters would be more reasonable.
Not to worry, they were terrific. Two couples that had been friends from college in South Dakota and all grew up in Minnesota... very nice Mid-westerners. After a brief conversation we were invited back after dinner to warm up in the cabin.
The dry, warm cabin was made even more comfortable with easy conversation about living in Juneau for one couple and visiting Alaska from the other couples perspective. We could all agree that this Summer was a little too moist with Juneau's rainfall exceed 150% of average and was on its way to being the second wettest summer in Juneau's history. Hmmmm.
It wasn't long before we started a board game called Settlement of Catan in couples teams and with beginners luck Lauri and I left victorious for the evening. We apologized in advance for any early morning noise we'd make getting our gear to the water and bid our new friends good night.
We are camped tonight about 15 nautical miles from Juneau... how cool is that?
We are just completing an eye watering beautiful section that says.... you ain't in the Mid West and you've certainly left British Columbia behind... so sit down, shut up, put your man pants on.... you are in AAAHHHLASSSKAAA now. The snow capped mountains reach higher and stretch further. The water is colder cause the glaciers keep the icebergs flowing. Oh, and your whale sighting count will double in a day cause if BC shows you one humpy at a time Alaska will surround you with 10. Yea, we're in Alaska.
Wrangle set the scene with our first view of the big snow capped peaks... my dream scene. We were greeted right away by a friendly jet skier as we approached town. He made sure we knew what marina to go to and shared what our hotel looked like from the water. Nice guy... nearly escorted us to the dock.
Get the chores done. Laundry... thank god, shower... phew... gorge on good food... ahhh. Find the post office, get food drop... pack bear canisters. Time to relax and figure out what route we want to take to Juneau.
We have been eyeing the Leconte glacier and after talking with a local guide, Bob, from Alaska Charters and Adventures, we decided we'd check out the glacier on a day off as we made our way towards Juneau. Bob walked us through our passage of dry straight and route to Leconte on Google Earth. As the name implies, you must navigate Dry Straight, North of Wrangle a few hours, into a rising tide because even a kayak can quickly become grounded in the deposits of the Stikine River.
We tried to push the earlier side of our window to cross the delta, but no luck as our kayaks bottomed out. Fortunately, we brought some yogurt and berries and enjoyed our breakfast in the unusual setting of the ocean creeping in around us. After 20-30 min the kayaks were floating and we were on our way.
Icebergs make kayak travel even more interesting, with their crazy shapes and brilliant colors. As we paddled up to our camp site past the glacier sculpted discharge we knew tomorrow's paddle to see the glacier would be special.
That afternoon we were pleasantly surprised by Bob and his tour boat swing by the campsite to say hello and dropping off a cold beer. Really! Pretty awesome these Alaska people!
We awoke to a gift the tidal exchange left us during the night... a ginormous piece of ice grounded by our camp. Today was going to be amazing!
Don't ever miss a chance to see a tide water glacier. Our day off of our quest north was spent paddling (can you believe it?) to see the Leconte Glacier and it was spectacular in every way. The deep fiords it created and the thousand foot waterfalls and of course, the ice of a thousand shades of blue...humbling and stunning. Best day off ever.
As we continued north west up Fredrick Sound the weather remained exceptional and we actually got to experience the sun with out its evil parter the wind. Nice!
Camping at Cape Fanshaw was a panoramic sensory overload with monster ice capped peaks surrounding us, whales sounding in the distance and sea lions cavorting just off shore. It was odd putting up a tarp for sun defense, but not as odd as dipping your body in 55 degree water to get a break from the searing heat. Honestly, we were not exactly ready for 80+ degree plus temps, but we enjoyed the day immensely.
Leaving this amazing campsite we knew it would be a treasured, highlight of the trip, but Alaska wanted to make sure it was etched in our brains forever. The solitude of paddling dead calm water towards Whale Island from the cape at 5AM was interrupted by a few feeding humpbacks. Then a few more.... then a few more. Lauri and I shared our paddle surrounded by no less than 10 humpies of all sizes. Some as close as 20 yards away. Let Lauri tell you how startling it can be when a humpback blows right behind you. Best day of the trip so far as we enjoyed the whales feeding and breaching as if rewarding us for our efforts so far.
Juneau... ahhh Juneau
The end is in sight. We were in Juneau in 1999 and although our memories are a bit vague the city has a familiarity about it. The last three days getting here were challenging with Mr. Wind putting following seas behind us and our rhythm became paddle, paddle, brace... repeat. It puts us a bit on edge and when the occasional wave set exceeds 3 feet, the tension increases further. The conditions were well within our skill set but it wears on you and damn that water is cold. Who turned off the Sun? But we are elated to be in Freaking Juneau. 5 paddling days left!
We are spending an extra day in Juneau and might spend an extra day in Haines. We will have too much time in Skagway if we don't. The forecast is not temperature friendly with frozen rain making a brief appearance in the Skagway outlook.... hmmm. Fortunately, the revised forecast showed a bit of a climb in temperature, but Lauri and I face 40 and 50 degree temps and rain to finish the trip. Paddling won't be a problem, but camping might involve extended "tent" time.
Skagway here we come!
We are missing all our friends and family so much... although re-entry I'm sure will be a challenge, knowing that we are headed back on the ferry on the 28th and pointing the truck east after A few days in Bellingham means we soon will be seeing our family and friends. That is a wonderful feeling.
Denny and Lauri