Friday, May 27, 2016

San Juan Island solo circumnavigation

      Last week after I finally saw a specialist and had my surgery scheduled (on the day of my birthday) the reality of it all sank in. Two months of being injured stir craziness combined with the knowledge that my injury had screwed up an incredible 3 months we had planned to have in South America. The end of World Tour for the foreseeable future mixed in a little anxiety about having surgery and general anesthesia (again – wisdom teeth, right ankle, surgical biopsy, left knee, and now left ankle) and I was depressed. What is the best thing for John when he is an Unhappy Camper? To go camping of course! Watching the weather/wind forecast I saw that there was at least a lack of wind window opening. It was supposed to still be cool and cloudy but wind is the most important factor when kayaking in the San Juan Islands. I had 10 days until my surgery which was going to make me physically worse before getting better since I will be on crutches and not weight bearing for a couple of weeks. Days with nothing planned and good weather coincided. I woke up Sunday morning and decided spur of the moment that I was going to leave the next day.

      I strapped on my foot brace, ran around for a day collecting gear, and headed up to Anacortes to catch the San Juan ferry. For a while I have wanted to paddle a circumnavigation around San Juan Island. I was able to leave my car on the mainland and rolled my boat onto the Friday Harbor ferry.
Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor
The initial plan had been to take a leisurely pace and do it over 5 days but the best (ie: non-existent) wind forecast was for the first few days which pushed me to paddle faster and further each day. After the first 2 days of calm the wind was supposed to become progressively stronger each day afterward. The west and especially south side of San Juan Island is very exposed. Strong currents, strong afternoon winds, and being exposed to swells from the Pacific coming up the Strait of Juan de Fuca combine to make this a potentially very hazardous area to paddle.

Bald eagle that was fighting a vulture over a dead fish.

Posey Island camp with Spieden Island and Channel in background. 
Looking out on Haro Strait from Posey Island
Posey Island Camp                                          

      For the record: Do not paddle alone. Especially when in hazardous areas or if you are going more than ¼ mile off shore. That said, if I waited for people to do things with than I would never have done most of the paddling or summits that I have. And to be honest, there is part of me that likes the solo part of it. The added level of danger and knowing that I only have myself to get into/out of situations is part of the allure. I am also fully equipped and practiced at self-rescue situations though that will only get you so far when it really hits the fan.

Olympic Mountains visible down Mosquito Pass
I had never seen Haro Strait this calm         
Lunch break at San Juan County Park         
Lots of seals. :-)   No whales.  :-(                
      The San Juan’s are incredible. One of my favorite places to paddle in the world, both for the scenic beauty and the technical nature of the paddling. Not on this trip but there have been 3 times in the San Juan’s where I have almost been overcome by the strength of the tidal currents. Timing is everything. Timing is also why my favorite time to visit is the month before Memorial Day or the month after Labor Day. The amount of people around are a fraction of what is the case during the summer. I spent three nights on the islands (Posey Island, Griffin Bay, and Turn Island) and had all of these places to myself. I only saw two other (guided) groups during the 4 days.  There was tons of wildlife.  Seals, all sorts of birds, and deer.  No whales however.  If Knucklehead Adventure Tours ever offers to take you on a Whale Watch don't do it!  It is a scam.  If you are with me than you are pretty much guaranteed to not see a whale or bear.  

Lime Kiln Lighthouse - one of the (not scary) scary spots on the paddle
Turn Island campsite                                       
There are some incredible boats in these waters   
Deer on Turn Island                                
      All in all, the paddling therapy worked. I am still not looking forward to surgery but at least I was able to get out of the house and have a little adventure. There is only so much reading, writing, picking banjo, and writing I can do before I start to go crazy. For some reason for me to feel alive I need to put myself in situations where I have to work at staying alive. Mission successful. Next project will be looping Lopez Island whose south side looks even more challenging but that will have to wait until later this summer or fall. 6 days until surgery.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Torres del Paine - more Pain(e) than we had hoped for

Torres del Paine National Park. The crown jewel of the park system in Chile and a World Biosphere Reserve visited by people from all over the world. National Geographic listed it as #5 of The World's Most Beautiful Places. It has been on the bucket list for a long time to come down to southern Patagonia and trek there. It is a long way from anywhere but once in the area it is not that far from El Chalten and Tierra del Fuego so there are other excellent outdoor places within a days bus ride. January and February are the busiest times at the park with December and March being the shoulder season.  Summer is short this far south.

The Cordillera Paine
Cuernos del Paine    

There are a number of hiking options at the park. By far the most popular option is hiking the “W”. A W shaped walk that basically consists of 3 out-and-backs that visit the most scenic spots on the front side of the park. This takes typically 4 to 5 days which fits most tourist’s schedule. This is not a wilderness experience as you will pass hundreds of people on the trail during peak season. For those with more time there is the “O” which does the “W” and then circles around the entire park. This takes 8 to 9 days and is therefore much less traveled. The other nice thing is that the park service restricts the backside of the park to 80 people a day. We did the “Q” which is basically the “O” with a day and a half approach hike across the windblown steppes south of the park. The “Q” covers almost every trail you are allowed to hike in the park without a guide. We also met people who were doing “Y”'s and “U”'s. For accommodations there is the option of staying and eating in the Refugio huts which means you do not have to carry very much on your back. This will run you between $115 and $150 a day depending on the Refugio. The cheap way to do it is to carry your own tent and food. Camping fees are around $9 a person at the pay sites and there are 4 free campsites run by the park. This is where it gets confusing. There are two private companies and the park service CONAF that run the various campsites. Reservations are possible but are not needed at any of the campsites except for the 2 most popular free campsites. These reservations are a scramble to get. You can try to reserve at the CONAF building in Puerto Natales (the closest big town), at the park entrance, or within the park at specific locations that day. We ended up getting our reservations for those 2 sites (Campamento Italiano and Campamento Torres) at the park entrance. The days we wanted were full so we had to push everything back a day making the first 3 days of our trek very short mileage.

The Q: We started on the tail of the Q which meant that we started about 11 miles away from the mountain range we were going to circumnavigate. We took the bus from town to the last stop and got off at the park headquarters.
Start of Q at Administracion
At the park entrance everyone had to stop, pay their 18,000 peso (~$25) entrance fee, and watch a video of the park rules. They are VERY serious about fire. If you get caught making a fire in the park or even cooking outside the designated zones you can be arrested and fined. People that have been caught making fires having even been thrown out of the country for life. In 2011-2012 an Israeli burning toilet paper started a fire that burned 40% of the park. At this latitude the trees take 200 years to mature. We passed through a burned area from 1985 that has made no recovery in the 30 years since. The tail of the Q passed through a combination of open grassy steppes and burnt forest. The wind was ferocious across the plains and knocked us around as we tried to walk against it. Trekking poles were a big help.
Initial grassy wind blown plains            
Areas of burnt forest                              
Transition between burnt and old forest
The park is located right next to the Southern Patagonian Icecap which is the 2nd largest piece of ice outside of Antarctica (Greenland is #1) so this has a huge effect on the weather and wind in the area. The burnt forest was sad but starkly beautiful in a way. We walked a few hours to the first free campsite that was in a small hollow tucked out of the wind along the Rio Grey where ducks splashed in the water. This was the only water in the park we filtered because of all the geese in it. Otherwise the water is completely pure and able to be drunk straight from the stream. There are not many places in the world where this can happen. The next day was another short day to get to the Refugio and campsite at Paine Grande where we joined up with the “W” route.   
Lakes abound in the park                             
This rabbit ate a small hole in the bottom of our tent trying to get at our food bag.  They are European hares (an introduced species) and are a big problem in the park.                                                                                                                                
60mph gusts whipping spray off lake surface

Do not plan on coming to Torres del Paine to have a wilderness experience and this is even truer on the “W”. It is more like a human zoo with a lot of younger tourists that like to party and not respect the other people around them. There were a lot of nights where there would be loud voices, yelling, singing, and general obnoxiousness at wee hours of the morning. We did quickly discover that these same people did not like to get up in the morning. If we got up and were on the trail by 0730 (not an unreasonable time) then we typically would be the first people on the trail. That meant we didn't have to see anyone for at least a couple hours before people would start coming down the trail the other direction. We did not have to do the first out-and-back to Refugio Grey since that was where we would be closing out the “O” route. The first out and back we did was up the French Valley to a lookout called Mirador Britanica. This is a viewpoint that is surrounded by stunning mountains and cliff faces.
Ice avalanche down Glaciar Frances    
Upper French Valley and Rio Frances
With our (not so) early start we were the first people up there and had 20 minutes to ourselves before the first other people started to arrive. Then in the hour it took us to get back to our camp we passed around 150 people and those were the early risers. It would get even busier later in the day. In fact we thought that the “W” should be renamed the “O-la” since everyone says Hola (Hello) to each other as they pass.
Sunrise view along the W                
Views from part of the W          
Foxes were often seen at campsites
The other out-and-back was up the Rio Ascencio valley to Mirador Torres. It is popular to get to this lookout while it is still dark in the morning and then watch the sun rise on the famous Torres del Paine – the namesakes of the park. These are three monolithic towers of rock and the morning sun shines directly on to them. There was a long line of headlamps heading up to the viewpoint that morning. We took a Nalgene full of coffee and our sleeping bags so we were very comfortable as we laid on large rocks and watched the show. There were no clouds and just a small amount of wind so it was a great morning. It would have made a great time lapse movie.
Sunrise on the Torres del Paine
This valley was even more crowded then the French valley and by the end of it we were hating people and ready to head to the backside of the park. The final straw was watching an American trail runner elbowing people out of the way on the trail because for whatever reason he couldn't stop running for a minute to get around people politely. It has been one of the few instances on World Tour where we have seen embarrassing American behavior. Plus he was giving trail runners a bad name so it was a double whammy.

The “O” was the part we had really been waiting for. The trail is limited to 80 people a day and everyone has to go counter-clockwise so we would be seeing far fewer people on the trail. In fact when we went through the checkpoint where we had to show our backside permit only 39 people went through that day. The hiking is more scenic though the mountains are not as dramatic as they had been on the “W”.
Hiking into the backside                     
Lago Paine looking toward Argentina
Our first night on the “O” there was a very hard frost that night so most everyone was cold that night. By this time we had met a group of friends that we would hang out with every night. It was quite the international group – 2 Americans, a dual Irish-American, a dual Iranian-Canadian, an Aussie, a Scot, and 2 Brits.  One of the British girls (Abi) had been on the boat to Antarctica with us.
Left to right: American, Scot, Brit, American/Irish, American, Iranian/Canadian, Aussie, Brit.
We were all excited about the campsite at Refugio Dickson. It had been built up as the best campsite of the trip but we found it to be very mosquito infested and the guy walking around in a Tyvek suit with a respirator spraying the buildings with pesticide did not inspire confidence. It was prettier down near the lake and the wind there kept the bugs away.
Lago Dickson and campsite         
John drank a fair amount of wine that night so did not feel that chipper the next day. John Gardner Pass was the next obstacle in front of us. The wind forecast was worse for the next day so we elected to do a double hike past the Los Perros camp to get to a free campsite on the other side of the pass called Capamento Paso. John was feeling low energy but wanted to get to the free campsite. It rained off and on all day and was even snowing on the top of the pass. It was a damp, cold day and not that much fun. The woods, mountains, grey, and rain actually reminded us a lot of being back in Washington. From the Los Perros camp it was about a 3 hour hike to the top of the pass. About an hour into this was when John's mountain luck ran out. We have been pushing our luck in the mountains for the last several years so it seemed like a matter of time before someone got hurt. It would be nice if there was more adventure and excitement in the story but there isn't. We were traveling through an area that had deep areas of mud. So deep that our trekking poles would not reach the bottom of it. John was trying to cross one of these areas using tree roots to keep from sinking into it when he slipped on the wet muddy wood. In the process of stumbling forward several steps his left ankle rolled and he felt a pop. From then on every time the ankle had any lateral motion there would be a painful pop as the peroneal tendon would flip over the bony protuberance of his ankle (fibular malleolus). There is no search and rescue in the park and horses are not able to get to this part of the trail. Luckily as long as the foot was placed flat and the motion was only forward/backwards then he was able to walk. The closest way out of the park was to continue over the pass so we did. We were slower as John had to be very careful, especially when the terrain was uneven.
Paso John Gardner about an hour after injury
On the top of John Gardner Pass the wind was so strong that it was almost impossible to take steps forward without getting knocked down. We would have to wait for brief periods of the wind speed dropping to move forward a few steps. The scenery on the west side of the pass is the best of the entire park. From the pass until Refugio Grey is reached is stunning as you look down on the Glaciar Grey and Southern tip of the Patagonian Icecap. We have only seen ice like that in Alaska and Antarctica before. Row after row of crevasses for as far as the eye could see. 
Pictures couldn't capture the scale
Lago and Glaciar Grey                  
The last two days to hike out were about 10km each day with much smoother trail so John was able to continue hiking out though once we reached Refugio Grey we were back on the “W” highway.

The end of the trail took us to Lago Pehoe where we were able to catch a boat across the lake to where the busses would pick us up and take us back to town. Despite getting hurt we were glad to have been able to do this trail. We have discussed coming back some day and running the “O” loop over 2 days. Now John has his ankle immobilized in a splint and we will see if this lets it heal or not. In the meantime we are going to go to Santiago to recuperate. Depending on how the ankle is we will either continue on to northern Chile or worst case have to come home for further treatment.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Antarctica - touching the bottom of the world

      While kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam we met a fellow traveler who told us about going to Ushuaia, Argentina where the cruise ships leave for Antarctica. With some flexibility to your schedule it was often possible to pick up a last minute cruise to the Ice Continent for a steep discount if they are leaving with empty cabins. With low expectations we arrived in Ushuaia to see what might happen. To our joy we found there were two expedition ships leaving that week that had discounted cabins. Sarah and Gabriel at Freestyle Adventure Travel helped go through the trips available leaving in the next week.  The discounts were not quite as much as we hoped since many other people have discovered this trick so the supply and demand is not as favorable as it used to be. The trip was going to be a budget breaker but after discussing it we decided that since the trips were only going to become more expensive as the years went by (or even travel to Antarctica banned) and since we were returning to jobs in July that this was the time to do it. When we found out that one of the expeditions was called “Base Camp Antarctica” and offered ski mountaineering, mountaineering, kayaking, and camping out on the ice we were 100% sold on going. The highlight was ski mountaineering, so we raced around Ushuaia and found a teli and AT ski set up for the week but then were told 2 days before the trip left that they had made a mistake and that the ski mountaineering was full. This was very disappointing but there was so many other cool things to do that this feeling did not last long.
MV Ortelius - former Russian scientific vessel
      Getting to Antarctica by water means crossing the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest areas of sea in the world. In between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is the narrowest part of this ocean where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic. This area south of Cape Horn is called the Drake Passage and is renowned for horrible weather and huge waves. This was not to be the case with us. The crew called it the “Drake Lake”. Some of the crew had never seen the Drake Passage that smooth and on the return trip it was even flatter. Some people on the ship still became queasy but nothing like would normally have happened on the “Drake Shake”.
Sunrise on the "Drake Lake"           
      From the minute we reached Antarctica amazing things started to happen. As we were going down the Gerlache Strait we were greeted by a large pod of Humpback whales. Spray shooting up from the blowholes and tails were flashing all around.
Humpback whale tail
That day we also visited our first penguin colony. There we discovered that penguins make people happy. Their adorable look and silly antics just makes people laugh and smile. So much so that we thought there should be penguin psychiatric therapy. Depression would be immediately cured when surrounded by a colony of penguins and their chicks.
Thousands of Gentoo Penguins
Kathleen wanted to keep it       
Super goofy on land                 
      Over the next 5 days there would be many other opportunities to watch (and smell) penguins and seals. There were snow shoe hikes up several small hills to get better views of the areas. It did not take much of an elevations gain to get spectacular vistas of the surrounding bays, mountains, and glaciers. With no trees or other familiar objects to judge size from made perspectives really difficult to perceive. Things always looked much closer or farther than they actually were. 
View from above Brown's Station
View from Stoney Point              
Another Stoney Point view         
View above Neko Harbour         
Antarctica can be a meditative place to be. We would find a quiet corner of a beach and sit there and just listen. It was very quiet but full of noise with the water lapping the shore with ice clinking together, the sound of air bubbles popping out of the brash ice like a giant bowl of Rice Crispies, and the occasional thunder boom of an avalanche, glacier calving, iceberg breaking up, or just the sound of the glaciers moving.
A good place to meditate         
The weather continued to be much better then could have ever been expected with bright sunshine and blue skies. It was so nice that for dinner on the second night there was a BBQ on the helicopter landing deck on the back of the ship. I have never had a BBQ as seals on icebergs floated by.
Outdooor BBQ on the heli-deck

      We were able to do activities we had never thought possible to do in Antarctica. We signed up for the advanced mountaineering group so we were able to climb on some 50 degree ice and cross a glacier while roped up to get up to a ridgeline overlooking a place called Jougla Point.
Ice climbing on Jougla Point    
We were able to kayak in the Melchior Islands with seals swimming around us and icebergs floating by.
Kayaking in Melchior Islands  
Views from the kayak              
We even camped a night on the ice in bivy sacks and warm sleeping bags. There is nothing like waking up with a penguin waddling by your head.
Sleeping on the snow             
      The magic even continued on the trip back to Argentina. In the middle of the Drake Passage at the convergence zone where the cold water of the Southern Ocean meets the warmer water of the Pacific/Atlantic interface it was decided that it was calm enough to put the zodiacs in the water and to go on a cruise. The Captain had never done this before since it was never that calm. Even with the water as flat as it was it still was a challenge to get into the zodiacs. The gangway would alternate between being knee deep in water and then seconds later it would be a 2+ foot drop to reach the zodiac. It seemed like a bit of a liability risk but the crew was very experienced and skilled so everyone that wanted to go was loaded safely. The swells were still big enough that the waves would block sight of the ship at times.
Even calm the swells were big
Amazingly enough the boats came across a couple of Emperor Penguins swimming in the middle of the ocean. One of them let us get very close while it bleated and cried out. It sounded stressed but if it had wanted to swim away it could have without any problem.
Emperor Penguin at convergence zone in Drake Passage
Since the ship made such good time across the Drake due to the calm conditions we were also able to sail to Cape Horn and were able to steam past it going from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. It is something I have always read and dreamed about but never thought I would go by it on the water. Another life dream unexpectedly filled.
Cape Horn from 3 miles away
      It was a week and a half of being in a dream world. It had been a dream to go to these places and once there it had a dream like feel to it. The air is so clear from the lack of pollution and the dry air that vast distances can be seen. The light, clouds, water, and ice is constantly changing in appearance.
A constantly changing view  
Every 15 minutes the view would be completely different even if you were sitting in the same place. The sound of the wind, water, ice, and penguins has a hypnotizing effect. Both of us along with multiple other people we talked to were brought to tears at times by the magic of the place. We have only been back in Ushuaia for half a day and we already want to go back.