Follow Through

Been a busy couple of weeks, both at work and not at work. Set the intention to spend as much time as possible out of the house, and have done my best at the follow through.

As winter turned to summer, I knew there were a lot of things left over from last year that I wanted to make sure to experience before the end of this one. Goals, one might call them. Places to see and things to do. Trails to walk and rivers to run. The idea then, that these numbered summer days were already slipping past without the number of goals decreasing stimulated even greater motivation than usual. I’ve been very fortunate to have recently enjoyed opportunities to live out several of those specific objectives.

This is not to say I have not appreciated the many opportunities that sporadically, and also intentionally, came about beforehand. The much anticipated time with my mom, all the spontaneous river trips and hikes and travels in May and June. I certainly feel fortunate for all those experiences. However, last year, my first summer up in the Interior, I tried hard to maximize my time. To do as much exploring as possible, to get to know the area and all it had to offer. And I definitely had a great time figuring out a lot about the region, learning more with each weekly outing, with each new trail hiked, and each section of river explored. But there is so much to do here, it felt like I barely scratched the surface, and there were a handful of trips specifically that I simply couldn’t get to due to weather, time, lack of partners, etc. These became the thoughts that held over, the trips dreamed of in the dark days of winter, the ones now demanding to be carried to fruition. Here’s three of them.

Sumer Solstice around 1 a.m.

Chena Dome

The Chena Dome trail is a 30 mile backpacking loop with a total elevation change of 14,100’. The math there basically equals: Ooof! I had the last minute idea to hike the trail on the Solstice, mostly to experience the longest day of the year out in the mountains. I wanted to be walking during the late evening light, which is phenomenal this time of year. The hours between 10pm and the early morning are incredible due to the angle of the sun as it hovers on the horizon—but obviously elusive for people that need to sleep at night. As I began to walk, I decided I would try to get all the way up to the top of the dome around midnight. At just below the Arctic Circle, the true ‘Midnight Sun’ cannot be seen from Fairbanks as it will dip slightly under the horizon, but I had read that from a high enough vantage one could indeed watch the sun not set for a day. Seemed like it was worth a try.

Like many of the bigger treks around here, the trail is also notorious for being void of water. There is always a balance to hiking many of the better known local routes as one must determine when the snow might be thin enough to complete a route, but also when there might be enough of it in meltwater pools to provide drinking water. And then there’s dealing with when the mosquitoes might be better or intolerable. Anyways, I did an online trip report for members of the local hiking club with details for anyone thinking of heading up that way. A slightly edited version follows:

“Few people been asking as to Chena Dome conditions. Quick report with the most pertinent info first, followed by fluff and photos.

Water: There is some water out there, but not a whole lot. Small puddles in the saddle between mile 7 and 8; a few nice pools before and after milepost 12; full cisterns at the shelter (half-barrel out front, and covered clean water on the other side); and, thankfully, several filling spots in a marshy area at the end of mile 24. I discovered first thing that my filter wasn’t really working all that great when I started pumping in the mudponds at mile 7. We’ll see how that works out…

The question of how much water to carry should not be taken lightly! (See what I did there…) My max capacity was one US gallon and I often wished I would have thrown in another Nalgene for peace of mind. It was close to 80° yesterday, and hiking those hills was no joke. I will admit to feeling very sorry for myself indeed when around mile 22 I resigned myself to hiking all the way out (which would have made for 19 miles) due to fading prospects of finding water.

Bugs: Oh buddy, you betcha. Not a trip for the insect averse person. First day was mosquitoes; second day was mainly clouds of those little black flies that like to dart deep into nostrils, eyes, and all the way to the back of your esophagus when you’re panting for air on the uphills; third day was a mix of both. There were a couple of times I did indeed feel like an arctic caribou in July. I even checked my stomach for warble flies when I got home. God help you when the wind stops blowing.

Wildflowers: Everywhere!

Highlights: Started the trip on the evening of the 21st hoping to get up high and watch the sun not go down. Last December I did a dawn-to-dusk winter solstice walk of Upper Angel Creekside to the winter trail, and didn’t see the sun at all that day, so it was cool to observe the drastic difference in approximately the same location. Parked at the lower lot and used the road mile to the upper lot as a warm-up rather than highway hobbling at the finish. Got going around 6 p.m. just in time for the remnants of last weekend’s storms to roll through. A few sprinkles early on, but nothing but clear skies and a light breeze once the climbing began in earnest.

Hadn’t necessarily planned to go to the top of the dome that evening, but after a while it seemed like the obvious destination. Around 11 the sky started to change colors to pinks and purples all around. It was amazing to continually walk from the shadow of one hill back into full sun at the top. A heavy pack and steep terrain called for slow steady plodding, but I finally made it to the summit about a half-hour after midnight. The sun was just touching the mountains, but still fully visible above the jagged horizon in the distance. Hung out until 1 a.m. Ate some food, took a few photos, looked around for a good long while.

I thought about setting up my tent on top of the dome, but some clouds on the horizon encouraged me to drop down a couple hundred feet to a flat mesa instead. On the way down, I had a slightly different vantage point of the skyline, and at the bottom of the hills the clouds in the distance suddenly changed to an intense crimson, which quickly faded away. I found a spot to sleep, set up my tent, and looked over again to see the same clouds turning a bright salmon color, and the sky behind them lighting up white and blue. Sunset to sunrise in the span of 15 minutes. That’s my story at least, and something I won’t forget for a long time.

As for the rest of the hike, all good. Walked up and down a bunch of big hills in the heat yesterday, thankfully found water at 24, spent another night on the trail, and cruised out this morning. Happy days.”

Late night and golden glow reflecting off an old plane wreck. This is the light!

Delta River

The Delta River is not to be confused with the Delta Clearwater River, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, though they may both be found in the proximity of Delta Junction. The Delta originates in the Tangle Lakes of the Alaska Range and flows north into the Tanana. It starts with a nine-mile paddle through several large lakes which connect with each other and eventually pour out into a river. From the beginning of the river, one floats a couple of miles before coming up to an interesting portage which involves carrying boats and all other gear up a hill and across some wetlands on a bunch of planks. There you put your things together again, paddle across a tarn, get out, and then portage some more. After that there’s a little section of small rapids followed by easy floating for about twenty more miles through some pretty spectacular scenery. We spent three days out and got a good mix of Alaska weather—that is to say a couple days of steady headwind, a good bit of rain, a fair amount of sunshine, and a chilly gray morning to finish. I’d been wanting to do this one for a while, but couldn’t ever find anyone to go with and help out with the shuttle. Thanks to my new ‘Bro’ MB for making it happen and smiling through all the conditions.

Beach camp on the Delta.

Mt. Prindle

Mt. Prindle is the highest peak in the White Mountains, which the mountain range just north of Fairbanks. Chena Dome, and a whole bunch of other domes, may be found in the White Mountains, as well as a good percentage of locations I’ve written about this past couple years. Prindle boasts an elevation of just under 5,300’, which means the Whites aren’t nearly as dramatic as other ranges in Alaska, but they have their own special beauty. They kinda grow on a person. Most of the scenery is represented by low lying hills covered in birch and stunted spruce trees. Every so often, however, one can get up above the trees for some amazing views, and encounters with seemingly erratic rock formations generally known as Tors. I tried to get up Prindle a couple times last year, but was shut down by storm after storm. Finally got lucky yesterday, though I did get hammered a couple times by passing showers. Was happy for the low cloud scenery and the cool weather. The complete white out before I descended back into the valley just made things a little more exciting. Some of the most amazing ridge walking I’ve ever done, and a truly special place.

Some Days You Do

Tanana Sky

Alaska can be a rainy place. Going on my sixth summer up this way, and every one of them has been marked with gray skies and showers and storms. People that have lived here for a long time tell me each year that ‘it’s not usually like this,’ but I’ve come to realize these innocent self-deceptions (read: lies) as coping mechanisms. It rains here in the summer, sometimes for days and weeks at a time. Most days, the rain is pretty tolerable, more drizzle than downpour, and the low clouds create the most spectacular skies you’ve ever seen. Deep shades of palpable intensity, rainbows that make the soul sigh. But it does rain. A lot.

It’s also not uncommon to have several seasons of weather all in the course of a single day, which can be both challenging and rewarding. Wind, rain, sleet, snow, sun, clouds, repeat. One must always travel prepared—both with proper gear and proper attitude. There is always a potential reminder of how much bigger this place is than you might be. Self-reliance is a must.

But some days you do get a little something special. Sunshine to make the heart sing. Clear blue skies backdrops for mountains of dichotomous grandeur—jagged lines of black and white. With special thanks to customary weather volatility, it is easy to consciously exist in these moments—to fully appreciate the gift of a glorious morning, afternoon, evening, maybe even an entire day or two.

Several years ago, I was blessed with a string of such days. I remember them still. That summer had started off with a spectacular May, then steadily progressed into days and weeks of all types of rain. The end of July and most of August it poured steadily and without end. Sometime in August I guided a rafting trip down the Talkeetna (some big water, but a story for another time) and in the three days we were out there it didn’t stop raining even for a minute. The clouds set in a hundred feet above the river and let loose on us the entire time. A rough one.

A couple weeks later, however, the beginning of September, I went back up that way to hike Kesugi Ridge, a well-known backpacking route in Denali State Park. The day I drove up the skies finally cleared, and for the next three days the sun beamed across the landscape providing unobstructed views of 20,310’ Denali, and almost inducing heat stroke in the process. I was not used to the sun at that point, but loved every minute of it. And not only was I fortunate enough to dry out for a while, the nights, dark again after a summer of unyielding daylight, were highlighted by big green bands of aurora snaking their way from the mountain’s peak across the valley below and passing directly overhead my sleeping bag. True story.

Foraker, Denali, and the Chulitna River from Kesugi Ridge

I write this now, as the gray clouds pile up outside and the forecast has nothing but bleakness for the foreseeable future, because last week I was again gifted another stint of the same, in almost the same exact place. Between Kesugi Ridge and the Great Mountain, the Chulitna River works its way down into the Susitna. It follows the same basic path as the backpacking route, and both can be easily accessed by the Parks Highway. One high, one low.

A fortuitous shuttle left me sitting on the ice covered banks of the river around 9:30 p.m. last Sunday, where I rigged everything up and pushed off for a couple of hours of late evening boating. It was a beautiful night, clear and chilly, and when I made it to bed around midnight it was still light out. Woke up the next morning to frost covered gear, but after a couple hours on the water I paddled from winter back into summer. From still dormant trees and snow and ice right into green buds, then green leaves, and a day replete with sunshine, temps in the 70s, and big mountain views in abundance. It was clear and warm that evening, and every bit as beautiful the next day. Some days it seems like you must be doing something right. These were those days.

As I write this it’s difficult to believe that it’s the last day of May, but that seems to be the case. I’m glad to have the last two posts and a few other pictures to prove to myself that the month lasted longer than those few days. Other occurrences from the past couple weeks: paddling the Tanana, a weekend down in Southcentral for a wilderness medicine course, back at Birch Lake, Grapefruit Rocks.

Matanuska Peak

Ice Ice Maybe

Breakup season on several different Interior waterways this past week. A day of hoping to see a bunch of ice, and a several days of hoping not to.

Went down to Nenana with Yi on the 3rd, which turned out to be about two days late for watching the mass exodus of Tanana ice this year. While I did get a couple of good shows last year as the ice went out, witnessing massive flows smash their way down one of the bigger Alaskan rivers remains an elusive experience. Wah wah, better luck next year. Did take the opportunity to walk out on the train trestle and up the river a ways. Nice day for certain, and I’ve decided I could happily live the rest of my life in the 65° range.

Couple days later I ended up scouting a trip I had scheduled for work. Had no idea how much ice might or might not be blocking the route down Piledriver Slough, a casual half-day float trip a few miles out of North Pole. At the put-in the water was open, but the banks were still covered with several feet of snow and ice. As the ice melts each spring it ends up forming big undercut shelves on the sides of the river. This can be quite dangerous if there are rapids, or simply problematic if there aren’t, as there’s no good way to get into or out of the river. Knowing the take-out was clear, however, I opted to go full send and got in a fun little seal-launch followed by several miles of tranquil paddling. Very cool to see all the waterfowl back in town, as well as a couple big beavers busy at work after a long winter. I was also privileged to see a large wolf run through the trees as soon as it caught a glimpse of the boat coming downstream.

Two days later I took a group of folks down the same stretch, though we started a mile downstream to avoid the ice shelves. On that trip we saw several bald eagles, slowly floated past a couple of moose in the bushes, and spotted a couple more walking across the river just before the take-out.

Photos: Mike D.

And a couple days after that it was over to the Upper Chatanika and an informal river safety day for a few neophyte boaters looking to get into some good Alaskan adventures. I honestly had no idea what to expect, as all of the lakes and some of the creeks on the way out there were still completely frozen over, but once we got to the river itself things looked pretty clear. Well, actually, like really brown, but open water, good flow, and minimal ice on the banks. Ended up doing close to 30 river miles that day, and did indeed have to portage around and over several sections of ice dams in which the entire river was packed solid with massive blocks of ice. Extreme caution is advised when messing around with said features, as large hunks are subject to shifting without warning. Falling through and ending up underneath the entirety of it all would not be a happy scenario. We also got to paddle through a lot of ice as well, including one really fun little rapid comprised of a small drop through several berg-esque features. A little over two-thirds of the way down, a great teaching moment presented itself in the form of six-inches of canoe bow sticking out the top of one of those ‘deadly strainers’ I’d been harping on about all day. A little rope work and a lot of hearty pulling and we were able to salvage a thrashed Old Town from its watery grave. Paddled it the rest of the way down, and will hopefully one day paddle it again in restored condition. A long but awesome day, and a solid week of (mostly) fluid adventures.

Walking down the river.
Ice Capades
Score! Photo: Ryan F.

Spinning into Equinox

Three-quarters through the orbit and a steady transition from extended hours of sunlight to prolonged hours without. As mentioned in the last post, shifting seasons up here often portend instable emotional balance, as metaphorical dark days manifest as literal. Such was the case in early August, as autumn’s advance seemed to arrive far too early. It was difficult to stave off thoughts of the cold, dark, and lonely to come, even with relative warmth and long weeks of daylight remaining.

It is not uncommon this far north for sunny days to be replaced by snow storms overnight. In the visitors’ guide to Denali National Park seasons are defined as summer, winter, and ‘the other two weeks.’ But we are lucky this year to be experiencing a true fall season, replete with days of glorious golden glow and emphasized crispness in the air. Days that demand to be appreciated as they exist, without a thought as to any sort of before or after. Thankfully, these past few weeks have fostered a shift in focus from impending future to present moment. Days like these deserve mindful approach.

Quartz Lake
Arctic Harvest

As the dark skies return, so too do the extended sunsets, the northern lights, and opportunities to reflect rather than constantly move from one venture to the next. It’s time to be thankful for the past several months, as short as they seemed, and all that they contained. Time to take some time to look back on a few hundred miles of rivers floated, trails traversed, new areas discovered and explored. It’s time to slow down a bit, to get a little more sleep, maybe read a few books and reevaluate priorities. Time to spin through the equinox and settle into the balance which attends it.

Since returning from the trip to the Arctic, it’s been back at work and taking advantage of opportunities to return to running some trips for the program. It’s been a lot of days down in Denali, rafting and hiking and train rides with patrons, as well as a few days of camping and hill climbing on my own. It’s been checking out more local tails and continuing to expand awareness of the greater area. It’s been keeping an eye out for the aurora, and a four-day trip down the Gulkana River. It’s been a concentrated effort to live each day as it comes, all while taking in the fleeting colors of fall along the way.

Igloo and Cathedral, Denali NP

Gulkana River

Paxson Lake put-in. First day views of Alaska Range, two days later paddling towards 16,000′ peaks in the Wrangells.

September Lights as captured by Yi Wang

August and the ANWR

It’s easy to post the good. To exult the positive aspects of an idealized version of our lives. To breeze over the banal, and conveniently omit the undesirable. To fabricate romanticized stories for potential audiences in an attempt to believe them ourselves. We all know the doubtfulness of the factuality of these flawless existences, but writing or reading otherwise often seems an uncomfortable petition for pity. We must stand on the affirmative.

And it is virtuous, I believe, to seek the favorable and show appreciation for the good we have in our lives. But it’s not always easy. This year has been one of major changes in my life, even before the virus, and in the world as a whole since the virus. In spite of all the activity and opportunity, it’s been dealing with health problems, and mental struggles, and even a bit of existential bleakness. It’s been months and months of limited social interaction, and a near zero expansion of acquaintances. And suddenly it’s already late August in Alaska. Even weeks ago the sun started to slant in a noticeable way. Shadows stretch further across the ground each day, and the air has turned autumn. Green leaves skip through yellow in a matter of minutes and sit brown on the branches. Summer moves swiftly into fall, a season we know will only last weeks at best, and impending winter creeps into the mind. The months of darkness and isolation to come. There is nothing to be done about it but to accept it. To keep on with it. To continue the search for import in the void, and press on with gratitude. To fake it till we make it—or otherwise.

In spite of some heavy realities, however, I continue to have plenty to be thankful for. Plenty to weave into one of those accounts of a blessed actuality, complete with accompanying photos, of course. I’m happy to report that I was recently able to achieve several of my goals for the year, and for Alaska, all at once. Those goals being these: to get into some real Alaskan wilderness for a while, many many miles away from any road; to travel in the Brooks Range; and to guide at least one trip in my 20th year of guiding. Happy to report that it all happened in a very fortuitous manner, opportunity presenting itself in the throes of disappointment, as it were, almost as if the universe decided to helpfully intervene for a quick second. For this I offer a heartfelt ‘Thank you!’ accompanied by a low bow to the daunting abyss.

For many weeks I’d been working on a plan for the realization of the first two goals, those of spending some days in the Brooks, far removed from civilization. I selected the river, scheduled the flights, planned the route, and dreamed up the itinerary. The gear was ready, the maps perused, the dates selected, and additional sources gleaned for pertinent information. As this was one trip I couldn’t really afford to do on my own, nor one I wanted to do alone, I even had one person, then two, lined up to accompany me. But, of course, people being people, the second dropped out almost as soon as he signed up, and the first found herself in a difficult workplace situation a week later. The imminent disappointments of not having a dedicated companion in other words, the same old nonsense as always. This same week, however, Michael, of Arctic Wild, a company out of Fairbanks I’ve been in contact with for several years, sent me an email asking if there was any chance I might be interested in helping to guide a commercial trip on the Kongakut River in the Arctic Refuge at the last minute. Turns out, I was.

So, I did. The trip was 10-days in the far northeast reaches of the state of Alaska; we rafted, camped, and hiked along 50 miles of the Kongakut River, our final nights’ camp located around 15 miles west of the Canadian boundary and about the same from the Arctic Ocean. There were six of us total, and the trip was incredible. The crew was myself; the clients, a family of four from New York; and Emilie, trip leader and awesome individual. Emilie’s been an Arctic Wild guide for 11 years now, spending probably several years’ worth of nights in the Brooks and otherwise, and is exactly the type of guide you would hope to get if ever doing a trip in AK—hunter, fisher, dog musher/racer, boater, and builder of her own cabin. She also has endless stories about life and crazy adventures in Alaska that have to be pried out of her one at a time, her modesty being but one of her many exceptional qualities.

The trip itself began in Fairbanks with early morning flights up north. I flew in on a bush plane with the gear, while everyone else hopped on a flight to Arctic Village, where they waited for the small plane to shuttle them out to the Drain Creek put-in on the Kongakut. The flights in and out of the Brooks Range were some of the best memories of the trip, as the pilot, Daniel, grew up on the Sheenjek River which we paralleled along the way. For most of his childhood, his family forged an existence by subsistence fishing and hunting, and trapped for income. His was one of the three families allowed to stay on the land when the area fell under federal protection as a refuge. Daniel told stories most of the way up, and the views from the low-flying aircraft, both there and back, were phenomenal. He stayed the first and last night with us out there, as well, which certainly added to the overall experience.

The ten-days we spent in the river corridor were spent in the same way as most river trips. Time on the water, time in camp, cooking, chilling, fishing, and hiking. The walking was definitely the most memorable aspect of the entire trip in my mind. Simply pick a direction and start off, probably uphill, and go until you feel obliged to turn back. It was all limitless and awe-inspiring. With the group we would sometimes walk in the mornings, or in the afternoons before dinner. From after dinner till around midnight, however, was the time for real exploration, the time when the true magic of the mountains was revealed in the constantly changing luminescence. On these hikes it was often just Emilie and myself, and sometimes B-Man, the 17-year-old son from NY. It was all quite dreamlike, and, like all enchanted experiences, proves difficult to recall in the aftermath. The light was ever-evolving, but also never ending, as darkness was still long days away in that part of the world.

The weather was about as perfect as it could have been for a trip in the arctic—cloudy, cool, sunny, drizzly. The last several days featured a low fog creeping in from the ocean and down into the valley each evening, ethereal landscapes a result. Most of the wildlife moves through this area of the refuge in June each year, accompanying tens-of-thousands of caribou on their migrations. We saw signs of animals everywhere in tracks and bones covering the beaches. We also spotted multiple groups of Dall sheep, heard wolves howling in the early morning, watched a two-toned grizzly lumber over a mountain, and got a glimpse of a couple massive bears, a pair of musk ox, and a big bull caribou when flying out of camp on the last day.

That flight, as mentioned, was also a high point thanks to the skills of the pilots, and Daniel’s desire to fulfill B-Man’s vision of jumping into the Arctic Ocean. We flew the remaining distance from camp to the ocean at around 100’, cruising between low-hanging fog and the channelized river corridor and coastal plain, and landed in incredibly limited visibility only a hundred yards from the cloud covered coast. Here, thanks to B-Man’s enthusiasm in enlisting accomplices for his objective, he, I, and Daniel quickly stripped down to our skivvies, ran across the shallow depths of the Turner River, and dove into the sea. After, it was back in the air and a quick ascent to sunshine, followed by an unforgettable flight back through the mountains and their infinite possibilities.

It must be said. Just as I am loathe to detail personal problems, I am equally reluctant to express overt political sentiment. But here goes. The controversy surrounding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or AN-Wahr, as it is often pronounced) is deeply complicated and far beyond the scope of anything I care to write for the purposes of this blog. You may have heard about it recently on the news, or for several decades now. Information is readily available to interested readers, though rarely unbiased, just as I am not unbiased. Yes, we still currently need oil, but over 1000 miles of Arctic coastline have already been drilled, degraded, and dumped on. There are colossal rigs, and roads, and untold amounts of trash and toxic waste scattered across the entirety of it. The only untouched part of this ecosystem is that small percentage which lies within ANWR.

As a whole, ANWR represents one of the few true wilderness areas left on this planet. It is not at all, as you may have heard the mouths proclaim, a wasteland. There is not ‘nothing’ there. There is everything there. It is full of life. Unbelievable amounts of life. Every square foot of tundra holds seemingly hundreds of different plant species. Thousands upon thousands of animals rely on this environment to exist. Millions upon millions of birds, from around the globe, migrate to the area every year to nest and reproduce. To believe that it won’t be affected by development is to blindly swallow another lie of political convenience.

Donald Trump and his administration have consistently attacked and corrupted everything that truly makes America great, including democracy, environmental protections and policies, and our public lands. He has promoted division, hatred, xenophobia, and a distrust of the press—all while fostering an environment which allows for egregious undermining of moral values and common decency. As far as this issue is concerned, Trump states that he didn’t know anything about ANWR until ‘someone’ recently mentioned ‘something’ about it. He has since gone full bore on opening up the entire coastal area to industry development. As with most everything else, this ambition seems to have much less to do with the issue than with Mr. Trump’s ego and political ambitions. There is much to consider here, and it is impossible to estimate all that hangs in the balance.

May Meltdown

Another month in the Interior, and a complete transition from one world to another. Having been up a winter without an Alaskan summer, and many summers without an Alaskan winter, it all finally makes sense. Traveling from the outside in always seemed such an abrupt event that adjustment was an undertaking. Living from one season to the next, however, witnessing the lakes thaw, and the rivers break up, and the trees budding one week and rematerializing decked in green the next, both body and mind undergo a similar shift from dormant to fully alive. The 20-hour days and the 60° temperatures—so amazing when one can tangibly recall 100° down the scale—inject an insistent energy into everything around. It is good to be alive.

COVID has not yet had the dramatic impact on human health here that it has in so many places around the world, though the economic repercussions of weeks of lockdown and the crisis as a whole have only just begun. The Alaskan economy relies heavily on summer tourism, and there will be incredibly limited visitation this year, leaving many without work or an annual income. At the same time, there is trepidation concerning opening the state back up to visitors, as closing the borders prevented an initial spread of the virus, though may have only delayed the inevitable once travel resumes. Life as a whole seems to be moving back to the way it was before, however, or whatever the new normal might look like. Businesses have been okayed to reopen, with minor restrictions, the sun is shining, and Alaskans have reemerged from the confinement of both winter and quarantine. As for myself, I’ve been back at work for several weeks already, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have employment in the outdoors (or at all, for that matter), as well as considerable chances to explore my surroundings. So much to see and do, and summer has only just begun. A few of those lived opportunities from the past several weeks:

Round-a-Bout. The last part of April and early part of May (something akin to spring, I suppose, or mud season in the Rockies) were a bit of a weird time for electing outdoor activities. It was skiing on the remnants of groomed trails some days, and running on a select few dry paths on others—or even both on the same day. It was slush, ice, miles of standing water, and lots and lots of mud. For the most part, trails were too muddy to walk or drive on, but also not snowy enough to travel. The rivers were melting off, but with huge ice dams creating lethal hazards in unexpected places, hence no early boating. A state of limbo. But it was also a time to get out and get going, time to do something, anything.

I didn’t know anyone when I moved here only a couple of months before the beginning of all this, though thankfully I met a few people just before things started shutting down, and was lucky enough to have one quarantine companion to socialize with during the ordeal. Not sure what life would have been like otherwise, and don’t care to imagine complete isolation for the duration of all those days. The importance of friends has never been more pronounced. Anyways, right before going back to a regular schedule, we headed south for a few days and ended up making a big highway loop from Fairbanks to Delta to Glennallen to Palmer, Talkeetna, Denali, and back. A round-a-bout on a significant portion of Alaska’s limited road system, in other words, the 2,4, 1 & 3, or the Al-Can, Richardson, Glen, and Parks Highways respectively—though the numbers are rarely referred to and the names change confusingly along the way. The original intention was to travel the Denali Highway, which is in reality a 130 miles of dirt road on the south side of the Alaska Range, but we only made it in about 20 miles from either side as several feet of snow prevented through travel. Even that early in the year, however, the daylight was abundant, allowing for lots of sightseeing and plenty of hiking around. Highlights were moving through a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions—bone dry mountains on one side and pure winter on the opposite; hikes up Donnelly Dome, Lion’s Head, along the Matanuska in Palmer, and down to the Nenana River in a couple different places in Denali; witnessing huge chunks of ice crashing their way down the Susitina and Chulitna Rivers; lots of wildlife including groupings of moose grazing together and a quick glimpse of a wolverine crossing a dirt road; and amazing views of Denali from multiple vantages.

Drove the loop in the center. Line through the loop is the Denali ‘Highway’.
Donnelly Dome looking south.
To the north.
Hours long sunset illuminates the Mat Valley.
Nenana below Dragonfly Falls
Nenana overlook
Denali from the ‘highway’.

Delta Clearwater. Finally, after weeks of waiting to get on some moving water, the opportunity presented itself with an overnight on the Delta Clearwater. The original plan was to float the Chatanika, but hot temps and excessive melting created flooding throughout the area, so last minute research revealed another local run which proved to be the perfect spring float and testing run for the little ‘pack raft’ I plan on using for the summer. There are two commonly run trips on the river, both of which begin about 12 miles from the confluence of the Delta Clearwater and the Tanana. Each trip involves floating those miles of the Clearwater and then joining up with the Tanana. The shorter run, which I chose this time, ends with a mile float down the Tanana, followed by a one-mile paddle up a side stream to Clearwater Lake. The second option is to continue another 18 miles on the Tanana and end up at a bridge just outside of Delta Junction, something I certainly hope to get in before the end of fall. Both are also amenable to a bike shuttle, which is always an awesome way to deal with logistics. The Clearwater itself is a bit more developed than I’d imagined, with lots of summer cabins along the banks, though has its wild sections and certainly lives up to its name with crystal clear water revealing school after school of fish swimming below. There was also lots of waterfowl, along with a great campsite and sunset, a couple well-timed rain showers, and more of a wilderness feel the last few miles.

The PR 49. Not as classy as a canoe, or as comfortable as a raft, but holds plenty of gear and easily fits in the back of a Camry.

Tanana. My next couple days off (full weekend warrior mode (though with Tuesdays & Wednesdays as weekends)) I paddled 56 miles of the Tanana from the Pump House in Fairbanks down to the town of Nenana. I left at noon the first day and arrived around 5 the next, and got incredibly lucky with a steady downstream breeze and the push of some high water current. Could have been brutal otherwise, as the Tanana is a massive river (the largest tributary of the Yukon) which can be miles wide, and slow moving as it meanders through multiple braided channels for the majority of the time. The highlight of this trip was definitely the island camp which I found at exactly the mileage I’d hoped for after an afternoon of steady paddling. A small flat sand patch surrounded by mounds of driftwood, with an excellent view of the Alaska Range in the background.

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Rusting relic. Old Tanana riverboat.
The get-out in Nenana.

Up Close. Hard to not be effusive when detailing the amount of potential in this area of the state. Summer seems to hold even more prospects than winter, with an abundance of hiking, climbing, biking, boating, etc. all within an hour’s drive. There are trails galore, a profusion of float trips from a few hours to a few weeks, and lakes, mountains, and rivers in every direction. The hardest part is narrowing down the next adventure, and trying not to worry about how much you’re missing out on while doing it!

Run Free! Moose Creek Dam in Chena Lakes State Rec area. Walk, ride, or run for miles.
200′ from the front door. Bear Lake.

Back Upstream

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Breakup. Days of sunshine, warming trends, rainfall, and rapidly melting snow. Creeks and rivers transforming from frozen to flowing. Huge blocks of ice splitting apart, fragmented sections of floes meandering downstream only to crash into the next gridlocked section of river where they rise up, spin, and submerge. I have long wanted to witness the phenomenon, and it is quite the sight. Now is the time of shifting seasons, and accompanying thoughts. Dreams of rivers, of drifting current, of past and future adventures, of days spent running rapids and nights sleeping on sandy beaches, the arterial OM of the universe etched in the background.

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Chena River, Downtown Fairbanks

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Chatanika River

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Tanana River

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Nenana Ice Classic an Alaskan tradition since 1917. Ice melts, tripod falls, winning guessers as to minute, hour, and day win upwards of $300,000.

Back Upstream. Rivers have been part of my life for a long time now, and I hope they always will be. If I lead even one trip this summer, which I certainly hope to, it will represent my 20th season as a guide; and even if I don’t, I will almost certainly be floating new sections of streams, and spending many summer nights camped alongside them. There is no greater feeling of freedom and peace and contentment than traveling for miles and days down a moving river.

My life has consisted of so many days, months, and years with rivers as a focus that it would be impossible to account for all of the positive experiences that guiding as an occupation, and running rivers as a passion, have contributed to my individual experience as a human being. I really can’t imagine what my life might be like had I done anything but. I thought it would be entertaining then, while waiting for everything to come back to life this spring, to briefly revisit a few of those places and times. To pause for momentary reflection, a look back upstream. The following words and photos represent but a sampling of some of the rivers I have been fortunate enough to work on and travel down throughout those years, mainly chosen simply because they’re pictures I happen to have saved to this computer. My apologies for the lack of photo credits, at this point I have only vague recollections as to who took many of the pictures. A few other trip accounts and photos, from Idaho, Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, and more, can be found on the Rivers page as well.

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Arkansas River, Colorado. The first rafting trip I ever went on was the Brown’s Canyon section of the Arkansas, but it took me several years to piece this information together once I became a guide later on. I went as a commercial customer, and mostly remember a cocky college kid at the oars alternating all day between talking about himself and telling us what lousy paddlers we were. Oddly enough, I didn’t really think the experience was all that fun (which is why it took so long to figure out what river we’d gone down), and have no idea what prompted me a couple years later to attend training and become a guide myself. But that guide school, which included a six-day trip on the Dolores River, followed by a couple summers of taking customers down the mellow town stretch of the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, sealed my fate for the next couple of decades. Later on, I ended up working several seasons on the upper stretches of the Arkansas, one of the most rafted rivers in the world, and spent countless days alternating between talking about myself and telling people what lousy paddlers they were.

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Browns Canyon

San Juan River, Utah. Oddly enough, my first private multi-day trip didn’t happen until several years after I’d started guiding. Upon returning to Durango after a summer of working on the Yellowstone River in Montana, my old boss at River Trippers invited me on a week-long family float down the San Juan. The water was sparse at that time of year, and like a moving trickle of mud it was so low. By the end we were actually pushing the rafts along the sandy bottom for miles before the take-out. But we didn’t see any other people the entire week, and the trip was an incredible experience. Great campsites, side hikes, good food, good company, and good times. Something special, in other words, and a foreshadowing of the importance trips like that would represent for years to come. A week later, the river suddenly spiked due to fall flooding, and we quickly drove back over and did the upper stretch, normally a three-day trip, in just a few hours. Water in the desert is an amazing thing.

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White Salmon, Washington. The following year was the real beginning of my ‘career’ as a guide. It was my first experience with bigger whitewater, and the start of a trend of year round work on rivers throughout the US from spring through fall, and seasons of international work each winter. That April, I attended another guide school in California, followed by a swiftwater rescue course in Montana, and then spent the summer working in the Pacific Northwest. The company I worked for had multiple permits on rivers in northern Oregon and southern Washington: the Deschutes, Clackamas, Klickitat, Owyhee, Santiam, and the White Salmon to name a few. This allowed guides to move around a fair amount, and work on different sections of river throughout the summer, which always keeps things interesting. Trip photos are a staple source of income in the commercial rafting industry. Most of them merely capture close-ups of smiling clients with a couple of waves splashing around them, and make great family photos for Christmas cards or home hallways. Running Husum Falls on the White Salmon, however, provides some of the best shots ever if you’re looking for social media style points. Guiding the falls a couple times a day can be a bit rough as a guide—as things can get violent in the back seat—but the faces reappearing from the foam are always priceless.

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Tana River, Kenya. While running trips in Montana, I met a guide who worked for one of the other outfitters at an afternoon get-together in the Gardiner town park. He had a pronounced British accent, so I asked the usual questions to find out where he was from. Turns out, he grew up in Kenya, where his family owns a rafting company. I never saw nor spoke to this fellow again, but took down the contact information for the company, and pestered his brother, who manages it, for a couple of years before he offered me the opportunity to work in Africa for a season. What descriptors could possibly define the experience? It was all of them. Amazing, incredible, unforgettable… I spent several months in Kenya working mainly on the Tana, and also had the opportunity to camp in a few of the national parks, climb Mt. Kenya, and spend a couple weeks kayaking on the White Nile in Uganda just months before the first of two dams were finalized. Africa is as wild, chaotic, and mystical as this world gets.

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Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica. I worked several winter seasons down in Central America, the first couple of seasons guiding commercially on the Pacuare, which is probably the most popular rafting trip in Costa Rica, and another two years managing river operations for Outward Bound on rivers throughout the country. The Pacuare has changed significantly since the first time I ran it. Its commercial success actually saved the river, for the time being, from dying behind a dam—a fate of many sections of incredible whitewater in CR and the world over—but also altered the wild nature of the river corridor significantly as companies constructed roads to the river, and built campground resorts along its banks. This first photo, however, is of one of my favorite places in the world: Huacas Canyon, the heart of the run and still an enchanted environment of waterfalls, jungle canopy, and the three best rapids on the river.

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Kern River, California. On a good year, California has some of the best whitewater in the world, and I was fortunate to work three consecutive big-water years on the Kern. Years where the Sierras were piled with snowpack, and conditions were perfect for it to melt ideally, providing six-weeks a season or so of incredible spring paddling, followed by a summer of dam releases on the lower sections of river. The best thing about working on the Kern is that easy access to numerous different sections is akin to living next to multiple rivers all within a short driving distance. The Upper Kern is undammed, and has several stretches of Class IV and V whitewater, each one with its own distinctive characteristics. Day runs might include the big waves in Limestone, the technical and action packed Chamise Gorge, the seldom run Ant Canyon, the often run Cables section, and perhaps the munchy Class V Thunder Run. On a really good year, several trips down an even higher section, the Forks of the Kern, a multi-day undertaking which begins with a two-mile hike (with mules carrying rafts and gear down) into the Golden Trout Wilderness, provide epic adventures for guides and clients alike. As the summer heat hits, trips move downstream to the Lower Kern, where pool-drop rapids, desert scenery, swimming stretches, and jump rocks create a perfect mix of relaxation and good times.

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Rio Mendoza, Argentina. A few years ago I had the opportunity to guide for a couple of months on a section of the Rio Mendoza in the heart of Argentinian wine country. The river is a drainage of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes and the Americas, and several companies offer whitewater trips on a short section of rapids just upstream from the city of Mendoza, a popular tourist destination. Most of the time I was there, I guided for one of the worst companies I’ve ever worked for in terms of safety, equipment, professionalism, and taking care of employees. The last week or so, I finally defected to one of the best companies I’ve seen in terms of the same (Argentina Rafting). The river that year was huge, with one of the biggest run-offs in the past decades. Each day the river got bigger and muddier and faster, and more than anything I remember the powerful earth scent getting stronger and stronger each morning as I walked the riverside trail from town to work. It was late January, and springtime in the South American desert, and everything was in bloom and coming alive, including the Rio Mendoza.

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Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Arizona. This is the trip everyone loves to ask about. The one everyone has heard of. And yes, the one you should definitely do if every the opportunity arises. As a mentor guide once expressed, ‘If you get an invitation, do whatever it takes to go—quit your job, get a divorce, anything….’ I concur. The longer the trip the better, and motorized, in my opinion, is not an option. Realize that the trip is not really about the whitewater. Many of the rapids are famous and massive and a few of them even frightening, but the trip is about everything, the whole experience. It’s about spending days and nights on end immersed in wilderness. It’s about the places you get to. The beaches you sleep on, the side canyons you hike up—all magical environments and each one unique. It’s about the silence, the routine, the meals, the comradery, the festivities, the complete absorption into a totally different way of life. For many, once the trip is over, it can be difficult to face the old realities. I’ve been twice: a 30-day winter trip and for 25-days in the spring. The toughest part of each trip, up to the point of legendary stories, generally has something to do with small group social dynamics. Friendships and romances may be forged forever, or dissolve in disaster (sometimes on the same trip in a related manner!). People have different goals, and desires, and habits, and schedules, and work ethic. But for the most part, small disagreements can be easily resolved, and each trip can be a positive and even life-changing experience for all. No matter what happens, however, as with all river trips, there will be memories engraved, stories which will not be forgotten.

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Buffalo River, Arkansas. For the non-initiated, hanging out around a campfire with a bunch of guides can be excruciatingly boring as far as conversation goes—it’s big rivers, epic trips, and carnage stories on repeat. It’s questions about different sections and logistics and wheres and whens, and I’ve always enjoyed gleaning information about potential rivers to check out. Many of those rivers of campfire lore I know personally by now, and am grateful to be able to say that. But I also always like to ask clients what rivers they know of in their own home states, which often elicits a few guffaws and stories about tubing booze cruises, but occasionally instills inspiration for low-key exploration should the opportunity arise—say, for instance, one just happens to be driving through Arkansas with a few days to spare and access to a canoe. Wherever there’s water and the slightest bit of elevation, there are rivers, often running through beautiful places the world over. The Buffalo was one of them, along with the Niobrara in Nebraska, the Upper Missouri in Montana, the Hocking in Ohio, too many rivers to count in Florida, and so forth. I recently read that there are around 3,000 rivers in Alaska, and don’t know whether to be daunted or inspired when considering the endless opportunities alongside the various commitments necessary to experience just about any of them.

Over the years, my focus in running rivers has shifted somewhat, though not completely. I still love exploring new places by downstream travel in a boat—be it raft, kayak, or canoe. Love being on the water, and the places one can access via waterways. I do love whitewater, and hanging out with like-minded friends that value time spent on rivers. I enjoy the thrill of rapids, and the inspired confidence of experience. But these days, more than anything, I love getting as far away from civilization as possible, for as many days as feasible. I like simplicity in travel plans and travel companions, the spontaneity of last minute forays into the wilderness. I like small groups, or just one partner, and also appreciate the occasional solo expedition. I’m in it for the exploratory nature of the process, for the opportunities to see new places and experience different environments. In it, I hope, for a while longer yet. People often ask me to name a favorite river. The very honest answer: Whichever one I’m on at the time.

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Labyrinth & Stillwater

Solo canoe trip through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. Late September. 100 miles down the Green River to confluence with the Colorado. Canyonlands, Utah. Intermittent stretches of silence and solitude, amazing side hikes, beach camps, sunshine and flowers in bloom. Feels good to be back in the desert.

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Inside Upheaval Dome

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River Still Life. Please share sketches, paintings, inspired raps or interpretive dance.

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Almost stepped on pink rattlesnake while approaching slot canyon below.

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Searing hike across surreal terrain to confluence overlook. Worth the effort.

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Idaho

Idaho for the summer. Three months of guiding six-day trips, back-to-back-to-back…, on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon. Living on the river, in the canyons, on the beaches. Its water flowing through arteries and dreams. Nights with moons and without. Current and wind, sun and rain. Shivering from cold, searing in the heat. Rapids, shoals, long flat pools. Ponderosas and Douglas firs. Rattlesnakes, black bears, eagles, and big horn sheep. Woodpeckers and kingfishers. Ouzels and canyon wrens. Grouse exploding from the sage. Shadows of trout in the sunlit depths. Wilderness and people.

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Camas Creek Overlook

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Loon Creek Hot Springs

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Cove Creek

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East Coast Sunsets and a Government Shutdown

It’s winter in Ohio and I decide to take advantage of some time off to see something other than winter in Ohio. Erin comes up from Texas for a few weeks. Everything from the apartment gets moved back into the van. And just like that, we’re off. Unstated goals: find some sunshine, sit in the sand, spend our nights in a tent, our days in the open air… Paddle, run, hike, bike, and watch a few sunsets. To face west from the east.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

We have never heard of Congaree until a few hours before we arrive. The first day’s strategy consists of leaving Athens and driving until we don’t want to drive anymore. Potential itineraries begin to take form on the road. Place names and possibilities begin to seem tangible only after a certain radius has been passed. Once forward motion seems sustained. Repeated map checks and sporadic internet searches become the passenger’s primary responsibility.

Snow flurries in the mountains of West Virginia. Creeping traffic and rain in Charlotte, NC. Darkness as we turn onto backroads in South Carolina. We make a quick stop at a convenience store/bait shop along an empty highway in the Deep South, and find that we are a world away from where we started that morning. The campground at the park is vacant, and also completely saturated. The entire park, in fact, is mostly flooded to some degree, something that apparently happens several times a year. At one point it was actually called Congaree National Swamp.

In the morning we cook breakfast early and make an effort to see some of that swamp. When it’s not flooded, wilderness float trips on Cedar Creek and the Congaree River are possible. A trail system also exists. With most of the ground covered in water, however, options are mainly limited a couple miles of elevated boardwalk, which makes for an engaging experience that morning as we stroll along it in a light rain. This type of ecosystem is a novelty for both of us, and I find myself imagining how much diversity exists in such a primal place, so seemingly inhospitable to our species, but entirely conducive to life all the same. It’s easy to envision dinosaurs wading through the trees.

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Weeks later, on the way back to Ohio, we spend another night and most of a day at Congaree, which remains flooded. We make an attempt to paddle Cedar Creek, even going so far as to bike the shuttle, leaving the van at the take-out miles from where we put the canoe in. For the first bit a steady current carries us along, though we have to portage around or over a few fallen trees. Soon enough, however, the creek becomes nearly indistinguishable as we float further into flooded stands of cypress, forcing us to make the decision to either turn around or risk spending untold hours (perhaps days) trying to guess our way through. We make the sensible decision, a rarity at times, and find our way back to the put in.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Upon leaving Congaree that first morning, we continue to head south, crossing the Georgia state line around lunchtime. We decided to spend the afternoon riding bikes around the historic district of Savannah, and stop near Forsythe Park to rent a second bike. The bike shop proprietor provides us with a map of the city and suggests a route, which we follow from park to fountain to park to fountain to the waterfront and back. It’s warm and sunny with a light breeze, a perfect spring day in mid-December. We see for the first time massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss which will become a familiar backdrop later in the trip. The light filtering through fern-covered branches and draped moss creates a calming, otherworldly environment.

That night we make it into Florida, and find a spot to sleep near the coast. Before turning in we walk a couple miles along the beach, illuminated by the waxing moon. In the morning, we drive for a while before pulling over to make breakfast with a view of the sun rising out of the Atlantic. Afterwards, we continue to head south in a less than direct manner, cutting back and forth from coastal highway to freeway in search of a good place for a run. Like Congaree, however, the trails at the state parks we stop at are also flooded, leading to a couple of false starts and frustration. Eventually, we fortuitously find our way to Merritt NWR, and an awesome introduction to wild Florida.

Upon entering the refuge, we make a stop at the visitor’s center for information on trails and the potential of seeing bioluminescence in the bays (turns out Mosquito Lagoon in the refuge is one of the few spots in the world to do so, but mainly in the summer months). Before leaving, I decide to take a quick stroll around the building on the interpretive boardwalk out back, which passes through a small patch of wetlands. On my way from the parking lot to the path, I see what surely must be a lawn statue of a small alligator strategically placed just off the back deck of the building. After studying it for a bit, I realize that it’s an entirely real alligator, about 3’ long. A few minutes later, I see another one, much larger, across the pond. I suppose I hoped to see a gator or two at some point in the trip, but never expected them to be as prevalent as they are in reality. And these two only serve as a prelude for what happens soon after.

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From the visitor’s center we head over to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile one-way dirt road that traverses through wetlands alongside the Indian River. I spot a wild hog grubbing around on the banks of a pond, and then marvel at the avian diversity in all directions. Hooded mergansers, tri-colored herons, little blue herons, green herons, great egrets, great blue herons, osprey, roseate spoonbills, and on and on. There are many species I don’t recognize at all, and others I can only guess at. And then another alligator, like the first one, so dark black and still that it looks fake. Halfway along the drive we turn off to the Cruickshank Trail, a five-mile birding loop along raised earthen dikes through the marshes. We plan to run the loop, following it counterclockwise along the route. Things are nice and dry, with perfect conditions for running. Sunshine and light wind. It’s easy cruising with scenery and wildlife in every direction. About four miles into the run I’m leading the way. When Erin and I run together, we’ll usually switch out every ten-minutes or so, so I decide to let her pass once we get to the big black sand pile a couple hundred feet down the trail. A hundred and fifty more feet and I realize that my marker’s not a pile of sand, but an eight-foot gator, its body stretched almost all the way across the path, reed-lined ponds on either side.

We have no idea what to do. I’m familiar with bear protocol, and moose evasion, and what action to take in the unlikely event of a mountain lion attack, but neither of us has ever read anything about trying to sneak around a sunning alligator. I’ve seen videos of people interacting with gators, and don’t remember them being particularly aggressive, but I’m also thinking about how embarrassing it would be to get chomped my first day in Florida. Erin remains a sensible distance away while I approach the gator in order to gauge its reaction. No reaction. I get closer. Now there is a reaction, but from Erin and not the alligator, which is not moving at all. I try to find something to toss at the gator to see if it will kindly slide forward and into the water, but there is nothing around to throw. I get a little closer. Still nothing. Finally, I back up to stop the increasingly annoying reaction from the opposite direction. Erin and I discuss what we should do. The choices are: wait, which seems like it could take a long time; turn around, which means backtracking four miles instead of running just one more to the parking lot; or run past the alligator and hope for the best. Erin says I should go first, promising to follow if I am successful.

Again, I’ve seen videos of alligators, that’s about it. I’m know they can move much faster than I would like to witness from this distance, but think I can probably kick it into high-gear if this thing starts to shift position. I take a couple of deep breaths, and go for it. There is about a foot of space between the tip of its tail and the steep decline of the bank. I make it to the other side, and the gator doesn’t move at all. Now I’m on one side of it, about ten feet away, and Erin is on the other side of it, about 50’ away. And now that I’m not between her and the animal, she seems to be reconsidering her commitment to following me. I’m looking directly at the gator now, right at its matte-black eyeball (we later read not to ever look a gator in the eye…) which looks almost hollow in its prehistoric head. “I think it might be dead,” I say. On cue, and looking like an animatronic version of itself, the alligator very slowly raises its snout and crooks its head towards me ever so slightly. Erin starts to sprint. Just a she gets to the tail, which she later says she didn’t realize was so long that she almost had to jump over it, her eyes get huge, her arms pump furiously, and she kicks into warp speed, not stopping until she’s long past where I’m standing. As she runs past, the gator does a quick startled thrust upwards as well (which is why I think her eyes get big) and stays in this push-up position as we quickly move on down the trail.

After that excitement, we drive the rest of the wildlife loop and head over to the Haulover Canal where we hope to see a few manatees. We take the canoe off the rack and paddle from the river side to the lagoon side, where they are reported to hang out. They’re not around, however, so we continue into the lagoon for a ways. Soon enough, we hear the forced expelling of air, and sit and watch for a while as a pod of dolphins hunt for fish only feet from the canoe. An inspiring first day in Florida.

10,000 Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida

After around 1000 miles of driving, an exciting first day in Florida, and a few mini-adventures, we’re eager to get off the road, pack our gear into the canoe, and head into some wilderness. The spontaneous day-to-day road trip traveling style can be fun, but exploration feels more authentic when it’s human powered. The longer one can go without hearing an engine, the better. As such, we decide to point it parkward that third morning, hoping to make it into the Everglades region by early afternoon with the intention of starting a week-long paddling trip the following morning. And so it goes. A quick visit with the rangers and a map of the park allows us to come up with an itinerary and the required permit. We spend the night in Big Cypress National Preserve, organize our gear, and return to the ranger station the next morning for an early launch.

After unloading the boat and equipment, I head off to find a navigational chart for the area while Erin finalizes the canoe loading. At the local bait shop, I purchase the map and the woman there asks me what I’m up to for the day. When she hears that we’re going out for a week, she shows significant concern. Around that time one of her fishing guides comes in, and when she tells him what’s happening, he begins to describe an upcoming storm and his predictions for its outcome. While not a hurricane, the scene he offers sounds almost apocryphal in his depiction, with violent winds and fluctuating tides which will completely wash over most of the small islands we’re planning to camp on. Generally, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the weather or listen to second-hand forecasts, knowing that I’m simply going to deal whatever happens as it comes. This time, however, it seems serendipitous to have heard about the upcoming tempest, and prudent to at least consider what I’m hearing, as this individual appears to have a lot of experience with the area and effects of local storms. I thank them both, and head back to the put-in where I consult once again with the rangers. The one that helped us put together our plan earlier acts downright sheepish, saying that he has indeed heard of the impending squall, but forgot about it the day before. As such, we end up modifying our original itinerary somewhat, and it ends up being an incredibly good thing that we do, as two days later everything comes to pass as predicted.

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Everglades National Park, which encompasses most of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, offers visitors several different sections to explore. As most of the park consists of near impenetrable mangrove habitat, and the glades themselves, shallow sawgrass-covered wetlands, one of the best ways to see the park is by boat. And from a boat, the more accessible areas of the park are found in the keys, or small islands, which lie along the edge of immense swaths of wetlands, swamps, and sloughs. Boaters can gain access to portions of the inner ecosystems, but the general landscape is entirely unlike what I have always pictured when imagining canoeing in the Everglades. Over the course of eight days, we manage to find a few small creeks and passageways into the mangroves (as I’d always visualized), but spend most of our time paddling on open water between the keys, and across the large bays which separate the inner islands of mangroves. Our original course had us traveling inland first, as I guessed there would be more bugs there than out on the keys, but the switch has us paddling out to a couple of islands first, then looping back in for the storm, and finally paddling back out to another section of keys for the final few days.

In spite of the last minute plan adjustments, we push off relatively early in the morning, heading south and into the rapidly warming sunshine. Navigating through the keys provides a new challenge, as the landscape offers little in the way of recognizable features or landmarks. It’s simply open water and islands of green treetops and brown trunks all the way around. Everything is either sea level, or treetop level, and the shorelines offer nothing in the way of distinguishing characteristics to gauge the shape of each island of mangroves as we pass. Erin paddles and steers in the stern, while I sit in the front, alternating between paddling and trying to intuit the map. A compass mounted to the bow helps in deciding which direction to point.

The new plan has us paddling 13 miles out to Pavilion Key, which will be one of the longer days of the trip. This may not sound like a difficult distance to achieve in a day, and with ideal conditions it’s certainly not, but given the added factors of tides, winds, and waves, things can get interesting quickly, especially in an open canoe paddling across open water (by this I mean we often find ourselves further than a mile from the closest shore). After a couple of hours of paddling that morning, we end up arriving at the outer edge of the keys with the Gulf of Mexico in full view. Approaching the first sandy beach we’ve seen all day, we notice a woman sitting in a lawn chair watching her husband fish from his motorboat a short distance away. Not wishing to disturb her solitude, we decide to paddle around the island to look for a landing spot on the other side in order to eat lunch. In the end, however, the other side has nothing but waves (and almost us) crashing into reef, so we end up making a loop and pull up next to her just as her husband comes in for extraction. They live in the local area, so we chat for a few minutes before they leave and find out that we’re one key off of where we thought, which provides a good sense of scale regarding the map with relation to the landscape we’re traveling through.

After a quick bite in welcome shade, we direct the canoe south towards our first bigger crossing of the trip. As we start the traverse, the wind kicks up, and small waves begin moving laterally across our path and into the side of the boat, occasionally nearing the top of the gunwales. Nothing too extreme, but stimulating conditions to be sure. While the navigational charts include depth, knowing that the choppy waters around you are only around 6’ deep doesn’t do much to assuage the imagination once we find ourselves miles from shore for the first time. Capsizing in this situation probably wouldn’t prove deadly, but it would be mean serious catastrophe and a difficult self-rescue. Mental reprieve comes in the form of a heavy breathing manatee which surfaces off the bow before disappearing. After a couple more hours of focused paddling, we arrive at our destination for the evening, an extended sand spit forming the capacious beach of Pavilion Key.

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The way the NPS manages these areas is through the issuance of camping/trip permits only given out the day of or the day before your trip. You show up with a couple of itinerary ideas, and go from there depending on availability. No matter what, you’ll most likely end up with a trip similar to your desired plan, though might have to make a few slight adjustments regarding specific destinations. The longer you plan on staying out, the more flexibility you’ll have in creating your route. I’m sure a lot of people don’t like this first-come first-serve system, but personally I love it, and know how impossible it can be to be spontaneous in the era of internet and required reservations. I get why a lot of the parks run this way – avoiding overcrowding, maximizing revenue, etc. – but in my mind it completely kills the sense of adventure and punishes the free-spirit.

The keys themselves prove remarkable, each separate island resembling a small piece of Caribbean paradise. Sandy beaches, the occasional palm tree, and views for miles across open expanses of sea. Within the permit system, each island has a maximum occupancy, both group and individual. Rabbit Key, for example, a smaller key, allows two groups and a total of eight people. Camping on most of the keys is along a spacious beach, though some of the islands have smaller, more private sites scattered around the coastline. The only development on the islands comes in the form of boat serviceable port-a-lets meant to be shared by everyone on the island (all the ones I visited were remarkably clean – great job NPS crew!). In the 10,000 Islands region there are seven or eight keys designated for camping, along with several inland sites. For conservation purposes, stopping on other islands is not permitted.

Pavilion, where we stay the first night, proves to be one of the larger keys in the system. We end up sharing the space with one other group, a contingent of young sea kayakers who decide to set up camp about 100’ from our tent, even though the beach is over a half-mile long. They’re quiet and respectful kids, however, and barely noticeable as our first sunset viewed from the keys lights up the open sky around us. (The keys prove to be the perfect East Coast sunset spot, as most all of the beaches have sections oriented directly towards the Southwest.) In the morning we cook a big breakfast of eggs and potatoes, and spend an hour strolling the beach before departing.

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From Pavilion, it’s a 4.5 mile crossing to the next night’s stay on Mormon Key, though we opt for a more circuitous route along the coastline in order to occupy the day with activity. This proves to be a wise decision, as the wind picks up rapidly as soon as we start paddling. Unlike the previous day, this time it comes as a headwind from the southeast, kicking up waves high enough to occasionally splash over the bow of the boat. Paddling directly into the waves and wind, however, proves to be much easier than when they were coming from the side, and though it’s a grind, we end up falling into a rhythm which moves us steadily forward. A couple hours into our paddle the wind is strong enough that we elect to take a slightly longer inland route instead of continuing across the open Gulf, a plan that works out well as we navigate our way through sheltered bays before eventually coming back out just in time to make the short crossing over to Mormon Key.

Once across, we paddle around most of the island, finding a small beach on the southern tip which makes for one of my favorite campsites of the trip. It’s like having a tropical paradise all to ourselves, the wind a slight breeze from this vantage and the sun warm enough to allow for a mid-afternoon swim. We spend most of the afternoon lazing around in the sun. In the evening we gather driftwood for a fire, which you’re allowed to build below the high-tide line at beach campsites, and begin preparing dinner as we again watch the sun set directly in front of us. A truly memorable day and an unforgettable campsite, though soon for reasons other than its sheer beauty and solitude.

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A word about insects. Like most people, I don’t enjoy being munched on by bugs, losing blood to mosquitoes, tweezering off ticks, etc. I’m okay with foul weather, willing to accept the risk of recreating among predator species, comfortable with discomfort, and fine with some physical and emotional suffering on vacation from time to time, but I’m not really okay with insects in copious quantities. “Lots of bugs” is perhaps the one thing someone can tell me about an area that will significantly decrease my desire to go there. Which is probably why I haven’t been to the Everglades until now, the place name itself immediately conjuring images of face nets and bug spray and endless swatting and shooing and the scratching of skin hives. Park literature doesn’t deny the existence of insects, rather it does all it can to apprise potential visitors to the reality of a hostile ecosystem. But words will always fail to describe what it’s like to operate amidst a relentless attack of determined swarms of infinitesimal winged parasites. I’m sure you can guess where this is going.

For the most part, bugs weren’t really a major issue on this trip. Reportedly, insect activity significantly decreases in the winter months in all the swampy coastal areas we visited. Many visitor’s centers and park entrances and businesses in these regions display some humorous homemade variety of a “mosquito meter,” generally a hand-painted wooden graph with an adjustable pointer ranging from something like “All Clear” to the extremes of “Combat Zone” or “Blood Donor.” Throughout our travels their arrows are generally resting around what would be a two on a scale of 1-6 or so. On the keys, things are generally meant to be better than inland, mostly due to the reliable island breezes blowing in off the water. And that is the case, most of the time. On this particular night, however, just as we begin to tuck in to our evening meal, an almost imperceptible change occurs. The wind, which we’d experienced since leaving the beach the day before, suddenly stops. And then another, immediately obvious change occurs as we diners suddenly become dinner. There are mosquitoes, to be sure, but also bloodthirsty hordes of no-see-ums, nearly invisible (as the name suggests) gnat like creatures with a vicious bite and a voracious appetite. Things get miserable. Erin barely finishes her food before retreating to the tent. I try to pretend things aren’t so bad as I douse myself with repellent and break out a face net that I’ve owned and never used for years now. I light the fire and try to hang out for a while, but the breeze fails to return, and the net proves ineffectual at providing full protection. The bugs still penetrate somehow, finding every exposed piece of skin imaginable. And then there’s the hum. The droning trill of biomass. The only course of action remains to dive into the tent, zip it up tight, and assist Erin with her in-progress killing spree.

In the morning, things haven’t improved much, so we swiftly pack our bags and get out of paradise with a quickness. Thankfully, those 12 hours or so will be the only time on the entire trip where the bugs prove downright intolerable. The rest of the time, they truly aren’t that bad, and cooler evening temps and breezes allow us to wear sufficient clothing to cover most of our bodies, while a bit of bug spray (from a bottle I’ve had about as long as that face net, such is my aversion to insect prone areas) is enough to keep the bites to an acceptable level. The lull in the wind turns out to be the proverbial calm before the predicted storm, as this is the first day of the bad weather I’d heard about in town. Once on the water a gale begins to build, though as we’re now headed inland, and traveling with the morning tide, the wind pushes us along for 8 miles as we head up the tidal Chatham River and into Sweetwater Bay, where we plan on waiting out the storm over the next couple of days.

On the way there, we stop off at an old ruin/habitation called Watson’s Place, which also serves as a campsite. In addition to the island camps, there are two other types of campsites in the area, ground sites and “chickees.” Having avoided signing up to stay at a ground site, we stop to check one out just to see what fun we might have missed out on. Watson’s Place is indeed not somewhere I would personally care to spend any significant amount of time. Ground sites are small swaths of cleared land along the otherwise heavily vegetated river banks. They are described as having the potential to be more buggy than the other two options, and also offer additional opportunities for undesirable experiences in that they’re commonly visited by alligators and snakes, a fact reiterated through semiotics on a sign at the dock which displays illustrations of a man, an alligator, and a snake with symbolic representation prohibiting the molesting of the animals by the person (though not of the person by the animals). Indeed, the place looks buggy, snakey, and gatory.

It should come as no surprise then, that as I’m flip-flopping around the site I almost step on a very large python near the corner of the clearing. It does come as a surprise, however, as even though I’ve read about the invasive pythons previous to this visit, I certainly never expected to place my foot inches from the engorged body of a six-foot long serpent with a mid-body girth of a human thigh. After the initial shock of discovery, followed by recovery and the realization that the snake doesn’t seem to be particularly lively, I take the opportunity to inspect it from a short distance. Pythons are not native to the Everglades. They exist as a product of irresponsible human actions and their own adaptability. It’s an intriguing story which I won’t get into here as the details are readily available elsewhere if you are curious. In short, the species has proven to be incredibly destructive to the ecology of the Everglades, taking a huge toll on the resident fauna and vying with alligators as the region’s top predator species. State-wide programs exist to eliminate the snakes, but this has proven incredibly difficult to achieve. Knowing all of this, I still have no idea what I should do upon seeing this specimen sitting in the grass in front of me. It’s huge, and even if I wanted to “euthanize” the snake, as I’m guessing would be optimal, I don’t have permission to do so, or the slightest idea as to how I would go about doing it. In the end I take a couple of photos with plans to report its location to the rangers at the end of the trip. And then we leave. Happily.

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An hour later we are blown across Last Huston Bay and up past Sweetwater Bay to the “chickee” where we’ll spend the next two nights. This third type of site is named after dwellings once utilized by indigenous Seminoles. Their contemporary construction consists of metal-roofed wood and composite structures anchored by concrete pylons well away from shoreline. When we round the corner, we’re surprised by how exposed this site looks given the current weather conditions. It’s two platforms joined by a small deck and a port-a-let, sitting about three feet above the water in the middle of a small bay. What would generally be a unique setting looks a tad unprotected given the steadily increasing winds. But hey, definitely no bugs.

With the force of the wind now generating bigger and bigger waves, pulling up to the structure and exiting the boat proves to be a challenge in itself. Once we’ve tied off, we’re unsure as to what we should do next, as getting anything out of the canoe seems a precarious option with violent gusts whipping across the tiny unshielded platform. After a few minutes of assessing the situation, we decide to move a few heavy boxes out of the boat, and attempt to build some sort of windbreak by utilizing the roof supports. The only item we have with us that might be suitable to the purpose is a mesh sand mat that we miraculously threw into the boat as a last minute impulse. Always a novelty item before, it proves to be a crucial component over the next couple of days as it works surprisingly well once we get it secure, which is no small feat. It doesn’t fully block the wind, as nothing short of solid walls could do, but it allows us a bit of reprieve. From here we arrange our gear boxes around the corners of the platform in order to create a place to hunker down for a while as we determine our next plan of action.

It’s kind of an intense place to be. We are definitely a long way from anywhere, and know that we’ll not see another person for quite some time. The platforms barely provide enough space for a pair of backpacking tents in ideal situations, and the wind makes this one seems very minuscule indeed. Each movement requires conscious action. Anything that blows off the sides, or even falls through the cracks in the decking, will certainly be gone for good. Even if it were to float, retrieving something by boat seems highly unlikely and perhaps physically impossible given the conditions. The wind rips across the platform, and the water below courses past at significant speed. We’re sitting perhaps 50’ from the closest shore, though the shores here are not solid pieces of ground where one could huddle up and wait out a storm, they’re impossible structures of intertwined roots sheathed in razor sharp oyster shells. In an emergency one could probably survive on top of them for a couple of days, but it would be most unpleasant. The wind is now blowing hard enough that it doesn’t seem imprudent to assess the structural stability of the chickee itself, though it seems sturdy enough in spite of a few random creaks and strains. Still, worst case scenarios come to mind. We sit behind our boxes and snack on whatever happens to be on top of the food supply. For now, the rain hasn’t started, and it’s warm enough out that extra layers aren’t required. We’re also happy to be sitting where we are, miles from the Gulf, rather than stranded on one of the keys.

Eventually, the wind abates for a while. Slows down some at least. We cautiously manage to set up the tent, utilizing gear straps to secure the corners to the decking. After, we put everything but the food boxes into the tent to weigh it down. At that point, we ease in to the idea of waiting out the storm here, and consider our fortune in having heard about it in advance as we contemplate the route our original itinerary would have had us doing for the day, which would have been both dangerous and downright unmanageable in these conditions. The wind picks up again, and big clouds begin to build to our north. Impressive sheets of rain begin to rip across the bay in waves, though the roof provides just enough dry space to stand and watch for a little while. A powerful experience. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping in the tent, listening to the world rage outside. Thinking we will most likely be going without supper, just before dusk everything stops. We get out and cook a quick dinner. The sky begins to darken, an alligator swims lazily by, unconcerned. The sky goes black. The wind starts again in earnest.

In the morning, a lull. We crawl out of the tent and make breakfast. The storm forecast calls for it to continue throughout this day as well, and we are scheduled to stay another night on the chickee. The idea of not loading up the canoe and trying to go somewhere specific is welcome, though the idea of spending the entire day cooped up on the platform not so much. As the wind doesn’t seem to be all that bad, and the clouds not all that ominous, we pack a lunch and paddle the empty canoe back out the direction we came from. The map offers several options, and we end up heading north on Deer Island Creek for a while, with easy paddling once we make the turn out of Sweetwater, the wind now behind us. The best part of the day occurs when we discover that the small squiggly black lines on the map, seemingly unnavigable as drawn, represent narrow passages through the mangroves. Turning into one of these outlets immediately gets us out of the wind, and onto a slender channel winding through heavy vegetation, coming out a half-mile later on another windswept bay. This is the type of paddling I always imagined doing in the Everglades, ducking under branches hanging across the creek and similar fun, and it’s enjoyable to be so immersed in such a foreign environment. After turning back around, we continue on the river with the optimistic idea to cross a much larger bay in order to check out the Alligator Alley channel a couple miles away. Not happening. Once we arrive at the confluence with the bay, we experience the maelstrom in progress as wind and waves thrash across the water. It’s difficult to turn the canoe around without being driven into the mangroves, or swamped by the spraying waves. We manage to do so, without event, and begin the arduous paddle back to the chickee, which first requires battling our way against the wind back to the mouth of the river we’d just sailed down. We pay for a laugh when, after a misjudged turn, we end up at a dead end we’d already seen earlier that day, both of us recognizing the spot at the same time. It requires significant effort to paddle back out the second time around. We finally arrive at the river mouth only to have to work even harder to make it across the small section of bay separating us from the Sweetwater, eddy hopping from one wind sheltered stand of trees to the next. Once on the Sweetwater, however, welcoming déjà vu awaits as the wind pushes us all the way back to the chickee, where it continues to blow for the rest of the night.

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Around 5 a.m., all is calm. After many restful, then restless hours of lying in the tent, we’re ready to move. Getting out of the tent before first light proves much easier when the weather allows for flip-flops and shorts while drinking coffee at daybreak. As the trip progresses, we wake up earlier and earlier, often getting on the water as the sun begins to rise. Two things about winter expeditions: you need more days to explore due to the limited amount of daylight; and, when it gets dark at 5:30, you spend a lot of time in your tent no matter what the weather’s like.

We welcome movement this morning, knowing that we have many miles to go, and four major bays to cross on the way to the next chickee where we’ll be spending the night. We make a mile before the sun hits the horizon, and glide across the glossy surface of the first bay before the wind realizes what we’re up to. It catches on once we enter the second bay, but thankfully lacks the fervor of previous days. Slightly chilled by the breeze, we paddle 11 miles and get our tent strapped down to the chickee deck before lunch. The rest of the day we paddle around the area and explore a couple of the black squiggles on the map, getting in to one small overgrown creek nice and deep. We dodge, duck, push, and pull our way through heavy thicket for an hour before deciding to turn around, probably less than a mile from the entrance. Hundreds of tiny crabs on the tree roots provide additional entertainment, along with a chance couple of ibis.

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When we arrive back to our platform, a group of four occupies the adjoining chickee, and tells us that they had originally planned to stay several nights, but no permits were issued once the park service realized the severity of the storm. We are again thankful to have been fortuitous enough to have made adjustments, and to have weathered it all alone on our little stand in the bay. That night I take the canoe out for a solo spin under the light of a full moon. The intensity of silvery glare drives me into the shadows. I float several miles in complete stillness, unanticipated in this tropical environment, the silence broken only by cautious paddle strokes.

Up early the next morning, we eat and pack with a quickness before bidding goodbye to our chickee mates. We paddle out with the receding tide, our destination the keys once again. On the way, I notice what could be an alternate route through the mangroves on the map, and having all day to paddle, we elect to go exploring. We weave our way slowly down a canal for a couple of hours, eventually floating into a maze of mudflats with the tide still on its way out. Ibis, roseate spoonbills, and a variety of herons inhabit the rich feeding grounds. We marvel at the scene, and somehow manage to scrape our way through the muddle and back onto the open water. A few miles later we watch a loggerhead turtle, or two, rise and disappear, rise and disappear.

The next two nights we spend on the islands. Evidence of the recent storm abounds. The camping location at Jewel Key, normally several feet higher than the tides, is covered in detritus from waves washing completely over the island. I would probably be writing a much different story right now had we been out there as scheduled. From there we cross over to Tiger Key, stopping to admire flocks of great white pelicans standing together on white beaches along the way. Our last night in the area happens to be Christmas Eve, our camp a small private beach. We get in the canoe and paddle around as the sun sets, the sky to the east slowly shifting lavender, indigo, cobalt, even deeper blues without need of names.

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Christmas breakfast: fat burritos and Florida grapefruit. Another sunrise. A tough paddle out against the biggest tide of the month and a steady offshore wind. Punished for our impatience and unwillingness to wait for the tides, we make nine or ten miles in around six hours. The last couple of miles necessitate traveling down the shoreline, our paddles constantly digging into inches of silty mud. Most unsatisfying, though laughable if not for the frustration of awkward and inefficient strokes. We arrive at the dock in good spirits all the same. It’s early afternoon, and downright hot out. A couple of spoonbills methodically shovel through the silt at the take-out. As we derig, a hurried Brit and his partner pull up with their kayaks. He asks about the situation with the rangers due to the shutdown. I have no idea what he’s talking about, and wish I still didn’t.

Peace River, Juniper Creek, and Silver Springs

We spend the next couple of days hanging out in the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park. The most memorable experience comes when we try to run the park’s six-mile “Adventure Trail,” apparently devastated by one hurricane or another in recent years, and end up on a 3-hour bushwhacking excursion through brush, briars, and sawgrass. Over a week later, deep crosshatched cuts on our legs remain as a reminder of the fun. We eventually decide to start driving north, constantly deliberating what we should do next. Almost all of the longer rivers we’d considered running are still seriously flooded, with no signs of falling water levels. Options for other paddling possibilities in the state are almost overwhelming in scope, though most would only be shorter trips, each requiring significant shuttling logistics for only 2-3 days on the water.

As such, we spend the next couple of days working our way from one seven-mile stretch of river to the next, still trying to figure out the best place to get back into some semblance of wilderness for another extended expedition. We waver between too many potential options, most of them only rough ideas encumbered by current water conditions. We paddle a short section of the Peace River, counting gators on the way down. We make our way up to the Ocala National Forest and end up at Juniper Springs, a campground next to a large freshwater spring, where we run on a section of the Florida Trail through a bizarre backdrop of funky flora, and follow up with a swim in the natural pool.

Our last day in Florida easily rivals the first. Wildlife encounters abound. We wake up in the dark in order to get an early start on Juniper Creek, a tiny trickle of clear cool water coming directly out of the spring itself, the put-in barely deep enough to float a canoe and not much wider. The current cruises along at a decent clip, carrying us into constant corners and through dense stands of jungle. We ride it for seven miles or so, the clear water allowing us to see everything below us, including a snapping turtle the size of a dutch oven slowly patrolling its way upstream. Schools of fish, a snake launching from its branch into the creek. We spot deer through the foliage, several alligators only a few feet from the boat.

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The same afternoon we find our way to Silver Springs and another clear water stream emerging straight out of the earth, this one with much more volume than the first. We paddle a loop around the spring itself before moving down the river. There is everything here in abundance, birds, fish, gators, turtles… We have also come to see the monkeys, and a few miles down we do. Only here and the Florida Keys do primates live in the wild in the US, though they are non-indigenous and often a source of controversy. When we do spot them later that day, however, we’re not sure whether to look up or down, as several manatee emerge all around our canoe. They are only inches from our boat, often just beneath it, or underneath the floating aquatic plants beside it, nibbling at them from below. They slowly surface, breathe heavily, and dive again, their deeply scarred bodies baring signs of encounters with engine props. Near the confluence with the Ocklawaha, we’re still seeing new things – a six-inch baby gator sunning on a stump, a pair of purple gallinules. We get off the river late in the evening, and camp that night on the banks of the Ocklawaha River.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

That night we make a decision to move on the next morning. To leave the state. The rivers we want to run, mainly the Suwanee and the Apalachicola, will not be accessible anytime soon due to water levels. It’s not that they’re particularly dangerous at flood stage, it’s just that they spill over their banks into the surrounding lowlands, convoluting routes and submerging camping locations. At least that’s my understanding of it based on what the people we’ve spoken to on the phone have told us, and evidence of such was apparent even on the Peace River. It’s time to move on to something different, and even though there seem to be a lot of amazing parts of Florida left to see, we would rather be in one general area on one focused trip than driving around each day only getting pieces of nature a little at a time.

Having not spent much time in the east, I had never heard of Cumberland Island until this past October when I began to ask around about potential wilderness opportunities in the southeast. The person who told me about the island had recently camped there for a week, and said that he would have stayed much longer given the opportunity. I made a mental note to check it out myself at some point, and even considered the possibility of a visit on the way down to Florida. A bit of research and a phone call to the park office made it seem like an awful lot of required planning and reservations would be required, however (see previous comments on spontaneous behavior in Everglades section…), which I was not excited about committing to.

All of the sudden, however, thanks to Day-Glo Donnie’s ego and his red-herring of a wall, an exceptional opportunity emerged.

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Cumberland is a 17.5-mile long barrier island that sits a few miles off the coast of southeastern Georgia. The island has a rich history of occupation, including ownership by several wealthy families over the past few centuries. In the 1970s, the Carnegies, major landholders on the island, forged a relationship with the federal government which allowed for the creation of a national seashore that now encompasses most of the main island, though some property owners retain ownership and property rights for the remainder of their lifetime, meaning there are still a few people living on the island. The storyline goes that most of the landowners in this era did not want to see intensive development, as was happening in similar locations up the coast, destroy Cumberland, so they figured out a way to preserve it for future generations. Of course, there were a few private interests served as well, but overall the idea proves noble in implementation. Visitors may enjoy untrammeled, unpopulated beaches, and explore miles of uninhabited trails leading across the island through landscapes of saw palmettos and live oaks.

At least that’s how it seems while we’re there, the untrammeled unpopulated uninhabited part. Hardly a person to be seen as most visitors come over to the park via a regularly scheduled ferry which runs from St. Marys, Georgia several times a day, now suspended due to the government shutdown.

There is also the option, of course, of arriving at the island on your own boat, motorized or human powered, though even the shortest paddling distances require several miles of open water navigation. So during the shutdown it basically comes down to this: the park is open, but only equipped or fairly determined individuals have access to it (it’s possible to find a water taxi in St. Marys); camping reservations are nullified and unrequired; and no one knows when or if any of this is going to change. Talk about unanticipated circumstances and invitations for spontaneous journeys…

I will be honest and say that it is with mild trepidation that we depart from Crooked River State Park in Georgia and begin paddling the seven miles over to the island. The situation in general seems ideal in some ways, but creates anxiety as well. Thoughts of anarchy and lawlessness? I’m not sure what. I guess I should have more faith in the rest of humanity, but part of me hates to think of our public lands being advertised as unprotected. I’d like to think that most people value and respect what they stand for, and the places themselves, but I also know that not everyone operates with this mindset, especially if they think they can get the best of the government somehow. (Though within our current government, of course, there are people in charge of our public lands that want to do much worse than build an illegal campfire…) A mild unease sits with me the whole trip, though the few other paddlers/campers we meet seem to be there for the same reasons we are, to capitalize on an exclusive and otherwise negative situation solely for the positive aspects of the possibilities. For over a week, we have a whole national park, a whole island, almost to ourselves.

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I won’t get in to the day to day. We leave the state park that afternoon without any idea as to what we’ll find or what we’ll do. We think maybe we’ll stay for a few days, and end up staying for nine. We only see one or two people a day, many of them locals and all extremely kind. They are happy that we’ve made it over, and all of them hope that we will enjoy the island. While we’re out running on the third day, a man on a four-wheeler with his basset hound riding in a basket stops to chat. His name is Thornton Morris, and we later find that he’s an attorney who helped to create the legislation to make the island a park. He invites us to stop by his house, where he presents us with a book he wrote filled with vignettes and personal memoirs from the island. It’s enjoyable to read it over the course of our days there. The few other visitors that we meet are also entertaining, each with their own mission.

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We spend the first few days running and hiking most of the trails on the north half of the island, making big loops consisting of several miles of trails combined with a few miles of beach travel. We stay several nights at the Brickhill Bluff site, including a peaceful New Year’s Eve. Our camp faces west to the mainland, and the sky lights up in oranges and reds each evening. Later, we embark on a difficult day of paddling to the south end. Strong tides and wind beat us down for the better part of the day as we cover perhaps 12 miles over the course of eight hours. There are a few days of paddling on this trip where I have to remind myself that if it was easy, or even fun, we wouldn’t be out there alone. That the suffering begets the rewards. Half-a-mile from the dock, dark clouds cut across the sky, drenching us as we continue to paddle, knowing that if we stop we’ll only get blown backwards for who knows how far.

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The next four nights we have the main Sea View camp almost completely to ourselves. A boat captain dropping off a couple of backpackers tells us that there were 120 people there the week before the shutdown, as it’s the most popular spot on the island. Erin harvests the grapefruit and oranges from the laden trees around our site. Each day we see several of the wild horses the island is famous for, along with the armadillos, hundreds of shorebirds, and the occasional deer or wild turkey. We walk and run miles along trails and beach without seeing another person. For a couple of days we borrow, with the unofficial off-the-record blessing of a ranger on a morning visit, beach cruisers from the ranger station and ride for miles around the southern part of the island. We wander around the ruins of the Dungeness mansion, evidence of the immense wealth and privilege of Cumberland’s recent history. Eventually, having checked out almost every part of the island, it is time to leave.

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The last morning we get up while it’s still dark, hoping, for once, to ride the tide the right direction and also beat the wind. We eat oatmeal under the still bright stars, and drink our coffee as Mercury reveals itself against the coming dawn. We load the canoe from the dock, and take our first paddle stokes as the day breaks around us. Thankfully, we time everything just right.

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