Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The 2017 Season

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In what is now an annual event, Mark drove north to Valdez for the ferry to Cordova the end of February to prepare for his solo winter cruise in Prince William Sound.

During Mark's winter sojourn in late February and March of this past year, he experienced for the first time a unique event that puzzled him for a few days until he finally recalled enough of a chemistry class fifty years in the past to solve the mystery.

 A strong easterly gale driving heavy snow sped Tamara to Mark's favorite winter anchorage in Eaglek Bay in the northern portion of Prince William Sound. At 61 degrees north, with a spectacular view of the surrounding high coastal mountains and Cascade Glacier, this particular anchorage remains completely calm even during the worst of winter's storms. In fact he had run toward it's protection precisely because of the series of strong gales forecast. As he turned into its very narrow entrance, only about twice that of Tamara's beam, Mark was surprised to find about six inches of new snow floating on the surface.

There was no ice supporting the snow. It had simply fallen so fast that there had not yet been time for it to melt, and it floated high and fluffy as though it were cotton candy atop the sea. As he motored Tamara into position to anchor, it was like driving into a down comforter.

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After anchoring it was apparent that it would prove impossible to get the dinghy ashore to secure mooring lines, even though that is our preference in this anchorage as swinging room is very limited. But he reasoned that the fluffy blanket would serve the same purpose, dampening any significant swing. Mark figured that he could safely wait until the snow melted away to run lines ashore, and felt no urgency to so as the superior protection of the place meant that no trace of the storm outside was evident except for the snow itself.

The sea water temperature at the time of entry was 37 degrees. The air temperature when anchoring was 33 degrees, and never fell below freezing all night long as evidenced by Tamara's recording thermometer. Yet in the morning Tamara was icebound! Locked in place by a thick sheet of surface ice, preventing any shore excursions for the next eight days! The ice was too thick to row, too thin to walk. Any attempt to motor the dinghy would have cut the inflatable to ribbons. Instead Mark was boat-bound, reading a book each day until he feared that though he had ample food, water and fuel, he might exhaust his supply of books! The result could be as frightening as scurvy!

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Mark said that he could not, for the life of him, understand what had happened to beset the boat in the ice, given the high water and air temperatures prevailing at the time of anchoring. Subsequent days and nights were beautifully clear, plunging air temperatures deep into single digits and further securing his imprisonment. But he could not reach shore to take advantage of the fine winter weather. How had this turn of events come about? Mark had navigated in and around ice for decades as a fisherman, than as a cruiser, and had never encountered this phenomenon.

Finally Mark remembered an experiment in Mr. Emmett's chemistry class, all those years before. Simply ice cubes and a little water in a beaker, but as the class agitated it, and added a little salt, the mixture froze, even though it had not undergone any additional mechanical refrigeration. Exactly the same as an old- fashioned hand cranked ice cream maker! As the class measured, recorded and graphed the plunging temperatures of the mixture, they had been observing the phenomenon called “supercooling”, the process by which the addition of salt caused the temperature of the mixture to plunge before rising once again and finally melting.

That seemingly benign blanket of snow had mixed with the salt of the sea below then frozen despite air and water temperatures above freezing. The ensuing clear weather and cold temperatures solidified things further, and there he was, observing first hand another of the wonders of the natural world. It is that natural world that draws us to cruising after all, certainly in Alaska in the winter, and he had come upon that which he'd set out to find in the first place---just in a bit different form than he might have intended when he'd set out.

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It has been said that winter must be terribly cold for those with no warm memories. Each of Mark's winter cruises have supplied him with a wealth of memories. By the close of each summer Mark finds himself planning for the coming winter's sojourn. This season more resembled the normal winters of years past, with typical sub-Arctic cold on the drive north, and about 90 percent of normal snow pack in the mountains surrounding Prince William Sound. At the outset of the cruise the snow lay heavily in the forests surrounding the favorite anchorages, and a good old fashioned blizzard with strong east winds helped speed Tamara to the west. Unfortunately, within ten days the weather turned primarily to rain instead of snow, softening the remaining snow pack too much to enjoy skiing or snowshoeing.

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Nancy flew up the first of May and was immediately treated to a surprise birthday party and celebration of our thirty years together. Mark had arranged a party aboard the 75 year old tug Oswald Foss owned by friends in Cordova, but unfortunately tempestuous weather held us inside the harbor instead of a planned dinner cruise. But we all enjoyed a wonderful evening nevertheless.

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Initially we had planned to head west to Kodiak and the Alaskan Peninsula, a cruise we've taken several times since basing Tamara in Cordova. We took off from Cordova the first week of May, and immediately headed for the Fox Farm, our favorite anchorage to wait for favorable weather to cross the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak.

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There aren't many anchorages in the Kodiak group or the Peninsula that we haven't visited and we needed to be back in Cordova by the first of August.

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After waiting several days, with the immediate forecast not looking favorable we decided to remain in PWS (Prince William Sound) and seek out anchorages that we'd not used previously or ones we'd not visited for many years. Checking the charts and the Guide to Prince William Sound, NW Squire Island looked like a new one to try, and we weren't disappointed. It's many small rock islands and bays made for good kayaking and dinghy rowing, and there was plenty of good hiking available on the open, high hills above.

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June 1st found us in Cochrane Bay anchored in Three Finger Cove, with more than a foot of snow still on the ground. Located in the northwest part of the Sound, this region gets more snow than some other areas, and occasionally snow can remain well into spring.

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Mark was based out of Valdez when he operated our 91 foot Quin Delta on charter in PWS for Peter Pan Seafood, but since Tamara has been in PWS she hadn't been to Valdez until this summer. We spent several days in Sawmill Bay, 15 miles out of Valdez, before continuing on to town. As we exited Valdez narrows for the final approach we were pulled over by the Coast Guard for an inspection. Once boarded it became apparent that Tamara had all her I's dotted and T’s crossed as Mark takes great pride in safety-at-sea preparedness, and we were quickly given a clean bill. He's on the CCA's (Cruising Club of America) Safety at Sea Committee.

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Time was spent by Columbia Glacier, Eaglek Fjord, and many other favorite anchorages before arriving back in Cordova in early August. We started the task of getting Tamara ready for winter, removing the sails, dinghy, and then shrink wrapping a cover over the cockpit to protect against the heavy snows and rain of winter. On August 24th we were on the ferry to Valdez and began the drive back to Port Townsend.

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Last year we had started a canoe trip down the Rose and Nisutlin River in the Yukon but had cut the trip short due to weather. This year we wanted to finish the trip with the knowledge gained last year of the logistics of dealing with the car. We arrived at the put-in point, the same spot we took the canoe out last year, unloaded all the gear and the canoe and set up camp. Mark took off early the next morning, drove back down the road to the Alaska Highway and Johnson's Crossing where we had earlier made arrangements to leave the car. He then hitchhiked back up the road, not an easy task as traffic along the road is very infrequent. Fortunately he got a ride from a local native couple going up the road to their cabin to cut wood and they generously drove him all the way to our camp. We were on our way on the river early the next morning.

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Overall we had good weather, getting only brief rain showers, and little wind. We averaged about 15 miles a day, which doesn't seem like much, but for us senior citizens paddling all day is tiring.

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One night while camped on a bluff above the river we heard what sounded like rocks being thrown into the river. Initially we thought it might be beavers chewing through trees and then dumping them in the river, but we concluded that it was the bank on the opposite side slumping into the river causing trees and rocks to fall into the river.

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We didn't see anyone else until we reached the delta where the river flows into Teslin Lake. We knew not to enter the lake if it was windy, as the large lake can get quite nasty and dangerous. We spent a few days camped waiting for calm, observing and hearing rifle shots from moose hunters out of Teslin. We also saw two canoes of people camped further along, and one solo female paddler who spent a night camped with us. Nancy was getting anxious to finish as she wanted to get on the trail to continue her PCT hike. We left early in the morning in calm weather and were in Teslin by 10:00 am.

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Mark immediately hitchhiked the 20 miles back to Johnson's Crossing and was back with the car by noon. We packed up the gear and canoe, and were on the road by afternoon. Three days later we arrived in Port Townsend and immediately unloaded the car then re-packed with Nancy's hiking gear.

Nancy's intended section hike this year was from Ashland, OR south to Burney Falls, CA, a total of 300 miles. She had been watching the PCTA site for any potential closures due to fire along this section. Before we left Cordova there was a fire just west of the trail which at that time wasn't a threat. While we were on the drive south that fire had reached the trail just outside of Etna and closed a portion of trail. By the time of our arrival in Port Townsend, another portion of trail north of Seiad had been closed. Instead of dealing with getting on and off the trail twice she decided to get on the trail at Castle Crags (Dunsmuir) and hike all the way to Donner Pass, 330 miles. Luckily this year Mark was going to be her support team along the route, making a change much easier.

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Upon arrival in PT Nancy had to print new maps and re-organize her food, and within 24 hours we were back on the road. Nancy was on the trail the next day. She wasn't expecting to encounter many thru hikers as it was almost mid-September and reaching the Canadian border before the first snow would be very difficult. Yet, within two hours she met a young hiker intending to thru hike who informed her that there were four more hikers coming up behind him. As it turned out, each of the hikers were exiting the trail at Castle Crags due to the fires ahead - there were the two before the Oregon border, two fires in northern Oregon, and a large fires near Mt. Rainier in Washington. The 2017 PCT hiking season turned out to be a difficult one due to the number and severity of fires.

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On day six she met up with Mark at Burney Falls, and after a night in a motel was off again. Nancy had been keeping in touch with her mom who was having a health issue at the time. During her second meet-up with Mark, she received a phone message from her sister-in-law informing her that her mom had taken a turn for the worst and she should try to get down to Southern California. We took off immediately and Nancy was able to spend a week taking care of her mom before she died, grateful to arrive in time to help her mom make her last journey. Ten days after leaving the trail she resumed her hike where she had left off.

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Mark needed to be in San Francisco on October 12th for a meeting of the CCA's Safety at Sea Committee and the ten days off the trail now made it impossible for Nancy to hike all the way to Donner Pass. Hopefully she'll be able to finish the remaining Northern California portions left undone on next year's hike. Then in 2019 she can hike the remaining 350 miles in Washington state and successfully complete the PCT!

As soon as we returned home we set to tackling the long list of home maintenance and improvement projects that generally get neglected during our long absences from home. This included a major job in the kitchen, which required a considerable amount of re-doing finish carpentry, plumbing and electrical work to accept the new counter tops and appliances.

Nancy continues to volunteer at the Senior Food Bank and for ECHHO driving seniors to their doctor appointments. She also volunteers for the Friends of the Library sorting through the donated book and helping out at their book sales.

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A pleasant surprise for the Christmas season was a rare white Christmas morning. In the very temperate Pacific Northwest region, this was only the seventh white Christmas since 1890, and was for Mark at least better than a visit by S. Claus.

Our adventure plans for the coming season seem much the same as those past, but it is with these challenges in mind that we enter the New Year with optimism and anticipation.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 Alaska Voyage


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We continue to cruise TAMARA as actively as we possibly can each season. In the years that we have been back from our extensive time cruising from the Labrador Sea to Patagonia and Antarctica, then finally home to Alaska, about half of each year has been devoted to preparing, provisioning, maintaining and cruising the boat which has so faithfully served us for so many years and miles.

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One benefit of being back in the cold waters of Alaska is that TAMARA requires much less frequent haul-outs for routine bottom cleaning and painting. However the flip side of that benefit is the greater difficulty in doing such work in a place where the weather can often be less than cooperative. Our maintenance schedule would require that a part of this season’s time would have to be devoted to this effort. But first there would be time for yet one more late winter cruise in one of the most spectacular maritime regions, where mountains and glaciers meet the sea, and where winter is usually a time of particularly great beauty and unique adventure aboard a cruising sailboat.

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Mark devoted a good portion of the fall and early winter at home in Port Townsend to ordering, re-packing and arranging shipment aboard a friend’s fishing boat of all of the maintenance items, new gear and so on that would be required to conduct the quadrennial haul-out project. In addition, we planned a remote wilderness canoe trip in Canada’s Yukon Territory that we intended to undertake in September as we made our way homeward. This required some new camping equipment to supplement gear that we’d owned and used for decades. In part this was to assure greater comfort for an extended trip, and was easily accomplished as a canoe can readily accommodate a very substantial amount of equipment. Included in the preparations was arranging to purchase an excellent used voyaging canoe from one of the commercial outfitters in Whitehorse at the close of their normal season, and figuring out how to get everything to the right place at the right time

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In late February Mark left Port Townsend in our Subaru Forester loaded with as little gear as possible for the 2250 mile Alaska Highway drive to Valdez to meet the ferry to Cordova. Of course “as little gear as possible” meant a very substantial amount of equipment for the remote drive, such as Arctic winter clothing, footwear, sleeping bag, camp stove, tire chains, axe, shovel etc., as well as all of the parts, equipment and doodads that had been acquired in addition to the great bulk of stuff had been loaded aboard Stewart Deal’s seine boat DEFIANCE. Without such help almost every season we would have a very difficult time getting all of the things that such adventuring requires, and for this we are grateful for the friends that we have that are still active in Alaskan fisheries.

Recent years have undergone a very rapid and steady decline in what once were normal winter conditions, both on the drive north, as well as in Prince William Sound. On Mark’s 2012 solo winter cruise, record snowfall had made the Sound a winter wonderland, and required the assistance of the military to keep Cordova functioning. But in each of the years since, winter had become shorter and shorter, with snowfall diminishing progressively over time. Generally on the drive north, extremely low temperatures render even snow-packed roads safer as the hard-pack takes on an almost concrete-like quality. No thin layer of water develops on top to create the very slippery conditions common on more temperate highways. But in recent years there had been either no snow pack at all, or the dreaded warmer temperatures that result in the more treacherous driving conditions

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The oil dependent Alaska state budget situation further complicated this season’s trip. Following the opening of a highway tunnel from the western Prince William Sound port of Whittier, most full-time Cordovans utilize the ferry to get to the city of Anchorage via that shorter route, rather than landing in Valdez and making the longer drive. To adjust to budget cuts, the ferry system has therefore made the Valdez/Cordova run a lower priority. As a consequence the boat to and from Cordova and Valdez now generally takes a very long triangular route by way of Whittier, turning what used to be a seven-hour trip into fourteen! Fortunately the scenery is spectacular, the ferry warm and comfortable, and there usually is someone aboard whom we know to talk with.

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Generally it takes ten days or so to commission, fuel and provision TAMARA for her winter cruise. This includes removing the special shrink wrap material that serves as a winter covering, bending on the sails, refitting the anchor that had been removed to accommodate the harbor snow removal crews, getting engine, generator and other mechanical systems functional, and laying in fuel, provisions and water, which requires some effort in the winter. However this season the exceptionally mild winter, and historically low snow-pack made most of these chores relatively easy.

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The cruise itself was much less satisfying than it would have been with a more normal winter. After all it is winter itself that is the objective of a “winter cruise”, and this year there was not only no snow at all below 1,500 feet elevation but the ground itself was not even frozen! No skiing, snowshoeing or any other winter activity was possible, and even hiking ashore was not facilitated by firm ground. With luck this coming winter will bring more normal conditions.

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Perhaps the most challenging episode of the winter cruise occurred early on when a strong winter gale resulted in TAMARA dislodging her anchor while waiting for better conditions at Naked Island. This required some tricky work for Mark as a single-hander. His reflections on seamanship, techniques, equipment, and training and experience resulted in a piece to be published as a two-part installment featured in Cruising World magazine this coming spring.

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Following the “winter” cruise, Mark returned to Cordova to undergo the annual SERVS oil spill response training, and then re-provisioned TAMARA in preparation for Nancy’s arrival in early May. The weather was exceptionally fine, and the harbor exceptionally busy, in part due to an ill-timed road construction project at the busiest time of year for the salmon fleet. So we simply decided to forgo the necessary maintenance haul-out until the end of the season, and got away from the bustle as quickly as we could.

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As we would have to do the maintenance work, we had not planned to range far a-field, remaining in the Sound instead of venturing westward for the eastern Aleutian Island area. So to make the cruise more interesting, and a little more challenging, we tried to visit as many places in the Sound that we had not been before as we could. However even in the 7,500 square miles of cruising afforded within Prince William Sound there are becoming fewer and fewer anchorages that we have not used at one time or another.

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The fine weather however allowed us to more easily paddle, row or hike, so we were able to thoroughly enjoy even the less challenging cruising. At times we sought out the company of other, usually foreign flagged, cruising boats, while sometimes we ventured to where we knew there would likely not be any other boats at all. Part of this search took us to very secluded anchorages in which it would be possible to secure the yacht with lines ashore, possibly even in winter. This effort continues to give us very detailed information, with our notes containing soundings, water sources, mooring plans and so on in order that we can safely secure TAMARA for an extended period. This is essential, particularly on the winter cruises in order to be able to leave the boat for any period of time.

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Our cruise took us to the foot of a few of the Sound’s spectacular glaciers, to secluded anchorages from which we could roam ashore, lagoons completely sheltered from even the generally quiet waters of the Sound, and to locations where much of Cordova’s fishing fleet were concentrated for salmon season. In all this cruise was quite relaxing - although at times we missed a few of the challenges of our more ambitious western voyages. As we had ample time available, and had never done so during the busy summer tourist season, we decided to visit the small port of Whittier. Originally constructed to be only a temporary WWII supply terminal, Whittier has become a major cruise ship point of embarkation, with tourists traveling into Alaska's interior by bus and train.

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An annual summer festival called Salmon Jam takes place in July in Cordova, but we’d never been in town at that time of year, as cruising had kept us far from town. This year, with our less extensive cruise and our need to return to port for the maintenance haul-out we made it a point to fully partake of both days of the festival. Great food, music and of course good beer made for a fine time up on Cordova’s ski hill. Nancy served as a volunteer for the event, while Mark got to see old friends that generally do not arrive in town until after our usual departure.

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Work on the haul-out progressed pretty smoothly. The town’s new lift and excellent harbor staff greatly facilitate such a project, and the excellent skilled tradesmen and commercial chandleries make a fishing port like Cordova the ideal place for boat maintenance work. In all, we applied three coats of anti-foulant paint, replaced sacrificial zinc anodes, replaced the mechanical propeller shaft seal, installed a new depth sounder transducer, and performed some welding work. All routine but essential work.

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Just before completion of the yard project, Nancy flew south to embark on yet another section of her Pacific Crest Trail hike. She has now completed about two thirds of the entire distance. See link to her hiking blog. When she had completed this season’s PCT hike she returned to Cordova, and we loaded up the Subaru with all of the gear for the canoe trip!

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On our road trip two years ago to the Arctic Ocean via Canada’s Dempster Highway and the Mackenzie River Valley, we crossed and re-crossed a number of important historic canoe routes that had been used both by pre-European First Nations peoples, and later by the Voyageurs of the fur trade. This gave Mark the idea to once again return to canoeing as a way to enjoy wilderness travel. He too had done a great many miles as a hiker, but severe back injuries have ended that means of travel. Even though he has some difficulty walking, paddling would allow us to get deep into the wild. In addition, a good canoe can carry a tremendous load of equipment and provisions, making for quite comfortable camp living.

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Mark had arranged to buy a used Old Town Discovery canoe from one of the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory commercial outfitters. He'd had extensive canoeing experience growing up, had taught in a summer camp, had done some paddling in western Alaska 40 years ago, but had not been in a canoe since. Nancy paddles her kayak in every one of our summer anchorages, but had no canoeing experience. Mark would have to teach her a few essential strokes and techniques, but was confident that she would quickly master working the boat on the river. Coupled with both of us having many years of wilderness travel experience, Mark’s experience in canoes and good woodcraft, we felt ready for a remote river trip.

The fourteen hour ferry trip from Cordova to Valdez got us ashore just before dark. So we drove directly to a public campground a few miles from town, set up our camp, and put off shopping for fuel and provisions until the next morning. Then we set out for Whitehorse, about 650 miles to the southeast.

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In Whitehorse we made a very short stop at Kanoe People, an outfitter business very well run by a First Nations family, loaded our boat with the help of the daughter of the proprietor, and headed directly to the enormous supermarket in town to provision. Three days later, after sorting through the equipment and provisions, working out a packing scheme, and driving 125 miles on the very primitive Canol Road to where a WWII Bailey Bridge crosses the Rose River, we unloaded the canoe and mountain of gear. The road had been built specifically to construct a small pipeline to supply military needs at Whitehorse during WWII, and has been changed very little since. Some of the original equipment, abandoned at completion, remains today. Our plan was to take the Rose to the Nisutlin River which flows all of the way south to Teslin Lake, near the town of Teslin on the Alaska Highway.

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However we had no way to get the Subaru back south to our end point, then return to the Rose River Bridge to start paddling. Our error in planning was that only a few days earlier it was both Labour Day in Canada, and the opening of the moose-hunting season. Had we initiated our trip then, it would have been easy to drive the car down to Teslin, then hitch-hike back up the Canol Road with one of the hunters. But a few days later, hunters were all southbound, and no traffic was bound for the Rose.

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We decided to cast fate to wind, unloaded the canoe, and gear, and parked the Subaru at the Rose River bridge, hoping that all would work out and that we could retrieve the car without chartering a helicopter!

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A few days down the river we camped at the only place along the route that the river came anywhere near the road. There we met another paddler, Rick Flewelling, a very intrepid 73 year-old who spends about five months every season solo paddling in the North. He was southbound, but offered to give Mark a ride the two hours back north on the muddy road where he could retrieve the car. After the four hour round trip we shared a dinner together with Rick who regaled us with tales of his 50 year career delivering sailing vessels throughout the world. Our common experiences as mariners, sailors and paddlers made for a very entertaining evening, even though it was raining heavily.

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Fortunate to have been able to retrieve the car, and armed with the knowledge of how to solve the transport logistics by embarking a few days earlier, we decided to load up the canoe and make our way slowly home, camping and paddling on some of the many lakes and traditional canoe routes in British Columbia along the way. This included an extended camp on Stuart Lake, site of the Fort St. James National Historic site. But we plan to return to the Rose River Bridge next Labour Day and try again. If Rick can do it at 73, we can do it five years his junior!

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Early in the 1800’s the critically important fur trade in Canada had been pushed far to the west. This trade was controlled by two rival companies, the iconic Hudson Bay Company, and the North West Company. Searching for new sources of trade, both sent explorers deep into the wilderness to scout new transportation routes, make contact with native peoples, and establish trading posts. In 1805 Simon Fraser led an expedition over the Rocky Mountains to investigate the fur trade potential of the Pacific slope. After spending the winter at McLeod Lake, Frasier and his subordinate James MacDougal established a post on Sturgeon Lake, later re-named for company clerk John Stuart. It would become the most important British Columbia post, serving essentially as the capitol of New Caledonia for many years. The two rival firms merged in 1821, and the post thereafter would operate under the auspices of the Hudson Bay Company - a firm that traces its linage to 1670 and continues in business throughout Canada to this day.

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Mark has studied, written and lectured on the Pacific Northwest Maritime Fur Trade, including at our Mystic Seaport Museum shows a few years ago that detailed our voyages in the wake of those entrepreneurial sailors. He was most impressed by the knowledge and presentation of the young woman who served as our interpretive docent on our tour of the post. The two of them continued to talk well after the end of the tour! In contrast to an earlier visit 20 years ago, the present staff are now truly experts.

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By the end of September we were once again home, feeling much like the Canada geese we’d seen all along the way making the same migration that we do each season. Soon late February will come once again, and the cycle will be renewed.

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