Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Last of the Decade

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Mark, as has been his practice for several seasons, left home in late February by road for Alaska. But this time he was traveling in greater style. After many years of making this transit in various trucks, vans, and more recently our Subaru Forester, he had spent considerable time last winter modifying and preparing a 2004 Toyota Sienna AWD mini-van. Perhaps the ultimate Soccer Mom Mobile, the Toyota, once all of the back seats had been removed, permitted the installation of a modular camper unit that he had designed and built over the winter.

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This made a very comfortable, though minimalist in size, road-cruising camper. With the addition of a camp kitchen, food, water, tools, plenty of space remained for the usual boat freight that goes north every year. The addition of winter tires, a well made awning, a couple of camp chairs, and an auxiliary battery capable of providing plenty of light from efficient LED lights completed the conversion. The excellent fuel economy of the modest sized, but comfortably outfitted Toyota proved ideal for the long Alaska drive, and would further show its value during the support effort on Nancy's fall PCT hike.

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Nancy planned an epic celebration for her 70th birthday at the end of April. She had 8 good friends arrive from out of state; Deb from Portland, ME, Linda, Judy, Pinky, Leslie, Kris, and Jeanne from So. California, and Anna from Portland, OR. To accommodate the gals from California, Nancy rented one of the late 19th century Officer's Quarters houses at historic Fort Worden. Mark flew down from Alaska for the big party, and the house filled with friends. It was a beautiful weekend for everyone, with Nancy taking her friends up to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park for a great view of much of Puget Sound, the Olympic mountains to the west, and the Cascade mountains to the east.

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Mark and Nancy flew to Cordova a few days after the celebration and began cruising Prince William Sound a week later.

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While we have now become intimately familiar with most all of Prince William Sound, we always are able to find new special places. Part of this process each season entails deliberately returning to favorite anchorages in order to observe the annual return of migratory waterfowl, the first emergence of newborns of numerous species, and the subtle changes brought about by the snowfall of winter and the melting of the covering of ice.

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This season we spent extra effort seeking out places to hike ashore that afforded better footing than much of the moss-covered meadows and forest floor. Some regions of the land surrounding the sound are under-laid by granite that had been polished smooth by prior glaciers. Moss and grasses have covered this substrate in many places, but unlike the wet muskeg of other areas, the rock supported areas afford very good footing yielding enjoyable hiking.

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The heavy spruce forests bordering the sound can produce enormous quantities of pollen in the spring, and this can easily be seen swirling in the currents produced by the ebb and flow of the tide. High water deposits some of this floating pollen on the rocks of the shoreline, like a ring around a giant bath tub, and at times clouds of this dust-like material float above the surface like a mist or fog.

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In mid-July, Nancy wanted to participate in Cordova's annual Salmon Jam music festival and summer music camp that is offered to kids and adults alike. She enrolled in the week-long Adult Ukulele class. It was the first time she had an actual class, having taught herself to some extent from YouTube videos. At the end of the music camp all the students, young and old, took part in the final concert.  The concert featured both children's musical and dance groups, as well as adult performers, and a sizable portion of the residents of Cordova turned out to enjoy the performances of their town-folks.

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The Salmon Jam Music Festival professional musicians performed two nights at the large tented facility erected at the base of the town ski hill. This also permits a salmon bar-b-q dinner, a beer garden for the adults, and various events, including a popular water slide for the kids.

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We decided to remain in Cordova until Nancy's planned departure the first week of August in order for her to finish hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She had three non-consecutive sections left. Two of these sections of trail were in the Cascade mountains of northern Washington, and one in northern California. In recent years, wildfires had impeded her progress. To fully complete hiking the entire distance would require that she jump on and off the trail, which entailed travel to these various portions.

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She finished the Cascade sections in August and returned to Alaska the end of the month to drive south to Port Townsend with Mark. Along the way we enjoyed a side-trip to the coastal town of Haines, AK and a brief stay at a hotel that had formerly served as bachelor officer's quarters at the turn of the twentieth century army post.

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Mark would once again support Nancy on the last section in her hiking quest in Northern California. The converted Toyota van allowed Mark to camp for several weeks as he rendezvoused with Nancy to periodically replenish her supplies, prepare a good hot dinner, and provide a welcomed rest before she returned to the trail. In the end, due to poor weather and another nearby wild fire, she had to skip 56 miles of trail to be completed next year. For more info click here: PCT

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Before the start of the New Year, we took off on another of the epic road trips that we much enjoy. This trip would total more than 4,500 miles, meandering the less-traveled highways to Tucson, Arizona to spend a few days with our friend and summer tenant Andrea, Las Cruces, New Mexico to visit our old friend Ted, a trip to Durango, Colorado to visit friends from Alaska, and a visit to Nancy's niece Aleda and her family in Salt Lake City. Along the way we visited White Sands National Park, Chaco Canyon World Heritage Site, and Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, each in New Mexico. A great end to 2019.

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Nancy has been wanting to volunteer at an African Cheetah preserve for many years, and she has finally taken steps to do so. After formal application, she has been accepted at the Cheetah Conservation reserve in Namibia and will be spending the month of April 2020 as a working guest. She is very excited about the opportunity and has been making extensive plans for her trip.

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As you read this update on our annual adventures, we move ahead yet one more time to plan, equip and provision for those to come. We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to pursue our life-long goals of sailing, hiking, paddling and driving to places near and far that have given us more and better experiences and friendships than even we could have ever expected. For that we are grateful.

We wish all a fruitful and enjoyable New Year.
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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Cruising Season 2018

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Mark left the 29th of February for his yearly drive north from Port Townsend to Valdez and the ferry to Cordova. The drive to Valdez normally takes him 5 days of winter driving, something he relishes. This year presented added challenges. Winter driving indeed it was. Hard-pack snow and ice covered the roads from Bellingham, WA all of the way to Valdez, more than 2,000 miles. For our Subaru, equipped with excellent winter tires, and Mark's years of experience driving in such conditions, as well as several seasons racing, this posed little problem except that posed by less experienced or less prudent drivers.

This latter problem was finally exemplified about half way between the Canadian border and Tok, AK when a jacked up pick-up sporting gigantic doughnut tires, and a snowmobile in the bed, flew passed even though the Subaru was already up to considerable sped for the conditions. A few minutes later, around a sweeping turn, there was the pick-up upside down well off the road, down a steep embankment.

Air temperature at the time was about minus 20 degrees, and blood was streaming from the semi-conscious driver's head who was simply balled up in a jumble in the inverted truck. It was much too far for medical assistance from Tok, even if it were possible to telephone for help, which it was not.

A minute later, a small RV driven by an Air Force officer on his way with his wife to his new assignment in Fairbanks stopped to assist. Mark shouted up the bank for them to bring down whatever bath towels they had, as well as a silver tarp in the Subaru.

Working together they stemmed the profuse bleeding, rolled up a large towel, fashioned it into a make-shift cervical collar, then carefully extracted the driver. Placing him on the folded up tarp, the three together were able to toboggan the injured driver up the embankment, then, with difficulty, get him into the RV. A considerable time later they turned their patient over to the Tok medical clinic.

Later reports indicated that he recovered well. The three rescuers were gratified that they had all received advanced first-aid training over the years. At first a critical cop in Tok criticized them for moving the injured driver, but quickly backed down when the Major forcefully, as though dressing down an airman first class, reminded him of the temperature, the distance and the communications.

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Mark has now spent the last 6 winters during the month of March on a solo cruise in Prince William Sound looking for snow. This winter's cruise provided plenty. Western Prince William Sound had enjoyed a fine winter, and snow covered the ground right down to the high tide line. At first the well settled and firmed-up snow permitted easy walking anywhere without skis or snowshoes. Then a foot of new snow required assistance ashore. But beautiful clear weather, except for the day-long snowstorm, made for a superb late-winter cruise, with plenty of time for rowing, hiking, and watching the return of the first migratory waterfowl.

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Nancy arrived in Cordodva the 1st of May and within a few days we were off for a summer aboard Tamara in Prince William Sound. In an endeavor to add a new destination to our cruise we had decided to head for the western Kenai Peninsula, with a possible excursion up into Cook Inlet. Our challenge would be to coordinate the very large tides in Cook Inlet with non-opposing winds for easy going.

As we rounded Gore Point we noted a sizable heard of mountain goats, both along the ridge at the top, as well as down to the rugged shore. These very elusive creatures are often very difficult to spot, and usually not in such numbers together. This was our reward for working our way to the rugged bay known as Port Dick. Securing Tamara with lines ashore in an inner bight in Sunday Harbor, we were able to enjoy several days while a strong easterly wind made further progress impracticable.

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Once we determined to turn back for the sound, a familiar topic was discussed, “Where to now?” On our many trips west to Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, even the Bering Sea, we had avoided Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. This seemed like a good time to give it a look.

On March 27, 1964 at 5:36 p.m. Seward, like Valdez, experienced a tsunami as a consequence of the powerful Good Friday Earthquake. Both lie at the head of a long fjord, the perfect spot for a tsunami to do major damage. Being March there was snow on the ground and it was dark. The population at the time was around 200 of which 12 were killed by the tsunami.

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Seward today is host to large cruise ships, is the southern terminus to the Alaska Railroad, and hosts the grueling Mount Marathon race every July 4th. As has become the norm in most Alaskan towns that can be driven to, it is a popular spot for RVs in the summer months. A favorite activity for visitors is a walk along the waterfront trail, created on land where fish processing plants, warehouses, and small boat harbors were destroyed by the tsunami.

From Seward we continued back into Prince William Sound for the remainder of the summer season, visiting familiar anchorages and trying ones that we have seen but not visited.

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One highlight of the summer was the siting of more black bears than in the past. On one hike we were seconds from running directly into a mother and 3 cubs! Friends in Cordova also mentioned spotting many more bears than in past seasons, and several had made their way into town. One had even entered the harbor and climbed aboard the 86' fishing boat Tamar.

Mark theorized that the excellent salmon returns and fine summers for berries the past few years had resulted in high cub survival, and later in town a friend whose career in academia had specialized in ecological studies pointed out that the excellent winter with abundant snowfall and absence of an early wet spring thaw had provided excellent den conditions.

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When one has the opportunity to spend several months observing, it is fascinating how the interactions of climate, weather and interconnected ecosystems can function when permitted to do so free of man's unsolicited interventions.

Come the first of August it was time for Nancy to once again leave to continue her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Her goal this summer was to complete the 3 non-consecutive sections of Northern California she has not yet completed. But 2 days before her departure she had to cancel all her plans due to the fires and extreme smoke north of Sacramento and come up with another section to hike. She was able to hike 200 miles in the Cascade Mountain of Washington and in late September complete another 150 miles north of Donner Pass. She hopes to complete her last 377 miles next August!

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On September 13th Nancy flew back up to Alaska to join Mark on the drive south back to Port Townsend. Our route was determined by the desire to check out a river in the NE corner of British Columbia for a possible future canoe trip.

We first headed to Chicken, then the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City, a route we took in 2014. From Dawson we drove to Carmack and headed south on Yukon Highway 4, merging into the Alaska Highway at Watson Lake. Mark had not driven the Alaska Highway east of Watson Lake since his first drive to Alaska in 1975, so in a sense it was new territory for both of us.

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From Fort Nelson we drove north to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories, a native village where, if we did a canoe trip, we would take out. Along the way we were surprised to encounter Wood Buffalo grazing and lounging along the highway shoulders. We returned to Fort Nelson and continued on the Alaska Highway to Fort St John, then headed SW for home.

Since the fires in Northern California had been contained and the smoke had cleared we decided to make a brief stop in Port Townsend then head for Donner Pass, CA so Nancy could get on the PCT to complete another 150 miles of trail, making this year‘s total 350 miles. Mark camped at various sites close to the trail in order to serve as her support crew along the way.

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And on that note we hope that this finds you all enjoying life and new adventures near and far.

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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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