Courtesy of Michael Armstrong, Homer (Alaska) News
I do love a good surprise. When I know I am to be surprised I love most of all to find out ahead of time what the surprise is. When I am the surpriser I love seeing how close to the fire I can run without getting burned – teasing and wafting clues in front of my surprisee.
Home is wherever I’m with you
For the last two weeks of the paddle up to Homer I was fuelled by the idea of coming home to Lucy, my fiancee, in time for her birthday. Jewelled in surprise and cloaked in deception, I spent many a phone call and email weaving tales to hide my trail.
Happy happy happiest of days
Lucy thought she would be picking Justine up from the airport, whereas in fact I was the tanned, scruffy-haired paddler in Arrivals. I had to walk right up in front of her to get her attention, before tears and the longest-hug-in-the-world gave way to more tears and an even longer hug. It was magic and still feels magic to be home. My head and heart are definitely torn nowadays – between the adventure and home and I look forward to a time when they can be one and the same. I am this side of the pond for just shy of a week and will return to Alaska to begin cycling in a few days.
Eighty mile slog
The final miles of the entire journey were to be some of the toughest, pinned as we were on Shuyak Island by a stubborn low pressure system in poor conditions. The Monday had seen us turn around in the grey dawn and head back to land to wait out another opportunity. With a tiny window opening on Wednesday we pushed out to sea in a whiteout, bound for the Barren Islands. I am not a fan of fog and the queasy feeling that wells up inside of me with the pulsating blanket of ocean, no landmarks and a softened, fuzzed white horizon. It was more comfortable than the first attempt and I was even happier when the sea lay down and I could really settle into it. It poured with rain for much of the day and I pumped my legs below the deck to stay warm, continually flexing my toes. The shadowy peaks of the Barrens loomed out of the mist with perhaps ten miles to go and we plodded on, the ebbing tide pulling us further eastwards than we would like, though these mountains felt magnetic now that I could see them. A goal seen is much easier to hold onto than some abstract, notional mirage lying hidden from view.
Cold and wet, bouncing through the tide races
As the tide turned our course became more favourable and around 2pm, eight hours after leaving land, we were munching on cheese and sausage, allowing the flooding tide to suck us up between the two biggest islands. With the flights home just a few days away and not-too-mad weather, we pushed on up towards the Kenai Peninsula – the mainland, once more. A few miles out we were doing well, bouncing through tide races and heading in a useful direction and then things went less well when the flooding tide started to take us west and out to the Shelikof Strait faster than we could paddle in the direction that we wanted to. Turning around just as a headwind picked up, we aimed for the Barrens once more, some five miles away. Ten minutes later it was clear that going backwards wasn’t a viable option and so we turned back again to our original goal of the Kenai Peninsula. It was nearly seven hours of headwinds, many lumpy, seething tide races and scores of clouds dumping their rain on us before we reached the coast. Happily, the sun joined us for a time and set off the moody mountainous scene with a warming glow – gentle eye candy for weary souls. We were paddling on Spring Tides (i.e. the biggest tidal ranges) and felt the powerful suck of the flood pulling us into the Cook Inlet, topping out at 5 knots close to shore. Pulling into a steep, cobbled beach at 11pm was one of the best moments of the day – fifty miles and nearly 17 hours after we had set out, we were almost done. Even the rain didn’t dampen our excitement for the finish, though we both found we could hardly eat, we were so tired. It was 2am before we slept.
The final day’s paddling was along a beautiful stretch of imposing coast, mostly silent, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts, my chin nestled into the neck of my hoods in a bid to fend off the mix of cold wetness, sore muscles and my sadness for the end of this journey. Bubbled into it was the excitement of the same observation – another phase ending and a new one beginning. My eyes feasted on the tree-lined shores and misty wraps hanging over them. My ears winced at the motors of passing boats spoiling the quiet. Later on, I delighted in waving at them. I grinned and cried quietly at the idea of finishing on the beach in Homer and seeing Lucy so soon. I raced back through images and feelings of the thousand odd miles up to this point and tried to soak up every last view and feeling of the present.
At lunch we floated outside Seldovia Bay, the second settlement of the day, gorging on all the dried fruit which we had saved in anticipation of more days on the water. A small plane buzzed us multiple times and we waved madly while we munched before pushing on. A helicopter did the same and again we grinned and again pushed on. Chattering now we recounted this and that and imagined other things as Homer Spit came into view. I had spotted the white blobs of Homer’s houses along the hills from 13 miles out and boat traffic had increased ten fold. We were definitely getting there. A small boat and photographer (the same who had peered at us from both the plane and chopper) rode in with us, snapping us from all angles.
The ebbing tide slowed our final couple of miles to the beach on Homer Spit where we had spied a sign which we hoped might be for us. It was. And there were bubbles too. Some kind folks from the Hallo Bay Bear Camp and the Homer Chamber of Commerce had come out to meet us, as well as a local reporter, some passersby and Liz Pepper, wife of our friend Billy Pepper from the Fish and Wildlife Service ship, the RV Tiglax. Grinning, Justine and I wobbled out of our boats onto the sand and hugged and squealed, grinned and did our trademark ‘Air Five’. (I vetoed high fives early on as Justine’s strong slap hurt my soggy paddling hands) I don’t think either of us cried, though it was emotional. We had made it over 1300 miles from Adak – a journey which had challenged us both in many, often different, ways. We were still pals and still laughing. It was a good feeling.
Courtesy of Michael Armstrong, Homer (Alaska) News
Back & forth
I still can’t quite believe we actually made it. For so long the journey had seemed so out of reach to me and the challenges too huge. Before we started I wondered if my health would let me down after the travails of the previous six months, my energy still dampened by the lingering effects of pneumonia and ongoing allergies. I worried that my skills wouldn’t be up to it or that I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with Justine the Machine. Then there were all the usual uncontrollable contingencies like weather letting us pass, supplies lasting and kit holding out. Happily, somehow, with planning, discipline, a shared sense of humour, stubbornness, support from within and without and a sprinkling of luck, it all came together. And without a single capsize, too, which I am mightily relieved about.
For me, it feels surreal and as though it happened in another life - all the more so, I am sure, for being home in the UK so soon after landing. In fact I keep wanting to tell the paddling Sarah that the surprise worked perfectly and Lucy couldn’t believe it was me. I miss paddling, even though I thought I wouldn’t as I was so sore. My body clock is all back-to-front, though I feel fit and strong and ready for the bike. Sore and squeaky muscles and joints have had a quick session from the lovely John Perrot to try and realign this and that and relieve some of the pressure.
1300 miles went into that hug. Courtesy of Michael Armstrong, Homer (Alaska) News
This phase of the journey meant and means all sorts of things to me and I am sure that some of those will change with time, too. For now the main things I will take from it are hoardes of memories of sights and sounds sublime, memories of – and connection to – new friends, lessons in teamwork, ideas about remote living, questions on identity after meeting endangered communities, and an ever stronger commitment to helping others get outdoors in my future life, post L2L. I’m happy I’ve picked up a few skills on the way too…. In fact I feel like a different paddler to the one who left Adak back in May. It was such a special place to journey through and for that I feel so lucky. I know I take the spirit of the place with me.
Washing and sorting all of our gear
While I shall miss the sea and my lovely boat Krissy, I am keen to get pedalling. While I enjoyed a team expedition and shall miss Justine to some extent (with no offence meant by this – she is a great pal), I know I shall enjoy the beauty of solitude on the bike and finding my own rhythm, too. And while I enjoy laughing at fishermen who claim my biceps would be useful on their boat, I shall be glad to give my arms a rest. One thing I am not looking forward to on this next leg with Hercules is the traffic. It is by far the most dangerous leg of the expedition. I shall be dressing like a luminous Christmas tree and hope for the best.
And with that I return to my home bubble. You’ll hear from me next from across the pond. I shall have a couple of days in Anchorage putting Hercules together and packing the kayaks home before heading south to Homer and the end of the road, where we finished in the boats. This is where I shall begin cycling from sometime next week c. Thursday – Saturday.
Homecomings are sweet
All that remains is to thank everyone who helped make the Aleutian/Alaskan journey a reality. Justine, Krissy and my team, all my sponsors, everyone who helped on the way and the Homer folks who gathered us in from the water and helped us on our way home.
Finally, if you enjoyed reading the updates I hope you will consider donating a dollar or two for my L2L Charities: CoppaFeel!, Jubilee Sailing Trust, MND Association and WaterAid. DONATE HERE Thanks to the recent donors.
Until next time,
P.S For Justine’s take on things check out www.cackletv.com and look out for her film of the journey which will be made in due course.