Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Inside Passage

On Friday I boarded the M/V Malaspina, a 408 foot car and passenger ferry, in Bellingham, WA. Cars starting boarding at 3pm, but I didn't get on until 5:45, the second to last car before our 6:00 departure. I don't envy the car deck crew, they had to figure out how to load what seemed to be just under 100 cars, trucks, boats, and trailers of various sizes and destinations. And take on more during our trip.

The Malaspina is the oldest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System, built in 1963. She had a cafeteria, cabins, movie theater, bar, and various lounge areas. I eschewed the expenses of a cabin and the cafeteria for a lounge chair in the solarium for my sleeping bag and a bunch of MREs that I had to eat before they go bad.

The solarium wasn't too bad. It was well protected from the front and sides, but open in the back. The first night we had a slight breeze abaft the beam so it got a little cool. Which wasn't a big deal until another passenger decided to cut the breeze around his sleeping bag with a space blanket. Why anyone actually uses those things is beyond me. He sounded like a potato chip bag getting repeatedly crunched at Mach 2 and connected to a megaphone. Luckily, daybreak came fast at about 4:20am, so I didn't have to listen to him much longer. After that it was nice in the solarium, though it did get uncomfortably warm in the afternoon when the sun turned it into a mini greenhouse.

There was a great community of folks on the aft deck, and on board in general. I met a number of fellow travelers and heard some great stories. A recently retired Army Sergeant Major making his final move with his wife to his house in Fairbanks. A Radioactive Tracer Technologist on two weeks of vacation for her birthday. A former Ice Road trucker. A glacier pilot. A salmon fisherman. And a bunch of old people in RVs.

Our first stop was in Ketchikan. We had 4 hours to explore the town. I walked the mile or so from the ferry dock to the more historic parts of town to see the sights and grab a cup of coffee. Ketchikan was cool, I didn't spend enough time there to make any sweeping observations other than the fact that the old and fat cruise ship tourists, and all the tacky business that support them, had taken over a good bit of downtown.

Creek Street was pretty novel. It was built in pilings and served as Ketchikan's Red Light District back in the 1900s. I thought its motto was pretty catchy: "where men and fish go to spawn."

I spent most of my time in the forward lounge, watching the progress of the ship thru the Inside Passage. It was pretty spectacular, and got better and better as we travelled north. The sun came out after Ketchikan and we could finally see the snowcapped peaks of the mainland contrasting with the dark green forested slopes nearby and the blueish water of the passage. The photo below doesn't do it justice. My epic port-to-starboard panoramas didn't work out as planned. My stitching software didn't appreciate the fact that the ferry was continuously moving at 15 knots, meaning that the images didn't quite line up and I lost some good shots.

We made a brief stop in Wrangell, too short to do any exploration. The best part of the trip came in the Wrangell Narrows, which truly defined "inside passage." I think in some places I could have chucked a rock from the ship to the shore on either side.

We made another quick stop in Petersburg just before it got dark. Again, not enough time to go ashore, but I snapped a good shot.

I had a weird expectation of wildlife. I guess I thought the entire route north would be lined by non stop breaching humpbacks and orcas. That wasn't the case. I did see more porpoises and bald eagles than I could count, but only 4 whales. They were probably sei or fin whales, though one did give us a nice fluke show.

I guess I'll have to wait until later this week when I'm in Glacier Bay for the wildlife bonanza I was hoping for. Thanks to Crystal and James for putting me up in Juneau!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Preparations and Departure

I've been a human tornado of activity this last week. All the months of planning and preparation finally have come to a head. I wanted to give everyone a glimpse into the preparations I've made for my long road trip. Admittedly, my final preparations themselves felt rushed. I thought I was doing a good job and not procrastinating, but the night before the movers came I was up till 4 am with a final load of dehydrated goodies and packing. I wanted to get the truck fully packed up and ready to go before the movers arrived to avoid the following situation:

Tuesday, May 20th - "I'll just set all the important gear off to the side. I'm sure the movers won't touch it."

Wednesday, May 21st - "Hmm, where are my mountaineering boots. They aren't in the house, so they MUST be in the truck."

Sometime in July, at some remote base camp in Wrangell National Park - "Oh no..."

So, after a 6 hour long game of Tetris with various boxes of food, bins of gear, sleeping bags, boots, backpacks, water jugs, cooler, duffels of clothes, and more boxes of food, the truck is all packed up:

I lost the construction photos when my old iPhone crashed, but Dad, Phil, and I (ok, mostly Dad) built the sleeping platform on the left with 3/4" plywood, 2x4s, and some outdoor carpet. I'm really happy that we had the foresight to make it modular - if you look close you might be able to see two pieces of plywood stacked. The one on top will slide over to the right and wedge into place, giving me the option to deck over the entire back and stretch out at night. I'll show you that later. But if it wasn't modular I'd be in a pinch. I have way too much stuff starting out. I won't go into the details of everything that is packed in there (I have a few cool items that I'll reveal over time when they get proper use), but most of it is food. How much food? Probably enough for 4 months without resupply between canned goods, dry goods, MREs, a few freeze drys, and my homemade stuff. 

The biggest part of my preparations, aside from arranging trips, reservations, logistics, etc, was to try and dehydrate enough food to last for all or the majority of the road trip (thru late October). I'm not a huge fan of eating sodium laced freeze dried mush 24/7 and that stuff gets expensive. I have a dehydrator and a vacuum sealer, which make it pretty handy to make my own lightweight, easy, and gourmet backcountry meals and preserve them for long term storage. I'll go into specific recipes and such later. 

So after 2 months of nearly constant work and around $600 in groceries later, I have the following spread (before vacuuming):

What all is included? Good question. Here goes:

Pineapples (15! Challenge completed TO!)
Blackberries (from my yard last summer)
Marinara Sauce
Black Eyed Peas
Green Peas
Bell Peppers
Green Beans
Hash Browns
Ground Beef
Italian Sausage

Delicious! It's amazing how much food is really water weight. You can fit around 30 dried apples in a gallon ziplock. Or 4.5 pineapples in a quart ziplock. And with the vacuum sealer, that stuff will last at least a year, more like two. 

So everything is loaded up and ready to go! I meet my ferry at 3 pm today, drive my truck onboard, and then try to stake a claim to a lounge chair or some deck space to sleep on for the duration of the three day voyage. We'll leave at 6 pm today (Friday May 23) and arrive in Juneau at 6:30 am on Monday May 26th. I'm looking forward to the trip thru the Inside Passage, I hope I'll see some humpback whales and orcas. 

That's it for now. Next stop Juneau!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Goodbye Coast Guard!

Friday May 16th marked my last day in the Coast Guard. Well I guess technically I'm on terminal leave until July 4th, but I can start growing my beard now and let's face it - that's all that really matters.

It was a bittersweet day for me. As I mentioned before, I'm very proud having spent the last five years in the Coast Guard and will always look back on this time favorably. I've gotten to go places that I wouldn't otherwise have gone, I crammed in a lifetime's worth of leadership lessons and specialty training that has helped me grow both in and out of uniform, and I made some of the best friends that I've ever had. It's that last part in particular - the Coasties I've met along the way - that makes leaving so hard.

Shout out to all my CGA amigos. Special thanks to Adam, Alex, Phil, Andi, Tommy, Patty, Noah, Flan, Trevor, Mike, Keely, Emily, Luke, Craig, and Jason for 9 years of good company and endless support.

Shout out to my CGC ACTIVE shipmates. Special thanks to Tim and the 7 cubic meter stateroom we shared while plotting adventures across oceans and up mountains.

Shout out to all the consummate professionals at MSST Seattle. Special thanks to broom closet homie Raf and my band of brothers - Yoda, Lumpy, JD, Tobie, Coconutz, Rojo, Slam, Squishy, Lassie, Moose, Dick, Mark, Ryan, Billy, Tomas, and Crema.

And sorry to the 1.3 million people that I forgot to mention by name. Best wishes to all the Coasties for continued success in their careers. May your remaining time be filled with fair winds, calm seas, fallout funds, and unlimited special liberty chits.

Lots of folks ask why I decided to get out. While I'm confident in my decision, it's quite difficult to explain and there's no concise "stock" answer. And even what I'll write here won't capture the whole story. Lots of little reasons, a few big ones, but nothing scandalous. The Coast Guard has been good to me - it's an honorable profession with great benefits. I was frustrated with the bureaucracy a good bit, but that's not reason enough to leave. The people are awesome, but it's not much fun to have to say goodbyes and pick up and move every few years. One thing that helped my decision was knowing that regardless if I stayed in or got out, I was still going to have to leave my current job and my great coworkers this summer. That's not a way to live. I hope to have a little more control of things like that, to find a place to set some roots and build a lasting sense of community.

I got to do everything I set out to do in the Coast Guard - travel to exotic lands, drive ships, stop some drugs, arrest bad guys, save a few people, fly in a helicopter, and shoot lots of guns. Looking down the road at my next tour, and the remainder of a career, I struggled to find a path among the options offered and felt my enthusiasm waning. I'm probably the type of guy better suited to the lower levels of the officer corps, when it's still part of the job to get out there with the troops instead of spending most of the time at a desk, regardless of how important the job is for the good of the service. So better to end on a high note I thought, then invest much more trying to figure it out only to certainly end up at the same decision a few years later. Leaving at the top of your game is the only way to go, and I think the Wizards Michael Jordan and Radio Shack Lance Armstrong would agree.

The biggest reason of all that I decided to get out, is that I feel called to a different vocation and want to pursue it wholeheartedly. I believe that the Coast Guard was absolutely what I was supposed to do from 2005 - 2014. But it's not what I'm supposed to do anymore. Everyone has that one thing that they would happily do the rest of their lives for free, or knows how they would spend their days if they won the lottery and money was no object. I won't spend long on the soap box, but I will remain long enough to say I think we should try and live like that every day, starting today, before we look back and realize it's too late. I've had a few experiences in my short time alive to help me put that into perspective. I recognize that some folks might have certain responsibilities (wives, children, etc) that give them less options. But I've found myself, and not by accident, without those obligations for the time being, and able to take some risks in the hope of richer rewards. So I'd like to see if I can't try and make a living spending my time outside, planning trips and logistics, working with small groups of motivated people, building self reliant wilderness skills, and promoting a mutual sense of adventure and conservation. What would you do?

So here's to the end of one exciting and rewarding chapter and the beginning of the next!

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -Mark Twain