Monthly Archives: August 2013
The day started out with some unexpected excitement. I woke up in my van in a large parking lot next to the ocean in Whitter, Alaska. I started working and my director asked me to call him so he could walk me through some complex statistics and charts on a website. When I’m using my cell phone to tether to internet I can’t call anyone and if they call me the connection is lost. My cell phone can either function as a phone or internet hopspot but it can’t be both at the same time.
I drove into Whittier and searched for wifi unsuccessfully for about 30 minutes, then finally paid $4.99 for an hour of internet and made my phone call. I felt relieved to have been close to wifi when I needed it. I always try to be extra responsive when travelling in remote areas. My responsiveness and commitment to my job are my number one priority while travelling. This is what makes this lifestyle work over the long term. I would hate to inconvenience my co-workers by being slow to respond and then be told by my employer that I need to make my way back home and be more serious about my professional commitments.
I worked for several hours and started the Portage Pass hike around noon. The first part of the hike was on a wide trail which was easy and touristy. All the people I met on the hike were just out for the afternoon from the cruise ship. I climbed to the top of the pass and enjoyed a nice view of Portage Glacier from afar. Apparently this is as far as the cruisers go, because from here down to Portage Lake the trail became a faint path which was sometimes hard to follow and I got sidetracked a couple times. At one point I hiked along the side of a small gorge on a game trail which eventually disappeared, then I had to climb all the way back up the gorge.
Once I was sure I was finally on the right path due to the regular presence of cairns, I saw huge moose tracks. I almost turned around at that point. I hadn’t seen anyone since the pass and was feeling nervous about the wild nature of the trail. It was hard to follow and there were no signs to provide reassurance. I’ve been trying to keep my solo adventures gentle, and I questioned myself if this was getting a little too adventurous. I felt like I was on the edge of my mental and emotional comfort zones, but probably not in physical danger so I pressed on. I called out “hello” at least every couple minutes to alert the animals of my arrival. I imagined a moose ready to charge around every brushy corner.
I had to talk myself through the entire descent to the lake, reminding myself how much I wanted to reach the lake, how close it was, and how small the probability was of seeing an animal. I felt victorious when I reached the gray sand of the lake shore and stood at water level near small and large floating ice burgs. I got to see car-sized chunks of ice calve from Portage Glacier and fall into the lake with a big splash. For the hike back out, I went as quickly as possible to minimize the time I would feel nervous. I hiked at high speed all the way back up to the pass and probably set a new speed record for myself.
It’s up to each of us to decide what our own personal Everest is and to engage fully with that challenge. That day, it was an easy 5 mile hike to see a beautiful lakeside glacier.
I chased solo adventures in Alaska all summer long. I was in true superhero mode for nearly 8 weeks. I camped wherever I pleased and felt sure no one would bother me in the middle of the night in my van. I hiked solo in areas known to have healthy bear populations during salmon season, when bears are voraciously feeding to fatten up for winter. I pushed the limits of muddy 4×4 roads and got stuck in the mud. Energized by the 20+ hours of sunlight each day, I was constantly pushing the envelope. I’m surprised I came back alive from that trip.
Even superheroes can get hurt, though. I had no idea trouble was waiting for me at the very end of my successful and heroic sprint through the 49th state. I thought I was home free. I was safe. I had finished the five day drive south through the most remote areas of Canada and arrived at my friend Kevin’s comfortable home with his loving family in Vancouver, British Columbia. I thought my next step was to exhale and enjoy some comfortable canyoneering after my biggest solo adventure yet in Alaska. I was wrong.
This should have been an easy transition back to the lower 48. I had plans to enjoy some waterfall canyons with Kevin and felt sure this portion of the adventure would be a breeze. I’ve been canyoneering for eight years now and I don’t even see it as risky anymore. I trust myself to evaluate risks in canyons and I’m careful to select canyoneering partners whom I also trust. I always move conservatively and I have no ego about my sport. If something is scary, I know how to create a safer solution. Canyoneering? No problem. Rappelling big waterfalls? No problem. I had become complacent.
Earlier that summer, some of my friends introduced me to a fellow canyoneer named Brian via email. As we emailed each other that summer about our adventures, it became clear he was a fellow superhero. While I was seeing bears on the trail from 30 feet away and packrafting glacial rivers with people I just met, he was riding his mountain bike 490 miles over the Colorado mountains with all his camping gear. I could tell we were both slightly insane yet both saw our activities as perfectly rational. These two superheroes needed to meet. I decided to invite him to Vancouver for four days of canyoneering.
Enter my safe, supportive friend Kevin. He offered to take us into his special waterfall canyons around Vancouver. I felt grateful Brian and I could temper our lunacy by relying on Kevin to come up with a reasonable itinerary.
I first met Brian at the Vancouver airport around 9:30 PM, only an hour after finishing the drive back from Alaska. I hadn’t seen many pictures of Brian and wasn’t really sure what he looked like. I was also incredibly spent from the drive. As I stood there with Kevin, a man walked toward me who sort of looked like Brian’s photos and I gave him a huge smile and waved enthusiastically as he sailed right past me and hugged another woman. Oh, I guess that wasn’t Brian. Kevin and I had a good laugh over that.
Then, the real Brian appeared and there were hugs, handshakes and smiles all around as we left the airport. We chattered about canyons and canyoneering fests on the drive back to Kevin’s house.
We all got up at 6 am the next morning to descend Box Creek Canyon and picked up Thomas, a local canyoneer. As we drove to the canyon, Kevin’s vehicle made horrible rattling noises and Kevin decided to go home to get his jeep and left his vehicle in the shop. Brian, Thomas and I enjoyed an epic park walk in downtown Vancouver where we challenged ourselves to see all the bridges in a small area criss-crossed with walking paths.
Kevin resolved the vehicle issues by around 2 pm and we decided to descend Cypress Canyon. Cypress Canyon is a beautiful little gem right in the heart of Vancouver with several nice waterfall rappels and an easy approach trail. As soon as we entered the canyon our vehicle trouble was forgotten and we splashed down gushing waterfalls and moved through rock hallways in the fading afternoon light. This was a great canyon and the mood was high. Between the third and fourth rappel, everyone else jumped off a rock into a small pool. I don’t particularly like jumping, so I chose an easy slide down a small waterfall into what looked like a deep pool. At the same time I sat down and started my slide, Kevin said to be careful of the rocks below but I was already in motion. I hit the water and my right ankle slammed into a rock. Immediately I knew this wasn’t good. I was swimming and my ankle was floating in water but it definitely hurt. I exited the pool and examined it. It still rotated and the pain wasn’t very intense, so we all decided I had sprained it and thankfully not broken it.
Now my progress through the canyon became very slow and the ankle was more of an annoyance than anything else. I couldn’t trust it and had to drag it around like it was dead weight. This was very tiring in the wetsuit I was wearing. I wanted to finish the canyon, but after about 30 minutes I saw an easy exit on the right and I knew taking it was the right choice. I was able to move well enough and hobbled back to the car on my own, stopping at the last rappel to watch my friends and wishing I could have gone down that last waterfall with them.
I’ve never injured myself in any way canyoneering, or ever, really. I was in denial about my ankle, or cankle, as I started calling it, and I hoped it would be better by tomorrow so I could go canyoneering again. Thankfully others in the group told me to elevate and ice it. Kevin got me a compression bandage from a drug store and gave me some Tylenol with codeine. My ankle swelled to twice its size that evening and I couldn’t even bend it. I started to realize that my canyoneering on this trip was over. We all camped out that night and the next day the rest of the group went down a fantastic canyon called Monmouth while I relaxed on the beach and went to Starbucks. The next day Brian and I paddled a canoe around the sea and saw many cute seals sunning on rocks and logs. We also enjoyed a short walk on an island, but I still wasn’t ready to do much. The day after that Brian and I explored the nearby Sunshine Coast. The day after Sunshine Coast Brian was scheduled to depart from the Vancouver airport at 6 AM. This was a flight he wasn’t going to make.
As we finished our day on the Sunshine Coast and drove toward the ferry, my special van, which has never had any mechanical trouble at all, started slipping gears and the transmission temperature light came on. “Oh no”, I thought. I’m on a ferry only accessible area in Canada where my roadside assistance won’t work and Brian’s flight leaves at 6 am tomorrow morning. We both kept calm and made it onto the ferry with Brian driving. After the ferry ride I was afraid to drive the van through the heavy Vancouver traffic so Brian devised a way to baby the van across hilly, bustling Vancouver using second gear, slow speeds and slow acceleration. People glared at the van making its slow progress and passed us whenever they had the chance. We held our breath on every hill as the van struggled and the gears and engine made noises that could definitely not be considered normal.
Finally, we arrived at Kevin’s house and felt like we had performed a heroic act by getting the van home. We were relieved and it was very late. I didn’t sleep well and wondered what I would do the next day. I had a work meeting in Moscow, Idaho starting in two days that I had been planning for months. I didn’t know a good mechanic in Vancouver. I didn’t have roadside assistance in Canada to get the van to a shop. This was not a good place to get stranded. My right ankle was still painful and it would be difficult to drive a long distance. How could I get to Moscow, Idaho and how would I deal with my badly broken van? Brian had figured out how to drive it but I was afraid to take it to Moscow and get stranded in Seattle traffic, or the middle of nowhere in central Washington. I couldn’t even walk if I needed to go for help. I was definitely in need of rescue.
Although I just met Brian, I knew he was a superhero who could handle anything so I got up at 4:30 AM to say goodbye and ask for his help driving my van to Moscow so I could make it to my work meeting. At first he said no, he needed to get back and had a flight to catch. I said yes, I know we just met and I don’t expect you to start rescuing me already. He started looking at alternative flights on his computer and in less than 10 minutes he had booked a later plane ticket departing from Boise and he said yes, he will accompany me on this crazy mission to get the van to Idaho so I could attend my meetings and work while my van was rehabilitated.
We hoped for the best as we departed from Kevin’s house a couple hours later, Brian driving. The van was still slipping gears like it was the day before, and we both acknowledged this drive could have a horrible ending. We could end up getting the van towed and taking a Greyhound bus all the way to Moscow, and then to Boise. My van could end up in any shop along the way. The transmission could fail anytime, even in the traffic in the middle of downtown Seattle. This could get ugly. We both knew it. We kept on going.
The transmission temperature light kept coming on every 15 – 30 miles and we would stop and search for even the smallest patch of shade to park under. Even after a 30 minute stop, the transmission had barely cooled. Brian started splashing water from a bottle under the van and the transmission cooled faster this way. Then, he thought of the ultimate way to target the parts of the transmission on the undercarriage of the van: super soakers.
I giggled at the thought of it but immediately saw the wisdom in getting the super soakers. I started to search my phone maps for the nearest Walmart and we went inside to obtain our transmission cooling devices. Super soakers just happened to be on clearance for only one dollar so we bought two of them.
In the Walmart parking lot, we filled our super soakers and started spraying the undercarriage of the van. People stared at this spectacle in the parking lot. We had become “the people of Walmart”. You know, the ridiculous looking customers who get secret phone photos snapped of them and posted on the “people of Walmart” website. Usually the people of Walmart have ridiculous outfits or flabby body parts hanging out somewhere, but I’m sure using super soakers to cool a big, creepy van in the parking lot would make the website.
We continued to Seattle to meet my friend for lunch. Lunch plans became dinner plans as our progress became delayed by stopping every 15-30 miles to douse the undercarriage of the van with super soakers. It was hilarious the first 20 times we did it, and only mildly amusing after that. At one rest stop, an older lady approached and we start chatting. I told her to take a turn and handed her the super soaker. She shot the transmission with glee.
Finally we arrived in Moscow, Idaho and the van got to take a nice, long rest as I dashed off to the University. I had sent them some emails along the way with my progress and we all wondered if I would make it to Moscow. When I finally appeared in the doorway of the office around 3 PM I was greeted with hugs and applause! We were all very happy I made it to Moscow.
Now the van is in the shop receiving several thousand dollars of transmission work but at least the shop says we didn’t do any further damage by driving it all the way from Vancouver to Moscow on the failing transmission. Also, the undercarriage is exceptionally clean.