Aitutake: That’s Where It’s At!

When travelling by sailboat, pulling into a calm, sleepy anchorage with easy shore access makes all the difference. Two days ago, after a mostly speedy, kinda wet and bouncy, passage from Bora Bora, we tucked ourselves into a cozy nook in front of Arutunga, on Aitutake Atoll in the Cook Islands. That puts us squarely in the middle of the South Pacific, which is to say, pretty far from anywhere. We hemmed and hawed for a couple of hours before we finally decided to come in here-the only passage through the barrier reef is a narrow channel that’s only six feet deep at high tide, and Toyatte draws nearly 5.5 feet. We had planned to anchor outside the pass, where the charts show a dicey anchorage in the lee of the island, but when we arrived, we realized that would require dropping the hook right on top of a coral reef, something we didn’t want to do. Faced with a bad anchorage or at least two days of bobbing around with no wind in the forecast and bouncy seas, Captain Rob decided bravery was to be our credo of the day. Accordingly, I stood at the end of the bowsprit, nervously scanning the passage for protruding coral heads, and Rob kept a steady hand at the tiller. In the shallowest section, a spotted eagle ray glided through ahead of us, and we breathed an exuberant sigh of relief when we reached the tiny, pond-like anchorage at the far end. We are anchored in only 10 feet of water, and there is hardly room for another boat (but we see a catamaran coming in, so we’re going to tie our stern to a palm tree to make a bit of space!). All the locals have already been down to the docks on their scooters to check out the new boats in town, and we spent this morning at the local church service to listen to the remarkable singing. Rob was inspired to work on his own song, and has gotten as far as the title to this blog post.

We’re finding it’s nice to be back in English-speaking territory (though Cook Island Maori is the primary language) after 10 months of trying to communicate in Spanish, French, and Rob’s pidgin and sound effects. We stopped to look at a canoe in someone’s yard today (Rob’s kind of obsessed with the outrigger canoes) and she welcomed us and told us the legend of One Foot Island, at the far end of the lagoon, and chatted with us about fishing back in the days when “coconuts were our juice boxes.” We felt like we missed out on some opportunities like this in French Polynesia because we couldn’t speak enough French, but we hope to catch up now.

We said our final farewells to French Polynesia in Bora Bora, where we spent several days livin’ the glam life-stunning volcanic landscape, posh $500/night motu resorts, sparkling turquoise lagoon, black pearls by the dozen, lagoon tours by submarine, ultra deluxe $1,000/night “bungalows”… All the glitz, none of the walks on the beach (they’re all owned by the aforementioned schwanky resorts). Unfortunately, all of the fancy resrts have taken a bit of the shimmer out of the lagoon that drew them here in the first place. Known as a fantastic snorkeling and diving location because of its clear waters and once plentiful population of giant manta rays, Bora Bora’s lagoon is not as healthy as it once was. We read reports of a study showing a precipitous decline in the manta ray population over the past decade. While mantas once came to the lagoon in large numbers for the “cleaning station,” where mantas attract small cleaner fish to clean their wings, and to breed, the study showed little breeding activity and many days with no rays since about 2005. They attribute the decline to resort development in important areas for manta rays and note that more development is scheduled for the future. This, perhaps, provides a lesson in spending your tourist dollars carefully, as it’s the tourist demand that drives the strain on the environment.

Like Bora Bora, the other islands in the Society Islands group are steep, volcanic islands surrounded by barrier reefs. They are all much more developed than the tranquil islands in the Marquesas and the Tuamotos, though it’s not hard to see why these magical islands with their blue lagoons have drawn a crowd. Instead of living off fruit from the trees and fish from the sea, the Society Islanders are working 9-5 jobs (okay, maybe more like 7-11 and 1:30-3). While the Marquesans and Tuamotans would gladly invite passing cruisers into their yards to chat and sip cool coconuts in the shade of a mango tree, or trade for fruit, the Society Islanders have built up big money tourism businesses and live life at a faster pace. We were constantly shocked by the number of boats in every anchorage, but we nonetheless had some beautiful walks and great snorkels.

The highlight of our time in the Societies was catching the Heiva Festival, an annual cultural celebration with everything from fruit carrying, to tossing javelins at coconuts, to outrigger canoe races, to fire walking. Though we didn’t catch all of the events (most notably, we missed the canoe races and fire walking), we spent several nights enjoying the shows in Huahine and Raitea. We listened as local choirs brought the soft rhythms of the islands to life in their ringing harmonies, with traditional drums and ukuleles playing in the background. When the singers left the stage, dancers in grass skirts and pareus, wearing headdresses made of flowers and leaves, sashayed onto the stage. In one case, they even danced with torches. The men do a short of speedy thigh clacking and the women shake their hips feverishly, grass skirts accentuating the belly-dancing-like motions. At the same time, through hand gestures, they act out stories and myths we could never quite understand since the only word we know in any Polynesian language is “Kaoha” (we thought this just meant “hello,” but it seems it may mean anything from “I’ve got the war gods in my pocket today, bro,” to “Peace and love,” depending on the context). The motions, though always similar, were sometimes fierce and sometimes comical, depending on how they were performed. Marveling at the dancers’ skills, I’m certain I would be kicked out of a Polynesian dance class on day 1 on the grounds that, if you can’t understand the basic mechanics of a simple hip shake, you’ll never be able to snap figure 8’s at warp speed. Rob shows more promise.

Less exciting was our stop in Papeete, Tahiti, where, though the landscape is every bit as phenomenal as the islands in the Marquesas, a map in the tourist information center shows that the water quality is not high enough to allow for swimming anywhere in Papeete (though it is better elsewhere on the island). We don’t know the details as to all the sources of pollution, but it became clear as we rowed our dinghy through an anchorage packed with hundreds of boats (local boats and cruisers) that boats, and particularly sewage from boats, is part of the problem. Most small boats have holding tanks on board to avoid pumping the head (that’s the toilet) directly overboard, something that is especially important in areas with restricted water circulation, like the lagoon around Tahiti. Space on boats is limited, however, and tanks fill up quickly. In the U.S. and Canada, we saw lots of shoreside pump out stations where you can solve that full tank problem, but we haven’t seen any of these facilities since San Diego. The other option is to pump overboard, of course, but you don’t see many boats leaving the anchorage to go pump out a couple miles offshore. We have a holding tank on Toyatte, but had always planned to rely primarily on shoreside public restrooms. Unfortunately, it turns out public restrooms are one of the greatest innovations of North America, one that has not been widely adopted elsewhere. We hate the thought that all we’re leaving behind us is a dirty wake, so we may investigate bigger tanks.

Papeete is not alone in its water quality problems; we saw issues with sewage all the way down the coast. In Alaska, a voter-passed initiative put in place the country’s strictest standards for cruise ship discharges, forcing these giant, floating cities to clean up their wakes. In Canada, we found marine parks where swimming was not recommended because of high fecal counts, and these were areas where only recreational boats could be to blame. On the west coast of the U.S., we found numerous signs about polluted public waters near public beaches (from stormater runoff, superfund sights, and just general pollution). In some of the areas of California with the strictest discharge standards for recreational boats, we’d find the city’s sewage outfall pipe right in the middle of the no discharge zone. In Mexico, anchored near fancy resorts and thinking about a swim, we’d watch the water cloud up and see unmistakable raw sewage floating toward the beach, always traceable to the town’s nearby outfall pipes. These problems have been particularly obvious from the sailboat, where we see the difference in the crystal clear waters just outside a bay and cross in to the suspiciously murky waters inside.

To Papeete’s credit, it is in the middle of a project to clean up its waters, in recognition of the importance of clean water for a healthy local environment and to support its tourist industry. They’ve done a pilot project in a small section of town and have set a laudable goal of attaining water quality sufficient for swimming throughout Papeete over the next few years. Kudos to Papeete for taking the lead on a great project! We hope that visiting boats will be part of the solution.

For now, we’re enjoying the clear waters of Aitutake, and are off to search for more sea monsters.

Dragons and Sea Monsters and Snarling Sharks

After a couple of weeks of snorkeling in the Tuamotos, I’d give full credit to the mapmakers of old who drew sea monsters at the edge of the world. Imagine yourself a young sailor aboard a ship bound to sail the seas for the greater glory of merry old England, and finding yourself staring into the briny blue at the noggin of a hammerhead shark–a beast you’d never even heard of. There are sea monsters, I tell you, and we’ve been snorkeling with them!

In our first snorkeling with sharks adventure at Kauehi, we quickly decided that reef sharks are like puppies. They’re not that big, and they probably couldn’t fit my whole leg into their mouths. But maybe I went from thinking all sharks want to eat me to thinking reef sharks are my friends a bit too quickly. We returned to the boat excited to compare the photos I’d been snapping with those in our fish book, and realized I’d been happily letting the current draw me up to a sickle fin lemon shark, one the book says is “solitary and considered dangerous.”

Since then, we’ve seen more sharks than we really wanted to. Most of them are allegedly not dangerous, but we found that small comfort while swimming jaw to jaw with the biggest ones. We’ve also seen giant barracudas, massive moray eels, tropical fish in an array of psychedelic colors, and the craziest sea monster of all, the gigantic humphead wrasse (it’s worth Googling him, but I promise, he’s bigger than he looks). At one point, drifting with the tide through the pass at Fakarava, another atoll, we watched a giant grey reef shark, a humongous, sharp-toothed barracuda, and an elephant-sized, completely unreal-looking humphead wrase all casually swim into the narrow channel we had planned to use as an escape route to keep us from drifting out to sea when the tidal current picked up. And this, mind you, was a channel leading to a lovely, shallow beach where children swim. Never let your child swim in a tropical beach without posting snorkel guards on the perimeter.

But what makes these atolls so glorious is the vibrant, healthy coral that created them–some of the first really vibrant (not algae-covered) coral we’ve seen. Our biggest challenge here (other than not running into rocks in this barely charted terrain, and we nearly failed at that two days ago) is protecting this sensitive ecosystem while we enjoy it. Coral is fragile, and global warming and ocean acidification are putting heavy pressure on this unique habitat. Acidification is associated with more of the bleaching events that have destroyed coral worldwide. Likewise, coral is sensitive to pollution, and, of course, big, heavy things like boat anchors and chains. We think most cruisers appreciate that and have, like us, done their best to avoid anchoring where their anchors and chains might take out coral heads. This can be harder than it sounds, especially when you’ve sailed all day to a spot where you are excited to stay and it’s too late to move on to somewhere else. But, we pick the sandiest spot we can find and tie buoys to the chain to keep it floating above the coral heads. So far, this seems to be working.

We’ve also tried to be extra cautious about what goes overboard or down the drains. This mostly means we’ve held off on cleaning and bathing while in the atoll lagoons, but who needs soap with all this swimming anyway? We also cut sunblock and bug spray out of the daily routine, as these aren’t particularly fish-friendly. Really, we dropped the sunblock several months ago when we turned brown, but the bug spray I had adopted as my new perfume after I was viciously attacked by the wasps, mosquitoes, and no-no flies in the Marquesas. They are more deadly than sharks.

Today, we skirted through the south Fakarava Pass. I stood on the bowsprit scanning for shoals while Rob piloted us through the current, and, in spots, I could even see the bottom of the ocean through 100 feet of clear, blue water. We are making our way to Tahiti, and should be there in a couple of days.

Goodbye little monkeys, sniffle…

Today’s the big day–our last day on the mainland! After an early jog this morning to say farewell to our monkey and toucan friends, we’re about ready to begin inching out of our comfy anchorage here in Golfito. From here, we’ll head south to spend a couple of days enjoying some islands in western Panama, then we’ll begin the long trek across the Pacific. It’s islands from here until the winter! Our passage southwest to the Galapagos will take us across the equator (nearly 60 degrees south of where we started!) and through the doldrums, a zone with very little wind. Our best hope to beat the doldrums is a rambunctious blow in the Gulf of Panama, which might give us a nice push offshore. Otherwise, we’ll be seeking out squalls for a bit of a breeze and rainy relief from the heat. If all goes well, we’ll be in the Galapagos in a couple of weeks!

We’ve been enjoying Costa Rica for longer than we had planned now, and are getting antsy to cover some ground. We spent our first week or so in Golfito making sure everything on the boat is in bluewater shape, and we think she’s ready to go. We sanded and varnished all the structurally important woodwork (and touched up the rest) to keep it all in sound condition, scrubbed the boat inside and out, cleaned and inspected all the rigging, and repainted the bottom of the boat (we had developed a bit of a barnacle farm, which slows you down and can eat into the fiberglass overtime). Rob changed the engine oil and spent some quality time in contorted positions checking over the engine, and he fixed little things all over the boat that always seem to be breaking (like the toilet, and the switch that turns on the propane for the stove). Then we bought spare parts and replaced all the things we’ve broken or lost overboard (swimsuits, goggles, screwdrivers, nuts, wrenches, mugs, sandals, ladder stoppers…) and cursed ourselves for not having the foresight to buy those things in Mexico, where they were cheaper (but really, who knew the fins my brother gave me for Christmas when I was 14 would wear out so soon?). Rob even cut my hair for me (we’re cheapskates) so I can brush it again. After a couple of tips as to how hair cutting usually works, Rob wielded the scissors sounding like a pro–except for the occasional “oops.” I can’t see the back of my head, but he assures me it looks great.

Satisfied that the boat was ready to go, we rewarded ourselves with a bit of time off the boat to see more of the landscape and stretch our legs a bit before we are trapped on the boat for the long haul. We started with a trip to camp for a couple of days in Corcovado National Park, a swath of Costa Rica’s lowland jungle with abundant wildlife. Although we didn’t love some of the restrictions (i.e. you can only camp at ranger stations, all of which are accessible by boat, road, or plane and have cable television), but we did love the jungle scenery and the wildlife. The park delivered us close up views of macaws, baby monkeys, crocodiles, peccaries, coaties, and a tapir (I’ll post photos separately in a few minutes). Our primary recommendation if you hike Corcovado is that you hike early, when the heat is slightly less intolerable and the animals are out, and that you go with someone you don’t mind asking to pick ticks off your bum.

On our last day out in Corcovado, we spent a few minutes chatting with a couple of the park’s poacher patrol. These guys spike their coffee with Coke, then spend all night out walking the park to look for poachers. They also, we think, collect sea turtle eggs to transport them to safe beaches. Nearly all species of sea turtles in the world today are critically endangered. Among other things, they are killed when they are caught unintentionally in fishing gear, and when they mistake plastic bags in the ocean for jellyfish and suffocate eating the bags. Although killing turtles is illegal, turtle meat and turtle eggs are still a delicacy in some parts of the world. In fact, someone we met in Mexico told us that, about 20 years ago, he worked in a turtle factory where they shipped the meat to California (a lot of carnivores there, he told us) and the skin to China, where it was made into shoes, belts, and wallets. Even today, people steal the eggs at night, wiping out entire generations of sea turtles. To reduce this problem, Costa Rica, Mexico, and other countries with sea turtle nesting areas have begun sea turtle protection programs. In some places, turtle beaches are protected by armed guards. Eggs are moved to protected beaches and guarded until they hatch. This is a great program, and we were glad to see that some of our park fees are going to support a poacher patrol.

We came back to Golfito just long enough to plan our next adventure, and decided to escape into the highlands of Panama’s Chiriqui province for a couple of days of cooler temperatures and cheaper park fees. In Boquette, Rob sampled locally-grown coffee and we hiked up Panama’s highest peak, Volcan Baru. We were a bit disappointed to find that this much lauded hike was more of a saunter up a service road to an antenna farm, but the view from 10,000 feet was nonetheless lovely and we relished feeling chilly as we spent the night near the top.

We also enjoyed a peek into the vibrant indigenous cultures of Panama, as one group, the Ngobe Bugle, live near this region. These people, and their supporters, are currently locked in a fight with the Panamanian government to prevent mining in parts of Ngobe territory, and violent protests have broken out in recent weeks. A few Ngobe in beautiful, colorful dresses were gathered in the center of town seeking contributions for the cause.

Finally, we poked into the edge of La Amistad National Park, a park that sits on both sides of the Costa Rica-Panama border, and protects a large area of cloud forest, home to the resplendant quetzal (we did not see this fabulous bird). On this cool hike, I learned that Rob is a psychologically disturbed individual. Hiking into the trees in perfect fall-like temperatures, Rob’s smile grew more sparkling with the increasing muddiness of the trail. When it started to rain, he grew exuberant. When the rain stopped, the smile went away. When the sun came out, he retreated under his hat.

Back in the scorching temperatures of Golfito, we finished up the overwhelming task of provisioning the boat with food for the next several months. Although food is available in the Galapagos and French Polynesia, it is very expensive, so most cruisers stock up on the mainland. Not organized enough to try to actually plan out meals and menus for the next 6 months, we decided to approach the provisioning problem by stuffing as much food as possible into every nook and cranny on the boat. We bought pounds of rice, pasta, dried beans, lentils, spaghetti sauce, as much peanut butter as we could afford, dozens of cans of mushrooms and vegetables, salsa, toiletries, biodegradable dish soap and vinegar for cleaning, extra spices, tortillas, seeds for sprouting, powdered milk, several pounds of flour, and boxes of whipping cream (this might not seem critical to you, but it comes in shelf-stable juice boxes here, and it just might be critical in a pie emergency), and several pounds of flour. We made trips to every grocery store in town and filled our giant backpacking packs about six times. After that, we ate a lot of ice cream since we won’t be able to bring it along and we hear it costs $20 on the islands.

Yesterday, we filled our packs one last time with fresh produce, which we packed into the few remaining spaces on the boat, then put the overflow into crates we bought and drilled holes in for air flow. We are not using our refrigerator, so preserving food has been a learning process. When we started, Alaska’s glacially-cooled water made this easy, and we could keep almost anything on the boat (except ice cream). Even yogurt and the half-and-half for Rob’s coffee would last as long as a week. But by the time we got to British Columbia, we had to ditch the half-and-half as it would spoil overnight. Now, the water in our tanks is hot enough to brew tea and things don’t last very long. Nonetheless, most fruits and veggies will last for awhile, especially if you buy them green and unrefrigerated. We have wrapped cabbages and tomatoes in paper towels, smeared eggs with Vasoline, and carefully separated onions from potatoes and apples from oranges to avoid spoilage. We hope this works.

We are also re-learning how to cook. When we started, soups were a great make ahead meal. Now, it’s too hot for soups. We’ve discovered that the last of the dehydrated soups a nice lady in Ketchikan gave us can be turned into great veggie burgers and fritters. The last of our canned soups work great to make an easy veggie and rice pilaf. We loved pre-prepped lasagna as a meal for our first night out on the passage south from Seattle, but now we hate using the oven at dinner time because it heats up the boat. Instead, we are learning to cook everything on the stove.

Every space on the boat is now packed with food and supplies, and we have stowed almost 90 gallons of fresh water for drinking and cooking. We have 70 gallons in the boat’s tanks, and the other 20 in jugs stashed below decks. We think we are finally ready to go, and I have only one lingering concern: we don’t have any brandy. In all of the books I’ve read about sailing, the brave Captain takes a wee nip o’ brandy to stiffen his resolve as soon as the weather gets rough. For reasons that are not explained, the same courtesy is never extended to the First Mate. I think this goes back to the days of the temperance movement forced on sailors in the 1800’s–the captains have really never sympathized with the lot of we common sailors. In any event, the honored nip o’ brandy seems to be a critical step in storm management, and we are without the crucial ingredient. We do, however, still have a few drops of whiskey our friends gave us when we left Juneau. Perhaps the sea gods will not notice if we make a substitution.

This is about two-thirds of our last minute fresh produce...pineapples, green mangos, apples, oranges, avocados, yucca, potatoes, onions, carrots...

1700 miles and four months south…

We're not in Alaska anymore, Toto...
. . . and we’ve finally achieved a higher state of nirvana: We’ve become beach bums. A few days ago, we adopted a brand new baby surfboard, Snoopy, and it is dramatically improving our lives (which were, of course, very difficult in the pre-surboard era). With sandy beaches, cacti, and shirtless old men dancing on rollerblades everywhere, we feel like we’ve finally crossed a major milestone in our sailing career and are looking forward to improving our bum image as we get to even sandier beaches, and actually learn how to surf.

Rob tries to join a be-spandexed biker gang on the Compact 16 crossing the Golden Gate bridge, but is left behind in the fog.
After a few days of big city life in San Francisco, we worked our way south along the coast to our first real beach towns, Santa Cruz and Monterey. We’ve been running on the beach, snorkelling with nearly tropical-looking fish, practicing our surf landings in the dinghy (this mostly involves me getting soaked), and enjoying the novel frustration of trying to keep sand out of the boat. We’ve learned that we were truly spoiled in Alaska where we had dozens of well-protected anchorages to chose from each night. Here, there are only about a dozen anchorages (most of them a bit rolly, which doesn’t help my lousy sleeping skills) in the entire state, so we have to plan our days around the anchorages. We are nonetheless enjoying the steady, predictable northwesterly winds and sunshine down here.

Wildlife sightings have also picked up. We are now in Morro Bay, which is just beyond the southern boundary of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. Covering 5,300 square miles south of San Francisco, the sanctuary is the largest of the 14 marine sanctuaries in the country. It includes some of the deepest underwater canyons in North America. Because these canyons occur close to shore in Monterey Bay, providing diverse nearshore habitat, the Bay is teeming with marine life–we saw Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Risso’s Dolphins, southern sea otters, brown pelicans, California sea lions, harbor seals, dozens of birds, and even a couple of whales. To protect this habitat, there are restrictions in place prohibiting things like oil and gas activities that might harm wildlife habitat. In addition, recreational boaters are prohibited from discharging anything into the reserve waters (i.e. no pumping bilges or discharging sewage from marine heads). Boaters are encouraged to do their part to keep waters clean and to give wildlife adequate space for comfort. These efforts seem to be working–we swam in clear water and watched more wildlife than we had seen since we left British Columbia. For more about what you, as a boater, can do to keep our oceans clean, look for tips on Sailor for the Sea’s great website.

Pelicans keeping watch in Morro Bay

Unfortunately, marine reserves across the country may be in trouble. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which provides for the designation and management of marine reserves, has to be reauthorized by Congress every five years. It was last reauthorized for funding through fiscal year 2005, with additional funds provided in 2006 and 2007. Without reauthorization of the Act or new legislation, there can be no new marine sanctuaries or reserves, and no expansions of existing reserves. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages marine reserves, is asking for our help in securing funding for our existing reserves and in providing for new reserves. For more information, check out NOAA’s marine sanctuaries website: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/welcome.html.

Tomorrow, we expect to begin making our way to another marine sanctuary–the Channel Islands. First, we’ll make a stop in San Luis Obispo, then we’ll round Point Conception and continue on to the Channel Islands. As we head into southern California, we’ll have to be vigilant for a few new threats:

Sleeper waves: One of my former supervisors warned me about these recently, and a few days later, I saw a sign warning me that I would die if I got too close to the beach because of vicious sleeper waves. I’m not certain where these fit into the mix with sneaker waves, rogue waves, tsunamis, just plain big waves, or, for that matter, white squalls and microbursts, but we’ll keep our guard up with an eye for mean-spirited waves.
Cliffs: We’ve learned that cliffs in California are inordinately dangerous. Anytime you approach within 500 feet of a cliff, a sign and a fence are there to warn you that if you get any closer, you will fall off the cliff and die, slip and die, or drown (and die). This may not be an issue while we are actually sailing, but cliffs are certain to threaten us whenever we go to shore.
Santa Anna winds: These winds appear in the form of a furious, red, dust cloud, and appear without warning. They can reach speeds of 100mph (but usually they are only about 20mph). When we see dust, we will run.
Sharks: We’re in Great White country now, and I expect to lose a few limbs to sharks somewhere in this voyage. We haven’t seen any sharks yet, but I think we’re due for a sighting soon.

Off for an afternoon surf session!

Thinking about salmon

Awhile ago, we posted a bit of background about the Taku River, an important salmon-producing river near Juneau, Alaska that supports commercial, subsistence, and sport fishing for salmon in both southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Our visit to Squamish a few weeks ago reminded us of the Taku, and while we’re waiting to head offshore, I thought I’d share a bit more about Howe Sound, the fjord where Squamish sits.

As we sailed into the back of Howe Sound, its sheer granite cliffs reminded us a lot of the Taku Inlet. When you approach the back of the Taku Inlet, the steep sides narrow, the rock faces become more imposing, and, as you round the Taku Glacier, you find yourself on a wide river, with the distinct feeling that you are leaving the coastal rainforest climate and entering a new zone. As you reach the back of Howe Sound, the sides similarly narrow, the mountains become steeper and rockier, and you begin to look for the mouth of the river, but as you get closer, you start to wonder whether you will be able to find the river at all. Instead of a rushing river mouth, you see the remains of an old mine, log booms, and industrial shipping facilities. When we found the river, we had to weave our way between other boats and logging operations to find the harbor. The town of Squamish itself is hidden behind this front of industrial waterfront.

Log booms lining Squamish Harbor

Interested in the comparison between the Taku and Howe Sound, and curious as to whether the river water was as dirty as it looked, we did a bit of research and found that Howe Sound’s history might present a valuable lesson for the Taku. In the 1970’s, a copper mine along Brittania Beach, just south of Squamish, closed down and left a mess behind it, eventually selling the property to developers who built right over sites sacred to First Nations groups in Canada. The Canadian provincial government then spent decades fighting with the previous owners of the mine, one of the worst polluters on the North American continent, to clean up its mess. Acid mine drainage wiped out all the life in Brittania Creek and left the creek water unfit for human consumption. Millions of gallons of acid mine drainage and chemicals drained into Howe Sound, wiping out the herring population entirely and depleting salmon stocks. The government now spends millions to treat water from the area of the mine.

More log booms with Stowamus Chief in the background
In recent years, more than three decades after the mine shut down, herring have started to return to the Sound for the first time. Unfortunately, a local group monitoring the reports of returning herring, the Squamish Streamkeepers discovered that most of the herring eggs were dying. Herring left eggs on pilings from a local wood treatment plant, but the pilings were treated in creosote, which killed the eggs. The Squamish Streamkeepers have found a successful solution—they have wrapped the pilings, a few each year, and are now finding more herring coming back every year. Pacific white-sided dolphins, which had not been seen in the Sound in decades, have reportedly made a few visits since the return of the herring as well, and there is hope that with more herring, the salmon stocks in Howe Sound will make a recovery.

Although the mine shut down years ago, its effects are ongoing. A little research drags up other problems as well—salmon habitat was destroyed through road construction near the Squamish River, and pollution from a pulp mill, logging operations, and other industrial activities continues to pose a threat to an already damaged ecosystem. Despite this history of problems, Squamish is still a beautiful spot and a great town, once you get past the waterfront. Squamish is doing a lot of things right. We found a great “Adventure Center,” where the staff makes sure visitors can find their way to any of the amazing outdoor adventures the area has to offer, a lot of signs proclaiming plans for new, sustainable waterfront projects, and a commission on sustainability. There are ongoing salmon habitat restoration projects in the Squamish River and elsewhere, as well as the efforts to promote herring recovery and to treat water polluted from the Brittania Mine. We had a great time visiting the area and were amazed that we could anchor the boat in the river, walk a few blocks to a local climbing area (and still see the boat from the top of the climbs, a big plus from Rob’s perspective), and take a bus half an hour up the road to hop on a whitewater river. Squamish seems to be trying to find a balance between its historical industries and a more sustainable push toward marketing adventure, and we were certainly sold on Squamish’s vision for itself.

Nonetheless, we were struck by the similarities between what we saw on the Taku River, and what Howe Sound may once have looked like. Although Howe Sound is doing its best to make a recovery, and we did find plenty of marketing for charter fishing on the sound, the Taku River cannot afford to take a chance with its salmon. The Taku may never see the level of development that a more accessible place like Howe Sound has seen, but, as the history of Howe Sound and the Brittania Mine shows, all it takes is one mine to destroy the local fish populations.

A view of Squamish as we sail away

For more on Howe Sound, check out these links (you’ll find a lot of others with a little Googling as well):
http://www.bclocalnews.com/greater_vancouver/northshoreoutlook/community/117674603.html
http://www.firstnations.de/development/eagleridge_bluffs.htm
http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/clad/britannia/background.html

Strait of Juan de Fuca and a retrospective on Haida Gwaii

Bear motherHaida cultural center in SkidegateSea lions hauled out on rocks in Hecate StraitCedarsCedar barkBurned out cedar
Toyatte anchored in Island BayStarfish in Island BayThe tide zoneRob climbing a giant spruceIkeda CoveSea lions
Anthony Island through the fog
Sea lions at Point St JamesSailing away from Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii, July 2011, a set on Flickr.

After a short jaunt to Seattle, where we nearly got our anchor stuck (Rob finally yanked it free just as we were about to go look for a diver), picked up our new ham radio (it’s working great so far), lugged a shiny new life raft back to the boat on the bus, and spent some time with an inspiring friend, we’re working our way west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of Washington. Although the weather is great right now, it looks like there’s some ugliness spinning towards Alaska that may be big enough to affect our weather here as well. If that’s the case, we might be in Neah Bay for a couple of days before we head south.In the meantime, we’ve continued to think about our visit to Haida Gwaii, and, through a team effort, have put together some thoughts on what makes the islands so unique (with photos).

Sailing to the offshore island archipelago of Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, was noteworthy for the exciting crossing from British Columbia and the beautiful scenery, but it was the story of the people and the land that fascinated us the most.

As you approach Haida Gwaii from Hecate Strait, it’s the smell of cedar that tells you you’ve nearly reached land. But most of the giant red cedars that once flourished on Haida Gwaii have been cut. The Haida, the indigenous people of the islands, now struggle to find cedars suitable for building traditional canoes or totems, and the composition of the forest has changed dramatically as a result of logging, mining, and the introduction of several non-native species. The islands, sitting on the edge of the continental shelf, are still beautiful, but in many areas, the behemoth stumps of cut cedars and the scars of large mines make you feel deeply the loss of what must once have been a truly profound landscape. For decades, the Haida, who once had villages throughout the islands, fought to curb unsustainable logging on Haida Gwaii. This landmark campaign resulted in the creation of several reserves, including the entire southern half of the islands, now called Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site. The forethought and determination needed to set aside special areas like this is significant, but on Haida Gwaii this forward thinking also lead to a unique cooperative management of the park and the creation of a one-of-a-kind marine reserve. The Haida and the Canadian government have spent decades on opposite sides of the fence in disputes and litigation over logging and are now involved in ongoing disputes regarding the ownership of Haida Gwaii, yet the two have managed to work together to create a co-management board for Gwaii Haanas National Park. The board operates on a consensus basis, with the goal of protecting both the wilderness character of the park and the cultural heritage in which the remains of village sites, the half-finished ancient canoes hidden in the forests, and the land itself are inescapably steeped. The board is made up of both park officials and Haida leaders, so that the Haida have an equal say in the management of the park.

Further, a unique “Watchmen Program” launched by the Haida before the park was created, provides an avenue for modern Haida to foster their tie to the land and share their history and culture with visitors every day. Through this program, Haida people live at culturally important sites throughout the islands and act as interpreters, guides, and protectors for these ancient village sites and other important areas. During our visit to the park we met young Haida watchmen just learning about these special places, as well as seasoned watchmen who spoke with such authority and passion for the sites that we came away awed by the privilege of being allowed to walk in such sacred spaces. One of the program’s greatest benefits is that it provides an opportunity for both the watchmen and the visitors to gain through the experience and to develop a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the connection between the land and traditional practices, as well as their influence on modern Haida culture. Without the willingness of the watchmen to share their culture and history, a visit to the park would lack much of its power.

The Haida’s connection to the land, however, does not stop at the boundaries of the intertidal zone. Modern science and traditional knowledge both explain that the land and sea are connected, and this connection is central to the goals of Gwaii Haanas. A salmon, for example, is born in a freshwater river in Haida Gwaii, then travels to the sea to mature and grow. Eventually, it will to return to the freshwater to spawn, where it may become lunch to a bear or, after spawning, its decaying body may supply nutrients to the earth. It only makes sense for protected areas to manage both the land and the sea. In 2010, the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve claimed the distinction of being the first place to manage an area that extends from the top of mountains to the bottom of the ocean floor. This reserve extends roughly 10km offshore and includes estuaries, sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, kelp forest, and deep waters of the continental shelf and slope. Although the specific zoning structure of the marine reserve is still being worked out, it will likely include tourism, traditional harvesting, recreation, and commercial fisheries in some places, while other areas may be fully protected. Habitat restoration projects to bring back salmon runs devastated by past logging practices are already underway, and more research and restoration projects are under development for the future.

You may be saying to yourself, “Of course a park should engage and work with the native and local people.” Or maybe, “Of course reserves should manage the land and water together.” Indeed, these seem like obvious steps, but a surprising number of protected areas struggle with these two critical points. Implementing these principles in the management of special areas can be challenging and is frequently met with considerable opposition, political hurdles, and communication issues. It takes thought and effort to take these two points from theory to practice, but the results, as we saw in Gwaii Haanas, can be more successful, comprehensive protection for the cultural and ecological values of special places, broad support for protection of the area, and a more meaningful experience for visitors as well as for those with long-standing cultural ties to the land.

The Juneau Icefields and the Mighty Taku River

Drop offPicking up the gearSplit ThumbCamped in Death ValleyNext morning, skiing out of Death Valley
Toward Echo PassWhite out, day 1Nunatak Chalet
Hope is a sucker holeWhite out day 3CanadaElephant PromontoryYay CanadaCanada is so much better than Alaska
The border landsOff toward the Llewellyn GlacierTricky spots on the LlewellynLeading the wayCamp on Llewellyn

Kate and Rob’s Big Adventure, a set on Flickr.

I finally pulled together some photos of our trip across the Juneau Icefield and back down the Taku River. We had a great trip, and it inspired Rob to write a few words about the importance of the Taku River. The pictures tell the story of the trip, and Rob tells the story of the river. Enjoy!

Continue reading The Juneau Icefields and the Mighty Taku River

Pedal power

Our folding bike-generator

As we outfitted the boat for our big adventure, we were very conscious of simplicity, budget, and efficiency.  We tried to reduce our reliance on electronics, in part because we want to limit our energy needs and in part because Rob is really good at breaking things.  Especially expensive things that buzz and hum. 

So, despite our efforts to minimize, we do have a few things that require some juice:  lights (interior lights as well as navigation lights), GPS, radar, VHF radio, and a high frequency radio/email system that connects to our laptop to receive weather information.  We do have a small refrigerator, but, to save energy, we probably won’t run it very often.  To provide for these energy needs, we will rely primarily on two solar panels.  We don’t have a generator and the thought of running the diesel engine just for electricty is less than appealing (not only because of the noise and the wasted fuel, but also because diesel is expensive and our budget is small).

As we sat in rainy Alaska under the clouds, we wanted a back up in case the solar panels do not provide enough power to run the equipment we’ll rely on for navigation and weather information.  Somewhere in the middle of a long hike up a steep mountain and a cold beer, Rob and his buddy were enlightened.  Rob’s buddy James, who is a stellar electrician, a powerful biker, and more energetic than five ordinary people combined, was lamenting the lack of cardiovascular exercise options on a boat for a long ocean crossing.  James also believes that everything in life is better with a bike and an electric motor.  Obviously, he thought, we ought to hook up a bike to a propeller so that, in light winds, we could just bike the boat across the ocean.  I pointed out that even the superhuman Tour de France bikers don’t have enough power to push our 20 ton boat forward on pedal power alone.  Undeterred, and distracted by the glint of cold beer in the sun, Rob and James focused instead on another option:  using a bike to charge the boat’s batteries and, voila, we can run the fridge and enjoy frosty beverages in the middle of the ocean.  If the fridge isn’t cold enough, Rob just cracks the whip and Kate has to bike faster.  What could be better?   

Limited by boat space, we looked into folding bikes and found one that had small enough folded dimensions that we can fold it up and stow it above the engine when the bike is not in use.  When in port, we can use the bike to run errands.  For exercise and electricity, the boys went to work and turned the bike into a pedal-powered-generator.  There are two removable floorboards in the middle of the boat that allow for access to our water tanks.  James welded together simple mounts to hold the bike–the front mount holds the front fork of the bike still while the back mount allows the back tire to turn.  The back tire sits on the hub from an old bike.  As you pedal, the hub turns.  The hub is connected, with a bike chain, to an alternator from an old Toyota Corolla.  The alternator turns the pedal power into electricity and hooks into the boat’s battery bank to charge the boat batteries.  When you’re done, the mounts fold back into the floorboards and the folded bike slides onto its fabric shelf above the engine. 

The system is simple, though it took some fine tuning and a couple of inspired craftsmen to pull it together.  So far, it is effective and will help keep us from burning expensive fossil fuels.  That’s good for the environment and for

The alternator hook-up for the back tire.

our pocket book.  We’ll post photos of the bike in action when we have a chance to test it out at sea.