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Thursday, January 21, 2010

WILLAPA BAY: Decisions with Gravity


Long Island - as seen from the WNWRH boat ramp

The bulletin board at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters’ parking lot had a tide table posted, but it was for December, and I was already more than a week into January. The tide table itself was a marvel of graphic economy: For each day, a vertical sunrise and sunset line were superimposed over two mismatched blue humps in a space the size of a postage stamp, ostensibly to give an approximate idea of when the bay’s water would be high or low.
I tried to divide the space between the lines into twelve units and pick the one that correlated with the high point of the blue graphic, but reckoned my margin of error might be a range of nearly six hours. Then, because I didn’t really know how much the tides shifted each day, I suspected that the unhelpful range I was considering (based as it was on an expired table) was really nothing more than wishful thinking.
Sitting in my packed kayak, poised in the water at the foot of the boat-ramp, I could see grass and sticks slowly floating past, unwitting volunteers headed for the ocean. This made it clear to me that I had missed the high tide, but I still clung to the idea that maybe I had not missed it by much, and honestly, how fast would the bay empty out anyway, even if the tide was ebbing?


The answer (it turns out) is, “Pretty damn fast”.


A maze of mud walls rose out of the water.
Also, it didn’t escape my attention (while I frantically searched for a suitable campsite among the frustratingly meandering, vanishing sloughs of Long Island) that yesterday’s rainclouds were not gone after-all, but only hiding behind a low line of hills.


By paddling along the outside edge of each bend in the slough, I managed to stay in carved channels deep enough to keep me afloat.


A fortuitously placed tree trunk gave me the footing I needed to exit the kayak and scale the increasingly imposing mud bank.


By the time I had the tent set up (on ground that was suspiciously spongy) my avenue of escape was simply gone.
The mud remaining in the channel had the consistency of tomato soup… but it didn’t smell anywhere near as nice.
I would have to survive here until the next high tide.


It wasn’t too bad. The slough had provided (however briefly) passage into the interior of the island where both topography and tall trees provided a sheltered space like the eye of a storm. Mist emanated from the wet grass like steam over a cup of coffee. Birds sang from hidden perches. Whales bounced tiny blasts of sonar back and forth from forested bank to forested bank…
well…probably not whales.
I sat quietly and waited to see if I could identify the unusual noise.
Then, suddenly, the sharp crack of wood on wood came filtering through the thick forest behind me as if free spirited monkeys had stolen all the rhythm sticks from some elementary school music-room and employed them in a spastic sword fight waged high in the swaying tree tops. “Monkey-cam! Is that you?” I wondered.
I went to investigate.
It was only four-thirty but the sun already seemed to be setting. Entering the forest was almost like entering some vast cathedral. Towering bark covered columns (most closely resembling the Corinthian style) reached toward heaven, their capitals supporting a dense green canopy shot through with the last dying rays of the sun, perhaps the inspiration for stained glass.
Even with my camera’s ISO set to 1600, my shutter speed was a miserable 1/10th of a second or longer and I hadn’t brought a tripod. Experienced photographers will instantly recognize that these are precisely the conditions that presage remarkable occurrences likely to make one wish they had brought a tripod.






Back at my emergency camp, as it got darker and colder, I broke out the new stove and cooking gear that my sister and her husband Ron gave me at Christmas and fired it up for the first time. I think my sister sometimes worries about my propensity to hike or kayak solo and she and Ron seem to have taken it upon themselves to provide me with items that might potentially one day save my life. They bought me a headlamp when they noticed I hardly ever made it back from hikes before sunset. They bought me a Gore-Tex paddle jacket after I told the story about Fred capsizing in the Columbia. They even bought me a pocket knife with a wickedly sharp serrated blade when they read the story about the lone hiker who saved himself by cutting his own arm off after he got stuck by a huge boulder for several days.
If that isn’t love…


I poured a 16 ounce beer into a pan and boiled a couple of brats. When they finally split their skins, I crammed them into toasted stadium buns with Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese and Tabasco sauce.
While tackling the second brat, I eyed the steam rising off the golden beer. The world was turning gray and cold and the wafting aroma of beer suggested the ambiance of a brewery. Why not drink the warm beer I wondered. How much worse could it be than coffee?
The answer, it turns out, has something to do with sausage grease.


The stars came out with surprising intensity. To the south, Orion the hunter lay horizontally across the tree line like some Indian yogi lying on a bed of nails.
It was time to try out the new tent.
I’d be interested in knowing what the creators of this particular tent were thinking when they had the audacity to label it a two man tent. Perhaps the word ‘two’ really means ‘one’ in other countries where tents are assembled.



trail mix
And while I’m being critical, just whose idea was it anyway to put so many peanuts in trail mix. I mean, I understand that peanuts are very nutritious and that their protein content allows them to release energy over time, but really, once that stuff goes through the ‘grinder’…



peanut butter

… all I can say is I’m grateful I had a roll of paper towels.
The new tent was fast and easy to set up, but after an hour or so, condensation issues had soaked my sleeping bag, a process that was likely accelerated by the fact that I hadn’t brought one of those foam pads to sleep on. I always considered those foam pads important primarily for comfort, and since the pads I had tried out over the summer were not comfortable and/or screwed up my back, and since they take up considerable space that I don’t have in the kayak, I had mostly been doing without them. This time I think I learned that their insulation qualities are probably their primary purpose and that comfort, if achieved, is just sort of a lucky side effect.
I tried to stave off heat loss through conduction by sleeping on my side and thereby reducing the surface area in contact with the ground, but I got cold anyway. Eventually I ventured out to the kayak to retrieve my personal flotation device and was fairly successful in using it as an insulation layer.
Things to think about in a tent on an island when you can’t sleep:
Are those sirens echoing across the bay part of the tsunami warning system?
Did the guidebook really mean it when it said there were bears on the island?
How many miles per hour is the wind blowing if it makes that whistling noise as it sweeps through the tree tops?
Just how long before the next tide arrives that will be high enough to get me out of here? Six hours, twelve hours, twenty-four hours or more like a month?
When sleeping morphs into an endurance exercise, it becomes pretty clear that you’re doing it wrong.


I dreamed my kayak sailed out to sea while I was sleeping.
I slept on my right side.
I slept on my left side.
I unzipped the tent and tried to see if the water was coming back.
I was compelled to produce half a roll of soiled paper towels.
I dug a giant hole with my camp shovel to bury half a roll of soiled paper towels.
I slept on my back.
I rearranged the PFD.
I slept on my right side.
I dreamed the elk were running full speed with their antlers down, not expecting my tent to be blocking their game trail.
I unzipped the tent and tried to see if the water was back. I took two steps and there it was. I was standing in it. Fortunately the tent was just as quick to take down as it was to put up.
By the time I had the kayak packed, all I had to do was sit in it and push off.


Like I said, the topography of the island and the surrounding trees created a sheltered area from the wind. The surface of the slough was as smooth as glass and as reflective as a mirror when the sky began to brighten.







I don’t have any pictures after this point because the death grip I had on my paddle didn’t really allow me to take any more.
I spent close to three hours paddling into wind and waves, riding an awesome rollercoaster-like wave treadmill. I was scared at first, but the longer I stayed upright, the more I began to relax. At the end, as the boat ramp came into sight, I realized I’d been having fun.
I felt something that I didn’t recognize at first.
I think it might have been a twinge of self confidence…
…and gratitude for that morning.

8 comments:

  1. You are an adventurous S.O.B. I guess that's one way to field test some new gear. Reminds me of a time camping at Olympia NP when a herd of 30 elk led by a couple of majestic bulls came crashing through the forest in an obvious panic. By the light of our flickering campfire we waited for their appearance since we heard them well before they reached us. They moved through at full gallop as we captured a glimpse of horns and hoofs between the fire and our flashlights. An awesome site that I'll never forget.

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  2. "why not drink the warm beer?" wondered our host PETER GRIFFIN.

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  3. "the answer, it turns out, has something to do with sausage grease."...............doesn't it always!? sincerely, Elton John.

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  4. Great story. I live in South Bend near the mouth of the Willapa River which flows into the bay. I kayak the area regularly year-round - mostly in the river and its tributaries but try to play around Long Island and the Stanley Channel a couple of times a year. I have not had the courage to explore the sloughs on the east side. I've done a little exploring on the west side because it's easy to land on the rocky beaches. My family had a logging camp on the island in the 50's and my brothers and I own Baby Island which is a little to the SW of Long Island.
    I admire your courage to wander and camp the area in January. I never have been able to figure out the tide and currents around the island. I only know that it gets shallow very fast and that the wind is not your friend when the tide changes.

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  5. Steve T. - thanks for your use of the adjective adventurous. That's way more polite than 'dumb ass' which is what I hear from everyone else.


    Peter G. - I didn't see any evidence for Bigfoot...oh wait...fooled again.

    Elton J. - for a while, I felt like a candle in the wind.

    Anonymous from South Bend - Your comments make me think my twinge of self confidence is likely over-confidence, and that I am one lucky bastard. I will look forward to exploring the West side - easy landings on rocky beaches sound very inviting - but I have a lot to learn about reading tide tables before then.

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  6. Allright! That does it! Consider our product placement sponsorship agreement cancelled!! Our Legal Dept. will be contacting you shortly.....President & CEO, Skuppy Peanut Butter Corp. Colon Butters III.

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  7. You had me lol…knowing what was coming before you said it! On my way south after spending the summer in the northwest, I camped (in my rv) on the peninsula (in a resort w/ full hook-up) in mid-Sept '09. I stopped in at the visitor center to ask of the best put in places in the area and was told about the refuge launch at Willapa Bay. The east side of the bay looked more promising so I went that direction. It was a beautiful day on the water and I hated to turn back but being ever mindful of the tide I decided I’d better. Coming back around the south end of the island I recall digging a little deeper and a little faster. In the end I was thankful I made it back to the launch still able to paddle…I think that mud would be a little hard to walk in…dragging a kayak! And it turned out to be another great northwest paddling day!
    I’m down south now on Lake Havasu. Enjoying another great paddling day on Arizona’s west coast.

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  8. I want to take a hike too!!!!!!.........oh, but it's only for PORTLAND, OREGON residents..............dangit............maybe I should move to Portland.........that town is pretty shetchy though, makes San Francisco look like Salt lake City....naw, I'm just gonna go for it! gonna click that hike directory anyway...."CLICK"....................... yeah! Baby!!....GO ABERDEEN!!!!!

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