Like the sea itself, the Race to Alaska is what you make it and never the same twice. Different day, different weather, different boat, different attitude – from the strictest right-brained sense of waves reflecting the energy of the wind, to the incense and crystal-infused belief in aura projection, water is a medium that reflects energy. There is a relationship between what you bring to it and what you get back – or it’s completely random; we’ve got no idea, our Ouija board is at the shop. Regardless of the why of it, the race has seemed to change shape in step with the personalities of the teams involved. The unprepared found chaos, the untested learned what would break, the rigid were thrown curve balls from left field and were baffled that a mixed metaphor like that was even possible. On the flip side, the prepared and ready, the teams that met change with the caution and open-armed hug of a seldom-seen cousin – they locked it down and did just fine. Is the race a mirror of truth? Doppelgänger? Choose your own adventure? Still no idea, but the R2AK’s open format and the “Own your shit and figger it out” ethic has produced race experiences that seem to run parallel to the teams involved. And today, the kayaks finished.
What energy are you throwing into the waves when you choose a kayak as your trusted steed to ride north? Simple and efficient, in terms of the amount of effort to move a human’s worth of weight and gear through the water, it doesn’t get much better than the long, slender, wave riding hull form that has evolved through thousands of years of design improvements. Kayaks are easy to learn for novices, and for thousands of rental customers worldwide the kayak is the penultimate accessible and simple way to get on the water. Drag 30 pounds of long-narrow plastic to the water, sit facing forward and shovel water until you get there.
Kayakers: stop typing the angry email, relax your open-mouthed angry exhale, smooth out your spray skirt. Before you squish-walk your wet neoprene booties away in anger and leave footprint-shaped puddles all over the floor, of course there is more to it than that. The other side of kayaking accessibility is the lifetime task of mastering the complexity and techniques to progress from just shoveling water, to shoveling water in really fancy ways; effortless shoveling, graceful shoveling, water shoveling so fancy and effective that after three weeks of continuous travel you can still paddle for 17 hours in a day and cause everyone who even has an inkling of how incredible that is to be irreversibly inspired.
The race started out from Victoria 22 days ago with two solo teams in kayaks, both boats roughly three times as tall and exactly as wide as the people in them, but the similarities ended there. Consider them a control study for the aura projection thesis: same basic boat DNA, different auras, kayaks separated the moment when their race was born. Whether the energy they brought created the waves they needed, or something else entirely, both of these trips seem absolutely unique to the people that paddled them. However different their approach and experiences, both of their R2AK experience seem held in common by a single thread: triumph.
The Book of John
Team John’s triumph started when he signed up, culminated when he declared victory at his own self-declared finish line in Bella Bella, and continued all the way back to arriving at his Guemes Island home yesterday. John was always in this for the challenge, to push himself to his own limits and be a part of the excitement he felt radiating off of the first R2AK. For us, for many, given his right reasons for stepping to the line and the way he kept plugging along, John was one of the everyman heroes of the R2AK. His application was good-natured and solidly entry level – qualities that seemed to carry through his entire race experience. John made mistakes, gradually and bravely. He got more familiar with his gear and repaired it when it failed – from relieving the stress on his family and Race Central by mastering the SPOT tracker, to affecting a repair to his hatch cover after his ama filled with water.
His passage was a solitary learning curve, nearly three weeks of isolation in which he cheered himself up, talked himself down and mustered the strength to keep going – sometimes in the middle of intimidating conditions or seemingly aggressive intentions of carnivorous mega-fauna: “I was sailing when 5 or 6 sea lions surfaced behind me. The animals followed me for awhile, which at first amused me, then concerned me (are they stalking me?). Then one suddenly surfaced right in front of my bow and WHAM! I collided with it at about 3mph. It scared the bejeesus out of us both, nobody hurt, though for a second I wondered if I would capsize and what would happen to me in the water with those big animals with big teeth. Turns out the sea lions were on their way to an island where about 100 of their kind were already onshore. Seeing them, I changed course to give them wide berth, rounded another island only to find a solitary, enormous, monstrous bull sea lion on the rocks. Seeing me, he rose up, inched toward the water (and me), making horrible low growling noises. I got the hell away fast as possible.”
His isolation was broken up by the occasional call home or the more frequent assistance and conversation from people he met along the route. Every time we got a report John was cheered, thankful, and a bit in disbelief about something; how well he was doing, a mistake he made, the kindness of people on the route. “I have a problem accepting help from strangers… I soon realized that people wanted to help me and that if I allowed them to, it made them happy rather than inconveniencing them. I quickly stopped seeing curious, inquisitive people as a time-stealing nuisance when I was anxious to get on my way and learned to relax, enjoy and talk enthusiastically about myself, my boat, the R2AK, whatever.”
Throughout it all John kept setting reasonable goals and then doing just a little bit better, then a little bit better than that. He was pretty sure he was going to stop in Port Hardy, did stop in Port Hardy, and gave himself an inadvertent pep talk when he recounted all of his adventures to his wife, and hearing his voice give shape to his own enthusiasm pressed on to Bella Bella. There he met up with another kayaker with a stashed car who offered him a ride back to Victoria; fellowship of the sea. “I plan to pay forward the gifts I was given and help others in small but meaningful ways. The words of encouragement thrown my way really lifted my spirits and energized me. The First Nations people, especially in Bella Bella were especially gracious and friendly. A lady in the store there invited me to a potlatch starting June 29. That would have been a blast.”
Team Mike’s Kayak
When Team Mike’s Kayak crossed the finish line he tied up, clambered onto the Fish House dock, opened a cider, looked around, took a breath, and after a quirky silence yelled, “I’m not last!” to the throng of townies, other teams who had waited, reporters and his girlfriend who had flown up. We all laughed, and then he made another joyful announcement without preamble “Never again!” Not sure if we were doing so in disbelief or in total belief, we all laughed again – even Mike.
Self-sufficient and practiced, Mike’s Race to Alaska was also about pushing his envelope and proving his skill, but more about applying and honing a well-crafted discipline in a new environment than hammering raw potential into accomplishment. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
Mike shoveled enough water to finish all 750 miles of the race in a solo kayak in 22 days, and as the reporters plied him with questions his answers all had a quality of inspired practicality and whimsical precision.
“How are you feeling physically?”
“I’ve been so wet you can’t tell the blisters from the rest of me.”
“What was the ratio between nights camping and nights in a hotel?”
“Six to one.”
With every quip he seemed to have an inward smile, that at a given moment there were a thousand jokes being told in his head and he wasn’t going to share, just enjoy. It wasn’t practical to explain it all to us. Rather than generalize or offer platitudes of that could be easily retweeted or turned into bumper stickers, he offered the specific answers. He wasn’t performing, he was executing. Like the R2AK or the career of computer programming he just completed, Mike wasn’t winging anything but had built an architecture of action to exist in that was beautiful, whimsical and specific.
Like his many long trips before, Mike had planned his route so meticulously that he knew he was a day ahead of his float plan when he reached Bella Bella, and that he needed to push for all 17 hours of his final day if he was going to arrive in Ketchikan for his ferry ride home. So planned and specific that when a passing yacht with watching the tracker asked him if he needed anything, rather than casting for a beer, pie or any other everyday indulgence whose value isn’t truly known until you are in the wilderness or in prison, he did a mental scan of his inventory and asked for what was missing: “Do you have a lighter?”
Mike didn’t need to cope, he was executing a program.
His gear wasn’t purchased in a single REI shopping cart but a represented a mix of simple, specific and practical: a well-tested kit that had evolved over decades of beta testing. His primary paddle was a custom carbon fiber Greenland style beauty that weighed next to nothing, his wooden back up paddle came apart for easier storage. Every item had a specific leash and pocket that his hands knew where to find a split second before his brain knew he needed it. His rotomolded kayak wasn’t his fastest, but the one in his garage tough enough for the perils of long days of scraping rocks riding counter currents close to shore then dragging up beach full of gear. He rigged up his tideline campsites with a tide alarm made from string, driftwood rocks and a pot lid. When the tide would rise the driftwood would float away, sinking the rock, pulling the string and banging the lid. Time to go.
When he left he paddled, using the forward stroke for hours and days on end. What did he think about when he was paddling? Did have any epiphanies? “I spent a lot of time on Descartes proof of God. What if God wasn’t infinitely wise but just 1,000 times smarter than the rest of us and was more like an engineer trying to manage this whole thing, rather than truly omnipresent…?”
For just three days he was able to use his spring-action, deck-mounted downwind sail to catch the few southerly winds. Two were easy, the third found him surfing down waves at 7.5 knots in gale force winds, using his paddle to slow himself down. He called it a day after that.
The R2AK was twice the length of his longest previous trip, and he did it in 22 days – half the time of two other kayakers who showed up this same week after a trip of their own. Incredible. He saw whales, seals, an absence of bears and as much scenery as his tight timetable allowed. Would he do it again?
“Never again” was his parting smile.
After an hour on the docks in his wet neoprene answering questions he packed up what he needed and got the first hotel room that didn’t change his ratio, and dined on a gift certificate mailed to him by a friend.
Different race, different people, all incredible. One team left, before the R2AK comes to a close.