Stacked up waves rolled forward lurching my girlfriend Elyse above me and then dropping her down with a nerve tightening “thud”. Our tandem kayak knifed forward, as we fought for control. To our left, nine other kayaks, bright yellow, mango and maroon boats rose and fell amongst green frothing swells.
We had pushed away from Cape Fanshaw and were gaining ground to the South before the ten-mile cross over to Kupreanof Island and our first food drop of the trip in Kake. The idea on shore had been to keep the group together, be able to talk and make decisions on the water.
But once on the water, it was not so simple. Boats tentatively tried to bunch together, as people shouted against the strong Southeast wind. The group battled onward unsure of what to do or how to communicate.
Radios were certainly out of the question, as hands were firmly gripped to paddle shafts punching into the sea in search of stability. Shouting had to suffice, and eventually word reached us that we were turning back to the calm shelter of our previous night’s camp.
We reconvened on the beach to analyze our performance and highlight our concerns. There had been no order. Instead, it was just a cluster of hesitant kayakers throwing out ideas amid white capped surges. It was decided that we would attempt the crossing the next morning and we all went to bed uncertain that the weather would allow us to depart.
Groggy, I stumbled out of the tent at 3 a.m. The changing of the tide would not wait for us. Bites of oatmeal went down between hauling loads of gear down the beach. We grouped up at the point and stared across at the outline of the distant target shore. The conditions seemed slightly more favorable, so a plan was established and concerns addressed. We pushed around the point, determined to improve on last night’s attempt.
The improvement was immediately apparent. The fleet rounded the cape in a perfect parallel line, boats spaced about 10 feet apart. With five groups of two, the buddy system was in full effect. Communication became elementary. Each boat was assigned a number one through ten. Routine check-ins made sure that we were all on the same page.
“One — feeling great,” I yelled to start it off.
“Two — green light let’s go!”
Dave finished the cycle.
“Ten — let’s do this!”
Lucas took the lead and set the angle into the oncoming wind. Changes to the plan passed telephone style down the line, and we moved as if we were a single fluid unit. I felt a tingling sense of confidence as hoots and hollers echoed through the team.
As we paddled on across Frederick Sound, the waves got smaller and the wind diminished until we were coasting through glassy water. It went smoothly, no one fell behind, no one pushed ahead. Wide smiles reflected the satisfaction of working in harmony. Eventually the North shore of Kupreanof Island transitioned into a well-defined mix of beaches, coves and forest. A sea lion even welcomed us, performing circus like rolls and splashes inches from our bows.
It had been 15 days since we left Sandy Beach and the comforts of home. Each day brought with it adventure and a new lesson. We’ve found that small breakdowns in communication are often the root of every issue we face. Slowly, we are learning how to function effectively as a nomadic tribe. It is not easy to weave the power of 12 brains together while simultaneously patching the holes which are constantly developing. This first big crossing certainly challenged us, but we responded by unifying.
A community must listen.
Check out www.atripsouth.com for pictures and posts from the first leg of our trip.
• Chris Hinkely is a member of “A Trip South.” Look for their notes from the water and road every month in the Juneau Empire Outdoors section.