Chasing the harvest moon in a kayak

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

It was getting dark and a steady rain beat down on the car as we pulled up to the Douglas Boat Harbor. The two kayaks on my roof were rapidly filling with water.

With no sign of the moon showing through the thick cloud cover and rain and wind in the forecast for the rest of the evening, I wondered why I didn't cancel this trip early in the day. I was being optimistic about the chance of better weather, my wife Lenne wanted to get out on the water and I had a few other hardy kayakers call me earlier to say they were still interested in the scheduled Juneau Alpine Club September full moon paddle. I decided to paddle the Juneau harbor because of the weather forecast.

I wasn't expecting the benefit of moonlight but with the lights of the city and one of the last cruise ships of the season docked downtown, I figured we still had enough illumination to do a night paddle.

It was Sept. 18, three days before the full moon. For those astronomy buffs the moon was a waxing gibbous with 93 percent illumination. It was the harvest moon, the first full moon closest to the autumn equinox. In the Juneau area, scheduling moonlight activities two to three days before the full moon takes advantage of the earlier moonrise. The waxing moon rises before sunset, allowing time for the moon to be over the mountains and shinning bright right after sunset. Unfortunately, it didn't look like we would see that moon tonight.

At 7 o'clock, the scheduled meeting time, the rain stopped, there was no wind and those hardy kayakers arrived. It was shaping up to be a wonderful night as Greg Bledsoe, Rick Huffman, Elizabeth Medgyesy, my wife and I prepared our kayaks for the evening around the harbor. Along with the regular kayak safety gear, glow sticks were strapped to our kayaks, flashlights and headlamps were double-checked, and whistles were hung around our necks. Keeping track of each other while kayaking is always important. But at night, when you can lose sight of each other in the darkness, it is critical.

We started across the channel as dusk fell upon this cheerful group of kayakers. Low clouds hung around the surrounding mountains and the last light of the sun filtered through the gray, tunnel-shaped clouds just beyond the Douglas Bridge. As we rounded the rock dump, the lights of the 780-foot Volendam came into view.

Before approaching, I called the Coast Guard on my marine radio to inform them five kayakers would be paddling alongside the cruise ship at night. With all the security concerns in the country after the Sept. 11 attacks - and the hassles I have been having with the airlines because of my name - the last thing I needed was to be suspected as a potential threat to a cruise ship.

As we approached, we could see a laser light show flashing from the Crow's Nest lounge just above the bridge of the massive ship. We slowly worked our way toward the stern, staring up at the multitude of cabin and lounge lights. If you think these ships look big from the dock, try paddling alongside one in a 17-foot kayak! As we passed, we waved and said hello to a deckhand who was standing at the stern of ship.

Our little group of kayakers then slipped by the unsuspecting diners at the Hangar restaurant. We paddled past the Coast Guard dock to admire the sleek new rescue boats. We even attempted to paddle up Gold Creek, managing to get under the Egan Drive bridge before being swept back out to the channel in the swift current. As we took turns playing in the river, I looked up at the sky and saw stars. It was actually starting to clear up.

The Douglas Bridge was close and we had to paddle underneath. Aware of the strong current generated by the narrow gap under the bridge we approached with caution. Fortunately, there was a small tide change and once we floated under the bridge, we were able to paddle back against the incoming tide on the Douglas side with no problems. Not having as many lights on the Douglas side, it was much darker, but the clouds continued to break up and the glow of moonlight on the surrounding clouds gave us hope that we might get to see the moon after all.

Low clouds still hung on Mount Roberts, yet the lights of the tramway were able to penetrate the haze and the building appeared to hover in the sky like a UFO. We continued down the channel, staying close to the shore. At one point we were staring at the lights of Alaska Flight 77 coming in for a landing when I heard the scrape of my bow along the muddy beach - we paddled into the tidal flats and had to double back to find deeper water. We passed the navigation light and a gentle swell rocked our boats. A light breeze started blowing up the channel and I felt rain.

One moment we thought we were going to see the moon, the next we were in a shower. It was 10 p.m. when we reached the Douglas Harbor, our "almost" moonlight paddle around the cozy harbor complete. Maybe the October moon will be more cooperative and provide light to another group of nighttime paddlers.

Larry Musarra is a member of the Juneau Alpine Club and writes about the group's outings. Another moonlight paddle is scheduled for Oct. 18. For details, call Musarra at 586-0152.

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