Late in the summer John, Tim and I hatched a plan. Tim knew an older guy named Paul who had a boat and he had a lot of free time and he wanted to take us out boating in Prince William Sound. He was open to doing whatever we wanted so we came up with a good idea.
The idea was to boat out to Esther Island and get after some first descents on our downhill bikes. The topography in Prince William Sound is interesting. Some land features like Culrosss Island were worn smooth looking as if the nearby glaciers had crushed and scraped the once rugged features into submissive bumps on the blue sea. Whereas other nearby land masses like Knight Island have huge craggly granite spires and crazy alpine chutes that fall right to the beach.
We were looking for something in between and Esther had what we were after. We would anchor right near the hatchery and make camp. There is 500 feet of sparse forest that leads quickly into sub alpine glades and then pure rock above 1500 feet. We wanted to push up to these exposed ridge lines and bike on the rock and basically kill it. That would prove more difficult than we thought.
We met at Paul’s around 10am ready to go. We had been on ‘the program’ all summer and could expect a general efficiency from each other, when it came to getting going on something. Paul was on another program. He puttered around his garage for a while tinkering with the outboard and trailer lights and fishing gear etc. We helped and remained patient and were generally stoked to be preparing for such a great adventure. One thing leads to another and we don’t leave the house until 4pm. Land of the midnight sun you know, as we were confident that we had still had plenty of light to get where we wanted to go.
Paul decided to stop at a local restaurant and order a burger to go. I can tell John is slightly losing it now in his head and Tim is acting like we there is no problem. I am really starting to crunch numbers in my head; be in Whittier by 5 at latest, hour boat ride out Passage Canal another 20 minutes across College Fiord and over to Esther by 7, make camp by 8, dark at… 8:30?
I was becoming concerned that we were now off track. We got the burger, raced to Whittier and hopped in the boat fairly smoothly. Paul wanted to go check his shrimp pots. This was an actual surprise to us and I knew then that the joke was on us. I guess I should mention now that Pat was getting along through the mid stages of Parkinson’s Disease. This entire time of preparation and anticipation was coupled with the way that Paul moved and conducted himself. He actually reminded me of my dad in his general outdoors skill set. The difference was that he walked with a limp and had shakes and could barely lift the smallest object so John, Tim and I had to act on his directions. It was all stored upstairs in his mind but his body was clearly failing him.
The light was failing on all of us as I was pulling the fifth pot up some 500 feet from the icy depths. My fingers were numb and there were about 5 shrimp in the cooler so far, so we were losing interest in pulling the last two pots. He was excited for the last pot and sure enough there was about 20 shrimp kicking around and we would feast at our camp on ESTHER ISLAND! I could see her sitting out in the Sound proper, calling with her sirens cry. The light in the east was becoming pink, Esther looked dark but we were coming now.
In the 10 minutes it took for us to get from the last shrimp pot site to the point outside Blackstone Bay, a bank of low fog rolled in along the feet of our destined port. I could still see the granite ridge lines dancing above the clouds but our route by sea was becoming less safe by the moment. Soon we rolled around the last piece of land between us and the entire northward stretch of College Fiord. Within a 50 foot distance the seas rose to maybe 3 and half feet. The 22 foot open hull aluminum skiff started to take on spray and our bikes did not seem to be protected under the trap. The spray was cold and salty and I was becoming alarmed. My first clue was when earlier in the trip Paul had to take a leak off the back of the boat and was having real difficulty getting everything all zipped up after the fact. We stood there watching long enough so that the idea of how I could help actually surfaced.
I asked Paul for the map quickly. We all unanimously decided that we had to abort the mission. The light was fading fast. I scoured the contour lines for what might be our last hope. It was interesting how throughout the entire day we were going to Esther up until that very moment when it was alarm bells, all at once.
I saw a little spot on the map that might be good in the first little bay as you curve north to College. We nosed in but then decided against it. There was nothing along the beach until we zipped into Pirate Cove, or maybe the next one. It was technically dark by the time we stepped on to solid ground. There was a small, not so flat spot right at tide line as indicated by debris from the morning flow. We would have to make due. We unloaded all of the entire camp as Paul sat on the ground under a tarp and directed us piece by piece on how to set up the camp. By 11pm we had a fire going and it was time to set up watch.
The tide for tonight was supposed to be a few inches higher and we were cutting it close. As we sat in silence watching the tide it started to rain. Paul’s dog was acting all aggressive as it charged around the rear perimeter barking into the dark. We were in wilderness now. The tide actually crested the edge of the miniature plateau we were on and came within inches of soaking our bags but we stayed dry.
The next morning was socked in. We decided to call off the trip for good and Paul was excited to go fishing. We glumly trolled around in circles for the better part of the day and did not catch anything.
We returned to Whittier kind of bummer because we did not meet our objective. 7 days later the entire south central region of Alaska was still socked in under the first huge pacific storm to come in for the season, the one that rolled in while we were on route to Esther. We would have been stuck on the island for many days and were only spared many imagined hardship by a few shrimp.