Spring break-up. Ice melts, creeks thaw and waterfalls flow again. Ice climbers start planning longer overnight trips farther from home. Sure, there’s still ice within driving distance of Anchorage if you know where to look for it, but my work had lately been slicing the weekends into snippets of time, and I was starting to tire of saying no to invitations. I had been learning how to downhill ski at the ski slope in Anchorage, but the warmer temperatures had turned most of the snow into ice crystals with grass poking through. The weather and roads were starting to look better for bike commuting, and the randonneuring groups had started to shift their gears in anticipation of smooth roads and sunny skies. Every time another email came through with a trip plan, I had to look at my calendar, write back a cheerful reply in the negative and hope my friends thought of me again in the near future. The month of time wrapped around spring break is always busy for a teacher, and I had taken on more than my usual responsibilities as the middle of March approached. But with a one-week window to jump out of the working routine, bookended with committee work and deadlines, I had determined to explore a different part of Alaska. Months earlier, I had arranged for a flight to Kodiak Island, but as the date approached, I found myself handling everything except my own itinerary. Here and there I found a little time to call the visitor’s bureau, ask about camping permits, email friends of friends who had traveled to Kodiak in the past, and research online, but it wasn’t much to my satisfaction. The island remained blurry in my mind, my own plans vague.
I knew I wanted to backpack. The weather was unpredictable, could be rainy and cold, and I hadn’t obtained trail maps yet. I had gathered some experience winter camping with my stove and tent in the past year, so no worries there. I had stories that needed writing, and time in one place has never been something I have cultivated, though it helps when you’re a writer. I told myself that those open days between arrival and departure could be well spent in writing at a local coffee house, interspersed with walks on the beach, musing over tidal patterns, and chatting up fisherfolk and boatpeople.
Somehow, that plan, though sensible, just didn’t do it for me. An element was missing. In the last week before my flight, I had less time than usual, due to some late-night meetings for work and rescheduled tutoring sessions. I kept putting my questions out there in various situations, asking people what they knew about Kodiak, where to buy a good pair of Xtra Tuffs, and what they would recommend. Expecting to spend a lot of time in the rain and walking the coasts, I decided to leave my hiking footwear at home and picked up a pair of insulated neoprene boots with steel toes– the ubiquitous Alaskan fishing boat boot. That Friday’s schedule offered a little window of time between work and gym climbing, and an idea that I had been kicking around grabbed a hold of me and demanded more than the usual wishful thinking. After work, I drove over to AMH and bought a packraft.
Kind of. What I actually did was wander into the store, look at the packrafts, think about how taking a packraft would change the trip, and consider the way I could use it beyond this trip. Then I drove across the street to Yak and Yeti to browse a little more online. Then I called AMH and asked a few more questions. Then I drove back over and bought an Alpaca with a whitewater spray deck and a paddle. PFD? I figured I could pick that up in Kodiak. Drysuit? Summertime. I still nurse aspirations of catching salmon by floating out with the current in the Kenai with a short dip net, so maybe that will come to pass at a later date. I could see lakes on the map, and perhaps some of the inland coastal waters would be calm enough for me to try things out.
Packrafts are small inflatable boats, similar to a kayak, which can fit inside a backpack and be used on creeks, rivers, lakes and coastal waters, depending on weather and conditions. A friend of mine had recently started packrafting and posting photographs of her trips online. I had read a lot about packrafting trips and how Alaskans had used them to get through areas usually inaccessible to hikers. I had been wanting a kayak since living in Oklahoma, but there was always the problem of where to store it, and the nagging sense that it would be too much trouble to actually get out to a place where I could use it to justify the purchase. Inflatable kayaks never really appealed to me. It wasn’t until I started reading Erin and Hig’s writings about their travels through Alaska with packrafts that I started to understand the possibilities of these seemingly indestructible little crafts.
With all the giddy , nervous tension that usually accompanies a big purchase for me, I thanked the store clerk while running through a checklist in my mind of everything I thought I needed for the trip, because I was already late for climbing and my friend was waiting for me at the gym.
The next morning, I would be boarding the Ski Train bound for Curry at 6am, and returning after 8pm. The day after that, I would depart for Kodiak at 6am. The time for preparations had ended. The wheels of change were in motion.