Thursday, July 17, 2008

Day 34 (Wednesday, July 16, 2008) by Mike

Sailing with Dummies (Hawaii to Alaska Edition)

This morning there was no wind. A large swell coming from the north made the waves look like slowly moving dunes of water. Perfect conditions for kayaking. Sitting in a kayak, eye-level is about two feet above the water. In the bottom of six-foot swells you find yourself surrounded by walls of water. When it’s rough and windy, this can be unsettling. When it’s calm, it’s relaxing to go up and down the “dunes.”

Tanaga Island is large very scenic. And the fog was missing this morning. I was eager to take off. Dragging kayak off the back of the Minnow, I noticed some leftover pasta sauce adorning the bow of the kayak. It wasn’t the first time our leftovers didn’t quite make it into the water.

The surface was calm, with a six-foot swell that grew as it neared shore. When a six-foot swell gets to shore there are some pretty substantial breakers. I found myself a couple of miles from the boat along the north shore with a north swell needing to relieve myself pretty badly. Dressed in foul-weather gear in a kayak I found no way to take care of business onboard. So I looked for a good spot to land.

Up ahead, there was a inlet, or cove, protected from the breakers. I took advantage. It was really pretty back in there, but everything was wet. Which made the kelp healthy enough to cover the rocks, which made the rocks slippery, which made me fall upon landing, which got my feet wet. I relieved myself of what seemed like a gallon of liquid. A ten-minute struggle ensued and I was back on the water, mostly dry.

As usual there were birds everywhere. I was ready to see mammals. Except for a couple of seals we had not seen any mammals in the Aleutians. This was about to change. Scattered all over the surface of the sea were birds, kelp patches, and more birds. As I was enjoying the vista, these islands are beautiful when the clouds get out of the way, I noticed some splashing over by some kelp. I turned and headed toward it.

Sea otters! A mother and two little ones. They were “handling” the kelp and eating something from it. The little ones either sat on the mother’s belly or swam around really fast and splashed a lot. About 20 percent “lap” time and 80 percent “play” time. They glanced at me occasionally but ignored me for the most part as I glided closer. My camera was stowed in the back of the kayak. I was tempted to go for it, but it would involve some gyrations that I was unwilling to risk above 42-degree water. So I just sat there, not fifteen feet away watching the show.

Otters are playful, especially the little ones. Their face is ugly like a dog, but their actions remind me of kittens – cute and full of energy. The babies were about the size of a six-week-old kitten, but longer. The mother stayed with the kelp. Occasionally she would dive and splash and then return to the kelp, working it with her paws. The little ones were all over the place and kept venturing closer to the kayak. Then they would dart back to the mother, sit on her lap, and eat a little of whatever it was they were eating.

One of the little ones came up next to the tip of the kayak. It licked the kayak and dashed back to the mother, who didn’t seem to notice anything except the kelp. It repeated the kayak-lick-swim-back-to-mom a few times and then the other one joined in. Maybe they tasted Ragu. This was fun to watch. Then one of them appeared on the front of the kayak and I was startled. I’m not sure how it got there it happened so quickly.

It just sat there licking the top of the kayak. The Ragu. It was like a kitten licking the bottom of an almost-empty milk dish. It licked the surface clean and started licking the rope webbing on top. Occasionally it would stop and stare at me for a moment, and then it was back to high-speed licking.

Then it started to gnaw on the rope webbing. That was not good. A bit disappointed, I decided to end the show. I hissed and raised the paddle in my arms. It cowered for a brief moment, glanced at me like I was an idiot, and went back to the rope. So I pushed it off the tip with my paddle and began to row backwards.

It was back on the kayak in an instant, directly back to the pasta-soaked rope. I shoved it back into the water, harder. It took a little longer, I got a couple of backward strokes in, but it came back. And the other one came, too. This time I used the paddle to fling the “gnawer” about 10 feet away, and whacked the other one, creating two splashes. The mother was unmoved by anything going on.

They both returned. They were like kittens with one of those feathery cat toys. It could have been a game if they weren’t eating the kayak. I was able to get a couple more strokes in and was now 25-30 feet from the mother and coasting farther. But the babies were not deterred. They leapt right back on. With both hands on the paddle I executed a modified two-handed backhand. They both went flying, hit the water, and were back in no time.

These guys were tough and determined. The rope webbing was almost severed in two places. I’d had enough. I raised the paddle over my head and slammed it down on them. I think I killed one of them. It lay motionless and blood was oozing from its head. The other one, however, shrieked the loudest “dying rabbit” noise I could imagine. That woke up the mother. It came to the kayak in a flash. It covered 40+ feet in no time and was atop the kayak, growling and sniffing at its baby.

I tried to fend off the growling mother with the paddle. It grabbed the paddle and held on tight. That was unexpected. I tried to push it off the side, but it had a grip on the webbing, too. I shook the paddle hard as I could and tried to get it from the otter. I failed. It was moving toward me, still growling, still holding the paddle tight, baring its teeth.

I grabbed an Aquafina bottle, half full, in my right hand and a sponge in my left hand and jammed the paddle under my left arm. The baby in the water continued to squeal. The dead one had fallen into the water. The mother glanced back at the squeals occasionally. I took a swing at it with the bottle. It was way too fast for me, swinging its head sideways and easily avoiding impact.

But it at least stopped coming. I continued to swing at it to keep it at bay. It made the same motion every time I swung the bottle. I tried the same motion with the sponge. Same result in reverse. I did it six, eight, ten times. Same result each time. Each time I faked with the sponge, it moved into perfect braining range with the bottle. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. I faked with the sponge, it dodged into range of the water bottle which was already in motion. Contact.

The bottle was too soft to do any damage. The side of the kayak was not. When the otter’s head came down on the kayak its body went limp. I brushed it off into the water and took off at full speed, not looking back. The squeals stopped after a few minutes. Maybe the mother lived and tended the baby.

On the way back to the boat I steered clear of any floating kelp. I was happy to enjoy the view of the mountains and valleys on the island. The sun came out but I never did see the peaks of the mountains. They were always obscured by clouds.

Daily Cuisine:

Josh made some cinnamon-raison bread that was delicious. I had burritos for the second day in a row. I’m not sure if a person can ever get tired of Mexican food.

Arts and Entertainment:

Star Trek Six. Kirk and Bones almost froze, but they ended up living.

Okay, I was just kidding. There were no otters. But I was tired of writing about birds. Later in the day we did see some killer whales. Honest!

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