November 18, 2019
The Situation is the Boss, Man: Sometimes it's better not to know
The GRATEFUL DEAD documentary "Long Strange Trip" had an interview with Steve Parish–perhaps their most infamous roadie, and an active crew member during the "Wall of Sound" era that featured the PA and speaker system that was the size of a small town. He reflected on the chaotic and unhinged ordeal of transporting the equipment from place to place and getting it set up by showtime, and how when the police, venue managers, etc. asked the inevitable question, "Who's in charge around here?", their response was always, "THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN." We couldn't help but wonder how many times the adventurers in our orbit have felt the same way in the situations they've found themselves in. Here’s the latest addition to stories with this theme, from our friend Brett Davis.
Words & photos by Brett Davis
Looking across the bay, the once rambunctious surf had seemed to lose its energy. No longer was it sending six-to-eight-foot rollers on to the shore with such force that the salty air crackled with each consecutive wallop of the innocent beach. For the past several days, my companions and I had been witness to, and stymied by, an irritable Gulf of Alaska. Mother Nature was indifferent about what we were trying to accomplish—to traverse via fatbike and packraft from Cordova to Yakatat.
For a couple of my partners, this was the last piece of the puzzle to be put in place for a completion of Alaska’s formidable “Lost Coast.” For me, it was my first experience with the Alaskan Coast and a dream trip given the company with whom I was pedaling, paddling, bushwhacking, and suffering.
For those in the adventure world, the names Roman Dial, Mike Curiak, and Steve “Doom” Fassbinder are well recognized. Roman is a legend whose exploits have inspired me and others to think creatively and take on challenges that are hard to fathom for mere mortals. Mike is an incredible endurance athlete who has an impressive resume built on suffering through when others would simply fold under the conditions. My friend, Doom, is another hard man who is always looking to push through pre-conceived boundaries when the odds are not in his favor.
The fourth member of our group was the under-the-radar badass artist and athlete, Jon Bailey. I had adventured with both Doom and Jon in the past, so I was well-versed in their personalities and capabilities. Roman and Mike were just two names of adventure lore that I was impressed and inspired by. They didn’t know me. Trying to curb my awe, I shook hands with both men in a cool, calm, and collective manner—hoping to ease their apprehensions about including a virtual unknown into their “Type 2 fun” world.
What started out as a beautiful and surreal crossing of the extensive Copper River delta slowly deteriorated into a slugfest of soft sand riding against a stiff headwind under threatening skies. After two days of pace lining with off-the-bike breaks every 30 minutes, all of our knees were swollen and sore. To add insult to injury, Mother Nature decided to throw in some cold, soaking rain for good measure. The trip had become a survival test against the elements instead of merely a quest to negotiate the stunningly harsh terrain.
As we reached a particularly technical section of the coast where our forward progress was predicated on the tide schedule, the Gulf of Alaska decided to become perturbed and manic with wind chop and big rollers attacking the shoreline without remorse. Given the surly climate, our progress south slowed to a crawl forcing us to circle the wagons in our HMG UltaMids until we could safely move without the fear of being swept out to sea, whether on bikes or in packrafts.
As Doom and I looked at the much tamer surf and some semblance of the sun reflecting across its surface, the daunting task ahead seemed doable for the first time in days. Punching through the two-foot breakers seemed manageable, but it definitely was going to be a team effort. With nervous energy created by thoughts of what we would encounter in the middle of the bay, we prepared our crafts and selves for the six-mile crossing. The packrafts were inflated; gear stowed in their tubes; fatbikes lashed to their bows, and dry suits donned for protection against the frigid water.
Icy Bay is aptly named as the nearby glaciers calve massive chunks of ice into its waters, causing the fjord to be clogged at times by these beautiful yet dangerous remnants of the ice age.
The “teamwork” portion of the launch began as one person waded into the surf, holding another’s packraft steady so that they could get in without being rolled over by the oncoming outburst of saltwater. Once in their vessel, they would receive a needed push of speed into the waves by their partner. If successful, the timing of the push would correspond with a lull in the wave action, so the paddler’s frantic strokes of urgency would safely carry them beyond the breakers without taking on significant amounts of water or being dumped.
One by one, Roman, Mike, and Jon made it without incident to the safety zone. All that was left was to decide who would go last with no help from a partner. There was only one way to decide the victor, by an age-old adventurer decision game. Good ‘ole “Rock, Paper & Scissors.”
Watching Doom jump unaided into his raft and begin paddling furiously into the impending crash of water, I was grateful for my current position in the line-up. This was the second time on a recent adventure that I had fortune on my side. I expect that the next time such a duel takes place, I may not be so lucky. Doom timed his entry flawlessly and made it without incident to the squad. After we all let out a big sigh of relief, we pivoted our boats to the south and began the chore ahead.
The strategy was to give a continuous effort without breaks and to maintain a tight formation so that no one was left without help in case the worst happened. With all of us on edge, we said little and willed the distant shore to grow in stature. Near the middle of the bay, the uneasiness was at its height as our glacial water was alive with a slight wind chop and 15-foot swells. Looking around, I would see my teammates disappear with each passing swell. When they came back in view, I was relieved to find them still upright and paddling.
As we drew ever closer to the comfort of dryland, my mind started to think about our upcoming landing. Would we find the same roaring surf that had plagued our journey for days? If so, things were going to be violent and very wet. After two hours and thirty-nine minutes of nonstop paddling, Mother Nature finally gave us a reprieve as we calmly landed on a rocky beach. No surf was encountered, just a calm last push from our own wakes. Whew.
With yet another crux ahead of us, the crossing of Icy Bay was quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after we decided to call the trip on account of lack of time, food, and a never-ending onslaught by the elements, did the gravity of our crossing emerge. As we rode our bikes towards our intended pick-up spot by a bush plane, we came across the Icy Bay Lodge and its crowded harbor. On the deck of the lodge was the caretaker who did a doubletake from seeing five guys come riding out of the remote Alaskan bush.
The questions were nonstop. As we told our tale, amazement grew across the face of the caretaker. His eyes widened when we told him about our paddle across the bay. Pointing at the boats moored in his harbor, he stated that for the past several days, every boat in the area had taken shelter in the harbor due to very turbulent seas in the bay and beyond into the gulf. A small craft advisory had been issued with the coast guard advising against leaving unsheltered waters. Whoa.
As we pedaled away to the landing strip, we laughed at the trials and tribulations we had suffered during this trip. While in the middle of Icy Bay, I definitely had brief thoughts that we were in the thick of it. The situation was very real, where a mishap could end tragically. However, it seemed no more dire or dangerous than what we had been encountering along the entire journey. I guess the old saying of Ignorance is bliss reigns true in the adventure life because had we known otherwise, we would have never left the beach.