Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sitka, all silver and gray

Date: Sept. 5-7
Mileage: 104.9
September mileage: 169.1

Wow. What a miserable weekend. I can't believe I signed up for that.

Ok. Ok. It wasn't that bad. It was really only miserable in a comedy-of-errors type of way, and I'm already laughing about it. Sitka is a beautiful place ... beautiful in many of the ways Juneau is beautiful: lined with towering, tree-choked mountains; draped in billowing curtains of satin clouds; glimmers of sunlight perpetually trying to break through. Sitka, like Juneau, is probably the kind of place you need to spend a month or a year exploring to truly appreciate, let it all soak in, all of the moss and mold and endless rainfall, until it becomes a part of you. But in two days, when you are just getting your feet wet and still remember what it's like to be dry, all it does is grow grumpy resentment.

Perhaps, though, Sitka is just not the place to go camping in September. I don't do much camping these days; it is not as pleasent as I remember it being. I walked off the boat with as many belongings as I could carry on my back - likely more than 60 pounds of stuff ... much, much more than I carried for my three-day exursion around the Golden Circle. It teetered and threw off my balance so drastically that it was hard to stay upright on the bike. I knew I wasn't going to lug that pack far, so I set up the tent at a campground about a mile from the ferry terminal ... about eight miles outside of town. I figured it was as good a base camp as any.

The first night, I set out to exploring the roads and town. I found a few nice jeep trails at the other end of the paved road, some cut off from public motorized use, and visited a few lakes with original names ... Blue Lake, Green Lake, Heart Lake, Thimbleberry Lake (Ok, that last one isn't bad.) All the while, the rain came down in bursts and mists, but never truly stopped. I rolled through town right around dinner time. Unfortunantly, I had taken my sweet time on the last few miles, stopping to look for whales and explore a historic area. My body temperature was way down, so stopping in town and sitting for an hour in my wet clothes was not an option. It'll be OK, I thought, I brought food with me. I'll just go back to camp and change into something dry and have a sandwich for dinner.

(The black dots in this photo are all surfers, waiting for the next big wave. I really envied these guys. They looked so warm in their Neoprene wetsuits.)

Upon return to camp, I learned (the hard way) that "bearproof" does not mean "waterproof." The cylindrical canister that I had stored all my food in was filled with three inches of water, a sticky soup of bagel remnants, turkey jerky juice, disintegrated Special K cereal and globs of cream cheese. The only thing I could salvage was a ziplock bag that had not been punctured - six Clif bars and a few fruit snacks. I was after dark, and even through I had my lights with me, I opted not to ride the seven miles back to a grocery store. Since I had no way of keeping my food free from bears and also dry enough to be edible, I didn't see much point. Plus, I had pretty much lost my appetite.

After I tossed all of my food in the bearproof (and probably waterproof) trash can, I opened the rainfly to my tent and learned (the hard way) that it, too, was not waterproof. Four years ago, it was a really good tent. It once stood up to Juneau at its worse, but now it is old and weatherworn, and hardly up to the job. My one mercy was the bivy I had been smart enough to bring, keeping my sleeping gear warm and dry. But all of the changes of clothes I had so painstakingly packed and lugged along with me because I knew I was going to come home wet every night were sitting in puddles of water. As was my backpack, and two of my New Yorker magazines, now all but ruined. I burst out laughing, which I sometimes do when I want to cry about something caused by my own stupidity.

I crawled into my last refuge, my sleeping bag, and listened to rain pound the roof of the tent and drip onto my bivy all night long. I had grand plans for Thursday, but when I woke to more puddles and more pounding on the roof, I could not bring myself to crawl out of my sack. For priding myself as much as I do about being a survivor in the rain, I let it break me pretty quickly. I read and napped until about noon, when I started having a craving for some Clif Bars. I slithered out of my sack, pulled on some wet clothes, sloshed into my wet shoes, and stumbled out into the rain.

Just getting up, getting out and getting a few calories in me did a world of good. I felt ready to conquer Sitka again. So I packed up a delicious assortment of Clif Bars for a late lunch and headed to check out some nearby logging roads that I had seen on a map. They were pretty heavily potholed with deep puddles, rocky and rooty and wicked slippery in spots, but made for pretty good mountain biking. I finally headed into town around dinner time thinking that tonight I really wasn't going to have much of a choice. I took some time to bike slowly through town and check out all the sights, letting my body temperature drop, and finally stopped at a sushi place where I really wanted to eat. But as I was walking my bike along the storefronts, I caught sight of myself in the glass - completely covered in specks of mud from head to toe, with a face that looked like I had just spent the afternoon behind the spinning wheels of a bogged-down truck. I imagined draping my sopping coat across those clean chairs and letting it drip dirty water all over the floor. I couldn't bring myself to it. When I'm by myself, I'm far too self conscious.

But I had to eat. So I stopped at McDonalds. I hate McDonalds. But for some reason, I felt like it was the only place where I wouldn't be scrutinized for looking like I did (although I'm sure I was.) I choked down the grilled chicken sandwich and fries, thinking, "I hate this stuff. I should be eating sushi. I should be doing something more productive than sitting in a McDonalds in the middle of nowhere Alaska and dripping rainwater everywhere." But I was starting to get cold, so I ate faster.

Overnight, the tent really hit a breaking point - but on the bright side, I now have a lot of faith in my bivy sack. I rode a few quick, short spurs around camp this morning before packing up for good and showing up at the ferry terminal nearly two hours early. The boat was already in port and I was hoping they would let me on, which they did. The first thing I did was take a long, hot shower. Then I went down to the cafeteria and ate some really crappy soup, but it was warm. Then I sat back in the lounge and set to finishing that Harry Potter book. My friend Chris once told me that the second best thing about Juneau was the ferry ride there, and the best thing about Juneau was the ferry ride out. And I couldn't help but laugh, and wonder if I'd always feel the same way about Sitka.


  1. great story Jill. i used to live near seattle and i eventually grew to tolerate the rain. being from northern wisconsin i love reading your blog especially about winter cycling which i enjoy more than the other 3 seasons. namaste, Jerry

  2. Your friend Chris was right, btw. That picture of the surfers is great.

  3. Sometimes the things goes in that way, but this is part of the game. (hope you can understand my bad english). Nice history. regards,

  4. Hi Jill. I found your blog some time last year and I have enjoyed dropping by and catching up on your news. Keep blogging! Great camping story by the way.

  5. Well, Sitka is a rain forest. Sorry you didn't find yourself there on an exceptional day. But you must've known you were pushing your luck after the exceptional weather over the Golden Circle. Don't stay disappointed about the McDonald's stop, there's something about getting really wet and experiencing a craving for fries that none of us can explain.

    Get your studs on, winter's coming.

  6. RKN ...

    I knew it was going to rain on me the whole time. The weather forecast told me that much. What I didn't know was that my entire camping system was going to fail on me. No food and nothing dry to wear ... but the biking was great.

  7. Camping in the rain, with the right gear and systems in place, can be very comfortable. Camping in the rain with a leaking tent, no tarp and no warm food sucks. I think a functioning tarp is more important than a tent personally. You are still outside, you can still cook and if you so desire, you can sleep under it too. And, with some creative assembly, you can have almost the same level of privacy. Basically with a good tarp you can live in the rain. Even a good tent basically means you are escaping from the rain.

  8. So sorry to hear about your mostly miserable experience. I hope you'll get to experience Sitka again under different circumstances. At least your HP book didn't get soaked, eh?

  9. Now that's what we call a "character-building" weekend. I hate being cold and wet.

  10. Jill,

    Sorry to hear about your wet stay in Sitka. It's actually been a pretty dry summer for Sitka, but last weekend was extremely wet even for us. I don't think I've seen it rain so hard since last fall as it did this past weekend.

    Anyway, as someone who's lived in both Juneau and Sitka, all I can say is usually the weather's about the same, except the clouds lift more often in Sitka and we get more blue sky. You just happened to luck into the wrong weekend for a camping trip. Hopefully your next trip will be a lot nicer.

    Charles Bingham
    Sitka, Alaska

  11. "Camping in the rain, with the right gear and systems in place, can be very comfortable."

    Hhahahahahahhaa!! WOOO. See, this is the kind of thing that campers say to me to convince me to go camping. No way, man. Jill, I think you're a trooper. Harry Potter was good though, eh?

  12. Funny, Amblus! I think my tent-companion in Denali last fall would agree with you. It was pouring outside that night and leaked into the rain-flied over and tarped-under tent. Somehow my pad and bag managed to stay dry and keep me toasty, while she got soaked and finally took refuge in the car (not too far away).


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