Venison Stock

It’s Saturday, October 29, 2016. I just finished making soup: it’s been a long-term project.

Joe got a deer leg from Jack Barber– a Sitka Black-Tailed Deer from Kodiak. Maybe Joe traded some halibut for it. I went to Joe’s shop ten or eleven days ago, and helped him package it up. It was a hind-quarter, and there was still a bit of fur around the end of the legbone. There was no hoof. Joe cut off all the fat, thick and surprisingly pure-looking fat, and set that aside. Then he cut steaks and stew meat from the bones. He was unfamiliar with the anatomy of a deer hind-quarter, and I certainly was, too, so I watched him hack away at it. The pieces of meat he ended up with were beautiful. Rich red and fine-grained. He made little piles of them, double-handfuls, mounded on clean paper on the workbench. I wrapped the meat in cling-film and slid each package into a ready-made Cabela’s bag. Then I sealed the bags with the vacuum-packer. When we were done, I took the bones in one package and all the fat pieces in another package and put them in my freezer. We thought I could render the fat and make lard, to use for pie crusts. I did a bit of research on it later and found out it takes hours and hours at a low temperature to render suet into lard. I don’t want to burn the propane on that. The fat smelled a bit gamey and unappealing, anyway. I wonder if I could use it as halibut bait? I suppose it would be more likely to chum in bears and weasels.

I left both the fat and the bones in my freezer for about a week, and took out the bones a couple of days ago. After they were thawed, I roasted them in the oven at 425°F for about an hour. The kitchen (the whole house, really) smelled amazing. Joe had lent me his big stock pot and I put the roasted bones in there, and used hot water to release the drippings from the roasting pan. I added filtered water, garlic, and onions from the garden, two bay leaves that Megan’s friend got fresh from a bay tree, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, salt, and took the whole pot back over to Joe’s for him to put on his woodstove in the shop. To get the pot over there I had to strap it to the rack on my bicycle, using bungee cords. The arrangement was impressive. I used five bungee cords, hooked onto the bike rack, threaded through the pot’s handles, and hooked onto the pot’s lid. The thing wouldn’t budge, and although it appeared precarious, it was actually bomb-proof. Unless I fell over on the bike. Even then, it was all so tightly bungeed that I can’t imagine it really going anywhere. But I guess the liquid would have seeped out through the edge of the lid.

We – the pot, the bicycle, and I – arrived safely at the shop and the pot simmered there on Joe’s woodstove all afternoon, and all night. The meat and marrow, tendons and connective tissue, vertebral discs and collagen, everything cooked down and detached and separated. Joe let the pot cool and brought it over to the Shack this morning, and I spent several hours messing with this venison stock. First, I scraped the fat off the top of the liquid and the sides of the pot, and sifted through all the bits, setting aside the clean bones. I strained the stock through a colander, then strained it again through cheesecloth. Joe had dropped Bianca off in the Shack while he visited Walt next door and the poor creature was tormented by this entire process. She sat and growled at me, barked, begged, paced…  I finally caved in to her relentless Schnauzer attitude and threw her one little piece of fat and one little piece of meat. Although she’s half blind, she still pretty good at catching things, especially a treat like this, especially if I aim directly for her open mouth. Meanwhile, Miso was outside, hanging around on the beach below my door, waiting for some kind of meaty tidbit to fall his way. Cruelly, I gave him nothing. I have never fed Miso and don’t intend to start now. Although he’s my best dog-friend neighbor, and has that unstoppable Golden Retriever charm, I don’t want him hanging around outside my door drooling every time I cook.

The stock is a rich brown. I gave a quart to Joe, and a quart to Sachiko. I froze another four or five quarts. And I kept a quart or two aside to make soup for dinner today. The stock hardly tastes like anything, because there is so little salt or fat in it. I was disappointed at first, especially after all that work. If I ever do this again, I may leave more of the fat in. When I added salt, I was shocked by how it transformed the taste. All the subtle flavors came out. “Salt of the earth” takes on new meaning.

After all this, I finally started to make soup. I browned some Italian sausage in the pot, with onions and garlic. The sausage has fennel and other spices in it, and is a bit greasy, so it will make the soup richer. When that was done, I cut it up into little tiny meatballs. Then added fresh garlic, onions, potatoes, and kale from the garden, celery and carrots from the store, small bits of venison meat salvaged from the stockpot. More salt, chili powder, thyme, rosemary, crushed red pepper, basil, Italian spices, sage…  It’s a fresh, clean soup. Strong food.

I will take the pot over to Joe and Carla’s today for dinner, while we watch Game 4 of the World Series, between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. Afterwards, I will get dressed up as a Viking and go to the Linwood for the Halloween party tonight. I gave the bones to Sachiko. She strung them up on a cord and hung them from her porch. They make a clacky sound when they bump into each other, like spooky windchimes. They will play some role in the Halloween Barn decorations on Monday night.

Gleaning…  Using the leftovers of the garden, the butcher shop, the farm field. Cast-off bits that others have overlooked or don’t think worth their time or effort. Every scrap and shred used for something. You could make a living on them.

Posted in Alaska, food, Seldovia, Subsistence | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bertie Journal: The Nugget

February 23-24, 2018

After five days at sea, BERTIE is now tied up to a dock in the Marina Chahué in Huatulco, Mexico. It’s 6:30 pm on Friday night, I’ve had my first shower in almost two weeks, am wearing clean clothes, and sitting on my bunk with the little fan blowing on me. For the first time since joining BERTIE, we aren’t rocking in the waves. It feels calm, and safe, and… a bit boring.

BERTIE at the dock at Marina Chahué in Huatulco, Mexico.

Heidi has been on the phone all afternoon, busy making arrangements for Peter. I guess he will go tomorrow to get a needle biopsy. I’m not putting too much energy into worrying about how things might turn out. It’s simply too terrifying to imagine that it might be cancer. If it is, their lives will change dramatically, with a return to the U.S. and an end to their cruising liveaboard lifestyle, at least temporarily. But I can’t think of two people better equipped to handle adversity than Heidi and Peter. They’re strong, they’re adaptable, and they’re used to improvising, fixing things, and tinkering with what they’ve got until it’s right.

Heidi and I go out for an evening walk after dinner. There seem to be a lot of fast-driving cars on the Benito Juarez Boulevard, and not much to do or see nearby, except for hotels. We’re hoping to buy some ice, but strike out after several attempts asking at hotel front desks. I’m wearing my new flipflops and don’t want to go too far, in case they end up giving me blisters. We turn around after a couple of blocks and end up back at the marina, which has five different restaurants right here. Two guys from Bésame Mucho (“kiss me a lot”) restaurant on the second floor come down the steps while we’re looking at the menu and start chatting us up. Well, mostly it’s Gregory Garcia, the owner, and Heidi who are chatting. Damien the water and I just stand by. Gregory and Heidi hit it off, talking about food, cooking, herbs, and gardening. The restaurant is actually closed, but Gregory invites us up and shows us a little garden they’re constructing adjacent to the dining area. He will grow herbs, mint, and a few pepper plants. The mint makes us think of mojitos, so Gregory asks Damien to make us each a drink. Both of them sit down with us at a table and we visit for a couple of hours. Heidi tells Gregory the situation with Peter, and he gets on his phone immediately, texting a doctor he knows.

Me with un beso muy grande at Bésame Mucho.

By 2:00 pm on Saturday, Peter is in surgery, having the lump removed by Gregory’s doctor friend. I’m anxious for him, but enjoy a bit of alone time on BERTIE. This is soon interrupted by the arrival of an immigration officer, asking to speak to the captain. I have practically no Spanish at all, and he doesn’t have any English. By a twist of fate, I’ve been studying French for the last six months, not knowing I’d be taking an unexpected trip to Latin America this winter. At least they are both Romance languages, but this doesn’t keep my Spanglish from being further garbled with Frenchisms. “El Capitán… está en l’hopital… para una operation. Il y a… una emergencia.” I’m finally rescued by one of the regular Marina Chahué security guys, who helps explain (I hope) why BERTIE is here after having just checked out of the country a week ago. Coming back into Mexico too soon, and without papers, is a big no-no, and we’re under some fairly close scrutiny until we can prove there’s a serious problem.

By 3:30 pm, Peter is out of surgery and all three of us are sitting in the air-conditioned immigration office. We have only been in Huatulco for about 24 hours; it’s astounding how fast everything has happened. A very stern immigration official sits behind the desk, and a security officer stands by. Peter has a bandage around his chest, and while he and the immigration lady work on Google translate to make sure everything is clear, Heidi shows me her phone, with a photo of the lump he’d had removed. “Gah! Don’t show me that!” I whisper. Then we get the giggles. “It’s a little nugget of non-love,” I say to Heidi. Peter glares at us and says (or maybe just thinks) “Knock it off! This is serious!” Heidi was smart to photograph the lump, though, as this is pretty convincing evidence – along with Peter’s bandages – that we are here for legitimate reasons. We have to pay about $30 each, but walk out with brand new six-month visas.

The nugget was sent off to the pathology lab in Oaxaca, and we won’t know for a week what its status is. And Peter has to stay here for three weeks at least, for follow up, and to make sure the incision doesn’t get infected. What this means for me is that I WILL NOT BE GOING TO THE GALÁPAGOS WITH BERTIE. They’ve invited me to stay here on the boat as long as I want, but with this medical delay I won’t have time to sail the crossing and still catch my plane back to Alaska. If Peter is ok, he and Heidi will have to make the crossing to the Galápagos on their own, if they decide to go at all.

I have some decisions to make: should I fly from Mexico to the Galápagos, and meet up with Heidi and Peter’s friend Suzanne, whom I’ve never met? We could do a land-based tour of the islands anyway, sharing some of the expenses for lodging, food, and tours. Would we get along? What would it be like to travel with a complete stranger? I have my return flights from Galápagos to Anchorage all set, so… it’d be crazy to waste them. But, I could cut my losses, just skip it, and fly home from here. That would probably be the fiscally responsible, though outrageously lame, thing to do. I know I would regret it. Or, I could do something else entirely, like an overland journey from Mexico back to Alaska. I have to get home eventually, somehow.

I am pretty sure I still intend to go to the Galápagos, but I won’t have BERTIE as my floating free hotel, or Peter and Heidi’s company, or Heidi’s great meal planning and cooking skills. This makes me very sad, as we’ve been getting along so well, and I was just starting to feel more confident about steering (at least while motoring), and handling some of the other boaty tasks as well. I’m disappointed that my carbon-neutral trip will most likely now be more conventional, by airplane. And I’ll miss the absolutely one-of-a-kind opportunity of sailing to the Galápagos on a junk rigged, Joshua Slocum-style SPRAY replica with my friends.

Something will work out. In the meantime, Heidi and Peter are exhausted, emotionally and physically. The last five days have been crazy intense: beginning with our fifty-five-hour passage from Acapulco to Puerto Angel, then barnacle-scraping, hauling anchor, motoring here, arranging for doctors, surgery, and medication, and dealing with immigration officials. And through it all, the fear. Peter has been experiencing that for a bit longer than Heidi and I, but for all of us the fear has been forefront in our minds for the last two days.

Peter feels really bad for “screwing up the trip,” worried that Suzanne and Heidi and I are bummed out and mad at him over this unexpected change of plans. I’ve tried to reassure him that it’s ok, and obviously not his fault, and that he should focus on healing. I hope I can be of some help here over the next week or two, literally helping Heidi with the heavy lifting.

And I’m only 85 miles (as the crow flies) from Oaxaca, where my friend Deborah’s dad, David, lives. Deborah invited me to visit there anytime, even though I’ve never met David before. Taking a trip there would give Heidi and Peter some time on their own.

Meanwhile, there are birds here. And the shower, and beer, and ice, and places to walk, and did I say birds? I’m gonna make the most of it.

I saw this Neotropic Cormorant, a life bird for me, on our first morning at Marina Chahué.

(This is Part 11 of the BERTIE JOURNAL series. Click here for Part 10. Or go all the way to the beginning by clicking here.)

Posted in Boats, Galapagos, Language, Mexico, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blaise and Esther

St. Lazaria Island

Thursday July 10, 2014

The morning starts out calm and easy. Stuart, Nicole and I take DRIFTER out to do our tenth Pigeon Guillemot (PIGU) circumnavigation of the summer. I enjoy these, because I drive the boat, while Stuart sits on the starboard side, facing the island, and counts guillemots on shore. Nicole writes down the data, sitting on the port side facing away from the island, and counts any guillemots she sees on the water. It’s fun for me to have the opportunity to watch everything: helping to spot the guillemots, but also paying attention to the swells and the wave action, sneaking peeks to try to find the Peregrine Falcon nest or see the Black Oystercatcher chicks. And I love to practice operating DRIFTER. I’m feeling more confident with my boat-handling skills every day.

DRIFTER on the running line.
Pigeon Guillemots, or PIGU for short.
We pronounce this “Pee-Goo.” And sometimes we call them Gweelies.

After the PIGU survey, we return to shore briefly. Leslie joins us and we go back out on DRIFTER so she can orient us to the water-based murre counts. Here’s how it works: you’re in the skiff, floating around in the swell just off the rocks on the outside of the island, engine sometimes on, sometimes off. You have to look through binoculars at the cliff face as you’re drifting by, and count how many murres you see in a certain section of cliff. Exhaust from the outboard and heady guano smells from the murres make this a sure recipe for seasickness. And in fact, Nicole thinks she might “ralph,” as she puts it. We do the Cliff Colony first, on the outer southwest part of the island, using clickers to keep track of the numbers. Then we motor over to the Cave Colony, on the westernmost end of the island. This spot is slightly less exposed to the big ocean swells coming in from the Gulf of Alaska. Murres are tucked inside the cave, and surprisingly, there are about the same number of murres here as there are on the Cliff Colony. I like the Cave because the zones have creative names: Deep Pocket, Upper Slide, and Guano Bowl. On the Cliff, the plots are simply 1 through 9. But my enthusiasm is waning; now I’m feeling pretty seasick, too. I will definitely try taking some seasick meds for the next time. The plan for the rest of the summer is for Stuart and I to do the water-based murre counts, while Nicole sits on the cliff above doing the same thing, but without the seasickness factor. We are calling this “one if by land, two if by sea.”

The murre Cliff Colony is on the far right. We are looking east from this vantage point.
The murre Cave Colony.
Close-up of some murres in the Cave Colony.

After the boat ride, and no one actually vomiting, we return to shore, gear up for grubbing, and hike first to the southwest end of the island to look at the murre Cliff Colony from land, then to the northwest part of the island to search the Rhinoceros Auklet burrows for chicks. From the top of the cliffs at the Rhino plot, we look down and see that the ALASKA has anchored in Peregrine Cove. This boat, a beautiful wooden troller, was formerly owned by Kelly from Halibut Cove, by way of Seldovia. Kelly sold her this year to Blaise, and in April, Blaise hauled her out on the beach at Walt and Sachiko’s to repaint the bottom. We had a big bonfire on the beach right before I left and Blaise came to the party. He was excited to hear that I’d be on St. Lazaria this summer and asked me what kind of beer I like. I’m happy to see the boat here and hope we connect. Esther, his deckhand, plays the fiddle. Maybe we can ask her to play some tunes!

Blaise’s fishing boat, ALASKA, in my Seldovia backyard.

We work for two hours in the Rhino colony, weighing and measuring chicks. A humpback whale, which we’d seen earlier from the murre observation point, is feeding just below the cliffs as we work. We mostly have our heads down, either grubbing the burrows with our faces literally in the dirt, or taking notes in our Rite-in-the-Rain data books, so we can’t actually watch the whale. But we can hear it exhaling each time it surfaces. A Peregrine Falcon from the nearby cliff eyrie is around, but it’s not screaming at us like it did last week. It’s a peaceful afternoon… I’m calming into the slower rhythm set by the whale’s dives and breaths… but I’m feeling headachy and seasick the whole time. There’s a big spruce tree near the northwest corner of the island, where we’re grubbing the last of the Rhino burrows. While off-trail on this fragile island, I like to walk or climb onto the roots or horizontal branches of the trees. Maybe there’s a burrow underneath the roots, but in this case, the tree roots form a sturdy roof that I can’t collapse. This spruce tree has a large horizontal exposed root, perfect for reclining on, with a knob as a pillow for my head. Stuart is still trying to find a particularly elusive Rhino chick, but I have a few moments of pure bliss, listening to the whale and relaxing on the tree.

Rhinoceros Auklet chick.
Storm-petrel burrows, in the soft island soil.

Back at camp, there’s a text from Blaise: “Hey Cindy, anchored behind St. Lazaria tonite, July 10… Got some beer for you! Let me know how we should get together.” In spite of having looked forward to this moment since April, when I read the message I feel… I don’t know… a bit weary and wary. It’s been a very long day already, with about twelve hours of work, including two boat rides, seasickness, hiking, and grubbing. But I text him back right away and offer to come fetch him and Esther with DRIFTER. Nicole comes with me, which makes hauling the boat in from the running line and through the kelp field much easier. We tour the ALASKA, one of the nicest and cleanest wooden boats I have ever been on. She’s very similar to Walt and Sachiko’s DUNA, which they sold right before I moved to Seldovia. I can pretend I’m touring DUNA while Esther and Blaise show us around, and wonder what it would be like to work as a deckhand on a boat like this. Maybe I could ask Blaise later if he ever needs extra help.

A tiny fraction of the trolling fleet, anchored in the island’s lee right before the king salmon opener.

The four of us take DRIFTER back to the island and go to the cabin. It feels a bit awkward, not knowing them really at all, and Stuart and Leslie have dinner ready, but had made our usual amount for four people. Visitors don’t come to the island, and other than our boat driver and one volunteer from Sitka, we haven’t spoken to anyone since late May, six weeks ago. We’re standing around in the cabin, struggling to make small talk. Daylight is fading fast. I finally offer to take them on an island tour, and skip dinner – honestly, not feeling hungry at all. In fact, I’ve been battling an upset stomach for a few days, even before today’s headache and seasickness.

For the fourth time this day (two by land and two by sea), I visit the murre observation point. Blaise and Esther, among the hundreds of fishermen who anchor next to this island each year, and probably thousands of tourists who have circled the island by boat on day-trips from Sitka, are probably the only ones who’ve had a guided tour on land. Although the wildlife refuge is technically open to the public, visiting is not encouraged because of the fragility of the habitat here. There’s no easy place to land a boat, either. I tell them about the center of the island being awash during some high tides and storms, and how it’s shown as two separate islands on charts. Six-Inch Rock is our gauge to tell whether we can make the crossing from the east end of the island, where the cabin is, to the west end. If there are six inches of water showing on that rock, you can make it along the north side. Otherwise, you have to go through the Gull Colony instead. And if the tide is a big enough one, you’ll be swimming, no matter where you try to cross.

“The tide is going out, right?” I ask. None of us know, but carry on anyway. We climb up to the west trail on the ladders through the thick tundra vegetation, and peek into Burrow Nester 2 (BN2), one of our chick growth plots. This is where Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm-petrels raise their chicks in underground nests. Grubbing is the word seabird researchers use to describe the peculiar act of reaching one’s arm into a seabird burrow or crevice, sometimes all the way up to the shoulder, and gently feeling around for adults, eggs, or chicks. In a chick growth plot like this one, we extract the chicks we find, to measure and weigh them. Esther asks if grubbing damages the burrows. “We try really hard not to do any damage. When you’re grubbing you have to be aware of exactly where your knees and feet and elbows are, because you could be wrecking a burrow somewhere other than the one you’re working on, if you’re not paying attention. It can be pretty stressful. But you end up being super-aware of your body. My yoga teacher called it proprioception. This job is like doing yoga for twelve hours a day. But, yes, it’s possible to collapse the burrows, or put your foot through. That’s why we never go off-trail unless we’re on hard rock surfaces. This island is like crumbly swiss cheese, and all the holes in the cheese are burrows, filled with birds. There’s something like 430,000 storm-petrels here! Anyplace there’s soil, basically, there are bird nests. For me, it’s helpful to remember that the data we collect is important in the grand scheme of things, to know what’s going on in the ocean. But, yeah, I struggle a bit with the potentially destructive aspect.”

A fluffy Fork-tailed Storm-petrel chick.

We stop at Chin Up, a chick growth plot named for a big tree with a horizontal branch, then hike through the forest, and out into the thick grasses of the maritime tundra. We can smell and hear the murres at Cliff Colony before we can see them. Both Thick-billed and Common Murres nest on the ledges here; about a thousand of these penguin-like birds stacked almost vertically on the cliff. They are quieter than in the daytime hours, but still raucous. I think their voices sound like a bunch of drunk guys telling jokes at the bar. An especially funny one will get the whole colony laughing.

By now it’s dusky and the storm-petrels are returning to the island from the sea, bringing the day’s catch to their chicks in the nests. We just stand and listen several times on our hike back, Esther quiet and enthralled. Black silhouettes of storm-petrels flutter against the darkening sky. Like the murres, the Leach’s Storm-petrels’ calls sound like laughter; in their case, a burbly chortle. The Fork-taileds have more of a rhythmic scratchy sound. We can hear both species calling all around us, in the air and from the sweet earth beneath our feet. I guess Esther and I could probably stay out all night listening and watching, but Blaise is thinking about his boat. It’s been a long time to leave the ALASKA at anchor with no one aboard. And their alarm clock is set for 3:00 AM, to get up and fish in the morning.

Of course, the tide has been coming IN all this time, not going out, and Six-Inch Rock is submerged. “We’ll have to brave the Gull Colony,” I say. I had told them some stories earlier, about how when we go to count the eggs and chicks, the parent Glaucous-winged Gulls dive-bomb our heads. One had made contact with Stuart and gashed his scalp with its claw. Since then, he and Nicole have been sticking orange pin-flags in their hats, and Stuart wedges a piece of cardboard into his collar to protect the back of his neck. Although it can be hot in the sun, I wear my grubbing rain jacket and keep the hood up when I do the survey. The gulls also shit-bomb us when the opportunity presents itself. About a week ago I took a direct hit: a full, steamy, wet load right onto the back of my head, the volume of the impact so loud that I screamed. The hood was great at keeping the shit out of my hair, but since it was my grubbing jacket, with the sleeves cut off, the hot guano had splattered all down the backs of my bare arms. This evening, the gulls are riled up as we pick our way through, but we don’t sustain any damages. “Hitchcock was a genius,” says Blaise.

A just-hatched Glaucous-winged Gull. Its nestmate in the foreground is beginning to emerge.

When we arrive at the Channel, I can see the tide is up above boot-top height in the crossing between us and the boat. There’s no help for it now; we just have to get wet. I feel bad, imagining them having to fish tomorrow in wet, salty XtraTufs. “Sorry, this wasn’t very well-planned,” I say to them, before we wade in and flood our boots. Actually, it wasn’t planned at all.

We make it to DRIFTER, and the water is up almost to the running line’s spreader bar. Once I haul the boat in, I hand the bow line to Blaise and hop in. The boat is side-on to the shore, and suddenly a huge swell hits it, pushes the boat sideways, and flips me right out into the water. I go in over my head, but because I’m wearing my float coat I come right back up. The wave has carried the boat up onto the flat rocks and turned her around so she’s facing bow-out. Somehow, I’ve managed to climb out of the water and onto the shore, too. Or maybe the wave deposited me there, right side up.

Blaise and Esther ask me if I’m alright, and of course I say yes, but truth be told I’m a bit shaken up by this point, a little cold, and probably not thinking so clearly due to being exhausted and not eating anything since 2:00 PM. We decide to go for it and take DRIFTER back to their boat (instead of me walking up to the cabin for help) and all get in. No more rogue waves hit. But now I can’t start DRIFTER’s notorious outboard – I may have flooded it – so Esther rows us back to ALASKA. We pour the water out of our boots and then stand in the warm galley. Blaise insists I eat a granola bar. I am feeling wobbly now, maybe a little bit hypothermic. I realize I will actually need to have someone meet me at the running line, both to make sure I make it back to the island, but also to help me situate the boat and bring me a headlamp so I can see on the way back to the cabin. I try calling camp on the VHF and on the camp phone, but apparently they have all gone to bed and shut the phone and radios off to save batteries. And I turned my phone off and left it in camp when we had started our hike.

Finally, Blaise decides to lend me a headlamp, launch ALASKA’s dinghy, and row back alongside me to make sure I make it to shore safely. Esther starts DRIFTER’s outboard, effortlessly, and I climb in, soggily. Esther will stay on the ALASKA. Blaise is strong and can row practically as fast as DRIFTER can motor. I’m guessing he’s pissed off at this point, but holding his temper admirably well. The full moon is above, shining through the mist in the sky, and all the usual landmarks are underwater. No electric lights mar the natural moonlight, or give clues to navigate by. It’s eerie how I don’t recognize anything. In spite of the stress of the situation, and the technical and survival parts of my brain which are actively operating on the forefront, I’m awed, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This island’s beauty and power inspire respect, veneration, and fear. This familiar place I thought I knew reasonably well after half a summer of living here… it has completely transformed. It has the space to do this, the flexibility to shape-shift, because it is wilderness.

I arrive on shore and secure DRIFTER without any problems. Blaise makes me promise to text him and let him know when I make it to the cabin. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that I might disappear into the night, since the whole center of the island is now awash – just as those charts show it. Two islands. I even have to swim a bit to make it across a spot we can usually rock-hop.

Back at the cabin, I do text Blaise. I light the Coleman lantern and strip down, and at that moment the lantern runs out of gas— unbelievable. I do the rest by headlamp only. Soak all my clothes in fresh water and put on warm, dry woollies. I look at the tide book and see that high tide was at 11:50 PM, a 10.9-footer. This is one of the highest tides of the summer, higher than any others I’ve seen since I’ve been on the island. It’s at least one in the morning when I finally climb into bed.

Sleep is elusive.

The rogue wave hitting DRIFTER replays in my mind. We don’t normally see wave action like that on the north side. Could it have been a boat wake? Less likely, though more romantic, I imagine the chances of a big swell traveling across the North Pacific from Japan, wrapping around the east end of the island to come straight at us from the Sitka Sound direction, totally unexpected, invisible in the dark. And at the very moment I was most vulnerable, standing up in the boat.

I tally my mistakes tonight: I didn’t eat, didn’t have a float plan, forgot to check the tide book, didn’t have any way to communicate, misjudged how tired I was, underestimated how long our tour would last, didn’t bring a headlamp, and waited too long to ask for help. Wearing that float coat was the one thing I did correctly. When I went into the water everything happened so fast. The float coat popped me right up to the surface. I stifle a laugh and make myself snort out loud: I don’t suppose I could ever ask Blaise for a deckhand job now, after he witnessed the most unseaworthy moment of my life.

Blaise and Esther: my interaction with them feels unbalanced. They brought me two 12-packs of beer and gave me a granola bar and a headlamp; I took them on a tour, but soaked their boots, and robbed them of sleep during their busy fishing schedule. How will they remember this evening? Does the sound of hundreds of thousands of storm-petrels returning to their island burrows factor into our trade?

How much value does such wild magic have?

Posted in Alaska, Birds, Boats, Conservation, Fauna, Islands, Wildlife, Work | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Pancakes: Pandemic Vignettes

February 1, 2020: Prophetic Pancake

When you live off the road system, sometimes you have to make do. I ran out of my favorite multigrain pancake mix sometime last fall, and have since been working to perfect my own blend. It’s getting close to how I like it: fluffy, not too white, not too sweet. I’m planning to ski today, so I make a whole batch. I can use the leftovers as trail food, layering them with cheese or peanut butter and jam.

Today, one of them turns out like a scary death-head skull face. It’s weird enough that I take a photo.

I know it’s just some pancake batter frying in coconut oil, but it really creeps me out. I’m listening to NPR while I make breakfast and the top news items of the day are sufficiently ominous. One: The U.S. Senate voted against hearing additional witnesses in the Trump Impeachment. (As you may remember of this ancient history, he’d already been impeached by the Democrat-dominant House. Now the Republican-dominant Senate has voted against hearing any more testimony. To me, this signals a complete disregard for truth and justice, and is clearly the end of the impeachment process.) My scary pancake, as I interpret it, is telling me about the Death of Democracy. Two: To bolster that interpretation, February 1st is also the day that Brexit (Britain’s Exit from the European Union, remember that?) becomes official. So, my pancake is telling me about the Death of the European Union. Nationalism and lies are on the uptick, cooperation and humanity on the decline.

Buried underneath these two headliner stories, though, was another: “Major Airlines Suspend Flights Between U.S. and China Amid Coronavirus.” At that time, there were 12,000 confirmed cases in China, 250 dead, and six cases already in the U.S. The World Health Organization had declared the Wuhan coronavirus a global emergency. In just five and a half weeks, on March 11, the pandemic would be declared. And on March 12, the first case of COVID-19 would appear in Alaska.

While all eyes were facing the burning rubble of a dying democracy (some thought this was a victory, of course), what the pancake was trying to point out got totally missed. We should have been preparing for the pandemic then, in early February, instead of running business as usual. Hindsight is 2020.

And, yes, I ate that pancake. Maple syrup can make anything more palatable.

April 12, 2020: Holy Communion Pancake

Church was never the place for me. I was always too skeptical, questioning everything, wanting clear answers and explanations instead of Bible verses. My doubts began in Sunday school, at a very young age. As a teenager, social anxiety and introvertedness made going to church even more miserable. Uncomfortable clothes, reading in unison with a large group of people, blind faith; all of it felt wrong to me.

And yet. I loved the actual space of our church, which was peaceful, mostly unadorned, and filled with light. And I loved singing, especially if I could stand next to my mom, who knew all the alto parts. The church we went to was a welcoming and friendly congregation, didn’t fall into the ways of judgement and hypocrisy that so many Christian churches do. If I had been able to see beyond the literal messages, I would have realized that it was a group of people who were united in genuine kindness, in the desire to help others and to build community. But back then, I protested every Sunday. Some weeks my parents would let me stay home. But the deal was: while they were at church, I was required to spend time outside, and look for spiritual guidance among the trees and the birds instead.

This Easter, I surprised myself by suggesting to my parents that we tune in to their church’s online Easter service together. They moved a few years ago, and now belong to a different congregation than the one I grew up attending. At this point, we’ve been quarantining for almost a month. COVID is devastating New York City and Detroit. Alaska’s first positive test was on March 12th; now there are 272 cases. That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that Alaska’s entire population is under 700,000 people. There are only 128 ICU beds in the whole state.

My parents live in Michigan, while I’m here in Alaska under what feels like solitary confinement. I live alone and don’t have any pets. On March 20, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, a significant income-generating event for my guide business, was cancelled. I can see the writing on the wall, and guess that tourism will be non-existent this season. I do have some other work, but my employer won’t let me work from home, so I’ve walked off the job. While it feels good to stand by my principles (and the state mandates), not having my work to go to has left me with a sense of purposelessness. But the isolation has been the worst. There have been some bad days, when the fear overwhelms me completely. When will I ever get a hug again? When, if ever, will I see my distant loved ones alive?

Sitting for half an hour with my parents in virtual “pajama church” somehow sounds like just the right thing.

Pastor Len has a recorded Easter service and liturgy prepared, and instructions that we should set our table with bread and wine for communion. He understands that our shopping opportunities may have been limited recently, so “a cup with maybe juice or water is fine… slices of bread, some crackers, whatever you have in the house.” For the wine, I have orange juice. And of course, for the bread, I make pancakes.

I half expect Jesus’s face or the Virgin Mary to appear when I flip each pancake, but no. This is not to be.

I get my parents on the phone, and when we are ready, we get our computers set up and do a countdown so we can hit the play button on the church service at the exact same moment. Miraculously, it works. We are in synch. I mute my phone to limit the echoes, and follow along.

“I want you to imagine that you are not by yourself,” says the pastor. “I want you to think in your mind, ‘who might I normally be sitting by or standing by in church? Whose face, or whose faces might I see? Who would be coming to the table with me to receive the bread and the cup?’ That’s what I’m inviting: that we gather what we have. We have a big table by the power of the Spirit. We’re bringing in our mind, in our memory, to each other — this company of people — gathered around these many, many tables today.”

I’m touched by Pastor Len’s sincerity, his calm demeanor. He is near retirement; this is the last Easter service he will perform. Never in his wildest imaginings could he have foreseen that it would be like this. The light of pure empathy shines from him, even through the miles, even through the computer screen. My parents’ voices are close, right next to me. I unmute myself at key moments, so they’ll know I’m still here. We are sharing this time and place.

“Let’s prepare our hearts for the mystery that may well take place.”

I close my eyes and join in a moment of silence, with Pastor Len, with my parents, with an entire congregation of people I have never met but can sense gathered in this shared space.

“I invite us to gather the bread and the cup, and to share in this meal. Let us receive.”

I tear off a bit of pancake. Place it in my mouth. The flavors, normally so familiar, burst forth on my tongue, entirely new. I see the sunshine on the wheat. Feel the warmth of the soil where the corn grew. I am transported to a tropical forest in Sri Lanka, palm leaves rippling in a slight wind, and see the coconuts clustered on the trees. I’m whisked back to my town, to my friend’s yard, feel the soft feathers touch my hand as I reach under a hen to collect her eggs.

“The cup of the new covenant.”

I take a sip of orange juice. In that moment, I’m in Florida, in an orange grove surrounded by scrub and palmetto forest. Gopher tortoises peek out of their sandy burrows. A kettle of Black and Turkey Vultures circles overhead. The sun is warm on the top of my head.

“Let us pray. God, we thank you for this time of connection. In a way that we never would have guessed possible some years ago, and never hope really to need very often in the future again. We long for the time when we can gather again. We know that even when we are separate, even if we are not in one place, we are together in your love, and your grace, and your peace.”

Amen, we say together.

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The Calm Between Storms

I awake at six in the morning, and look out the window to see bright stars. Untainted by any streetlights, their glory shines. The lack of streetlights tells me that the power is still off. It cut out at three o’clock yesterday afternoon, no doubt by a tree down across the line somewhere. Until the weather calms enough for the electric company to send helicopters with linemen to find and fix the problem during daylight hours, we are effectively off the grid.

The Shack was shaking night before last, but it wasn’t too bad this time. Winds were out of the north, and from that direction my little corner of the world is fairly sheltered. When it’s a southeasterly, or a southwesterly, rain blasts sideways under the doors and windows and I sleep with the covers over my head, if I sleep at all.

My life doesn’t change too dramatically when the electricity goes off. I heat my house with wood, and have a winter’s supply stacked just outside. Cooking is no problem, since I have a propane stove and can even use the oven, neither of which have electric ignition or thermostat. My water supply and toilet still function, because Seldovia’s system works on gravity feed. I’m slightly concerned about my freezer, but with temps around 30 degrees outside, it should be alright for now. And I’m super grateful I defrosted my fridge last week, so I don’t have to worry about the ice from its little freezer melting all over the place and causing a big mess.

The only things I can’t do: use the internet or the computer, file eBird lists, take photos with my phone, or edit photos from my Canon camera.

For a few hours I’m disturbed by how much I want to do these impossible things, how often I want to check my phone. Facebook, Instagram, texting… it’s a compulsive habit, but also a lifeline. My creative outlet for a few years has been wildlife and nature photography. Sharing those photos and getting feedback is a way for me to overcome a sense of isolation, especially in these pandemic times. It makes me feel like I’m building a connection from my surroundings (blessed with nature and wild animals) to others who may not have those opportunities. In spite of the fact that I end up scrolling social media as a result sometimes, the way I interact with others through this format generally feels meaningful and good.

I also have several friends who are going through hard times right now. It’s frustrating to have offered  them my support, to tell them I’m free for them to call or chat “anytime,” but then to be incommunicado for technical reasons.

So, the power goes off at three on Saturday afternoon. I’m a bit twitchy for a couple of hours, detoxing, getting off the fidgety digital bandwidth. What can I still do without electricity? Chop kindling. Write letters. Go birding. Sweep the house. Play ukulele. Go for a hike. Sort through papers. Do the dishes. It’s all my normal stuff. By dark, six PM, I am starting to relax and accept that I cannot communicate with anyone, and settle in with a good book, a glowing fire in the woodstove, endless cups of tea, and a headlamp. I light a brand-new taper candle, handmade by my neighbors and given to me as a birthday present. I read for hours and hours and finally climb up the ladder to the loft, and go to sleep in my bed, undisturbed for once by the orange streetlight that’s usually right outside my window.

At six AM, it’s quiet, and still, and starry-bright. Changing the usual routine, I skip making coffee and building a fire, and instead get dressed and head out the door first thing. The Slough is glassy calm. Stars are reflected in the surface of the water. My eyes and ears attune to the natural light, and the natural quiet. No hum of electrical current through the lines, no pumps or transformers buzzing. I tread lightly along the boardwalk, noting a faint glow in a few of my neighbors’ houses: candles, oil lamps, firelight. I’m glad that they’re home, safe and warm in their houses. It’s comforting to know they’re there, and that we can depend on each other.

At the top of the hill, where Fred and Gerry used to live, a meteor shoots across the sky, a flaming fireball that makes me gasp in surprise. It’s magic, but eerie in its otherworldliness. Beautiful and strange, it illuminates a path over the empty houses which stand there in the darkness. A connection to those who have passed, and how although they are now untouchable, they are still with us. Always.

Heading home again, I stand on the Slough bridge for a long time, simply enjoying the quiet and the darkness. High tide is not too far off, but it’s a mild one and not a ripple of current disturbs the water’s surface. I hope for another meteor, to see it reflected in the sea’s face. The waxing crescent moon set around midnight, and won’t rise again until this afternoon. There’s not even a glimmer of sunrise in the sky yet, but I can see the snowy mountains looming in the distance. Not often do we get the chance to travel by starlight.

A Great Blue Heron squawks abruptly out of the darkness. I would have been alarmed if I wasn’t used to them, if I didn’t hear them almost every single night. It sounds like the dinosaur that it is, and flies by silently, its silhouette blotting out the stars. A heron-shaped negative space in motion.

Back at the Shack, I kindle a fire and light the candle. Grind coffee beans by hand. Write a note to my aunt, and put a stamp on the envelope. Every action, every little thing, is deliberate and calm, but also full of portent. The power comes back on at 10:45, and I make sure to plug in all the devices so they have a full charge next time the power goes off. But I’m not sure I care as much anymore. Another storm is headed our way tomorrow: more wind, ice, rain. I guess it will probably bring difficulties. I imagine it will bring gifts, too.

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Gardening in Seldovia

I’m fortunate to have several gardens here in Seldovia, Alaska, even though I don’t own any land.


This is my neighborhood. My house is in the middle. While great for boating and fishing, gardening is out of the question.

I keep a few containers on the boardwalk each summer, with flowers, lettuce, kale… a kitchen garden of sorts that I can grab just steps away from my front door.

Through the generosity of friends, I have two other gardens. One is a 4′ x 6′ raised bed on a lot belonging to some friends. I think of this as my Town Garden Box, or sometimes Garden #2. It’s about a third of a mile away from my house. And finally, I have a big plot at the Community Garden, which is about three-quarters of a mile away from my house. I measured it last year, and was surprised to find that it’s 14′ x 44′ — roughly double the square footage of my house!

I’ve got a couple of seasons of experience growing vegetables here in Seldovia. I’m by no means an expert, but when Hig from the CATS (Climate Action Team Seldovia) asked if I would participate in a Gardening Knowledge Share, I agreed. Originally, this program was meant to take place in March, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we shifted our dates and made it a virtual program available on Zoom, on April 22. I was surprised by the number of people who tuned in, and got a kick out of seeing everyone’s faces. We’ve all been social-distancing and isolating. Some Seldovia gardeners are stuck at their winter home locations. What this season’s gardens will look like here is still up in the air.

Hig recorded our Zoom program. My 20-minute section is up first, and is a narration as I click through a PowerPoint program. Start watching at 5:30 (to skip our Zoom setup process). I offer a few general gardening tips I’ve learned over the years, as well as information on harvesting and storing carrots, onions, and potatoes. My conclusion is that Seldovia needs a Community Root Cellar. Let’s build one!

MaryJo Stanley and Suzie Stranik follow with lots of info about the Community Garden, starting seeds, gardening supplies and equipment, and beneficial lactobacillus bacteria. We finish up with Q & A and conversation among all the attendees.

I planted peas, spinach, and radishes yesterday. So, the season has begun. Now, I gotta get out there and dig in the dirt some more.

Here’s a link to my PowerPoint slides: on my GoogleDocs page. If you get an error message about it not loading, click on “Open with” at the top of the page and select “Google Slides.”

Here’s a link to the recorded video, hosted on Bretwood Higman’s YouTube Channel

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A Cell of One

Five days ago, on my Facebook page I posted, “Single people who live alone and don’t have pets (even if you are a normally content self-styled hermit introvert): what the HELL are you gonna do to get through this? Ideas please.”

I thought I would update you on what I’ve learned in the meantime. Five days ago – it seems like a month, at least! Anyway, here are a few things that have helped me this week. In no particular order:

Go Outside. This is a great one. If your local physical distancing mandates allow, get together with a friend. Make sure you follow the ten-foot buffer zone. Boating in separate kayaks or other small craft works really well. Having live conversation with a person who is physically nearby helps so much. But a solo walk, ski, hike, row, or bike ride does wonders, too. Breathe that fresh air!

Back to the Roots. You probably already knew what you needed to stay happy and healthy as a solo person before any of this started, right? This winter, in lieu of a New Year’s resolution, I wrote down a list to remind myself. It has eleven things on it! So, it’s impossible to do them all in a day, but I reckon if I get 4 or 5 of them done, it’s all to the good. I might do different ones the next day. Here are my eleven things. You probably have your own unique ones. (Write 1,000 words; stretch/yoga; foot bath; meditate; cook regular dinner; 30 minutes cardio exercise or 10,000 steps; two drinks max (none is better); minimize screen time; reduce caffeine; study; no more than one activist comment letter per week.)

Time Travel. My very good friend Kat, who is a nurse in Michigan and also highly skilled at enjoying solitude, came up with this one. You have the power to use your memories as a form of time travel. Try it. Just think about other places and times, experiences that made you happy or satisfied. It may help to look at photos or read old journals you kept while you were roaming around. Suddenly, you aren’t even in your cell of one at all anymore, are you?

Self-Medicate. This is a tough one. Especially if you are struggling with addiction or substance abuse issues… I am certainly not recommending drugs or alcohol. Usually that stuff only makes everything worse. But, sometimes it sure makes things better. Having a virtual cocktail hour with a friend can break that cycle of self-pity and sadness, get you to relax and have a good time. Taking an anti-anxiety med might do the same for you. Don’t abuse it, though. You know your limits. Honor yourself by not crossing that line.

Allow Joy and Inspiration. I have started writing down “Amazing Things That Happened Today,” because it seems that every day during this crisis, there are extraordinary moments that normally wouldn’t occur. When we are in times of huge stress, I believe that the veil between worlds gets thinner. You can call this phenomenon what you will: being closer to God, the spirit world, the supernatural. The usual hard-shell protective layer we carry around with us gets broken a bit, and through the cracks we can let the light shine in. It’s ok to be happy, even if you are grieving and freaked out. It’s ok to recognize and experience beauty, joy, and moments of peace.

Ask For (and Accept) Help. This one is very difficult for me, as I suspect it probably is for lots of independent solo people. Just do it.

Laugh and Play. More important now than ever. Music and dancing have worked the best for me, plus watching funny stuff on YouTube or wherever. And talking to friends who make me laugh.

Release Yourself from Obligations to Be Creative. Human beings are creating incredible works of art right now. It’s inspiring to witness, and certainly helps move things along. But it has a flip side. If you are a creative person, try not to beat yourself up if you aren’t creating a whole bunch of amazing new work right now. It’s hard to shine and connect with your creative self (at least it is for me) when you’re stressed out. Let it rest. You STILL ARE a creative person. Give yourself permission to step back and do what you need to do right now. Maybe it isn’t your art. But this experience will make us better and stronger artists later.

Use the Collective. Social media is awesome for this. Here is an example: I sent out a request for people to post photos or videos of frogs and toads to me. Lots of people sent me stuff! I get great delight out of hearing the sounds of springtime from around the different parts of the world; at the same time, my friends had a goal or task to accomplish that would help me, and that gave them a sense of purpose. Bonus that they had to go outside and look at nature.

Respect Your Screen Time Limits. All this technology is a blessing and a curse. Spending virtual time with distant friends and family (even if they are in the same town, but physically distancing in their own separate cell) can provide a semblance of the human contact that we all need. But there’s a limit to how much time you can spend on the phone or computer each day. Figure out your boundaries. See “self-medicate” above.

Channel Your Anger in Constructive Ways. There’s a lot to be angry about right now. For me, it’s watching the failure of our leaders to take the actions I think they should. And seeing folks not take social distancing and self-quarantine seriously. Chopping kindling and firewood helps me tremendously. It starts out as violence – hitting something hard and breaking it! – but eventually morphs into a meditative, calming practice. Working with the grain, focusing and aiming martial arts style… it’s pretty cool. Figure out what you can do to blow off steam without hurting yourself or anyone else.

Use Your Superpower. As a Cell of One, you are in a unique position. You do not have to worry about bringing the virus to your family or housemates. Certainly, make sure you follow physical distancing rules and decontamination protocols, to help flatten the curve. But also realize that you are a solo flyer; you have the freedom to go where others can’t. This brings opportunity, and maybe responsibility, too. If you’re healthy and in a low-risk category, you can be of service. Offer to deliver groceries to people who are at higher risk. Volunteer to drive the ambulance. Figure out what your community needs, and do it.


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A Love Letter to My Friend BERTIE, Who Was Lost at Sea

“At approximately 8 pm on the evening of Wednesday, May 29th, 2019, our home and sailboat, The Bertie, was knocked down by a “White Squall,” and capsized, 65 miles offshore of the New Jersey coast. We were literally swamped and swallowed under within 60 seconds; water rushed in and we were catapulted off the boat and into the ocean. We were able to climb up on to the bottom of the boat and see if we could dive for the emergency epirb device. No luck, it just was not within reach for the breath we had. About 30 minutes later, the boat started to roll back up, leaving the port side with access, and miraculously with the epirb in view, we grabbed and activated it. That was the last offering of life that Bertie gave us. Peter built Bertie with his own hands and poured years of blood, sweat and tears into her being.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of the US Coast Guard, we are still alive! We were plucked from the water, placed in a basket, hoisted up to the helicopter and shuttled to the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center with nothing but our lives and just the clothes on our backs!”


I have lost a friend. Although I’m so thankful that Heidi and Peter are safe, my heart is broken. I ache for BERTIE, and for Heidi and Peter’s loss. Hand-built by Peter to the tiniest detail, BERTIE had the wooden hull of Joshua Slocum’s SPRAY, and the stern of Amundsen’s GJOA. Her rig included a 1,000 square foot Swatow Chinese junk mainsail. BERTIE was unique, truly one-of-a-kind. She was beautiful. And she was not just a boat; she was family.

For four weeks in the winter of 2018, I lived aboard BERTIE in Mexico. It’s an intimate thing, living on a boat. You and the other humans and the boat start out as friends, or maybe just acquaintances. Soon, you begin to operate as a community, then as a collection of symbiotic beings. If all goes well and it’s a good fit, you actually end up functioning as a single organism. I’m grateful and still a bit mystified by the way Heidi and Peter welcomed me into their BERTIE world, and how it just worked. I had looked forward to being part of that world again sometime soon. Now it will never happen.

From the skin of her hull to the top of her mast, I loved BERTIE. I can feel the warmth of her deck on the soles of my feet. The way she cleaned up nice when I dipped sea water out of the ocean with her canvas bucket, and sloshed and scrubbed her down. At night, when Heidi and Peter were below, I bathed myself under the starlight, first with sea water, then a fresh water rinse. I walked or simply stood on deck, while the warm breeze dried us both. It was my quiet time alone with BERTIE, before bed, when she would rock me to sleep.

I’m not sure how to write about grief. If you’ve ever lost someone you deeply loved, you’ll understand. So, I’ll share with you the last journal entry I wrote during my time with BERTIE. I really thought I would see her again.

Friday, March 9th, 2018: Today is my last full day on BERTIE, in Huatulco. I’m a bit sad, but excited about moving on, too.

I just got done slushing the mast. It feels good to give BERTIE some undivided attention, as a last farewell. Peter gave me some old bib overalls and a stained t-shirt to wear, and then I climbed in the bosun’s chair. He raised me up with the staysail halyard — all the way to the top of the mast. It was a little bit scary at first to be up so high (on a breezy day, too), but I quickly got used to it, and by the time I was back to the bottom, just above the mainsail cover, I was having fun.

I had the Bertie bucket tied next to me, with a jar of Vaseline and a t-shirt rag inside. My job was to scoop Vaseline out of the jar, smear it all over the mast, including the side I couldn’t see, and make sure to rub it into the cracks and any knots. This was done by feel, mostly, with my fingers smoothing the grease into every crevice, working it until it almost liquified. Then I wiped it all with the rag, polishing the wood. The end result is a perfect, varnished-looking shiny wooden mast. The Vaseline will keep water from soaking in, and I imagine it protects the wood from sun damage and drying, too. In the old days they’d use tallow. Peter calls Vaseline “yacht tallow” and “magic sauce.” They use it all over the boat, to grease the lines, and lubricate any squeaky or creaky bits. This is why all my clothes have grease spots on them: it’s almost impossible to be aboard for any length of time without receiving “Bertie kisses.”

BERTIE’S mast is Douglas fir. Like everything else on this boat, Peter hand-picked it with a fine eye for quality. This is the one he chose out of a mountain of six hundred Grade A pilings. So, in effect, I got to spend the morning with my arms and legs wrapped around a tree, which makes an old tree-hugger like me pretty happy. I got to give BERTIE lots of hugs. And I think that made her happy, too.

‘Til next time, my friend.


There’s a GoFundMe site set up to help Heidi and Peter recover from this tragedy. Click here if you’d like to contribute.

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Bertie Journal: Barnacles

February 23, 2018

The swell rocks us all night long, and although BERTIE is comfortable and solid, the motion is just a little bit too strong to allow for a good night’s sleep. Plus, I’m nervous about having to spend the day in the water, swimming with the sea snakes, scraping barnacles off the bottom. But it’s been on the To Do List all along, and one of the reasons I’m a part of the crew.

Why do we have to scrape the hull at this point in time? When we arrive in the Galápagos islands, a diver will inspect BERTIE below the waterline, to make sure we aren’t importing any alien life forms to the archipelago. This is just one of the requirements: it’s not easy, or affordable, to take a private sailboat to the Galápagos. When I researched before the trip, I found lots of blog posts where sailors complained about all the hoops they had to jump through. Some went so far as to claim that it’s a conspiracy of regulations geared to make it difficult for the independents, and easy for the cruise ship industry. Maybe that’s true, actually. I add up all the fees that our agent, Javier, tells us about. A vessel entry permit or “autografo” is $400 for a sixty-day visit; Javier’s agency fee is $150 for the boat and two people, plus $25 per additional person; there’s a $10 port captain fee, multiplied by the tonnage of your vessel, so for BERTIE that would be $230 bucks, I guess; a $100 representation fee for each port visited; $15.75 immigration fee each time you arrive or depart a port (double on weekends and local holidays); the vessel hull inspection performed by a diver, at $50 per person aboard; $100 biosecurity inspection; and a one-time $50 fuel permit fee. On top of all that, every tourist who visits the Galápagos, whether by plane or boat, has to pay a $20 migration fee and a $100 National Park entry fee. Then there’s the “Miscellaneous Fees” category where they can tack on extra stuff without warning. On Javier’s list of fees, the one listed as biosecurity agency says in parentheses “sanity inspection.” I know it’s a typo, but can’t help laughing.

Visiting the Galápagos by private boat is restrictive, too. When I found out that we would not be allowed to take BERTIE anywhere in the islands except the four main cities, I seriously considered not going. Part of the joy of sailing, for me, is the ability to anchor the boat and go ashore in the dinghy to explore the land. Known as “gunkholing,” it’s kind of similar to using your parked RV as basecamp while you go on long day hikes into wilder regions. But the Galápagos is not a gunkholing kind of place. Anchoring is prohibited anywhere outside the ports, presumably to reduce damage to the corals and other marine habitats. You’re not even allowed to cruise around the islands, but instead must go directly from port to port. And using your own dinghy to go ashore in the port cities is impossible, or at least discouraged. (No dock space, sea lions will trash your dinghy, etc.) It’s ironic — almost insulting — for cruisers to anchor in “town” and then pay to take a boat ride to visit the other sites and/or islands.


A map of the Galápagos Islands. BERTIE will be allowed to visit Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Puerto Ayora, Puerto Vilamil, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra. (Map by Shane O’Dwyer, from Wildlife of the Galápagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking.)

While seriously hampering the freedom-loving style of cruisers, I can see how all these rules are important, both to keep the ecosystem safe, and also to support the local tourism-based economy. I hope the fees are actually used for their intended purpose, and it’s not all just some kind of racket.

And, hoops that protect the integrity of ecosystems: these are the kind I’m willing to jump through. Even though no agency or government requires me to do it, I already clean all the mud and seeds off my boots before I travel to a new region or country. I make sure my tent and camping gear are clean, too. After fifteen years spent in a land stewardship role at conservancies, I’ve done my time on invasive species management: pulling, digging, cutting, herbiciding, burning… and I’ve seen first-hand the ecological devastation non-native plants and animals cause. The very last thing I want to do is introduce a new invasive species to the Galápagos. So, I’ll gladly spend a little time scraping barnacles off BERTIE’s hull.

I’m nervous for another reason. We’ve already checked out of Mexico, and are not supposed to go ashore again. This bottom-scraping is our last task. Then we can take off, sailing “one foot on the beach” past the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and setting out across the open ocean. I’ve only done one ocean-crossing before. Then, in the midst of gales and seasickness, I vowed, “I’m not doing this again.” Now, I wonder, why am I breaking my promise to myself? But surely, an equatorial voyage in a heavy wooden boat will be quite different from a North Atlantic crossing during hurricane season… won’t it?

We are all awake and up early. The plan is that Heidi and I will wear masks and snorkels, and scrape the upper parts of the hull. Peter will dive deeper, cleaning the keel while he breathes compressed air through a hookah rig. He was awake at about 4:00 am, getting his coffee and breakfast finished so he could set everything up. The hookah rig uses a gas-powered generator to run an air compressor. A mouthpiece on the end of the air hose looks like a scuba setup, but does not include a regulator. “Never hold your breath, that’s the key,” says Peter. “If you let the pressure build up, it could rupture a lung. Or if you surface too fast, or go below 33 feet deep (which is one atmosphere of pressure), that would also be BAD. Embolisms and such.” I will not be using the hookah rig.


The Honda gasoline generator runs power to the air compressor.



The air compressor and air hose.



Hookah rig mouthpiece.



Peter all geared up and ready to jump in.

My costume for the day is a mask and snorkel, a long-sleeve rash shirt, a pair of Heidi’s tights, my bathing suit underneath, mis-matched swim fins borrowed from BERTIE, cotton gardening gloves with rubberized palms (worn on opposite hands so the rubber is on the backs, not on the palms), and, on a cord around my neck, three plastic scrapers of various sizes and a black scrubby square.


My barnacle-scraping costume.



We use plastic scrapers so we don’t gouge BERTIE’s wooden hull or bottom paint.

We’re all in the water by 8:00 AM. The swell is still strong, and I’m afraid at first that all twenty-three of BERTIE’s tons will come crashing down on my head. But it turns out that if I work with the swell it is actually helpful, as the movement exposes more of BERTIE’s hull, and I can reach deeper down. My left hand acts as a reference point on BERTIE’s side, much like I would steady a big draft horse while grooming it. The light contact between my hand and the hull is just enough to carry me along with BERTIE when she moves. I scrape barnacles with my right. It’s a liquid world, and we’re all sloshing around in it together.

It’s cool to see BERTIE from below; a totally different perspective. She is a big-bottomed gal. Like an iceberg, it looks as if most of BERTIE’s surface area is below the waterline. There’s a lot of work to do. We need to make sure every little speck of marine life is scraped away. Fortunately, BERTIE was hauled out not too long ago, so doesn’t have much growth on her wooden hull.


BERTIE, hauled out and with fresh bottom paint, in November 2017. (Photo from BERTIE’s Facebook page.)

It ends up being fun. The plastic scraper slides along the hull, with a satisfying crunchy release when the barnacles give way and break loose. They drift gently downward, sinking out of view to the bottom, sixty feet below. Peter’s exhaled bubbles rise up around me. I’m absorbed in the work, and am just about ready to take off my snorkel so I can free-dive deeper down, but Peter is climbing aboard and calls for a break. I’m surprised to find out we’ve been in the water for ninety minutes.

As Peter removes the hookah rig mouthpiece, he says, “I’m tired. For the first time, I’m feeling my age.”

“I don’t know many seventy-somethings who could keep up with you, Peter. There probably aren’t even very many 20-somethings who could.”

“It’s not easy hanging on down there. I had my legs wrapped around the keel, riding the surge.”

We all catch our breath and enjoy the sun for a minute, tuning out. I’m surprised a few minutes later to see Peter back in the water, already halfway over to SAPPHIRE.

“Where’s he going?” I ask Heidi. He’s been so focused on getting BERTIE underway, I wouldn’t think he’d choose this moment to go for a recreational swim. “He didn’t say anything.”

“I guess he’s going for a visit.”

“Well, I wanna go, too!”

We both get back into the water and head over to SAPPHIRE. Elina and Greg are very welcoming, give us towels and show us around. We tour their spotless, shiny, super non-BERTIE yacht – no grease! No end-of-the-world supply of provisions! No visible tools or cans of paint or workbenches or stacks of lumber! No vintage World War II parts! The contrast is remarkable. While I enjoy a visit on SAPPHIRE, BERTIE’s got my heart.

Heidi and I are below, checking out the Sapphires’ bookshelves, when Peter jumps off the boat and swims back to BERTIE. He’s acting a little weird.

We wrap up our visit and head back to our boat. As I swim to BERTIE’s side, I shout up, “Hey, Peter, could you pass me my scrapers and snorkel?” I’m eager to get back to work on the barnacles.

“Nope. Come aboard. We’re going to Huatulco. I’ll explain everything.”

I’m shocked. Why in the world would we go to Huatulco? I have to swim around to the other side of the boat to the ladder. I’m still in the water when Peter says, “I recently found a lump under my breast and Elina felt it. She told me I should get it checked out. I’m sorry if it fucks up the trip.”

(This is Part 10 of the BERTIE JOURNAL series. Click here for Part 11. Or go all the way to the beginning by clicking here.)

Posted in Boats, Conservation, Galapagos, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bertie Journal: Sailing to the Galápagos

February 22, 2018

Life on BERTIE continues to feel like an awful lot of work without much recreation time. Today’s visit with the Sapphires was especially appreciated, because it was a break in the semi-routine of cleaning, swabbing, cooking, thinking and talking about food, shopping, inventorying, stowing, doing dishes, and prepping the boat for a long passage. I hope that once we get to the Galápagos we will have a better balance of work-to-recreation time.

This is what landlubbers misunderstand about cruising life: it’s not a vacation. In spite of the sunblock and skimpy clothes, I feel less like I’ve been on vacation this week than I do in my normal life back at home. A regular day on board BERTIE might include painting, grease, carpentry, or electrical work. Although the daily chores are similar to housekeeping, if you let something slide in boat maintenance, you could sink at any moment, or wreck against the shore.


While we were still moored in Acapulco, I had a perfect moment that illustrated the difference between cruising and vacation lifestyles. Peter had assigned me the job of greasing the main halyard. It was only my fifth day in Mexico, so I was wearing tights and a baggy long-sleeved shirt of Peter’s to cover my lily-white skin. Both garments had already been blessed with “Bertie kisses,” i.e. grease stains. A big floppy hat completed my attire. Climbing around on the main boom so I could reach the halyard, I felt like a nautical grease-monkey. A motor-yacht passed by, with bikini-clad, tanned supermodels lounging about on deck. I waved at them with my calloused, greasy hand. Some of them gave me the stink-eye. Some of them just looked blank. No one waved. I don’t think they had a category in their brains for a woman like me.

I’m certainly not complaining about working on BERTIE. This is exactly the trip I signed up for, and a more-than-fair deal. Heidi and Peter, full time cruisers, invited me to live with them on BERTIE for the Mexico-to-Galápagos leg of their life’s journey. I will pay for my round trip airfare from home to Mexico, then Galápagos home; help with passage preparation; do regular chores on board; and, most importantly, take my turn standing watch while we sail the two-week open ocean crossing. I’ve also researched Galápagos Island day trips; picked out field guide books; learned about what season it is in the Galápagos and what animals might be around; and will be the on-board naturalist once we get to the islands. There are thirty-three islands in the archipelago, and each one has been known by at least two names in its history. Day trips depart from four main port cities. Sorting it all out was very confusing at first. I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different islands, which city was on which island, and where to go (for example) to see penguins at this time of year. Before I ever stepped aboard BERTIE, I’d already served some time in my nerdy ecotour travel agent role.

For the Berties’ side of our arrangement, in exchange for my labors they will provide my room and board; cover all of BERTIE’s maintenance, fuel, moorage, and administrative costs; hire the required agent in the Galápagos; and pay for all permits and fees. My only expenses should be water taxis, tours on shore, and extras like booze and souvenirs. I won’t have to pay for hotels or food once we arrive in the islands. This is perhaps the most affordable way possible to get to the Galápagos Islands, and then spend time there.


A typical meal aboard BERTIE, featuring fresh seafood and local produce.

Underlying all of these somewhat mundane details, my motivation is pretty strong for sailing, rather than flying, to the Galápagos. For the last decade or so, my feelings about recreational travel – especially so-called ecotourism – have been conflicted. Burning up tons of carbon so I can go see the “last great places before they are gone” seems incredibly selfish and short-sighted. While we will use some fuel on BERTIE, the vast majority of our trip will be under sail power. Clean, silent, and carbon-neutral. It feels good.


BERTIE, self-steering, quiet, and no fossil fuels used.

Heidi and I went for a swim this afternoon – my first swim in Mexico! – but it was a gear check for tomorrow’s bottom-scraping, not just for fun. Tonight, salty from the ocean, I did a freshwater rinse out on deck before bed. Using a bowl with about a liter of water in it, a washcloth, and a Sierra cup, I stood under the starry night sky and washed the salt off my skin, then air dried. A waxing crescent moon hung above, sullied by not a single electric light. For years, I’ve lived in the high latitudes, wearing woolly long underwear even during the summer months. This night, naked, feeling the breeze on my skin, not a trace of a chill – it’s my exquisite reward.

(This is Part 9 of the BERTIE JOURNAL series. Click here for Part 10. Or click here to start at the beginning.)

Posted in Boats, Conservation, Culture, Galapagos, Islands, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment