Up An Estuary Without a Paddle

Another beautiful, sunny morning in Alaska.  Two of the boats had left the anchorage early that morning to make their date with bears at Anan Creek.  We should have taken their spots deeper back in the anchorage, but laziness and basknig in sunshine precluded us.

I woke up and fished for a few minutes.  I always like to do a little jigging when we get into a new anchorage, just to see what’s on the bottom.  More often than not, it’s puny sculpin.  Occasionally, I’ll get a small flounder (he gets put right back), or a rockfish (he’s delicious, so he gets kept, unless he’s on the very puny side). 

I didn’t catch anything that morning, because it hadn’t been more than a few minutes when Ellie popped up.  She wanted to fish.  I happily handed her the pole, but she rejected it.  I didn’t understand the problem.  She started climbing into the dinghy at the back of the boat, off the swim step.  Wait, what?  She finally explained that she wanted to fish from the dinghy.  I suppose that made sense.  We got her life jacket on, and she took over fishing duty.  Which lasted about two minutes.

I was getting antsy being on the boat, and I knew I couldn’t spend an entire day here without leaving.  But, we were still in bear country, so a trip to the shore on our own wasn’t in order.  So, Ellie and I decided to go kayaking. 

The bay right next to us had a large estuary that filled at high tide, and you can take your dinghy in several miles.  The tide was high, and a number of the Sail Alaska boats were getting their dinghies in the water and ready to go.  I, however, was not excited about dinghying through drying rocks, so Ellie and I thought a kayak trip instead would be fun.

The big, fat, faintly yellow-striped flies were out in force, so we grabbed a fly shatter to take with us.  We threw in two sodas, and the radio, and Ellie and I were off.

To get to the estuary, we had to paddle out and around the point that formed the end of Berg Bay, to get to the bay next door with the estuary.  I didn’t look far, but my shoulders were sore by the time we reached the point, nearly a half mile away.  I should have turned around right then and there.

But I didn’t, because we had a destination in mind.  We were going with the dinghy fleet to pick berries in the estuary.  Besides, the tide was coming in, so all we had to do was make it around the corner, and the tide would pull us right in.  Then, in an hour, the tide would switch, and it would push us right back out.  I’d barely have to paddle.  Plus, it didn’t look that far on the chart.  But still, that first half mile out to the point was a long paddle, farther than we’ve gone in a single trip so far.  We should have taken baby steps.

Once around the point, we paddled another half mile to the beginning of the estuary.  (And of course, when I say “we” paddled, it was just me.  Ellie was no help at all.  I don’t think she even brought a paddle.). My shoulders hurt even more.  I also began to realize that we’d forgotten sunscreen.  At least Ellie had her hat and a rash guard.  I had bare arms, and I was beginning to feel it.  But, we’d finally reached the beginning of the estuary journey we’d planned, so we had to keep going.

The wind started to kick up just then.  It was a light afternoon convection breeze we’d seen the tail end of the evening before when we arrived.  It slowly – and then more quickly – began to push us into the estuary.  I’d be able to get back out, right?  Sure, that tide would turn soon, and give us a good push.

Wrong.  The wind continued to build to 10 knots, and it pushed us a mile into the opening of the estuary quicker than I had been able to paddle us the half mile in.  We’d just made it to the gateway where the open shallows turned into a river system full of beautiful plans and wildlife, when I decided we had to turn around or we wouldn’t make it back.  I had hoped to run into another Sail Alaska dinghy on its way out now that the tide had turned, and we could ask for a ride back to the fleet, but no such dinghy was in sight.  We’d have to make the two-mile trip back on our own. 

 It was just at that time that Ellie said she had to go to the bathroom.  Of course.  As best I could, I paddled us to the shore.  Ellie hadn’t worn shoes, so she was scared to get out.  I told her she had to go quickly, because in my head there was a bear lurking just behind the tree line, waiting for a little girl snack.  But I didn’t tell her that, and instead just insisted that she hurried.  But Ellie never hurries.

In this case, her delay was due in part to the fact that, unbeknownst to me, she’d gotten in the kayak without shoes.   I maneuvered the kayak around to find a mostly sandy spot for her to step out, and after several minutes we were able to solve the shoe problem with sand and a directive that she use the “nature potty” in the shallows directly next to the kayak.  She still wouldn’t go, so I discovered we had another problem: she’d worn her mermaid tail bottoms like a skirt, with a full-bodied swimsuit underneath, and undies underneath that.  So, without taking off her life jacket and her shirt, she couldn’t get her swimsuit down to remove her undies to pee.  Yeesh.  Wary of my imaginary bear, I told her she just had to lift up her mermaid tail and pee through her undies and her swimsuit, so she could get back in the kayak as quickly as possible.  After a minute of arguing (and bear-baiting, no doubt), she finally complied, and we were safely back in deeper water. 

But now, we had two miles to paddle the kayak back with a 10-knot headwind.  While I enjoy our little kayak, I haven’t done any real kayaking – certainly not two miles’ worth, and certainly not with any notable headwind.  Several times, I came close to calling Rich on the radio for a pickup, but never quite reached the point of defeat.  Instead, we’d spent about 45 minutes paddling a half mile back out of the estuary when tragedy struck – we realized our fly swatter had disappeared. 

This was a very special fly swatter.  Ellie bought it at the very beginning of our trip, in Poulsbo.  It came in a pack of three, with one pink swatter, one green, and one blue.  She bought it because her cousin Aria has apparently been wanting a fly swatter for months.  And Aria was (again, according to Ellie) very disappointed that she didn’t get a fly swatter for her fifth birthday several months back, so Ellie wanted to get one for her.  Since Poulsbo, Ellie had been keeping the pink fly swatter safe so she could give it as a gift to Aria when she saw her again in September.  Ellie was upset that we took it on our kayak trip, but we couldn’t find the blue or green one at the time, and I promised Ellie I’d keep it safe for Aria if she let us use it for the trip.  I failed.

Ellie was devastated.  She wasn’t angry I’d lost Aria’s fly swatter, just truly, deeply saddened.  She slumped down in the back of the kayak and quietly sobbed to herself.  “It was for Aria…” she kept muttering. 

I couldn’t stand it.  We had to at least try to look for the fly swatter.  So, to rescue a fifty-cent piece of plastic, we backtracked nearly a quarter of a mile.  I hoped it would float, but we saw no sign of it.  After 15 minutes of searching and backtracking, we finally gave up.  I promised Ellie I’d help her get Aria a new fly swatter.  We started our trek back again both very sad – her because she lost Aria’s pink fly swatter that she’d been protecting for months, and me both for Ellie’s sake, and because I’d have to re-paddle another quarter-mile upwind.  Our trip back was mostly quiet, with Ellie too sad to speak, and me too breathless from hard paddling. 

It took us nearly an hour to get back to the boat after that.  Luckily, Ellie had mostly recovered from the trauma of the lost fly swatter by then.  For my part, my arms, shoulders, and back ached and burned.  Rich helped us out of the kayak, and Ellie went to lay down, while I poured myself two glasses of wine then did the same.  I was done for the day.

Miraculously, after a short nap, I found the energy to climb the mast that evening and replace the light bulb on the deck floodlight.  Rich had put in a new LED bulb, but it constantly and steadily strobed while it was on, so while it was a great dance party light, it made a poor deck floodlight.  So, I put the old incandescent bulb back in so at least we had a working light. 

When I laid down that night, my muscles ached so badly I could hardly sleep.  I took several ibuprofen before I was finally able to fall asleep. 


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