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Trapped at White Sulfur Hot Springs

The winds picked-up, then the rain poured, then the swell built… So we sat-tight. This is the story of our week at the springs and a reflection on our decision-making process. 

We arrived at White Sulfur Hot Springs on Chichagof Island around 12:30 - Friday August 11th. We had paddled 14NM from Bohemia Creek and were looking forward to sheltering in the comfort of a hot springs for a few days. Conscious of the warnings we received from a number of folks in Elfin Cove and Pelican about upcoming weather, we were excited to have made it here with calm seas. The forecast called for big winds on Saturday and Sunday, but we figured we’d probably be able to leave on Monday. We parked our boats on a boulder beach and went for a walking tour of the area - bath house, cabin, wood shed, outhouse, freshwater creek, and a network of trails to explore. What we didn’t find was a better beach on which to store our boats so we hiked them up the boulder field, tied them off, and changed out of our drysuits. 

It's a Trap! The White Sulphur Hotsprings bathouse

We hadn’t booked the cabin, but last we checked neither had anyone else so we decided to haul all our things inside. 

“Who’s crazy enough to come up here during a gale anyways?”

In a matter of moments, we got the first part of an answer when three fishermen came walking towards the bath house from one of the trails. We chatted with them for a while and they explained that they were anchored in the cove nearby to wait for the storm to pass. “What better place to wait out a gale than at a hot springs?” Good point! We took a dip and breathed a sigh of relief that they were staying on their boat. The forecast called for 30-75mm of rain in the coming 24 hours so we were happy to be indoors. 

After our dip, we dried-off and made dinner on the wood stove in the cabin. Soup, curry, and brownies for dessert. Just as we were cleaning up from our meal, the second part of our answer pulled-up to the beach - Kylee and Amy, each with their respective child and dog in tow. They hadn’t booked the cabin for that night, but had reserved it for the rest of the week and decided to come early to avoid traveling in the gale. We figured they needed the shelter more than us, so we quickly vacated and pitched camp. Sanesh set up his hammock under an A-frame tarp while I slept in the tent pitched underneath the other tarp. We’d be safe and dry for the night, but would need to reassess in the morning. 

How happy we were when we thought we had the cabin

At 6:30am I got up, packed away all my gear, and stashed it on a pallet under the tarp. The days’ forecast could release enough rain to flood the ground and I didn’t want to take any chances. I walked over to the bath house and decided it would be appropriate to cook and take shelter there. Time for pancakes and coffee!

The day passed relatively quickly! We went for a dip, read our books, made an elaborate lunch, scrubbed the tub, and spent time playing with the kids. We also updated our ‘mapshare’ with a message about our decision to stay-put to minimize the number of worried messages we’d receive. The weather all day was miserable. Wind gusts as high as 35 knots battered the beach from the West and it poured from morning until mid afternoon. At dinner we were invited over to the cabin to share a big pot of ‘Sketi’ with tomato and deer sauce. Brownies for dessert again - obviously! In the evening we wandered back to camp, I reset my tent, and we curled up for a windy night. The forecast had moderately over-predicted the rain so neither of our sites flooded during the first day. One hurdle down, many more to follow. 

Morning two at the springs started at 7:30. I woke up, packed away my sleeping bag, but decided to leave the rest of my camp set-up, then I wandered to the bath house to make coffee and breakfast. The winds and rain had died down, but the swell was big - nearly 3 meters. We spent the morning playing with the kids in the hot springs, reading, writing, and napping. By noon, the skies had cleared enough for beach walks and a fire in the outdoor pit. Two of the fishermen from the first day wandered back to the bath house in the afternoon and told us they would attempt an escape the following morning, but weren’t sure it would work. We chatted for an hour, then they made their way back to their boat. In the evening, we offered some of our mac and cheese to a group dinner with Kylee, Amy, and the kids which we ate outdoors by the fire. S’mores for dessert.

The original, outdoor tub at White Sulphur

Sanesh and I had spent some time looking at the forecast that afternoon and concluded that the following morning (Monday) looked reasonable for departure, but the afternoon would deliver another round of big winds followed by more wind and rain on Tuesday and Wednesday. Given this outlook, it made the most sense for us to stay at the hot springs rather than move ourselves 10-15NM closer to Sitka, just to become stuck there. Choosing not to paddle, especially with a looming ferry deadline, plays tricks on the mind. It’s as if we’re in a room full of doors - possible pathways forward. Some doors lead to paddling while others lead to a no-go. Each day that passes requires us to choose door to open and step through. There are always a number of doors from which to choose, but as we approach the end of the trip, the room shrinks and the doors become fewer. We become more committed to our path. 

Morning three started at 8:30 with another round of breakfast and coffee in the bath house. We’re slowly starting to realize that we can sleep late when we’re not paddling. After breakfast, we wandered up to the cabin and were greeted with some news: the Tammy Lin (Amy’s boat which would be picking the gang up on Thursday) has space to take us and our gear down to Sitka. This was a welcome option as we were beginning worry that we’d run out of time, food, and fuel at this rate before we got to Sitka by our own power. We would need a good 2-3 day weather window beginning on Thursday if we had any hope of paddling. Waiting the 3 additional days for the boat would mean stepping through all those no-go doors and having fewer backup options. We didn’t make any commitments, but we’re clearly both favoring the Tammy Lin. We had been talking about how cool it would be to hitch a ride on a fishing boat for months, so we were stoked to give it a go if it made sense. 

The Tammy Lin anchored off shore

By day four we were really getting the hang of sleeping-in. Neither Sanesh nor I made our way to the bath house until after 10:00. Given that we had decided to fast, there was coffee, but no breakfast. Mid-day, we received an inreach message from Krysia (our friend from Yakutat) asking if we were safely out of the store and informing us of a fatal fishing accident near their house - a result of the same storm system we were ducking. This was a sobering reminder of the harshness of the conditions and gave us some clarity that we had made a wise choice by staying. We decided to update the ‘mapshare’ again. 

Morning five began at 8:00. We wandered over to the bath house for some morning reading and writing. Still fasting, we skipped breakfast, but made a few rounds of coffee to get us moving. It seems that Kylee and Amy finally warmed up to our babysitting skills, so we also spent a lot of time with the kids. It was a wet and windy day, so we were indoors playing cards until the early afternoon. 

Around 16:00, the Tammy Lin anchored in front of the Springs and Captain Dylan and Deck-hand Adam drove a skiff to the beach and came in for a soak. We committed to a ride down to Sitka from them so we loaded an initial round of stuff onto the boat - our loose items and kitchen in a tote box. Walking through a final door, locking it, and throwing away the key. For the first time since we left Victoria on April 16th, we had given up our ability to be self sufficient. All we could do was wait for the Tammy’s return. 

On day six, the day we made our escape, we got up at 7:30 for one last soak in the hot springs. At 9:00, the Tammy Lin appeared in the harbor and Dylan came ashore for a soak and to take a load of gear out through the camp morning waters. As quickly as he’d arrived, he was off again to haul in the gear he’d placed early that morning. We were now left with very little supplies, so we lay around in the sun, ate snacks, and went for beach walks while we awaited the Tammy’s return in the afternoon. 

Around 15:00, the Tammy anchored out in the bay and Dylan motored to the beach in the skiff. The seas had risen throughout the day so it was pretty hectic to load our remaining equipment. I was sure we’d lose something to the sea, but Dylan’s expert gear placement held each item in place. All that remained was to transport Amy, the two kids, and one last tote box. Sanesh and I launched our kayaks and paddled out towards the anchored Tammy Lin. At that moment, as if in the plot of an action movie, the motor on the back of the skiff gave out. 

Let me set the scene: Sanesh and I floating in our kayaks - in our drysuits with paddles in hand, Dylan pulling furiously on the motor’s rip cord, Amy trying to fruitlessly paddle the skiff forward, two kids having a blast, and a consistent 1-2m swell pushing all of us back into the rocks. I hooked my tow line to the bow of the skiff and started to pull. Sanesh hooked his tow line to the bow of my boat and we slowly started making progress out of the breakers and towards the Tammy. 10 tense minutes later, we rounded the last line of breaking waves and unclipped ourselves from the skiff and Amy paddled up to the big boat. Once epmtied of passengers and cargo, the skiff was craned into place and it was our turn to load. Climbing 1.5m over the ledge of a fishing boat from a sea kayak while everything is bobbing in swell isn’t a straightforward task, but Sanesh and I had had lots of practice since April so we’re able to pull it off without a hitch. Our empty kayaks were hand-lifted into the rear canopy and secured for travel. We breathed a sigh of relief and prepared our stomachs for the rollercoaster we’d be subjected to for the rest of the afternoon. 

Seven days after we paddled into White Sulfur Hot Springs, we were finally underway once again!

Making our getaway!

A reflection on decision-making

After nearly four months of excellent weather giving us the ability to paddle every day we wanted to, being landlocked has been a strange adjustment. Questions swirled around my head about whether we were being too conservative with our decisions, not properly evaluating the conditions, or just getting complacent at the end of our journey. 

Throughout our expedition, we struggled to separate our own risk-management strategies and practices from those of the people with whom we were surrounded. On a remote beach, we are two sea kayakers discussing weather, route, and swell. In a town or at a campsite, however, we were often two kayakers  trying to reconcile our decision-making process with that of seasoned sailors, fishermen, or local ocean-goers. There are certainly lots of similarities in our go/no-go factors, but there are also several distinct differences - specifically regarding our ability in kayaks to travel close to shore and tuck safely into small coves away from swell and wind. We also have the ability to paddle in as little at 30cm of water depth and portage for short distances if needed. Given that our boats are sealed, and we are carrying at least 3 days of supplies (including water) we can make safe progress through fairly nasty waters and are able to shelter in place for extended periods. 

Nathan & Oakley on the Tammy (both deep in the throes of sea sickness)

All of these factors are difficult to explain to anyone who has experience with the ocean, but hasn’t used sea kayaks extensively. We navigated a lot of “you guys want to go out in that?!?” and “I can’t believe you guys made it here!”. We’re tougher than we look. All that being said, it’s hard to imagine that our decision-making at White Sulfur wasn’t influenced in part by our interactions which those with whom we shared the space. 

Comparing this experience, to the first week of the trip when we faced similar conditions, it is clear how much more willing we were to pounce on ‘weather windows’ at that time (see that blog post for the details). There are a number of factors differentiating the two instances: back then we were in our ‘home turf’ so knew what we’d find at each campsite, there were also no hot springs or dry shelters so each potential campsite offered an equally pleasant (or unpleasant) experience. Finally, we were also on a tighter schedule back then having only 1-2 extra days of food rather than 6-8 days of supplies. 

In relation to my earlier argument, in that first week of travel we were discussing the weather between ourselves and with other sea kayakers (via text) so we had a shared baseline for analysis. Here, we were tempering our judgment with that of the half-dozen sailors, fishermen, and friends with whom we were in contact. It felt much harder to justify leaving the safety of the springs under our own power. 

Do I think we made more conservative choices this time when comparing the two situations? It’s hard to say for sure. Given the heroism involved in boarding the Tammy Lin, I’m not actually certain we chose the safer option… What I am confident in, though is that we’d have made our decisions differently if we hadn’t had company at the Springs, or if we hadn’t been constrained by our ferry date, or if we’d traveled the route between White Sulfur and Sitka before. What I’m not sure of, is if the decision we would have made in one of those circumstances would have been better or worse than the one we made. 

The Tammy back to work after our adventure

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