John Grogan - The Longest Trip Home


Canada in Two Extremes

Friday, July 31, 2009

It's hard to believe August is already here. It seems like last weekend I was putting in the window screens, stowing the snow shovels, and planting my cabbage seedlings. Sorry for being AWOL here for the past several weeks; July was a month for stepping back and chilling out.

I began the month by loading the whole family in the mini-van and heading six hours north to Montreal and the Festival International de Jazz, our second straight year attending. We are a family of music lovers, and for us the jazz festival makes the perfect family vacation. It is a place we can be together as much as we like, but also find our individual space. There are about 20 different stages spread over a large section of the city, and so there are plenty of opportunities to go your own way. Our teen-age sons especially appreciated this feature. As if the jazz festival were not enough to hold our interest, a large guitar festival was taking place simultaneously and just a few blocks away. Luthiers from all over the world brought their custom guitars (some costing upwards of $40,000) to show off. Many of them sponsored extremely talented guitarists to show off the instruments. And did they ever show them off. I spent two full days listening to amazing guitarists playing amazing guitars -- in a room with only fifty people or so. A true find.

When we were not listening to music, Montreal offered other delights as well -- Old City, Chinatown, the cafe district, the waterfront, French cuisine, and one of the world's great botanical gardens. Oh, and Labatt's Blue on draft.

We were only back from Montreal two days when I headed off on a trip of a very different nature: 10 days with four other guys, two of them my best friends from college. Our mission: To navigate 130 miles of very remote white-water rivers in far northwestern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. To the best of our knowledge, no humans had been on some particularly isolated stretches for at least three years.

It was an amazing trip with nonstop eye-popping scenery, a scale of vastness that was truly humbling, and isolation that was at once profound and daunting. We did not see another human the entire time. With the exception of one bush plane that buzzed by on Day 2, we didn't hear a single human, either. Of course, there was no cell coverage or any other way to communicate with the outside world. We were off the grid, and after the first couple days adjusting to the majestic (OK, slightly unnerving) silence, we came to like it that way. We all fell in love with the solitude and natural rhythm of each day. We rose a little after dawn and fell asleep a little after dusk, ate when we were hungry and drank when we were thirsty. "River time," we called it.

What we did see was a LOT of bear and moose and wolf tracks. Every gravel bar we camped on was full of fresh tracks. The grizzly tracks were especially impressive, some of them the size of dinner plates. We carried a shotgun, bear spray, and a battery-operated electric fence to surround our food and gear at night, but the large mammals gave us a wide berth. The only big animals we saw were (blessedly) from a distance, including a bear sow and cub and a moose cow and her knock-kneed newborn. Bald eagles were everywhere.

We began our trip by loading our gear -- all 1,800 pounds of it, including two rafts -- into a small private float plane in Juneau, Alaska, and flying an hour east to a grass strip beside a primitive hunting camp about two miles from the confluence of the Hackett and Sheslay rivers. There was not a road for miles in any direction. From there, we hauled our stuff (hard work, long story) to the water's edge, inflated the rafts, and headed down the fast-moving Sheslay, whose water was running much higher than we had anticipated. Many impressive rapids, and one hair-raising run in particular, greeted us before the Sheshlay merged into the less rowdy but still swift Inklin River. The Inklin in turn carried us to the Taku, which returned us to Juneau. We began the trip at 2,000 feet above sea level and ended it in the sea. No wonder the water was moving so fast; it had a lot of descending to do to reach the ocean. On our last night, we camped on a gravel bar with a 3,000-foot-tall waterfall roaring down a mountain wall a mile or so in the background. Spectacular.

After a dinner of Indian chicken curry over rice on that last night, we built the fire up and toasted the trip with whiskey. A most memorable one. Brad, Kurt, JP, Pete, and I hashed over the best and worst moments and lamented how quickly 10 days had flown past. "To next year," someone said, and we toasted that as well.

And that is what I did on my summer vacation.

posted by John Grogan at 1:21 PM 10 comments

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