Part - 1
Humans have one big advantage over all other living creatures. We have the ability to dream and to picture ourselves in a better place when things get tough. This ability, or I should perhaps say gift, help us to get through periods of extreme hardship and keep us focused. It gets us out of bed in the morning and it reminds us every evening before we crawl back beneath the sheets that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that all we have to do to get there, is to put our heads down, grit our teeth and soldier on.
Then if we're lucky we get the opportunity to fulfil those dreams. And sometimes they turn out to be even better than we had imagined. But they can just as easily die before our eyes and turn into our worst nightmare. The vision that we had, turned out to be nothing like the reality that we ended up with. I know, because it happened to me a few years ago. My dreams turned sour and I found myself trying to break free from the nightmare I had been entangled in.
I was stuck in the city, working a dead end job that just barely kept me afloat. The days were reduced to numbers on a calendar that kept repeating itself every month. I would get up early in the morning, commute to work, crammed inside tired and foul smelling carriages with people exactly like me, modern day zombies working long hours for bosses that take personal pleasure in demeaning you and making your life as unpleasant as possible. But I had one thing that got me going through all the hardship and misery that my life had become, and that was the dream of going up to Alaska and kayaking around its majestic coastline. To live off the grid, pitch my tent wherever I felt like it, paddling next to mountains that rise out of the fjords like gigantic fangs and caress the clouds. To be truly free, enjoy life and be the master of my own destiny. And luckily for me, I wasn't alone. My best friend Anthony had the same dreams.
We used to watch movies and TV shows set in Alaska, and for a few blessed hours we were able to shut off reality and picture ourselves in the thick of it. Living the dream, breathing in the fresh air and live life like it was meant to be lived. We had talked about going up there for a couple of years, and eventually we sat down and made serious plans. We lived frugally, put aside every cent we could and then one day, we finally stood there with the tickets in our hands, ready to head off on our adventure. The first leg of our journey was the flight up to Stewart in B.C, in early April. We were going to follow the river that ran through town southwards, then cross the border and make our way up through the Alaskan coast for the next four months. Our goal was to get jobs up in Anchorage and hunker down there through the winter months, then continue onwards in the spring. The end of the line was Nome up on the west coast, which we hoped to reach by the end of September the following year.
We had all the equipment we needed, apart from the kayaks, which we had arranged to buy from a guy in Stewart. We had also acquired fishing rods, rifles and a small crab pot, so even if we got lost, or strayed too far off the beaten track, we would be able to live off the land.
The first few days were spent familiarising ourselves with our new surroundings. Then we set off on our adventure, and began paddling down the Portland Canal. Our dreams had finally become a reality. The weather was nice and the scenery spectacular. The snow capped mountains and the dense forests gave the area a magical ambience that is hard to beat. At times I felt like we had entered a fairy-tale world and been given the roles of the protagonists. Gone were the misery and boredom of the city, and in its place were the magic of Mother Nature.
During those initial days we got our first glimpse of the local wildlife. We saw bears on the shoreline, moose, deer, wolves, and plenty of eagles riding on the air currents making their way through the mountains. It was a completely new experience for the both of us, and we savoured every moment of it. We spent six hours paddling every day, stopping only for lunch and dinner. Then towards the end of the day we would pitch our tents on the shoreline and settle down for the night.
We always made sure to eat and store our food away from the campsite, and strung tripwire connected to flash bangs around the tents to scare away wolves and bears that were tempted to try to get a closer look at the two city slickers that had showed up in their neck of the wood. We also made sure that there were ample amounts of firewood in the campfire to keep it going through the night.
It took us five days to reach the end of the river and make our way over to the US side. A few days after that, we reached our first major city, Ketchikan, where we got some more provisions and had a day off. Then we set off again, hoping to reach Juneau in about three weeks time. Up until that point, we had followed a very regimented schedule, where everything revolved around eating and paddling. And I guess we both felt it was time to break up the routine a little bit, and to take a slightly more laidback approach. After all we were on the trip of a lifetime, and there was no need to rush things. If we wanted to make a detour, or explore a certain area we should just go for it. It was the reason we came up here in the first place. It was time to be more adventurous and a little less conventional.
Looking back at it now, I wish that we hadn't made that decision. I wish that we'd just stuck to our original plan and gone straight up to Juneau. If we had, we would probably be sitting in a bar up in Fairbanks right now enjoying a few beers, rather than me reliving the events of that fateful April day. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and engaging in it is an exercise in futility. And besides, when you have a serious case of the exploration bug, and the wilderness is whispering your name, caution is more often than not thrown to the wind.
I guess the fact that it was Anthony's idea makes it easier for me to accept what happened. I don't know if I would have coped otherwise.
But anyway I'm digressing.
Three days after we’d left Ketchikan, Anthony told me about a fjord a few miles north of our current location. It was by no means a big fjord, it only continued inland for twenty miles or so, and going in there would delay us by no more than a few days at the most. According to the travel book he was reading, there was supposed to be an abandoned fishing village at end of it, and he was keen to check it out. And the more he told me about it, the more I started warming to the idea. I had been thinking about writing a book about our journey for some time, and the possibility of visiting a ghost town would make for a great chapter. So I did what most people would have done in my position, I agreed to his suggestion. I felt both exhilaration and anxiety as we set off, telling myself that I would stay in the kayak if I didn't feel a hundred percent comfortable about going ashore. I could always take a few pictures from the fjord and then head back out again.
We reached our new destination early in the evening the following day. A tiny abandoned settlement tucked up against the mountainside, scarier than anything Hollywood could ever produce. I guess the weather added to the effect. It had taken a turn for the worse in the last hour, and the paddling was anything but pleasant. The wind was sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping our faces and whistling a sinister tune as it travelled through the numerous holes and openings in the buildings. And to add to it all, the dark clouds directly overhead gave the area an almost apocalyptic gloom. I could hear a loud intermittent sound coming from somewhere in the background, and I figured it had to be a door slamming or a branch hitting a wall.
I let my paddle rest on top of the kayak and studied the scene before me. I was about forty yards away from the shoreline, and about sixty yards from the village, but still my heart was hammering away inside my chest. The place consisted of twenty buildings or thereabouts, and it had a dilapidated wooden dock running along its entire front. The dock ran for about a hundred yards and continued between the buildings toward the back as narrow walking paths. The entire structure was supported by massive wooden pilings driven into the ground below the water surface. Some of them were leaning precariously, and several of the floorboards had snapped in half, or were sagging between the joists. From my vantage point it didn't look particularly safe.
The buildings were in an even worse shape. The paint had peeled off from the walls a long time ago, exposing the grey, weathered timber underneath. Several of the roofs had caved in, and the ones that hadn't, had corrugated sheets covered in rust and holes of varying sizes. The wooden siding was missing from large sections of the walls, and the glass in the windows was broken, except for a few jagged slivers here and there. And pushing up against the buildings was the vegetation. Grass that reached up to your waist, and bushes and trees that clung to the walls and reached well above the roofline.
Nature had made its way down the hillside and started devouring everything in its path, doing its utmost to eradicate the last vestiges of human activity from the area. In a few decades, all that would remain would be bits and pieces scattered among the trees and grass
The empty houses made me realise that we were all alone, even more so than when we were paddling down an empty section of a fjord, or were exposed to the open ocean. I guess the state of the buildings really drove home the point. There was no mistaking that this was the middle of nowhere. There would be no one to turn to for help if anything should happen while we were ashore. We would have to deal with any eventuality ourselves. When we reached the other end of the village, Anthony turned around and gave me a sheepish grin. He pointed up at the dock with his paddle, and asked me if I was ready to go ashore and have a closer look. I could see he was pumped up and eager to go up there and find out what was hiding behind the facade.
I however, didn't share his enthusiasm. To be quite honest, all I wanted to do was to get away from the place and set up camp somewhere else, preferably as far away as possible. It wasn’t just the fact that the place gave me the willies, I also had a real concern for the weather, which could turn at any moment and make a retreat a very unpleasant proposition. But I didn't want to come across as a wuss, so I nodded and gave him the thumbs up. Hopefully there wasn’t anything to see, and we’d be on our way again before the rain started pouring down.
We secured our kayaks to a rusty metal ring driven into a crack in the rock a few yards from the end of the dock, and just stood there for a moment, taking it all in. What we were looking at had once been the home of a small colony of fishermen and their families, and I found myself wondering what had driven them away. Whatever it was they must have been happy to see the back of it. I know I would have. I was breathing heavily, and the hand holding the camera was shaking ever so slightly as I raised it up to my eyes and snapped a few shots.
Then we got moving, and as we were climbing up the rickety staircase leading up to the dock, we heard the first loud thunderclap coming from somewhere farther out in the fjord. I stopped and cursed, and gazed out over the water. When Anthony turned around to see what was holding me up, I told him we should get going before it started pouring down, but he just shook his head, turned around and kept going. And before I got another word out, he was testing the floorboards with his feet. They made a loud squeaky sound as he put his weight down and the old planks started rubbing against the rusty rivets that had once secured them firmly to the beams. The sound reminded me of chalk being scrapped across a blackboard and it made me flinch. Then I took a few deep breaths and followed him.
The buildings closest to the water had been used as storage facilities. There were old wooden barrels and plastic crates scattered across the floors, and the occasional beer bottles and cigarette butts indicating that the place had seen its share of visitors after the original inhabitants had moved out. There were rotten nets hanging from exposed beams in the ceiling, which no doubt contributed to the nauseating smell of kelp and decayed fish.
It was dark in there, so we moved slowly, and that turned out to be a good thing, because it prevented me from falling through a big hole in the floor. When I knelt down next to it to get a closer look, I could see the slimy rock a few feet below. And once again it struck me what a stupid idea it had been to come ashore. I was in no doubt that I would have broken my leg if I had fallen down there, then what would we do?
I looked up at Anthony and told him once again that we should head back, but like before he just shook his head and kept walking further into the building. He eventually ended up at an opening at the back, where there had once been a door. He kept looking to his left as he stepped outside, turning his head slowly toward the right as he studied the surroundings and began walking in the same direction. Then he disappeared, and that's when he started screaming. And he wasn't holding back. It was a loud scream that had the capacity to create permanent hearing damage, and make your blood go cold.
To be continued