|Feature - October 2010
by Michael Powers
|I unzipped the flap of my tent and stared out into the pre-dawn gloom. I was disturbed to see that thick fog had moved in and covered the sea like a shroud. The southern Oregon coast that our sea kayaking team of Tsunami Rangers had paddled along for the past few days now appeared sullen and menacing. Ordinarily on a morning like this we would linger in camp or explore the cliffs and crags that usually dominated the rugged exposed coastlines where we like to kayak. But before leaving from my home in California for this trip, I had promised my wife Nani that I would return before her flight to Chile, which was just one day away now. I knew if I failed to appear tomorrow as agreed and she heard nothing (our cell phones didn’t work on this remote stretch of the coast), she would be anxious and might even cancel her trip.
The previous night when I announced to my fellow Rangers that I would leave and paddle out alone in the morning, it had a sobering effect on the group gathered around the campfire. Operating as a team and watching out for each other on the water has always been the basis of the closely knit Rangers’ modus operandi.
My companions voiced their concerns. Steven King, a capable paddler but a relative newcomer to the Rangers, said that he would never want to paddle a rugged and exposed coast like this solo: “A fundamental part of the Ranger philosophy, the way I understand it, is that each individual is ultimately responsible for himself. Michael has a lot more kayaking experience than I do, so I have to respect his decision.”
“Michael,” said Eric Soares, “you are 69 now!” This sounded ironic coming from Eric, well known for his risky paddling feats in earlier times. Yet he had grown more cautious since barely surviving two life-saving emergency surgeries when his aorta started hemorrhaging after a previous Tsunami escapade a few years ago (“A Change of Heart,” SK, Aug. ‘08). Don Keisling, at 36, the youngest Ranger, volunteered to get up early and accompany me back down the coast to our original put-in at Whaleshead Cove. I declined his gracious offer.
Jim Kakuk, the most senior Ranger, added: “We all know that paddling a rugged, exposed coast like this alone narrows the safety margin significantly.”
|This photo of Michael Powers was taken as Michael launched his kayak to paddle back down the Oregon coast alone from the cove where the Tsunami Rangers were camped, early on the foggy morning of August 26, 2009. (Photo credit: Eric Soares)
Three days before, our seven-member team had packed our kayaks with enough food and camping gear for a multiday sea kayaking adventure and launched from the wide beach at Whaleshead Cove, about ten miles north of the little coastal town of Brookings. We passed by the kilometer-long expanse of sand and driftwood we called Primeval Beach without landing, mindful that big swells were predicted to arrive soon from a hurricane presently battering the west coast of Mexico. We had learned in previous forays along this coast just how scary and dangerous landing and launching could become at totally exposed Primeval in high-surf conditions. We had to travel much farther than expected that day to find an acceptable campsite. Another hour of steady paddling along the cliff-lined coast brought us offshore from Cathedral Cove, so-named by the Rangers for the dramatic light that streamed in there every afternoon at sunset when the sky was clear. To reach this long-kept secret Ranger campsite required negotiating a complex rock garden corridor and passing by a series of sea caves and waterfalls spilling down steep cliff faces into the sea.
A final, carefully timed passage through a long and narrow sea arch brought us into the inner labyrinth of Cathedral Cove. There we made a disappointing discovery. Early summer storms had swept away much of the sand from the well-hidden little beach at the back of the inlet, leaving it almost certain to become flooded when the high tide
arrived later that afternoon. We returned to the open water and resumed paddling northward toward a craggy promontory that we could see on the northern horizon, thrusting far out into the sea near the distant Pistol River.
The sun had fallen low in the sky when the lead paddlers spotted a deep rocky cove on the lee flank of the storm-weathered point. As we drew nearer we could see clear water flowing from a spring at the base of the cliffs, and great piles of driftwood that would provide fuel for our campfires. We were relieved that the beach at the back of this cove appeared to rise well above the high-tide line. The cliffs above rose steeply until they disappeared into a tangle of forest—making the beach inaccessible and impossible to spot from above, highly desirable features for a good campsite. Stepping ashore, Jim christened the place Salvation Beach, which soon morphed into El Salvador.
For two days Salvador made an ideal base camp as we used our lightly loaded boats for day trips to forage and to explore the rock gardens, arches and caves along this wilderness stretch of the shoreline. In spite of the big swells predicted from the tropical storm down in Mexico, the sea remained calm and the sky had remained clear, until this morning.
But now it was time for me to get home to my wife. I crawled from my warm sleeping bag and endured the unpleasantness of pulling on a wet and gritty wetsuit. Pushing my anxiety about the fog aside, I scrambled to pack my gear into my kayak. I decided not to take time for breakfast or to wake my companions to say farewell, and dragged my loaded boat across the sand to the water’s edge.
From where I stood within the protected cove the sea still appeared peaceful, but the poor visibility was definitely unsettling. I tried to reassure myself by thinking about how often I had paddled this coast before—although admittedly, never alone or in thick soup like this. Just as I was about to launch and slip away from camp, Jim and Eric appeared. Their faces were drawn and serious.
“Michael, we still think it’s a bad idea for you to try paddling out of here by yourself, and now look at this blasted fog!” exclaimed Eric.
I responded by reminding my fellow Rangers of what I had been telling myself: We had often paddled this coast before, sometimes in bad weather and storm surf. It wasn’t easy to disregard their feelings about me going off alone. A cooperative spirit had long been an integral part of the Ranger’s paddling style. Yet we also believed strongly in the importance of each individual remaining self-sufficient and responsible for himself. Besides, the Indian summer weather and the fact that the seas had been nearly flat for the past few days had bolstered my confidence. Fog or no fog, I felt ready to go.
With a hug from my friends I launched my kayak. I made it through the shore break without incident and was soon racing for the outside, thinking I was home free. Yet as I passed through the rocks standing guard outside the cove, I suddenly sensed a new intensity in the ocean that had not been there the day before.
A moment later I spotted a big swell rising up out of the fog dead ahead. I paddled furiously in an attempt to punch over the summit of this towering mountain of swift-moving water. I lowered my helmeted head as the wave broke over me, but its explosive power snatched up my 15-foot sea kayak like a toy and tossed it end over end. Fortunately I had buckled the open-deck boat’s seatbelt across my waist when I launched, so when my still-capsized craft popped upside down to the surface a few seconds later, I was still connected to it. I knew rolling the heavily loaded open-deck boat would be problematic, so I disengaged the seatbelt. I emerged up through the foamy water, righted the kayak and jumped back onboard. I frantically shook the water from my eyes and resumed paddling hard to reach deeper water before another big wave could arrive.
Only when I sensed I was safely beyond the breaking surf did I pause to look around. It was startling that I could see nothing but big, smoothly rolling seas. The beach and the tree-covered hills above it had all vanished behind the dense fog. Unnerved, I took a few tentative strokes shoreward, but the waves immediately began to grow steeper around me again. The booming sound of surf breaking over invisible rocks ahead caused me to quickly reverse direction again. It was like a door had slammed shut behind me; there was no going back now.
The gravity of my situation had suddenly become apparent. The big swells from the Mexican hurricane had reached this section of the Oregon coast, causing the surf to build up suddenly and break much farther out and in deeper water than before. This left me no choice but to remain well offshore, where the mainland was invisible in the thick fog. I would not, as I had planned, be able to keep close enough to land to see the familiar landmarks that would guide me back to Whaleshead Cove. Fearful that I would soon become disoriented if I allowed myself to drift around, I glanced at the digital compass on my wristwatch and set off paddling cautiously southward. The only signs now of where I was were the direction the swell was running and the rumble of the surf off to my left. I could keep my course, but I could only guess how far I had paddled by dead reckoning—gauging my speed and checking the time. I remained hyper-alert for the sound of breaking waves ahead and scanned the sea around my boat constantly for steepening waves or unusual surface turbulence, warnings that I had strayed back into shallow water again.
For hours, I gingerly felt my way along the fog-cloaked Oregon coastline. It was reassuring that the wash-deck kayak I was paddling was specially designed for self-rescue after capsizing. Yet I knew that to get caught inside the breaking surf was to risk being driven onto the rocks. In a heavily loaded boat like mine, that would almost certainly mean a shattered hull or worse.
It was comforting whenever I spotted an offshore landmark that I recognized. At one point a large sea stack that the Rangers called Dreamer Island, heavily wooded on top, loomed up out of the mist. On previous outings they had risked their boats and themselves to make precarious seal landings on the rocky ledges that rimmed Dreamer so they could camp there for a night or two.
About an hour of paddling beyond Dreamer Island I came to the Pinnacles, a labyrinth of stone pillars that appeared to be marching resolutely out to sea like a band of monks. Under normal circumstances another hour of steady paddling beyond the Pinnacles would have brought me to Whaleshead Cove, where we had launched from three days before. But conditions today were far from normal. On previous multiday paddles here in clear weather, with the usual four to five feet of summer surf running, this cliff-lined shoreline is a favorite paddling destination for the Rangers.
Kayaking here alone now in near- zero visibility and big swells was much different. The powerful storm surge from Mexico was on a collision course with the prevailing northwest swells rolling down from the Gulf of Alaska, and the results were freaky and unpredictable. Even hundreds of meters offshore in relatively deep water, the big southerly swells would sometimes steepen and break unexpectedly. The only escape when I found myself in the midst of one of these watery minefields was to turn and sprint toward open sea. More than once my kayak became nearly airborne when I barely made it over the top of an oncoming wave.
In times past, the Rangers had sought out offshore islets or sea stacks where big waves wrapped around both sides and created a set of crossing waves that we termed a convergence zone. Seasoned surf-zone paddlers would intentionally position themselves right where the waves were colliding and sometimes be suddenly propelled straight up in the air three meters or more, which they considered an exhilarating experience.
But today the crossing waves did not make for a fun day of play. They made it a relentless struggle to keep my boat upright and intact. Somehow I had to find Whaleshead in the maddeningly thick fog and treacherous swells before dark. Each time the waves seemed to fall off between sets I would edge cautiously shoreward, scanning the seething seascape beyond my bow for the massive rock monolith that I knew loomed up out of the sea just outside the cove. But inevitably after I’d spent a brief time in shallow water, the big breaking waves would begin to arrive again, and I had no choice but to flee back toward the open sea.
Paddling for hours in conditions this challenging, I lost all track of time. But at one point I glanced at my watch and was alarmed to see it was well beyond midday. I knew I should have reached Whaleshead and realized I had no idea how far down the coast I had traveled. I remembered the little waterproof GPS unit that I had neglected to bring along on this trip, and swore I would never paddle an exposed coast again without it.
As the hours passed I felt myself growing more mentally and physically exhausted. In my rush to depart El Salvador that morning I had not eaten breakfast, and had also forgotten to stash any energy bars in the pockets of my PFD. All I had within reach in the center hatch of my kayak was a small canteen, from which I took a furtive gulp of water once in a while. The high-calorie food I desperately needed now for fuel was all stashed in the forward and aft hatches of my kayak, totally inaccessible as I paddled along alone through a volatile sea.
By late afternoon the grim reality began to sink in that I must have paddled by Whaleshead Cove in the fog. I agonized over whether to reverse direction or not. Ultimately it seemed somehow terribly wrong to turn around and gamble the remaining hours of daylight groping back up the surf-battered coast in my exhausted state. I knew that the little logging and fishing town of Brookings lay about ten miles farther south down the coast from Whaleshead. I prayed that before it grew dark I would spot the harbor or a beach there where I could land and escape from the sea.
My dear friend Misha Dynnikov, a fearless young Russian Tsunami Ranger came vividly to mind. He vanished two years ago while free diving alone off the Big Island in Hawaii. Except for the old pickup truck he left parked near a little cove along the rugged west coast of the island, no trace of Misha was ever found. If I didn’t make it today, I thought at least I wouldn’t be the first Ranger to be lost at sea. The arrival of yet another set of big swells from the south seemed to reawaken my will to live, and I pushed away the dark thoughts to go racing for deep water again. “I am not giving up!” became my mantra.
Out on the open sea, far beyond where the shoreline was visible, I felt safe from the breaking surf, but my hands were numb from the cold, and my arms were growing leaden. Each time the waves seemed to settle down, I turned back toward the mainland to resume my search for anyplace I could land.
The beautiful, wild ocean that had been for so long a place of fun and adventure for me had now become a menacing trap from which I could seem to find no escape. With each fruitless foray shoreward and rush back to the open sea to avoid the breaking waves, I felt myself growing weaker. I began to consider paddling in through the surf zone and abandoning my cherished kayak at the base of the cliffs. I figured I could swim the final few meters through the whitewater, and hopefully be able to climb up through the rocks to reach safety.
For what I feared might be the final time, I turned back toward the mainland. Seemingly endless cliffs fringed in white foam confronted me as I drew near. I turned south toward a rocky point rising up out of the fog. Fortunately the sea remained relatively calm long enough for me to paddle around the point and reach slightly more protected water.
A few moments later I spotted a glint of lighter color at the base of the dark cliffs, the first sand I had seen since leaving El Salvador nearly eight hours earlier. It mattered little that the tiny sliver of beach became nearly awash each time a wave broke upon it—here at last was a chance to land.
I made a dash through the swirling shore break and felt the reassuring bump of sand beneath my hull. I fumbled to unclasp my seatbelt and I struggled to rise on unsteady legs, but the surging water still clawed at my kayak and threatened to pull it back. The kayak had brought me this far and I was not about to lose it now.
With my remaining strength I wrenched the heavily loaded kayak free of the shore break. At the beach’s highest point, where the sand met the cliffs, foam-covered water came hissing across the sand with each breaking wave. I kept a firm grip on my boat and paddle to make sure they would not be swept away.
With my other hand I ripped open my rear hatch and wolfed down some of the bread and cheese I’d stowed there. Soon I could feel energy flooding back into my body, but once I had stopped paddling I began to shiver from the cold. Grasping the bow toggle in one hand, I backed into a crack at the base of the cliffs to escape the wind. For the first time since crawling out of my tent on El Salvador Beach nearly nine hours before, I was able to relax. For a while I was content to remain there and stare out across the swirling water.
Without warning, shafts of bright sunlight broke through the mist and illuminated the ghostly shoreline. With amazing swiftness the fog burned away. I could soon see that I had not landed in a cove on the mainland at all, but on a rocky islet a few hundred meters offshore. Now it made sense why the waves had swept past my refuge with such force.
The sky continued to clear until the mainland shore across the water became awash in vivid color. A wide beach was revealed there where I could see children playing, and suddenly I realized I had reached Brookings, ten miles past my intended take-out.
This all appeared quite surreal, and powerful emotions began to well up inside me. After all those terrible hours of paddling alone through a fog-bound and tumultuous sea, a short sprint across a white-capped channel would take me to the sun-splashed beach and safety.
Disregarding the warnings of my companions and attempting to paddle back down the exposed southern Oregon coastline in thick fog alone was the initial mistake that placed me in great peril. On the beach the morning before my departure, Eric pointed out that at my age I had no business trying to paddle out alone. He argued that at 69 my reflexes were probably a bit slower, my reserves naturally lower and my eyesight less acute than those of a younger paddler. Now after the humbling experience of getting lost at sea for nearly eight hours and becoming exhausted to the point of near helplessness, I must admit that he was right.
Even in ideal conditions, sea kayaking alone on an exposed wilderness coast can be a risky endeavor. But the promise I had made to return home that day, combined with over-confidence in my paddling ability, put me in a very hazardous situation. Waiting for the sky to clear would have been a wiser course of action, but I was quite familiar with the area and believed the limited visibility posed by the fog wouldn’t prevent me from making my way along shore to the take-out. The big breaking surf that caused me to capsize as I left the protection of the cove at El Salvador created an extraordinarily dangerous situation. It would have been quite risky to take my chances paddling back through the surf, rocks and fog to El Salvador Beach. The arrival of the big swells not only made it extremely dangerous to retreat to El Salvador, it also made it impossible to feel my way along the coast in the fog. Forced to paddle offshore where I had no visible landmarks, I had no reliable way to navigate. I could only hope the fog would lift before dark.
Not eating that morning, and then neglecting to stash any sport bars in my PFD pockets or the easily accessible small center hatch, were small mistakes that grew in significance as the day progressed. I anticipated only being on the water for two to three hours. My growing exhaustion to the point of near-collapse in the last hours of the daylong crisis made an already perilous situation even more critical.
The waterproof wristwatch I was wearing did have an adequate digital compass, but without a chart and visible reference points it was minimally useful. My waterproof GPS unit, with way points entered in, would have almost certainly saved me from paddling past my intended take-out at Whaleshead Cove. A marine radio would have been useful, especially at the outset to call my companions at camp for assistance. Had my ordeal gone on much longer, an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) unit would have been helpful and potentially a lifesaving device.
Declining to accept fellow Ranger Don Kiesling’s offer to accompany me when I paddled out was another mistake that loomed larger as the day progressed. Kiesling could have paddled closer in to the shoreline than I dared to with my heavily loaded boat, and his younger eyes might have been able to find Whaleshead Cove in the thick fog that day. The presence of a competent companion would also have prevented the significant psychological impact of kayaking alone and the diminished safety margin of having no one to assist me if I had gotten separated from my boat or otherwise disabled.
Jim Kakuk would tell me later that as he and Soares stood on the beach on the morning I departed and watched me capsize, recover and then vanish in the fog, he thought they may never see me again. Three days later when the Rangers returned to Whaleshead Cove, they were much relieved to see that my car was gone, making it clear that I had gotten back. In a debriefing session we had after we were all back home, Eric Soares would say, “We operate as a team to do dangerous stuff, but we also honor each member’s individuality. We expressed our opinions to Michael not to paddle out alone, but he felt he had to go ahead because of the promise he had made to his wife. So we honored his choice.”
Admittedly, feeling the pressure to return home that morning, I disregarded a fundamental principle of the Tsunami Rangers’ paddling philosophy: We always paddle as a team, and that teamwork is essential to our safety on the water in extreme or unpredictable conditions.
Being alone and lost for hours on the Oregon coast in heavy fog and big seas demanded that I call upon everything I had learned in years of challenging wilderness experiences about disciplining the mind and emotions to remain calm, centered, and conscious of conditions at all times.
Once I realized that I must have paddled past Whaleshead Cove, I recalled a basic rule I had learned growing up in the Idaho wilderness: Resist the temptation to begin wandering back and forth when lost; keep going in one direction. If I had turned around and attempted to paddle back up the fog-bound Oregon coast, I believe my chances of survival would have lessened.
If I had not been in good condition physically, I probably would not have gotten through the Oregon incident. As I approach 70 years of age, the importance of eating right, exercising regularly and getting adequate rest are more important than ever before. My father used to train professional boxers and often told us kids stories about out-of-shape fighters who entered the ring and were quickly annihilated by their opponents. In a very real sense it was like a battle to the finish out there in the sea that day against an immensely powerful and unrelenting adversary. Now I understand when I hear or read reports of tragic paddling incidents how a lost or capsized kayaker can so easily perish from exhaustion and exposure. I am determined never to allow hubris to influence my judgment or take unnecessary risks in the sea again.
Perhaps a part of the Ranger philosophy that warrants reevaluation is our aversion to what Eric Soares refers to as the “call Mom” response. We don’t think it is right to rely on outside help when we get into trouble in the wilderness. Although nothing will ever replace self-sufficiency in the wilderness, I realize now what a great benefit and comfort it would have been to have a GPS and perhaps a marine radio along when I was lost in the sea. My experience on the Oregon coast was an important life lesson that I’ll never forget. I’m grateful that I was able to learn it without paying the ultimate price.
Michael Powers is an adventure photo-journalist and filmmaker and a previous contributor to Sea Kayaker. He is a member of the Tsunami Rangers, an “extreme condition” sea kayaking team based in northern California. Along with fellow Ranger, Eric Soares, he co-authored the book Extreme Sea Kayaking.