At Unavikshak Island, near Chignik on the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula, I ended up with the nickname Kayak Dundee. I was 37 days and 1,056 miles into the second season of my paddle around Alaska’s coastline. Apart from a brief challenge from a pair of brown bears, a sow and her yearling, about who had the right to have lunch on the only beach on an offshore island, the morning had gone well. I was looking forward to reaching Chignik where my next food parcel was waiting at the Post Office.
It was my 17th day out of Seward where I’d last stocked up on food. Since I’d planned only 15 paddling days to cover the 500 miles to Chignik, I was down to a couple of dehydrated meals, a few dry biscuits and barely a spoonful each of sugar and powdered milk. I was running on an empty tank.
Off the bold 2,300-foot high headland of Cape Kumlik, I’d jogged into the lee of a small island, to escape from a freshening north-easterly wind. Astern, the sky was ominously black, with all the signs of a full-blown north-east gale within the hour. This small island, bare-topped and surrounded by low cliffs, offered no show of a landing. I turned my gaze to the distant lump of Unavikshak Island, 12 miles to the south-west. There at least the map showed a jutting headland, which would offer lee protection from the building sea.
I kicked out from the island’s lee onto a 10-foot-high south-east roll, on top of which the freshening north-easterly was building a breaking chop. During the first hour, as the wind lifted from 20 to 25 knots, the deep draft over-stern rudder kept me easily on course for the island. I was almost enjoying the situation with several exhilarating surf rides.
The second hour was absolutely diabolical. The wind carried on lifting to a sustained 35 knots. I only looked back once. The dark inky blue sea was splattered white with a myriad of toppling waves. Row upon row of steep capping waves, with stinging spray flying off their crests, were tearing towards me. It was far better just to look over the bow, and hold my wildly bobbing course for the island. A momentary lapse in concentration almost led to a capsize when a 10-foot toppler almost dragged me under as it broke over the cockpit. Only a frantic, slap support stroke kept me upright.
When the heavens opened and heavy rain bucketed down, I fully expected the wind to ease and the chop to die with the rain’s impact. But it didn’t. Ever so slowly I closed on the island, and slowly lost the motion of the swell as I surfed onto the inshore beds of rudder-tangling kelp. Rounding the northern tip of the island, which was a flat-topped headland above a line of sheer 50-foot-high cliffs, I sighed with relief and sped in front of the wind onto a flat sea, and began searching for a sheltered landing. Although I was now in the lee of the island, the wind was hammering across the flat sea in bullet-like gusts and driving williwaws of swirling spray. At least I could see and hear them coming and brace accordingly. I kept looking for a cave or overhanging cliff where I could escape out of the wind and rain.
The best shelter I could find was a towering cliff overhanging a boulder beach at its base by a good three feet. Landing through a low, dumping surf onto a steep cobble beach, I dragged the Kevlar Nordkapp on to the narrow band of dry cobbles. With cold fingers, I fumbled off the aft hatch cover. I needed a hot brew of tea in a hurry.
As I slurped a steaming bowl of tea, I noticed a salmon purse seiner emerge from the murk to drop anchor 400 yards upwind from me. My grumbling stomach was still hoping to make Chignik by nightfall, however the wind and rain showed no sign of easing. Since I hadn’t seen a soul, not a plane or boat, for the past eight days, I decided to paddle out and ask for the latest forecast and/or synoptic situation. If I looked hungry enough, I might even be able to scrounge a little food.
Fighting the bullet-like gusts of wind and williwaws – I could not paddle when they hit but could only adopt a low profile and leave the paddle blade on the sea for support – I plugged slowly across a broad belt of kelp beds towards the seiner. I was pleased that the skipper and crew could not see my approach through the steamed-up windows of the seiner’s wheelhouse. I had to make two attempts to close on its stern for the wind gusts were so strong. I had to paddle upwind of the bow of the seiner Valerie and then drift back during one of the gusts.
Don the cook helped me drag the kayak on to the aft deck. We then adjourned below into a different world where it was so warm and dry. My nose detected the delectable smell of a roast dinner. The seiner had a complement of skipper, three deckhands and cook. The afternoon’s entertainment was watching either a cops and robbers video or the needle of the anemometer. I didn’t feel so bad about the difficulty I experienced in closing on the seiner, for the anemometer needle did not drop below 40 miles per hour, and often swung up to 50 and even 60 mph during the stronger boat-rolling gusts.
One of the crew, after listening to my accent and story of how I could not get the book on the round Australia kayak trip published said, “You’ll have to change the title to ‘The Adventures of Kayak Dundee’. It’ll be a best seller.” The original film hit of Crocodile Dundee and its sequel were both popular video films on the Alaskan fishing boats. The nickname stuck and followed me around for the rest of the summer.