Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are

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Resurrection Bay, 2015

Boat repair kit — check. First aid kit — check. Three days until Kevin and I leave for six weeks of kayaking, camping, and trash hauling in southwest Alaska. Packing and logistics are complicated because our trip has three separate legs. First, a week in the Kayaker’s Cove Hostel in Resurrection Bay, exploring caves and Alaska-style rock-gardening. Second, a self-supported wilderness kayak camping trip on the Kachemak Bay Water Trail, ending in Homer. Third, we will join a team of volunteers on Shuyak Island State Park, collecting marine debris by sea kayak–a perfect blend of adventure, ecology, research, and writing. Shuyak Island lies in the eastern end of the Kodiak Archipelago.

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Shuyak Island

In February, I joined the crew of Exxpedition on Sea Dragon, a 72’ sailboat, and wrote about our journey in There is No Magical Place Called Away. We sailed from Trinidad to Barbados to St. Lucia, testing waters for disintegrating plastics and meeting with concerned islanders. The founders of Exxpedition are researching threats to health—especially to women’s health—from endocrine disruptors leached from plastics thrown away into the sea.

Now, I’m facing northward, towards the Gulf of Alaska where large plastics and other items float from Japan and points east. Instead of bathing suits and board shorts, I’ll be wearing neoprene booties, smart wool and a drysuit. These trips to the north and south–both focused on marine debris–seem like bookends to me and highlight the global dimensions of ocean health.

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Last year in Alaska

Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network, a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago, is coordinating this clean-up effort. Fellow paddler Dawn Stewart saw Tom’s call for experienced sea kayakers to volunteer for two-week stints, and the three of us applied that night. It was too exciting an opportunity to pass up—wilderness kayaking and cleaning up Alaska’s shoreline. In NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, Tom described the difficulties of accessing Alaska’s largely road-less shoreline, other than by small boat and float place. Alaska’s waters have enormous tidal flows—which make for rough water and fun kayaking!

Our kayaks are already delivered! Photo by Tom Pogson

Tom sent us an extensive packing list, and our living room is strewn with gear that must fit into our kayaks. In addition to the expected paddling and camping gear, we have Xtratuffs–rubber boots that apparently all Alaskans routinely wear, knee pads, and heavy duty rubberized yellow rain gear. Kodiak and Shuyak Island are rain forests, so we can expect to be wet and muddy for several weeks. I’ve also packed massive quantities of coffee for survival.

Alaska gear
Alaska gear plus one black cat

Like the rest of Alaska, Shuyak Island’s weather is unpredictable, ranging from sunny and clear to gale force winds. It could look like this:

A delightful spring day on Shuyak Island Photo by Tom Pogson

or like this:

Textbook storm explodes near Kodiak Alaska

A not so delightful Kodiak storm Photo credit:

A float plane will carry us and our gear from Kodiak to Shuyak and will resupply us with food midway through our visit. During these two weeks, our team of 7 will collect, haul, and drag–whatever it takes–junk that others have thrown away or lost. Later in the summer, others will collect and study these items. Judging from pictures of last year’s clean-up on nearby Tugidak, these wild plastics will be human-size and larger. On the Seadragon, the scientists of Exxpedition needed microscopes and tweezers to handle the microparticles we found, but on Shuyak, we will just need brute strength.

Photo credit: Island Trails Network
Debris from Tugidak Photo credit: Island Trails Network

Enough about the debris—we are going to an incredibly beautiful and wildlife-rich area. We should see harbor seals, birds, and, possibly, bears. Tom has been teasing us with breath-takings pictures for weeks now, and I can’t wait to see this area in person.

Shuyak Island from above Photo: Tom Pogson

Our preparation time is winding down, and we are consolidating our gear into checked bags. From the tropics to the Arctic, we are going where the wild plastics are, to the beauty of Alaska’s waters, and whatever adventures they bring.


To Sup or Not To SUP

Ocklawaha River. Photo by Liz Sparks

Despite being a diehard kayaker, when I first saw a paddleboard, or SUP, I knew I would love it. I liked the idea of being able to stand up and paddle, and I thought that SUPs would be perfect for the flat rivers and spring runs of north central Florida where I live. Now, after several years of paddleboarding, I have taken my 10′  ULI Steamroller all over Florida and Georgia, to the ocean, gulf, rivers, and springs. I also bought a 9′ AllWave Fanatic for surf, which is perfect for the baby waves I can handle.

Getting Started
Standing up on a paddleboard is fairly intuitive, and it doesn’t take much to get going. And if you fall in, just climb back up on the board, a real benefit on a hot Florida day. I first tried paddleboarding at the Sea Kayak Georgia Symposium, which although primarily a kayak event, often has several SUP options. Danny Mongno from Werner Paddles, showed me two types of paddle strokes and taught me how to do pivot turns, which helps me in the surf. As in kayaking, paddling comes from the core, not the arms, so learning proper technique has helped me avoid shoulder wear and tear. As I have become addicted to SUP surf, Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia has mentored me on techniques, such as turning on the wave. Just like skiing, though, learning to surf takes a lot of falls. As Ronnie reminded me the other day, I spent more time in the water than on the board.

Suwannee River. Photo by Anne Ledbetter

Paddleboarding is a different workout than kayaking, and it engages different muscle groups. When I first began, my feet hurt from gripping the board, and my legs get a workout from constantly balancing–especially in choppy water. Paddling through the surf is a full body workout, and I have learned to loosen my legs to paddle over waves.

Where to SUP
Florida’s calm rivers and springs are ideal places to SUP, and standing up on the board offers a terrific vantage point to see manatees, fish, and turtles.

Manatee from a SUP
Manatee on the Ichetucknee

I often paddle the Ichetucknee River, starting at the south entrance and paddling upstream to the headspring at the north entrance, then floating back down. Paddling upstream on the Ichetucknee–and most springs–is not difficult. In places where the river narrows and the flow is stronger, I hop from eddy to eddy, working my way upstream. Last week, I paddled up the river and swam down, pulling the board behind me, and experienced the river from above and below. Spring runs like the Ichetucknee, Wakulla, and Rainbow Rivers are perfect places to get your ‘board legs,’ and the Ichetucknee State Park’s new outfitter rents extremely stable boards.

Jill Lingard on the Ichetucknee River
Lis Sparks DeLeon
Liz Sparks near DeLeon Springs
Kayaks on Cannon Spring during the drawdown

The shallow water of the Florida Keys is perfect for paddleboards. I’ve seen a variety of marine life, including baby nurse sharks hiding in the mangroves around Bahia Honda, Knight’s Key, and Curry Hammock State Park. At times, I’ve had to lie flat on my board to get through mangrove tunnels, a challenge to boarders. The shallow waters of the Keys and the darker waters of the St. Johns River and Ocklawaha River present another challenge to boarders: the fin. Several times, my fin has snagged on roots under the water and pitched me forward to an undignified face plant on the board.


To SUP or Kayak?
I am equally happy on a board or in a boat, so how do I choose? For spring runs or anytime I want to swim, I usually choose the board. To me, it’s just an excuse to jump in the water and swim, then climb back on. I love it for spring-hopping on the Santa Fe and the Suwannee rivers. For longer paddles, especially where the water might be choppy, I generally choose a kayak. While I can easily keep up with rec boats on my ULI board, I can’t keep up with longer sea kayaks. On Paddle Florida’s December 2015 trip on the St Johns River, the high winds and rough waters made my decision easy. I was comfortable in my 17′ kayak—paddling a SUP against those winds would have been miserable. I battled 20 mph headwinds on the Ocklawaha River earlier this week, and I think that might have been my limit.

The wind-free Cannon spring run

What’s Next?
In the nine years I have lived in Florida, I have paddled all over Florida, on my own and with groups like Paddle Florida. My husband Kevin is an avid paddler, and we have explored and camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands and are eager to explore more of our state. I would like to try camping from a paddleboard and am looking at longer, solid boards that will carry my gear. So, you might see me on my new, longer board on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Trail in the next few years.

Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Trail
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