From the Caribbean to Alaska to the Keys: My Year of Plastics

 

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Plastic caught on our propeller

Plastics, big and small, dominated my life last year in 2016, from the Caribbean to Alaska to the Florida Keys. On New Year’s Eve last year, to cap it off, a large piece of plastic wrapping caught on the propeller and cut the motor on our sailboat. As the boat drifted dangerously close to rocks on the edge of Bahia Honda, I held on to the boat ladder with one hand and worked to free the plastic with the other (To Sup or Not To SUP). It ended well, and we sailed on to a fine New Year’s Eve on the Mosquito Keys with our friends Monica and Frank. But it was a fitting end to my year of plastics.

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Photo credit: Monica Woll

The previous February, I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics (On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics). I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. On the Seadragon, we used a manta trawler to collect microplastics, and later the water would be filtered and the particles analyzed.

searching for microbiology and plastics partices
Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon
Exxpedition in the Caribbean
Hauling in the manta trawler
Doing science on deck8
Filtering for plastics particles

Caroline winching2This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic. By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and local environmental groups.  These interactions were trip highlights for me.

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

In the summer, I traded my bathing suit for a drysuit to chase down the wild plastics of Alaska (Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are). Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network, a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago, had coordinated teams to clean up Shuyak Island by sea kayak.

Dead Bird Beach, Alaska
Tom with one day’s debris

During our two week shift, our team of seven collected, hauled, and dragged the marine debris that travels from Japan and points east. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year.Shuyak NOAA Chart

 

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Unloading the float plane
Kodiak brown bear
Brown bears on the beach

We arrived by float plane and saw a mother grizzly and three cubs on our first day. For the next two weeks, we collected  — literally — tons of garbage (Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska.) We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

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Water bottles and tangled nets
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Dawn with logo flyswatter
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Cutting away nets on a rainy day
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Piles of super sacks

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom collected the bags later that summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment for analysis by NOAA and the Island Trails Network. Tom had warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective that that of Exxpedition, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.

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Sunset over the Florida Gulf

Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska

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Excited for our ride to Shuyak Island

On Sunday, June 12, I awoke early, excited for my first ride on a float plane. We were headed for Shuyak Island State Park to collect marine debris using sea kayaks. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year. Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network received a grant from NOAA Marine Debris Program, and months ago, we had applied to participate in this great adventure—paddling in Alaska, float planes, abundant wildlife, and a chance to give back to a sport we love. How could any of us pass up this opportunity?

Tent at Big Bay ranger station, Alaska
Kevin’s and my home for two weeks
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Brown bears sauntering down the beach

Our team of five had arrived in Kodiak several days early in case Kodiak’s notoriously changeable weather went bad. Dawn, Kevin, and I knew each other from previous kayak trips, and we met Fiona and Kate  at Kodiak Island Brewery the night before. Fortunately. Sunday’s weather was clear and beautiful, and the pilot gave us a tour the land and water between Kodiak and Shuyak. Soon after we arrived, a mama brown bear and her two cubs sauntered down the beach and then up the hiking trail. After sorting out our tents, boats, and gear we paddled out around Eagle Point into the Gulf of Alaska, then surfed the swell home.

Map of Shuyak Island
Shuyak Island Photo credit: National Geographic

Over the next two weeks, we tackled Gulf-facing beaches as well as the protected shores inside Big Bay—the wind and swell determined our daily destinations. Big surf landings onto rocky shores would have been dangerous for both boats and bodies, and we knew that any rescue situation would be difficult and hazardous. An accident that might be a minor inconvenience in highly populated Florida could be life-threatening in remote Alaska.

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Dawn with logo fly swatter

We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

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A tangle of water bottles and nets
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Wind carries plastic bottles
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Tom with super sacks
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A small beach on a calm day

 

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom will collect the bags later this summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment, and NOAA and the Island Trails Network will analyze this data in the fall.

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Tom with super sacks
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Piles of super sacks in front of headquarters—Big Bay Ranger Station

 

After a week, the winds shifted and intensified, so we moved to the calmer waters of the bay. We worked in teams of two which was sometimes creepy given the possibilities of bears. As we walked along the beaches, we sang out “Hey bear, Hey bear”, the best response being no response. At first glance, these inland shores seemed much cleaner, but we discovered how well the sand and logs camouflaged nets and ropes. In addition to being unsightly, nets pose a hazard to marine mammals, like seals, otters and whales.

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Cutting through gnarly nets on a rainy day

Tom warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. No one lives there, and the island receives few visitors, so all the debris comes from somewhere else. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Last February, I participated in Exxpedition, a sailing voyage on the 72′ Sea Dragon, assisting scientists investigating how disintegrating plastics disrupt the endocrine system. Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away.

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Loading and unloading on our return to Kodiak

On a cold rainy Sunday morning, the float plane brought our crew back to Kodiak and flew a new crew. As we flew away, I looked back at the super sacks on the beach and thought about what we had done. Overall, the trip gave me a terrific opportunity to spend time camping and paddling on a remote island in Alaska and to meet others who share these interests. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.

Exploring Bear Glacier by Kayak

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Icebergs at Bear Glacier, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Crackle swoosh boom! …. The sounds of a melting and calving glacier. Twelve kayakers awed by the ethereal blues of house-size icebergs floating in a glacial lake. We sat quietly, in communion with this living glacier until one large splash of falling ice broke the spell. We were in Alaska, far from my home in Florida.

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Paddling around the icebergs

 

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Brian enjoying the view

We paddled to Bear Glacier on our last full day of a week-long trip to Resurrection Bay. Our home base was the Kayakers Cove Hostel, about a 12-mile paddle from Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula. During our week there, we watched whales, otters, and sea lions and explored caves and rock gardens. With Levi Hogan of Turnagain Kayak, along with Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA, Tom Noffsinger, and Tony Hammock, we practiced rescues, rock gardening, and strokes along the rocky coast.

Our weather was spectacular, mostly clear and sunny, which meant we traded rough conditions for terrific views. Kevin and I had done the Resurrection Bay trip in 2015 with rougher conditions, so this seemed like an entirely different experience. A combination of sea swell, tide, and wind direction dictated each day’s activities. Last year, the winds mostly blew from the north, so we headed out towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This year’s winds blew southerly, offering a different set of explorations.

Towards the end of the week, Levi announced that conditions were favorable for Bear Glacier, and we leapt at the chance to kayak among icebergs. We would paddle the 10-ish miles to Bear Glacier, then return by water taxi in two shifts, six paddlers and six kayaks on each trip.

Bear Glacier
Bear Glacier from Google Earth

We launched at 9 a.m. with drysuits, helmets, and extra food and clothes – just in case. As we passed the southern tip of Fox Island, Levi checked for confirmation of our pick-up. We had little or no cell service at Kayakers Cove—a wonderful cyber-vacation, but missing a text from Joe, the boat captain, would have resulted in a long, cold, and unexpected paddle home. As we paddled around to the east of Fox Island, we moved to the middle of the channel to ferry glide across and surf the wind swell. To quote Tom Noffsinger, “When asked if you want to surf, the correct answer is always ‘yes’”. I agree. The wind and swell gave us an easy ride across Resurrection Bay, and we soon reached Callisto Head.

As we paddled around Callisto Head, Bear Glacier appeared in the distance. Resurrection Bay gave us some small swell, and we played among the rocks along the way. Navigating a 17’ kayak through rocks can be like threading a needle, and a fun challenge with the right swell. Levi reminded us that fiberglass NDK boats and rocks do not mingle well and warned us not to go over any overfalls, where swift currents flow over exposed rocks. A severely damaged boat would be dangerous in this remote area. Soon after, I misjudged a swell and flew towards an exposed rock. Fortunately, an opposing swell covered the rock, and I sailed over it unscathed. I did not make that mistake again.

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Bear Glacier and a visit from a seal
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Ed playing in a tidal race

The entrance to Bear Glacier Lake was still several miles away. As we paddled across, seals and seal lions popped their heads up, curious about our strange crafts, and played in our wake. The mouth of the Bear Glacier River created a tidal race where we surfed in the waves. This water was cold—glacial melt.

After we played, we landed our boats, carried them up and over the rocky ridge, and launched again in the slower and deeper section of the river. This shallow braided river is the only access to Bear Glacier, so only those willing to paddle or walk (or pay an exorbitant helicopter fee) get to see the glacier. (In 2015, Kevin and I saw the Aialik Glacier on a Kenai Fjords tour.)

Resurrection Bay Map
Resurrection Bay (Photo credit: http://www.wildernessimage.com)

We eddy-hopped our way upstream, where house-sized and larger icebergs floated in the lake. Although we were still at least a mile from Bear Glacier itself, its presence enveloped us in the sights and sounds. We paddled carefully around the floating ice, knowing that our helmets offered little protection from falling chunks.

I sat in my kayak, mesmerized, but I wondered about its future. What will Bear Glacier look like in twenty years in an era of rapidly retreating glaciers? In India, Gangotri Glacier, the source of the Ganga and sacred to Hindus, has receded dramatically in recent years. In the late 18th century, Gangotri Temple sat at the foot of the glacier, but by 1992, when I visited, pilgrims trekked 12 miles over two days from the temple to Gangotri Glacier.

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Retreat of Gangotri Glacier (Photo credit: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4594)

Though Alaska seems remote from Florida, retreating glaciers and melting sea ice contribute to the rising sea levels that erode our shores and flood our seaside cities. Maybe Alaska and Florida are not so far apart after all—a baked Alaska means a soggy Florida.

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Sea lion haul-out in Resurrection Bay
Driving the boat
Driving the boat home

We paddled back towards the river, carried our boats back across the ridge, then headed towards our pick-up point. Our captain Joe ferried us back in two groups and took us past a sea lion haul-out. I was fortunate to be in the second group, leaving me with more time to relish this exquisite beauty and to play among the rocks. Back at Kayakers Cove, we relaxed over wine and fresh-caught fish, cleaned and caught by Joe, demonstrating Alaskan hospitality. Bev and James treated us to their amazing fish-cooking talents that evening. Our week in Resurrection Bay was filled with highlights—great paddling and great friends, but our trip to Bear Glacier stands out among these highlights.

 

Halibut and Mussels: Gorging on Alaskan Hospitality

I am sitting here at Susitna Place Bed and Breakfast in Anchorage, reflecting on our amazing run of clear and sunny weather. Denali is playing hide and seek, poking its head out from behind the few clouds that dot my horizon. Dawn, Kevin, and I are staying in Anchorage for a few days of r and r, relaxing after our Kachemak Bay paddling trip and gearing up for Shuyak Island.

Levi of Turnagain Kayak
Right Beach campsite

We paddled along the Kachemak Bay Water Trail for one week, camping on beachfront campsites. although we had expected conditions that would let us play in tidal races and caves, the calm weather allowed us to bask in the beauty of the Alaskan waterscape.

Sadie cove waterfall

The previous Sunday morning, Levi Hogan of Turnagain Kayak left the four of us, our boats,and a mountain of gear at Homer Spit. Homer Spit extends about six miles into Kachemak Bay, and from there, we could see almost all of our intended route. Our winds favorable, we launched into the calm waters of the Bay towards Gull Island, 2 1/2 miles across the Bay. A strong tailwind gave us a welcome assist, and small waves pushed our loaded boats towards our first campsite. After a quick nine mile paddle, we reached our campsite at Right Beach, our home for two nights. On our layover day at Right Beach, we explored Halibut Cove and the nearby islands. Humpback whales put on a whale show in front of our campsite.

Halibut cove

Most of the Kachemak Bay Water Trail lies in the Kachemak Bay State Park, and the campsites and their amenities are clearly marked on the park map. Right Beach offered an outhouse and a water source, but the bear lockers excited us the most. Levi had given us bear canisters to hold our food, but the canisters proved to be Dawn- and Whitney-proof in addition to being bear proof. I stored my coffee in the bear vault over night, rightly surmising that fighting with the tabs on the canister BEFORE coffee would not work out well.

My nemesis — the bear canister

Two days later, under an overcast sky, we left Right Beach and headed for Kayak Beach, our home for three nights. We paddled past Halibut cove and Gull Island and around the point. As Kayak Beach came into view, we saw that the beach was full of tents and people, a surprise after the relative isolation of Right Beach. The several families present had been part of a larger group who camp there each year over the Memorial Day week. Over the years, they have created plumbing systems, a hot tub, and sophisticated cooking systems. They were just packing up to leave, and we wondered how they would fit the mountains of gear into their boats. These campers demonstrated what we have found to be Alaska generosity — they offered us water from their taps and home-smoked maple salmon.

Later that afternoon, two fisherman and their young sons came to stay in the campsite’s yurt. Most of the campsites have a yurt, complete with cots and wood stove. These fisherman too shared their bounty, giving us halibut, moose, and mussels. The two boys — about 8 and 11 — showed us how to collect mussels and cook them in sea water for flavor. They, too, were incredibly kind, but I wondered if they didn’t look at us with a bit of pity — like baby otters who couldn’t fend for themselves.

Halibut and cod
Ed cooking fish

On our two layover days, we explored nearby coves and islands, first Tutka Bay, graced with waterfalls, and saw the salmon hatchery in Jakaloff Bay. Later, we paddled through the arch on Elephant Rock, just off the tip of Yukon Island, then down Sadie Cove, hoping for a glimpse of the rumored $5,000 per night lodge. The tidal range in Kachemak Bay is enormous, and our last night at Kayak Beach co-incided with one of the highest tides — 21.5 feet. On our last night there, Kevin woke us, shouting that our gear was floating away. We leapt out of our tents and dragged our gear to higher land. Sadly, the fire that we had cultivated for the past several days was lost to the sea.

Fire ring buried by high tide
Kevin in Kachemak Bay
Glassy seas on Kachemak Bay

The seas were glassy for our 12.5 mile trip to Grey Cliff, just north of Seldovia. Seeing our reflections in the water seemed surreal, almost Dali-esque, as we paddled through this otherworldly-landscape. As we rounded the Seldovia headland, we finally found a play spot, a small tidal race where the out-going river flow met the incoming tide. What we call a tide race is labeled on our charts as ‘rip tide’. We surfed in the waves, then continued on to our campsite. Our Graycliffs campsite was in the Seldovia community park—we had passed out of the Kachemak Bay State park.

Lunch on the beach
Scary stuff

Soon after we arrived, a man drove up on an ATV—our ‘trail angel’. Gary told us about the park, drove us into town, and gave us a bottle of smoked salmon-flavored vodka, again demonstrating Alaskan generosity. Thus began the civilization part of our wilderness expedition. We ate, drank, and gorged on wi-fi. Friends had told us that the Kachemak Bay Water Trail was not a ‘wilderness’ trip, and our days in Seldovia proved that.

Relaxing in Seldovia
Seldovia distance sign

Back in Anchorage, looking at the calm waters of Cook Inlet and seeing Denali, I realize that we have had a remarkable weather window. While we have had few fun ‘conditions’ for play, we have had the luxury to fully be present in the sights and sounds of Alaska’s landscape. In several days, we fly to Kodiak and then on to Shuyak Island for the third leg of our trip. Who knows what the weather will bring, but whatever happens, I’m sure it will be interesting.

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!

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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:

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A delightful spring day on Shuyak Island Photo by Tom Pogson

or like this:

Textbook storm explodes near Kodiak Alaska

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A not so delightful Kodiak storm Photo credit: northwestpassage2012.blogspot.com.

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.

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Photo credit: Island Trails Network
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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.

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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.