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

 

img_0104
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.

img_3077
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

 

IMG_2070
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.

IMG_1948
Water bottles and tangled nets
IMG_2103
Dawn with logo flyswatter
IMG_1935
Cutting away nets on a rainy day
IMG_2039
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.

Sunset
Sunset over the Florida Gulf

An Oasis of Bees, Chickens, and Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri

For something completely different, visit  City Creatures Blog to read about chickens, bees, and gardens in Kansas City, MO. I visited Cherith Brook Catholic Worker while researching my new book Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence.

Mural.JPG
Cherith Brook mural

When I reached Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri, I did not expect to see chickens loose on the driveway. I’m not sure why I was so surprised—other urban Catholic worker communities I visited had backyard chickens. But it was a dreary day in a dreary neighborhood, and I had driven through the east side of Kansas City, with little sign of animal life or greenery. Cherith Brook’s chickens, gardens, and beehives were an oasis of nature on their city block. Read more.

Hutch.JPG
Backyard chickens

On TRAK to Adventure in Tofino, BC

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 1.16.25 PM
Team 2020 (Photo credit: Jamie Sharp)

How does a skin on frame kayak respond to rough water? What better place to test a redesigned TRAK kayak than Vancouver Island? The TRAK Team 2020 had come to play in the surf and give a final round of feedback on the new TRAK 2.0.

Nolin Veillard, founder and managing director of TRAK kayaks, had invited the team to come for a surf camp and a chance to learn about TRAK 2.0’s new features. Half the team already owned TRAK kayaks, while the rest were new to TRAK. My husband Kevin and I bought one of the earliest TRAKS for a self-supported kayak trip through the Exuma Island in the Bahamas where we snorkeled and paddled in paradise (TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE). We loved the boat as an expedition boat, but I was curious to see how it would hold up to wind and waves.

Most of our team had met virtually, on group chats and a group forum, but I was looking forward to meeting everyone in person. In addition to Team 2020, Hans Trupp had coordinated the event, and Fabio Raimo Oliveira and Jamie Sharp had come to help us become better surf instructors. And most important, Buffy Trupp fed us gourmet meals.

Nolin had reserved an assortment of lodges, yurts, and campsites the Wya Point Campground and Resort, just at the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. My home for the next several days was Yurt 14, which, conveniently, was also the group headquarters for meals and meetings. (Since my gear was trapped in Delta’s black hole of lost luggage, I was thrilled to stay in the yurt.) Our yurt was just yards from the Pacific beach, and forest went right up to the edge of the beach.

On our first afternoon, we readied our kayaks for the next day’s paddle. Since I owned one of the first models, I was excited to see the improvements Nolin had made over the years. I was especially happy to see improvements in portability–Nolin shaved almost 10 pounds off the earlier models that Kevin and I dragged through airports. Thank you Nolin!

IMG_4319
Assembling the TRAK
TRAK-Sea-Sock
Inside a TRAK (Courtesy of Awesome Kayak)
TRAK on the beach
Wya Point Beach
Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 1.17.31 PM
Photo credit: Jamie Sharp

Everyone was eager to get on the water the next day. In the morning, operations manager Jason Guindon demonstrated the newer features, and after lunch, we carried our boats to the beach. The water was calm, with small waves lapping the shore, a perfect opportunity to exchange tips on strokes, rescues, and rolls in skin on frame boats. For me, playing in the surges–rock gardening 101–was a real treat and the most different from my own southeast surf zone. Later, we paddled out beyond the rocks enclosing our cove and saw a massive sea lion guarding his perch.

IMG_4324
Flying over our route

 

The first day’s calm gave way to higher winds and slightly higher onshore waves. Nonetheless, the conditions bode well for our trip to Wickaninnish Beach. The Tofino area, I discovered, is Canada’s surf capital, and Wickaninnish Beach promised good clean surf. We paddled out of the cove and headed towards north. We paddled along the coast, that alternated rocky islands and sandy beaches. I didn’t expect to see so many sandy beaches; my image of the Pacific northwest was all rocky beaches. I had thought the Pacific Northwest was all rocky coast; I had no idea I would see so much sand. After about an hour, we reached a rocky island where the group reconvened. We lingered for almost an hour. Some fixed gear while others took the opportunity to rock garden. The island offered several play spots, and we practiced our skills timing the surges along the rocks. I was impressed with the TRAK’s responsiveness. I had never used mine in situations with rocks and fast moving water.

Soon after we left the island, we paddled through a narrow channel made by rocks, and the conditions changed for the worse. The winds grew stronger, and the water rougher. Boats and paddlers dipped in and out of view as we rose and fell with the swells. We paddled on, watching the coast, but staying out far enough to avoid refracting waves. I felt my boat flex with the waves, but it paddled solidly in these force 4 conditions. This was the test, and the boat passed with flying colors. Finally we rounded the headland and surfed in to shore — after all, we had come to surf. It was an exhilarating day and a new challenge for many, but we all agreed that our boats had passed a critical test of seaworthiness.

2017-05-20 16.37.16.jpg
Coming in for a landing
Coming ashore
On shore
TRAK flag
TRAK flag
2017-05-20 20.28.20
A trailer of TRAKS

 

We had so much fun that we returned to Wickaninnish the next day.  The conditions had calm considerably, but everyone was happy to have a day just to surf. Fabio and Jamie gave up pointers on surf instruction, but the highlight was playing in the waves. That night we debriefed over fish and chips from a food truck in Tofino and prepared to head home.

On our final morning, we disassembled our boats and offered a final round of feedback on the TRAK. I was sorry to say goodbye to so many new friends, but we are already planning new surf adventures. TRAK’s Kickstarter campaign is well underway, while we eagerly await the unveiling of TRAK 2.0.

0fcc9234877ccd977c61de44bfc63fe6_original-1.jpg
Our successful Kickstarter campaign

St. Johns Headwaters: Finding Wildness in an Engineered Waterscape

taking-pictures-at-sunrise
Dawn on Blue Cypress Lake

Anne and I rose early to catch the early morning light on Blue Cypress Lake.  A late afternoon storm had skunked us on paddling the night before, and we were determined to get on the water. After a quick cup of coffee, we lowered boat and board into the water and paddled through the glassy waters, silently, heading towards the trees that give Blue Cypress Lake its name. (The  cypress trees did indeed look blue in the early morning light.) The day was so calm and quiet, I felt like I had melted into the scenery. Other than the one large splash that made both of us jump, the lake was dead calm.

canal-at-middleton-fish-camp
Deck at Middleton’s Fish Camp
2016-10-03-07-43-26
Moss hanging form the trees
2016-10-03-07-31-51
Another storm rolling in
2016-10-03-08-13-08
Glassy calm on a windless morning

We had spent the night at Middleton’s Fish Camp, right on Blue Cypress Lake, in a cabin that backed onto a canal. Although Blue Cypress Lake is not far from Vero Beach and the more developed coastal area, the lake felt isolated and remote. We had come to take pictures for our River of Dreams exhibit at the Matheson History Museum (Winter 2017). Most people, however, come to Middleton’s Fish Camp to catch large-mouth bass, catfish, and speckled perch (crappie), among other things. Jeanne Middleton, who writes the fishing report, the armored catfish, relatively unknown in Florida, draws fishers from Suriname where the fish is considered a delicacy.

2016-10-02-15-04-17
“Nature held in trust”

Anne and I had come to Blue Cypress Lake and Middleton’s Fish Camp to explore the headwaters region of the St. Johns River. Officially the headwaters is somewhere in the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, a swampy area that lies just south of Blue Cypress Lake. I had hoped to paddle from the actual start of the St. Johns River, but I learned that noone can really pinpoint the exact start of the river. Vince Lamb, a nature photographer and environmental activist, noted that “somewhere two drops of rain fall, and one heads to Lake Okeechobee and the other heads north into the St Johns.” Many people consider Blue Cypress Lake itself to be the headwaters which, in terms of paddling and navigation, it is. 2016-10-03 11.09.55.jpg

The road north from Blue Cypress Lake towards Fellesmere parallels the river as it moved through a series of canals. On Sunday afternoon, boat trailers lined the canal, but the stormy weather and a Monday morning had driven off the fisherman. In Fellesmere, we stopped for some ‘Old Florida Cuisine’ at the Marsh Landing Restaurant.

Fueled by swamp cabbage soup and Cajun-spiced catfish (noone had heard of the armored catfish), we aimed for Stick Marsh/Farm 13, a reclaimed area known for its bass fishing. Created in 1987, Stick Marsh/Farm 13 is one of many Florida messes, like the Everglades, where our tax dollars fund both destruction and restoration at the same time. Writing about the St. Johns River Restoration Project and Stick Marsh, bass fishing guide Jim Porter describes the project as “Saving a Friend.”At one point, Stick Marsh was heavily stocked with bass and crappie, and now the area “is synonymous with trophy bass and other fishing.”

This entire area near the headwaters struck me as a confusing mix of wilderness and engineered landscape. Blue Cypress Lake itself has few access points and felt remote—even Middleton’s Fish Camp felt removed from the nearby more developed coastal areas. But the roads and the canals—obviously engineered—also felt remote and wild as well. The day before, sitting at Camp Holly near Melbourne, Vince had told us that the upper—or southern—part of the St. Johns River is much wilder than the lower, that there is more development along the river as you go further north. It is much easier to do a wilderness paddling trip along the upper St. Johns.

2016-10-03 13.22.29 copy.jpg
Canal near Stick Marsh

Engineered or not, the headwaters region of the St. Johns River is a beautiful and wild marshy waterscape, and Blue Cypress Lake took my breath away. Each section of the St. Johns River has its own beauty, and the river and the people who live, play, and fish on the river tell me their stories. I look forward to learning more of these stories as I explore the St. Johns and its tributaries and springs for our “River of Dreams” exhibit.

2016-10-03 05.58.56.jpg

 

 

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

IMG_1842
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
Kodiak brown bear
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.

IMG_2103
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.

IMG_1948
A tangle of water bottles and nets
water bottles
Wind carries plastic bottles
IMG_2095
Tom with super sacks
IMG_1930
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.

IMG_2095
Tom with super sacks
IMG_2039
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.

IMG_1935
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.

IMG_2070
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

2016-05-26 16.24.34 (1)
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.

2016-05-26 16.11.19.jpg
Paddling around the icebergs

 

2016-05-26 16.47.07
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.

2016-05-26 14.10.58
Bear Glacier and a visit from a seal
2016-05-26 14.41.22
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.

gangotri_ast_2001252
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.

2016-05-26 20.46.32
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.

 

Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are

clouds and water.jpg
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.

Shuyak NOAA Chart.png
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.

whit drysuit2.jpg
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!

13100912_10207938446231639_3032237687424183730_n
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:

13233016_10207967359674457_4875385718279655854_n
A delightful spring day on Shuyak Island Photo by Tom Pogson

or like this:

Textbook storm explodes near Kodiak Alaska

ak-storm-1.jpg
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.

img_4145-tugidak-island-float-plane
Photo credit: Island Trails Network
imgp3609-one-of-5-yokohama-fenders-removed-from-tugidak-island-alaska.jpg
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.

13221034_10207967358114418_4173191688386811368_n.jpg
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.

 

Requiem for a River

herontrees.jpg

I went to the Kenwood boat ramp last week to see it for myself — how much had the Ocklawaha River risen since the end of the drawdown, and would I still be able to see the tree stumps that reveal the drowned forest below?  I paddled the river during the drawdown, when the Ocklawaha was briefly restored to its natural flow, revealing bubbling springs and sandy banks. Now I felt compelled to witness the reverse, to see how the rising waters covered the treasures below. I was surprised to see that the river level had not yet risen significantly, so I inflated my paddle board and began to paddle upstream. Dark, low clouds filled the sky—which seemed fitting, and I estimated I had about 1 1/2 hours to wind my way through this apocalyptic riverscape.

The Rodman Reservoir had been lowered for the past several months, and, like many others, I took the opportunity to see rarely uncovered springs like Cannon Springs and Tobacco Road. I joined the Florida Defenders of the Environment at Kenwood where Lars Anderson pointed out springs and historical features, and later Captain Karen Chadwick, North Star Charters, gave me a tour on her skiff. I paddled from Eureka West to the boat ramp across from near Payne’s Landing and saw fishers lining the newly uncovered banks.

2016-03-17 10.26.26.jpg

On this day, though, I came by myself, to  be in silence on the water. The overcast day was still, the quiet only broken by the occasional motorboat. The fishermen waved as they went by, and the silence was restored. Several friends told me that they did not want to see the rising water, that it would be too sad. I understood their feelings, especially those of friends who have loved the Ocklawaha for a long time. I am a relative newcomer to Florida and have become enchanted by its springs and rivers and Old Florida, but people who grew up on the Ocklawaha have entirely different stories to tell.

In “How do we Grieve the Death of a River’,  activist Winona LaDuke asks “How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.” Mining tailings have destroyed the Waatuh River, or “Grandfather”, in southeast Brazil, a river central to the lives of  indigenous people .

Okhlawaha dusk.jpg
Ocklawaha at dusk
Okhlawaha.jpg
Ocklawaha near Eureka West

Many years ago longtime residents grieved as they lost access to their land and homes when the Ocklawaha was first flooded, and they grieve again as the waters rise again, drowning the the sandy banks that provided sanctuary for alligators and birds. The “Restore the Ocklawaha River” Facebook page shows sadness—some  discovered the Ocklawaha’s springs for the first time this year and now mourn the loss. Others wonder why some voices count more than others—why do the voices of the bass fisherman count more than the poor fisherman who cannot afford a boat and have lost access to much of the river? But there is hope as well. The Save the St. Johns Tour brought scores of newcomers to the Ocklawaha River and made many of us realize that we can regain what was lost.

As I paddled among the stumps, I recalled the river bends upstream near Eureka West and the times I swam in Cannon springs. The sky was darkening, and the wind was becoming stronger, so I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. I paddled through the dead trees — the water was slightly higher than when I paddled this area previously. I had to take care that hidden roots would not catch the fin on my board and pitch me forward. I wished I had seen the forests before 1968, when the Ocklawaha was first flooded.

I paddled hard against the wind and reached the boat ramp. As I deflated the board and packed up, I watched the fishermen pull up to the ramp, also trying to beat the storm. Just as I reached the main road, the storm broke, and lightning filled the sky. I was surprised that I had become so attached to the river in such a short time. I am sorry that the state of Florida insists on drowning the Ocklawaha River, but I am glad that I came to bear witness.

2016-03-17 10.56.36.jpg

 

There is No Magical Place Called Away

I am reposting the blog I wrote for Exxpedition, an all-women’s sailing and research team exploring solutions to marine plastics.

http://exxpedition.com/2016/02/26/there-is-no-magical-place-called-away/
After several days at sea, the crew of the Seadragon disembarked in Bridgetown, Barbados. Our sail from Trinidad was rough, and we were excited to stand on solid ground and to meet fellow environmentalists in Barbados. We had arranged two days of meetings with schools, universities, and Bajan environmental organizations to share concerns about marine plastics and their effects on marine and human health. Although eXXpedition is a sea-based mission, these face-to-face conversations, to me, became the most important and interesting part of our trip. After all, the plastics that litter the world’s oceans come from the land, so our solutions, too, must be land-based, and we need to work together across borders to save ourselves and our seas.
The Seadragon had reached Barbados two days earlier, our 72′ sailboat dwarfed by the cruise boats, tankers, and container ships anchored in the island’s small port area. Once unpacked, these ships disgorge the thousands of plastic bags, wrappers, and bottles that pass only briefly through human hands on their way to landfills and, worse, the sea. Marine scientists had presumed that these plastics amass into enormous plastic islands, floating in perpetuity in 5 separate oceanic gyres. However, more recent research suggests that these plastics disintegrate into micro particles that migrate back from the ocean into our bodies. For the two previous days, in between bouts of seasickness, the crew had trawled Bajan waters to find traces of these micro particles.

We anchored in Carlisle Bay, and our skipper Shanley ferried us by dinghy to the public dock near Independence Square. From there, our tight knit group split in two and headed in separate directions. One group met with primary and secondary schools and representatives from Marriott hotels, and my group made presentations at the University of West Indies at Cave Hill and Lockerbie College. That evening, we reconvened for a brainstorming session with the Future Centre Trust and representatives from local environmental groups.

 

Seadragon

 

We told stories about our successes and failures, our victories and frustrations. We commiserated about non responsive governments and friends who turn a blind eye to debris. In particular, we discussed the difficulties of creating a cultural shift, making reusable bags and cups the norm. One of our Bajan colleagues commented that “There is no magical place called away”–our plastics essentially last forever, in the oceans, on land, and now in our bodies. We shared strategies and successes in motivating our own communities to reduce their plastic use. Most important, we came together–Bajans, Americans, and Europeans-as peers to navigate towards a cleaner future.


Ocean toxicity is a wicked problem, meaning that the problem is complicated, with no single cause and no single solution. Some of the best responses will be local and grass-roots, emerging from the specific skills, cultures, and values of different communities. It is not a matter of telling people what to do. After long histories of colonialism and overbearing development agencies, it’s time to listen, strategize, and collaborate.

In addition to our meetings and presentations, we had scheduled beach clean-ups in both Trinidad and Barbados. At first, I wondered if these events weren’t just some feel good exercise, but instead these clean-ups gave us more time to talk in more depth with our hosts. On both islands, we literally got our hands dirty, picking up bags and bags of trash with gloved hands, and learned about the challenges specific to each island. In Trinidad, over 35 people came to the cleanup, having only 2 days notice, and we met people dedicated to sea turtles, trash, and clean water. In my own fieldwork, that’s when the best conversations come–working side by side, not in formal interviews.
This collective brainstorming reminds me of what Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as Gandhi’s third way–in a dialogue or conflict, listening to others, hearing their concerns, and working to address those concerns can produce answers better than any of the parties initially proposed. To move forward and solve this wicked problem, we need ideas and solutions from multiple religious and cultural viewpoints, disciplines, and professions.
We all own this problem now. The magical “away” is now our bodies, and everybody suffers as toxics leach into human and animal bodies. Although the burden falls even heavier on those with less access to clean water and health care, nobody can buy their way out of this problem. Women’s health, in particular, will be affected because these toxics are endocrine disrupters which means they disrupt hormones. Removing large plastics such as bottles is one thing, but removing disintegrated micro plastics seems a Sisyphean task.
The opportunity to work on a sailboat and collaborate with others drew me to join eXXpedition, but some of the most gratifying moments have been on land. We set sail tomorrow for St. Lucia where most of us will disembark and return home. The Seadragon will sail northward with a new crew, but I am confident that the bonds and friendships forged in our short time together will help us continue the work that brought us together.

Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs

riverand clouds3 copy.jpgI had started to wonder if Cannon Springs and the Okhlawaha River was going to be my holy grail. Starting in September and lasting until March 2016, the Rodman reservoir on the Okhlawaha River is drawn down, the river-lake levels lowered substantially. This draw down occurs every few years—to prevent fish kills and reduce the vegetation that obstructs the water—and exposes the natural flow of the river.  The lowered levels on the Okhlawaha River offer us a glimpse of the past and a future that could be—without the Rodman Dam. I was especially interested in seeing those springs like Cannon that reveal themselves only during these periodic drawdowns.cspring4 copy

My first attempts to get on the river resulted in a series of major errors—locking the keys in the car at the remote Kenwood boat ramp, battery-less GPS and camera, and less than complete information about boat ramps. (I am now my own case study in fieldwork errors for my Religion and Fieldwork class.) As more and more spectacular pictures adorned my facebook feed, I was even more determined to see—and swim in—Cannon springs.

Finally, I made it—twice in one week. Armed with the GPS coordinates, my husband Kevin and I found the elusive put-in across from Payne’s Landing. We turned down a sandy road, lined with ‘NO ATV’ signs, and bumped our way through the small Hog Valley community towards the river. We launched and pointed our boats upstream. The entrance to the Cannon Springs Run was approximately one mile south of Payne’s Landing, and the entrance had been described as ‘unmistakable’, a tree-lined clear passage. I was also hoping to find Tobacco Springs situated between Payne’s Landing and Cannon Springs.

The river at Payne’s Landing is broad with an expansive vista. Several fisherman sat on the east side of the river, where the draw down has exposed the beach. The day was overcast, but warm, a seemingly auspicious start to our journey.  Some parts of the shore had healthy trees that have survived the flooding, while other patches revealed the desolation of a dying landscape.

2016-01-26 12.20.26.jpg

Heading south, we heard shots which continued for about 15 minutes—target practice, we assumed, so we paddled on, but a bit unnerved. Soon after, the batteries in both the GPS and the camera failed. Three inauspicious signs, but we kept going. We settled into a rhythm against the slight downstream flow and saw woodstorks, ibis, egrets, and a variety of herons—and of, course, gators.

We paddled mostly in the center of the river, avoiding the vegetation near the banks where gators like to hide. Kevin paddled into the vegetation once and heard the unmistakable splash of a startled gator. After about half a mile, the wide river narrowed into a series of s-curves, and dark lines on the trees along the bank told us what has become the new normal for water levels— the flood stage caused by Rodman/Kirpatrick dam. lines copy.jpgFinally, we spotted what had to be the entrance to Cannon Springs. Everyone said that the entrance to the Cannon Spring Run is unmistakable—a tree-lined corridor, and they were right.

cannontunnel3.jpg

The water cleared quickly as we paddled up the short spring run. First we saw several vents that are part of the larger Cannon Spring system, then the blue spring itself.  The spring is relatively shallow so the vent is visible. I pulled out my mask and snorkel and dove into the clear water to see the vent. (Swimming in January is a major benefit of living in Florida.)

 

Seeing Cannon Springs once was not enough, so when I saw the Aquaholics trip down the Okhlawaha River scheduled for the following Saturday, I immediately signed up. I met the group at 9 am at Eureka West boat ramp, and after shuttling cars to Payne’s Landing, we floated downstream. Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, joined us in her kayak for the float and offered both historical and environmental perspectives on the river and its ecoheritage. She is also Vice President of the Putnam County Environmental Council and member of Florida Defenders of the Environment has been working to restore the Okhlawaha River to its free-flowing state, carrying on Marjorie Harris Carr’s environmental legacy. As we floated downstream, Karen pointed out historical features that I would have otherwise missed and also led us to the elusive Tobacco Springs.

We saw a number of milled logs, remnants of the days of logging the surrounding forests. She also pointed out the wooden remnants of a steamboat launch area. When steamboats travelled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests. Just a few wooden remnants are visible now. steamboatlaunch2.jpg

Then, finally, Tobacco Springs! Kevin and I had looked for it, but never found it. Not surprising – the spring run was clogged with water lettuce. Our group of intrepid kayakers (and my paddle-board) pushed our way through the vegetation until fallen trees blocked our path. We dragged our boats onto the bank and walked a several hundred feet through fairly dry muck. The spring was worth it – deep and not as clear as Cannon Springs, but full of fish. We peered down into the spring from the ruins of an old dock. None of us dared swim here, given the possibility of alligators in the cave below.

 

Just beyond Tobacco spring, we explored the ruins of the Strange house on land that is now part of the Florida Greenway. Dr. Strange built a house on the Okhlawaha River, complete with pool, patio, and river-front view. The family lost access to the land during construction of the never-completed Cross-Florida Barge canal. Tragically, Dr. Strange and his grandson were killed when their truck rolled into the river.strangedoor copy.jpg

 

I found my grail – Cannon Springs and Tobacco Springs, gifts from the current drawdown. I hope to get back out again soon. Karen said that the river has already risen, and starting on March 1, 2016, the reservoir will continue to fill, rendering these springs almost imperceptible. The exposed beaches will be submerged again, drowning nesting areas for birds and turtles. I’d like to paddle this section of the Okhlawaha River again, just to see what it is like when the water floods again, but I have a feeling that I will be disappointed. River withclopuds2.jpg

%d bloggers like this: