Alive and Stronger
I have a story to share with you.
It is a story about the power of nature to shape your character.
It is a story about how being able to STOP . BREATHE . RELAX . LISTEN can make all the difference in any given moment.
It is a story about hope, humility and focusing on the things that really matter in life.
After completing my paddle on the coast of Washington State and stopping in Portland to talk with several groups about my W.I.L.D. campaign, it was time to continue my journey to San Francisco.
In the days prior to my departure, I was keeping track of the weather. The forecast now was the same for the week ahead … strong southerly winds would blow 15 to 25 knots, rain would be consistent and the swell from the West would increase as the week went by. The weather system was due to calm down beginning the next weekend.
I had my waypoints marked down and even though I had many challenging paddling days ahead, I was excited to get back on the water. In my head, the song “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger was already playing on repeat.
My departure time from Astoria was set by the tide. I didn’t want to fight the tide coming in and leaving with the ebb tide meant that I would get a double push – the river and the tide. So at noon, slack time, I left the marina.
The conditions were much different than when I paddled in the Columbia River several days ago. I was now doing 6 knots in speed and to my right there were big breakers stretching for miles. The Columbia Bar was living up to its reputation.
Keeping my distance, I rounded the danger zone and passed the South Jetty. My plan was to tuck in right after. The jetty would offer that protected path I needed to land on the beach. But the swell was coming dead on and pounding my landing spot full force. I had two choices: to go back into the Columbia River against the current, avoiding all the breakers and finding my way to the shore or to keep going.
Seaside was 17 miles away. There was a little spot that offered a possible landing; then after that, about 6 miles from there, around Tillamook Head, was Indian Beach. It was a protected cove that, after looking at the marine and aerial maps, offered a safe stop. In the worst-case scenario, I would most likely be landing in the dark, but with the current conditions, a West swell, the cove would be fairly flat … or so I thought. I decided to go forward and paddle.
It was a hot day. There was not a cloud in the sky. The sea was almost metallic due to the absence of wind. Sooty Shearwaters flew all around me, gliding over the water with ease, the tip of their wings just slightly touching the surface. These birds have truly evolved to become a perfect oceanic flying creature.
It was 7pm when I reached Seaside. The swell was still pounding the shore with massive surf and now my chances of landing before sunset were disappearing. I looked for an opening somewhere – anywhere. I saw one. Not too far, there was a place where the surf seemed to be dying down. After timing the sets, I started paddling in. And then at the last minute, just before reaching the point of no return, three massive waves appeared, breaking just 10 feet ahead of me. I looked at the clouds of white seawater rising up into the sky, the roaring of the waves crashing and suddenly it became clear to me that there was no way my feet would be touching sand this evening. The sun had disappeared over the horizon and in about an hour it would be totally dark.
￼My next waypoint, Indian Beach, around the Tillamook Head, was about two hours away. I reached behind and opened my day hatch to get my headlamp out. The thought of spending the night on the water was starting to be a reality. It was the last thing I wanted to do but my chances of finding my way into a sleeping bag were fading.
With still no clouds, the sky was filled with stars. The Milky Way was intense and imposing. A shooting star crossed the sky. And then another. The bioluminescence was showing strong. The kayak left stark glowing white trails on the black surface. My paddle cut through the water and created explosions of glitter. Every time a drop of water fell on the kayak, it scintillated. I wonder for a second if I really wanted to get to shore. If I was to spend the night on the ocean, these were the be the dreamiest, prefect conditions. This could actually turn out to be one incredible night!
I checked my phone and I looked at my location. The cove was only a mile away now. I would be there around 9pm. The weather forecast had predicted 20 knots winds but up until then they seemed nowhere to be found.
As I approached the area and shortly after dreaming of a nice night landing, staying up late doing photography of this magical bioluminescent evening, I passed the point and found myself battling the expected headwinds.
One more check on the map and my safety zone was supposed to be right ahead. But the only thing I saw and heard were the glowing whitecaps of thunderous surf. How could this be? The swell was coming from the west and the sheltered bay entrance faced south. How was it that the swell was now heading straight into the cove? Aside from this waypoint, there was nothing around for at least 20 miles that could offer relief. I remembered from the map that there was a path into the cove, but it was dark. I couldn’t see anything but the crash of waves. I looked at the map again and oriented myself. There was a series of rocks ahead that should offer protection. So I went for it.
Just a minute into my push, I heard this massive roar behind me and within seconds, I was upside down being pummeled from all directions. Suddenly, my paddle snapped in two. I come back up in time to take a breath before another one came over. I capsized again and this time I couldn’t roll back. The beating and the broken paddle left me no choice but to wet exit.
Lucky to have a break, I managed to get back in, grabbed the spare paddle from my stern, tucked the skirt over the now-filled-with-water cockpit and pushed my way forward as hard as I could. Now more than ever, I knew I would have to spend the night on the water and the under the Milky Way, but by at this point the stars and glowing oceans were the last things on my mind.
Out of the surf zone, I pumped the water out and assessed the situation. I had been paddling for 10 hours, covering about 38 miles. I was tired and my hands hurt. Despite the drysuit, the cold from that unfortunate dip into the Pacific waters was seeping into my body. I had to keep moving. I had to keep my muscles, my body producing energy and heat. I hadn’t had dinner – besides the food I had consumed during the day. I had an emergency ration of jerky and bars but in these conditions I could hardly stop to eat. So I pushed forward. I looked ahead and the irony of the situation hit me. Lights of Cannon Beach were almost within grasp, perhaps no more than half a mile. I pictured the people in their houses, watching television, enjoying a glass a wine, and kissing their children goodnight. And here I was, in a totally different world where my life, my existence was on the verge of being questioned. How could this be? Within such close proximity to be finding such extreme different realities?
I had no choice but to keep paddling. Even if I was barely making progress, the options were simply not there for me. How would I make through the night? I didn’t know and I couldn’t stop to think about it. My only way to survival was to take one minute at a time, find comfort in that minute passed and focus on passing the next.
And then my worst fear happened. I started to shiver.
I know my body. I have always been pretty tolerant of the cold. I grew up in Quebec with winters in the minus 20’s. But the moment that my body shivers, it is only a question of minutes before I start to tremble and loose control of my shaking muscles. The option of spending the night on the ocean was no more viable. There was no way I could stay in this kayak for another 7 hours and not go into hypothermia.
There are risks you can afford if you are with other people. But when alone, the last place you want to find yourself is in a cornered place with no exit, no possible call for help. I did have my SOS button, a cell phone and a VHF as a lifeline but I felt I I hadn’t yet played all my cards.
Looking over to my left, I noticed a campfire on the beach and was surprised to see how close I was to it, perhaps just 40 yards. Despite the light of the houses further away, I was really not that far from land. Still, between the beach and myself was a wall of crashing waves. Between my current predicament and the safety of landing was a world of horrible possibilities, each with the power of turning my situation to the worst. There was no way for these people to see or hear me. And even if they had, there was nothing they could do. For me, there was little I could do but start looking into confronting the surf.
My eyes focused on the silhouette made by the water line, trying to figure out the rhythm of the sets. To be honest there was not much to decipher in the dark. I took a deep breath and relaxed for a second. I closed my eyes and asked the ocean to keep an eye on me. I started paddling toward the surf. A wave crashed. I stopped. I hesitated. I went again. And like a “deja vu”, I heard the roaring mounting behind me, like a giant monster rising from the depths and about to engulf me with one bite. Grasping for the impact I filled my lungs with as much air as I could.
The weight of the Pacific landed on my back with such tremendous force that I felt the kayak breaking in two. It was not like trying to rip a piece of fiberglass apart. The kayak literally snapped in two halves like a dry twig. The ring of the cockpit was broken but my skirt was still around it. I was in the water being ravaged by the surf, tied to the waist with a piece of the kayak on each side of me.
All this time I was thinking I had to get out of there as soon as possible. I didn’t like the idea of finding myself in between two loose 8-feet long pieces of broken fiberglass tubes filled with gear. It wouldn’t take much for them to crush my ribs and cut my waist. I tried to pull on the handle of the skirt but it was not working. I was simply pulling the loose cockpit ring toward me. Still, wiggling it non-stop I finally managed to get it off.
Free from the kayak’s entrails, I swam around it. The kayak was still held together by some rope and some stripes. My last paddle was now gone. Putting myself in-between the in-coming surf and the boat, I started swimming and pushing one of kayak pieces forward. You never want to find yourself with a kayak, or a board, behind you in the surf! There has been too many accidents where people were knocked unconscious by flying objects. Every wave pushed me and the kayak closer to the beach. About 15 minutes later, I felt the sand under my feet.
I got up and grabbed the bow handle in one hand and the stern handle in the other and started pulling the wreck as far up passed the tide line as I could before collapsing. I opened the back hatch, pulled out the bivy and sleeping bag. Slipped out of the drysuit and into my sleeping quarters.
It was midnight. I didn’t care for food or anything else. My hands were bloody with cuts all over. All I wanted was to lay still and warm myself up. I was safe, in one piece and that was the most important thing at that moment.. Nature had reminded me of the fickleness of life and how little control we have over it.
Over the last 5 hours I had experienced sheer beauty, joy, happiness, deception, pain, frustration, and had faced the indifference of a world that was bigger than me. Laying on the sand next to my wrecked kayak, I was not angry nor was I afraid. I was simply grateful to be alive. As I pulled the zipper up leaving blood marks on the fabric, I thanked the ocean for its protection, closed my eyes and went to sleep.
These experiences, as unfortunate as they may seem, are defining moments in your life. They form your character and change your perception of the world around you forever. My crash happened on Sunday the 21st at midnight, exactly one month to the day after I departed from Victoria. I can’t help but smile at the fact this paddle was for my W.I.L.D. Campaign raising money to send under-privileged youth to a “month” long immersion wilderness camp.
Life is not about avoiding the crashes but rather finding ways to get back up and transform these seemingly negative events into positive, productive experiences.
These are the discovery and leadership lessons nature provides us when we open ourselves to the experience.
Although this 1,000-mile paddle to San Francisco has come to an unexpected, abrupt end, the W.I.L.D. campaign is far from over; my commitment to the campaign is stronger than ever.
More to come on that in the following weeks.