Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rowing in Time

I ranted on the beach, glared at the ocean and flipped it off New York style. As if in response, the resurging gale meshed with the crash of surf. God, my back hurts but at least I can forget about the constant tingling in my hands. How many ibuprofen’s will it take to reduce the swelling in my back and arms today? My hands are a mess, full of blisters and raw skin.

If I wasn’t ranting I would have noticed that the beach was beautiful, the dunes and tundra sloped gently down to the white sand. The dunes held hidden pools of water fresh enough to drink and not quite infested with mosquitoes this time of year. It was day 9 and I was behind schedule. Tomorrow, or rather in a few hours- there really wasn’t a tomorrow just constant daylight in the land of the midnight sun- I had to cross 40 miles of open arctic ocean. Tomorrow was Nora’s first day of her stem cell transplant.

Nora has leukemia, her dad died of leukemia and her husband’s nephew died of leukemia. It was a Shakespearean tragedy, only Nora was a friend in real life. I couldn’t stand it. Nora was recently married and about to graduate from medical school residency when she was diagnosed. She not only overcame enormous challenges growing up in rural Alaska but she has something about her, deep down that extends only goodness, a rare trait these days. The need to do “something” was simply overwhelming. That’s how I found myself alone on Cape Espenberg kayaking… well not exactly kayaking rather sculling a modified kayak, a 1,000 miles to Barrow. Nora wanted me to raise money and awareness for leukemia.

I had to make camp. The tent first and everything else second, the wind wouldn’t allow it any other way. Heavy rocks on the inside kept the tent anchored to the sand, I couldn’t remember when it wasn’t like this. My nerves were so frayed. I needed to calm down and sleep for a few hours but couldn’t. I stared at the canary yellow ceiling inches from my face and tried to tune out the amplified roar of the wind. The forecast was dismal but I had to cross before I lost my nerve completely. There was only one thing that would relax me: fire. Not in a weird pyromaniac sense but a campfire. I gathered the sticks and laid them out, smallest to largest, and built a protective log cabin-style perimeter. I used a little white gas on the kindling and gave a little chuckle. The fire roared to life and I sat back to make sure I had enough wood to last the wind before throwing it all on. I crawled in my tent. The spit and crackle of fire soothed me to sleep.


My older brother was 14 and our dad dropped us off 20 miles upriver from the cabin, on a remote part of the upper Delaware River in Pennsylvania. The same river George Washington crossed in the middle of the night 200 years ago 40 miles away. The aluminum canoe we had, dad’s canoe, was light and short. Too light to have my older brother up front and I was too skinny to keep the back from lifting up, though I could read a river better. The large dent in the front, a reminder from the time my brother and I flipped through a waterfall shoot on the same river. At the end of August the river was slow and lazy, sometimes between bends it looked more like a pond. No worries about flipping.

We were exploring a remote part of the river for the first time and paddling hard to compete with each other. Each time we scraped bottom it was me who got out and dragged the boat. It was always like that, my brother sitting back, me doing the grunt work. I didn’t mind. Well maybe a little, it’s just the how older brothers are.

The left river bank had beautiful prairie green pastures full of buzzing insects, it reminded me of the buzz in downtown Manhattan, but only if you didn’t think too much. The right bank had steep hills, rocky outcroppings and dark ominous trees. This side of the river was deeper and flowed faster, had cooler shade. It was where I directed the boat most of the time. The sun was scorching as the afternoon drew on and then turned kind of orange. A dark lined cloud moved in front of the sun. “That’s weird.” I thought.

My brother and I were no strangers to the outdoors or poor weather. The family vacations were three week camping trips in the Adirondacks before we could even walk. Fishing, hiking, canoeing and my favorite- campfires- we looked forward to during life in the Long Island suburbs. Our family had a fireplace, woodstove and built campfires throughout the year but mostly on vacations. This is what made a home feel complete and I gather it also reminded me of, well, vacation. We were always competing with each other to see who could start a fire with just one match. No one was allowed to use paper or gas or God-forbid, starting fluid. The warmth of a fire gave us a hypnotic sense of strength and security. To this day in the most remote reaches of wilderness I build a fire to take the chill off or keep my wild cognitive animals at bay. I can fall asleep to the crackle of a fire and just know I’ll be ok.

Crack! The lightning bolt shot down so suddenly the insects must have fried on the spot. We both were in the river treading water, watching our paddles and boat float downstream. What the hell just happened? It must have been some ancient panic reflex that caused us to both jump out of our skin into the water. We gave a puzzled look at each other floating in the water. Water was normally like a second skin; after all, I was on the swim team and practically lived in the ocean all summer long. But for the first time the darkness of water was claustrophobic I wanted to get out in a panic as if Freddy Kruger were looming behind me or maybe “Jaws” lurked underneath. I thought I would fry crispy in the next instant. I started swimming to shore when I heard my brother yell, “Get the fucking boat”. In NY “fuck” seemed (and seems) to be an adjective that must accompany each noun. I didn’t want to get the fucking boat, I just wanted to get out of the fucking water, away from the lightening that was ready to turn my insides to jelly. Dad’s Arnold Schwarzenegger voice ran through my head in his always authoritative, Swiss accent, “Philip you get away from the water, throw all your metal and lay down in an open field.” This is something he apparently learned in the Swiss military and he acted like it was some secret Swiss maneuver. In the water the metal boat obscured my swimming strokes to a one armed panic kick to reach shore. Eventually I was able to stand up in the water, haul the boat up the ominous bank dense with trees, my brother standing back as the big brother already waiting. I saw him stare at the river and we both saw my paddle float past us. “Get the fucking paddle” he told me. I shook my head. “Get the fucking paddle”, he said again. Against every instinct I went back in the water, mainly because I knew if I didn’t I would be the only one paddling back.

The lightning strikes were increasing and the booms so intense I thought my ongoing panic would line up the ions in my body for the next strike. Two, three, four strikes at one time all around. Then the rain hit like little concrete teardrops. The wind slammed in with the same startle reflex you get sitting on a train and another one passes in the other direction. I started arguing with my brother, “Dad always told us to go to a large field and lay down!”. “No stupid, look at all the trees, the chances of getting hit are much smaller here”. I pointed over to the other bank where the insects were frying in the lightening and insisted, “but we should go over there and lay down….” It dawned on me that maybe dad was wrong.

We were both shivering uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe 15 minutes ago we were too hot. I looked around the dense trees and saw the lower branches of pine were dry. I immediately started gathering the dry kindling wood as if on autopilot. I laid the wood out from smallest to largest, eliminating the ones that wouldn’t take easily to a match. I had two strike-anywhere matches in my knife handle. After rubbing the kindling in my hands I placed it under some protection and covered it with branches log-cabin style. The kindling was protected while the outer layer got wet. I took one match struck it and placed it under the kindling. A little help from the wind and the fire was instant. My brother was watching me, standing back as usual, but instead of a appearing critical he seemed hopeful that I could start one in this weather. He stopped rubbing his hands and looked a little amazed. We both huddled around it. “I would’ve listened to dad…” My brother looked up, “He’s full of shit sometimes, ya know.” We began laughing about the panic we had and even though the storm lasted another 47 minutes, by my watch, once the fire was made we already felt safe. After the sun came out, we finished the last 15 miles of the river to our parents cabin. They wondered what took us so long.


My back was in excruciating pain. The neural impulses screamed at me to stop, eventually they gave up and went numb. I looked at my hands and willed them to keep their grip. My gloves were in tatters. It was lucky I couldn’t feel. There was ocean all around, no land as far as I could see. The last piece must have slipped silently away from sight as I was tending to my pain. Each stroke brought me closer to the other side but also to a deeper ocean, the swells were mature out here; sinking-stomach big with a foamy cappuccino top of ocean spray that blew in my face. Except it was salty and those annoying awkward broadside waves disrupted my rhythm always turning the narrow kayak or push me sideways. Sometimes at the bottom of a wave it was quiet and calm, but that only lasted a second before I was thrown to the top and I struggled to keep the boat straight as the waves broke and soaked me. My mind and body stripped and raw, I could only scream. The image of Lt. Dan on the fishing boat in Forrest Gump flashed repeatedly in my mind. I couldn’t rest or take my hands off the oars-- then the waves and wind would push me back. The ocean didn’t really care. It could swallow me and I could hit it, spit in it and curse but it still wouldn’t care. I know I tried.

The sound of the sliding seat was hypnotic - like staring into the fire. The ocean felt a cliché deep, dark, cold, ominous and definitely turbulent but it was the absence of the swooping seagulls and head popping seals that was the real darkness. The past nine days along the coast were trying times but I didn’t realize I found solace in those critters. Today I found solace by staring at the tiny GPS screen mounted in front. This helped keep my body grounded and from experiencing the vastness of the landless cold ocean and also kept my vision fixated from becoming seasick. The hours crept by. Eight. There was nothing to think about. Just keep going. Nine. No reflection, no fear, no happiness. Just keep going. Ten. Then I saw it. Land, Cape Blossom. I laughed and cried but without tears. Maybe it would be ok but there was no resurgence of energy- I was numb. The wind didn’t rejoice it kept sweeping me away from the cape wanting to push me into the wide open Chukchi Sea. I allowed one thought. When I get on solid ground I will understand what it’s like to kiss my first rock. Then I can make a fire. The sound of the crackle is all I need. Eleven. I surfed battered and dog tired into the rocks of Cape Blossom, before I thought about Nora.

It was her first day of the stem cell transplant process and in some ways a symbolic beginning, mine and hers. Our journey’s fraught with unknown struggle, emotion, determination and strength. Nora couldn’t decide to take a break from her leukemia and neither would I. Those thoughts jumbled and raced through my mind. I had pulled a sleeping bag out of the hatch lay on it and passed out without a fire on the shores of the cape. Three hours passed before I woke to the sound of the ocean. The sound that new age alarm clocks portray to gently wake us up to go to work. Except the sound did not soothe me and by this journey’s end 1,608 hours of it were seared in my brain. Groggy and on unsteady feet I managed to make the next ten miles to Kotzebue, where Karl wondered what took me so long.

(hands after 12 days)

(hands after 40 days)