by Steve Ogle
While my kneecaps marinate in an inch of slush at the bottom of the canoe, I fixate on the waves frothing into one of the holes up near the bow. Like a kid who makes a silly face for too long and it stays that way, all I can do is grimace despondently – and keep on paddling. I am alone and generally miserable, on a lake in the middle of an island in the middle of the North Pacific. Big, fat flakes pelt me in the face, while the spiraling wind blows my failing vessel around in random chaos. Surely, at any moment the eye of the storm will pass overhead and allow me to reach the other shore in stillness.
But probably not. It's winter in Gwaii Haanas, and so far this cursed archipelago has offered nothing but grief at every possible juncture: Nelson dumping his kayak out in Cumshewa Inlet; sure-footed Pete nearly losing it at the waterfall; the lake rising eight feet overnight. Then, just when we think it's safe to go back in the water, this gale blows in and I get nominated as shuttle boy to get us across the lake. With fingers tucked into the palms of their gloves, I wipe the snow from my goggles and zig-zag onward, just able to make out the hunched-over apparition of Pete waiting on the far shore, holding a pair of skis.
Later that night we settle into wet sleeping bags at the base of a steep and distinctly snow-free ridgeline, notably less poised and motivated than at the planning stage of the trip. It's still pretty green and tangly out there, and the moss-penetration is just over our ski boots. My mattress has a hole in it and – oh joy – the lake is still rising a few feet away. Before all of this is over, I swear something good has to happen – even something as simple as remembering the actual objective of this preposterous expedition. As the night goes on, cold and stormy, I doze fitfully in and out of a disturbed consciousness, listening to the sound of snow falling on the tent, building up all around. When it gets deep enough, a strange silence sets in.
The location of this debacle was Gwaii Haanas National Park in the Queen Charlotte Islands (known more appropriately as Haida Gwaii). The next morning – day five of slogging at a rate of one mile per day we woke up to a foot of snow. With 3,000 feet still to climb to the nearest summit (so far, after crossing two inland lakes and a jungle, we'd gained only 150 feet above sea level), the worst, it seemed, was yet to come. The lake had frozen overnight but we managed to punch our way through with invigorated hopes of actually making some turns, and succeeded in crossing to a point of ascent. It was, of course, still storming as it had been since we arrived in Prince Rupert on the B.C. mainland more than a week earlier.
The reward was finally revealed on day seven as we were perched on a knife-edged ridge top during a raging blizzard: The sun came out! That long lost eye of the storm arrived for exactly one hour out of 12 days of slogging and misery and doubt. As luck would have it, at that penultimate moment we happened to be looking down over a huge snowy alpine bowl sandwiched neatly on both sides by the blue Pacific. Picking the aspect that wasn’t sheer cliff, we dropped in and thus became the first, and perhaps the only, soggy skiers who will ever lay tracks down in that part of the world. I even got face shots.