Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Five days, four nights, three campsites and one boat built for two

Our first big adventure of 2015 was a kayak camping trip in Marlborough Sound. We rented a tandem yellow kayak and packed it with our tent, sleeping bags, camp kitchen, a mess of clothes and plenty of food, water and wine. Then we gently shoved off into the ocean at Picton, a port town on the northeast side of New Zealand's South Island.

The Marlborough Sound looks a lot like the Puget Sound, or at least the San Juan Islands. The water is pretty blue surrounded by peninsulas and islands made of rolling forested hills. The first difference I noticed was that the water is much warmer. On our first day, we didn't set off until after noon and the wind was picking up. Often the wake from other boats would wash over the front of our kayak, splashing me in the face. I was relieved that the water was not frigid, but rather lukewarm. At times we paddled through gusts of wind so fierce that I had to squeeze my eyes shut, turn my face away from the wind and clutch my paddle tightly so as not to let it blow away... all the while trying to keep us moving forward. Luckily, Josh was in fairer conditions in the back seat of the boat where he could steer and power us along despite my lack of assistance. When we arrived at camp, I was completely drenched and floating in a 6-inch puddle of salt water.

The second day was an easier paddle. We got on the placid water before 9am and most of our journey was flat and mellow. We saw a few good swells, but no more than two feet in height and I stayed blessedly dry beneath my splash jacket and neoprene spray skirt. Before noon we had settled into our campsite for the night on a small island with another couple of kayakers. We swapped recommendations for adventuring in New Zealand over lunch and I took a nap while Josh explored the island.

The beach on Blumine Island and our kayak overflowing with camping gear.

Encountering wildlife while camping is not a big deal in New Zealand. There are no bears, mountain lions or snakes here. Just a few possums, songbirds and the highly prevalent Weka, which looks like a brown spotted chicken. Weka are flightless birds that are curious and utterly unafraid of people. We'd encountered them before and knew the Weka liked sparkly things and had a reputation for stealing shoes and other smallish things there could carry off into the woods. So, like good campers, we tucked all our stuff into the boat hatches at night and kept a clean camp. Our kayaking mates, however, weren't accustomed to Weka and had to chase down their shoes in the morning which had been squirreled away in the bush by some mischievous Weka.

And so our adventure went, mostly peacefully and amidst a beautiful backdrop of green hills, aquamarine water, lapping waves and sea birds. We had one blustery day and so spent two nights on the lovely Blumine Island with the other American couple as our only company. Fortunately we liked them quite a bit and hope to kayak-camp with them someday back home.

As for wildlife, we mostly saw Weka. We also spotted a solitary Hector's dolphin, the world's smallest dolphin with its distinctive rounded dorsal fin. That same day, paddling to our final camping destination, we watched a fur seal sunbathing on a rock and floated atop a cloud of jellyfish. Yes, it was literally a cloud of jellyfish so dense that they made the water look light blue from a distance. The jellyfish were magical, something I was wholly unprepared for as jellyfish have always been a frightening sight for me. But safely encapsulated in our yellow boat, the hordes of jellyfish inspired only curiousity and awe. They are graceful little beasts.

Water thick with jellyfish as seen from the safety of our yellow kayak.

Our last night's camping was full of life... human life. A large family was camped there and I have to say it wasn't my ideal wilderness camping experience. Still we made the best of it and Josh found us a delightful little clearing to pitch our tent with a view of the ocean through the trees.

Josh is an expert tent site finder, as evidenced by this lovely view from our tent (in the shadows bottom left).

That night, Josh spied our first of many possums. They are an introduced species here, like all the land mammals, and they were imported from Australia for their lovely fur. Now they are considered a pest animal and efforts are underway to eradicate them.

NZ possums have fluffy tails and pointy ears, more like a raccoon than an American opossum, so they are actually cute rather than creepy.

Our last day on the water was a short one, with us arriving back in Picton before lunch. There we rounded up our gear, all 150+ lbs of it, took quick cold showers and then hopped an early ferry to the North Island.

Lovely views from the ferry as we exited Marlborough Sound and entered the Tasman Sea enroute to NZ's North Island.







Monday, January 12, 2015

A Seattlite rediscovers coffee

It may be an oversimplification to say that Seattlites love their coffee, but it is true. I never liked coffee until I lived in Seattle. In fact, I hated it. My first sip of coffee came as a young girl. It was a cold and rainy day and I was playing goalie in an Under-8s soccer match. As I stood guarding the goal, I was freezing prompting me to ask for mom for a sip of her coffee. She obliged and it was the most disgusting and bitter thing I had ever put in my mouth. That was the end of me and coffee for more than two decades.

In college in San Luis Obispo, I worked in a coffee shop on campus. There were three positions in the cafe: cashier, barista and ice cream duty. After a couple days, I was banned from the barista job. I didn't know a drip from a mocha and I was constantly burning myself on the steamer. I did, however, get strong muscles from scooping ice cream and I loved handling the money end of the operation. Luckily I also delighted in free pastries and the Turkish Coffee ice cream, so the job still had its perks for me.

A few years after moving to Seattle, I found myself working for the Mayor in City Hall. That's where I got hooked on coffee, specifically iced mochas. Every morning before work, I would stop by Noah's bagels to pickup a pizza bagel and then stand in the queue with half of the city's staff at City Grind to get my iced mocha. (This was before I learned I was allergic to both gluten and dairy.) That job was one of my favorites and I definitely developed a soft spot for City Grind's coffee which stuck with me well beyond my days at City Hall.

Fast forward to present day (well, actually a few days ago but let's pretend) and I am standing in a cafe in the smallish town of Otaki on New Zealand's North Island. It is hot out and I am tired. I need an iced coffee. As luck will have it, it's on the blackboard menu. I order one with soy milk and Josh picks out a gluten-free brownie from the case that's large enough for us to share. I think everything is going my way, but what I don't realize is that while New Zealanders speak English, some things are still lost in translation.

Iced coffee in New Zealand is not coffee over ice. Instead it is a shot of espresso lost amid a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cup full of milk topped with whip cream. It's the whip cream that tips me off to the miscommunication. As the girl hands me my paper cup overflowing with whip cream I dumbly ask, "is that dairy-free whip cream?"

She looks at me like I'm an idiot. "No, it is regular whip cream. You asked for soy milk; I didn't know you didn't want dairy," she tells me perplexed.

I am confused. In Seattle if you ask for soy milk, no one tries to give you whipped cream. They understand that you don't want any cow milk products in your coffee. She asks if I want her to remake it, but Josh offers to eat the whipped cream off the top so we think I'll still be good to go.

As Josh is eating the whipped cream off my iced coffee, he uncovers something that seems to be solid in my iced coffee and it's not ice. It's vanilla iced cream. I am flabbergasted. What is ice cream doing in my iced coffee?! I don't believe what I'm seeing. I take my to-go cup back into the cafe and wait calmly in line for my turn to ask the girl behind the counter what exactly is in my iced coffee.

Clearly, New Zealand and Seattle do not speak the same English. I return the coffee shake to Josh and sit down defeated. He convinces me to go back in and ask for what I want. When I do, the girl tells me they don't have ice and so cannot just pour some espresso over ice. And it is times like this that I really miss Seattle where an iced coffee is just that: ice and coffee.

P.S. I do eventually get my iced coffee later that day in Whanganui at a small cafe. I ask for "long black over ice." Long black is New Zealand code for a double shot of espresso topped off with water, better known back home as an Americano. Out of curiousity, I ask this barista about the "iced coffee" on their menu. It also is made with ice cream, further proof that New Zealand and Seattle are very far apart.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Milford Sound

The mountains of Milford Sound rise up jagged and craggy from deep blue-green waters. White wispy low clouds envelope the mountains' bare mid-drifts. As the clouds clear, we spot countless waterfalls ripping down from snow-capped peaks, carving gorges in the steep slopes of granite.

The mountains surrounding our boat are forested in swaths. The naturalist aboard explains that the barren rock faces were formerly forested. He also defines the difference between a Sound and a Fiord for us. A Sound is an ocean inlet carved by a river. A fiord is an ocean inlet carved by a glacier and thus the remaining hillsides tend to be steeper. Milford Sound is really a fiord, we learned, but it was misnamed by a sailor who didn't know the difference and the name stuck.

The other special thing about Milford Sound is that you can drive to it. In 1954 the 1.2 km Homer Tunnel opened, enabling tourists to drive straight through the mountain range dividing the fiordlands from the interior of New Zealand. There is only one such tunnel in the fiordlands, making Milford Sound a one-of-a-kind destination. And the journey to it isn't so bad either.

The two-hour drive from Te Anau follows a valley flanked by snow-capped mountains and divided by a river the color of turquoise sea glass.

The valley bottoms host swathes of pink and purple lupin this time of year, as well as swarms of biting sand flies.

We camped two nights in the valley beyond Milford Sound and were plagued by incessant attacks from sand flies. I covered myself literally from head to toe, sporting a ridiculous assemblage of clothing that included a mosquito head net and my jeans tucked into hiking socks. And still I emerged with plenty of incredibly itchy bites. I'd like to say that I resisted the urge to scratch, but anyone who knows me wouldn't believe that lie. In truth, I was covered with red welts seeping with pus and insect venom.

Fact: sand flies inject an anticoagulant into people so they can suck as much blood as possible. Also, only females sand flies dine on humans; the male flies content themselves with vegetable-based protein.

Still, we loved Milford Sound and were very pleased to have ventured out there.








Thursday, January 1, 2015


Courage is a strange word, one often foisted on others in recognition of some difficult feat they accomplished or challenge they overcame. Rarely does it seem to be someone's explicit intent. That is, most people don't set out to be courageous. I certainly don't. And yet people keep telling me that my actions are courageous. Like it is courageous to fly my paraglider again after breaking both of my feet and being hospitalized in three countries from a single flight-gone-awry.

But I'm not sure courage is the appropriate word for my behavior. Perhaps idiotic is a better description. Or maybe just stubborn. In truth, getting myself back into flying post-accident has been a long journey and one that isn't remotely over yet, and courage doesn't seem to have much to do with it.

The first three months after my accident, I wasn't allowed to even stand on my right foot, much less walk or run on it. I hobbled around, sometimes using a wheelchair, other times being literally carried by other people, mostly my husband. I drove other pilots to the top of the mountain, watched them launch, then drove down. Sometimes I even picked them up when they'd flown to far off places.

Nearly five months after my accident, I flew tandem with a good friend who'd been there the day I crashed. We flew over the mountains of Pemberton going cross-country in a place I'd always wanted to fly. And while I couldn't fly solo yet I was ecstatic to be aloft again, soaring in the sky with the birds and taking in the otherwise hidden views of alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks. When it came time to land, we opted to slide in on our butts, protecting my still-healing bones.

Seven months after my accident, I was cleared to fly again and we were in Bali. I intended to take my first solo flight there but the sites didn't look easy enough for me. I was afraid of top-landing, a feat I'd only tried once before, and the beach landing options were dismal. Instead I kited my glider, scooping up heaps of sand in its delicate cells. I was delighted to feel comfortable kiting my glider, muscle memory served me well although I clearly needed more practice.

Eight months after my accident, we landed in New Zealand. I knew this would be the place I would take my first solo flight... I just didn't anticipate how long it take for that opportunity to present itself. You see, I ended up in the hospital again, just days after arriving in the country. The MRSA staph infection in my right heel which I acquired during my surgery in California randomly returned. I had to have a second surgery to remove one of my eight screws and to clean out the infection. Then I was incapacitated with an IV port in my arm and a hole in my foot which precluded paragliding, or even kayaking or camping. Two weeks later, I was set free with a gnarly scab and a huge bottle of antibiotics.

After a trip to Nepal where I took a second tandem flight with another friend, again purposefully landing on our butts, I'm now back in New Zealand. It has been more than nine months since my accident. For the first week, we ran from the rain which dogged the flying sites and then we backpacked in the mountains before finally cruising the famed Milford Sound. We arrived in Queenstown to high winds and rain, so it wasn't until New Years Day that I was finally able to take my first solo flight there.

I was terrified, but determined to get aloft again. That morning I visualized a solid launch, smooth flying and a nice landing, over and over and over again. On launch, I went through my familiar pre-flight checklist and setup procedure. Josh hovered over me, wanting to help but understanding that I needed to do it all on my own. When it was my turn to launch, I took a bunch of deep breaths. I was nervous. I took more deep breaths. I checked the wind. I checked it some more. And finally I seized the moment and pulled my glider into the air.

I'd like to say it was a perfect launch, but that would be a lie. However, it was a safe launch. Josh agrees, noting that it didn't cause him to hold his breath. But I am rusty, for sure. The air was thermic, it was mid-day and I found lift easily. But I choose to fly straight through it. I headed towards the landing zone, staying close to the ridgeline to preserve my altitude. I felt a like a newbie again, heeding my instructor's guidance to make sure I had an easy glide to the LZ before trying to extend my flight.

I wanted to land immediately but I wouldn't let myself. I knew I needed time in the air to try to get comfortable again. I shook out my shoulders and legs several times. I flew lazy 360s in good lift and got high above the ridge. I flew out of the lift and just wandered around and tried to enjoy the view. Then I took another thermal into the sky. Eventually I got bored and less scared so I flew down the ridge towards Arrowtown. I watched my instrument the whole way, making sure I wasn't getting below ridge height and then turned around to head back towards the LZ. I even used my speed bar a few times just to prove I could still do it.

After nearly thirty minutes I was done. I felt I had flown long enough, practiced enough skills and had just enough tenacity left to safely land my glider. It seemed like forever to get down. The air was buoyant and I eventually found some sink and turned in it. A friend of a friend guided me into the LZ on radio. It was so nice to have a soft, confident voice on my shoulder telling me that I was at a good height to turn and walking me through each step of the landing as my mind played its own tape.

The last ten feet were the hardest for me. When my glider came in fast along the ground, like it should, I tensed up. I wanted to pull my brakes, to slow the glider, but I knew that I should not. I resisted the temptation and let it fly. When I finally buried the brakes, flaring my wing, I felt fear. I was certain that terrible pain would shoot through my feet when they touched down, but it did not. My landing was soft and smooth. I easily ran it out and set my glider down gently. My feet were fine.

I had succeeded in flying solo again. You might expect that I would have whooped with joy. One of the other pilots there certainly looked pleased at my performance. But I felt numb and scared and jittery. I didn't love it. In fact, the last 35 minutes had been terrible. No fun at all for me. But I did it anyway. I needed to.

And so it is that I deny all claims to me having courage. I have fear, persistence, gratitude, and willfulness. But I do not have anything like the bliss of courage.