Epilogue

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I was in the middle of my packing marathon when I peered into my dad’s office. An impossibly underweight suitcase lay by the door with his plane outfit, wallet, and passport piled neatly on top.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Sweat dripped from my forehead as I removed a pair of socks to lighten my load.  Now how does a low maintenance dad prepare for a 3-week long trip to the end of the world? By bringing a bindle stick, that’s how.

I was out of my league. How would I get everything to fit? The trauma gauze for my pulverized thumb – my libertine polygamist memoir – my bath loofa – my penguin paraphernalia. It was all…So…Necessary.

Hours later, I decided no more could be done and acknowledged my role as over-packer. A responsible over-packer. I remembered laundry soap.

Before I knew it, we were off to Buenos Aires. For the next few weeks, we would be sailing the notorious seas of the South Atlantic, falling asleep during afternoon birding lectures, growing an affinity for Guinness on tap, waddling alongside penguins, and hiking the grand landscapes of the Falklands and South Georgia. But for now, we were just tourists with airplane insomnia who got lucky with a hard-earned complimentary expedition via Lindblad.

It seems impossible and daunting to summarize such a grandiose trip, so I will instead leave you with photos and a few memorable scenes to give a taste of our journey to the end of the world and back.

Buenos Aires Under Cough Attack:

Dad’s running into the smoke and darkness to get footage, and I can barely see him amidst the rowdy crowd of Women’s Day protesters throwing sparklers past the police barricade. Someone has set a fire in front of the church and I’m wading through the crowd to bring my free-spirited dad back to the comfort of dulce de leche ice cream in our swanky hotel. It has been determined that Dad is more adventuresome than I.

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Sprayed by Dolphin:

After our first stop on Steeple Jason, a hard-to-reach island in Northwest Falklands that is replete with Gentoo’s, black-browed albatross napping contentedly on their muddy thrones, and dive-bombing caracaras, our zodiac heads back to the ship. All of a sudden, Peale dolphins surround the zodiac and dance in the waves at the bow. All of us are soaked as our driver cranks the engine in a paltry attempt to race them.

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Tea Time:

After a 3-hour hike up the steep hills of Carcass Island, Dad and I finally descend to the only settlement on the island and remove our muddy boots for an afternoon tea. With mismatched mugs and an extravagant assortment of jam-filled cookies, butter biscuits, chocolate frosted cakes, bite-sized meringues, and cordial cherry truffles, we sink into our chairs and bask in the English tea’s comforting steam.

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We’re Surrounded by Krill!:

A mere 3 hours from South Georgia, and the bridge is in a flurry over the loud-speaker. Whales! All the whales! A blue whale a mere 15 feet off starboard swimming next to a slightly darker finn! A humpback fluking at 11oclock! A pod of right whales further out! Think of the krill!

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Bowing to Kings:

As we wade to shore in the crashing waves on Right Whale Bay, we look up to see the most spectacular vision: thousands of handsome king penguins waddling along the shoreline, stepping carefully around equally cute piles of baby fur seals. The baby fur seals frolic over, eager to play a game of tag. They all stop abruptly 2-feet from us, suddenly intimidated by our looming height. Now situate this below a waterfall rushing past bright green tussock grasses off a cliff. A cliff that is below even steeper, snowcapped mountains jutting straight out of the turbulent sea.

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Glacier-Gazing:

It is cold. Bitterly cold. The Explorer is anchored next to a glacier; a glacier who’s name I can’t recall because of ice-induced amnesia. But wow. Everything is sky-blue, and the tallest mountain on South Georgia, Mt. Paget, looms in the back. We ride close to the glacier on a zodiac. The driver kills the engine. No birds, no planes, no talking. The only sound is ice-chunks clunking the bottom of the zodiac and the occasional thunderous calving of an ice sheet.

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Escaping the Pack on West Point Island:

During our last landing on the Falklands, we hike a grassy trail to reach the largest and most impressive Rock hopper penguin colony yet. Set upon golden cliffs, the colony stretches thousands of feet. The once-alarming smell of penguins has become as familiar and comforting as the smell of horse manure to a farmer. While everyone settles into their observation nooks, Dad and I hike a bit further and become invisible to the crowd. After finding a nice flat rock to sit on, we enjoy the warm, sunny breeze rustling the dry tussock and reminisce about our crazy adventure coming to an end. In just two days, we will be on our long airplane north to resume the familiarities of life at home.

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Weeks later and the penguins and fur seals already feel so distant. Since our trip, my dad’s resumed carrying for the postal service, and I have been at home; applying to jobs, weeding out knick-knacks I’ve accumulated since I was a little girl, and speculating about which direction I want my life to take. For us, this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s a bit surreal to reflect on now that it’s past. Everything is familiar again, and already the trip has slipped out of our daily conversation. But I still think about it all the time. I do miss traveling with him on the water. I miss all the penguins. I miss being the first in line for tea time at 4pm. I miss the hiking and daily recaps. I miss seeing how happy my dad was when he was talking to the fur seals. These experiences might never materialize again, but somehow it’s all ok. In fact, I find it downright wonderful that only one other person can carry all these memories with me, regardless of what’s to come: Dad.

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Spoke Too Soon

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Learning to pilot the Sea Bird. Thank goodness there are no icebergs in Baja.

Three hours. I had three hours to get through my 6-month contract unscathed by crippling illness or injury before I had to slam my hand in the hinge of a door and writhe in pain until some poor sap got stuck taking me to a hospital in La Paz.

So close.

The doctor examined my absurdly bloody thumb with the nail hanging from a hinge while I got x-rayed. The cut was deep but the bone was also fractured so they couldn’t give me stitches or take off my nail without risking further bone damage. But they also can’t give me a cast because it’s gnarly on the outside. It’s a lose lose situation. Should I be worried that they never really cleaned it out? Nah, it seems cleanish looking. I’m more worried that I’m the one who has to change my gauze every couple hours whilst trying to avoid the horrid spectacle that is my petite pouce.

But here I sit, alive and surprisingly well/expertly self-medicated on a bench in the San Jose Airport, waiting for my flight to Tambor and my shuttle to Santa Teresa, the lovely surfing beach with glossy barrels for days. And I’m not supposed to even get my hand wet or be in any sort of situation that will further fracture my unprotected phalanges. It’s another love-hate kind of day.

But there are worse things. I actually finished six-months of 12 hour days, no weekends, and back pain! I will no longer have people crowding me at 6am, telling me I’m out of coffee while I’m trying to brew the coffee that stands on the other side of those very people. I am going to be sipping mojitos on a tropical beach in several hours. I will be flying to DC in a week to see my sister sworn in as a diplomat to Cabo Verde (a destination with surfing year-round. Well done Gigi, well done) I am going to be I will be heading to South Georgia and the Falklands with my dad in a month for an expedition with Lindblad. Things could definitely be worse.

I would also like point out the wonderful and most fitting irony that my latest blog post was titled, “Let the Thumb Twiddling Commence.” Ha.

 

Let the Thumb Twiddling Commence

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It is nearly February 3rd, and that means I disembark the Sea Bird in nine days. The past six months have been flushed by in a whirlwind, both literally and figuratively. While I am more than thrilled to have a sabbatical from toilet cleaning, I will miss my floating home. I have grown fond of 6am dirty chai’s and caveman grunts that pass for early morning crew greetings. I know I will miss my naps on the lido, being in the foc’sle when hundreds of dolphins are chattering away outside, finding the best fish tacos at roadside stands, and racing friendly sea lions.

But I’m also so tired. I feel 30 years older. I’m not able to play the piano. I have no privacy. Just the other day I had a conversation with the doctor onboard and four crew members separately asked me to elaborate on my current health state. My roommate walked in on me in the bathroom this week. Three times. No one trusts us with locks. I miss my kitties and visiting my friends and family. I miss sleeping with more than 8” clearance. I miss being involved in the issues I cared so much about at college. So while my imminent parting is bittersweet, I know I’m ready to leave.

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Me at the end of my 6-month contract

What scares me most is going forward. I have no idea what the next few months will look like. All I know is that as soon as I get off in La Paz, I have a flight to Costa Rica and a room booking at a surf hostel. Will I survive the cheap, miniscule propeller plane that my suitcase probably won’t fit in? WILL I TURN INTO A CAREER SURF BUM?? Perhaps my lifelong dreams shall materialize after all!

But actually, Costa Rica has an end date. So begins the weeks of thumb-twiddling. Should I renew another contract at Lindblad? Do paralegal work? Find a career in conservation? Work at the local grocery store? Move to Hawaii and live in a tent while I clean more toilets? Pursue photography and writing while I eat bread crusts and ramen for the end of my days? Where do I even begin looking for a job when I don’t have a location in mind? I feel like I might as well be rolling a pair of dice to determine my next move.

But now that I think about it, I don’t even own a pair of dice.

If anyone has any job offers, PM me and I will bake you cookies.

 

Tips for Staying Alive in Baja

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Baja is undeniably beautiful. I have never witnessed a place of such contrasts. One day, you might be trekking through sand dunes as far as the eye can see in search of life. To your despair (and wonder), you can only find bone-dry turtle shells, hollowed-out pelican bones, and the occasional eerie dolphin carcass. The shifting white sands whip beneath your feet as the landscape comes and goes while you stand still. On these days, you feel like you’re living on another planet. Tatooine or Jakku perhaps.

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Give it three more days, and you will be amazed to find the incredible biodiversity of marine life under the surface at Los Islotes. Hundreds of tropical fish scurry away from you (my favorite being the parrotfish) while you free dive 40 feet beneath the surface to find all sorts of starfish and crab going about their merry lives. Because the water is so clear, you can see the itty-bitty snorkelers at the surface while sun rays shine down and you have a moment of calm respite before you ascend. On your way up, 4 or 5 sea lion adolescents might join you while they do barrel rolls around you in an elaborate game of tag.

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Then there are the islands where everything wants to kill you. Take Isla Catalina; a seemingly enchanted island from far away characterized by mountains, a turquoise blue beach, and otherworldly cactus. However, I’m convinced this island has ulterior motives. For example, this island is home to the infamous rattleless rattlesnake. That’s right, they’re just as venomous as normal rattlesnakes but they can’t warn you when they feel threatened in a cruel twist of evolution. Also, narrow cliff tops set by loose, crumbly stones. And when you fall, you will be guaranteed a thorny cushion to make sure you go numb while you spend half an hour plucking inch long needles out of your body.

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Yes, Baja has all of the above, and I have been lucky enough to experience it. However, I wish I had been more prepared for certain longer adventures when things went awry, so I will share my newfound Baja wisdom with you before you make the same mistakes next time you find yourself here:

  1. Wear more sunscreen than you have skin. And a hat. All the time. You’re going to burn. You know, just go ahead and sleep with both.
  2. Bring more than one bottle of water when you leave for an entire day of hiking in the desert. You won’t regret the extra weight and you won’t be hallucinating flamingoes on mountaintops.
  3. Always bring a bandana. These things are life-savers. I use mine for sun protection, wiping the sweat and dirt from my face, picking cactus thorns out of my legs and arms, and quelling bleeding wounds. Also, try to remember to wash it once in a while.
  4. Carry a radio. I go off by myself pretty often, and knowing my track record, I anticipate sticky situations. Especially when there be rattleless rattlesnakes roaming about.
  5. Ditch the snorkel if you’re a good enough swimmer. It’ll slow you down and those sea lions/whale sharks like to swim fast.
  6. Always bring your camera everywhere, but don’t always take pictures.
  7. Try to get yourself marooned on a beach at night. The stars are out of this world (huzzah).

Whale Sharks vs. Leo

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Four days ago, I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my adult life. In order for me to correctly communicate the gravity of this situation, I must first tell you about my obsession with Titanic. When Titanic first appeared on the big screen in 1997, I fell in love as a mere 4-year old missing half her teeth. I also enjoyed running around the backyard in circles talking to plastic horse statues at this stage. I don’t know why my parents let me watch it at such an impressionable age, but after school, I’d grab my allotted 2 tootsie rolls and settle in for the saga of Rose and Jack.

Titanic soon became my life. When my older sister had play dates with her best friend, I would tag along and make the friend’s older sister play Jack while I lay on the kitchen counter grasping a piece of chandelier glass I fashioned into my own heart of the ocean before letting it fall to the floor. My parents even bought me the CD soundtrack and movie poster for my unfailing commitment.

This story does not end in 1997. Fast forward 16 years, and Titanic was the reason I got written up as a lifeguard. Apparently, some official from New York State Parks was auditing Gilbert Lake State Park, but no one thought to give me a head’s up. Which is why I was stoically standing at the bow of the motor boat with my arms out in Rose’s pose while the boat carried along at full speed. I wouldn’t have pulled a Titanic if I knew he was watching.

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Genuine photograph of Gilbert Lake shenanigans

Fast forward again to 2016. A job opportunity presents itself on a ship. Real life Titanic minus the sinking! Sign me up.

Commence dilemma.

I was having a normal day on December 30, 2016 and wasn’t even thinking about Titanic. It was my day off and we were docked in La Paz, a quaint seaside city in Baja. I got off the boat, took myself to tacos and walked the waterfront until a friend informed me the luscious LEONARDO DICAPRIO was in town. LEO = JACK = THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. Panic.

Apparently Leo was snorkeling with whale sharks and would be back to the dock where the Sea Bird was docked at 2pm. Una problema. I was supposed to leave the dock myself at 1:30pm for my own whale shark adventure. In what world would fate bring Leo and I across the world to a city of 200,000 together and separate us by a mere 30 minutes? Not a kind one, that’s for sure.

So began the next hour of weighing whale sharks against Leonardo. It was the most trying hour of my life. In my deliberation, I considered the following:

  • The potential of false information that Leo would arrive at 2pm to the aforementioned dock. Celebrities use guises to hide from people like yours truly all the time.
  • What if he would be in a bad mood? He might not want to even interact with me, and what would that do to my inner 4-year old counterpart’s self esteem?
  • What if I saw Leo whale sharking? Imagine the underwater selfie of a whale shark, Leo, and moi. I entertained this scenario for far too long.

So with all this in mind, I made the decision to leave on the whale shark adventure. I even brought my wildlife camera lens so I could search for Leo in the other pangas.

Alas, I did not see him, but boy did I see whale sharks. As soon as I jumped off the panga and saw one 9-10 feet long swimming at me with its mouth wide open, I forgot all thoughts of Leo. For the next hour or so, I followed the whale shark around while I got Blair Witchesque footage with a friend’s go-pro. I even got smacked in the tail by one and figured it might have smacked Leo as well – practically a high five between us.

So for now, Leo shall remain a figment of my imagination and perhaps it is better this way. In any case, I’ll never let go. My heart will go on.

(Video footage to come at some point – here’s some photos from last week in the meantime!)

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Bah Humbug from Baja

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Apparently, tomorrow is Christmas. I have a strand of Christmas lights and an envelope of Polish opłatek in the foc’sle as a reminder, but my internal clock is failing me on this fact. A day ago, I was drying my hair in the warm desert breeze after a snorkel session with playful sea lions in Cabo Pulmo. Now, the Sea Bird is sailing into a violet and tangerine Pacific sunset while I lament about my post-day off blues.

So even though my Christmas spirit is lacking this year, I feel the need to come to terms with my holiday FOMO. For the record, let me state that scrubbing dozens of toilets on Christmas Day is a cruel and unusual punishment – not even the Grinch would think to conjure such a fate. That being said, I will begrudgingly and non-festively scrub toilets on Christmas because I care to finish my contract and receive my free expedition. Also I get double pay.

On a completely unrelated note, since so much has happened in the past month and I have no tangible plan to relay my stories in a cohesive entry, I have decided to give several choppy and unrelated vignettes to catch you up on December:

Shipyard:

I put on my yellow hard hat stained with sweat and grease stains. With my bucket of steaming hot water and dozens of frustratingly non-absorbent rags, I head several flights up to the Sea Bird, docked on dry land in Alameda, CA. My days are spent adjusting my respirator to minimize toxic paint fumes, listening to musical soundtracks (Phantom, Wicked, King & I, Sweeney Todd, Les Mis, The Producers, Hair), eating Oreos in the warehouse, going on lengthy bathroom breaks, and avoiding the engineers who are doing real work. Looking fine and biden’ time.

Positioning:

6 looong days at sea. Nausea coming out of San Francisco during rocky weather. I take a shower, only to discover the most unpleasant feeling of the shower head trying to drown me while I bump ungracefully from wall to wall, amassing a new arsenal of impressive bruises. After donning my flannel pajama pants, I stumble into a guest cabin and take refuge on the floor while I try to avoid throwing up.

I awake to sun streaming through the windows and a pod of dolphins chirping away while they race the boat at the bow. I take my coffee and pancakes to the deck. The temperature is warmer and warmer every day.

Nights on the lido were magical. Until I was attacked by frigatebirds with 6-foot wingspans. They carpet bombed my backpack at 2a.m. but I took refuge under the tarp and blankets my friend laid out in one of the zodiacs the previous night. At 6:30am, the sun rose over the Baja peninsula and I began another sleepy day watching dolphins at sea.

Baja:

Much more to come on this subject, so I shall leave you all with photos instead of words to sum up my first week here. Not bad at all. (Also shoutout to friend and undersea specialist Ian Markham for taking such awesome underwater footage this week.)

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(PC: Ian Markham)

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Well since Christmas Eve turns into Christmas in less than an hour, I must go and publish this entry before it becomes irrelevant. Bah humbug and Merry Christmas.

 

A Tale of Marvels Both Near and Far

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When I found out last August that I would be laid off for a period of 3 weeks during shipyard, I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Where was the romanticism in living on the sea for 6 months if it was actually 5 months and 1 week? 5 months and 1 week does not roll off the tongue nearly as well as 6 months.

In retrospect, this argument could only be one of a naïve, sea-faring postulant. Now that I’m basking on my sunny back porch with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty on my left, freshly brewed Italian coffee steaming on my right, and kitties surrounding me in a prayer circle as if I’m their cult leader, I could not wish to be anywhere else.

These 3 weeks of rejuvenation off the Sea Bird have done a world of wonders. From changing my outfit for the first time in 3 months to sleeping under a Christmas-light canopy in my plush bed cloaked in flamingo sheets and a nostalgic, mom-made quilt, my day has been replete with small wonders. Other wonders have included the baby-grand piano which is practically invisible under sheet music mountains, the bookshelves enveloping my bed with color-coded books, my tray of perfumes and jewelry, and the furry faces which have been so demanding of my attention. Being home never fails to conjure relaxing afternoons and delicious home-cooked meals in cozy environs.

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Color-coded to perfection

Yet there are parts of the job that I won’t mind returning to. Sailing into the horizon away from most of civilization will always be a liberating feeling. The blues, purples, yellows, pinks, crimsons, and oranges of the 180° sky. The realization that thousands of fish, mammals, and other creatures are going about their daily lives right below you. The jolting chill of a polar plunge and the afternoons when you hike up the tallest hill to get a bird’s eye view of your floating home.

This job has also helped me appreciate water in new ways. Just this morning, I went on a walk in the country and was disheartened to see beer can after coffee cup after plastic bag discarded in the stream running behind my house. I’m lucky to have traveled the wild, pristine waters of SE Alaska where you can sail days without seeing human impact on the environment. Maybe it is this break from society that has made me more keen to see how people knowingly and habitually wreak havoc on their surroundings. Those who feign ignorance or apathy are boiling my blood a tad more than ever these days.

If only you could force people to appreciate the beauty of humpback whales bubble-net feeding, a trusting harbor seal fascinated by your camera’s shutter, the dancing Northern Lights, or simply the melting snow trickling down a babbling brook.

 

A Love-Hate Kind of Day

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The Palo Alto Library is swanky. I half-limped here from downtown with my dead electronics and chargers in tow several minutes ago before settling down in a perfectly ergonomically designed chair facing an ultra-modern brick fireplace. Time to RICE and write.

I wasn’t supposed to be writing you from the Palo Alto Library. I was supposed to be writing you from a hole in the wall joint in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was supposed to have my bubble tea in one hand and my memory card full of Golden Gate Bridge pics in the other. Today was my day to explore one of the self-proclaimed greatest cities in America, but I was faced with a tough call at 7am.

You see, tomorrow I’m going surfing. Today I could hardly get out of bed. Now that I’m off the Sea Bird and my limbs have a chance to stretch to their full length again, I’m a tad sore. My knees are inflamed just as they were during my marathon training several years ago. I could have gone to San Francisco but I hear there are hills. Inflamed tissue and grandma joints don’t do well on hills. So instead of taking myself on an adventure, I am enjoying my lovely staycation at the library. Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate. Must heal for surfing.

Surfing has agonized my landlocked soul and body since ’93. It’s a love-hate relationship. I have spent years studying surfing and preparing for the day when I’d make it to the big leagues. I have studied swells, wind conditions, and different beach breaks throughout the country. I have spent years religiously learning tricks on my Indo Board. I have pursued competitive swimming, yoga, and even skateboarding to help me become a better surfer. I have researched Fulbright locations, college campuses, and jobs that would facilitate my surfing career. My bedroom in Norwich, NY looks like a Hawaiian surf shack.

I have only been surfing 7 times. This is unacceptable.

Inflamed knees are unacceptable.

 

 

 

Old Times on the River

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It’s been 49 days on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and my journey throughout Washington and Oregon is drawing to a close. Tonight, we are leaving Portland for Alameda, California. The Sea Bird will spend a month docked in Alameda while she is ripped apart, scoured, and put back together with new bells and whistles for the upcoming year. Where does this leave me? My bank account stagnant for three weeks. My home away from home with holes in her side. My tales of a right sea-faring adventurer put on hold until Baja.

In four short days, I will be kicked off the boat and told to fend for myself. Two of my best friends from Boston College are in the Bay area, so I will be staying with them for a week until I take my free plane ticket back home to Upstate NY for several weeks. Plans/goals? Sleep an absurd amount. Start Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #10. Maybe obtain my open water diver certification. Also buy a camera lens for wildlife photography.

Excusez-moi while go check my bank account again…

Hmmm.

Though I will miss the relaxed pace of river living, I am ready to sail in saltwater once again. There’s something about star-gazing up on the lido deck late into the night while listening to whales’ blowholes that you just can’t recreate on the river. Sure, you get the occasional breaching salmon, but even they seem anxious to finish their trek upstream.

Also being lulled to sleep by the rocking of gentle waves. I miss that.

Speaking of gentle waves, it sounds like conditions our 3-day trip from Portland to Alameda will be, well, not that. Captain held a meeting yesterday in which he declared the upcoming waves high and rough. The stewards are being moved out of the foc’sle (the forward, most bottom part of the boat) to guest cabins above where the motion will be more manageable. Today, the crew is working tirelessly to secure and latch loose objects, board up windows, tape drawers shut, the works. We have been instructed to wear life jackets and bring another person if we venture outside.

But, dare I say, only 9 hour working days for the next 4 days. 8am-5pm. Living the dream.

I will leave you all with some of my favorite pictures from the WA and OR. Thank you, river, for being beautiful, slow-paced, and serene. Perhaps we will see each other again someday.

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