32 Weeks Pregnant & Stranded In The Wilderness

It's only taken me five years to put pen to paper on this. 

Lindsey, 32 weeks pregnant holding Norah with the massive glacial valley behind. 

Lindsey, 32 weeks pregnant holding Norah with the massive glacial valley behind. 

I probably should have learned my lesson on day three when one of our bush planes crashed on an extremely remote and exposed island beach. Down a plane, there was no way for nine of us to fit into the two remaining Piper Super Cub airplanes. Which meant three of us needed to stay back, shore up the downed plane from incoming tide, and wait six or so hours while the rest returned over the mountain range to come back and pick us up. Naively eager for adventure I volunteered to remain on Kayak Island and help. Meanwhile my 32-week pregnant wife and 2 ½ year old daughter were back at the basecamp lodge, unbeknownst to any of this. 

As the faint rumble of the two planes faded away into the vast sky, our first move was to find a freshwater source. I don’t know if it’s still drift wood if it’s the size of a whole tree, but we hiked and climbed our way down the beach strangely enjoying how cut off we were. At first I thought it was a mosquito buzzing my ear but it grew louder. I asked the other two guys to stop and listen. As we looked parallel of the beach, a tiny silhouette of a single plane appeared low on the horizon only minutes after we discussed our island game plan.

Downed plane on Kayak Island

Downed plane on Kayak Island

As the red Piper approached, six hours too early, we knew something was wrong. Landing on the very beach where the other plane just crashed, the pilot was yelling out the window before he even had a chance to throttle down. “Get in! Get in! – go, go go!”.

Us three guys plus the pilot, squeeze in, nut-to-butt, taking off over the beach and sharply turning over the icy Pacific not having a clue what is going on other than it was urgent.

Fresh tracks

Fresh tracks

Quickly landing and regrouping with the rest of the crew and the other plane on the mainland we find out a storm is coming in rapidly and were likely not able to come back to pick up us three on Kayak Island for and undetermined amount of time.

Landing on the mainland beach

Landing on the mainland beach

So going against protocol, as a visible storm front moved closer, the-quick thinking pilot demanded to know everyone’s weight. We distributed accordingly and crammed us nine into the two planes and made our flight over jagged peaks and some of the largest glaciers in North America. In the end it took the crew 10 days to get back to Kayak Island to repair the plane.

Welcome to Alaska.

Crossing the range with the other plane

Crossing the range with the other plane

I was hired to shoot a very remote lodge and its clients deep in the Wrangle – St. Elias Wilderness, the largest wilderness in America. At nearly 10 million acres, nearly nothing comes close. Yosemite is only 750,000 acres by comparison. And I got to take my family. The lodge, literally grandfathered into one of the newest wilderness' designated places in the USA, now has a veritable monopoly as the sole lodge and outfitter. They only way in and out is by using their flight / piloting services. At $7,900 / person for 4 nights, this was not something I wanted to pass on - especially because we were to be there for 3+ weeks. But early on after a few small weather-related events happened a lot of their guests canceled at the last minute - leaving me and my family as a fifth wheel. The high cost of me flying around with clients in bush planes would be easily covered but without paying guests to underwrite my time, left me and my family high and dry and more or less stuck at this remote outpost.

Me carrying Norah on my back during a hike

Me carrying Norah on my back during a hike

After a few weeks of short photo stints, I / we got anxious to get outside of the lodge compound. So the crew offered for me and my family to fly out to an even more remote trapper cabin and drop us off for 24 hours. What could go wrong? Like I said, I should have learned my lesson on day 3.

On one side was a steep drop off into a glacial river. 100 yards the other way was a near vertical mountain. In between the two, amongst a scraggly spruce grove sat a tiny, one window and thoroughly depressing shack that would become our home and refuge.

As soon as the bush plane flew away we were alone on a scale unimaginable. It was beautiful and remote beyond description. We loved it.

Norah and I loving it, before everything changed

Norah and I loving it, before everything changed

The following morning anticipating our 9:00 AM rendezvous I walked through the spruce grove to an opening where the day before I could see straight up to the 17,000 ft. peak up the valley. But at 7:30 AM all I could see was a white wall but couldn’t determine if it was coming or going.

I ran back to the shack to grab a topo map and went back to the clearing. Studying the smaller perpendicular valleys funneling into the larger glacial valley, my heart sank. This white wall was descending and fast. Running back to the shack to find the satellite phone, I looked over our meager food supply. I rang the pilot to notify him to come sooner as we didn’t have enough food to stay much longer. He couldn’t make any earlier. At 8:30 AM a white omnipresence overcame our camp. You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. By our 9:00 AM scheduled pick up time, we heard the tell-tale sound of the Piper circling above, unable to land.

The shack

The shack

Food rationing was our first plan. We had so little that there wasn’t much to plan with. Summer in the northern latitudes meant that darkness hardly came. Yet we found dark as my daughter, very pregnant wife and myself crammed into a dank windowless closet of a bedroom.

We woke to another day of foggy, damp, directionless white light and still unable to see more than 10 feet. By the end of this day was when the anxiety kicked in. Food supply was getting dangerously low, especially for a 32-week pregnancy and a 2 ½ year old. Zero sign of the weather lifting.

Waking to the same on day 3 I think broke me. Lindsey started to have small contractions. We were a 4+ day hike to the nearest camp and we didn’t have the gear to get there. We hadn’t seen any evidence of animals to trap not even a bird or chipmunk. Except for the sound of the glacier creaking, I’ve never heard such pure silence, like there was nothing alive but us. I always had a .45 mag on me for a possible grizzly encounter and at this point I would have welcomed one to enjoy its meat.

Let me sidebar here for a moment. I’ve covered some of the worst hunger situations you can imagine. I’ve seen food insecurity at dire levels across whole regions. Refugee camps where families are staggering in from famine. But I didn’t know a thing about hunger and the crippling emotions of a father not able to provide for his family or deciding who gets what calories. I pray you never experience this.

We were out of options, nearly out of food and at the mercy of the weather.

The final morning, I walked yet again through the foggy dripping spruce for a sign of change. I looked down the valley to see a tiny break in the cloud as if it were a tunnel to another world.

I sprinted back and grabbed the satellite phone, with one bar of battery left and rang the pilot. He too saw the hole as he had been camping, with is plane down the valley waiting for this very moment.

The image that I’ll never forget was that bush plane landing on the narrow strip as my wife, carrying my daughter running up hill as fast as she could and the pilot again, hardly throttling down yelling out the window, “Get in! Get in! – go, go go!”.

In a matter of seconds, we were whipped around and taking off from the grass strip heading back through the brief hole in the cloud. Together and safe the shack disappeared from view and the deep well of human emotion erupted in us all. 

– I will forever be amazed at the resilience of my wife and daughter. 

Back at basecamp

Back at basecamp

Back at basecamp

Back at basecamp

Two Weeks in Oaxaca

I think I was most surprised by how many people said, "were are you going again?" followed immediate with "where is that?". Oaxaca is a State in Mexico but the main city, is also named Oaxaca.

I've wanted to go to Oaxaca City and the state for as long as I can remember. Most Americans experience with Mexican food is usually limited to Northern Mexican states or some sort of hybrid made-for-gringo food that sometimes resembles what you might find in the actual nation of Mexico; it's not unlike many Italian-imagraint restaurants heavy on red sauces or plates you'd only seen in a handful of regions actually in Italy.

Oaxaca represents a sort of culinary epicenter for Latin America; which was reason one I wanted to travel there. I wanted high-end cuisine to the hole-in-the-wall places and local markets making my own food and salsa. The second reason, 7 hours away (by driving) is Puerto Escondito, otherwise known as the "Mexican Pipeline" of surfing. Completely South facing, this part of Mexico get's slammed with Southern Hemisphere swell. 

Oaxaca blew my expectations away. We made new friends and experienced a warmth and generosity I've I've rarely encountered. I can't wait to go back.   

Passport Renewal PSA

Dear fellow parent(s) - 

This is a post, nay, an obligation to pass along valuable info so don't have to deal with the logistical hassle and pain that me and my family - and hundreds others - had to endure. Lord knows the Government website isn't going to tell you any of this or provide any sort of expectation, so instead I will. Tell your friends. 

Are you a parent that has a child with a passport? Yes... Ok then. Let's begin. 

Things have changed radically

More specifically they changed in January 2016 - no this is not a result of the new administration. 5 years ago when we originally got our daughter needed a new passport we just brought the requisite paperwork, check and photo to our local postoffice - done in like 8 minutes. 

Remember, both parents have to be present and bring proof of USA citizenship or their own passport to apply / renew for their child and children cannot renew by mail until their are 16. Not knowing any different, we went to our local USPS to learn that they no longer do passports and we need to go to a different location. Ok. Fine. We got back in the car and sat in traffic to the recommended location only to find out they do not do passports and we need to go to a different location. 

Centralized passport services

Turns out that instead of every USPS location accepting passport applications every city and region in the USA centralized their approach. Which meant for Sacramento region, we only had 3 options. 

This changes everything

I'm going to spare you the long exasperating details, but we, as a family carving out time spent 3 separate days learning the roads and waiting in all day lines to arrive at this. Remember, both you and your spouse have to be there, so it really becomes a logistical nightmare, especially with young kids - ours happened to have a fever, so we got extra points or something. 

They centralized but did not bulk-up their staff - at all. Which means huge lines forming daily at 7 am like a new iPhone is coming out. A line of nearly 200 people daily and they have two... yes two people managing this. 

It takes 15-30 min / appointment so if you show up and see a big line, you do the math. 

What to expect and how to do it (hint - best case, it takes ALL day)

  1. Find a location & be prepared - Seriously, do your homework and apply some common sense. Find your local USPS office that is now doing passports. Depending on where you live, it might be faster to drive 3 hours to a region that is less populated. I spent 2 wasted days NOT getting a number. 
  2. Get a number - I can't stress this enough. You can't be seen until you have a number. Most offices open at 10:30 am. Bu the line just to get a number, for the day begins around 7 or 8 am. You wait in line until they open the door and they begin to process those in line and proceed to give you a number. Once you have a number, you are not even close to a guarantee to be seen that day. I was in line for 3 hours, to get number 65. Which in the end was half of what the day's list looked like. 
  3. Come back - Once you actually have a number, then you are in business. But not yet. They said, "ok here is your number, and try to come back in 3 hours". I came back before then to find out they were 2 hours behind. So us originally being about half way on the days list, it turns out that we were probably closer to 90% of what they would see for the day. Which means the remainder of number-holders would be bumped to the next day. 

Don't want to wait in lines? 

Then get your shit together. This is NOT the only way to renew / apply for your kids' passport. My son's passport is up for renewal in two years and I'll be damned to do this again. You can do all of this, by appointment only, through most city halls and some county libraries. But, from what I understand, most USA locations are booked 3-6 months out. Given that children under 16 passports are only valid for 5 years, my advice is to chop off a year and begin to renew in year 4. Keep in mind that these locations are not "full service", meaning that they don't do the photo and payments. 

If you have international travel plans... get on it!!!

There is a way for only one parent to be at this meeting but from what I understand it requires a few layers of notary and slows down actual (when the application arrives at the Federal facility) process by a factor of months. 

Final thoughts

After waiting in all of these lines and doing a lot of unofficial interviewing, it seems that this glut is occupied by an overwhelming numbers off families - by nature of not being able to renew online. 

Like I said above it really demands the whole family to make this happen. Meaning that everyone must stop (life, work, obligations) to renew a child's passport. I saw whole first generation extended family networks parking at the USPS sites to make this happen; a community effort to get a passport. Standing in line I imagined their collective lost wages while I was standing in line representing my family, a phone call away when we'd be on deck.