Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Inadvertent Booze Cruise

A story from last summer - the very worst trip of the 2010 season at the Iceberg Lodge.

Halfway through last summer season, I was convinced that the Iceberg Lodge epitome of dangerously reckless guest behavior was going to be something involving a bear. In fact, no bears were involved in the incident in question; instead I had to contend with the alcohol-fueled judgments of one of the oddest clients I have ever had the misfortune to be in charge of. We’ll call him Bob.

Bob had already made something of an impression on lodge staff because of his habit of wearing bright orange earbud headphones all over camp. So when Bob showed up for my full-day kayaking tour, I debated whether I should ask him to leave his iPod behind. I eventually decided against saying anything, as I didn’t want to start the tour out on a bad note, and I figured that as long as Bob’s kayak buddy (Harry) could hear what I was saying, I could keep them reasonably in line.

I was the only guide for the tour that day, going out with six guests in three double kayaks - Bob, Harry and two older couples. The trip up to the glacier went fairly smoothly, the group stayed together, the visibility was good, and the forecasted 35-knot north wind was conspicuously absent. After two hours of paddling, we got to the Aialik moraine (the spit of land jutting out in front of the glacier), which was to be our lunch spot.

When assisting clients in landing their kayaks, I generally put my boat ashore first, and then help the guests land one boat at a time - which helps prevent clients from tipping their own boats over when they stand up. This has the unfortunate drawback of leaving me on shore while my guests are still in the water. Occasionally a client will get bored enough waiting for their turn to land that they will be tempted to do something ill-advised - so I usually land the most troublesome clients first. I had never (prior to this tour) had a client that had already landed do something that might get them into trouble; usually all it takes is one reminder about bears, and they don’t wander off. In fact, clients on the moraine are very predictable in their behavior once they are out of their boats. The women in the group begin unpacking their lunch bags and their cameras; the men walk off to a respectable distance and take a pee.

Bob and Harry’s boat was the first to land, and as usual, as soon as their boat was out of the water, they started wandering down the beach. I figured I knew what they were doing, so I wasn’t concerned until after unloading the third and final guest kayak, I looked over my shoulder and realized that although Harry had come back, Bob was still wandering away. He was by this point at least 75 yards down the beach from where we had landed the boats. I hollered at him, but he was either too far away to hear me, or he had turned his iPod back on.

I needed to go after the guy, but I was reluctant to leave the other five, obedient clients by themselves.  I decided to gather up the remaining guests as quickly as possible and go after the stray as a group, to keep the tour from becoming more fragmented than it already was. Unfortunately, getting five novice kayakers unpacked and ready to walk is not an instantaneous process; by the time we actually started after Bob, I estimate he had a ten-minute head start.

Soon he was completely out of sight; at no point had he turned around to even check on where the rest of the group was, or what we were doing. Fortunately, Bob was walking along a fairly open portion of the moraine - if he’d decided to take the direct route to the glacier by crashing through the alders, I would never have been able to figure out which direction he’d gone. I did not catch sight of my lost client for another ten minutes, when I left the five obedient guests on a small bluff to unpack their lunches, and descended to the lower part of the moraine to collar my wayward client.

One reason that tourists to Alaska are willing to subject themselves to six hours in a kayak to see a tidewater glacier, is that when glaciers calve, it is damned impressive. It is especially impressive when you can view such calving from a little spit of land that juts out in front of the glacier. And if the calving is especially impressive, after the ice hits the water, you can watch the giant tidal waves crashing into that little spit of land that juts out in front of the glacier. It's kind of like an ice tsunami. Needless to say, all of the lodge guides are very careful about where on the moraine we take guests.

By the time I finally caught up with Bob, he had gone all the way to the very tip of the moraine - drawn by some unfailing instinct to the dodgiest area he could possibly have wandered into. As I got closer, I could see that in addition to the orange ear buds, he was also holding a flask with a suspiciously amber-colored liquid. The flask was closed when I got out there, so I wasn’t able to get a whiff.   I figured that I shouldn’t  give him grief about drinking liquor in a completely inappropriate setting unless I had more definitive proof that that really was what was in the flask - but I did chew him out about completely ditching the tour.

I hauled an unrepentant Bob back to the rest of the group, explained to everyone why we do not go down to certain areas of the moraine, and then sat back to eat my sandwich. I figured that if I could manage to not talk to Bob for the rest of the tour, I could get through the day without murdering him.

Bob began passing the flask around to the other clients. At this point, I was terrified to say very much about it, as I had just had one acrimonious encounter with the guy, and I didn’t want to do anything that would provoke him into becoming hostile or belligerent. Fortunately, neither of the women took any of the whisky, nor did Bob’s friend, so I could count on having at least one sober client per boat.

It had not escaped the notice of the other five clients that I was quietly furious with Bob, and that I had been legitimately worried about him when he’d wandered out of sight. So when he returned to the lunch spot and pulled out the booze, the other guests on the tour very quietly... turned on him.

It takes a lot of unwarranted abuse before tourists will turn on one of their own, but I have had the privilege of witnessing such incidents a handful of times. Consider a customer-service counter at an airport; now imagine how irate a customer would have to get before the other passengers in line would rally themselves in support of the ticketing agent. You now have a general idea of what these scenes usually look like.

For the next hour, the five other clients gleefully pointed out to Bob the calving events that would have necessitated him running for his life, had he still been standing at the edge of the moraine. And in fact, there was a huge amount of calving that day - which I completely failed to appreciate myself because I was too busy coming up with contingency plans in case Bob became too intoxicated to safely paddle his own boat. Not an idle speculation - the forecasted 35-knot wind finally made its appearance while we were having lunch, and was whipping up a fairly boisterous following sea. During the walk back to the boats, neither Bob nor his drinking buddies seemed to be in any way impaired, although Bob’s paddling buddy, without any suggestion from me, insisted on taking over the rudder. Which was probably a good call - I wouldn't have wanted Bob steering my boat, either. And to make matters worse, one of the kayak’s neoprene hatch covers had blown off - in my hurry to rally the group together and charge after my wayward client, I had neglected to make sure that all of our gear was properly tied down.

With the swell at our backs, we made extremely good time getting back to the beach, where I roundly turned down Bob’s apologetic offer to help me stow the kayaks. By that point, I couldn’t wait to get him out of my sight so that I could vent about the tour to my boss.

I think Harry must have further chewed out his friend at some point that afternoon, as I was the recipient of a heartfelt, and very tipsy, apology later that evening. Both Bob and Harry went out with me the next day on a different tour (I was not pleased with my boss for assigning me to guide them two days in a row) and they surprised the socks off of me by being extremely well behaved the entire time. I came away with the general impression that the guy wasn’t deliberately troublesome; he was just really, really oblivious to things.

The pattern with most of my guiding jobs has been that the worst tour for any given season usually happens right at the end. In Ireland, this happened when the seabird colony I worked at suffered a breeding failure, so by the end of our season the only birds left to show tourists were dead kittiwake chicks. At the aquarium I work for, the last behind-the-scenes tour I gave as an intern nearly ended in disaster when two rambunctious twelve-year-olds tried to tip over a large tank of research fish. So I’m not surprised in the least that my last trip to Aialik Glacier turned into a inadvertent booze cruise. And just as a recommendation, if you too would like to experience both the thrills of seeing a tidewater glacier calve, and the effects of moderate alcohol consumption, I would recommend doing so on a boat that someone else is driving.

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