The Harsh Fiords

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The first day on Doubtful Sound was the most trying of our whole New Zealand trip. The first third of a 26k day in tandem sea kayaks lulled us into complacency, before the main arm turned a little more westerly and the full force of the 30 knot winds slammed us in the face. Progress was excruciating the rest of the way up the arm, with a lunch break finally arriving at 3:30, five hours after starting. An earlier stop not only would have put reaching camp in doubt, but with only a handful of beaches in the entire fiord, was hardly possible at all.

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Thankfully lunch recharged everyone enough to make the crossing into Crooked Arm safely, and camp was tucked into a calm forest cove, complete with cook tarp and a big mesh tent to keep out the sandflies. My arms were shot, and I had to lay down carefully in the tent that night, least my twinging left elbow wake me. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke in a haze brought on by a full bladder and claustrophobia. The downpour outside was so fierce it seemed to slap down all air movement, and our little tent was stifling. Semi-panicked, I pulled off my shirt, ripped open the zippers, and leaped outside. The rain, drenching and cool, provided instant relief.

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The weather the next day was better than expected; clear, mostly calm, and we were surrounded by pulsing waterfalls brought to life by the inches of recent rain. Half the crew stayed behind due to fatigue, but my elbow held together, indeed the low-torque paddling and tremendous scenery made it feel much better.

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Fiordlands is massive, and built with rules I did not at first understand. How do 3000 foot granite walls, old, hard, twisted and dense granite, grow carpets of trees on 75 degree slopes? Evidently, the answer is that 30 feet of rain a year soaks the rock, moss infests the cracks and, over a century or so, accumulates enough biomass for seedlings to sprout, whose roots wriggle and grab, holding a forest tight to 12 inches of soil atop bare rock.  As can be seen by the blank patches, eventually a bit lets loose and a silvan avalanche comes down into the water.

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We saw a seal, and many dolphins, and the first freshly-used game trail I’d seen on all the west coast, and towering, monumental light as the sun came over the walls and onto the water, but it was the absurd basic physics of the place which left me most in awe.

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I’m not much on an ocean person, and in life-time a river person quite recently and only due to the dictates of western Montana.  I was a bit off edge all trip, even after the inexorable, backwards-pushing winds subsided.  Fiordlands isn’t a place to which I’m itching to return, unless it’s up in the tundra to hunt elk, but my images of it will remain vivid for decades.

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A note on logistics and planning: Doubtful Sound is not a beginner place to go sea kayaking, at least not without a guide.  The winds, currents, weather, and severe lack of places to get out of the your boat without tree climbing make it so.  At first we were just looking for someone to rent us boats, and only hired Sea kayak Fiordland when we found no one who would do so.  Turns out there’s a good reason for that, and that they runs a tight ship, with good guides and a great value for the whole experience.  Recommended.

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