The Grand Circles

Posted by Ken Campbell December 24, 2009 0 Comment 725 views

When I was a kid, my wild country was Lake Los Carneros, just a quarter-mile from our house in Goleta, California. I rode my bike down the trails beneath the eucalyptus, down to the swampy northern shore, where some of the older kids had built jumps and forts and stashed their dirty magazines. I hiked through the tall grass, stalking king snakes and playing soldier. I had an inflatable boat, a cheap vinyl dinghy that I hauled to the lake almost every day that summer between 6th and 7th grade. I’d float and fish, drifting with the wind, occasionally hooking a bass or a crappie. I’d pull my way up into the reeds that grew around much of the lake, dense forests of tules and cattail.
I knew that lake. From all sides. I spent so much of my childhood exploring at Lake Los Carneros that, wild though it seemed, it was second nature to me. That familiarity and understanding is what comes with seeing something from all sides, from every possible perspective. Which is ultimately what circumnavigation, the notion of a “Grand Circle,” is all about.

There is a modern Grand Circle route in Utah, a driving loop that touches on such scenic marvels as the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and Lake Powell. It cuts through the hoodoo deserts and crosses the ancient ravines and canyonlands of the Anasazi and the Navajo. “The People.” I have been to some of these places and I would like to return; it seems a magical part of the country to me.

Likewise, in southeast Asia, there is something known as the Indochine Grand Circle, an ancient system of tracks and byways, linking Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Through thick rainforest, where tigers still prowl along the river’s edge, where the inky darkness of the jungle night is shattered by the neon (Singha, Tiger, Heineken) coming from the slat-wood tavern near the junction. Traders and hippies, refugees and double agents. I can only imagine.

I remember reading a book once called Everest Grand Circle, an account of a high country traverse of the mother mountain through two countries and hundreds of years in time. Ned Gillette and Jan Reynolds, as I recall. It wasn’t a climbing book, strictly speaking, but the central memory I have of the story is the relentless up and down. The book is, unfortunately, gone from my library now.

I have daydreamed about a trip, let’s call it the Caribbean Grand Circle, something that starts and ends in Key West, perhaps, or New Orleans. A small-boat journey around the edge of the North American underbelly, down through Texas and Mexico, crossing over to the Dutch Islands and on up the Antilles. Deserted cays, coconuts and white sand, as well as expatriate con men, country club ladies and reggae… to my mind, it would be living some wild and rambling Jimmy Buffett song. There is no reason it couldn’t be done.

The idea of an Olympic Grand Circle seemed to rise in my mind, fully born, when I first heard that the Olympic peninsula is actually surrounded on all sides by water. Almost immediately, my thoughts were drawn to the possibility of a circumnavigation, to the different environments that the route would pass through, to the sense of perspective that such a water journey would provide.

That was over twenty years ago. It is only now that I am finally getting around to planning the actual expedition. I have kayaked much of the route in years past, and I’ve done several short canoe outings on the fresh-water segment, but I’ve never linked it together in one big circular dance. It is a trip that has been done before, I’m pretty sure, but it isn’t done often. And the way I’m doing it – using a combination of canoe, kayak and SUP to travel the 425 mile course – has never been attempted.

I feel like I’ve been working toward this journey for a long time. Twenty years, at least.

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