- Owen Perkins
- Amphibious adventurer Mike Houston
A trip this big takes a big term to contain it. Welcome to Skookum Chuck 2000, a seven-month project scheduled to take local climbing and sailing enthusiast Mike Houston and his three-member crew from Madeira Beach, Fla., where his 1938 wooden pilot cutter Ereva is dry-docked and awaiting overhauling, to Petersburg, Alaska, where the amphibious crew will attempt a first ascent -- "a death route" -- up the north-face wall on the Devil's Thumb, a remote peak on the 6,000-foot Baird Glacier.
On Dec. 1, Houston leaves Colorado Springs for Florida, where he'll spend a month preparing his boat for the expedition. His goal is to be on the water when the new year rolls in. The timing is tricky; the expedition needs to leave late enough to avoid hurricane season in the Caribbean, and there's a narrow window on the other end of the trip, where after navigating the skookum chuck -- strong water -- of the northern Pacific, there's barely a month of suitable climbing conditions between the end of winter and the onslaught of summer storms.
Leaving Colorado Springs is old hat for the 45-year-old native, who has spent much of the last 20 years dividing his time between sailing winters in the Caribbean, volunteering in Central America and supporting himself as a furniture maker at home in Colorado. His specialty is heirloom rocking chairs made out of exotic woods, though he has recently expanded his craft to include dining tables and beds. And boats.
Houston, nicknamed Captain Chaos by his crew members, bought the 40-foot Ereva in 1980 after the previous owners abandoned ship in Florida, selling the well-traveled vessel to pay their way home to Hawaii. The boat has made two complete Pacific circuits; it has sailed the Great Lakes, the intercoastal waterway, the rivers of Maine and the coast of Nova Scotia. Word from the former owners was that the sailboat had once been used to make a drug run. It was barely seaworthy when Houston bought it, but thanks to an Alaskan shipwright working on his own reclamation project in Florida, Houston got the tutelage he needed to refurbish the boat.
"We spent four years replacing every frame, every plank, and we put in a new keel," said Houston. "It's a good-vibe boat."
As a landlocked Springs boy, Houston initially took to the mountains, escaping church on Sundays for the nourishment of Pikes Peak. Despite coming from a broken home where he was no stranger to alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse, Houston was able to use the outdoors as an affirming influence. "I really feel like I came out unscathed," Houston said, attributing his good mental health to the solace of the mountains. "The mountains, the outdoors, are major therapy for me."
Eventually, his love of kayaking and a developing interest in scuba diving brought him to the Gulf of California, where he began leading oceanography and scuba trips for disadvantaged youth. "I developed a love for the sea," Houston said of his exposure to bigger water. "I always thought the ultimate travel vehicle would be to run on the wind, on the water."
The Ereva crew will spend about a week getting to Cuba, another week getting down to the Panama Canal, five weeks covering the 5,000 miles of open water to Hawaii, and a month of open water crossing the 2,800 miles of the northern passage to Alaska. They will try to average at least 100 miles a day.
Houston sees the first leg of the journey as a humanitarian mission of sorts to Cuba. He is seeking donations of kitchen knives and baseball equipment to bring to the south coast of Cuba for families in need of these admittedly unusual luxuries. "We met families that had one old knife that was ground down from an old machete that they'd use for everything. The fisherman would take it out on their boat every day. They'd come back, and you'd see the guy's wife using it to cook supper with."
Houston is even more enthusiastic about bringing baseball equipment, the most-prized import commodity, to the Cuban youth, but recognizes the danger in trying to spearhead a collection drive in South Florida's hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment. "If you try to collect baseball gear in South Florida, there'll be a lot of people who'll give you baseball gear," he acknowledged, "but there'll also be a group of radical right-wing Cubans who might bomb your boat."
Houston identifies the essential survival tools for a long sea voyage as "plenty of brown rice and popcorn. A Walkman for night watch." To help combat cabin fever, Houston enacts a welcome ritual. "In good weather, every day at noon, we hove to on the boat and go snorkeling. We really love going snorkeling in 15,000 feet of water."
- Cuban school children smile for the camera, "Ereva" anchored in the background
Nevertheless, Houston is realistic about the hazards of the expedition. "When you're in 10,000 feet of water, you don't drop the anchor," he said. "You sail all night. The most dangerous thing for modern cruising sailboats, is not the weather, the ocean or the waves or the sharks or anything; it's freighters."
Needless to say, there are perks. Houston recalls riding out a day-and-a-half storm on his last trip to Cuba, only to be greeted by beautiful calm sailing and a 40-dolphin escort. "We put on our mask and snorkels and got in the water with the dolphins. I've got photographs that show at any given time a dozen dolphins swimming in front of the boat going off into the deep blue. That's the kind of paybacks that you get."
The crew also take advantage of the environment to drag a fishing line every day, pulling in barracuda, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, bonita tuna and more. "Whenever we're in close to land, we're pretty good lobster hunters."
In Hawaii, Houston hopes to take his pilot's license, enabling him to lead some tourist trips once he gets to Alaska. The crew will also stretch their sea legs. "It's hard to train for mountaineering when you're on a boat," said Houston. "Climbing the volcanoes and bicycling are all about helping you combat that. Life at sea is a lot of lying around when you're not working."
A Web page has been donated to the expedition, and Houston plans to update the page in every port, including communication with local schoolchildren, who he hopes will derive an educational benefit from following his journey. He hopes to secure a donation of a digital video camera to document the trip and share the experiences on the Web page.
"You don't actually sail to a place," Captain Chaos concluded by way of looking at the big picture, "you fetch it to you. You're bringing the place closer to you with the sails. That's an old British expression. It makes you feel better about it, because sailing is a patience game. Twenty days out in the Pacific, we'll be ready for land, and we might have another 20 days left to sail. We'll bring a houseplant so we can smell the dirt and talk to the plant," Houston confided, conjuring the "wall of fragrance" that hits when land is finally near after a month of sea air.
"Land is a sensory extravaganza."
Skookum Chuck 2000
For information about making donations in the form of baseball equipment, kitchen knives, digital video equipment, computer supplies or cash, contact:
33 W. Willamette Ave., #2
Colorado Springs, CO 80903