Hood Canal to Olympia

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My annual week of solo sailing was a journey of discovery as I traveled from the south end of Hood Canal to Olympia. As you’ll discover in this narrative, wind opposed me almost the entire trip, so much of this 140-nautical-mile journey was powered by motor, not wind.

This trip report is based on the daily reports I filed during the trip, and later I reconstructed the journey, narrating it below as if you are in the boat with me throughout the journey. A non-nautical map of the planned trip (not the actual route) is available here. The complete photo album is available here.

Our journey begins with a late afternoon launch in south Hood Canal.

DAY 1: Saturday, September 9

Drive from Shelton to Twanoh State Park…

Saturday morning, and once again I have underestimated how long it takes to prepare the boat for a week-long trip. My work week has been so full I never got around to preparing the boat until this morning.

I predict a 45-minute trip from home to Twanoh State Park, but my spouse tells me she knows a shortcut. Twenty minutes later we are there!

Whisper gets her first taste of Hood Canal…

We find the Twanoh two-lane launch with floats very easily. The floats are relatively new and the shallow launch ramp is grooved concrete. All the old-style state park restrooms are closed but several portable units are situated in the park, including several at the launch.

Moorage…

I launch just before dusk and motor to the state park dock. Where is the pay station? I can’t find the station or forms to register for overnight moorage, but I do find a sign that says boats at the dock may go aground at low tide. I motor off to a buoy a few hundred feet offshore, eat dinner and crack open the first of three books I brought to read on this trip.

DAY 2: Sunday, September 10

At 1 a.m. I am awakened by rollers banging into Whisper’s bow. Apparently, the outgoing tide and a brisk eastern breeze have combined to build up rolling wind waves.

Motoring to Pleasant Harbor…

Since I deviated from my trip plan on the very first day — I had intended to go to Potlatch State Park on Saturday and moor on a buoy — I will need to make up the eight nautical miles I was supposed to cover yesterday. So today the planned 22 nautical mile leg to Pleasant Harbor becomes 30 nm if I am to stay on schedule.

I’m up early to ride the outgoing tide most of the way to Pleasant Harbor. After rounding the Great Bend, I am startled by the lack of development along the eastern shoreline as I drive northward toward Pleasant Harbor. Compared to much of Puget Sound, it feels like undiscovered country and I gawk like a tourist (which I am) at the rustic beauty.

The Olympic Mountains coyly show themselves above the foothills every now and then, and when they come into full view they tower over the surrounding landscape, quickly rising from sea level to knife-like alpine ridges.

Whisper finds Pleasant Harbor…

I arrive at Pleasant Harbor State Park after covering 30 nautical miles in six hours. It is low tide and the narrow entrance is very shallow on the north side. I slide to the right to avoid larger boats exiting the harbor and can clearly see gravel and seaweed on the bottom in the bright sunshine. There has been no wind until the last hour, and then it came up right on the nose so I kept on motoring with the wick turned up a bit to cover as much water as possible before the turn of the tide. At the Pleasant Harbor Marina I top off the fuel tank with 1.6 gallons of gas.

Tomorrow I’ll be avoiding restricted space as I pass by Bangor Naval Base on my way to Kitsap Memorial State Park. If conditions are favorable, I may try to go under the Hood Canal Bridge tomorrow afternoon and anchor in a little bay behind Hood Head. That would give me a jump start on rounding Foulweather Bluff and Point No Point on Tuesday.

(I am worried about Admiralty Inlet and the infamous rip tides and chaotic seas around Foulweather Bluff and Point No Point. I’ve read all the narratives and advice I could find on the Internet about this stretch of water. Whisper is a small boat and I need to remember the goal is to completely my journey safely. My schedule is highly flexible, so I commit to myself I will turn back and wait for better conditions if necessary…whenever I get to Foulweather Bluff!)

DAY 3: Monday, September 11

Up early and motoring for the Hood Canal bridge…

I’m up early again but leave aptly named Pleasant Harbor later than expected. I thought the marina store opened at 8 am so I put off getting ice until this morning…but they didn’t open until 9 am. I buy ice and leave Pleasant Harbor at 9:15 am.

There is no wind to start the day, so I motor on glassy seas using a fuel-efficient throttle setting between idle and half-throttle, making about four knots. I aim for the southern end of Toandos Peninsula, and ahead of me several large naval vessels round the Peninsula on their way into Dabob Bay.

Did I mention yesterday seeing almost no other boats on Hood Canal? Today I see mainly military watercraft in and around Bangor.

Past Seabeck and Bangor…

The water is smooth enough I am able to peer toward Seabeck through my ten-power binoculars, knowing someday I’ll visit that town for a slice of famous Seabeck Pizza. I want to visit today, but I have miles to cover and no wind to help, so my path is northward up the eastern edge of the Toandos Peninsula to avoid restricted space around Bangor. The ebbing tide should help carry me northward…but it doesn’t. I can actually see the current flowing northward near Bangor, but on the far side of Hood Canal where I motor northward, a south-flowing back eddy runs against Whisper. Still trying to conserve fuel I slowly motor along, watching the military watercraft and base slowly slide past.

As I come abreast of Bangor I write in my log: “The wildness of the Olympic Mountains is enhanced by the sparse population along Hood Canal.” It feels quite wild and natural compared to much of Puget Sound.

Temporary tiller extension…

While I ponder the natural environment I also invest time thinking about how I can gain shelter from bad weather and still steer the boat. I’ve had some pretty impractical thoughts over the course of many boat trips, so today I discard all those thoughts and start over. A tiller extension is the simplest solution. Do I have anything on the boat I can use? An oar from the dinghy? That would work but it is not adjustable. What is like the oar? Well, the boat hook has an aluminum shaft. Wait a minute, it has a telescoping shaft! I use three ball-end bungees to attach the boat hook to the tiller, allowing me to stand inside the cabin and steer. This has great promise to increase my comfort during winter sailing and driving rain.

Approaching the Hood Canal bridge…

Across from Bangor the wind finally fills in…right on the nose again. Because I am in restricted space I can’t tack more than about 1/8 of a mile, so I continue to motor. Looking north I catch a glimpse of the Hood Canal bridge in the distance, but haze soon obscures it again. Over my shoulder the haze to the south looks like smoke, perhaps from the Dewatto forest fire that has been burning in very rugged country near the Great Bend for the past couple of weeks.

Nearing Squamish Harbor the wind waves quickly build from ripples to two-foot-tall waves, short and stout, pounding against Whisper’s bluff bow and slowing the boat. To continue making way I turn up throttle just a little bit and Whisper responds, accelerating to 4.1 knots. The chop, of course, comes from the north-flowing ebb tide piling up against the south-blowing wind.

I stare at the far shore, trying to divine the location of Kitsap Memorial State Park. Examining the chart I see a marker very near the park and use that as my visual guide, and finally I recognize the park. It is only mid-day and I decide to take a look at the little bay behind Hood Head, so I splash northward under power toward the Hood Canal bridge. At 1:35 pm I pass under the bridge and reset my GPS trip odometer.

Hood Head monster!

Hmmm…I’m feeling okay, even though the wind is on the nose. There is the bay behind Hood Head to my left. I decide to take a peak into Admirality Inlet and see if the water is nasty. I pass Hood Head to my left and see an interesting driftwood sculpture, appearing to be a sea monster stalking an unsuspecting fisher on the shore.

Foulweather Bluff…

As I approach Foulweather Bluff, seas increase from two to three feet, with an occasional wave over three feet. The wind has increased, and as the bottom comes up, the wind waves have become much steeper. Whisper is pounding her way through them with some effort. It’s not dangerous, and it’s not uncomfortable, but it does take a bit more attention to maintain a consistent course, and I’m making way slowly against the incoming tide. I am standing inside the cabin, sheltered from the cold wind by the dodger, steering with my improvised tiller extension.

At 3:20 pm I round Foulweather Bluff. Admirality Inlet conditions don’t look too bad. The water is beginning to smooth out. I look at the GPS, see Whisper is making over six knots, and realize I’ve caught the turn of the tide just about right. I shut down the motor, roll out the genoa and glide downwind with the flooding tide at over five knots. These are the conditions I have been hoping for!

Sailing past Point No Point…

But it doesn’t last. After about an hour of downwind sailing the wind dies to the point I’m barely making way, so I regretfully lower the motor into position. Looking at my watch and my boat speed, I see I won’t make Kingston before the marina folks go home for the day, so I call the Port of Kingston to make sure there will be a slip for Whisper and to get the shower code. I’m getting tired and am no longer pondering world peace. Now I’m thinking only of making it safely to the marina and getting a hot meal from someone who cooks better than I do.

Moorage at Kingston Marina…

At 6:15 pm I pull into a slip at Kingston and grab a quick snack from the cooler to hold me until I can get cleaned up and find a restaurant. I motored 39 nautical miles today. A new record for Whisper! It consumed about half a tank of gas, or about 1.6 gallons. I’m now one day ahead of schedule, so I have more options and less time pressure to make it to Olympia.

The sailboat I shadowed from Potlatch to Pleasant Harbor is anchored in the cove. Soon after I tie up at the marina, the skipper and his three kids climb into the dinghy tied up in the next slip. We chat and chuckle about the kids climbing all over his boom.

I listen to NOAA weather radio while I gather up my shower supplies. NOAA predicts rain (and I presume, a low-pressure cell) arriving on Thursday or Friday. I know I’ll make it to Blake Island State Park tomorrow, but now that I’ve nailed down 39 nm in one day, running 35 miles to Dockton doesn’t seem out of the question…except I’d be going against the tide all morning. I think I’ll have a short day tomorrow and tie up at Blake Island. These 30-mile days are pretty tiring.

Later, a hot shower, a shave and fish-and-chips washed down with a cold ale combine to make me feel more civilized. I probably smell better, too.

As I walk back to the marina after dinner, I reflect on the differences between Hood Canal and Puget Sound. I am struck anew by the wildness of Hood Canal. It became evident as soon as I rounded Foulweather Bluff and encountered dozens of boats and many, many more houses. As I left Hood Canal, the Olympia Mountains rose in the misty distance. I did not see them again until entering Appletree Cove.

DAY 4: Tuesday, September 12

Fog pins me in Appletree Cove…

Today could be another long day if wind and weather cooperate. I see some fog drifting about over Puget Sound, but Appletree Cove is clear. Just in case, I pull the radar reflector out from under the starboard quarterberth, assemble it around a stay, and hoist it with the jib halyard. When I’m done the fog is beginning to roll toward Appletree Cove.

Fortune favors the foolish, so I untie and head out around 10 am. About 1/4 mile from the breakwater I begin to encounter fog. I’m motoring very quietly, monitoring the radio and listening for other boats. Continuing forward, soon I cannot see the south shore of Appletree Cove, and behind me the marina and ferry terminal disappears. With my charts and GPS I feel confident I can find Blake Island, but I worry about colliding with other boats. Reversing course I drop the anchor a few hundred yards from the marina entrance, pull out a book and settle in for some reading time.

While I swing on the hook, another smallish sailboat that had left the marina the same time I did reappears. The skipper drifts over and we talk about the fog. He has GPS but no VHF radio and no radar. From his reponses, I begin to think he doesn’t carry nautical charts. Soon he decides to give it a shot, heading north across the ferry lane in the thick fog. This is exactly why I chose to wait for the fog to lift.

Fog finally lifts at 2 pm and I sail south for Blake Island…

Around 1:30 pm I notice the light is getting brighter. Climbing into the cockpit I see the thick fog finally starting to thin, so I begin preparing to get underway. Soon I can see the point southeast of the cove, and even though the fog is still thick in the middle of Puget Sound, I judge it will lift soon. I pull up the anchor, hauling it in hand-over-hand from the cockpit. Sea lettuce covers the chain, and Whisper drifts a little closer to shore while I pick the weed off the chain. The anchor and rode is piled into a milk crate in the cockpit where it can drain and dry.

I motor out of Appletree Cove and find a gentle northerly breeze. Unrolling the genoa to catch the wind, Whisper glides down the east side of Bainbridge Island, running before the wind at about three knots. At that speed, I will make Blake Island around sunset, and I am pleased to be sailing again.

And the wind dies again…

But in keeping with the theme of a sailing trip turned marathon motoring cruise, the wind dies back about the time I come abreast of Eagle Harbor. Whisper slows to less than two knots, most of that speed coming from the flood tide current. I check the chart and realize at this speed I won’t make Blake until after sunset. Considering the commercial, military and ferry traffic in the neighborhood, this is one area of Puget Sound where I don’t want to be out after dark!

I roll up the genoa and start the motor again. Crossing Rich Passage between Restoration Point and Blake Island, I see a ferry in front, one to port, one to starboard, a tug with a tow ahead of me, and a northbound container ship throwing a big wake. I almost make a mistake crossing behind the tug because in the failing light I don’t see the long string of logs (not a raft) being towed behind. I see the tug captain watching me so I look more carefully ahead of me, finally see the logs and veer off.

And that explains exactly why I chose to motor to Blake Island instead of trying to negotiate this area in the dark, at slow speed and reduced manueverability under sail.

Plenty of room at Blake Island…

There is plenty of room at Blake Island at the docks and I tie up near the inside, on the north side of a float, hoping the south wind predicted for tomorrow will help keep the hull away from the dock. I’m more tired than I thought I would be after making 16 nautical miles, with more than half that distance under sail. After taking a shower and eating dinner, I’m surprised to see the skipper who sailed off into the fog at Appletree Cove. We talk for a while and I learn he has big dreams of a round-the-world solo cruise. I confess that particular dream does not live in my heart!

I continue to be amazed at how many sailboats are on the water. It’s September, in the middle of a work week, and kids are back in school. Nevertheless, there were still a few dozen sailboats journeying hither and yon today. Seattle is a busy place.

Tomorrow I will make Quartermaster Harbor on the south end of Vashon Island to visit a friend. Weather is supposed to be cloudy, with a cold front from British Columbia predicted to arrive on Thursday and Friday, carrying some rain showers into the region. I’ll reassess my plans after my Vashon visit.

DAY 5: Wednesday, September 13

A midnight visitor…

Sometime around midnight I hear claws going tickety tack, tickety tack over the deck above my head. Finding my flashlight, I turn it on and aim it toward the plexiglas hatchboard, just in time to see an upside-down racoon face looking in from the upper corner of the hatchboard. He (or she) scrambled off the boat and I am not bothered again.

Mid-morning departure for Quartermaster Harbor…

Catching up on some sleep, I wake up around 8 am. At 10 am I quietly idle out of the marina. As expected, I encounter a strong southwest wind blowing up Colvos Passage. (I got exactly the wrong winds on this trip: northerlies while going up Hood Canal, and southerlies going down Puget Sound!)

I motor through the steep chop across Colvos and consider whether to punch my way south through Colvos against wind and current, or work the more sheltered eastern shore of Vashon Island. Colvos has beat me up before, and remembering that experience, I choose to cruise the back eddies along the eastern shoreline of Vashon and Maury islands. Although this route is longer than going directly down Colvos, I figure I will get a bit more shelter from the chop by taking the outside route.

South around Point Robinson…

And it is sublime along the Vashon shore, with salmon jumping and little adverse current or waves. I am in the wind shadow of Vashon so the motor is at efficient cruise setting and I enjoy the solitude and scenery. I see only a few recreational fishing boats.

As I round Point Robinson, the southwesterly winds I missed while motoring down Vashon Island hit Whisper square on the nose. I rig my boathook tiller extension, extend it to reach the cabin, and stand in the cabin under the dodger while motoring directly into the chop. Spray is hitting the dodger and some flies over the top, and I am very glad to have the dodger for shelter.

A downwind romp ensues…

Rounding the south end of Maury Island to enter Quartermaster Harbor, the wind dies back for a few minutes, perhaps because I’m entering a bay. I unroll about 3/4 of the genoa and start gliding downwind against the ebbing tide, making about two knots.

Soon I feel a bit more wind pressure and hear a growing growling sound. Looking over my shoulder I see nothing but black water with white foamy crests racing toward me. I scramble to roll up most of the genoa. I don’t know how strong the approaching wind is, and I make a spur-of-the-moment decision to leave about 1/4 of the genoa out, hoping I can roll it up if the boat is overpowered.

With that little hanky before the wind, Whisper digs in and runs four to four-and-a-half knots up Quartermaster Harbor, past Dockton, and blasts into Inner Quartermaster Harbor! I want to take some photos, but I can’t let go of the tiller for a second. Turning toward the inner harbor, Whisper slides behind a headland and the wind eases enough I easily roll up the rest of the genoa. What a great downwind romp!

Visiting friends…

I motor to the Quartermaster Harbor Marina where I tie up in my friend’s empty slip. His boat is a beautiful wooden sailboat, currently in Port Orchard getting refitted with a new wooden mast. He calls and comes to the boat, and we drive to his home for stories and a delightful dinner with his spouse.

Returning to Whisper I spend an easy night at the dock.

Mileage by GPS: 21.5 nautical miles.

DAY 6: Thursday, September 14

Headed for Oro Bay but I go somewhere else…

I’m up early, leaving the slip at 7:20 am to catch the flood tide through the Tacoma Narrows.

Today the weather is supposed to deteriorate, and this could mean good sailing. But winds are again against Whisper’s nose, and a bit heavy for tacking down the Narrows where restricted zones are in effect around the bridge pylons and under the center of the main span.

Exiting Quartermaster Harbor I wait for the Tahlequah ferry to pass before proceeding toward Point Defiance. As I round Point Defiance I am concerned by the chaotic seas before me. I see three-foot breaking swells and black water, with waves coming from several directions. The wind direction is off the starboard beam, and that means as I turn the corner to reach the bridge, it will be set directly against the bow…again. Let’s see…wind from the south + four knot current from the north = lumpy, bumpy seas!

Drawn into the Narrows…

As Whisper begins to accelerate, getting drawn toward the Narrows by the flood tide, I look toward Gig Harbor and see it glistening in the sun, under a rainbow. I almost decide to abandon the Narrows passage today. I’m not yet in the full current so I can motor against it and make Gig Harbor where I could anchor or tie up at the public dock.

Then I hear a motor yacht ahead of me talking on the VHF to a Vessel Assist boat patrolling near the bridge, and conditions don’t sound as bad as I am observing near Point Defiance. Is there some kind of macho denial thing going on? Can I trust what I’m hearing? I take a deep breath and enter the main southbound current. I am surprised — almost shocked — to find the water under the bridge nearly glassy as I approach Point Evans.

With the motor humming along at less than half throttle, Whisper whisks through the Narrows at eight knots. I barely have time to take photographs of the new bridge construction.

I ride the main flow to Toliva Shoal, arriving at 10:20 am, still making nearly seven knots. Three hours have elapsed and I’ve covered 16.6 nautical miles. I’m feeling good.

I’m watching the weather because it is supposed to deteriorate. After a rainy patch, it gets better and better. The wind is still on Whisper’s nose, but the sun begins to peek through breaks in the clouds and the water is relatively calm. Since I feel good, I’ve covered lots of ground, and it’s still early, I discard the plan to go to Oro Bay and decide to make more miles while the going is good.

WSU extended learning facility?

I am relatively close to the McNeil Island penitentiary as I debate what to do. Through the binoculars I see the main building appears to be painted in WSU Cougar colors, and even though I’m alone on the boat, I burst out laughing. I’m picturing many of my Cougar coworkers as I show them a picture of the building and ask if it’s the latest WSU extended learning facility.

Whisper zigs right…

Instead of heading down the east side of Anderson Island, I pass the McNeil Island pen and zig to the right, entering Balch Passage, destination Zittel’s Marina at Johnson Point.

A lone sailboat rests on one of the mooring buoys at Eagle Island. It is a serene scene as the stately sailboat rides gently on the waves.

Whisper is still riding the last gasp of the flood tide as I reach Zittel’s at Johnson Point. I’m still feeling good, so I push a bit farther, going through Dana Passage to Boston Harbor Marina. Arriving at 3 pm, I calculate I’ve covered 30.9 nautical miles in 7.5 hours, at an average speed of 4.1 knots, using only about 8/10 of a gallon of gas.

I buy a new pair of Crocs and a sandwich (smoked salmon with pepperjack cheese on light rye) from the marina store, and kick back in the sunshine and enjoy a late lunch as the sun edges toward the western horizon.

I’m two days ahead of schedule…

I now have more flexibility in my schedule. I wasn’t supposed to arrive at Boston Harbor until Saturday. All the motoring instead of sailing has allowed me to get ahead of schedule. Tomorrow I can go to Hope Island, or circumnavigate Harstine Island, or head to Swantown Marina.

I’ll decide what to do in the morning. If weather tomorrow is like today, I’ll sail! At last, I’ll sail! If it deteriorates, I’ll probably head to Swantown. If it gets really snotty, I’ll stay right here, eat an ice cream bar and read another book.

DAY 7: Friday, September 15

McMicken Island, here I come…

Yesterday’s weather forecast was much more grim than the reality. In the cold dawn light I choose to take a chance that today will also turn out better than predicted. The buoys at McMicken Island are always taken when I get there, but I decide to try it one more time. If it’s not windy I will anchor out, or maybe backtrack to Joemma Beach State Park.

I leave Boston harbor at 10 am, motor sailing slowly up Dana Passage against the flood tide. A sea kayak glides along parallel to Whisper, trolling a wet fly, hoping to encounter a hungry salmon. I make about 1.6 knots as I work the back eddies close to shore. I am in no hurry. The motor purrs just above idle, and it is quiet enough I can hear people on shore. The sun peeks from behind clouds now and then. I am warm and mellow in this idyllic morning setting, almost sleepy, when I glimpse a dorsal fin behind me.

An orca! An orca? No. It is a pod of at least three Dall’s porpoises, working the eddies off Dover Point, about 100 yards behind Whisper. Woo hoo! Porpoises!

At noon I round the south end of Harstine Island. Actually, this really means I pass Dickerson Point on the Olympia side of the passage; the southern shore of Harstine is a gentle curve for several miles so it is misleading to say I rounded the end. There is just enough wind now to fill the sails, so off with the motor, matey, and out with the sails!

With all sail up, Whisper strolls along at a stately 1.5 knot against the Dana Passage current, and when I tack away from the current, she reachs up to 2.5 knots. At last I get to sail…but it was not to last. At 12:30 pm the wind becomes featherly light and I can no longer make way against the flood tide. I am still in Dana Passage and caught in the current. A rain shower sluices some of the accumulated salt off Whisper’s sails as I resume motor sailing with just the main up.

The light breeze did not begin to fill in again until I was abreast of McMicken Island. By now I’ve dropped the main and unrolled the genoa. Whisper ghosted to the buoy with half the genoa unrolled.

All buoys are empty. I pick the middle buoy on the north side of the island because the northerly wind is supposed to become a southerly sometime tonight. The north side has a beautiful view, and the sunset to the west reflects on glowing clouds over Herron Island to the northeast.

Total distance today (including tacking back and forth in Dana Passage) was 9.6 nautical miles, over nearly four hours. Tomorrow it’s back to Boston Harbor or Swantown Marina to be retrieved, ending a marathon motoring week.

DAY 8: Saturday, September 16

Last night I had McMicken Island all to myself. I’ve never seen it without at least a few boats. What a peaceful setting.

I motor slowly back to Boston Harbor, catching the tide, making the nine-mile trip in just two hours. For a short distance in Dana Passage the flood tide carried Whisper along at 7.8 knots, nearly as fast as my top speed through the Narrows on this trip.

I saw few boats in Case Inlet today. One 30-something sailboat slowly motored northward near shore as I entered Dana Passage. As we passed and waved, I noticed the skipper had a pole out, trolling for salmon. I think I need to try that next year.

Jan met me at Boston Harbor Marina where we bought lunch and ate together on the boat. After retrieving the truck and trailer, we pulled Whisper and headed home. We stopped at a car wash and power washed the scum line off the hull and gave the trailer a thorough rinse.

HC2O turned into a marathon motor cruise, but it was still delightful.

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3 thoughts on “Hood Canal to Olympia

  1. Russ Yates

    Thanks for sharing your trip! I am new to cruising and, although I have kayaked these waters for years, I am excited to learn to sail them. 🙂

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  2. Erin

    I will be planning the same route here in a week or so. I have a San Juan 24 over in pleasant harbor, what size is Whisper? Any suggestions for better wind times? And what would you have done differently through this route?

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  3. Erin

    Tom, I am planning to make this same run starting next Saturday, in my San Juan 24. I'll be saying a pleasant goodbye to the Pleasant Harbor marina.
    I did not see what size boat or motor you were running. Any tips for my voyage? (this will be my first solo expedition) Were there things you would've done differently to make your journey easier?
    Any knowledge from a familiar party is very welcomed and appreciated.

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