The snowcapped six-thousand-foot Mt. Cleveland rises straight out of the Bering Sea, one of just a handful of active volcanoes in the Aleutian Islands. Our goal: To paddle among it and its neighboring islands, and ultimately stand atop it. For perspective, note the kayak in the foreground of the photo.
We went looking for sea kayaking at its most extreme and this part of the world - known by the Aleuts as 'the Birthplace of the Winds' - proved a challenge every day for five weeks. Our biggest concern? Thirty-five degree water temperatures.
Our motto for the trip was 'Paddle for your life!' Thanks to the very cold water, we tried to spend as little time as possible on the water, sprinting from island to island. Our longest crossing was 17 miles; here my teammate Sean Farrell is caught in the midst of the windy pass between Kagamil and Chuginadak.
This photo sums up the 'Islands of Four Mountains' expedition for me. We had taken down camp (every time we moved from island to island we took everything we had with us, not wanting to be separated from any gear in case a storm moved in) and were ready to paddle around the corner of Kagamil. But as we packed a sizable storm came in and we retreated. Patience was a main reason the expedition was a success.
Typical day? Wind, rain, 28 degrees (with windchill). 'Like living in a refrigerator,' quipped my teammate Sean Farrell. This was during the middle of a 60-hour storm, which pinned us in our tents on Chuginadak.
When the sun was out - which was only about one day out of five - it was a most beautiful place to be. We are camped at the base of one of two volcanoes on Chuginadak, this one dormant.
During the course of five weeks it was mandatory that we bathe at least once a week. This happened to be my birthday, and the cold water - and kelp - made for a great scrub.
One of our pre-trip concerns was whether or not we'd be able to find beaches big enough to land our kayaks on. This 4-mile long black volcanic sand beach on Chuginadak was a perfect landing spot, though we set up camp at the far end of the beach to try and hide from the non-stop winds.
After successfully paddling among the five islands we attempted to climb the 6,000-foot Mt. Cleveland, which - if successful - would be a 15-hour, roundtrip ascent.
Near the top of Mt. Cleveland we were battered by strong winds and blowing snow, though the most dangerous element was the noxious winds blowing from the crater of the active volcano.
The best part of our successful climb of Mt. Cleveland was that as the sky cleared we could see all of the routes we'd taken as we paddled among the islands, and the camps we'd made. It was the perfect way to spend the 4th of July.
Summer in the Aleutians lasts just a few weeks and the flowers and grass grow fast; on the bright, sunny days it was hard to imagine a place more beautiful.