We headed north this summer with one of the largest groups we’ve ever taken into the backcountry; seven new members joined us for two weeks of discovery in the wilderness of the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. A variety of interests and motivations kept things interesting and each member contributed something unique to the whole.
The group arrived at Wrangell in th elate afternoon and it took some time to get everyone shuttled to camp. The rains, which had been constant for the past week, did not dampen spirits and we managed a rather tasty fish chowder over the open fire despite the wet.
Fourth of July in Wrangell, Alaska is truly a unique all-American experience.
The boys had a bit of a lay in this morning because our skipper rescheduled the fishing trip due to the nasty weather – probably a good thing since some of us didn’t return from fireworks until about 1:30am. Fortunately, the rain cleared up in the hours before our departure up the Stikine River. For the first time since we had arrived (that was ten days prior for three of us) we could see the snow-covered peaks of Etolin Island across the channel.
We met Eric Yancey in the harbor in the afternoon of the 5th for our trip up the Stikine River.
The four-day canoe trip down the mighty Stikine River began at Mt. Rynda, a few hundred yards shy of the Canadian border.
We spent our first night on the river at the Mt. Rynda cabin, 30 miles into the heart of the Le Conte Wilderness.While admittedly rather dark and lacking in elbow room, the cabin kept us warm and certainly helped allay any anxiety about camping in the middle of grizzly country.
The cooks-for-the-day delivered up a hearty taco stew that hit the spot after the long afternoon trip up the river.
Next morning, after the LOD (Leaders of the Day) briefing Matt conducted a quick course in proper J-stroke technique. We loaded our gear into the four expedition canoes, got in a bit of practice paddling in the back channel, and tipped our bows into the mainstream of the Stikine.
The raw power of the current in this great river was truly remarkable and carried us swiftly toward our first turn-off into the Ketili River Slough. The learning curve for those new to the canoe was steep, but, despite the circuitous route of some duos, everyone managed the river and began to develop some confidence on the water.
The LODs decided to take us to the Chief Shakes Hot Springs for an afternoon soak in ‘The Tubs’. Chief Shakes is one of Alaska’s 79 natural hot springs. However, actually finding the Springs took some doing, as we misjudged the distance we had traveled along the Ketili Slough and attempted to turn up a tricky stream which we mistakenly took to be the entrance. A bit of contour siting and map work proved that the turn off was situated another 3/4 mile downstream.
Wildlife sighting along the river included several bald eagles and three grizzly bears, a big mother and two cubs foraging along the bank about 50 ft to the front of the lead canoe. I am always in awe of these great beasts and it is a privilege to get a glimpse of them on their own turf. Mama rose up on her hind legs, a truly remarkable sight, before disappearing back into the bush with her cubs at our approach.
After a rather long day on the river — over nine hours — we finally made it to Andrew Creek at dusk and pulled out at the Mt. Flemer Cabin. A late dinner which featured home-made naan bread by our budding camp cook, D.D. went down a treat before we all turned in for a well-earned slumber.
By day three, everyone began to display more skill with the canoe, and after a quick side trip up beautiful Andrew Creek, we headed back into the mainstream of the Stikine, pulling up along a broad sandy bank of one of the big islands to do a little orienteering work (locating position using the back azimuth). Richard’s math skills came in handy here as the lensatic compasses proved a bit tricky and we were dealing with a rather large magnetic declination.
We missed the hard to find entrance to Garnet Slough and instead canoed the main stream of the Stikine as it broadened into the delta.
The camp at the Garnet Ledge cabin provided a good chance for some story telling around the fire ring after watching an amazing sunset – the tale of Old Darrel’s giant crouton seems to have been a particular favorite of the evening. Matt may have also induced some vivid dreams by reading a short story by Edgar Allen Poe.
Our final and probably most difficult day of canoeing involved crossing the sea channel between the mouth of the Stikine and Wrangell Island. Given the good weather and calm water, today’s LOD, Thomas, made the decision to tackle the channel. Departure had to coincide with the tide, making for a rather tricky exit from the river. Deniz and Richard proved masters of the mud flats, finding the right channels to get us all into open water – a couple of us were forced to get out of our canoes to get across the sand bars. The flats may have exercised the mind, but the two and a half mile paddle across the sea channel certainly exercised the arms muscles. For several hours we fought the exceptionally strong current of the incoming tide, but all made it safely back to harbor and enjoyed some clam strips and pizza at the Marine before heading up the Middle Ridge.
Two nights and a full day on the Middle Ridge of Wrangell Island provided an opportunity to explore an area of high elevation muskeg. We discovered some fresh deer and wolf tracks in the area and crossed paths with a sizable and plump porcupine that waddled down the road a bit before diving into the bush.
One morning we discovered fresh wolf prints in the mud immediately outside of our cabin, which prompted Matt to carry an ax with him for the entire day.
During a bit of late afternoon fishing we managed to confirm with a few bites that there are indeed fish in the pond, but failed to pull in anything to supplement dinner.
Bug-out came early on the Middle Ridge, with the first group departing at 5am for an early morning rendezvous with the Yeagers and their boat in Wrangell harbor. After a welcomed espresso take-away, we boarded and headed for a remote drop in Berg Bay, our base camp for the next three days. The weather cooperated in making the Berg Bay camp a particular favorite for several of us – some of the boys even managed to swim in the frigid water and take some sun on the mooring out in the bay.
From our cabin, we made several day hikes into the hinterland and were fortunate enough to see a couple of bears at safe distance.
Three days at Berg Bay proved a great opportunity for some regeneration. We had some truly amazing weather for Southeastern Alaska and found ourselves in the middle of some of the most outstanding, remote, and beautiful remnants of untouched wilderness.
The group spent a few hours one afternoon bushwhacking along the north end of the bay in an attempt to find some caves, but the undergrowth became to dense to make much forward progress. We managed to move only a few hundred yards in three hours.
In order to get fresh water for the Berg Bay camp, we had to hike about a mile and a half into the forest to a small stream. Along the way we discovered an abundance of ripe cloudberries which made for a tasty natural snack. We ended up collecting a quart or so and added them to our pancakes the next morning.
The estuary behind Berg Bay is a top draw for both grizzlies and black bears feeding along the streams. On one occasion we spotted a big grizzly in mid-stream about 800 yards out – he quickly became aware of us and made his way across the flats and into the far treeline.
A final boat transfer carried us about 15 miles up the coast and dropped us off on the mainland near the mouth of Mill Creek.
A mile hike inland brought us to the edge of Virginia Lake, where we faced a bit of a challenge: a single skiff with no oars. The boys headed out along the edge of the lake through some extremely dense bush and hiked the four miles to Virginia Lake Cabin – much of it actually in the lake itself.
Luckily we ran into a group visiting the lake that had an extra pair of oars, so Matt and I rowed the equipment across the lake while the rest of the group hiked the edge of the lake. Some rather select Irish ballads helped get us back across the lake upon our return; Matt’s version of Copacabana — apparently the only song he knows all the lyrics for — met with greater acceptance.
Part of the group rowed across the lake to the mouth of Mill Creek for a day of fishing.
On the final day of the trip the boys joined John Yancey for a day of salmon fishing along the western channel. Unfortunately the kings just weren’t biting this day so we had to scap our plans for a grilled salmon feast and instead shared a final dinner of delicious halibut burgers at the harbor inn.