Sometimes a trip into the wilderness sounds so good that I don’t question the reality of what it will take to actually survive the expedition. The idea of spending ten days traveling through the protected waters of Seymour Canal and crossing from lake to lake, one side of Admiralty Island to the other seemed like one of the greatest trips a person could do in Alaska. Hauling a sea kayak through old growth forest remained a small side note until I was face to face with the challenge.
I’d read about Allen Hasselborg and Stan Price, two heroes of mine that had spent the bulk of their life within the untamed landscape of Admiralty Island. Living off the land in the midst of the densest brown bear population on Earth was a concept my close friends and I had often talked about. During the winter a coworker had told us about a route from Juneau through Oliver’s Inlet, down Seymour Canal, into Mole Harbor (this route passes Price and Hasselborg’s homesteads), small hikes then connect several beautiful lakes in a chain across Admiralty leading to the small fishing village of Angoon. From there the Alaska Marine Highway travels back to Juneau. This was the perfect summer trip.
Two weeks before the trip I stepped off a tree root and twisted my anle in the uneven moss below. All our planning and logistics seemed to wither away as I hobbled slowly, in severe pain, along a mild trail. I spent the next two weeks with my foot elevated, collecting various leg braces determined not to be left behind. However, after looking at my swollen ankle, the consensus was that I should stay home. Everything had seemed to come together for this trip and one 2 foot step had canceled it. Screw that. I practiced with the leg braces and made myself believe that the swelling was reducing.
The night before we were to leave I sat with all my food and supplies, pushing at my leg with marsh mellow shaped toes. This was a stupid idea. I was being stubborn, putting myself and my friends in danger by staying on the team with a twisted/swollen ankle. It felt somewhat alright walking around my apartment but what if something happened halfway through? Admiralty is huge, over 1,600 square miles of mostly untouched Alaskan wilderness. It was declared a national monument creating a healthy environment for the brown bear population to grow. This has led to statistics showing 1-3 brown bears per square mile, by the numbers that is over 2,000 Alaskan brown bears roaming on one island. Admiralty’s nickname is “The Fortress of the Bear.” Anything could go wrong on this trip and I was the weak link. I couldn’t say no, I’d wait until morning to say yes.
Boo hoo, poor me, I decided to go. Also, Bryan, Inua, and Brandon decided to risk having me along, knowing my condition.
You can paddle from the southern end of Juneau, at Sheep Creek around Douglas Island to Oliver’s Inlet. In decent weather it takes a little more than two hours to kayak. However, Inua had worked out a deal with his boss for boating us to the entrance of Oliver’s Inlet. So we spent the afternoon enjoying the rare summer sunshine. Although having too much extra time on my hands led me to one of the most annoying and B.S. decisions of the trip. I talked with a guide/owner of a local kayak shop trying to get more details on our route. As our send-off time neared I began to fully realize how little I knew about what the hell we were getting ourselves into. The kayak guide and I chatted for a while and, seeing as I had a bad leg he sold me on the idea of getting a little help from some kayak support wheels AND since the pair he had with him were in need of some small repairs he’d give me a discount on them. He had little useful information about the route but gave me a sweet deal on the wheels. Those fucking wheels became my ten day enemy. The reason for me to stay alive was to bring the goddamn kayak wheels back with a Molotov cocktail and burn the place down. My biggest lesson: Don’t ever bring kayak wheels into the forest. Anyone who says otherwise is a lying bastard.
The weather was incredible and it kept getting better. The seas were calm and our trip to Oliver’s Inlet was so nice I had a hard time motivating myself to leave the boat and begin paddling to an uncivilized coastline. Then I dropped into my kayak and the full truth of what we were doing started to wrap around me. Did I have enough food? Did I have all the right gear? Was there something I forgot? Is the trail even marked? I was the only one without a gun, thinking bear spray was enough. SHIT! The island seemed to come towards me more than I was paddling towards it. The sound of the boat speeding off cemented the fact that we were alone and this was it. The only way out was to travel 70 miles across mountains, lakes, and ocean.
One of the most important lessons I learned about the ocean for multiday trips is that you’ve got to live by the tides. If the tide is working against you, then it is time to slow down and try to enjoy the situation. Southeast Alaskan tides can often swing 14-19 feet in six hours, revealing or covering up all types of landscape. If the ocean is working against you, the best bet is to stop and wait for the tide to be in your favor. That lesson came to us real quick as the tide was going out by the time we reached Oliver’s Inlet, creating a river-like current keeping us from entering the inlet. We tested the flow but even at maximum paddle we were only able to stay static in the water. It was time to go ashore, set up a fire, enjoy the scenery, and wait for the tides to change.
We landed with a loud WHOOT! WHOOOOOOT! echoing off the mountains around us. I can only imagine what Brandon thought at hearing our patented bear call. We let everything within earshot know that we had arrived, hoping they’d all stay away. Yet, after 45 minutes we came across our first brown bear. We were gathering wood for the fire when Brandon, laughing, called out, “bear”. As he backed up a young 300 pound bear strolled out of the woods. Bryan pulled out his .50 caliber, Inua had a .45, and Brandon leveled his shotgun while I unclipped my bear spray. I can pinpoint this as one of the most unsatisfying/unmanly moments in my life. What in the fucking-goddamn-hell was I doing on Admiralty “The Fortress of the Brown Bear” Island without a giant gun? At the time, I was a hiking guide and had been spouting the statistic that bear spray was proven vastly more effective then guns at deterring bear attacks. I figured I’d use this trip as an experiment to back-up all my talk. I’ve never felt more naked and dumb then that first bear encounter.
This young bear got within 30 feet of us, never showing signs of hesitation. We shouted and grouped together but he didn’t really seem to care. He slowly turned, showing us his back as he sauntered down the beach. I think we all felt a little adrenaline dump as we exhaled and came to grips with what just happened. This was actually a good thing. We began to formulate an understanding of what to do next time we saw a bear, that way we were all on the same page.
Never go anywhere, no matter how short the distance, without a gun or bear spray
Don’t even say the word bear unless you see one
If it gets any closer than 30 feet, shoot
It took a while to fully calm down. Sitting on the rocky shore, we tried to take in the scenery and enjoy the fire. In early July of 2009 there had been a total of 70 active fires across Alaska; this led to an amazing purple and gold haze filling the sky. We watched the current slow and begin to push the other way as the tide changed. Lucky for us, summer was in full tilt, at 10pm we still had enough sunlight to pack up our gear and leave shore. We paddled by headlamp up the inlet. Bryan and Inua were not able to gain access to kayaks so they opted for the use of a Zodiac and a small kicker. While Brandon and I made our way they were tasked with dodging shallow barnacle-covered rocks that could puncture their boat. Up ahead, we had a quiet and peaceful paddle through the inlet. Nearing midnight the light finally gave way and the mountains to either side of us turned black. As we continued through the dark the moon slowly came into view. The forest fires effect could be seen as the moon took on a strange burnt orange glow.
We were enjoying our moonlight cruise and getting close to the end of Oliver’s Inlet. Somewhere in the dark there was a trail that led to a tramway off the beach. This tramway is like a small train track in which a kayaker or anyone with gear can bring their supplies from Oliver’s Inlet to the Cabin at the top of Seymour Canal. However, it became painfully obvious that the location of the X on our map and the trams actual location in the real world was very vague and could be anywhere along a half mile of shoreline. So there we were, after midnight gliding along looking for a sign in the dark. We pointed our headlamps towards the shore looking for any trace of reflection off the forest service sign, hoping not to catch the glimmer of eyes in the woods.
This is where I learned an important gear lesson. When traveling by dark you can have all kinds of backup headlamps and little lights, but nothing will replace a high powered searchlight. Luckily Brandon had already known this and began raking his 800 lumen light across the base of the trees. Found it. Once on shore I strapped on my huge leg brace and brought my kayak up to the boardwalk trail. This looked like the perfect spot to test out my kayak wheels… After 30 feet of bullshit I was pissed. They scissored apart like a lawn chair yielding to a fat man. With Brandon’s help I peg-legged my kayak up to the tram car. We loaded our gear up and by early morning we made our way along the dark tracks.
Heeding the advice of the posted tram directions, we made our way into the forest trying not to lose control of our loaded-down-no-brakes cart. Brandon was in front pulling with rope; I was in back as the hobbling brake man. Everything was going good until we neared a slope, then we started to pick up speed. Since our kayaks stuck way over the front and back of the tram cart, my only position of contact with the cart itself was from the side. This meant I was walking the tram rail ties, galloping along with a big plastic boot. This became exceeding difficult with more speed. My fear of bears lurking in the woods quickly faded as I tried to slow our runaway kayak train, not fall of the tram bridge, and keep the kayaks secured as well. Brandon had to let go and jump to the side. Somewhere out ahead of us Bryan and Inua were dealing with their own cart’s velocity. If we didn’t slow down soon… I missed one of the ties and my foot found deep muskeg, my entire boot was submerged in muddy grass. Taking matters into his own hands, Brandon caught up with the cart and slowed it to a stop. I pulled on my leg trying to free it from the sludge. The murky muskeg slowly released its grip. I sat for a minute taking in the whole situation. Since I could hear the cart not screaming down the track, I swept the woods with my headlamp looking for bears while I caught my breath. My leg had begun to stink before, now it was just nasty. In the distance someone was excited about a cabin. I met up with Brandon, he laughed at my boot and we continued on to our last night indoors.
Our first day had been fun but draining and all we really wanted to do was go to sleep. However, four people with ten days worth of food motivated us to properly deal with the situation. We moved everything edible inside and left our kayaks, zodiac, and other gear on the carts. Looking down at the mess of a brace strapped to my leg. I decided right then to retire the monstrous boot; it would not leave the kayak until I was back in Juneau.
I woke to the calling of “5 o’clock!” I didn’t even open my eyes. “5:30!” Nobody was moving. “6 o’clock!” What the fuck was going on? “Hey 7:15!” I began to think this was an alarm clock in hell. I was so tired, there was little I could do but tilt my head, look around, then pass out again.
We had planned our trip by the tides, trying to take advantage of the waters ebb and flow. We’d missed our shot up Oliver’s on day one. Brandon was trying not to make the same mistake twice but our late night tram adventure had made a new schedule for the day. His attempts to wake us for high tide were met with a refusal to move. Sometime later we woke to another sunny day and an extremely low tide. Stepping out on the cabin deck we knew we’d be enjoying it right here for a while. Seymour Canal ends in a giant mud flat that is almost a mile long when the tide is completely out. Not wanting to carry our gear and boats to the water’s edge, we decided to relax and get more accustomed to living by the tides. Admiralty Island is absolutely beautiful, especially on a sunny day. We grabbed guns, bear spray, and cameras then went off to check out the tram in the daylight.
Upon our arrival back at the cabin we picked up a few visitors. A motley crew of British folk were lugging their kayaks up the shallow incoming tide. They claimed to be shooting a documentary on their travels through Southeast. We packed up our gear and freed the carts up for their use. As the tide reached our little inlet we headed off watching the most talkative Brit make faces and lament into his camera as he drug his kayak across the ground to the tramway.
The water was extremely shallow at the top of the bay and the whole situation gave me the creeps. We were sitting in kayaks floating on two feet of water with 4’-5’ of grass hiding the woods beyond. Nothing could be seen and I felt helpless were a bear to come stomping at us. We survived our shallow path as the creek opened up into Seymour Canal, an amazing body of ocean water protected for over forty miles. The sun was out, the day looked beautiful, and we began our paddle. Every once in a while we would see a fishing boat chugging along far off in the distance, other than that, we seemed to be completely alone out on the water.
After paddling for an hour or so we broke out beyond the inlet and the spectacle of Seymour Canal was ahead – islands divide the canal with large rolling mountains reaching up from Glass Peninsula. However, the mainland held the most incredible view. As we looked back west, Swan Cove seemed to offer limitless towering jagged mountains that became more and more pale as they hid behind the burning forest haze.
We paddled 13 miles, leaving by the tides had started our day late. So we found a nice sandy beach off Swan Island and made camp for the night. The unusually dry and warm weather had left the old growth forest with an unending supply of firewood. We set up a fire on the beach to watch the sun dip low on the horizon as we ate dinner. This was our first night away from everything, no cabins, trams, or anything, only the supplies we’d brought with us. It was truly amazing to be alone on an island surround by the vast wilderness of Admiralty. The good weather seemed to amplify our feeling of being completely content. We sat for quite a while enjoying the fire and the fading sun.
Once the night came, we realized all our gear was strewn about camp, not good during the height of bear season. Our first attempt at hanging food bags in the dark became a lengthy spectacle of fools. Tired minds and hands fumbled through devils club as we found the right alder tree to sling our bags up. After breaking a few branches and dropping a couple bags our gear dangled from the poor alder like an uneven meat locker. It wasn’t pretty but it served a purpose. We stopped admiring our work when Inua noticed his .45 was missing. We pawed through the flattened devils club and grass slowly as to not end the trip premature.
Once back at the fire the night eased into the serene. By now the sand around us was warm, the dark of night was already turning blue, and day three was coming. So far so good, my leg was holding up, the seas were good, the weather was amazing, Admiralty was being very generous with us. We still had 8 days until Angoon and I just wanted this feeling to last.