Very close to 3am the Sun began to heat up the beach. A scorching hot day was upon us and we hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Open to the unobstructed sun, I now regretted sleeping under a clear sky. We all tried to hide from the light but it did little good, as now the ravens and various birds started socializing. These are good problems to have considering where we were. After hours of trying to sleep in paradise, I finally got up. Looking down Seymour Canal, our day was going to be pretty incredible. The sun was shining and the water looked calm. I searched my tent for my camera, minutes later conveniently finding it in the back pocket of my pants. I had spent the night tossing and turning to the point I had smashed the LCD screen on my point-and-shoot. We were getting into the thick of our Admiralty adventure and my camera was busted. Somehow I managed to blindly navigate the menu and get the camera’s settings back to automatic. I had turned my several hundred dollar camera into an instamatic. I took a shot down the canal and shoved it back in my pocket.
As with the previous days the tide was completely against us. Our kayaks were high and dry and we decided to let the next couple hours pass until the current was going with us. The sweltering 70+ degree weather helped us retreat into the shady woods of Swan Island. Mid-morning and early afternoon were spent wasting the batteries on our ipods as no one wanted to paddle for hours with the sun directly above us. So we moved real slow, exploring the woods, filling nalgenes, packing up and preparing for a scorching day on the water. (Side note: Brandon had been using a UV pen to filter his water, up until that point it had worked without incident. However, after using it for well over a year the batteries went dead on day two of the trip. We all agreed that having a water purifier that didn’t require batteries was essential to any multi day trip into the Wilderness.) We’d already spent loads of time trying to figure out the best way to pack our kayaks but now we had time to really dial it in. Brandon and I both had different approaches, so no real help can be solicited from us. Except, maybe have snacks and water with you while maintaining quick access to bear spray or gun.
The day was a breeze. When we put ourselves to task our kayaks could outrun the hum of a 2 HP kicker on the zodiac, from time to time we pushed ourselves ahead to make things a little more quiet. However, this is where Seymour Canal really starts to impress with several large Islands shaping our path. So we found ourselves stopping to enjoy fading layers of mountains down the Canal while falling behind the buzzing motor. Passed Swan on our way behind Windfall, Tiedeman Island rose out of the water. Our destination was somewhere halfway down the Island. Unfortunately we had some distance to cover and couldn’t drop into Pack Creek, located directly next to Windfall Island. Decades earlier it had been home to Stan Price and his wife. They lived on a houseboat shored up on the beach and it is believed that their contact with the bears helped condition them to the presence of man, making them a rare sight in the world of brown bears.
As Brandon and I took in the scenery we were oblivious to obstacles Bryan and Inua were facing. The cool breeze that was keeping us from overheating was developing small swells for their zodiac, on top of that, they ran out of gas in the largest stretch of open water we had come across. We hadn’t noticed that the peace and quiet we were experiencing was them immobilized in choppy water. By the time they caught up to us the sun was nearing the mountain tops.
There were a few trade-offs with our late departure: the weather is generally better earlier in the day (winds are calmer on the seas and temperatures are cooler) making for an easier time on the water. Leaving later let us sleep in and pack-up at a more relaxed pace. We endured slightly bumpy seas but what we gained was a killer sunset while out in the canal. The forest fires were still smoking, leaving a haze that helped give a golden wash to the mountains around us.
We didn’t have a particular spot to camp, just a general distance we wanted to cover. As our boats traveled down Tiedeman Island everyone noted that the shoreline was mostly jagged rock. Cruising on, camp need to be a decent beach with a fresh water creek near-by. As we came to the mid-section of the island we neared an acceptable beach. However, this created a thought provoking situation: the beach was in the deep shade of a cove and offered no view and Brandon, always looking for the best shot, wanted to camp on the point with a view back up the canal. The point was a bit rockier and further from freshwater but would give us more light and an incredible bluff to camp on. I hemmed and hawed for a minute, but the semi rocky bluff seemed too good to pass up.
Our campsite couldn’t have come soon enough, as we were happy to be getting out of the water the sun seemed to be dipping below the mountains fast. We unloaded our gear under another fiery orange sky. Once we made our way up the bluff and had camp situated I couldn’t have been happier. Our tents were about 12 feet up a small rock cliff while below was a flat rocky area comfortable enough to have a fire and enjoy what was left of the setting sun’s light. As my ipod neared the end of its juice, I introduced Brandon to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. We all enjoyed the mellow album while cooking up dinner and relaxing after a mild day of paddling.
Sitting on the rocks, we realized all our water bottles were now empty and everyone was thirsty after enduring the heat. Here is where our trade off came into play. We grabbed all the guns, bear spray, nalgenes, headlamps, and manual water filters for our excursion into the dark. It was a bit of a trek around the cove but it wasn’t until we reached the stream that we all got a bit antsy. The water was too shallow and mixed with the ocean until up the creek a ways where it escaped the reach of salt water. Getting their seemed sketchy as the banks were steep and any flat area was lined with grass taller than use. From what we could make out in the dark, the creek made a bend off into a dark tunnel in the woods. This looked like a premium bear mauling site. Without hesitation Bryan’s 50. Cal lit up the night with two loud KA-BOOMS! Even with my hands clasped on my ears the roar of the high caliber hand gun was incredible. My only fear now was that we might have scared a bear into running straight at us. Luckily we saw no bear and were able to filter water in peace along a crooked bank on the dark creek. We made the long trek back and sipped our cold water by the fire, watching the sky warm into the next day.
During the early hours of the day we were constantly woken by the strange breathing of a humpback whale. I’d begin to drift off and hear a, “grog! pshh!” I’d laugh, get irritated then cover my head and try to fall asleep. However, once the early morning sun made its way through the trees to the side of my face, I got up. We made our breakfast trying to stay in the shade while waiting for the tide to cover our rocky beach. However, our efforts to lounge were interrupted by a loud crash off on the water. We rounded the point looking south down the canal only to see calm seas. As the minutes ticked by and heat began to push us back to the shade the strange breathing whale burst out of the water breaching almost fully into the air. Shocked by how close it was, we waiting for more. The humpback broke the surface again, this time with a powerful breath combined with a loud squealing kazoo/trumpet sound. Soon it made a steep dive throwing its tail in the air and disappearing under the water. Again it breached, twisted, and smashed back into the ocean. For about half an hour the whale gave us a show, slapping the water and getting airborne, so we sat in the sand leaving our cameras at camp not daring to miss out on a whale breaching right off the beach.
As the tide began to lift our packed kayaks, we scanned the view to the south. Soon we would pass the protection of Tiedeman Island and be open to the potentially bigger seas of Seymour Canal. Day three had started off with a surprise whale encounter, after looking at the map we hoped for a mellow paddle into Mole Harbor. This leg of the trip would be our longest paddle, coming in around 16 miles so we stuffed cliff bars and trail mix behind our seats and shoved off. Luckily the ocean seemed to be fairly tame. We did get a bit of wind blowing in from the mouth of Seymour Canal but for the most part we cruised. Along the way we stopped at Buck Island and had lunch. The island was barely off shore with a land bridge revealing itself at low tide. We stretched our legs while exploring the shade. The zodiac, Bryan and Inua had discovered, was leaking slowly. The leak seemed slow enough that as long as they stayed on top of it the boat should stay afloat. After we investigated the small island they pumped the boat back up and we were back on the water heading south.
The wave action began to get interesting as we made our way around the point into Mole Harbor. Two different directions of water came together giving us our most turbulent seas so far but once we cut through we were given an amazing sight – a huge cove surrounded by mountains. Towering behind everything was a broad shouldered peak still white with snow. The top thinned to a fin-like rise with a flat top, a very distinct mountain. All around were spruce and hemlock covered hills. I could see how someone would want to spend their whole life here.
Allen Hasselborg had hunted and trapped across Admiralty Island and picked Mole Harbor to be his home for almost 40 years. From this location he would guide scientists up into the mountains to study and collect species of plants and animals thought unknown to the rest of world. He also led several hunts with big wigs coming from Washington D.C. around the island. Ultimately, Hasselborg’s legacy would be to show influential people the amazing untouched landscape of Admiralty Island, which (combined with Stan Prices raising bear awareness at Pack Creek) would later move Washington to create the Admiralty Island National Monument. This declared monument would protect the vast majority of Admiralty Island from ever being developed, keeping it totally wild and untamed. Now we were entering Hasselborg’s stomping grounds.
If timed improperly it is actually a strenuous task getting to the back of Mole Harbor. The entire area is a huge tidal flat that can stretch for over a mile. We had maps of the area, but not true nautical charts so we were caught off guard when we saw huge expanses of seaweed creating a massive yellow field. Brandon and I paddled slowly trying to get as far inland as possible while Inua and Bryan tensely navigated the shallow waters trying not to puncture their zodiac on the blue mussel covered rocks. Yet, we eventually went as far as the water could take us and had to get out, still far from dry shore. We scanned the area with binoculars in search of the Mole Harbor Shelter. We hadn’t seen a shelter yet and wondered how it would compare to the first night’s cabin. After several minutes of looking at maps and guessing, we picked a spot and started to walk towards it with minimal gear. We didn’t want to be wrong after packing in a bunch all our bags.
We found the cabin tucked away in the trees, this was another lesson in realizing the scale of the map versus the actual landscape making it hard to pinpoint something as small as a trail or a single building. The structure looked old, the wood was weathered to a light grey and had only three sides. We knew it would leave us exposed but I still found it a little disheartening. This was our first actual night on Admiralty proper without four walls. We dropped off what little gear we’d brought and walked back to our kayaks. Before this point most of our travels had been on water, now it was time for me to put my collection of leg braces to the test and hoist kayaks through tidal mud. Teaming up on one kayak, Brandon and I made our way around the tide pools and jagged rocks. My leg seemed to feel better loaded with more weight so we plowed up to shore, getting our kayaks and gear to the shelter in preparation for dinner.
With no rain for such a long stretch of time the old growth forest provided all the wood we would need to have a blazing fire through the night. We finished setting up camp just in time to see another red moon rise up over Glass Peninsula. This had been our longest day yet and it felt good to relax. As I was stretching out on my sleeping pad I watched embers from the fire trail up into night, the three sided shelter was getting more and more comfortable as I warmed up. Moments later I sunk down to the uncomfortable ground. Sure enough, our blazing fire had dropped a hot cinder onto the foot of my sleeping pad. Luckily we always bring duct tape on any long trip. I was able to turn the burnt hole into a super slow leak and continue to enjoy the night.
The next morning was a struggle to get up. We all new that this was where the hard work was going to start – from here we would be spending as much time hauling gear over land as we would paddling on lakes, maybe more. The thought of carrying a kayak through the deep woods of Admiralty during the height of salmon spawning sent me back to sleep. For several days we’d been protected by the ocean waters, now it was time to enter the fortress of the bear.