I’d had dreams of waking up to an Admiralty brown bear sniffing on my feet, ready to chew. Luckily, when I woke all I saw was the missing fourth wall to our shelter and smoke from last night’s fire. Blowing up my slowly deflating sleeping pad, I stayed in bed just a little longer. Everyone was tired from our previous day’s trek and we all knew that we’d be hauling everything through the woods for most of the day. That kept us rolled up tight. It wasn’t until the pangs of hunger took over that we decided to welcome day five. We managed to bring the fire back to life with little effort and began the task of breaking down camp while getting our gear into a more consolidated, mobile walking set up. But before any of that, we needed a hearty breakfast to get us going.
We were finally perfecting the art of hanging bags: quickly finding trees with big branches too high for bears, hoisting heavy bags up into the sky, and most importantly – bringing the bags down with ease and a little grace while not killing anyone. We’d also gotten a pretty good cooking routine down to get everyone fed at the same time: boiling water for everyone’s coffee at the same time in one stove and water for oatmeal/dehydrated meals in another, then get the second batch of coffee ready and so on. Breakfast entertainment was another new part of the trip, as I had grabbed some cheap oatmeal (the super sugary kind) with packaging covered with dino-facts, riddles, and clean jokes. These oatmeal packages quickly became the morning paper, stimulating our brains with fresh information on the outside world, very important stuff.
We hadn’t really tested out our means of land travel so all four of us were trouble shooting just how to make the ~2 mile portage from Mole Harbor to Lake Alexander. Bryan and Inua had their zodiac, 15 gallons of gas, and a motor to worry about. Meanwhile Brandon and I were coming to terms with the best way to bring our kayaks and dry bags while making the least amount of trips. We watched as Inua strapped the motor to his bag and felt mighty glad that wasn’t either of us. Then Bryan walked by with several gas jugs trapped to his back. Looking at all that weight, Brandon and I were more than a little happy not to be in their situation. So we started our portage trying to carry both kayaks at once and found that we would die if kept that idea going. It wasn’t a possibility. Then we tried putting a little bit of gear into my kayak and strapped on the kayak wheels. Finally. The wheels had been a burning question in my mind and I wanted to see them in action. However, previous attempts had shown that they were not working properly and were slightly broken, in that they didn’t quite sit right underneath the kayak. We rigged them up with some extra rope (always bring extra rope) and began pulling the kayak down the trail. It worked semi-not-shitty for about twelve seconds, but with the first bend in the trail the wheels and our rigging fell apart, and the view beyond it became apparent that these wheels were the stupidest fucking idea. Anyone with half a brain wouldn’t have taken them and anyone with a sliver of good in their heart wouldn’t have rented them out. We ripped the wheels off and I threw them on my pack for later. We were getting anxious now as Bryan and Inua had already left. To pump ourselves up, Brandon and I slammed some Gatorade packets with water, a swig of Old Grand Dad whiskey, and a Cliff Bar. We were ready. One kayak, lift it and go. Hoisting up the kayak we started shuffling with it near thigh high. After about twenty steps we both agreed, fuck that, and dropped the kayak. Gatorade, whiskey, and a Cliff Bar had sent my heart racing while my brain was about to explode. We took a brain break and assessed our portaging choices. Our kayak was still too heavy, so we took out even more gear. I wanted to sling the kayaks onto our shoulders but Brandon had reservations about that. As they were borrowed fiberglass kayaks, if we dropped one on the root infested trail or smashed one up against a tree, not only would we owe someone a kayak but we’d be stranded deep in the wilderness. So we continued on with the hip shuffle. We’d make our way down the trail a bit then one of us would yell “switch,” and we’d change to the other hand. A little bit further we’d switch again, this time the person in front would move to the back so that the kayak would aggravate the body from a slightly different angle. Periodically we gave a Woot! to the woods, letting any bears near-by know we were there.
Slowly we made our way through the woods – sweating, cursing, using team work to get us through the old growth trail. Under the blazing sun our plan wasn’t working very well. Brandon had the remedy. He’d stashed the Old Grand Dad 100 proof Whiskey in the kayak for emergencies. With sweat pouring off our faces we took a break and he produced the bottle. Now, I always think people should drink responsibly and sure enough we needed to treat this situation with respect. However, we quickly created a proper strategy for administering the medicine. Our technique became to gulp down a swig every so often when our muscles began to burn and we could feel bones grinding. After a few minutes of rest and rehydration we were singing, laughing, and waddling with a kayak in the middle of the forest.
The area was beautiful and untouched. Every now and then we came across mud patches and bogs but found that someone had actually put logs down at some point. There was some human maintenance on this old path and trail was in excellent shape considering we were in the middle of nowhere. There didn’t seem to be much overgrowth, the trail was easy to follow, and the views offered were amazing. However, we finally saw Inua and Bryan as they walked back to get the rest of their gear. We asked how far til the end and they seemed optimistic that we were half way. We decided to take a break and swig about it. The terrain wasn’t getting any easier, in fact we had an eroded rut to get through. We were both sore and tired, holding onto one end of the kayak like a bag of heavy groceries. The only thing to do was throw the kayak onto our shoulders and try to maneuver through the trench. We took off our shirts and folded them onto our shoulders for padding. Once the kayak was above my waist and resting next to my head the world seemed to be a much happier place. This felt right. The kayak seemed so much lighter and we could move with it so much easier. We happily made our way through the woods without braking in despair every few hundred yards.
Seeing Lake Alexander for the first time was a beautiful thing. We dropped the kayak into the tall grass and laid in the shade of the old growth. Shouldering the boats was going to be a lot easier and faster so we sprawled out taking our time to relax. Soon Bryan and Inua found us. The zodiac was a lot lighter and made for a quick portage but it was awkward to hold so they balanced it on their heads. Sitting down they kept rubbing their skulls searching for bald spots. Now they had their boat and were basically ready to go. Brandon and I still had another kayak and more gear to bring over, definitely two more trips. We ate relatively quick and enjoyed some Old Grand Dad with our friends, hung our food bags, then watched the zodiac putt off towards the cabin while wishing we were them.
The trip back to our remaining gear was a lot more claustrophobic. Our friends were on the water while we still had a lot to do, just walking back was close to 2 miles. Towards midday the area really started to quiet down, the birds weren’t singing and everything seemed more still. It all gave me the impression that we were somehow even more alone than before, except for bears, it always seemed like they could be anywhere in the dense brush right off the trail. Lots of Woots! were thrown into the woods. Back at Mole Harbor we looked at the second kayak and decided to grab all the gear instead. Hauling dry bags would hopefully give our arms just enough of a break to portage another kayak through the woods. Towards the end of our gear trip we realized that the day wasn’t going to get any brighter, so we started jogging. We dropped the bags at the edge of Lake Alexander and were about to run back, when off in the distance the familiar whine of the 2 horse engine buzzed louder and louder. Bryan and Inua were charging back towards us. With an empty boat and high spirits they made their way to shore. They were testing the boats speed without gear by using the GPS, 3.4 mph (with a tail wind). We had a good laugh then ran back for our final ass-whooping of the day. As tired as we were, shouldering the kayak was the best/smartest thing we could have done. Any fears we had of damaging the kayak were wiped out by the knowledge of carry the boat the right way. So we stared at the kayak for a moment, got a little pep from Old Grand Dad and made our way to Lake Alexander for the third time.
Portaging still sucked but we were shocked by how much faster and easier our last trip went. With both kayaks in the grass we watched the sun begin to drop behind the mountains. We should have started hauling ass but aching bones and the evening quiet lent a careless quality to the night. We learned a lot, hiked even more, and this felt like part of our reward. Then the bugs came out. They were so intense that I couldn’t open my eyes. I covered my face with one arm while dragging my fully loaded boat off the grass and into the water. This was a muddy lake and tried not to get stuck. Any sense of peace and tranquility we left on the beach as we paddled to escape swarms of bugs and use the remaining light to find a cabin and our friends.
Our night adventure to the Lake Alexander cabin was bittersweet. The water was calm and pitch black without the sun. The air had cooled to a perfect temperature. It was amazing to be still and take in the beauty of this completely remote lake on an uncivilized island. If you love Alaska and are looking for paradise, this is it. Yet, I couldn’t hold on to that feeling for long because my lower back was screaming from carrying the kayak wrong, and as the sun was fading we were searching for a cabin on a lake we had never been to. Our previous days search for the Mole Harbor Shelter told us we needed to get close while we still had enough daylight to see. We paddled on through the dark water watching the forest around us become black as well. After getting around the point, our map showed a one mile straight path to the cabin. Thirteen hours after waking up, we were almost there.
We began to see smoke as we drew near, hearing a Woot! Woooot! we confirmed it was our cabin. We arrived to find Bryan and Inua in high spirits. When they weren’t speed testing the zodiac they relaxed in front of the cabin’s amazing Admiralty view. In contrast to our sporadic medicinal use of Old Grand Dad, they waited until they were in full rest to nurse their portaged bones. Both were in the throes of a good laugh when we arrived sleepy and exhausted. However, the fire was blazing and inviting, giving us the desire to haul our gear inside quickly so we could lounge and eat before calling it a night. I slumped into a vegetable state as my stove boiled water. Eating seemed less about satisfying hunger and more about replacing the fuel I’d used. The usual chatter around the fire faded fast as we all silently agreed today was over. I pulled myself up to my bunk, grateful for the cabin – no hanging food bags, no storing gear, no worrying about bears; just a flat bunk, four walls and a door. Covered by my sleeping bag, I gave one last stretch to try and release the day’s pains. Someone’s headlamp swooped across a wooden beam and noticed big black writing, Ricky Lee Willard Lives & Rules Over All Women!! That broke the spell. We had a good laugh and called it a night.
We were half way through our trip across Admiralty and now heading towards the heart of the Island. In a strange way I was getting more nervous about bears because we hadn’t seen one since our first 45 minutes on the island, the anticipation was starting to build. Yet, we were all getting more and more comfortable with living in the woods. Late in the morning we woke to another sun filled sky, hoping the extra sleep would help us on our second day of portaging. It worked. We got up and cruised through our morning routine. Breakfast finished, extra coffee in hand, boats semi-packed, it was time to survey today’s route. Luckily we didn’t have to start out portaging so everyone seemed to have some pep. Our day would be checkered with kayaking and portaging, making us extra happy.
Packed and ready, we stopped for the scenery around us. The cabin on Lake Alexander is placed in one of the more perfect locations I’ve ever seen. It sits at the end of the lake on a small mass of land that separates Alexander from Beaver Lake. To the west a seemingly endless sprawl of valley wilderness stretches off and disappears. The eastern view is cut short by towering mountains that look out at Seymour Canal. It’s an amazing place and I promised myself I’d return, dedicating more time to this cabin then a single night.
We had several miles to travel but we left in good spirits. Kayaking/zodiac-ing through lakes was a very pleasant and new experience for all of us. There were no tides, no real waves, and the water wasn’t near as deep as parts of the ocean floor we crossed. This was where the trip seemed to really sing. As we made distance from the cabin we really kept up on our maps and the terrain. Only a small break admits traffic between lakes, and with several small little coves ahead, we tried to pick which opening would lead us through. It was actually really fun. The water was no more than a few feet deep. This created a water field of lily pads for us to check out as we meandered through to Beaver Lake. In kayaks it wasn’t an issue but the zodiac’s motor was different. Fearing the propeller would wrap some underwater vines, Bryan and Inua broke out the zodiac paddles. Yet, once through, it was still tricky navigating towards the trail to the next lake. As with several times before, the realization of just how large the area was compared to our maps made us scrutinize every piece of shoreline as we got close. Along the western shore there were a few little inlets. I tried one but it was a bust. I could hear a waterfall nearby, which was most likely the connection to our next lake. However, we treaded lightly, not wanting to hit the falls in a sea kayak. After a bit of frustration, I hopped out of my kayak and onto the shore. Scanning around I couldn’t see anything that looked remotely like the start of a trail, just dense trees everywhere. Finally someone picked what looked like a game trail on the opposite shore. That was it.
The path between Beaver Lake and Hasselborg Lake is short, less than a half mile. It follows next to a waterfall creek into a marsh with big, twisted dead trees. Our new approach to portaging was to gather our food and other supplies and all walk together. This way we stayed as a group and scouted the trail for any hazards before bringing a boat through. On the other side we hung our food and stored gear. Traveling such a short distance made hiking with a sea kayak through the woods almost seem fun, then we had to go back and get the other.
Hasselborg Lake is huge, width wise, it only ever gets to about a half mile. But it stretches north to south about 8.5 miles. Starting between to mountains, the lake can get some pretty strong winds. As soon as we pushed past the little marsh point, we came into some of the biggest waves of the trip, nothing crazy but completely different than putting through Beaver Lake. The zodiac might have disagreed. With strong headwinds, Bryan and Inua started taking water over the bow. Luckily it was a short trip. We made our way up around the first of two islands. The next trailhead started at a little cabin on the shore, spotting would be easier.
Hasselborg Creek cabin is smaller and more unique than the forest service cabins we had seen so far, and made for a nice piece of shade. While checking out the cabin Inua found a nice pair of sunglasses, quite a score since we’d lost three pairs in the first couple days. We hung out and fueled up, preparing for a proper portage. Although, this was going to be a shorter portage than yesterday, Brandon and I would still have to hike ~1.3 miles five times, off and on with heavy gear. We were ready. With bags, gasoline, a kicker, and kayak wheels we headed towards Lake Guerin.
The trail was a bit more up and down than the Mole Harbor leg, but there seemed to be more manmade maintenance with steps and bridges along the way. Still shocking was how damn hot the days where getting. With the sun straight above us we took breaks to wipe our brows and stay hydrated. Hiking as a full group seemed to cheer up everyone, as we could all suffer the heat and crack jokes together. Seeing the end of the trail was a welcome sight. Another beautiful lake trailed off in front of us. We had lunch near the water and prepared for the return trip.
Back at our kayaks we were learning more and more about portaging. This time we stuffed part of our life jackets between our shoulders and the end of the boat. The other guys put t-shirts under their heads to keep from going bald. The extra padding made it that much more enjoyable than our first day’s fiasco. We all realized that Bryan and Inua were going to be much faster since they didn’t have to make an extra trip. We walked with them as much as we could but soon they were off, leaving us to maneuver a kayak through the old growth forest. We wouldn’t see them again until we made it to the Lake Guerin shelter. Things were running infinitely more smooth for Brandon and I compared to the previous day, little Grand Dad was needed to get us through our trip. With the first kayak down we rested, staring out at the lake. One more back and forth and we’d be with friends again. I gave a Woot! just to see if the echo would carry out across the lake. We laughed and didn’t hear a response. Gathering up the will to head back we stopped when a gunshot ripped through the valley, then two more. We gave another Woot Woooot! but didn’t hear a return. Not sure what was going on, the only thing we could do was grab the other kayak and make our way to the shelter for an investigation.
Our life in the woods was getting more and more comfortable. Putting in a long day of hard work was the new norm. We didn’t need to talk much, we just lifted the last kayak and made our way through the woods. Nothing was really on my mind, navigating the boat was beginning to be automatic, so I wandering off mentally as I enjoyed how remote we’d finally gotten ourselves. Everything we saw seemed to be bigger and more prehistoric. The fern stems were thicker than a thumb, the skunk cabbage was as tall as me, and the blue berries were the size of grapes, we had to stop and eat a few handfuls. It was starting to feel less like an adventure and more like home. I considered not going back at the end of all this.
With both kayaks on the shore, we dropped our food from the trees and began loading up the boats. Now the gunshots were making me anxious. Were they celebrating their arrival at the shelter? Did they see a bear and did that end well? Were we going to see a dead bear or dead friends? I began stuffing gear more hurriedly into the hatches. Brandon may have been in a similar mindset. As we drew our boats into deep enough water to launch I was being careful not drop my foot deep down into the mud. I looked for grass with wide roots to support my path. I looked back to see Brandon push out and drop a leg thigh deep in mud. He slowly pulled himself out trying not to lose his extra tuff in the murk. He poured brown water and bits of mud back into the lake. With his boot emptied, we paddled down Lake Guerin.
Lake Guerin runs east to west in the lowlands of Admiralty Island. Unlike the wind tunnel of Hasselborg Lake, Guerin was smooth and calm. A similar ride to Lake Alexander streched before us. However, we weren’t racing to save daylight so we enjoyed it a little more while still thinking about the gunshots. The shelter was on the opposite end of the lake which made for a little over two miles of paddling. The area, as usual, was beautiful. We could look back and see Mount Distik far off in the distance. It felt more than just a day away. All the mountains were far away. We had carried our sea kayaks to the middle of the island and were now gliding through the warm waters of a remote Alaskan lake. Everything seemed perfect and in its right place. Up ahead a very small island near the size of a few football fields looked incredibly inviting. I called out to Brandon telling him that would be a pretty cool place to set up camp. I was fully into the idea of experiencing as much of Admiralty as I could. This was our island to explore and I was happy not to use the shelter. As we swung closer the shelter and zodiac came into view, we pressed on.
We landed to the sight of Bryan and Inua holding massive ferns. Apparently someone had buried trash in the dirt of the shelter and bears had dug huge pits into the ground. They were almost done filling-in the holes so I had little to be mad about but I’m still shocked at why someone would be dumb enough to burry garbage where people sleep. Please don’t ever do that. The floor worked out pretty good with ferns, now we wanted to hear about the gunshots.
As they were motoring over they came across the small island. Thinking it would be a nice place away from bear traffic they head over to check it out. As they neared, they saw something strange in the water. From faraway Bryan thought it was a loon. Getting closer, Inua thought a moose was swimming. Finally, the head of a bear greeted them. They swerved away immediately, heading towards the shelter. The watched as the bear swam to the shore of the little piece of land. A huge body immerged from the water and powerfully shook the lake from its fur. Hearing the engine, the bear galloped, looked back, galloped again, looked back, then hide in the trees. A few seconds later they could see its head poking through the thicket staring at them. Nope, that little piece of paradise was too small to share. Now on the shore they saw bears had dugout the area. Having just witnessed a big brown bear swim from camp A to camp B, a few gunshots were deemed necessary to let everything know humans had arrived.
With the lake island out of the question we began making the shelter our home for the night. The first step was to collect enough wood to have a roaring fire. As we gathered wood I noticed several large game trails. Looking at a map, Lake Guerin was surrounded by other lakes. Our shelter, on its little sand spit was the crossroads of a major animal highway. We decided to build our fire big and bright to match the rising half-moon that broke across the water. We’d come to a strange part of our trip. Our worry of bears was becoming an exciting but normal part of life. There had been sight of a bear, but it wanted little to do with us. We shot guns and made fires as was tradition.
Our Admiralty life was beginning to take control. Jobs had to be done to make things run smooth and that was that. At some point in the night Bryan spilt the last of the alcohol. For a second it seemed like a tragedy but we couldn’t dwell on it, things had to get done. We tended the fire, studied the next day’s route, tended to bruises, and kept going. More wood was required to fuel our blazing fire. We went off looking for dead trees small enough to push over. Nearby several trees hung tall in the dark, grey and weathered, they stood above the sand. We hung our food in one and pushed over others. This was a strange place. It didn’t feel quite right but we didn’t fight it. We were in the heart of the island, halfway to anywhere. I was having a hard time imaging it would end. I wanted to always be here, traveling like nomads through Admiralty’s 1000 year old forest. With the comfort of guns beneath pillows, the guys drifted off.
We were getting closer to understanding Hasselborg’s love of the island, his desire to be here and nowhere else. Admiralty has a way of taking you over.