I woke early to hot feet. The sun was beating down on everything beyond the shelter’s shadow. This far into the trip I didn’t need to sleep in. Finally, waking up was becoming easy. I could sleep right through a slowly deflating mat. By the time my body landed on the ground I was well into a deep sleep. I was happy to be coming into my own or maybe my sudden ability to wake up refreshed had something to do with our exhausted supply of alcohol. Either way, I woke with a smile. Not til I sat up and stretched did I feel the pains of portaging a kayak miles through the woods. It was all in the shoulders, a slight burn and phantom pain like the hint of a kayak waiting to rest on my neck. Even though the tension was present, I didn’t really mind it. There was some sort of satisfaction in the burn, looking on a map at the distance we covered while pushing my fingers into the muscle and bone, rounding out the knots. Especially when I looked at today’s route, very short and no portaging. I’d give my shoulders a rest. Brandon and I wouldn’t have to make extra trips, keeping our arrival at the next shelter the same as Inua and Bryan. Today would be a nice easy day.
The sun shining down on us was becoming expected. We looked at our gear and decided we were not in a rush. Enjoying a slow morning was a top priority. With the night gone our worries about being on a bear highway faded. I really began to feel isolated here, completely removed from the world. Maybe most of the bears were near the mouths of the rivers catching fish or maybe the unruly smell of unwashed travelers kept everything at bay. It seemed to me we had the run of the island, our own island, and that demanded sitting back. However, I tried to retain some of the fear and consequences. We were in an Alaskan paradise but I did not want to start acting foolish and too carefree. No matter how nice it was, we were still in the heart of the Bear Fortress.
After a lazy breakfast of oatmeal and dino-facts we geared up and left the Guerin Shelter. The shallow lake caught the sun, flickering as we past our neighboring bear’s island. He was gone and soon we would be too.
A slight breeze kicked across the water keeping the heat of the sun down. We were now fully in our groove. Nothing mattered much, we were traveling along just happy to be in motion. Lake Guerin is part of a fragmented piece of Admiralty, with a couple small islands and run-offs into little ponds, there was plenty to look at and enjoy. Easily enough we found the small passage that connects Guerin to Davidson Lake. There would be no portaging today.
Within a few paddle strokes I felt like I was entering a different place entirely. The wide open lake view narrowed to a stream with tall grass on both sides. The water was very shallow here so we crept along trying not to bottom out our borrowed fiberglass kayaks while Bryan watched for rocks that might puncture the zodiac. Suddenly the mood changed. Our carefree morning had tensed. I felt like we were heading up some river in Vietnam waiting for something to jump out at us. Much like our 2nd day, I felt extremely vulnerable to bear attacks while inching along the shallow water. I’d ratchet my head when a blade of grass moved too much for my liking, peering through green to find eyes or fur, nothing but wind.
Minus potential bears, winding through the stream was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It felt very exotic and not like what we’d been traveling through. Though, soon enough the water opened up and our quiet passage gave way to a narrow lake reaching far out beyond us with strong gusts of wind pushing us back towards the stream. Davidson Lake is about 3.5 miles longs and less than a half mile across at its widest, making for an effective wind tunnel. We ate a snack with our raincoats breaking the wind and quickly got back in our boats to make way to the shelter.
So much for an easy paddle. The waves lapped back at us making forward movement slow and steady. The one nice thing was the winds constant howl masked the whine of the zodiacs 2 horse. Waves breaking against my kayak threw spray against my face as I plotted across the lake. I spent a lot of my time with my head tilted down to keep the sting out of my eyes, looking up occasionally to correct my course. Davidson Lake is quite beautiful and I was able to enjoy myself once we passed behind a small island and for a wind reprieve. Along the south side of the lake there are a few islands, so we kept to the left as we made our way,ducking behind islands to block the weather.
Our last Forest Service shelter of the trip was in a strange spot. The south end of Davidson Lake is met immediately with a 1,500 foot mountain. There isn’t much flat land to stretch out, making a narrow path for shelter, fire pit and gear to be laid out. After getting everything on land I felt somewhat pinched. The only place to move was down the trail, everything else rose up the mountain or fell into the lake. We had plenty of time on our hands to explore but not a lot of room to navigate.
To get the wind’s chill off we built a fire first thing. We warmed up and ate food trying to figure out how to spend our day. Brandon was messing with his shoe when suddenly he kicked it off. On the ground was the biggest fattest leech I’d ever seen. We marveled at the blood filled sucker. Brandon said his foot felt weird for most of the time he was in his kayak so that thing must have had free reign for well over an hour. He stared down at it like a caught thief, put it on a small plank of wood and roasted the bloodsucker. We watched in disgust as the leach’s funeral pyre slowly began to smoke. I swear to god I heard a faint scream as it began to sizzle. We stopped eating and looked for other ways to occupy our time.
I washed dishes and cleaned up. Bryan had forgot a spoon for the trip, he was tired of quickly fashioning a new one each day so he started whittling one out of a branch. Inua took a nap. Brandon went off in search of photographs.
It wasn’t long before we were all gathered around the fire. We’d only been traveling for a week but each day had long pointed work that needed to be done. The ability to just lounge for the bulk of a day left us wondering what to do. Our vacation hadn’t really been a vacation at all. It was an adventure that kept our minds and bodies busy trying to traverse an untamed landscape. Being able to just sit for hours on end made us all feel a bit lost, it was a strange lull in the trip. We joked, collected more wood, and let the day fade away. After a while we settled into settling in. Along time was spent throwing twigs on the fire and staring out at the lake. Finally someone spoke up to what we’d all been half-heartedly taking note of – there was a flurry of activity with moths around our fire. What looked like bugs buzzing around our fire was actually a pretty intense slaughter. Two dragonflies were racing back and forth murdering moths that had been attracted to the flames. Every few seconds a moth would flap its way near our camp, then a dragonfly would attack it and while in mid-air it would strike the body, rip off the wings, and fly away. In about one second the moth would go from bouncing through the air to nothing but a pair of wings drifting to the dirt. We watched this for easily a half hour. Who know how long it had been going on, but almost every 5 – 10 seconds this onslaught took place. I now had a new appreciation for dragonflies, however, they also seemed a bit creepier in their savage ability to lay waste upon others.
Once the show was over we needed to keep the entertainment level high, shooting guns seemed like the obvious answer. We sent some 50. cal and shotgun rounds across the lake to get our blood pumping. Now we were ready to explore the dark woods. After a little bit of roaming in the woods we were ready to call it a night. The next morning would bring our biggest portage of the trip, somewhere around 3.5 miles each way. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, our last portage. We’d be back on ocean water and only a day away from Angoon. We were close to the end but I didn’t feel the success you normally get with accomplishing a challenge. I felt more like I’d found something out here and now I was giving it up. Reluctantly I laid back on my slowly deflating mat and closed my eyes. I could console myself with the idea that we’d be exploring somewhere new and find out a little more about Admiralty Island.
I think we all woke a little anxious. We were ready to start this long haul, doing 3.5 miles four times was going to take the whole day. The sun was missing today. Above the mountains a white haze left us a bit cool, which was nice for a long hike. No need to sweat any more than we had to. We packed up and ate breakfast away from camp on the one nice flat stretch nearby, a bridge.
On the trail we started to climb. We twisted up through the woods with towering trees over us. Carrying everything but boats, we studied the terrain for when we started the portage party. Nothing really caught us off guard as the trail was much like all the others. We came across a downed tree, but it was easy enough to hop over. Not much later we had to cross over a few more. As we made our way past another fallen spruce we heard something off in the distance. Soon two ladies approached us, one with a rifle. This was our second meeting of people on the trail and as much as I enjoyed roaming the woods on our own, it was nice to meet new people.
The two Forest Service workers were excited and surprised to see us. Their job was to survey the trails and the shelters, what condition everything was in and taking note of how many people used them, indicated by the shelter log books. Typically they found no more than 3 groups a year, sometimes zero and they hadn’t seen any for this year. Both were smiling and very happy to see people using such an old, remote trail.
I couldn’t help but be envious of their job. Their workday consisted of traveling out to Angoon, taking a skiff out to the trailheads, then spending the afternoon walking through the woods with a big rifle, for money. We had a good time chatting but soon we took off in opposite directions.
The woods kept winding as we swung up, down, and around hills. It wasn’t long before we came across another downed tree, then another and another. Things just got ridiculous from there – multiple trees would fall together or land in some type of juncture right on the trail making us have to acrobat our way to clear footing. It didn’t take long before we could easily see all the downed trees in front of us. This whole section of the forest looked to have suffered from high winds that fell trees all over the place. We feared having to come back for two kayaks, dubbing this area “the gauntlet.”
After navigating countless trees we began to head downhill. The forest began to open up, no longer cluttered with spruce and hemlock. The valley floor was home to staggering old growth trees. Massive trunks sprouted large twisted branches that were absolutely caked with moss. We walked through looking for bear sign or anything else indicating activity. We were getting near the ocean waters and a lot closer to potential salmon streams. Looking around we spotted a sign splitting the path. One trail led to Salt Lake, the other to Mitchell Bay. We pulled out our maps to size up the situation. Salt Lake was a lot closer, making our portaging pretty much a done deal. However, the two guys we met hauling a canoe had told us there were falls if you hit the lake anytime out of high tide, so that was an obstacle we’d have to consider. Mitchell bay would continue our portaging but drop us right at the ocean’s edge.
Both paths had their positives. We looked around, thought about how much back and forth we had to do, and decided to set up camp here. The ground was nice and flat with a thick layer of moss. A small stream was nearby for water and we could scout Salt Lake once we were settled in. Happy with our choice, we hung our food packs and made our way back to Davidson Lake.
Brandon and I were now confident in our kayak portaging ways. With lifejackets under a shoulder we marched the first boat up the trail. We kept up somewhat with Bryan and Inua until we came to the downed trees. Both parties had to be careful. The zodiac was light and easy to lift but they had to be cautious not to puncture the boat on one of the twisted branches that rose up. The kayaks were just cumbersome. Trying to lift a 16’ kayak up and over a couple of trees required some finesse, especially when there was bends in the trail or any manner of objects blocking our way. Soon the Zodiac crew was way ahead of us again. Slow and steady we made our way through, constantly joking and hoping we’d meet more people just so we could see the look on their faces. We had sea kayaks in the middle of an old growth forest, miles away from the ocean, sweating, cursing, and all around having a hell of a time making progress. Then we arrived at the gauntlet. Our patience and teamwork was pushed to the limits. Sometimes we had to duck under one tree then tilt the kayak sharply up to make it over the next while slowly rotating the back end so we could make corners. I was getting mad enough to swear a vow. During those maddening hours I promised myself I would come back with a chainsaw to clear the countless barricades across the trail. Then I vowed I’d never come back at all. It was frustrating and tiring to no end. Then we saw bushes of monstrous blueberries and took a break.
We arrived at camp with purple stained hands. The tart, fresh blueberries put us back on a better path and we were stoked to see Bryan and Inua setting up camp. As always, with this continuous dry weather we had endless firewood. After resting a bit and sharing horror stories of surviving the gauntlet we headed back one last time.
I won’t say the second kayak was easier, but we were more prepared for how damn bullshitty the trail was. With aching bones and tired backs we worked our way through the woods, stopped for some delicious blueberries, and arrived at camp with plenty of time to join our friends for dinner.
Now, most locations we camped at never really had a good spot to get clean. Sea water and soap doesn’t really seem to pair well and most of the lakes had real boggy mud shores to deal with. So minus a quick rinse in a small creak at mole harbor, the slightly larger creak at this crossroads was offering up my first real chance to get a “bath”. I stepped into the water knowing it would be cold, but somehow it was freezing. In between handfuls of ice cold water I was panned the woods looking for beers. Who knows how appetizing a naked man shivering in a creak might look to a brown bear. I washed with soap, keeping bear spray very close but trying not to grab the wrong one. As cold as that water was, I felt like a million bucks afterwards.
As the night began but with the sun still strong in the sky we headed out onto the salt marsh to see where the water began. Surprisingly, it took quite a walk for us to reach any water of consequence. We found a stream deep enough to hold our boats but we weren’t sure if it would take us all the way to Salt Lake. Further up the salt marsh looked to get thicker and thicker with tall grass giving no indication of a widening water way. Salt Lake is influenced by the tide but it looked to be almost a mile away through prime bear habitat. It didn’t take long before we decided to do one more day of portaging and skip the steps needed to navigate the marsh and the falls at the edge of the lake.
With a nice fire going we rested our sore muscles. Today had been our longest land route but I didn’t feel as absolutely drained as our first portage leaving mole harbor. The tricks we picked up along the way had certainly made the Gauntlet a little more bearable. One more day of carrying boats through the woods and we were done. Tomorrow we’d be back on the ocean. I didn’t want to think about it. One last night hike for water took the rest of my energy. From then on we sat quietly reading maps and watching wood burn.