The Master Plan, in a nutshell:
Sometimes, a man just needs a break.
After a year of faltering work, the end of a divorce (an amicable divorce, but stressful nonetheless) and the passing of a dear friend, the healing salve of a far-flung thorn-filled woods tugs on my tattered soul. The great rainforests of SE Alaska's Tongass NF are calling, and like no time in my life, I need to go. My plan is ambitious... up to a month solo, traversing one of Alaska's most rugged islands, the great Baranof Island of the Alexander Archipelago. The 1600-square-mile island is home to few trails and nearly 900 brown bears, old-growth rainforests, hanging glaciers and mist-filled vertical fjords. To a bushwhacking junkie like myself, it's paradise.
With the serendipitous help of friends I prepare a month's dry food, pack the gear I can (an amalgamation of what I already have and what I can afford to replace) and as soon as the clouds part at home, I head for Denver Int'l Airport, destination: North.
A second massive pot of GORP at home:
Home-baked energy bars, and watermelon slices being prepared for the dehydrator:
The plane touches down in Sitka on a cloudy mid-afternoon. I hitch a ride from the airport, and after a long meeting with the Sitka Mountain Rescue team at Centennial Hall (letting them know my plans), I head to the docks of Sitka in the rain. My plan needs a bit of luck & persistence even to begin... just getting to the North end of Baranof Island requires a boat or plane ride (expensive to charter privately), but boat traffic is frequent through Peril Straight between Sitka & Juneau, so perhaps I can hitch a ride locally. Local wildlife guide Davey Lubin helps me out with rides around town, but to no avail yet. A night in town was expected, so I grab my gear from Centennial Hall and check in at the local hostel for a good night's sleep. Back to the docks tomorrow.
Crescent Harbor in Sitka. The cruise boat out in the strait is actually STUCK in harbor... the anchor is irrevocably snagged on the bottom, and they flew in a specialist on my flight to fix the problem (either to unstick the anchor, or chop it off and replace it).
Dawn breaks, another rainy day in Sitka. After breakfast I head to the local AM radio station and put in a "Muskeg Message" with my cell phone number, hoping to hitch a ride north through Peril Straights, willing to pay my way with a bit of work or gas $$. At the Pioneer Bar--a local fisherman's hangout--I put the same message on the board, and take time to share a couple drinks with a few locals. An hour later, while checking a voicemail in the rain, the cell phone blitzes out. Dead. F***'in great.
I've walked miles today, asked the commercial crews, the "yachties", and the commercial tenders from the processing plants... either they're not heading north, or they can't take passengers. I pick up a few items at the grocery, and toward the end of another wet day with no luck at the docks, I feel melancholy. A "wasted" day in Sitka is one less day in the backwoods, and given my already-ambitious schedule to cross Baranof Island, I need all the days I can get. Float plane charters start at $500, and I'm far from rich.
Almost ready to give up for the day, I pass a young bearded guy on the wet dock, and I ask the same question for the 100th time today: "Hi there, I'm just curious... do you know of any boats headed North through Peril Straights sometime in the next day or two?"
Quite unexpectedly: "Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're going that way soon. You need a ride or somethin'?"
Suddenly alert. "Yeah, I do, actually! I've been looking for the better part of two days, not much headed that way. I'm doing a bit of backpacking, hoping to get a drop-off at the North end of Baranof, around the Duffield Peninsula."
"Well hey, the captain's taking a nap on the boat, so don't bother him now, but he's a pretty chill guy. Stop by in about an hour or so and ask him. He'd probably be fine with it. We're heading out later tonight."
An hour later I shake hands with Larry, skipper of the "Screamin Eagle", a old wooden salmon-seiner, who quickly sizes me up and offers the ride I'd hoped for. "We leave about an hour. Be here by then! We ain't waiting."
I skip my way back to Centennial Hall, grab my gear, and haul ass back to the docks with time to spare. We're heading North!
After gassing the tanks with 600 gallons diesel, the rain clears. "Big Steve" (still drunk from the stay in town) cooks up a pot of fish soup in the kitchen (yum!), and I talk at length with Chad (the bearded greenhorn from the dock), a former PCT & AT thru-hiker who scored a job on the Screamin' Eagle only 3 days before. Later in the captain's cabin, skipper Larry tells me a few of the practical jokes the crew's played (and is still playing) on Chad. Note to self: if your captain ever sends you to the hardware store to buy "Prop Wash", tell him to go screw himself.
God smiling over Baranof Island after a day of rain, the north end of Sitka below.
Chad watches land as the Screamin Eagle makes its way through Peril Straight.
Captain Larry and greenhorn Chad talk in the captain's cabin up top. Notice both the pin-up photo and the rosary, hanging side-by-side near the captain's bunk... covering the basic needs of long seaward trips on a fishing boat.
Sunset over Salisbury Sound, Chichagof Island to the right. The trip took us well past nightfall on our way into Hoonah Sound.
About 11:00, the crew wakes up, securing the boat to a buoy at a sheltered cove in Hoonah Sound. I'm offered the extra bunk... first thing in the morning they'll find a good spot near shore to drop me off. In the meantime, to bed! I'm giddy with anticipation, and sleep only temperamentally through the night.
Crew's quarters, under the deck near the Engine Room.
The crew's up early, and by 6:00 we're heading through Peril Straight again, with humpbacks and dolphins surfacing around us. As we carry on, Chad relates a quick conversation with Michael, one of the other crew last night.
Michael: "Man, I respect what that kid's wanting to do, but he's crazy. He doesn't know what's out there."
Chad: "Yeah he does, dude. He's done these trips before."
Michael: "Well, I gotta lot of respect for that then. But he's still f***'in crazy."
I think I've been called "crazy" (or some version thereof) on every trip I've done in Alaska. Why should this one be any different? Skipper Larry stalls the boat near a tidal flat just north of Pt. Elizabeth, and I quickly inflate the packraft to make shore. The captain gives a goodbye salute over the airhorn as he pulls the boat away into Peril Straights. I'll probably never see any of them again, and I wave a hearty goodbye to the crew as the sound of engines slowly disappears into the horizon.
The Screamin Eagle pulls away, heading South between Baranof and Chichagof Islands, leaving me behind on North Baranof.
Route, Day 1:
After a quick lunch I take the packraft into Rodman Bay, passing the rocky outcrops of Pt. Elizabeth. Two sailing boats are parked silently in a far cove across the bay, two miles distant. After an hour in the water a headwind starts picking up, so I make for shore, pack up the raft and walk the (mostly) wide shore of Rodman Bay, into the northern heart of Baranof. My emotions sway between relief to sheer joy as I breathe in the cool cleansing wind, enjoying the beauty of these woods and the seas that support them.
Jellyfish are thick in these waters, and occasionally one washes ashore, still very-much as poisonous here as they are in the water. Watch your step!
Bees huddled on small sunflowers, Rodman Bay.
Across from Rodman Creek, I put back into the raft and make my way across the bay, stopping to try some fishing in the shallows of the bay. No luck this time, and I put back ashore to cook dinner under the overhanging canopy edge, in steady rainshowers. I burn through considerable alcohol to get the fire lit, but finally do, and while my dinner is rehydrating, I spot a medium-sized brown bear walking my way along the beach. "Great, here goes already"
I mumble, reaching for my bear spray. The bear sees me, and eventually ambles its way into the woods, opting to pass behind me instead of making a close encounter on the shore. I eat dinner with both eyes open, and clean up to head a few hours up the valley before making camp. I pass another (larger) brown bear--this time further off--up the tidal flat at the outlet of Rodman Creek, and this one eventually flees into the woods as I pass.
Most of the floor of Rodman Creek has been logged in decades past, and an old roadway up Rodman Creek makes a brushy-but-passable route into the valley. Making a couple miles headway by late evening, I set up camp under a large stand of second-growth trees on the valley floor. As I often find on such trips, I'm a bit frustrated with my slow progress the first day, but I know a good night's rest will do me good, so after relaying a quick "OK" message on the SPOT Messenger in a nearby clearing, I quickly fall asleep under my tarp to intermittent showers on the damp forest floor.
Second-growth woods cover the floor of Rodman Creek. The forests are fairly "mature" and beautiful, but obviously no match (yet) for the centuries-old trees filling these forests before industrial clearcut logging took its toll.