I awake early, well before Bill & Ken. For several days I've pondered a "thank you" for their hospitality (something more than just "thanks"), and after last night's conversation it became obvious. I don't plan to do any more fishing this trip, so I write the guys a heartfelt note and quietly lay my Emmrod on the table before slipping out the door with the rest of my pack.
I saw a route up to the alpine (both on the map and during my floats across Baranof lake) that looks far more promising than my nasty bushwhack down here four days ago, and want to try it. One or two spots might be questionable (it'll be steep, up about 3000' in a mile or so), but I'm pretty confident it'll prove passable on the ground. Let's see!
Day 15 Map
- Starting back toward Sitka
Halfway across the lake I park the raft at a rocky shoreline overhung with trees. The forests here are magnificent... it's an old-growth playground of massive green drops.
Beaver Art, a curious rodent sculpture at the edge of Baranof Lake
Beautiful Old-Growth Woods, my all time favorite terrain for off-trail trekking. For scale reference, the big Spruce on the left is nearly as wide as I am tall. Find your own path. I mean c'mon, how fun is that?!?
I go up, zigging between rockfields and woods, meadows and tarns, but always reading the contours, always going up. My legs are strong and my pack is light, so I suffer little. Intermittent drizzle comes and goes, and for most the day I smile during the long sweaty ascent.
A common complaint about landscapes like this is "a lack of color." People taking pictures often complain of seeing nothing but green, blue, brown and grey for miles at a time. I've never quite understood what they were talking about, because the slopes leading into the alpine of Baranof are splashed with drops from an oil-painter's palette. All you've gotta do is look!
By early afternoon the clouds start closing around my existence, and I think about places to camp. The landscape is flush with tiny tarns (reliable water isn't hard to find), but up above--just below 3000'--is a large alpine lake, and I figure I can make it safely there by dinner. Onward!
An tiny alpine tarn, with Warm Springs Bay two thousand feet below. The southern tip of Admiralty Island sits on the far distant horizon.
I'm walking through thick fog, and hear a familiar chirp... I look up to see an unmistakable grouse peeking over a rock in my direction. This wouldn't be significant (I've seen plenty of 'em on other trips, often in the alpine), but just a few days earlier Ken--biologist Ken from Warm Springs--asked me if I'd seen any grouse on Baranof. Apparently it's unsure whether they even exist on Baranof, and right now one of them (no wait, two!) are bantering in front of my eyes. The visibility sucks and I couldn't determine a species if I tried, but I pull out the camera to gather whatever evidence I can before it fades into ambiguity in the fog.
The final stretches up toward the unnamed lake seem especially steep and slippery in this rain. At one point I reach an inadvisable outcrop, where a huge rock overhangs a steep slope, and my only hope up is to grab the tree roots above--tucking the edge of the rock firmly in my armpits--and hope the roots will hold until I haul my torso & leg over the down-sloped lip. I glance back; a failure here would send me bouncing a hundred feet down the hill. My nerves tense up... I'm committed now, but having trouble mustering the courage. It's sketchy, I don't like it, and I can't turn back.
For the second time this trip, I hear laughing. It's Jer again. "Mike, you damned fool. [laughing] Keep going, you're fine."
I settle into an instant calm, my gut relaxes, and I crack a small grin. I use my shoulders to swing a leg over the lip of rock, grab the larger branches in front of me, and drag myself to flat ground, where I stand up and dust off. I'm somewhat agnostic and not completely sure I believe in anything like an "afterlife", but this is the most compelling evidence I've ever known for it. For what it might be worth, thanks again, Jer.
Minutes later I crest the ridge, stare at the lake below me, and have to laugh. "Watermelon Snow" is the common name for a pink algae that grows on melting summer snowfields. It's not deadly, but also not terribly friendly for your gastro system, so it's typical to avoid heavily tainted waters. The entire lake surface
here is covered with the thickest coat of watermelon juice I've ever seen. So much for "reliable water," lol.
Watermelon Lake, or so I've dubbed it. The scene makes me wanna whistle the Star Spangle Banner.
As I circle around the lake, I have a decision to make: I'd thought about trying to reach the ice-field proper tonight (for an early start on the snow tomorrow), and it's only a half-mile distant. But the fog has settled in thick tonight--I'm in the clouds again--and the peak ahead looks ominous from here. After much gnashing of teeth I string my tarp in a sheltered cove, cook an early dinner, and ponder my day tomorrow. Back on the ice.
Icefield Lake. Across the valley I can see the waters of the icefield pouring into a huge brand-new lake in the basin. Only 14 years previously that lake was covered by glacial ice, indicated on my map. Like much of the rest of Alaska, the ice-sheets of Baranof Island are in rapid retreat.
Day 16 Map
- Back across the ice
Up early, I head up the "ominous" hill from last night, and find it not nearly so bad as the demons I'd imagined. A bit of ridge-lining brings me to a passable couloir down onto the icefield surface. "So we meet again,"
I nod to this living frozen creature, feeling much better prepared this time around. Clouds are low and fog is imminent again, but not nearly so thick as a week ago. I quickly reach the collapsed basin again, surprised to see so much more exposed ice and crevasses open than before. The week of sun has been busy up here.
The outlet basin. There's MUCH more exposed crevassed ice (seen dirty-brown in this photo) than before. I think I walked over much of that a week ago, when it was covered in snow.
Looking back, from the floor of the basin. This ice used to be connected to the East end of the icefield, seen here just out of site on the ridgetop. It's lost hundreds of feet of ice in the intervening years.
I make my way across the icefield, always an interesting experience, but lacking the harrowing confusion of my last crossing. Throughout the day I remember lessons from the last traverse, rerouting around previously-difficult sections and staying the same course when it's easy. Problems are solved and excitement is had, but most the ice goes underfoot today without incident. And then in mid-afternoon, I reach Mt. Bassie. I scramble up a thousand feet to the glaciered slopes at 3800'. The first ice crossing (of three) isn't so bad. And the second one starts off mildly too.
The clouds break in front of me, revealing a steep slope, with large patches of exposed crevasses everywhere
. Holy crap. Narrow bands of intact snow run between them, thickness unknown. I've gotta get through there,
I try to convince myself. Jeezus.
Passing directly under one of the patches of exposed crevassed ice on Northwestern slopes of Mt. Bassie. The snowbridges I crossed all seemed solid--and they held--but I'd rather not ever do that again.
By seven in the evening I'm around Mt. Bassie, and after a bit of searching in the fog I have a minor revelation ("navigation by epiphany" seems to be a theme in pea-soup fog), and finally reach the snowless level bench on Mt. Bassie's Southwest corner. Eventually (after doubling back twice) I find the exact same little walled spot I'd camped on this ridge last
time, and I get a righteous kick to my sense of humor when the clouds finally rise and give me my first actual views of this mountain, and the immense icefalls across the valley. It's a true Alaskan landscape of the purest form, and I feel lucky to be here. The wind batters the tarp all night, but I set it low, guy it tight and sleep cozy as a bug in a rug.
Hey, at least I didn't have to cross that ice-field on foot. Count my blessings.
They day dawns foggy again, but I care little. My route downhill is fairly navigable and I've done it before, so my chances of getting lost aren't high.
Day 17 Map
- Back to Medvejie Lake
The downhill toward Camp Lake is treacherous, and steeper than I remember (isn't it always?). The rain doesn't help, watering the hillside to the exact underfoot consistency of a wet booger on a Slip'N'Slide. But once my path dips below the clouds, thoughts of all else disappear when the canyon walls of the upper Medvejie Valley show themselves for the first time. Wwwhhoah.
Upper Medvejie Valley, from above
Of course, my route takes me straight down
into this, which is less than comforting.
The bushwhack down is thick, but tolerable. I've learned over the years which plants to trust, and which to not. (Willows are great to grab, so are Alders. Salmonberries are moderate... if you need to grab a patch they'll suffice, but watch the thorns, ouch. Sword ferns are weak as matchsticks... not to be trusted!)
It's impossible to see my exact route down, and at one point I get entirely cliffed out (peering over a 100' of granite cliffside), but a bushwhack back up and a quick reroute return me to the proper way down, trusting one branch after the next to hold my weight down the slope.
Once past the thousand feet of sketchy cliffs, the worries are over, and I'm ambling down a gentle slope within 20 feet of Camp Lake. My feet slide instantly out from under me on a patch of wet brush, and my left knee-cap kindly takes the brunt of the fall on a rock (whack!
) with piercing pain.
The cussing agony lasts only a few minutes, when I finally muster the grit to stand and put weight on it. Back down I go. Holy s***, that hurts.
I get up again, and the next few steps hurt a bit less, so despite the pain I'm encouraged to know--more than likely--nothing is broken. (My knee aches on and off most the next week, but I was right, nothing broke.)
I limp around while eating lunch--not wanting to sit still and let the deep bruise tighten up--and eventually don my pack for the rest of the trip down Medvejie Valley. The gnarly traverse is every bit as frustrating--and beautiful--as I remember before.
Upper Medvejie from near Camp Lake
It was a patch of wet plants just like these that caused my fall near Camp Lake. Watch out when wet, no slope can be trusted where these grow.
Avalanche Shoot in Reverse... an old avalanche here slid down the opposite slope and knocked all the trees uphill on this side. A curious thing to behold in the summer.
I reach the forests immediately East of Medvejie Lake by late afternoon, and spend my time exploring with the camera before even thinking about camp, or dinner. Too much to see!
Life Upon Death -- There's a fuzzy line between the two here in the rainforest.
Life Upon Life -- Even on this live Spruce tree, ferns from the forest floor grow 40 feet up into the canopy. How they got there I have absolutely no idea... it's a mystery I feel lucky to ponder.
By the Riverbank
For dinner I decide to keep my sponsors happy, and make a small video illustrating my glee with the wood stove they supplied this trip. After getting the hang of it in wet woods, I really have been genuinely happy with it, and plan to use it again my next trip here. (And no, I'm not just saying that to keep the sponsors happy. )
It's my last night of this leg in the rainforest, and although it's a melancholy feeling to leave such a beautiful place, I have nothing to complain about. This trip has been everything I dreamed of, even if (or perhaps because?) it didn't go according to plan. Tomorrow I should probably get back to town, being almost out of food n' all. What then? We'll see... I'm curious to find out.