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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.8.08

 

OUTDOORS

INTO THE WILD Leaving the tourists, and common sense, behind

INDOOR VS. OUTDOOR ROCK Factors matter for climbers

TAKING ROMANCE FOR A HIKE A guide to love and looking good on the trail

MOUNTAIN BIKE MECCA Former timbertown finds new tread in its backyard

 

INTO THE WILD

Leaving the tourists, and common sense, behind

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY TED TAYLOR

Alaska is like Oregon on steroids, its vast wildness stirring some-thing buried deep within our genetic, instinctual makeup. We humans have been hunters and gatherers for 99.9 percent of our time on this planet, and sometimes a trip to Kiva or Albertsons doesn't quite satisfy that primal urge to confront the raw landscape and fight to survive among other predators.

So, driven more by obsession and fantasy than common sense, I invited Daniel, my grown son living in Reno, to fly north and join me in Juneau for a dangerous and slightly absurd nine-day Alaskan wilderness adventure.

Our destination was the spectacular Taku River. But you can't drive to Juneau, and there are no roads to the Taku. So here was the plan: Fly to Juneau with an inflatable boat and outboard motor in my luggage, drag the gear to the water and take off on a great adventure up a miles-wide river known for tidal surges, half-submerged snags, hidden sandbars, grumpy swimming moose and surprise glacial floods sweeping down from Canada.

Sound good? Quite possibly. Here's what I learned during nine days last July.

The Weather and Clothing

Turner Lake can only be reached by seaplane from Juneau or by small boat and a mile hike through bear country

Gore-Tex jackets (especially old ones bought at Goodwill for six bucks) will keep you dry for about four hours. It can rain for a week without stopping in Southeast Alaska, even in summer. And water will trickle down your pant legs and fill your waterproof boots. The Alaskan solution? Heavy PVC bib overalls and jackets, worn with rubber boots. Don't like toxic PVC? Expect to shiver and maybe die.

Typically, people who bring all the right rain gear will experience warm, dry days their entire trip.

Soggy wool-polyester socks after three days in leather boots take on a peculiar aroma that is indescribable. Essence of rotting alligator carcass, perhaps?

Blue jeans are comfy and warm only when dry; they are heavy and cold otherwise. A wool hat with a brim can save your life. Waterproof gloves in July? Oh yeah.

After several days in the wilderness, coin-op laundries assume an almost mystical quality, as do Mexican restaurants.

The Water

The Gastineau Channel between Juneau and the Taku River is part of the Inland Passage and can be flat as glass or rolling like the open sea. We experienced it all, including a 20-foot tsunami-like wake, most likely from a distant passing cruise liner. OK, it was only a 10-foot swell, but still scary in a 10-foot boat.

The Bugs

The time to put on a mosquito head net is before the mosquitoes arrive. Otherwise, all you've done is trap a dozen hungry skeeters within an inch of your tender facial parts. I probably brought a few home with me.

Mosquitoes often have fellow travelers. Land your boat on a grassy Alaskan tidal bank, and clouds of all kinds of flying critters will engulf you. Also, closing your eyes and spraying your face with DEET is a bad idea. Puffy eyelids, nostrils and lips are worse than bug bites.

The Bears

Grizzlies have olfactory sinus cavities the size of basketballs. They can smell you coming from miles away and can tell what brand of deodorant you're wearing and what you've had to eat for the past week. Fortunately for us, bears don't find human flesh all that appealing. Unfortunately for bears, nonlethal deterrents, such as pepper spray and flares, are not allowed on airplanes. But it's OK to pack your luggage with shotguns, rifles, hand cannons and boxes of ammo. It's very Alaskan to relate to nature by shooting at it.

The Airlines

Alaska Airlines desk personnel in Eugene don't really get Alaska. They will tell you it's forbidden to pack an outboard motor in your luggage, but Alaskans fly around with everything from moose meat to snowmobiles. The trick with outboard motors is to drain the oil and gas and let them air out a few days. Alaska Air will provide "Fragile" stickers for your motor bag, but the automated luggage conveyor belts and "kickers" can't read labels, so expect damage. My 6 HP Suzuki got to Juneau OK, padded with life jackets and air mattresses, but arrived home with several broken plastic parts, costing a nonreimbursable $150.

Juneau Hotels

Heading back to town from the wilderness, we were able to call by cell phone and reserve a Juneau hotel room, but the only place with vacancies was the infamous Bergmann Hotel, an historic gold-miners' flop house. We did not get much sleep, but it was a memorable night. Some hotels are so bad they are good. We still laugh about the rusty tub down the hall with no shower door or curtain and bayonet holes in the linoleum to provide drainage to the open basement below.

Our Fellow Tourists

Juneau gets about one million tourists a year, 90 percent arriving by cruise ship or ferry from the Seattle area. Most Juneau tourists experience Alaska from a deck chair sipping lattes, or, if they are rich enough, they will pay extra for a charter boat trip up the scenic Tracey Arm, an afternoon of fishing with a guide, a helicopter flight out to walk on the glaciers or a seaplane flight out to Taku Glacier Lodge for a fresh salmon dinner. Each of these memorable and safe side trips can cost $200 to $400 or more on top of a $600 per person basic cruise ship ticket.

Are these wimpy tourists having fun? Of course. Will they have great stories to tell and photos to show? You bet. Will they survive Alaska? Almost always. Are they having a true Alaskan wilderness experience? Well, maybe it's close enough.

In Retrospect

So how did our trip go? It fulfilled a dream I've had for decades to return to the Taku River inland from Juneau. The Taku is a remarkable river valley with massive mountains, miles-wide glaciers and abundant fish and wildlife. I'd spent a summer there as a teenager when my parents managed the historic Taku Lodge, accessible only by seaplane or boat at high tide.

I wanted my son to experience this country, and we did it, by water, on foot and by air. My little Zodiac took us part way up the river, where we tied the boat to a tree and backpacked to a Forest Service cabin at West Turner Lake. We spent three days drying out in the cabin, fishing from a rowboat provided by the Forest Service and photographing spectacular waterfalls crashing down nearly vertical mountainsides into this pristine wilderness lake. We had the entire 8-mile-long lake to ourselves. It's one of the prettiest places in all of Southeast Alaska, and very difficult to get to without chartering a seaplane.

Most of our gear came from garage sales, thrift stores and REI scratch-and-dent sales. Air miles paid for one of our $650 airline tickets to Juneau and back. It was still an expensive trip with hotel and restaurant bills while we were in the city of Juneau, but it provided enough memories and stories for a lifetime.

My next Alaska trip is likely to have fewer moving parts. Dragging an extra 150 pounds of gear around is, well, a drag. I'll leave the boat and outboard motor at home. But I will bring the slick raingear.

 

Web-only notes from the author:

Taking the Alaska Marine Highway

The Inland Passage is Southeast Alaska's and British Columbia's equivalent to I-5. The big ferries will take anything you have, including vehicles and boats, for a price. Expect to pay $3,000 for two people and a car to ride a ferry from Bellingham to Juneau and back in the summer. Canoes, kayaks and inflatable boats can be carried on the ferry, but even without a car and boat, the ferries to Juneau are not as cheap and convenient as flying out of Eugene. A round-trip walk-on ferry ticket from Bellingham will cost about $700, compared to a round-trip plane ticket from Eugene for about $720.

There is another Alaska ferry option if you have the time. Catch a bus or a ride to Bellingham, buy the special $160 one-way Sea Alaska Pass, get off at up to three port cities along the way, camp or hike at your leisure. Hang out at the docks and you might be able to rent or borrow a boat to expand your explorations deeper into the wilderness. Then, when you've grown weary of Alaska, buy another pass or fly home.

Why Did I Take a Boat?

Well, it's water, water, everywhere and the preferred modes of travel in Alaska are boat and seaplane. Seaplane charters are expensive, and I'm cheap.

In Juneau, power boat rentals are $175 a day for a skiff at Alaska Boat & Kayak Center, but no outfitter I could find would allow their motorboats to go up the Terrible Taku. The miles-wide, silty river is notorious for hidden sandbars and half-submerged logs. Twice each summer, with little warning, frozen lakes upriver in Canada break up and send a flood of muddy water and debris down the Taku. One outfitter offered to rent me his 12-foot aluminum boat for $30 a day — but without a motor. I couldn't find a used outboard to rent, or even buy and try to sell back.

Renting a double kayak was $65 a day and a serious consideration until I learned that even experienced Alaskan paddlers avoid the unpredictable Taku with its wild winds, tidal surges, strong currents and lack of safe camping sites. And my long-distance paddling days are behind me.

So I flew to Juneau with a patched and battered inflatable Zodiac, a 6-HP short-shaft Suzuki outboard motor, tools, ropes, a bear-proof food canister (crammed with dried food), stove, cooking gear, water filter, tent, sleeping bag, dry bags, pads, mosquito head nets, bug spray, VHS radio, GPS, maps, crampons, binoculars, rain gear, chest waders, fishing gear, hand-held depth finder, cell phone, still and video camera equipment and a large first-aid kit.

My son and I also shared custody of a Ruger .454 magnum revolver to be used only if a bear tried dragging us out of our tent, à la Grizzly Man. Veteran Alaska explorers often carry shotguns or high-powered rifles. Optimistic people just whistle in bear country, or wear bells, but more than one old Taku "river rat" told me I'd be an idiot to go up the river unarmed. I'd encountered grizzlies and moose when I was there as a teenager, and all the Taku bear stories were still vivid in my mind.

The boat gave us some freedom but a lot of hassles. In Juneau we had to wander all over town looking for motor oil, gas cans, gasoline and camp stove fuel. The gas stations at the dock were closed, so we (or rather Daniel) had to carry 10 gallons of gas from a service station half a mile away.

Ah, the Cozy Cabins

Rustic Forest Service cabins are marvelous public amenities available for visitors and local residents alike, and Alaska has 200 of them. They can be reserved and paid for online for $35 a night, regardless of how many people you pack in. Some Eugeneans we know plan their annual Alaska trips around Forest Service cabins. Google "Forest Service cabins" and find out which nights are available. Some are very popular, others hardly used. All the cabins are well-maintained, but require some hiking, boating or seaplane access. Fascinating journal entries in the cabins tell of previous visitors' adventures, recent and long ago. The cabins offer one of the best, safest and cheapest way to experience wild Alaska.

Exploring the Glaciers

Juneau is unique in that it's possible to take a bus or a taxi or even hitchhike to the huge Mendenhall Glacier northwest of town. But the glacier has been receding for decades, and the visitors center at Mendenhall Lake is now far from the face of the glacier. And hiking to the glacier from the visitors center involves climbing a mountain.

But if you check out the glacier with Google Earth, you will notice a road that winds around the left or north side of the lake, ending in a parking lot not far from the glacier. It can be reached by taxi (for about $20) or rental car. This is where the locals go to explore the glacier. From the parking lot they canoe, kayak or row to the ice or hike a very rugged and poorly marked half-mile trail though the rain forest and then scramble down a rocky slope to the northeast side of the glacier. We were passed by three local teenage on the trail, out for a picnic, running and laughing and toting a shotgun.

It's relatively easy to climb up on the rock-strewn ice, hike across the glacier and peer down into crevasses, though it's slippery without crampons. We found spectacular glacial caves where crystal blue ice glows from light filtering down from above. Creeks flow along and under the side of the glacier, and in spots we nervously followed the water as it flowed under the ice, melting a spooky azure dripping cavern.

An adventure for another time would be to backpack to this spot and spend a week camping and climbing up the rugged valley to view the glacier and its source from higher elevations. Some Forest Service trails farther north also take hikers into the glacier high country, such as the difficult 5-mile trail to Eagle Glacier Cabin.

Taku Glacier Lodge

A remarkable log and stone lodge that dates back to the 1920s can be found far up the Taku River between Juneau and the Canadian border. We were not able to get there with our little boat, but we later caught the tourist flight out from Juneau, flying over the Juneau Icefield and landing on the river. The hunting and fishing lodge and its surroundings carry a lot of history, and the crew fed us big slabs of king salmon, caught that morning and grilled over an open alder fire. Black bears came sniffing around the cooking pits to lick the salmon grease. It's an expensive trip (about $300), but the flight alone is worth it.

Not all the rivers of ice in Alaska are receding. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier across from the lodge and Taku Glacier downriver are slowly advancing while nearby Twin Glaciers are receding. Our bush pilot told us some glaciers originate high in the mountains and are able to accumulate more snow and ice than they lose each year. Advancing glaciers in the Taku Valley are easy to spot from the air. They are wide at the bottom and encroaching on forests.

Why go to Alaska?

For some of us obsessed with wilderness, the call of the wild North is too strong to ignore. We have to go where there's no concrete beneath our feet, but rather the dung of grizzly bears, wolves and moose. We need to not know what's just down the trail our around the bend in the river. We need to get cold, wet, exhausted and bug-bitten. We need to eat the wild blueberries and catch the wild fish. We need to behold an abundance of graceful natural life that has been destroyed or driven away by our clumsy civilization. Alaska is a place to feel the intensity of life.