The author and his companion saw plenty of bears on their journey on the Cross-Admiralty Island Canoe Route. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.
My cousin Alex and I watched an old brown bear grazing on sedges as we floated nearby in packrafts. The glow of sunset was fading from the snowy mountains of Admiralty Island when the bear’s behavior changed. Like a cat, it snuck toward an oblivious deer at the edge of the rainforest.
When the bear was just a few yards away, it burst into a charge and the two disappeared into woods. A few minutes later, unsuccessful, it emerged and stared at us. Another bear swaggered into view.
“Want to camp somewhere else?” I asked Alex.
We were at the beginning of the Cross-Admiralty Island Canoe Route — a 32-mile hike and paddle that stretches from Mole Harbor across a series of lakes and short trails to Mitchell Bay and the Tlingit village of Angoon on the opposite side of the island. The Civilian Conservation Corps, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, built the trails and a number of three-wall shelters, which I’m pretty sure are used more by bears than people. (I once visited one when a bruin had dragged a deer inside.) As much as I love bears, I don’t really like sleeping with them. Even though Alex and I had put in a long day and had been planning to camp in this small cove, my cousin was amenable to traveling on in hope of finding a more vacant camp spot. Some say Admiralty Island has the densest concentration of brown bears in the world. The true name of Admiralty is Kootznoowoo, which in Lingít, the language of the Tlingit people, who’ve lived in southeast Alaska since time immemorial, translates to something like “fortress of the bears.” The rough estimate is one brown bear for every one of the island’s 1,650 square miles.
More bear encounters
We made it to the Lake Alexander Cabin around midnight. After Alex made me drink whiskey, roar at the moon, and do healing yet manly yoga, I promptly passed out. In the morning, a cathedral of mountains and rainforest surrounded us as we made our way across Hasselborg Lake. The lake is named after Allen Hasselborg, a legendary recluse and bear man. Hasselborg lived alone in Mole Harbor for nearly a half century. He claimed to have wandered every square mile of the island. In many drainages, he told bear guide Ralph Young, he knew every bear and every bear knew him.
Alex and I didn’t bother deflating our packrafts as we made short portages from one lake to the next. That evening we deviated off the main route and followed bear trails toward Salt Lake. We spooked a black grizzly mom and her two cubs when we emerged on a sedge flat. An hour later, we encountered another dark mom with three big cubs. She popped her jaw at us and huffed before leading her cubs away into the maze of the forest. We made camp on a small island and sat at the edge of a fire watching storm clouds gather in the night sky.
Exploring Mitchell Bay
Most folks choose to avoid Salt Lake and continue on the trail to Mitchell Bay where there’s a three-walled shelter. There are ocean passages that are potentially dangerous throughout Mitchell Bay. However, they’re easy to mitigate as long as you understand tides. The general rule of thumb is that in any narrow passage, particularly “the falls” at the mouth of Salt Lake and the narrows that begin around four miles east of Angoon, you wait for slack tide. There is a significant tidal delay that varies but expect it to be somewhere close to two hours.
Alex and I spent an extra day and a half exploring the different bays and inlets. The weather was stormy but the dozen or so bears we spotted didn’t seem to mind. All were nearly black. Admiralty bears with this coloration are called Shiras brown bears by some and were once considered a subspecies. The Forest Service and timber interests wanted to clear-cut the island during much of the twentieth century. In the early 1930s, Jay Williams, the Forest Service’s designated bear expert, proposed exterminating the bears on Admiralty to make it safer to log. Thankfully, a wide array of people, everyone from Tlingit elders to bear hunting guides, fought tooth and nail to keep the island wild. The Shiras brown bear was used as a rallying cry by conservationists. In 1980, Congress voted to give much of the island monument and wilderness status and protect it from logging, mining, and road development.
During our last day, Alex and I hiked through the ancient rainforest and paddled across Favorite Bay to Angoon. We were greeted by friendly locals—one smiling boy helped put away my packraft. A few hours later, we were on a float plane heading home to Juneau. I stared out my window at the mountains of Admiralty rising into slate-gray clouds and thanked the bears, the Tlingit people, and all those who fought for this incredible island for giving me the chance to experience its rainforest grizzly wilderness.