Packrafting and hiking in southeast Alaska is a wet affair. Here, Ben Crozier dries gear on Kuiu Island. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.
My friend Ben and I stood at the harbor in Kake, a Tlingit village in southeast Alaska, trying unsuccessfully to bribe someone into giving us a nine-mile skiff ride across the ocean to Kuiu Island. One man looked at us and squinted in amusement. “But there’s only bears and wolves over there,” he said.
Bears, wolves, and the fact the island has roughly 640 essentially uninhabited square miles were precisely the reasons I wanted to go to Kuiu. Some people take antidepressants, or mood stabilizers, or go to Disney World to contend with their issues. For me, there’s no better way to expel my psychological toxins than a wander in wild country. Ben and I hoped to spend a week, or however long it took, to traverse the length of Kuiu. I’d come up with the idea after the Forest Service announced its plan to axe the Roadless Rule and open up much of southeast Alaska’s remaining old growth forest to logging. I wanted to see the island as it had been for thousands of years before clear-cuts replaced ancient forests.
But first we had to get there.
Ben and I conferred, and though it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, decided to attempt the crossing in our packrafts. Three hours later, when we made it to Kuiu Island, a black bear immediately popped out of the beach grass, took one look at us and fled into the woods. I interpreted it as good omen as we packed away our rafts and began hiking south.
Maybe I was wrong, because a storm rolled in from the Gulf of Alaska that night. We hiked through the swirling gray as waves crashed onto the beach and swaying trees moaned. On a logging road—much of the northern section of Kuiu has been logged or is slated to be logged—we found the remains of a moose eaten by wolves. Late that evening, we made a short bushwhack from Port Camden to the Bay of Pillars and set up camp in the alders just above the high tide line.
Our camp stove wouldn’t work, so I gathered sap-pimples from young spruce trees, and, despite the deluge, soon had a fire crackling in the lee of a big root-wad. Afterwards, we put out our fire and fell asleep to the sound of pounding rain. Ben shook me awake.
“We’re in water!” he said.
We tore out of our tent and rushed around in knee-deep water, snatching up gear as it floated away into the ocean. I was looking for my left boot when I suddenly realized the root-wad we’d used as a windbreak was on fire. I imagined the newspaper headline: “Hikers Burn Down the Wettest Island on Earth During Biblical Rainstorm.” We spent the next couple of hours dumping water on the root-wad and digging out every last ember until we were sure there was zero chance of a burn.
Ben’s still not sure what went wrong at Bay of Pillars, but I’m thinking it was likely aliens. There’s no way a couple of wilderness pros like us could have misread the tide book.
We made a brutal 16-hour bushwhack through some of the brushiest country either of us had experienced. I felt so destroyed that night that I cried out to anything that might hear me—a sasquatch, bear, even devil’s club—to hold me and say everything would be okay. The weather broke. We made it to Tebenkof Bay, and soon we were paddling alongside whales, porpoises, and countless sea otters. During our second night in Tebenkof, we had to camp next to a small army of black bears grazing sedge grass and beachcombing. At dusk, I chased a couple away and then went to bed hoping my beauty sleep wouldn’t be disturbed. Bears at night can be hell for giving a camper wrinkles and a puffy jawline.
After that, we hiked a couple miles of “trail” from Tebenkof to Affleck Canal, complete with a thoroughly clawed bear can fixed to a tree and the words “REGISTER” at the start. It had been several years since any travelers had signed the log. Ben and I spent 20 minutes debating if we should register and, if so, what we should say. It was too much pressure.
The good life
Affleck Canal represented the last phase of our traverse. We paddled south, burning up miles as we explored different bays of the inlet. A day later, a few miles short of the Cape Decision Lighthouse, we reached the end of our journey. The wind howled and thick fog shrouded the island as Ben and I sat near a campfire lamenting how easy life had become. To remedy the situation, we considered taking turns charging and hosing each other down with bear spray.
“Why is pain the only thing that makes me happy?” he asked.
“Maybe we should cancel our floatplane and walk back to Kake,” I suggested.
The sun tore through the gray and revealed mountains, rainforest, and ocean. It was hard having it so good.