A walk across Chichagof Island
The floatplane lifted off glassy water and I wiped a bit of vomit from my lip. I was about to trek across Chichagof Island, and nerves had gotten the best of me.
The island has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world; it also has lots of stories about southeast Alaska’s boogey man, the Kóoshdaa Káa, luring pilgrims like me to doom. At just over 2,000 square miles of raw Tongass fury, Chichagof made me feel like Chicken Little venturing into a KFC.
The island has four villages: Tenakee, Hoonah, Elfin Cove, and Pelican. Hoonah, the largest, has roughly 800 residents, mostly Tlingit people whose ancestors fled their villages in Glacier Bay due to advancing glaciers during the Little Ice Age. Pelican and Elfin Cove, the latter of which I’d fished out of for several seasons, are tiny fishing villages best enjoyed with a bit of salmon slime in your hair and a can of Rainier in hand.
I’d start my trek from Tenakee, a sleepy community of artists and fishermen, and end at the opposite side of the island at Elfin Cove. The one person I saw in Tenakee stopped and warned me about the bears; brown bears live on Chichagof and its neighboring islands of Admiralty, Baranof, Yakobi, and Kruzof.
“They’re waking up, so, you be careful,” she said in a motherly tone. Normally I hate being mothered, but right then, it felt kind of nice. I trudged off the boardwalk into the wilderness. A few hours later, I saw my first bear—a little subadult who ran as soon as it became aware of me. That evening I met a slightly bigger bear who postured, then lowered its head, and stared.
“I’m sorry,” I said gently as I stood my ground. At the sound of my voice the bear hurried into the woods.
That night in my tent I listened to the ocean rolling, ancient trees swaying and creaking, and the rain falling.
The next day, at the head end of Tenakee Inlet, a male bear plodded through snow, following a female as she beachcombed the high tide line. I inflated my Kokopelli packraft, strapped my pack atop it, and paddled on, feeling pretty darn good after hours of walking over rocks and through brush. Deer grazed the edge of sloughs, a family of otters played, and massive flocks of waterfowl called out as I paddled past.
A storm rolled in that night and howled the next day as I postholed through deep snow along a logging road (a significant portion of the island has been logged). The thought of the Neka Bay hot springs kept me from turning back. I was soaked and shivering as I raced up a bear trail to the tub, only to find the water cold. Out of spite, I considered cannonballing in.
After that, travel got easier, thanks to a large bear that broke trail for several miles. I left the snowy road and hiked toward Mud Bay. The watershed was so wild I half expected to meet a dinosaur or sasquatch, but the couple brown bears I saw were plenty cool for me. When the river left the woods, I inflated my Kokopelli and sat back as the swift current carried me to the ocean. A brown bear hunting guide and his client greeted me at the edge of a big sedge meadow.
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” the guide said as we shook hands. At Gull Cove I visited with my friend Paul, an outfitter, before passing out in a small cabin owned by my pal Sandy Craig. I’d fished with her and her late husband Joe for several seasons. Through lots of fish blood, slime, and beer, they became my Chichagof family. In the morning, I traversed a low pass to a salt chuck in Port Althorp and examined the remains of a wrecked fishing boat. It had belonged to a hermit named Raymond Lee who’d passed on some years ago. The Craigs had told stories of Lee—it was rumored he had a family in the Philippines, slaughtered during World War II. He had sailed all over the world until he found a home of sorts on Chichagof Island, anchoring his boat in this lonely inlet in the summer and spending the winter tied up to the dock in Elfin Cove.
I paddled the last eight miles through pouring rain and ocean swells to near Elfin Cove. I surfed onto a kelp-covered beach, packed away my Kokopelli, and hiked to a muskeg above town. I made camp in the gray, watching the ocean roll and the occasional mountain appear in the swirling clouds. Old friends, warmth, and security were just a short hike away, but I wasn’t ready to reenter that world yet. I wanted one more night alone with my ghosts and fears. Three deer appeared in the twilight as the rain fell, wind whispered, and the ocean lulled me like a great and terrible mother.
Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. He’s the author of Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska and Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Fishing and Hunting Tales. You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.
A reminder that things and stories, don’t always go according to plan.