Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

The Lost Coast of Alaska stands as one of the more remote regions of the state.  The coast receives the brunt of storms rolling in from the Pacific and into the Gulf of Alaska, with no land in between to serve as a buffer.  With its many bears, storms, and rugged terrain, the area remains infrequently visited.  In the past, I’ve read of others who have done trips along this very coast (like Hig & Erin, Andrew Skurka and Roman Dial)  and had planned to follow suit one day.  Yet a trip of that magnitude didn’t seem to be within my repertoire of skills or expertise in terms of travelling solo, so it remained a distant plan. A few weeks ago, I received a message from a former coworker, Trevor Scott, who told me he had some free time and was thinking of doing the south portion of the coast, from Yakutat to Gustavus.  With nothing but time on my own hands, I invited myself along and the trip was born.

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After crossing the Situk River outside Yakutat, we found ourselves on the beach.  Endless miles of ocean lay off to our right and a wide path of sand lay straight ahead.  The sand was mostly firm and the walking was superb.  The initial forecast when we were planning the trip called for 9 days of rain, but showers were nowhere to be found.  The following day had close to no clouds in the sky, providing for a visual treat as we gained a greater view of the mountains in the distance.  Mount Fairweather dominated the skyline and after paddling across Dry Bay in the last light of the day, we made camp with it looming not too far off in the distance.

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The seemingly endless firm sand ceased halfway through the next day as we were introduced to the boulders along the coast.  The area holds many glaciers, most of which have receded throughout the past 200 years, leaving in their wake an array of boulders in all shapes and sizes.  Progress slowed further when we were forced to leave the coastline at the outlet stream of Grand Plateau Glacier.  We attempted to follow bear trails through the thick, but not yet leafed out, brush.  A short paddle among icebergs brought us to the other side and eventually back to the boulders.  At the end of the boulders and the close of our day, we found ourselves back on firm sand.  Here the trees towered much closer to the shoreline, leaving a much smaller beach.  It was beginning to look like the Lost Coast that I had envisioned.

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We awoke to earthquakes the next morning.  Two shook the ground and the tent in the early hours and served as a prompt to get us moving.  During the day, Trevor told me that he had a previous ankle injury that had a chance of flaring up again.  Coupled with a blister and rain, we made much slower progress than the previous days.  At Cape Fairweather, we found more boulders, which proved even more troublesome with the falling rain.  Halfway through, Trevor slipped; moving from one boulder to the next and fell.  There was no serious damage, but he wasn’t going to continue any further that day.  I was visibly annoyed, there was plenty of light remaining and I was in go mode.  My ego and this attitude would lead to further conflict in the coming days.

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The clouds lingered, but there wasn’t much rain the following day as we made our way to Lituya Bay.  Travel was becoming fairly routine. Miles of sand, both firm and soft, interspersed with patches of boulders, loose rock and water crossings.  The route had provided great travel up to that point.  There was minimal bushwhacking and any bushwhacking we did face wasn’t as severe as it could be due to the plants not having yet leafed out.  That very day we witnessed the onset of leaves and the blooming of leafing vegetation like the alders.

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We were protected from southeast winds before Lituya Bay, but as we approached we began to hear the beginnings of a storm raging on the other side.  The forecast called for 35 mph winds and that seems to be what we found.  Whitecaps and continuous waves filled the bay and large breakers rolled into the entrance from off shore.  A crossing was out of the question and we made camp in a protected stand of trees on the spit.

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We woke to lesser winds, 20-25 mph, but the bay remained rough and we were forced to do some more waiting.  Rain was often intermingled with hail, pelting the tent periodically.  Scaring off a brown bear that was grazing too close to camp provided the bulk of the excitement for the day.  There wasn’t much to do and we alternated between lying in the tent, eating and watching the water.  Trevor mentioned during the day that he wanted to go much slower from here on out and came up with a new itinerary.  With my attitude of go, go, go this was not a pleasant alternative to our pre-established plan. Tough discussions ensued concerning communication and planning.   We eventually came to somewhat of an agreement and left the tent to watch the waves at our own favorite viewing areas.

The morning brought much calmer winds and with it, our successful crossing of Lituya Bay.  We met a couple, Ben and Stephanie, on the opposite beach, who were undertaking essentially the same trip.  They were forced to call it short due to injury and would be flying out in the afternoon. After exchanging stories and gaining valuable route info, we continued on, following a continuous 2 mile bear trail, past a sea lion rookery, back to the beach.  The storm had passed and we were treated to grand views of the ocean, forest and immense mountains.  Travel was at a slower pace, but we still walked all day, leaving everyone pleased.  A wolf and a bear sighting, plus an encounter with another hiking group from Arctic Wild, capped off an end to a great day.

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Another clear day greeted us in the morning and we worked to move past La Perouse Glacier, less than a mile distant.  This was one of the question marks of the route. A few years ago the glacier had surged, blocking off any travel on the beach.  Some who had traveled at that time were forced to launch their boats into the surf and go around.  We found a glacial face that received waves from the ocean, but we were easily able to skate on past at low tide.  There was a continuation of travel like the previous days as we made our way to Icy point.  Firm sand, clear skies and water crossings filled the day.

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By this time, Trevor’s foot was feeling better, but he wanted to stick around Icy Point for a few days and explore the area.  I was not interested in doing so, and with that we decided to split amicably.  I wanted to see how fast I could reach Gustavus, estimating about 3 days if conditions and terrain went my way.  Goodbyes were exchanged and I set off down the beach at a fast clip. My first obstacles were two separate headlands that I’d have to navigate before leaving the coast and heading inland.  Skurka had described them as ardous.  But I figured without budding leaves and solid bear trails they couldn’t be that bad.  A rougher than comfortable ocean forced my hand, keeping me onshore, and off I went into the woods, attempting to find a clean route to the other side.    I think that arduous could be an understatement.  What I found was a mess of disappearing bear trails, thick alder, windfalls, steep slopes, plenty of devils club and rolling terrain.  The section was about 2 miles and took me 2.5 hours to complete it going at a hard pace.  Upon reaching the other side, I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. And there was still one more to go.  Suddenly, lounging about for a few days didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

The second headland was difficult, but nowhere near as grueling as the first.  A bear trail led me from one end, up, over and through the brush and down to the boulders before the beach on the other side.  After 5 hours of being separated, I had managed to cover only 7 miles.  My overestimation of my abilities and underestimation of the land was starkly apparent.  I made camp, scaring off a closely wandering brown bear before dozing off.

The agenda called for more bushwhacking as I had to make my way to the Dixon River.  At Lituya Bay, Ben pointed out a route he saw that looked like it had a lot of muskeg, which could make for much easier travel than reports of elsewhere.  Brush was thick, but the terrain was flat.  With patches of muskeg, I found myself making good time.  About halfway through, I reached back to make my standard check to ensure everything was still in its place.  Water bottle? Check. PFD? Check.  Poles for my paddle? Gone.  I was soon filled with a sense of despair.  I raced back a short distance but was unable to find them.  Having lost them in the past half hour, a search seemed futile in the thick brush.  I trudged back to the beach to what I was sure would end up being a flight out.  Another mistake causing a shortened trip and more $$$ down the drain.  Before hitting the beach, a pack of wolves darted in front of me, offering a small consolation prize.

Meanwhile, Trevor had decided he didn’t want to linger around Icy Point after all.  He took advantage of the good weather to paddle around the headlands and continue on.  We were able to get in contact, and after making a surf landing, we linked up once more.  We would attempt to make a wood shaft and move our final destination to Elfin Cove, which lay closer than Gustavus thus requiring less paddling.  A day of rough travel and bushwhacking ensued as we made it to the Dixon River, up to North Deception Lake and after slipping and stumbling down a creek in the dark, found ourselves camped at the base of North Trick Lake.

During a break along the Dixon River, I had found a shaft for the new improvised paddle.  With Trevor’s superior lashing and knot skills, a respectable paddle was formed.  It was put to the test the following day on a crossing of the lakes.  And much more extensively later on as we navigated much of the outlet stream towards and through the tidal flats that lay before Brady Glacier.  It was heavy, but held up reasonably well for what it was and achieved its purpose.  Rain pelted us all day long and after being treated to a view of another wolf, we left the boats and walked quickly across the flats and found a protected camp near Taylor Island.

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The walking section of our trip was essentially complete.  We lay 10 miles distant from Elfin Cove and were now waiting for decent conditions to embark.  Rain and wind continued the following day, with less than ideal conditions we were provided with another day of forced rest.  Staring at the green wall of the tent for much of the day can’t be good for the soul.  The crossings would be the crux of the trip and with rain, an improvised paddle and low confidence, my mood sunk.

Both conditions and my mood improved the following day and seemed to be good enough for an attempt.  We set off with the intention of hitting our first crossing at slack tide.  With favorable conditions, we traveled quickly and made the decision to cross earlier than planned.  Midway, we found ourselves caught in a riptide and being pushed up the channel, away from our target, towards Gustavus.  We retreated towards where we originally planned to launch, eventually making another attempt much closer to slack tide, this time without issue.

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4 miles out from Elfin Cove, I called to book a flight for later that afternoon.  Shortly thereafter, we came across The Hobbit Hole, a local bed and breakfast that apparently had some history attached to it.  Trevor was interested in checking it out.  I didn’t want to risk missing my flight.  In disagreement once again, we parted ways.   I was left with ~3 miles of travel, with one smaller crossing along the way.

It wasn’t anywhere near slack tide as I started the crossing but conditions appeared favorable.  The sea was calm, the distance relatively short and the wind was in a position where it wouldn’t cause stacked waves.  I took what I considered to be a conservative line and set off.  All was going well until I reached the midpoint of the crossing.  Beyond protection of land, I found myself in the main current and being sucked out to sea.  I was aware of how serious my predicament had become and tried to remain calm.  I paddled furiously, attempting sharper angles to get across more effectively.  But my boat continued to drift past my intended safety net and out towards open sea.  Unable to return to a safe point, I felt my fate was somewhat sealed and became more anxious.  But with continued paddling, I found myself a few moments later out of the current into an eddy and ultimately back to safety along the shore. A half mile further, Trevor arrived with Greg (resident of The Hobbit Hole) in his boat and provided a ride for the rest of the way.  Another hard lesson that would round out the trip.

The Lost Coast proved to be spectacular, nothing short of the hype that others have generated.  Some have called it the best trip in Alaska.  I’m in no position to take a firm stance on that statement but it certainly is an exceptional route.  The trip was another step in my learning experience, in physical, mental and interrelationship skills.  It was filled with lessons concerning communication, group dynamics, subjective risks and ocean travel among others.  I had been to Southeast Alaska once before, but this trip allowed me to get a glimpse of its core.  I’d like to return for the north section at some point, but for now I’m content to flee north to the sunny and dry lands of Interior and Northern Alaska.s

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Back to the Arctic!

In just a few short days, I will head north to Alaska, ultimately ending up back in the Brooks Range.  Unfortunately, at this time I will not be attempting my Brooks Range Odyssey.  Since last summer, my intention was to make another attempt this upcoming summer, but that will have to wait for another year.  A few months ago, I accepted a position as a guide in Coldfoot.  I will be spending the duration of my summer working there.  In my off time, I intend to examine and push my limits on backpacking and packrafting trips.  I see these trips as training for the Brooks Range Odyssey, as well as the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, which is very high on my list of things to do.   In the mean time, keep your eyes peeled! I intend to post updates here from time to time on life in the arctic.

A Summer Mirage

 This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I was going to be the badass who trekked over a thousand miles by himself in The Brooks Range. I was going to live out my dream, living and travelling in the wilderness on my own terms.  What was going to stop me?  I wasn’t afraid.  Possibility of injury or mishap?  No, that would never happen to me.  After months of intensive and detailed planning, I would set off in early June, over confident and anxious to begin the odyssey of my dreams.

The plane touched down after midnight at Fairbanks International Airport, a midst the expansive views of the rolling forested hills and a view of the towering, glaciated Alaska Range to the south.  As a frugal and adventurous minded individual, I decided to sleep at the airport for a while before setting off on my journey.  My journey began north of Coldfoot and my plan was to hitch hike north to my destination.  From what I had read and heard, this would not be too much of a problem in Alaska.  I set my pack down in a slightly enclosed corner, trying to recover from the long flight.  However, noise, hard benches, mosquitoes, the midnight sun and a variety of other factors prevented me from obtaining any real rest.  A couple hours later I had had enough, shouldering my 40 pound load and walking towards the Steese Highway where I would attempt to begin hitch hiking just a few hours later.

Cars speedily passed by as I stuck out my thumb on the shoulder of the highway.  As a product of middle class, Midwestern suburbia I felt nervous and exposed as I watched most cars pass without any acknowledgement.  I soon caught a ride for a few miles up the highway with a young construction worker.  A few miles of walking occurred before I was able to get another ride.  Traveling further than the last ride, I was now close to 20 miles away from Fairbanks after being dropped off again.  Not one for sitting put, I decided to walk along the road, making forward progress as I tried to get a ride from passing vehicles.  As I moved further away from Fairbanks, I began to see fewer and fewer vehicles as the morning waned on.

With just under 300 miles left to Coldfoot, I desperately sought a ride.  Walking the entire route was possible, but would force me to dip into my food supply for my first ration, which was something that I could not afford to do.   I continued on, moving quickly on the asphalt through a forested and muskeg filled landscape.  To think that a little over 50 years ago, such a route was not established is somewhat astounding.  No road or easy access forced miners, scientists and trekkers to slowly move over the bog filled land or wait until winter for relatively easier travel by dogsled.

A light rain began to fall as I slowly continued along the side of the road.  Trucks heading to the oil fields at Deadhorse and government pick-ups made up the vast majority of passing vehicles by that point.  I had learned earlier in the day that most truckers will not pick up hitch hikers because of company policy.  This became disheartening as I realized they were likely my only ticket north via the highway.   It had been hours since my last ride, and now over thirty miles away from Fairbanks I didn’t like my chances.  Tired, hungry and somewhat dehydrated, I plopped down on my pack at a gravel turnoff along the road.  I briefly chatted with a passing cyclist before calling my parents.  With a sense of hopelessness, I spoke of my despair as tears rolled off my cheeks.

 

The decision was made to retreat the 35 miles back to Fairbanks and re-evaluate my strategy.  I was washed over with a sense of dread as I realized that I would most likely have to walk most of these miles. Each step was filled with despair as I moved south, and I was beginning to feel the pain in my feet from miles of walking on the unforgiving asphalt.  Exhausted and somewhat delirious, I continued along in a bit of a daze, with no rides from passing cars.  Halfway up a hill, I debated whether or not to stick out my thumb to the next car.  Wearily, I gave it another chance and was happy to see the car quickly pull off to the side of the road.  I opened the passenger door, tossing my pack in and mumbled, “Hey thanks, how’s it going?”  In my tired state, I failed to recognize for a few moments that it was the same man who had given me my last ride.  We talked of my day and he questioned what I would do now.  I wasn’t sure but without much thinking I asked him to drop me off at the truck stop, forcing me to pay for an expensive cab ride for the remaining distance back to Fairbanks.  Over 12 hours and 35 miles of walking later, I found myself in a hotel room in town.   Hobbling around on my damaged feet, I was unsure what to do next. The day had severely shot my confidence, but I still desired to go ahead with my plan.

Muskeg and Black Spruce trees compose the landscape

Muskeg, Black Spruce trees and rolling hills compose the landscape north of Fairbanks

Fortunately, I was able to obtain a seat on a small plane heading up to Coldfoot.  With a pit in my stomach and an intense sense of nervousness, I joined the tourists as we flew out of Fairbanks heading north.   We flew over the Yukon River on this clear day, with sweeping views of the flatlands and rugged mountains in the distance.  After a little under an hour, we began to enter the foothills of The Brooks Range.  As the mountains came into view, my confidence dropped even further.  The mountains were massive, imposing and rugged features of this remote landscape that still remained dotted in snow in mid-June.  Travelling solo amplified everything.  Making objects, moments, emotions and landscapes dramatically larger than they would be with a partner.  We touched down on the landing strip and I joined the pilots on a walk over to the camp.

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Entering the Brooks

Following breakfast with the pilots, I sat on the stoop outside the camp’s main building, searching for a ride to my starting point.  Time passed without much luck as I ran through numerous nervous thoughts while contemplating the forest and mountainous landscape immediately surrounding the area.  After enduring a lecture on Jesus from a tourist heading south, I finally caught a break.  “Hey, you a hitchhiker?”  Barry and Randy were seasoned adventurers beginning a 13 day float trip at the same place in which I was trying to travel.  They would happily take me on.  Accompanied with them was a Latvian hitchhiker named Yuris, who had stayed with Barry for the past couple days.  I came to learn that I was in great company.  Barry had been a refuge manager in this region for the Fish and Wildlife Service and had undertaken many trips of his own.  He knew much about the country and the people that inhabited it.  Randy worked search and rescue in Anchorage and was an accomplished adventurer in his own right.  Like others, I told them an abbreviated version of my plan, afraid to speak the truth, and was quickly questioned.  I learned that my first stop at Arctic Village may not have been the wisest choice.  Apparently, the people of the village aren’t necessarily kind to those they do not know and I wouldn’t accomplish much without an inside angle.  That is not to mention the advice not to leave anything lying around, for it would quickly be stolen.  Needless to say, this only amplified my nervous state even with Barry’s plethora of helpful information and contacts.

After they enjoyed lunch, we traveled along the highway, stopping in the town of Wiseman to meet with a longtime trapper in the village. Jack Reakoff has lived in the town all his life, and is a  true Alaskan sourdough.  As Barry’s friend, he provided advice on their route before showing us some findings from the nearby area as well as native relics.  With myself being an avid lover of Alaska history,  I was greatly pleased during this visit.  About an hour after leaving Wiseman, we reached the Chandalar shelf.  Rugged, snow capped and towering mountains loomed over us as we arrived at our starting points, unloading their gear from the truck bed. I became more and more unsure with what I was doing.  I didn’t want to travel to Arctic Village.  Could I handle this country?  Was there any way that I could do this?  After helping assist Barry and Randy, I quietly stepped away to make a call to my mom.  I decided that I wasn’t going to complete my trip as planned.  The whole ordeal proved to be too overwhelming for me to undertake.  Returning to the others, I shared my decision with Barry.  He thought it was wise and recommended a shorter route for me just up the road. We popped open some beers before they departed and toasted the river gods, hoping for a safe journey. I wanted to join them.  They had asked a couple times during our past few hours together, but lacked the extra PFD.  Yuris and I watched them set off with their inflatable kayaks before continuing on our own way further north.

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After visiting the top of Atigun Pass, I said goodbye to Yuris as I hopped over the guard rail. I wasn’t planning on travelling far that night as the pass further up the valley would likely be covered in snow, best saved for the cool temperatures of the morning.  Mountains covered in snow loomed to my left, above a creek, as I hiked across the wet tundra.  Moving about a quarter mile, I set up camp along a stream.  The road and the occasional passing truck were still in view, but I felt alone in this remote landscape.  The strong arctic sun bore down on my tent as I tried to sleep.  Being above the Arctic Circle, the sun wouldn’t set that night, or any night in the immediate future.  The surprisingly warm rays promoted endless tossing and turning as I tried to go to sleep.  After a while, I made the decision to pack up camp and hike for a while longer.  I couldn’t sleep and would rather move about the country than stare at the cuben fiber walls of my tent.

“Heyyyyoooo!”  I yelled, as I came close to cresting a ridge.  The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was surprise a brown bear.  As I took a few more steps, something massive began stepping out of the drainage.  I reached for my bear spray as a cow moose trudged into view, defiantly standing tall no more than 25 yards away from my position.  My first wild moose sighting! Standing in awe, I realized with my limited knowledge that it appeared the moose was standing her ground.  I let out a yelp, as I frantically backed away, trying to quickly posthole through a lingering snowfield to a further and lower position.  This encounter proved to satisfy me enough for the night, so I set up camp a little over a hundred yards below where I had encountered the moose.

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My tent, a speck in the giant landscape, near Atigun Pass

With the sun finally dipping below the mountains, I attempted to grab some sleep before continuing over the pass in the morning.  I awoke in the morning, looking up towards the drainage where I had encountered the moose the previous night.  I was overjoyed to see the moose grazing with her calf in plain sight, no more than 150 yards away.  It is no wonder now, why she appeared somewhat defensive. It was a pleasure to watch them for a while before packing up camp.

 

I had awakened that morning with a sense of emptiness. With no maps and almost zero confidence, I decided that it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. I had no desire to continue on this amended route, only wishing to return home.   In my mind I had failed.  I had let myself down and hadn’t even come close to achieving what I set out to do.

I began the lonely walk down the road back towards the direction of Coldfoot, examining the rugged and remote landscape on my feet for what would likely be the final time this year.  I heard the roar of a truck to the north, as it came down Atigun Pass.  As I continued walking, the blue tanker came into view and I stuck out my thumb.  “Hey, thanks for the ride.”  I said, as I stepped into the cab.  “No problem, I was worried about you.  What the hell are you doing out here?”

Living up to the trucker stereotype, my new pal for the next seven hours back to Fairbanks was a rugged, overweight individual with long straggly hair and the facial hair to match.  He treated me to food and drink as he lectured me about the dangers of this country and the foolishness of carrying bear spray.  As we continued south through the Brooks Range we encountered over 10 moose, a fox, a rabbit and what appeared to be a bear just off the road.  My journey may have not lived up to my expectations but the views from this ride sure proved to be a treat.  After travelling the country by air the day before, it was a joy to travel through this untrammeled landscape on the ground, even if it wasn’t my preferred method of transportation.  For over 300 miles, we were treated to sweeping vistas of the country, with almost zero sign of man.  Throughout the ride, I was regaled with tales from the trucker’s past life as a cowboy, run-away, oil worker, and drug junkie.  I sat there quietly, as I listened to the gun loving womanizer continue with one story after another, keeping my harrowing tales from my 21 years as a white suburban boy from a well-to-do family to myself.

Arriving in Fairbanks, I was dropped off, despondent and disappointed, just a few yards away from where I started my hitch hiking journey a few days prior.   While not achieving much, this journey was encompassed with numerous hard, expensive and emotional lessons.  After returning home to the flatlands of the Midwest and recovering from the emotional damage, I had a greater yearning for Alaska and The Brooks Range.  The future holds great adventures, but for now I am stuck enduring the summer that never was.

Defining Me

I am a free man. I value the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I will never let anyone tell me who I am or what I am capable of.  Words from others will not affect me. It is only I who is able to define who I am.

I believe in the value of family and relationships.  They will always be number one. For without them, I am nothing.

I am a man of openness and honesty.

I am a man who values the ethical treatment of animals and nature across the world.

I will live a life of simplicity.  Material greed and excess will not prevent me from achieving my dreams.

I will not be complacent in the areas of health and fitness.

I will live a life of adventure. Discovering and acting upon each opportunity to live life to its fullest.

I will have a high tolerance for uncertainty and adversity.

I will be happy.

I am Jack McClure