Not really backpacking but…
Every August, I take part in a professional conference in Yakutat, a small fishing village on the southeast coast of Alaska. Lecturing and coordinating small group trips to the Situk River helps to subsidize the cost of the trip each year. What I love most though is getting up there a few days before the conference starts to spend some time alone surrounded by Alaska’s natural beauty.
I flew out of Detroit at about 10 pm, arriving in Anchorage in the middle of the night. I went upstairs to the native Alaskan exhibit where I knew from past experience that I was unlikely to get hassled. (By the way, if you ever need to figure out where you can sleep in an airport without getting thrown out, sleepinginairports.net is a great resource.) I threw down my sleeping pad and summerlite bag and caught a few hours of restless sleep in a little cubicle within the exhibit. The next morning, I jumped on a plane, arriving in Yakutat at about 11 am. I stowed my extra gear at the lodge where the conference would be held the following week and caught a ride to the Situk Lake trailhead, located within the Tongass National Forest.
I was travelling pretty light for this trip. I had reservations to use a small forest service cabin located on Situk Lake, so shelter was taken care of. Food was also abundantly available this time of year, so I was able to limit my food weight to just a few granola bars and snacks. Inside my Recon day pack, I had sleeping bag, small cutdown pad, rain coat, flip flops, fishing gear, and a coffee can containing coffee, spices, olive oil, and an alkie stove. I wore my waders, and carried fishing rod and bear spray close at hand.
The trail to Situk Lake was only 3.5 miles, wandering through mossy rainforest, past water lily covered ponds, sedge and cottongrass fields, and over little streams. Thanks to the American Reinvestment and Recovery act, major trail improvements had been implemented 3 years earlier, with hand carved logs spanning the wetter areas of the trail. New for this year, netting had been placed over the logs to improve traction.
Berries were abundant and I snacked on salmon berries, blueberries, twisted stalk, bunchberries, and highbush cranberries (not quite ripe) as I walked. Moose tracks were evident everywhere.
Moose were not the only obvious presence in the forest. As I came across this large deposit on the trail, two thoughts immediately came to mind. (1) That’s a really large bear, and (2) with all the berries I’d been eating, I might be heading for a similar outcome. I took a second glance, remembering the old joke on how to differentiate grizzly bear scat from that of the black bear. Grizzly bear scat has bells in it and smells like pepper.
Walking on, I found a pretty fresh bear track.
Just 3 years earlier, a park ranger had been mauled on this trail after surprising a mother bear and her cub. To avoid making the same mistake, and partly to entertain myself, I sang loudly as I walked, not so cleverly substituting the word “bear” in the lyrics when appropriate. My best rendition (and that's not saying much) was probably, “Oh when those bears, come marching in, oh when those bears come marching in. Lord I got me a big a$$ shotgun, for when those bears come marching in.” One thing I should mention is that I am not a particularly good singer. At all. I was a little self-conscious, hoping I didn’t run into anyone else on the trail. Luckily, Alaska is a pretty big place and I never saw a soul.
After about an hour and a half of wandering, photographing, and filming, I arrived at the forest service cabin. The Situk Lake cabin is a one room cabin with two bunk beds and a woodstove, sitting in a small clearing overlooking the lake. Amenities include an outhouse, woodshed stocked with cut logs, and an aluminum canoe. It was paradise.
Looking out at the magnificent view, I could see Sockeye jumping where the Situk River flowed into Situk Lake. A note on salmon biology- the best sockeye runs take place in river systems that contain a lake within them. This is because after hatching the sockeye fry spend a year or more living in the lake before migrating to the ocean. The river system I was on contained two such lakes, Mountain Lake, a glacial lake where the Situk River originated, flowing down to Situk Lake in the middle of the river system.
Grabbing a paddle and life jacket, I quickly paddled the canoe out to a small sandbar where river met lake and soon had my first sockeye on. He immediately took for the lake, ripping line in a series of acrobatics. After about 5 minutes, I landed the fish on the sandbar, feeling a sense of relief in knowing that I would not be going hungry that night.
I whiled away the afternoon fishing for sockeye and canoing around the lake. By evening I had caught a number of beautiful sockeye, releasing most but keeping two. Not wanting to attract bears to the sandbar, I overturned the canoe and used it as a counter to fillet the fish. Carcasses were cast into a deep hole, likely to be retrieved later by otters. I know this doesn’t sound classically LNT, but the salmon die by the millions annually in the river system, providing much needed nutrients to support aquatic life.
I took one large salmon fillet back to camp, devising a bear bagging refrigeration system for the rest. As mentioned earlier, the river flowing down from Mountain Lake is glacial runoff, icy cold. I double bagged the fillets and placed them in a large ziplock storage bag. This was tied to a rock and lowered to the bottom of the lake. A small, airfilled baggie kept the end of the rope afloat, allowing me to haul up the fish when needed.
Back at camp, I split some logs using an axe left for that purpose in the woodshed and built a fire in the fire ring. I seasoned up the fish with olive oil, salt, and pepper, wrapped it in foil, and placed it by the fire.
Very fresh fish
While the fish cooked, I gathered some young fireweed greens for a salad, seasoning these with olive oil, spices, and some vinegar found in the cabin. I gorged myself on fresh, smoky salmon, the best I had ever tasted. As I ate, it began to drizzle and I soon retired to the security of the cabin. Snuggled in my down bag, I slept warmly through the night.
I woke at about 4:30 am (the 4 hour time difference made this feel very reasonable) too excited to stay in bed any longer. After a quick cup of coffee and breakfast bar, I started my hike up to Mountain Lake. The trail was heavily overgrown, and I had some moments of concern as I made my way hunched over through willow tunnels that were hardly more than game trails. The thought of coming face to face with a bear in one of these tunnels made me quicken my pace, bear spray held at the ready in one hand.
Eagles were everywhere
Finally I reached a small waterfall where Mountain Lake emptied into the river. There I saw a large school of red salmon, waving their tails slowly to hold position in the water. They were spawned out and waiting to die. I wondered what went through their minds at that time, mission accomplished and nothing to do but wait for the inevitable. Was it a feeling of relief or sadness that the journey had ended?
Intermingled with the salmon were the rapidly flitting shapes of rainbow trout. They had gorged on salmon eggs, and waited now for disintegrating bits of sockeye that would soon follow. I mentally marked the spot for my return downstream.
I continued upward toward the lake, fording above the waterfall to reach the other side. The lake was pristine, surrounded by high mountain walls. Within the lake was another giant school of older sockeye that had succeeded in making the leap up the waterfall. By the lakeside, I found an old bear camp with a small tent-like hut and curiously paused for a while to investigate. I then continued hiking along the shore of the lake, casting occasionally for rainbows cruising beneath the willows. It was drizzling, again.
By noon, I started back down the trail toward home base, I stopped by the waterfall again to cast for rainbows. To my surprise, I caught a nice Dolly Varden and decided to bring it back for dinner that night. However, as I turned around, I realized I had attracted the interest of a young male bear.
As he moved toward me purposefully, I quickly released the fish back into the water and stood tall, talking trash and readying my bear spray. My heart was pounding as I slowly backed away.
The bear soon lost interest and began nosing around in the water. I took that as my cue to retreat back to the trail.
It was raining steadily when I arrived back at the Situk Lake cabin. I spent some more time fishing, then retrieved a sockeye fillet from my “refrigerator” and headed back to the cabin to make dinner. I decided to eat inside that night because of the rain. I built a small fire in the woodstove, again seasoned and wrapped my fish in foil, and cooked it atop the stove. The fresh fish needed no accompaniment, but I did have some blueberries heated with some sugar to form a delicious sauce alongside. Sipping a little whisky afterward, I contemplated what I would do should a bear try to force his way into the cabin. Sleep came soon afterward.
The next day dawned on a beautiful morning. I would be heading back to the lodge today, but resolved to get in a little fishing first, hopefully to bring some sockeye back with me.
I paddled back out to my little sandbar across water still and unblemished.
Making coffee on the sandbar
Flycasting at dawn
Another nice sockeye
After that, it was time to leave. I triple bagged a number of sockeye fillets and headed out. The trip back was uneventful. Reaching 9 mile Bridge late that afternoon, I hitched a ride back to the lodge. Dinner that night was a pot of Dungeness crabs generously donated by one of the guys at the lodge. Plainly boiled and dunked in butter, this was one of the best post trip dinners I've ever had.
That evening, I hiked along the shoreline around a rocky outcropping overlooking the bay.
A school of porpoises swam right between me and the island in this picture, not 30 feet away.
Still life with crab
The next day, I borrowed a conference van and beat around the lower river for the day. Coho salmon were just starting to enter the river system, ferociously taking any well presented fly.
The conference began one day later. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was incredibly glad to have had a few days alone in the Alaskan wilderness. These are memories that will last a lifetime.