Two Hikes

Several years ago, when I lived in Juneau, I rented a house near the Mendenhall Glacier. Framing the southern side of the valley was Thunder Mountain. A steep and imposing peak with impressive avalanche shoots and Spruce covered ridges. After a couple months living in its shadow I gave in to temptation and attempted to scramble up one of the avalanche paths. It was mid-summer and the foliage was thick with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and alder. Halfway up, the moderate grade shoved me onto a near vertical pitch. Consumed with the climb and drunk on sunshine, I continued fifty feet further than I should have. By the time I realized what I had done, I had trapped myself in a stand of alder and was climbing their branches like a step ladder.

My 24-year old ignorance was replaced by genetically infused fear thousands of years old. Just a week ago, a seasonal had scrambled up the ridge near Eagle Glacier to the north of town. One false move, one slip in his Merrill’s and he fell to his death. Like him, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I’d broken the cardinal rule of the outdoorsman. My knees shook, my arms trembled. Somewhere to the west, 65 miles away, my fiancee was kayaking, oblivious to the fact that the love of her life was so recklessly risking his.

I began to downclimb. Most mountaineering accidents occur on the descent. I was no different. A foot slipped, a branch cracked, and I began to free fall towards a gully 60-feet below. I’ll never forget the sensation. As I fell my terror was replaced by a serene, almost disarming calm. I no longer felt afraid. I reached out with one hand and grabbed an alder branch as thick as my forearm. The branch bent, bobbed, cracked… and held. From above came a strange rustling followed moments later by a sharp pain on the back of my head. I watched the offending branch and my baseball hat complete the forty-foot plunge into the shoot. The branch gave a sickening crack as it struck the boulders. I hung, as weightless and helpless as an astronaut on his first spacewalk. Helicopters bound for the glacier zipped by. Cars roared by on a road a thousand feet below. And I gripped the branch that was preserving my life.

***

I throw rain pants, a sweater, and a vest into the backpack I’ve had since I was 21. The straps are fraying, several of the buckles are broken. But I can’t bear to give it up. She’s more duct tape than nylon at this point. But I carried my life in her through New Zealand, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska. Some things are more important than efficiency.

I no longer have a fiancee. But I do have a wife. And I make no bones about where I’m going today. I’m going up the peak to the south of the Hobbit Hole. There’s two feet of snow at sea level and who knows how much at the top. I’m dying to find out. Worst comes to worse, they can follow my footprints. It’s deliciously quiet here. We’re used to solitude. But even when we lived off the coast of B.C, boat traffic inundated our ear drums. Walks through the woods were often interrupted by the dull drone of a diesel engine as a tug plied the inside passage. Here we endure the occasional 737 flying at 20,000 feet but that’s it. The thick snow mutes the silence even more. No squirrels, no birds, just my boots stepping through the frozen crust.

I weave through hemlock, spruce, devils’s club. My breath comes in gasps, I sweat beneath the wool that keeps me warm when I stop. Deer tracks surround me, all pointed downhill. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Three days ago we woke up to blowing snow and flakes as big as thumbnails. It snowed for 16 hours straight, pushing the deer down from the ridges to the beaches. I reach a steppe and come out into the open. It’s like stepping into the deep end of the pool. My boot plunges deep into the snow and doesn’t stop until the crust is at my hip. I struggle out and throw the next step forward in an awkward plunge. I head for a steep ridge. It’s nearly vertical and this all begins to feel familiar.

***

I watch my shoes swing beneath me with a benign neglect. I’m hypnotized by my hat three dozen feet below, nestled between a couple of boulders and covered with dust. Blood drips from my left hand which grips the branch so tight my knuckles turn white. My body completes it’s flight of fight checklist, determines that I’m no longer in immediate danger of death, and give me permission to freak out. The change is instantaneous. I hyperventilate. My legs begin to shake. I have to move. My stupidity knocks at the back door of my sub-conscious, reminding me that I’m an idiot and lucky to not be laying in that gully with a shattered leg or two. I pull myself up and my feet search for a foothold. To my right is a thin ridge, just wide enough for a couple of spruce trees to get ahold.

I move hand over fist, my feet skittering madly to keep up. At last I feel dirt and root beneath them, I kneel and grip the ground. I want to curl up and never move. I’m never letting go. In my mind I imagine my body hitting the rocks. How far would I bounce? How damaged would I be when I finally came to rest. And with a shudder remember that no one would ever find me.

***

I stagger towards the ridge and stop at its feet. The snow four feet deep in places, more swimming than hiking. I look at the reassuring trail I leave behind. There’d be no mystery this time. I begin to climb, my feet digging for purchase beneath the snow while hands pull me up with the aid of salmon berry bushes and willow. There’s a melody to hiking through the snow mixed with the improvisation of jazz when a boot falls deeper than expected. I turn around halfway up to catch my breath and feel it catch in my throat. The view is bonkers. West facing, the ocean, the whole Pacific is sprawled at my feet. Three Hill Island and Soapstone Point guard the southern edge of Cross Sound. Cape Spencer to the north, just enough of a break in the clouds to see Mt. Crillion.

Already the landmarks feel like old friends. “Hello dear Port Althorp, hey Elfin Cove, how’s it going Middle Pass?”

I turn and continue to climb, by the time I reach the top I’m crawling. A thin ledge, two spruce tress wide greets me at the top.

***

I cling to each spruce and try to get my knees to stop quivering. I’m bleeding from four different spots, the pain beginning to whisper from beneath the adrenaline. There’s a welt on the back of my head where the branch made contact, my neck hurts. I’m a fool and Thunder Mountain was punishing me for my foolishness. The wild places teach harsh lessons, lessons you never forget if you survive. I prayed I’d have the chance to learn from my mistakes. As I climb down, the ridge I’m following widens until all I can see is trees on each side. The climb remains steep and down climbing is harder than going up. Gravity a much more willing participant.

To my left I hear something crashing through the bush. Bears litter the valley. Black bears primarily, though the odd brown bear will poke its nose in to chase the spawning salmon of Mendenhall River. But it’s a mountain goat that appears through a tangle of devil’s club. Branches of the bush stick to the thick tangled hair that’s somewhere between yellow and white. A pair of identical horns jut from the top of its head and curve forwards. The beast is maybe thirty feet away. It stops and turns its head slowly in my direction like a villain in a cheesy Hollywood production. Without a moment’s hesitation it begins to trot towards me. I stand at the edge of a drop of twenty feet, and the last thing I want to do is free fall yet again. But the goat seems to have every intention of running me off the ledge. More harsh lessons at the hand of Professor Thunder.

It’s at that moment, after twenty years in the woods and fjords of Alaska, that I realize that I don’t know anything about mountain goats. My body is drained, out of adrenaline, I do the only thing that feels logical and insane at the same time, I scream.

***

I follow the ridge up a little further. I’m having flashbacks of devilish goats, snapping branches, and serene free falls. The ridge takes a sharp turn to the right and into a thick tangle of spruce. This is far enough. A scattering of trees gives way to a wide open precipice that cuts between the summit I stand on and the next one to the north. I have no intention of looking over the ledge. I lean against the sturdy trunk of a tree, feel snow and dirt beneath my feet, and pull a water bottle from my backpack. Something small and blunt is still in the pocket, I dig deeper and pull out a small shooter of gin.

A smile becomes a grin. Miracle booze, the best kind. It’s barely eleven in the morning. But there are no man made rules in the forest. I crack the cap and empty the little bottle, savoring the burning liquid cooled by the ascent. It only makes sense to taste pine trees when surrounded by them. I give a silent thanks to Jen and Patrick who had filled my Christmas stocking with the little shooters and my own irresponsibility to stash one in my pack and forget all about it. I shoulder the pack and take one more longing look at the world around me. From here it was possible to see the world at its best. No mass shootings in Florida, no indictments in Washington, no missile tests in Korea. Just me, the trees, and that big ocean taking on all comers.

***

I want to go home. I want a hot shower, fluorescent lights, a big sandwich, a cold beer. The goat continues his advance, his hooves stick to the rock like velcro. I scream a tapestry of vulgarities that continue to hang over the mountain to this day. Five feet away his wild goat eyes weave to the right. He climbs onto the hillside a few feet above me. Those iris’s staring deep into me, mocking me, shaming me.

I step away, my eyes never leaving him, toes probing for the edge. I grab a root and scramble like a fireman down the rocks. I leap the last four feet and fall with a thud. Enough. I lean forward and half run, half fall down the mountainside, bloodied, beaten, and alive to climb another day.

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Otters and Men; Lichen and Trees

For the first time in a week, the wind acquiesces. The temperature crawls above freezing, and like bears from their dens, we step out into a world defined by snow drifts and frozen salt spray. A week ago half a foot of snow fell, but in one of nature’s more curious quirks, the forest floor remains mostly barren. The snow has piled in the few open muskegs and clearings. The other alternative was to be blown callously into the intertidal and ocean where a biting 33 degrees still melts snow.

We step off the beach and into the forest. After years in Gustavus, the old growth of the Inians feels like a novelty. And in winter what little undergrowth there is has been extinguished. Skeletal stalks of Devil’s Club stand bunched together. In a few months electric green buds will emerge from the top of these spiny towers. A member of the Ginseng family, the forest will take on the herby odor of the buds that can be collected (very carefully) and cooked. Preferably fried in oil and served with Siracha mayo. Watermelon berries and salmon berries will appear, the blueberries a little bit behind. But for now, the land is comparatively barren. But far from empty.

A squirrel chatters. A chatter that shouldn’t be heard here. It’s a long swim across Inian Pass to here. The squirrels of the archipelago hitched a ride on a boat, either intentionally or by accident. Greg Howe seems to believe that it was by choice. Some homesteader who missed the incessant giggle of the little furry reds.

I can’t condemn though. We’ve brought our own little invasive species. There’s us of course on the three acre homestead, and our two furry companions. I don’t know if all cats will hike if given the opportunity, but Porter and Minerva do. In the woods they’re unlocked. Scaling hills, scrambling up rocks, and clutching to the bark of trees. Eyes wide and paws alight. Confining our cats to the house feels like confining humanity to the cities. Sure, they can survive, but they miss such a critical part of what it means to be human or feline. We’d prefer to not upset the song bird population. And while Porter has never been much of a birder, Minerva, like Walter before her, is tenacious. She sports a bird-b-gone. A fluorescent, multi-colored collar that fans around her neck to alert birds to her presence. She is part court jester and part Dilophosaurus.

The spell of the woods takes hold. The ground is frozen solid, like walking on chunky green asphalt. Rattlesnake plantain, club moss, and sphagnum moss are still a resilient green even after the cold that’s frozen the top of the creeks solid. Brittney carries a woven basket, collecting fallen hemlock boughs and old man’s beard. She advises me to keep an eye out for any of the teal-blue lichen that’s fallen to the floor.

“Why do you only want fallen old man’s beard?”

“Because it takes a long time to form on trees. It’s more sustainable to only harvest that which has fallen.”

Fair enough. I had no idea. Lichens are a prime indicator of the overall health of a forest and the cleanliness of the air. Stealing the indicator of a forest’s health feels sacrilegious. Yet I was ready to do so blindly. What else, I wonder have I callously taken which was not appropriate? A great glacial erratic has planted itself firmly on the hillside. The size of a small house, a pair of mountain hemlock have secured themselves to the top. Their roots as large as pythons slither down the rocks, seeking the forest floor below. One root has made a sweeping U-shape a foot above the ground and attached itself to another tree. I stare at the miracle for a long minute. What on earth compelled the tree to do that? Why make that U-turn so close to the ground? Unless… unless it knew the other tree was there and knew it’d be firmer if they were connected. But how did it know it was there?

The secret lives of trees are secret indeed.

Brittney finds a skeleton. Another deer, larger than the one we found on Westeros. The skull is half the length of my forearm, the molars the size of thumbnails. Brittney is incapable of passing the shadow of another spirit without paying respect. She kneels and examines the bones, cups the skull gently in her palm. The bones are bleached and white, whenever this deer said goodbye to the physical world was long before our arrival. But for Brittney that doesn’t matter. She keeps me grounded. My U-shaped root holding me fast when I’d rather climb my erratic and head for the sunnier canopy.

Maybe the secret lives of trees isn’t that secret. Maybe, like us, a tree’s life is best when you hold the hand of one you love.

We weave back down the hill, through a stand of alder, and onto the beach. To my surprise, the property is only a few hundred yards away. After an hour among the spruce and hemlock I thought we’d traveled much farther. There’s been a flock of twenty Canadian geese that have made the hole their base of operations for the last two weeks. They bounce from beach to beach, servants of the tidal whims. But it is the resident sea otter that catches my eye. He’s eating. As usual. He doesn’t have a choice.

What the coyote and wolf were to the homesteaders and ranchers of the west, the sea otter is to southeast Alaska. They are a villain, simply for their biology. Because they have no blubber, they must eat constantly to feed their feverish metabolic rate that keeps them warm. Walking the low tide with Zach, he pointed out how much the tidepools had changed over the last ten years. Ever since the otters got a foothold and began to devour the clams, mollusks, sea stars, and most importantly, the crab of the Inian Islands and the panhandle. The diversity of the pools has plummeted. More seaweed, less of everything else.

It’s not their fault. Like us, like every creature on earth, they’re simply trying to live. And unfortunately, tragically, their consumption falls in line with what we want to eat as well. There’s satire, an Onion headline in mankind criticizing the over-consumption of another creature. The otter is not always a pleasant critter. They eat everything that moves, their mating habits are… uncomfortable and inappropriate. Yet they are just critters. Incapable of having the moral and ethical choices that we have. They don’t have that convenience.

I’ve often thought that we love orcas because we see them as ideal reflections of ourselves. They’re born into air-tight family units. They want for nothing. They’re identity is in those they love and live with. Nothing troubles an orca. They are perfectly content, comfortable in their own skin. If orcas are humanity at are best, perhaps otters are us at our worse. Consuming every resource we can get our paws on. Changing every ecosystem we touch, eating ourselves out of house and home.

The otter continues to bob up and down, every few minutes he dives for another snack. I think of the lichen of the forest. Like me he doesn’t know any better. How does he know that his dinner is changing the tidepools at my feet? How was I supposed to know old man’s beard needed so long to grow and flourish? And there I have my difference. If my species was going to continue to sprint past the limitations of evolution, then it was my responsibility to limit myself if nature wasn’t going to do it. It’s a tall order. The hardest word in the English language for man to utter is, “enough.”

Someday, the Hobbit Hole will no longer be able to support the otter. He’ll eat himself out of house and home. And what will happen then? The sea otter population of Glacier Bay has finally crested. About time. There’s more of the furballs in the bay than the entire California coast. Nature has begun to regulate. The familiar peaks and valleys of populations. Lesson one of any Population Biology class, the lynx and the rabbit rising up and down together. I don’t worry about the otters, I don’t worry about the crab. It’ll all even out in the end. I continue to hope, that when it comes to man and nature, the ledger will someday even out too.

The Changing World of Elfin Cove

Greg Howe seems to think the outboard is fine. I’m certainly not inclined to argue. He’s been here four decades, I’ve been here four days. If he thinks the engine is reliable enough to get us across South Inian Pass I’m going to believe him. But I’ve had an outboard die on me. Twice it’s put me on the rocks, once in British Columbia, another time north of Juneau. They make for great stories, but with an east wind of 25-knots and the open ocean an arm’s length away, I’m not ready to revisit the stomach dropping sensation of a coughing Yamaha.

Greg and Jane Button’s boat the Via has a covered helm with a bench seat for two people and another one directly behind that faces backward.

“Wear your rain pants. You’ll get wet.”

Brittney and I huddle on the seat and watch the Hobbit Hole disappear behind us. With no hesitation Greg takes us into Inian Pass, and for who knows what time, makes the 20-minute trip to Elfin Cove. In its heyday Elfin Cove was a commercial fishing hub. From there the treasures of the northern panhandle was at your feet. Salmon all summer, Kings in the winter, halibut right off the dock. Greg waxes about days with forty fishing boats in the Hobbit Hole’s inner cove. For not the first time I wonder if I was born too late. Trolling Inian Pass and Soapstone Point circa 1955 sounds like Nirvana. It’s a tale of tragedy told and retold up and down the coast. Even in Alaska, the last frontier, the land of opportunity, the land of inexhaustible natural wealth, locals can feel the spoon hitting the bottom of the bowl.

Elfin Cove is a shadow of its former self. The tale of west Icy Strait is not all that different from Northern British Columbia where we spent the last three winters. A place defined by fishing that has been strangled by dismal returns and a changing climate. Homesteads and outposts used to dot these places. Now they are only relics of an age come and gone. Another victim of the good old days. The Hobbit Hole and Elfin Cove stand as guardians of another time. And Elfin remains mostly as a seasonal town populated by sport fishing lodges.

The run across Inian Pass is eye opening. Steep cliffs are barren of vegetation thirty feet above sea level, marking the height merciless winter waves can hit. We hug the shoreline of Chichagof Island. I point across the pass to the mainland and the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park. The Brady Glacier glows in the gray light of winter. The open ocean, the swell visible as a steppe ten feet high awaits any foolish enough to run the outer coast. Hands down it is the wildest scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. How have I lived ignorantly at the step of this country for years and never ventured this far? This place is in my blood already.

We slip into Elfin Cove, a long narrow cut in the Chichagof Island shoreline where the wind funnels down the steep hillsides and adds frothy whitecaps to one-foot waves. Most of the buildings are up on pilings and hover over the water on high tide. A few are built into the mountainside, but it is a place of boardwalks. There are no cars here, there never will be. But beyond the charm of the place is the eerie vacancy. Clues of a previous grandeur are everywhere. A school, a post office, houses pockmarked up and down the inner cove. But there are no people.

That’s not entirely true. There are five people here in winter. The shop is open three hours a week. 1-2, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As we walk along the boardwalks I hop between feelings of awe and the eerie silence of another small community gone to seed. We pass fishing lodge after fishing lodge boarded up with No Trespassing signs hammered to the fence. Like their clients, the owners are South for the winter. They’ll arrive in the spring, fish the dickens out of Cross Sound, and then take their fish and money back South with them. It doesn’t feel right, the consumption of so much taken by so few. Greg’s an old commercial fisherman, a champion of Alaska’s fisheries, a commodity he calls, “the people’s resource.”

“Very few can afford to come up here and fish for a week.” he explains. “And those that do take more than they can eat. It gets thrown out in the spring, they come back, and do it all over again. More people can go to Costco and buy a fillet of Alaskan Halibut once a week. Which one is the better use?”

There’s a look of nostalgia on his face. Memories of people in Port Althorp and Gull Cove and Mud Bay. Of fishing boats working The Laundry and Soapstone and stopping at the Hobbit Hole for dinner. Like much of the old west, the big east has chewed it up and swallowed it. Three times he tells stories of the fishing life, the culture of “Icy Straits.” It’s a tradition I would love to see honored. Commercial fishing shaped southeast Alaska, for better or worse. It’s an occupation that brought many to Gustavus, Hoonah, Elfin Cove, and Pelican. It was our lifeblood, a means that opened the door to many of the current residents of this place.

Back at the Hole I poke through the detritus of the homestead. Countless fishing buoys, crab pots, line, and hooks fill a storage shed. There’s such a contrast between what this place was and what it will become. A place that feeds the bellies of humanity to one that feeds the mind. But indirectly, I believe the goal remains the same. To make people fall in love with this place. To keep them alive, and to convince the world that we cannot survive without them.