Lost Coast, Part II: The Mighty Ocean

The Lost Coast’s southern half started with the same themes of the northern half: beaches, bears, bays, and (thankfully to a milder extent) bugs. But the experience was quite different — and distinctly more challenging — between Lituya Bay and the town of Gustavus. As happened to me in the western Alaska Range, nature forced me to repeatedly recommit to this adventure, to step up my performance, in order to proceed.

The crossing of Lituya Bay was my first major challenge. The bay’s half-mile wide mouth is renowned for its deadly tidal currents: rising tides start with a standing bore wave, and during falling tides there is a rip wave. In addition to the current, gale winds greatly complicated my crossing — 30mph headwinds are very difficult to paddle into, especially in a packraft; and the winds were pushing 6-foot swells into the bay from the Gulf of Alaska. When I first reached Lituya I deemed it too risky to cross, but when I saw the conditions only deteriorating and a major low pressure front rolling in, I decided that it might be now-or-never (or now or in 2 days, more likely). I’m glad I did it but I am not sure if it was the right decision — those types of decisions don’t necessarily get me back to Kotzebue in the long run.

South of Lituya I battled a rain storm that completely soaked me. If I walked on the coast, it was a cold pelting rain. If I followed the bear trails through the forest, then wet brush licked the warmth off my body. I made a bonfire mid-day in order to get my core warmth back; I wore my PFD all day because I was desperate for more clothing; and I made an early camp just before La Perouse Glacier, the 3-mi long face of which stops at the beach and offers zero protection from the weather or from surging surf that I feared might be lapping up against the base of the ice when high tide rolled in.

The weather cleared in time for my arrival in Palma Bay but the surf had not yet calmed enough for me to avoid arduous hikes around two sections of beach-interrupting cliffs, around the bases of Mount Marchainville and DeLangle Mountain. I found phenomenal bear trails around both cliff sections but the brush, blowdowns, and steep ups-and-downs still made for only .5mph travel.

The final leg of this section was getting from the Lost Coast to the calmer waters of the Inside Passage. The most practical route went inland rather than going around Cape Spencer. It featured two heinous bushwhacks through old growth alder, devil’s club, berry thickets, and other temperate rainforest entanglements. I found traces of bear trails but nothing consistent. The bushwhacks linked up Deception and Trick Lakes, putting me at the west edge of the huge Brady Glacier. I was tempted to claim a first packraft descent of the glacier’s main outlet river (which starts at South Trick Lake) but calved-off icebergs blocked the river — and the half-mile long section where the river flows under the glacier would have been problematic too.

Once I reached Icy Straits my next challenge was to embrace the world-class tides in order to reach Gustavus, past the mouths of Dundas and Glacier Bays. I managed to succeed, but not before the area’s tides demonstrated their remarkable strength — twice I was swept miles sideways from my desired take-out location because I could not overcome the currents regardless of how hard I paddled. Next time I do this route I’ll consider packing an ultralight 15hp Mercury engine.

From Gustavus, I am paddling and hiking up Lynn Canal towards Haines and then onto the historic Skagway, where the ocean section of this trip ends. I am planning to celebrate my halfway point in full-service Haines — there are many challenges that remain before I return to Kotzebue but I think it’s worth pausing to take note of what I have accomplished thus far too.

Posted in on June 16, 2010
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