"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Yakutat Journals, Chapter Five

Chapter Five: In which I discover Bigfoot lives.

The M/V Kennicott was ahead of schedule. Rather than docking in Yakutat at 9:30 p.m., the estimated time of arrival was now two hours earlier.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That extra two hours was critical because of what lay ahead that evening for JJ and me. Apparently some schedule times had changed when JJ first made her arrangements with Yakutat Coastal Air Service, and just before we left Moose Pass she notified the air service that we wouldn’t arrive until 9:30 p.m., and asked if they would still be willing to fly us that late across Yakutat Bay to the cabin we had reserved.

I had the impression their agreement was reluctant. Now, we would arrive two hours earlier, but there was no way to reach them until we arrived in Yakutat.

When we neared the vicinity of Yakutat, the pitching of the ferry lessened and I was able to take a shower without feeling like a little ball in a pinball machine, knowing it might be the last one for a week.

Once we docked, I met JJ at the purser’s station where she plugged in her cell phone into an electrical outlet and tried to dial the air service.

She had no service. Then she pointed to a pay phone hanging on the wall with an “out of service” note taped to it. Near the pay phone, a mother and her children sat in abject misery, the entire family seasick, except for the dad. All had wet cloths on their forehead, and I’ve never seen a more pitiful bunch of children.

The signal went out to man your vehicles, the chain across the stairway to the car deck was removed, and we walked down two flights. I retrieved the propane canisters and bear spray from the paint locker where they’d been stored for safety reasons. We were at the head of the line to unload, and the deck crew had all the tie-down straps removed.

The loading elevator descending.

We watched as a huge elevator platform descended, rotated and on-loaded a vehicle and trailer. Then the platform rotated to us and JJ drove onto it.

Another vehicle was on-loaded, and up we went to the next level where we could drive off.

JJ pulled off to the side of the dock and began asking about pay phones. That drew blank looks. Finally someone said there was a phone down the dock by the blue building. It looked more like an outhouse. It was a free pay phone. The story was that the phone company got tired of drunks breaking into the coin boxes, so it made all the public phones free. Worked for us.

JJ in the free pay phone booth.

Soon we were at the airport, where Hans the pilot waited for us. He readied the Beaver, a powerful short takeoff and landing workhorse used extensively in bush Alaska, while we sorted our gear into “take” and “stay” piles. The “take” pile was substantially larger. The “stay” pile consisted mainly of our tents and clean clothes for the return voyage.

Loading the Beaver prior to flight, about 9 p.m.

We loaded up and were on our way. Once across the bay, Hans circled the landing area—the beach—looking for driftwood that might impede a landing, showing us where the cabin was located inland in the trees, and—not incidentally—scaring off any bears that might be in the area.

Hans, the pilot.

Yakutat Bay. We are heading to the area obscured by the plane's hub, or whatever that silver thing is that's sticking out.

The cabin is located in the trees not too far from the left side of the picture, the part blocked by Hans' head.

When we landed, he said he’d chosen this side of Esker Stream even though it was a longer hike to the cabin, but we wouldn’t have to wade the river. I wish he’d said that earlier, because both JJ and I were wearing hip boots in anticipation for doing just that.

Once I got a look at the “stream” we no longer had to cross, I was very thankful. I was even more thankful for the early arrival of the ferry, otherwise we would have been transporting all this gear at midnight.

Our landing point is the beach along the top of the "ess" shape of the river.

That's the beach where Hans will land.

JJ and Hans unloading our mountain of gear.

I helped, too.

Off came all the gear into a huge pile out of danger of the prop wash. Then Hans spun the airplane around, gained airspeed on the sand beach, and rose into the air. He turned right over the bay and headed for Yakutat, leaving us alone with a mountain of gear to find a cabin.

Now we are the only two humans on this side of Yakutat Bay, totally cut off from civilization. Bears and wolves are not civilized.

The two spruce trees I’d picked out as a marker for the cabin’s location were no longer in view. After a short conference, JJ and I gathered as much gear as we could carry and started following Esker Stream inland.

We hadn’t walked more than fifty feet when I shouted, “HOLY S—T!!!” At my feet were enormous brown bear sow and cub tracks.

My "HOLY S--T!" moment. Front feet tracks.

Hind foot for comparison.

Oh, what a thrill???

A couple hundred yards down the beach, we had another conference. Hans had told us this was where hikers usually went inland towards the cabin. I suggested we ferry all our gear to this spot, and we did. I didn’t mention this was to avoid, as long as possible, going inland towards the bears. Incidentally, we HAD to get all the gear to the cabin that night, or the bears certainly would have had lots of fun shredding it.

That looked like perfect bear country to me, and I was not at all looking forward to walking through waist high brush in bear country. Nonetheless, we decided to take a light load and strike out into the wilderness, searching for the sanctuary of four walls and a roof. Up the bank we went, into the fields of lupine and pushki (Cow Parsnip).

On the beach, surrounded by lupine.

We’d already announced our presence loudly and often, and continued to do so frequently. JJ found a trail (animal) through the alders, across a shallow creek, and along the bank. Then we climbed another hill and saw the remains of a previous cabin. She knew from her research that the new cabin was close, and darned if her instincts didn’t lead us right to the new site, though she missed the bear tracks and scat on the trail.

Into the alders we go. Gulp. We both noticed the alternating areas of trampled, dying vegetation, too wide apart to be made by humans. These are distinctive bear trails as they always step in the same place when traversing trails.

JJ is allergic to pushki, as are many people. The sap causes many to be highly sensitive to sunlight, which then causes painful blisters. I let JJ take the lead and she skirted as much of the pushki as she could. Then, we reached a wall of alders, again perfect places for bears to hide.

Cow parsnip (pushki) at Tern Lake, back home. It can grow to fifteen feet in heigth.

The Esker Stream cabin, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Wilderness. Note the large windows that make it easier for large brown bears to enter.

I had a hard time believing what I was seeing. A nice cabin, say 16 by 24 feet, with big windows, and a steel door with a big window. No inside bolts to secure the door from carnivorous animals. No need—those big windows made perfect entry points.


Claw on the cabin's porch support. For size comparison, this is a 6x6 inch post.

It was around 11 p.m. by the time we had all our gear ferried to the cabin, and midnight before we were settled in and ready for bed.

Even though it was still very light outdoors, we needed headlamps and flashlights to see well enough indoors to get out our sleeping gear. A dandy little lantern I’d just bought helped a lot.

Backpacker essentials: a dandy little lightweight battery-operated lantern, which fits nicely for safety into a beverage "cold" sleeve, a can of bear spray (for seasoning), insect repellent, a citronella candle for discouraging insects from the area, and an on-the-go insect repellent wipe. The Zero can is for size comparison.

One of the last things we mentioned before turning in was how glad we were that we hadn’t had to cross that stream with all that gear.

One end of the cabin. My bunk is at the left. JJ's is at the right, and her "organizing"platform is at the right. Did I mention we brought a lot of gear?

The kitchen end of the cabin.

I stuck earplugs in my ears. I’m sure JJ did also. Otherwise, every little noise becomes a voracious monstrous brown bear on the prowl for dinner.

Sweet dreams.

(to be continued)


  1. I so enjoyed the photos of you aside the bear tracks. Your desperate laughing is preferable to the knee jerk reaction of crying hysterically.

    Bars on the windows would have been comforting, don't you think?

  2. Great story and pictures. That's a big bear paw print.