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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Yakutat Journals, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven: In which I give JJ reason to sing.

While JJ went off on another hike, I set up my propane stove and started boiling drinking water. The creek where we got clear water was only a couple inches deep at best. Everything else was turbid with glacial silt—ground up rock.

JJ dipping water from the only clear water source in the vicinity.

Eventually I figured we had enough sanitized water to last a couple days, so I lay on my bunk and tried to read. My abysmal showing in the river non-crossing department weighed heavily and my eyes frequently wandered from reading a novel on the Kindle to the far wall of the cabin.

I’d lost “it.” I’d gone citified, as scared of bears as any Cheechako coming into the country. I’d crossed rivers before, for Pete’s sakes. Why, put me on the trail of sockeye salmon and the Russian River had no place I wouldn’t wade into. But that was years ago, and I don’t even go fishing there anymore.

I understood how this all happened. I mean, when you get married, you tend to give up a lot of things if your spouse doesn’t participate. I kept my dog team, but my dreams of running the Iditarod race were over when I said, “I do.”

What I didn’t understand was “why” I let this happen to me. Or is it the other way around, I asked myself. Did I understand “why” but not “how?” Well, I told myself, now you’re arguing semantics. Then another part of me answered, that’s okay, I’m not anti-semantic. And that was pretty much the end of any serious discussion with myself.

Finally the storm cloud we’d see over the Yakutat forelands on the other side of the bay reached the cabin and I fell asleep to the sound of rain on a steel roof. When I woke up, JJ was back.

She was all enthused about tomorrow’s hike. She said she’d found the perfect place—a wide, dry pathway that paralleled the beach. She continued to talk about it as we each prepared our separate dinners on our tiny stoves. She had freeze dried lasagna; I had freeze dried chili with macaroni. This was the first freeze dried food I’d had in thirty years, and I can tell you it has certainly improved in quality.

JJ's stove.

I should tell you something about JJ. She became a full-time Alaskan after retiring a couple years ago from her teacher’s position in California. She’s six years younger than me. Last summer she ruptured her ACL in one knee while on a bike ride up in the mountains—by herself. She managed to get her and her bike out, then had surgery.

This Yakutat trip was designed for getting her knee back in shape. JJ hikes all over tarnation, and she has the most worn and annotated copy of the Alaska Atlas I’ve ever seen. Photos, notes, GPS locations, birds spotted, you name it. It’s written in her atlas.

My pristine copy of the Alaska Atlas.

So, not only was she calm in the face of bears, fearless at wading swift rivers, and more adventuresome than anyone I’ve ever met, but she was crippled. If that didn’t beat all.

Tomorrow, I promised myself, I’ll see about getting my groove back.


I woke up to another sunny day…and the discovery that JJ had already been out exploring.

A while later, we set out on that day’s exploration. That required first crossing Esker Stream. JJ showed me where she’d crossed yesterday, and I followed. Whew. Count one river down.

Crossing Esker Stream.

Then she led the way to the area she thought would be good for hiking. It seemed to be a dry estuary bed, in between the forested inland and a twenty-foot high vegetation-covered dune. The dune kept the cold onshore wind away from us.

It also gave shelter to the mosquitoes, which swarmed me so quickly I thought the sun had disappeared and it was night. That didn’t make sense. It’s summer. It doesn’t get dark in the summer. I dug out the mosquito net and donned it. At last I could breathe without getting tickling little insect legs in my nostrils. They didn’t even seem to notice that JJ was right beside me.

Ever so casually, JJ mentioned that this “dry estuary” also seemed to be a bear highway. I looked. Sure enough, the place was littered with bear tracks of all sizes and it continued that way for as far as we went.

Here’s the number one advice when you’re in bear country: Make lots of noise. Let them know you’re around. They don’t like to be surprised, and will attack the danger, even if it’s little ol you and your little ol’ can of bear spray, which is just pepper spray and what we call “seasoning.”

JJ changing out of her hip boots and into hiking boots. This dry estuary bed is where we walked this day, the protective dune at the left and the inland vegetation on the right.

Most of the time, they don’t want anything to do with you and they’ll leave. Unless, of course, you get too close to their cubs, or they’re just ticked off for some reason known only to bears.

Bear bells on your pack? Dinner bells. Come and get it. Or, as JJ said, bears think the bells are just birds and don't pay attention.

A typical bear trail in vegetation. Notice how far apart the foot[prints are and that they ground cover is gone. Bears always step in the same spot when walking on trails multiple times.

Half jokingly, I called out a dog musher’s term for wanting right-of-way on the trail: “TRAIL!” Well, that seemed more appropriate than, “Yo, bear. Here we come,” so I continued to use it. Frequently.

When we weren’t talking, JJ sang songs from “Oklahoma!”

“Oh, what a beautiful morning…. Oh, what a beautiful day….”

I would have joined in, but every single lyric from every single song I ever knew skittered out of my head. All but one: “Pore Jud is daid, Pore Jud Fry is daid…”

Not appropriate, so I kept my mouth shut.

No, these aren't flowers for Jud. These are red Indian paintbrush, which we don't see in our part of Alaska. Yellow and orange, but not red.

We reached another river, this one a little wider, but not as swift. I was going first this time. I took a couple steps in the same place a large brown bear had crossed. On the next step, my foot found no bottom and I aborted that crossing.

We went upstream and this time JJ went first. Once across she assured me there was solid ground under several inches of muck. Feeling my way with my hiking pole, I crossed the shallow, gooey stream.

Eventually we came to another glacial stream, this one a perfect example of the rule, "Still waters run deep." That was as far as we could go, so we explored a ways inland and worked our way back towards the dry bed in the direction of the cabin. Two sets of fresh black bear tracks had crossed our footprints a short distance down the trail. How to tell the difference between brown bear and black bear tracks? Claws, my friend. Brown bears have five inch claws and those leave marks.

JJ next to the large lupine at the river that stopped our progress.

And me at the same spot.

Still waters run deep.

By way of another feeble excuse for my bear phobia, I told JJ about a dear friend of mine, Richard, who had fought with a brown bear sow and lived to tell about it. I didn’t go into too much detail about his injuries, though I might have mentioned his larynz was torn out, and he was scalped and you could feel the grooves in his skull where her teeth slid across it, and that the sow had picked him up by his shoulder and shook him like he was nothing but a rag doll.

JJ started singing again.

(A couple days ago when we were swapping photos, JJ said to be sure to tell you that when she’s in bear country, she’s on full bear alert. She listens, looks, and smells for bear. “Make sure,” she said, “you write how you talked about your friend getting mauled while we were out there with all those bear tracks around!” How ‘bout that? JJ’s scared of bears, too. Doesn’t stop her, though.)

Knee-high chocolate lily.

Back at the cabin, we had a conference. JJ got out the rented satellite phone and called the air service to pick us up at noon the next day. We had decided the rivers blocked us in each direction—except inland where we couldn’t see the bears until they were on us.

Home at Esker Stream.

JJ went out for a walk and I gathered up some shredded (bears) debris outside the cabin. Then I walked a couple hundred yards to the site of a demolished cabin and “organized” the debris there, trying to stack it all in one area instead of having it spread around a larger area.

JJ on the beach the morning we left for the town of Yakutat.

Trying to manage the mess from a previous squatter's cabin. Wasn't much I could do except retrieve the stuff scattered in the bushes and try to gather most of it in one place.

I made freeze dried beef stroganoff for my dinner that night. Then I started getting my gear together to haul the quarter mile to the beach in the morning.

It was time to explore Yakutat and its surroundings.

(to be continued)

To see where we were, follow the border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory down towards the Gulf of Alaska. The word Yakutat is written right below where the border heads east. The town of Yakutatis located at the end of the word. We were across the bay (north) and just to the right of the longitude line. Click on the photo and it should enlarge. On my computer, I can click a second time and the enlargement again magnifies.


  1. I sure am enjoying this series, but was glad to see the air service arrive. . .

    p.s. Sad news: Swelterbird died, so I had to move on and find a new home. . .

  2. In Oklahoma when we're hiking we sing songs about Alaska and wear skunk bells. Amazing how simular but different we are. Enjoying this series especially the pictures that bring it to life.

  3. Are you feeling better now that you crossed water in your wading boots? See, you're not totally citified by any means.

    What would a bear do if you came upon one and you had Pablo perched on your shoulder? Any thoughts on that?

    You just had to do some form of litter picking even if it only amounted to litter rearranging. Good 'un.

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