South of Fairweather Glacier Outflow to Lituya Bay
|Today will prove to be the best day of the trip and also the most difficult. |
My left hip and knee ache in the night, the result of a broken hip in a bike accident decades ago. My thigh muscles also ache, something unusual for me during backpacking trips. It isn't until after the trip that someone suggests it may be the side effect of a statin I've recently begun taking for cholesterol control.
I break camp and am heading down the beach by 9:00 AM. I have good beach walking for 3 hours to Fourmile Creek. It's another sunny day, though, and the walking is hot. I'm dripping sweat, wondering if I'm walking the coast of Alaska or Baja.
Slowly I progress toward the headland on the horizon ahead, marking the entrance to Lituya Bay.
By 2:50 PM I'm at Eagle Creek and sand once again gives way to rocks as I begin the hike to the headland. Eventually I come across what appears to be the rusting hulk of a steam boiler from an old shipwreck. Tiring of the boulders, I head up into the forest and find an excellent bear trail. It isn't long though before it dumps me out into a meadow of tall grass at the north end of the spit marking the entrance to Lituya Bay. The meadow is full of ripening salmon berries. Bear trails are everywhere and I frequently call out a precautionary, "Hey bear," even louder than usual.
At the far end of the meadow something large bursts from the trees ahead of me. Obviously a bear, though I don't see it in the thick underbrush. More rock hopping on especially round rocks and boulders leads me slowly to the end of the spit overlooking the infamous entrance to Lituya Bay. The weather is warm, the sky cloudless. The view is absolutely stunning, one of the most spectacular I've ever seen. Above the blue water of Lituya Bay, the snow-covered peaks of the Fairweather range are said to rise higher and more abruptly than anywhere else on earth.
Lituya Bay is unique in the world on many counts. The tectonic and hydrologic forces in the bay are legendary. The volume of water flowing through the entrance on a rising tide can be 100 times that of Niagra Falls. The highest wave ever known, at over 1700', occurred here. Having read so much about its geology and storied history, I can hardly believe I'm finally here.
Looking across the entrance to the bay, I try to imagine the day in 1786 when the French La Perouse expedition entered the bay, nearly losing both their frigates in the process. Or the desperate scene a few days later when strong currents sucked two of their long boats out the entrance and into the surf with the loss of 21 men.
With binoculars I scan the bay to its head where the scar remains from the massive rockslide that fell into the bay in the earthquake of 1958, causing the great wave. It stripped every tree from the opposing mountainside to a height of over 1700 feet. I can clearly see the wave line, still visible on the mountainside, in the contrast between new and old growth trees. I try to imagine the wave coming down the bay, the 3 fishing boats anchored there being engulfed by it, and the miraculous survival of the crew of 2 of them.
On a more personal note as I sit on the rocks eating lunch, I once again go through the calculus of the trip. This has run through my mind many times since learning from locals how unusual the weather has been so far this summer. In all but one respect, it's been ideal. Little rain, warm to hot weather, few bugs, the rain-fed rivers down and thus easy to cross.
During a more normal summer, the 5 rivers and streams south of here, all of them glacier-fed, have been described by one of the world's most experienced packrafters as "tough crossings." This is echoed by another person I talked with prior to the trip who said, "Crossing the 2 rivers north of La Perouse Glacier and the 3 south of it were the most difficult of the trip." Now, with record-breaking temperatures prevailing for the past two months, those 5 "tough crossings" are no doubt whatever category is harder than "tough." I'm also well aware that I'm traveling solo, and with no outside communication.
From Icy Point to Gustavus, my original termination point, I'm not so concerned. There would still be quite a ways to go, but all of it much more doable. Sure, there's 18 miles of open ocean paddling in a little packraft, but that portion could, if the weather didn't cooperate, be circumvented by a long and hellacious, but doable, bushwhack. And the rest of the route I've already done by sea kayak.
I think about continuing. It's less than 30 miles to Icy Point. If I cross Lituya Bay and walk the dozen miles south to the first of the "tough crossings", I'd be less than 20 miles from Icy Point. In the next dozen miles south of that would come the 5 most difficult crossings of the trip, plus a 2 mile-wide glacier to get past. With so little distance to go, would I resist trying to cross something more difficult than a "tough" crossing? Would I resist doing something stupid rather than backtracking to Lituya Bay, then retracing my steps another 50 miles back to East River? If I made it across the first river, would there be even more pressure to cross the next one, even if it was worse than the first? With so little distance left to go? If weather moved in before I reached the glacier, would I wait days for it to pass so I could launch through the surf and paddle the 2 miles past the glacier? Or, would I be tempted to cross the glacier on foot, without crampons, crevasse rescue equipment, or a partner to help with a rescue? After the glacier, not attempting to cross the next 3 rivers would be almost unimaginable, despite all of them likely running higher and faster than normal.
It has all the elements of a setup, going step by step toward doing something really stupid.
I consider my current situation. The weather won't get any better than this. The views will become less spectacular south of here. I've now seen 2 of the things I most hoped to experience on this trip. One being treated to magnificent views of the Fairweather Range during a brilliant weather window. To be here on a day like this is more than I dared to expect. The other is the privilege of seeing the storied bay before me that I've read and heard so much about over the years.
Sitting on the rocks, I finally face the realization that's been dawning on me since I began the trip. With a mix of gratitude and disappointment, I rise and turn north.
As evening wears on, I'm almost relieved to see high cirrus clouds beginning to appear, a harbinger of changing weather.
A couple hours after leaving Lituya Bay I wade through thigh-deep water across Fourmile Creek. On the other side, I set down the pack and begin cleaning the sand off my feet when I see the first bear of the trip. It's a big adult brown bear, maybe 300 feet away. It's walking slowly out onto the beach, sniffing the sand. I holler, but it ignores me. I holler again and it looks my way, then turns and walks slowly back toward the forest. Then it turns again, walking toward me. I'm now hollering and waving my hiking poles, trying to look big. It quickly halves the distance between us and keeps coming. So far on the trip I've been meticulous about keeping sand out of my shoes after each crossing to prevent blisters. Now I jam my sand-covered feet into the shoes, shoulder the pack and begin walking perpendicular to the bear down the beach. I haven't taken 5 steps when the bear finally catches my scent, turns, lopes a few strides, and then explodes into a gallop, sand flying behind its paws as it dashes toward the forest. I'm quite relieved and once again amazed at how fast a bear can cover ground.
I walk down the beach another 1/2 mile before stopping to set up camp on a grassy bench above the beach. There's a virtually impenetrable thicket of short evergreen trees at the edge of the forest, none large enough to hang food from. I finally decide to put the food in the root ball of a driftwood log about a hundred yards away, once again relying on the hopefully odor-proof OPSAKs.
Point marking LItuya Bay in distance. Red sand on beach to left.
Boulder beach north of Lituya Bay. Mt. Fairweather in background.
"My name is Ozymandias..."
Boiler from shipwreck just north of Lituya Bay.
Meadow at north end of spit at Lituya Bay
"Boulder hell", looking south toward entrance to Lituya Bay.
Infamous entrance to Lituya Bay on an unusually calm day.
Mt. Fairweather rising above Lituya Bay
Lituya Bay. Cenotaph Island in middle background.
Top arrow shows scar from massive rockslide caused by the 1958 earthquake.
Lower arrow shows extent of trees stripped off ridge by the resulting 1720 foot wave.
New growth has since filled in, but wave line can still be seen in faint line on ridge between new and old growth trees.
Closeup of Lituya Bay tsunami site. Upper arrow shows scar from rock slide caused by 1958 earthquake.
Lower arrows show faint line indicating where trees were stripped off ridge by resulting 1720 foot wave.
Cirrus clouds begin to move in as I head north from Lituya Bay.
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