|2015 marked a personal milestone for me, my 60th trip around the sun. To celebrate, I decided to fulfill a desire I've had for over 15 years. To backpack and packraft from the village of Yakutat south along Alaska's "Lost Coast".
My motivations for doing this trip were several. I've been enchanted with this part of the Alaskan coastline since first seeing the magnificent Fairweather Mountains from the deck of an Alaskan ferry in the summer of 1999. No other coastline on earth rises so abruptly from sea level to perpetually snow-covered peaks towering over 15,000 feet high. Bears, wolves, moose and whales abound here. Since childhood, I've been drawn to wild places, finding a solace and joy there I find nowhere else, an almost primal sense of connection with the natural world that for me becomes diluted in more civilized settings.
A particular part of this coast held a special allure. Lituya Bay, subject of the book "Wildest Alaska", has been a magnet for my imagination since I first became aware of its storied and tragic history many decades ago. To see the Fairweather Mountains in clear weather and to visit Lituya Bay were primary desires for this trip.
I also hoped to find something else. Early in life I found that to put myself in wild settings, and further, to add an element of calculated risk, is to hit the reset button on a sense of appreciation for my state in life. Like most of us are, to one degree or another, I seem to be rather autistic in this respect. Without occasional sharp breaks from the routine of daily busyness, I too easily begin to lose appreciation for how fortunate I am in life, how much I have to be grateful for.
On each of the above counts the trip was an unqualified success.
It did not however, go quite as I'd planned. The trip as I originally envisioned it would end in Gustavus, Alaska. The trip as it actually turned out, would ironically be modified by the unusually splendid weather the outer coast was experiencing this summer.
Two aspects of the coast surprised me. One is just how dynamic conditions along this coast are. The most obvious dynamic is tectonic. Beneath the Fairweather Mountains rising so dramatically from the sea is one of the world's most active fault zones. Earthquakes are common here, occasionally resulting in massive rock slides, the most notable of which caused the world's highest known wave at over 1700' high in 1958 at Lituya Bay. As it regards travel along this coast, an even greater dynamic is how the many rivers and streams flowing from mountains to the sea respond to varying weather patterns. Cool, wet weather tends to increase the flow of rain-fed rivers and streams and to decrease the flow of those fed by glaciers. Warm, dry weather has the opposite effect, resulting in the high glacial flows I would experience.
Also dynamic is how the weather affects wildlife, especially bears. No one I spoke with could recall a warmer summer or one with fewer bears along the coast than this one. The prevailing opinion was that the relatively hot coastal weather had driven most of the bears to higher, cooler terrain in the mountains. During the 10 days I spent backpacking and packrafting from Yakutat south to Lituya Bay and then back north to the Alsek River, I saw many bear tracks, but just one bear.
The other unexpected aspect of the coast was the mix of wilderness and human activity I encountered along the first 60 miles from Yakutat south to the outflow of the Grand Plateau Glacier. Wolf, bear and moose tracks were common along the sandy beaches there. Just as common were the ATV tracks of local fishermen traveling the coast. Overhead, half a dozen bush planes would fly each day between Yakutat and the Alsek River. South of the Grand Plateau outflow, all that changed. Only animal tracks remained. Aircraft dwindled to few or none. I saw no one.
On the first day I saw one ship, heading southbound and far offshore. No other offshore watercraft came into view during the rest of the trip.
As on so many trips in Alaska over the decades, I was again reminded of the generous hospitality of the Alaskan people. It was a pleasure to meet them all and I remain deeply grateful for their generous hospitality.
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