Going Places: Kayaking Chichagof Island

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Kayaking Chichagof Island
A few spots allowed the author to come ashore and see the sights

The Khaz peninsula runs roughly 20 miles to Peril Strait. Virtually the entire route south is exposed to the whims of the volatile Gulf of Alaska. The peninsula is especially steep and rocky and there are few spots to come ashore in a pinch. Luck was with me though, for "pacific" described the condition in which I paddled most of this stretch. Swells lifted the boat and waves broke bone-white over reefs and sunken rocks, but there was no urgency to the sea that morning. Waves broke sedately, like old plantations in a kind of ocean open house. I felt a note of empathy with old Vasco de Balboa on the naming business and enjoyed a rare, gentle passage along the dramatic mountainous peninsula known locally as "The Khaz."

This side of Sitka, my final destination was Kruzoff Island. My God, the beaches! Black sand and gravel beaches filled the view to the west as I paddled the inside of this handsome island. Kruzoff is home to Mount Edgecombe, an extinct volcano, the rim of its mauve-colored crater usually hidden in cloud. I settled in at the mouth of Fred's Creek, a fine, long crescent beach with a forest service cabin, a surf full of milling salmon, and a trail head leading on a 14-mile round trip to the volcano. With the intention of holding over awhile, I embellished camp with the luxuries of a rain-water collector, a solar shower, regular stream-cooled beer, and some fine classical programming via Raven Radio (the NPR station out of Sitka) on my little Grundig short-wave radio. After a day of rest I was ready to tackle the volcano.

Stunted trees and ripe blueberries mark a trail up the volcano

The trail quickly entered Alaskan muskeg. A stunning view of the volcano raising barren brick-colored flanks through ragged gray clouds lured me on. I followed a scattered queue of planks through a deer cabbage ground cover, stunted trees, and ripe blueberries. The mountain tipped steeply as I tunneled through the last stubborn bit of forest and popped out on the flank of the denuded caldera.

The pitch was extreme, the trail marked now with stakes and bits of fluorescent flag. For the next hour it was 15 steps up, then rest for a 10 count, then 15 up again. At the top I found Nepalese-looking rock cairns dotting the barren, wind-swept summit. I hunkered down in the lee of the rim, chilled from evaporating sweat, waiting for a window in the clouds. Sure enough, a few minutes later the clouds feathered away and I could see the shallow lake in the bowl of the crater below. I could see out around the island an extraordinary panorama. And off to the east was the unique town of Sitka, where I would spend the last couple of days waiting for the ferry.

The descent of Mount Edgecombe was nothing less than brutal, and I languished in camp after the climb. It took several days for my legs to come around (a bit atrophied from a month in a kayak), and I spent the time catching bright salmon on flies in the turbulent currents at the mouth of Fred's Creek, making new friends with people staying a night or two in the cabin, and relaxing with a book in a last touch of fine weather as August rolled around.

The fruits of Alaska's waters overflow in the kayak

Sitka is a lovely town. Local names such as Sitka, Baranoff, Chichagof, and Kruzoff reflect a fascinating, if violent period of Russian occupation around the turn of the 19th century. While I waited for the weekly ferry to the Lower 48, I visited the interesting Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Forest Service exhibits and slide presentation devoted to the struggle of the native Tlingit with the arrogant, oppressive Russian invaders. Another ugly story of subjugation.

So this is Southeast, I had concluded gradually over the course of my voyage in the Alexander Archipelago. Not a forgiving environment for the unprepared, surely, but time well spent otherwise. For me "primordial" was probably its signal quality. For the bear facts alone, that I, human had temporarily dropped a rung on the food chain, was one reason for that. As was the pervasive impression of nature going on full bore all around me. I enjoyed the succinctness of its human outposts too. Sitka, for example has one basic roadway of roughly 7 miles, Tenakee Springs a dirt track of maybe one. Sprawl, it seems, is not a function of this land. When I arrived in a port or a town it seemed to happen quickly, and when I left — boom — I was back in the wild.

And as for me, subjectively, it was what I would have to call an essential journey. Not that there weren't a fair number of both challenges and highlights; they just seem to be quickly absorbed by the essence of the journey itself. Careful planning had flattened out the sine wave of unexpected drama, and in its place was a simpler, subtler experience of trekking alone along an enduring Alaskan seashore.

Robert Lyon is a writer and expeditionary who lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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