The gang goes North: Part 9- Inside Passage

August 2-10

Last post of the our great adventure. A month late to writing it, as life seemed to pick up pace and complexity as we left the wilderness and camping.

On down the Haines Highway, fog enveloped us as we crested the highway pass at 3000 ft. It was a lonely, lovely highway. It seemed untouched, undisturbed, forgotten. The road pulled us back south into British Columbia from the Yukon, and we bid the northern territory goodbye, unsure if we’d ever step foot there again.

High, vast green slopes fell into deep drainage cuts, the high peaks obstructed from the blankets of fog that came and went.

We arrived at the border crossing shortly after. Back to the US again, as the inside passage hugs the water along the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded by the greater Canadian wilderness.

“Any items to declare? Any purchases while you were in Alaska?”

I thought for a moment. We were only here for a couple days- I don’t think we even spent time near places we could buy things.

“Nope, just extra firewood from our campsite last night, up the road a bit in the Yukon.”

“Can’t bring that wood back to the US. Might have bugs in it. I’ll tell the Canadian agents you’re coming back up there. Drop off your wood and you’re good to go.”

A silly thought, but we had to oblige. As we pulled around and arrived a quarter mile back at the Canada side, the agent greeted us, as did a juvenile black bear, standing in the road 30 yards in front of us, in no hurry. So casual.

We pulled into Haines a bit later, finding a campsite at Chilkoot Lake. A serene lake basin, it flowed out along a brief stream into Chilkoot inlet. It was a bear’s dream area, as well as fishermen. We’ve gotta see a bear or two here during our stay.

The laundromat in town had, as did many others we’d encountered, laundry services as well as showers. We took advantage of both, and we blogged a bit in the car.

Dinner in the evening was the Lighthouse restaurant, a shabby looking spot along the water. Haines is a stunning place because of its natural features. Steep mountains rise right out of the waters of its inlets, waterfalls crash down to meet the sea. The town itself is cute, but not aesthetically brilliant. The food that night was better than expected, and we returned to camp, slowly driving the Chilkoot River on the lookout for some hungry grizzlies. We stopped and spent about half hour along the riverbank, heads on a swivel, to see if we got any action. None. We loaded back into the car to drive the few minutes further to our site. In the waning light of the day, a mother grizzly and her two cubs came loafing down the road toward us. So casual.

We woke the following morning, our 50th day on the road since Santa Barbara. Most of it camping, falling into the simplicity of the routine. A ferry in the afternoon would take us to Juneau, 6 hours by boat. We spent the morning wandering about town, and made our way over to Chilkat State Park, on the other side of Haines. It was quiet there, as we descended the steep dirt road to the water’s edge. Tiny, adorable weasels ducked in and out from beneath the mess of boulders stacked beside the inlet waters.

Our ferry was delayed when we arrived at the terminal. Having an extra couple hours, we went bear-seeking back at the river from the night before. Sure enough, momma and her two babes were snacking on riverbank grasses when we arrived. Docile and content as they seemed, we kept our distance. We saw later, as we passed a hysterical kid and his mother, that the sow had charged them, wanting the fish they’d caught.

We drove onto the ferry and left our car on the car deck as we ascended to the open air of the upper deck. A storm gathered itself behind us as we departed Haines for Juneau. It’d stalk us for much of the 6 hours on the ferry, blowing harsh winds on occasion, but never quite able to catch us. It added drama to our time upon the boat, as we took in massive waterfalls and glaciers on either side of the passage, and humpbacks and porpoises briefly showing themselves above the choppy green waters. The storm contrasted the brilliant sunset that shone over the western mountaintops as we drew nearer to Juneau. By the time we arrived to Auk Bay, our disembark point just north of Juneau, it was well past daylight and only 9:30pm. “This is so strange. I can’t remember the last time I had to put the headlights on. I feel like I can’t see anything!”

We awoke after a night at the conveniently located Auk Bay campground near the ferry terminal. Packing our overnight backpacks, we prepared for our trip into the wilderness. We’d only be gone for a night, heading to Eagle Glacier along the river by the same name. Jamie had booked a public use cabin at the edge of Eagle Lake, with the glacier and mountaintops well within view.

After a quick grocery shop, we arrived at the trailhead for the walk in to the cabin. Rain was on the horizon for the following morning, so we took time to appreciate our dry conditions. The trail cut through the rainforest of Tongass National Forest, and we watched above as clouds cleared and blue sky peeked through.

Mosses coated the trees, and western skunk cabbage, some of the biggest leafed-plants we’d ever seen, lined the puddled marshy trail. Tall Devil’s Club was everywhere. Two eagles broke the silence early on our trek in the damp woods, leaving their perches amid the tangle of limbs and startling us terribly. The river flowed swiftly by on our right, as the trail became a wet muddy mess. Despite our waterproof boots, our feet became waterlogged in no time.

No real climbs in the hike, but a lot of up and down, skirting trees and thick roots, blowdown, slick rocks, and boggy marshes. We reached the cabin at 5pm, and were greeted by blue skies above serene lake, waterfalls cascading from the far upper reaches of the mountainous bowl across from us. Eagle Glacier flowed out from its hiding spot behind the first layer of foothills to the northeast.

We were completely alone. Jamie, Charley and I. No one else was at the lake- we were several miles into the Tongass wilderness with no sighs of other humans along the way. Solitude and peace surrounded us.

The cabin was cute. Very basic, it was a shelter with a kitchen counter, booth seat, and wood platform for sleeping pads. A loft via a ladder through the ceiling led to more sleeping room. A propane heater kept the place cozy, and we fired it up to dry our many soggy items. The cabin stays open year round, and many folks had logged their journey in a spiral notebook on the booth table. We read through some of the entries, amazed at the stories of others.

We made dinner and had a walk afterward to a waterfall about a half mile through the woods. I collected some kindling on the walk back, hoping to make a campfire in the damp conditions. No luck. Everything was soggy, and we gave up after some time, instead watching the fog dance on the lake in the waning gray light of the evening.

I’m glad we had such a great evening of cooperative weather. The following morning was the beginning of a weekend of atmospheric river rainfall. We awoke to light steady rain, which would only intensify throughout the day, and several days.

We slapped on our head-to-toe rain gear and pack covers after some oatmeal and coffee. 5.5 miles through the rainforest, we retraced the trail back out. Steady showers snuck through the thick canopy above us. We became one with the mud and water, at times walking through streams of water shin-high. Thorny devil’s club surrounded us at every turn.

We kept our spirits up and enjoyed the calmness of the steady rainfall. There was an order to it all, it seemed. No wildlife on our journey out, save for some hidden birdsong somewhere above.

We arrived back at the trailhead, and felt several pounds heavier from the sogginess. Charley was an absolute champion throughout it all. What a tough chick.

We had lunch back in downtown Juneau beside the harbor. We set next to Vicky at the bar at Hangars on the Wharf, a Juneau resident originally from the PNW. A friendly older lady, she shared a bit too much of her life with us. “Yea, I moved up here almost twenty years ago, and my son is up here too. He had to do a lot of time, after killing his father…” she said casually. What? how on earth did the conversation get here?

We’ve met a lot of interesting characters up in Alaska.

We kicked around town for a bit after that, trying to stay out of the rain. Eventually, we had to confront the fact that we couldn’t avoid it forever, and returned to camp after a stop for movie snacks at the grocery. I set up the tablet beneath the canopy and we had movie night, watching the first Lord of the Rings movie. Jamie had never seen them, and I was working on finishing up the book trilogy.

The atmospheric river rains would continue through the night, and the next morning.

The library. Juneau has a lovely library in Mendenhall Valley. We figured we could stay dry there, charge our electronics, write the blog and work on items for our upcoming job assignment. It was a great move, and I actually recognized other folks from the campground at the library with the same idea.

We set up camp later that day at Mendenhall campground, and were pleased to find out they had free showers. A hot shower amid the cold rains was a nice thought, and we both took advantage of that.

Back into downtown, we enjoyed a couple sour beers at Devil’s Club Brewery and fish tacos from Deckhand Daves. Jamie has really come around on fish since we’ve traveled through Alaska. It’s a high standard to set for seafood! Not sure we’ll find better salmon or halibut anywhere else.

Rain enveloped us again that night as we settled into the rooftop tent.

A wet, cold morning shook us awake the next day. It was hard to climb out from our warm bags. Oatmeal fueled us up and we set out for our last Alaska hike. We’d be loading onto the ferry around midnight that night.

It was an adventure of a hike, as we bushwacked through thick brush and crossed rogue streams in an attempt to get an overlook view of the outpour of Mendenhall glacier. Charley rocked it, again. Thick cuts of the deepest blue were exposed in the glacier, and we breathed in the experience alone on that hillside, trying to soak up Alaska like a sponge before we left.

We spent the afternoon killing time at the laundromat. We did a couple loads while rearranging Arch for his trip below on the car deck. “Are you a part of the ‘Bear sightings of Juneau’ Facebook group?” Lisa asked me as she loaded up a washer machine near me.

We got to talking, and I explained that we were just passing through, catching the ferry to Bellingham, WA, later that evening. “There’s been some activity lately down near Vanderbilt Hill Road, on the way downtown.”

We had time to kill, so we checked it out after laundry and packing had wrapped up. Four black bear moseyed across the meadow right where she’d mentioned, and Jamie Char and I watched for a bit as they romped, jumping and chasing each other around in the dusk. What a sendoff for our last night in Alaska.

It was a long wait to board the ferry, as cars lined up in rows to drive onto the car deck. When we’d situated Charley’s palace inside Archie, Jamie and I headed up to the top deck to set up our backpacking tent. We’d opted to forego the extra fee for a cabin (about $500 for the three nights aboard) and rough it in our tent, duct-taped to the concrete floor of the exposed deck. The tent had been packed away for a couple years, since we bought the Nest and had no need for it unless we were backpacking away from Arch.

Well, the poles were shot, and the tension cord had relaxed itself quite a bit. We fiddled with the tent for twenty minutes or so, before we finally got it to (kind of) work.

As we pulled out of Auk Bay well after midnight, the winds greeted us harshly, and we weighed down our shoddy tent with our backpacks, hoping it would withstand the night. We slept uneasily that night, but the hum of the engine and sway of the ferry lulled us enough to get a few hours of shuteye.

Groggy the following morning, we slid out of the tent, shielding our eyes from bright morning. It was a sight to behold. The ferry weaved among the mountain islands of the northern inside passage, and all our difficulties were soon forgotten.

The first stop was in Petersburg, AK, and we took advantage of the 20 minute stop to descend into the car deck, grab Charley (who seemed to be unbothered by her first night aboard, though happy to see us), and disembark to let her do her business and sniff around briefly. We had breakfast in the cafeteria- french toast and bacon, and several cups of coffee.

We spent the morning sunbathing on the top deck, near our tent spot that’d be our home for two more nights. A “deck mile” was 8 laps around the ship, and we did this a few times throughout the day, just to get the sensation of some activity. We alternated between finishing our books and staring about at the remarkable landscape. Some passages were as narrow as a few hundred yards wide, straddled by remote and untouched islands. They’d open up into wider swaths of sea, and the wind would be our cue that we were entering more open waters.

We pulled into Wrangell, AK around lunchtime. We checked on Charley again, still doing great. We got her out and off the ship again, sniffing and whatnot. Couldn’t be happier about how adaptable that girl is.

The ferry pulled into Ketchikan right around supper, and we walked Charley for a bit longer, as the ferry would be loading/unloading more cars at this port. The day was full of- nothing. But our souls were full. I had to pinch myself- nothing to do but enjoy the present. And the present was splendid.

There was a sweetness in the sunset that night as we pulled away from Ketchikan. It held onto us longer than we’d expected, throwing all sorts of pink and orange across the sky. The stars followed it up, slowly poking pinholes in the dying dusk, before shining brilliantly in the night sky. Big dipper, north star, little dipper, shooting stars, glowing moon. Silhouettes of distant ships raised off the opaque sea on the horizon.

The time dripped by, but there was no need to get to bed early. The same plan was on the agenda for the following day. I stayed up late in a reclined deck chair stargazing. Only a few folks were awake on the deck around 12:30. “You can see the aurora over there!” someone said as they tapped me on the shoulder. It shook me out of my trance. Sure enough, along the northern horizon, a green glow could not be mistaken. Far from the dazzling shows that the northern lights are capable of, but nonetheless my first aurora sighting!

Turns out, staying up late came at a cost. Jamie woke early the following morning, and caught three humpbacks spouting in an island cove to the west. Pretty great way to start the day!

It’d be a test of a day for Charley. No port stops all day, as the ferry would continue, uninterrupted on the seas, until we reached Bellingham. 38 hours in all. So she was a bit confused when we came down during “car deck call,” along with 50-75 other folks, to let out the pets to do their business on the car deck floor. It was odd, but we were incredibly proud, as she took care of things in a timely manner (only 20 minutes per deck call, 3-4 times per day) and hopped back in the car casually.

The narrow waterways continued, as we passed green hills and mountains, unspoiled. Not a cloud entered the sky. We were incredibly fortunate to have perfect weather for our 3 days aboard. Sitting on the deck again, we enjoyed the views, grabbed lunch in the cafeteria. A couple heading back home to Seattle chatted with us as a fog rolled in, and eventually we all nodded off on the lounge chairs to the gentle roll of the boat.

As the fog lifted in the evening, it was like we were seeing our surroundings for the first time again. We had dinner, and watched a wonderful sunset sky materialize in the east, and slowly move westward above us. The deck got busy again, as folks gathered to look for marine life. Orca pods popped up here and there, and we spotted a few humpbacks slapping their fins, or breaching up out of the water.

I’d be sad if we didn’t mention the truly lovely and exceptional people we met aboard the ferry. We chatted late into the night with Liz and Tom. Liz was a fellow travel nurse. She’d finished up a contract in Anchorage and was heading to the Pacific Northwest for her next assignment in Hood River, Oregon. Tom lived outside Sacramento, and was heading back there after kayaking several hundred miles of the inside passage, alone. He’d been gone for two months, and had endless stories of his adventures. We hope to run into them again someday.

We woke up on August 10th as the ferry drew nearer to Bellingham. To our right was the vast wilderness of Vancouver Island, a behemoth larger than the state of Massachusetts.

We packed up our tent, sleeping bags, and whatever other miscellaneous items had been brought up from the car. We chatted again with Liz and Tom, sad that we’d be parting ways shortly. It was such a pleasant time aboard the Matanuska ferry, with views, wildlife, fantastic day and night skies, and wonderful, interesting people.

We disembarked in Bellingham, setting foot back in the lower 48 for the first time in over 7 weeks. We gave Tom a lift to his car- he’d left it about an hour away at a friend’s house back in June. Jamie and I grabbed lunch in Sedro Woolley, feeling kind of bizarre. Our bodies still swayed from our time aboard the ship. It was also so strange to be back in Washington after such a spiritual, soul-filling summer in Alaska. It almost felt like a dream, and possibly we didn’t go at all.

We’d decided one more night of camping was in order. It just felt right. Initially thinking of heading toward Mount Baker and Baker lake, we decided instead to head back to Camano Island State Park, where our journey northward from Washington had started. Full circle. We checked into the only site that looked available. It was our campsite from back in June, before our northern journey. Really full circle.

We spent the rest of the day unloading the car, drying out gear that had been packed away when it was still damp.

What a great ending to a summer we’ll never forget. I hope it leaves a lasting imprint on our hearts.

Tom, from the ferry, called me that evening as we were hanging out at our campsite around our last campfire. “Are you guys still at Camano Island? I got tied up leaving town, and I think I’ll head south in the morning.”

I told him to come on down to our site. Fires going, and plenty of room for a friend. He arrived an hour later with a six pack, and we talked to the wee hours, like old friends.

There’s no way to sum it all up. Our time in the North was beyond our wildest dreams. To quote our first post from this journey:

It’s a big trip, no doubt. 7 weeks through Canadian and Alaskan wilderness, camping and living out of the car. But the anticipation can breed stress, and the best remedy is: to go. It’s not a regular vacation. It will be gritty, tough, stressful, spiritual, soul-filling, rewarding. A premium moment in our lives. We’re going to learn, grow, persevere, improvise. But staying present is the goal. We are here.

I’d say we accomplished all we set out to do. We’ve missed Alaska every day. But we’re not sad it’s over, or longing for it. We’re just overjoyed that it happened. And I cannot explain my gratitude and appreciation for Jamie and her wild spirit, and excellent planning. She is the best travel and life partner that Charley and I could have ever imagined, and we’re so lucky.

And thanks to John Craigie for being our Alaska soundtrack.

One thought on “The gang goes North: Part 9- Inside Passage

  1. What an adventure! You’ve taken the road less traveled, figuratively and literally! Rita and I enjoyed your travelogue and were inspired by your pictures. Thank You for taking the time to compose your thoughts and impressions, and for sharing with all of us!

    Uncle Mark


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s