The Chilkoot Backcountry

As mentioned here before, for me, the primary reason for living in Haines is its close proximity and access to the incredible Yukon Territory. I could care less for the Sea and it’s subsequent maritime weather and inherent jungle. Instead, I prefer the deep interior with its immediate access to the alpine, it’s well defined and cold winters, its clear, crisp winter nights, its commonly seen Aurora Borealis, and its plethora of wild animals. I care not for cruise ships, inflated prices, and difficult access to the alpine landscape. Consequently, I tend to spend the bulk of my spare time on the north side of Chilkat Pass aka Haines Summit.

For Angela’s birthday we decide that a juant to the Yukon is in order, but an issue with a forgotten passport once on the road sees us turning the truck around in search of an alpine adventure within the confines of the narrow strip of land in the area surrounding the upper Lynn Canal. My good friend and workmate Tully has spent a great deal of time in the alpine areas above and beyond Chilkoot Lake and has expressed nothing but gratitude that this area exists. After showing me a photo of a small alpine lake sitting on the very edge of steepening mountain sides and overlooking the Chilkoot region and surrounding ranges, Angela and I decide that a closer look is in order. Tully had described the approach to me some time back to this place he calls Wolverine Lake, but my memory is foggy and we figure on finding said place regardless.

Driving in to Chilkoot is nothing short of chaotic. Fishermen, RV’s, tourists, tour busses, Bear watchers, campers, boaters, and riffraff clutter this overused area; its one of the finest examples of a Salmon filled Alaskan river with the ability to witness Bears fishing all through the summer. There are so many people here during July and August that I generally stay clear of this place. Once past the jumbling madness of the roadside river and boat ramp at lake’s shore, we find ourselves paddling packrafts across the lake a short distance to access the forest and the steep approach to Wolverine lake. We find a good place to stash the boats and ExtraTuffs upon a fallen Spruce, repack our bags, and begin trudging up the ever steepening hillside studded with the usual artifacts that a  temperate rainforest has to offer. Soon it becomes very steep and in places requires both hands and feet to clamber up and over rotting logs, granite boulders, and dense thickets. It is tiring hiking for sure, but still relatively easy comparitively.

A vertical granite cliff of a couple hundred feet appears and we decide to skirt it on its left where a right leaning ramp leads to a boulder strewn sub-alpine valley. We think that Wolverine Lake is up at the top of this valley and pursue a jaunt of boulder hopping, which after the steep and cluttered hike down low, feels a welcome relief. Nothing makles me happier than to be on bare rock and boulders for travel. Up higher, the boulder field ends in another dense forest where we begin to doubt the location of the lake. It occurs to me that we are perhaps in the wrong drainage all together. We are exhausted and it is getting late; we decide that we must make our way up and over the ridge to our left to get to the proper drainage, but the means of navigating this requires some serious and painful bushwacking. An hour or so of battling some of the most heinous Devil’s Club and Alder thrashing I have yet to encounter puts us on a traverse into another boulder fiels in what we hope is the correct drainage. Boulder jumping once again upward sees us gaining altitude quickly. A young Black Bear darts from the Alder thicket just ahead and dashes across the tundra into another thicket. A group of 8-10 Mountain Goats are on a high bench off to our left. We are thirsty, tired, and in need of a camp.

After topping out the last of the hikeable terrain, we find no Wolverine Lake but instead a beautiful but dry alpine cirque surrounded by high granite walls. We can hear water and begin descending into the bowl where we are thankful to find find a massive snow bank and small alpine pond – we have water. Setting up the tent on a ridge of tundra just as dusk hits, we dive in and spend the evening eating, drinking wine, talking, and listening to the rain come down, which it does for the entire night. 

After coffee and breakfast the rain slows and we pack up camp and begin the slippery descent. Steep rock slabs must be negotiated before entering the forest and the ensuing bushwacking can begin. A thrash of epic proportions concludes us arriving at our boats torn to shreds. My arms looke like I was in a knife fight in an Anchorage bar, and Devil’s Club thorns embedded in hands, legs, and thighs. Exhausted, we paddle the short distance to the truck and call it another epic 30 hour Alaska adventure… In retrospect, had we stayed in the original drainage before bushwacking over the ridge, we would have run smack dab into our destination. Chalk it all up to adventure exploration in SE Alaska…

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Bear Beach

Living in Haines, in particular, the Chilkat Peninsula, and being surrounded by salt water and rivers’ galore, the concept of having a boat, in all of it’s magnificent access abilities, seems as important a vehicle as any. The vessel available to us at time’s being is a Lund 12′ craft of the skiff variety, which sports a small 10hp Johnson motor. Other craft’s would be a pleasure to captain as well, such as a canoe or sea kayak, but the Lundy is what we’ve got and a day out to explore the fabulous waterways of our home is in order. Forgoing the “event of the year” in Haines, the annual Southeast Alaska State Fair, we opt to load the boat into the truck (sans trailer) and head out to Chilkoot lake for a looksie.Chilkoot Lake is a spectacle to behold for sure: a milestone of a lake it is situated at the bosom of the Takahshini Mountains, is fed by the world famous Salmon fed Chilkoot River, and is surrounded by peaks, waterfalls, glaciers, and Bears. The lake’s out feed river, the Lower Chilkoot, is only 1 mile long before dumping itself into the mighty sea by means of the Lutak Inlet. This stretch of river sports one of the mightiest Sockeye Salmon runs in the state, and is usually adorned with fisherman from abroad, hoping to land a fish. Above said stream, is Chilkoot Lake and above the pond lie one of Southeast Alaska’s mighty wilderness rivers’: The Upper Chilkoot. Where the Upper Chilkoot enters the lake, a great sandy stretch of freshwater coastline angls off to form what is affectionately known as “Bear Beach”.We drive out past the hoards of Fair goers onto the Lutak Road and sneak up the Chilkoot road to it’s end and set the boat, and ourselves adrift. A cruise up lake reveals a new vantage and we are rewarded by hidden glaciers and more eye dropping waterfalls. About 3 miles out we come to the lake’s end and we find our selves moored upon the beach head known as “Bear Beach”. Immediately upon abandoning ship, Brown Bear prints are seen and we come to realize the nature of it’s given name. Angela scrambles off to follow the prints and soon is fiording the raging Chikoot River in an attempt to continue following the Bear’s path. Soon the water is higher than the Extra Tuffs that adorn her feet, and she then sheds boots and clothing alike for a true Alaskan river crossing. Not being so bold, I decide to stick to the adjecent shore in hopes of joining her further up river. I too come to my own adventure shortly thereafter, and soon find myself deep in Alder thickets and Sedge grass waist deep, with Bear trails criss crossing the landscape. I begin my chanting of bear talk in an attempt to warn the large, furry critter’s of my presence. Bear beds and more prints scatter the shoreline and soon I see Angela attempting to wade back across to a lagoon that might access the previous shoreline. Soon she is wading thigh deep, naked as the day she came with  Extra Tuff’s in hand and the most serious set of Bear trails I have seen swirling around us. A quick stomp through the Alder thickets and Devil’s Club singing bear songs, brings us back to the beach where we ponder the situation. Back in the boat and headed back from where we came, a few more stops at small creeks and inlets rewards us with spawning Salmon, more beautiful forest and waterfalls, and another fine day in Alaska.

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