By end of the first day, my husband Jeffery and I were calling the trek “The Trip We Hope Nobody Dies On”. We didn’t realize the first day would be the easiest day of the trip, or that we’d be among the four of seven of us courting death on the last leg of the journey.
There were warning clues, like the trip leader telling us that one of the greatest dangers we’d face was trenchfoot, since our boots would never be dry as we constantly forded streams. Trenchfoot causes your feet to go numb, turn red and blue, then black with gangrene and loss of circulation.
Our group of seven met on Kodiak Island (about 350 miles Southwest of Anchorage). There were two trip guides: Don, an organic farmer and adventure trip leader from California, and his assistant Marianne, a nurse in Oregon. Of the five participants, two were women: myself, a systems engineer from Oakland, California, and Lois, a retired Math professor from Virginia. The three men were Dan, a judge from Dallas, “Big” Dan, a computer scientist from Boston, and my husband Jeffery, the Webmaster at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. We’d all backpacked before, but had chosen to go with a group because Katmai has the greatest number of grizzly bears per square mile on earth, and the country is so wild and remote you need a guide with tremendous back-country skills who knows the territory.
The trip, organized and run by the Sierra Club, would begin on Kodiak Island where we would rendezvous before flying by float plane to a small lake on the Katmai peninsula where the backpack would begin. Don, the Sierra Club leader, rated this 12-day backpack Moderate, midway between Easy and Strenuous, a grand total of 15 miles hiking. I’d backpacked over ten miles a day last year at high elevation with a heavy pack, so I was undaunted when Don said we’d be traveling up to six miles a day off trail. We’d done that in Denali National Park in 1999, hiking into 70 mile an hour winds to make our way up the Toklat river.
In preparation for the trip, I’d practiced hefting my backpack on and yanked a muscle in my back. I felt like a china teacup ready to shatter every time I lifted something. On Sunday, the day before the trip was to start, I told everyone assembled there on Kodiak Island I couldn’t go. Dan knew therapeutic massage and hammered my throbbing muscle to a lower level of pain. I still couldn’t go on Monday despite Dan’s help, but high winds kept us from flying to our Katmai National Park starting point. On Tuesday, the high winds increased and I had another day to recover. I still was in pain, but the trip leader, Don, assured me I’d be able to do the trip, and Jeffery would be lifting my pack onto my back, so I decided to go.
Wednesday morning, we flew for two hours over the tropical green hills and snow-capped peaks of Kodiak Island, across the shimmering Shelikof strait, and landed on Dakavak Lake in Katmai National Park. It was a rare, sunny day with tropical temperatures. The plane slid within a few feet of an enormous white sand beach. The lake was crystal clear, brilliant blue from glacier melt, and surrounded by such steep green mountains you could have sworn you were in Hawaii. The pilot had never flown anyone to this area before, or heard of anyone going there. Don had been here two years ago to pioneer the route and scout the trip, and seen no one.
The only signs of life were enormous bear prints. So as we trekked, we hollered “Hey Bear” and kept up a lively conversation. The shouts and talk stopped when we hit a thick wall of brush. Alder and willow towered 15 feet, dense as a steel wool. The leader unhesitatingly headed for the 30-foot wide river running through it and crossed to the gravel bar on the other side. The water rose above his knees. The river was going to be much higher than my new Goretex boots, which I’d bought to keep water out. I was about to take them off and wade across when Don yelled to come across. We plunged in, and for the rest of the trip our boots were cold and wet.
The water was freezing, but the warm day made it bearable. Although the river wanted to spin me off my feet and dance away with me, it wasn’t hard to shuffle along the bottom. But I was glad to have a walking stick, because the rocks were slippery. There were millions of white pumice pebbles fizzing past like stars at warp speed, which made me dizzy, so I tried to keep my eyes on the far shore.
Lois, at 60, was the oldest of us, but in good shape. Shortly before this trip, she had ascended Mt. Kilamanjaro, but she was terrified of water crossings. She quivered and made sounds like a frightened bird as she crossed the river slow as a snail on sedatives. We only went 100 yards on the gravel bar before reaching another wall of alder. Lois plunged into the bush while the rest of us crossed the river to a gravel bar on the other side, and watched bits of her red jacket and the bushes thrash around until she emerged on the river’s edge, defeated. Don helped her cross to our side.
This went on for hours until we reached an area Lawrence of Arabia would have felt at home in. Steep pumice sand hills rose higher and higher into the distance. Thick brush in the ravines stitched the white dunes into a rolling quilt. Mountains towered on three sides. Eagerly I pushed ahead onto the first pumice dune –- an easy stretch at last. But no, each footstep slid back a bit, and was much worse than dry sand. I trudged across the first dune, fought my way through the first band of vegetation and sat exhausted in the sand.
Don dropped his pack next to me and went back to get Dan’s. Dan had diabetes, and was still on the first dune, eating food to keep from going into a coma. He was also emptying his too-short boots, which were full of rocks because he didn’t have gaiters to keep them out. Several of his toes were swollen and numb, but Dan didn’t complain. He also showed up without a Goretex jacket or pants, essential to prevent hypothermia, but luckily he was able to buy them at a store on Kodiak island or he wouldn’t have been able to go on the trip.
At the top of the highest dune we staggered down a steep hill through alder thickets for over an hour. The best way to get through is to “swim”, as if doing the breaststroke. Put both arms forward, and push them sideways and up. That will keep branches from snagging your pack somewhat, but grabbing branches to push them aside still often required, then surge forward with force to part the remaining reluctant undergrowth.
At the bottom of the hill we ran into a much deeper, colder, swifter, and wider river. This time we couldn’t walk across on our own, we had to link arms in groups of three or four, with the strongest person in front to break the force of the water on those behind. Like ancient centipedes we inched our way across. The rocks were much larger and extremely slippery — greased bowling balls. In places the water reached my upper thighs, inches from my sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack. This was still day one of the backpack.
When we finally made it across, we had to fight our way up the river along the side. There was no gravel bar, just a wall of bush trying to push us back into white water. A roar filled the air from a huge twenty-foot waterfall ahead. At 8 pm we reached the falls and set up camp. Dinner was ready quickly. When Don scouted the trip, he had picked out this site because it had several hot springs. All we had to do was put the dinner pot in a boiling hot spring. Later that night, only four of us had the energy to soak in a soothingly warm hot springs nearby, the others went to bed. The temperature was perfect, all our aches and pains melted away. When we emerged to go to our tents, Don pointed out that the trail into the spring had been made by bears, we’d soaked in a hot tub for bears.
We would have spent the next day there, but we were two days behind schedule, and hadn’t traveled far, so we pushed on. The weather had been a constant drizzle or rain, with intermittent fog or sun. This morning it was raining, and we started up the river above the falls hanging on to the alder branches and doing our best to remain upright. Lois was clearly having a hard time, and at one point when Don tried to help her around a rough spot, she toppled in. Don lost his walking stick as he threw himself forward to save her and get her pack out of the water. Gallons of water poured out. Don immediately put his own pack in the bush and scrambled up river with Lois’s pack, then came back to retrieve his own.
When Don scouted this route two years ago, the river was much lower and easier to use a path and to cross. We had to cross many times that day, because we’d reach cliffs or bush extending too far over the water to work around. The group in the river had to move slowly because someone was bound to encounter a boulder, brace on others to get over it, or shift the whole group up or downstream around it. On one of the last crossings, my hat, with mosquito head net attached, flew off and went down the river. We’d been plagued by mosquitoes, white sox flies, and no-see-ums, so I was very sad to see my mosquito net depart. Difficult as it was, Don assured us that most other parts of the park were completely impassable. The only reason we could make progress at all was that we were in an area of tremendous devastation from the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
In 1912, Novarupta exploded with over 30 times the force of Mount St. Helens. We were about 10 miles away from ground zero. All of the plants were vaporized as hundreds of feet of burning ash rained down. The landscape had gone from tropical island to mountainous desert as we went inland.
After four hours of struggle, we’d only gone one mile. Don told us we’d gotten half as far as he’d hoped, so we wouldn’t be able to make it over the pass that day as he’d planned. So we set up camp, and gathered around the bonfire he always managed to start even in the rain. I had forgotten it was my birthday until Jeffery broke out a hidden bottle of peppermint schnapps, liquid birthday cake, and we passed it around. Then he handed me a present, wrapped in a bandana. I was thrilled; it was better than a diamond ring. He’d given me his mosquito head net. I wiped the no-see-ums off his forehead and gave him a big kiss.
“We have a decision to make,” Don told us. “We can go forward, which will be much harder than anything we’ve done so far, or we can turn back and go out the way we came”.
I waited to see what the others wanted to do. If even one person thought we should turn back, we all would. We were a Team, helping each other out through the tough spots, and keeping up a lively chatter as we walked along. I couldn’t imagine how it could be any harder ahead, and apparently everyone else felt the same way. We all voted to go forward.
But the third day, it did get harder. Don pointed to the 1500-foot Hegelberger pass we were about to go over. The ascent looked vertical from our viewpoint. It turned out be about a 60-degree slope, which we navigated by going up a mountain stream, that had better footholds than the surrounding slopes. At times we had to scramble over ten-foot boulders choking the stream. Two-thirds of the way up it got even more difficult. The slope increased to 70 degrees and we had to gingerly make our way across a wide, steep scree. If anyone fell they could die. I was very careful, but when I reached a spot that was just hard clay, my foot slipped and I fell on my side. Don got to me quickly and dug a three-inch gash in the soil to give me purchase. I righted myself and made it past many more treacherous spots. Lois scampered across the scree like a mountain goat, with a glee to be out the rivers at last.
Finally we crested the pass. We were surrounded by peaks cloaked in glaciers hundreds of feet high full of cracks and crags glowing blue. The glaciers snaked down and spat out huge rivers into unexplored valleys in every direction. We were on top of the world.
Going down was much harder. The vegetation on the other side was lush, and kept getting more jungle like as we headed east back towards the ocean. We were going down a river, with slick rocks and one-to-five-foot knee-breaking ledges. At each step I jiggled my foot around to make sure I had a secure foothold. Then my pack would jump on me like a piggyback child, always from an unexpected direction, and I’d try to brace so I wouldn’t topple over or twist my ankle as the pack spun me with its momentum.
We camped on a white sand beach along a turquoise blue river that night, cooking under a huge green tarp in the driving rain. I was learning a lot of outdoor skills from Don, and feeling more comfortable with this rough country. We knew it would rain a lot from previous trips to Alaska. Since I was wearing a waterproof jacket and pants, I didn’t mind the weather. In fact, perhaps I was starting to go crazy; I was beginning to love the wildness, the challenge, and the landscape. I knew that someday I would go to the Brooks Range to see the caribou migration and other places I’d been too timid to travel to before.
In the morning we set off again, this time on bear trails that have been used for centuries. The earth is compacted half a foot down from the surrounding soil. A tunnel is formed and we could hike through the dense vegetation at a better pace. I loved the bear trail. It was a roller coaster ride up and down hills in pipes of bright green and red berries. At times I dashed hundreds of feet down steep pumice hills as the trail plunged to a valley floor.
In the distance we could see a huge lake, with a bear on the shore, and eventually reached it. Pouring out the far side was a fierce river that couldn’t be crossed. There would be no crossing the lake nor the river at its end. The choice was either to follow the right or left shore. Don had gone around the right side of the lake and river when he scouted the trip. He spent eight hours fighting his way through to Geographic Harbor, about 1.5 miles away by air, our destination. A boat captain, who had led bear tours to this remote harbor for 15 years, laughed when Don told him what he’d been through and said “You should have taken the 15-minute bear trail on the other side!”
So we battled our way around the left side of the lake to get to the 15-minute bear trail. For me this was the most miserable part of the trek. I was mad as a wet cat and swearing enough to be thrown in jail. The lake was icy and knee to over-your-head depths. I was the only one to not fall part or all of the way in — sheer luck, I came close many times. The rocks were huge and slippery, making it hard to get a foothold. Walking on shore the few times I could do so was almost not worth it, the toll of hauling myself and the pack out of the water left me exhausted. Cliffs and impassable bush always forced me back to the edge of the lake.
Finally, we reached the far end of the lake and the point where a river flowed out of the lake into a canyon. Mercifully, there was a small beach at the juncture, maybe 50 feet by 15 feet wide, where we rested while Don scouted the way ahead, into the steep canyon divided by the cascading river.
It didn’t take Don long to discover the “15 minute bear trail” was a bit of Alaskan Humor. We dubbed the lake “Expletive” lake, (it had no name on the topographic map), and the miniature beach we were forced to camp on “Shit” beach due to the enormous piles of bear dung all over. Upon his return, Don said we couldn’t get through the deep canyon ahead. It was a dense mat of alder, willow, and Devils club with thorns on all of its surfaces, even the leaves. There were sheer cliffs, hundreds of feet high, plunging to the river below. We were in an area with a huge number of grizzly bears. We pitched our tents with zero-lot lines. Don placed his tent squarely in the middle of the bear trail emerging from the bush to the beach. He had a gun, and we all had bear spray cans at hand.
I had read Timothy Treadwell’s book “Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska” and tried to remember his ideas about bear interactions. Not that they would do much good, like his hanging out near the alpha male bear so that other bears stayed away from that area. Turns out we were only 16 miles away from where he was killed and eaten by bears two years later in 2003.
We were out of food. Marianne had thrown an elaborate Indonesian dinner into the fire a previous evening, thinking it was trash. All of our meals had been hearty extravaganzas, with a first course of soup, followed by gourmet main courses and dessert. Marianne and I located all of the remaining food and made a dried milk, carrot, raisin, peanut, cayenne, and olive oil soup, which everyone thought was quite delicious, But now we were out of food. Dan, the diabetic, had to eat or he would die. Lois’s leg was swelling up from one of her falls in a river. Marianne had bad ankles and was usually the last one to catch up. Don realized we had to get out, and backtracked hours back to the far end of the lake where he could get up to the crest and use his satellite phone to call in a rescue plane for the next day.
The next morning, we packed all our gear and tents, ready for a quick exit when the rescue float plane landed. But hour and hours passed and the plane didn’t come. We figured weather conditions on Kodiak Island prevented planes from flying, but around 1 pm we heard a plane, and Don called again. Don described our location, and around 2:30 pm, a plane landed. It turned out that several bush planes were looking for us, but didn’t know where we were. In fact, the plane that had found us and landed had used up so much fuel looking for us, he could only make one trip out. So only three of us could fly out.
Don decided the strongest four of us would hike through the impossible canyon to Geographic Harbor. We loaded all our gear into the plane and watched it ascend and disappear. It had taken him 8 hours to make it through on the other side 2 years ago, and he was twice as fast as any of us. It was already 3 pm and gets dark at 10 pm. We had no matches, tents, sleeping bags, food, or emergency gear. It was raining, wet, and cold. No one had ever scouted out the route we were taking. We hadn’t eaten all day. Anyone who stopped moving for over an hour risked hypothermia. We should have kept our gear, set up tents, spent another night on Shit beach, and waited for a plane to fly us out the next morning. But we only realized that when it was too late.
Within seconds of seeing the plane take off, we were off at a desperate pace. All of us had sore muscles and hands infected with devil’s club thorns (to the point where touching anything hurt). I had to use every muscle in my body to ascend and descend hundreds of feet because my back muscle was still pulled. How could Don have thought I was strong enough? We took any bear trail that went even vaguely the right direction, which was almost always up or down and never straight forward. Otherwise, it was impossible to get through the thick Devils club bush. We discovered we had to stay near the river or we’d be lost immediately, but staying near the river meant muddy, slippery four-inch-wide trails above cliffs where one misstep was certain death. More often than not, the trail was no wider than the width of your boots.
On these narrow trails, often the only things to hold on to were grasses, which wouldn’t really hold if I lost my balance, but helped steady me. Or there’d only be Devils club to grab on to, every square inch covered in thorns. When bear trails veered down to the river, I slid Indiana Jones style down chutes to the rivers’ edge, heels dug in to slow my fall. Then I’d hang on to alder to keep from getting swept into the furious river and the thundering falls below. Soon we’d reach a cliff face, and I’d haul myself back up for hundreds of feet again, risking a fall at any time into the river and boulders below. My already heavy hiking boots now weighed twice as much from wet leather and river water, making it hard to step over branches and stumps. Steep ravines ran through the canyon every twenty minutes, choked with bush, forcing us to the river again.
I kept feeling panic surge inside. Keeping fear under control was as hard as struggling through the canyon. I kept telling myself not to go to pieces. I forced myself to meditate, experience the lead weight of each footstep, the rain on my face. To be in the moment at all times. The scenery was spectacular, with black lava cliffs, a cobalt blue river, verdant green flora, and mountains – they’ll forever be imprinted in my mind.
I would have been the weakest of the four even without a bad back. But now I was worried I’d keep them from making it through in time. So I started to take foolish risks to keep up. Whenever I could see an alder bush ahead, I’d launch forward, absolutely counting on grabbing an alder branch to break my fall and regain my balance. A couple of times the branch snapped but didn’t break, and after that I was careful to sight on the branch with the most leaves even if it was skinny, since at least it would not be dead and brittle.
At the top of one rise we got our first look at our destination, Geographic Harbor, and I heard Don swear “damn” quietly under his breath. I saw that our camp was on the far side, and that the tide was high, which meant hours of cussed ocean slogging. The boat that was to rent us kayaks tomorrow was not in sight to ferry us to our camp as we’d expected. Finally, at 7 pm we broke through to level ground and onto a wide grassy area where in the distance, a dozen bears were fishing, resting, and play fighting. Best of all, a blue and white plane with four bear-viewing tourists were there.
At a certain point as we neared, a second sense caused the people focused on the bears to turn around and be stunned to see four fellow humans emerging from the canyon. The tour group stopped watching bears and stared at the bedraggled hysterical creatures approaching them. I hugged Jeffery, Don, and Big Dan, screaming, “we did it, we made it!” The pilot told us he’d never heard of anyone getting through the canyon. He told us that a hiking club that takes on difficult challenges all over the world had tried to make it from Geographic Harbor inland, and turned back after six hours. The pilot, seeing we were near hypothermia, offered to ferry us to where the three members of our group who had been rescued were now camped, two miles across the harbor (five if we’d had to struggle overland), and gave us another warm layer to wear while he was gone. He didn’t want to risk his passenger’s lives by leaving them alone with the bears, so he ferried them across the water to our camp, and came back for us half an hour later.
I turned to watch the bears. Every bear had its own personality and way of fishing. A blond bear was very business like, scanning the river for a salmon, and efficiently throwing the forward paws out and trapping a fish underneath. Others ran a mad zig-zag course, water spraying in fine plumes behind them, and pounced in a dramatic grand splash.
I stood there waiting for the plane to come back, completely unafraid of the bears, unafraid of anything.
Alice Friedemann, Backpacking in Katmai National Park, Alaska. August 2001. www.wholegrainalice.com & www.energyskeptic.com