Sunday, June 23, 2013

Traversing Alaska's Lost Coast Lituya Bay to Yakutat

One month ago six of us Alaskans (five strong-minded women and one really great guy!) departed from Juneau on a sunny Thursday morning in a float plane heading 120 miles northwest to Lituya Bay for the start of a six day hike and pack rafting trip on Alaska's outer coast.  Our destination was Yakutat, approximately 100 miles up the coast, where we had seats the following Tuesday evening on the Alaska Airlines flight back to Juneau.

Thursday, May 23, 2013  - our float plane departs from Juneau
In the days prior to our departure, I had been warned by two Juneau locals (whom I respect) that our trip was virtually impossible in six days, they didn't know anyone else who had traversed the remote coast in such a short period, and we were more or less being reckless.  The two had traversed half the distance in eight days the prior year.  They described the brown bear "highway" as rocky and impassible in parts and requiring multiple trips inland to locate better bear trails.  They warned me of the amount of time and energy it took to find good routes through the forest.  They reminded me that we would not see a soul on our journey and southeast coastal weather is notoriously unreliable and potentially unrelenting.  They finished by stating that the numerous glacier outflow crossings would be fast flowing in the spring and all maps were basically worthless because of migrating rivers and glacial retreat. I emailed this information to our intrepid trip leader, Dea, and she immediately emailed back: "Too funny.  I knew they would say this."  Okay...we'd been duly warned and let's hope this turns out to be too funny.

La  Perouse Glacier - a view from the float plane
The weather was wonderful on Thursday as we departed around 10:15 a.m., and the outer coast forecast looked good for the next several days.  As we took off I recalled the advice of one of the my hardy co-workers at the Department of Natural Resources who was also concerned about our aggressive itinerary.  He suggested I carry several days worth of extra food and then sell the provisions to my starving companions at a usurious rate when we found ourselves far short of our mark next Tuesday.

The plane departed at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday
Our pilot dropped us off a few miles into Lituya Bay.  Due to heavy winds and the notoriously unpredictable tidal flow into the bay, he declined to drop us near the mouth as planned.  The T-shaped bay is an ice-scoured tidal inlet with a depth of over 700 feet.  There have been four recorded tsunamis here since 1850.  Most recently, a large earthquake struck the Fairweather Fault in 1958 with a reading of 8.3 on the Richter scale.  The quake caused a tremendous rock landslide into the bay (30 million cubic meters of rock), creating a megatsunami.  The sudden displacement of water resulted in a gigantic wave of 1,720 feet; the largest known wave in modern history.

Trimline left by 1958 tsunami wave
For some background on Lituya Bay, I read "Wildest Alaska" by Philip Fradkin in the days prior to the trip.  The book details the Tlingets occupation of the area and the subsequent arrivals of the Russians, French and Americans, along with a complete recounting of the area's now defunct gold mining history.  

Fradkin's book also relays the story of numerous ship wrecks, including two men in the 1890's whose vessel sank at the mouth of the bay.  The men decided to hike the 100 miles to Yakutat and carried supplies for six days (hhhmmm....just like us).  Fradkin wrote that the trip "actually took eighteen days, and the men would have starved to death except for the fact that they were aided by Tlingits, from whom they stole a canoe for the last leg of their journey."  This passage along with my friends' warnings gave me a healthy dose of apprehension.  But, as we flew towards our drop-off point, I reminded myself that at least we wouldn't have to steal a canoe; we had our own pack rafts.

Night one - our first bear visit

On Thursday, day one, we hiked along the black sand beach where a little over a century ago miners mined the placer deposits of gold.  Now there were only bear tracks.  We came across two federal surveyors, their puppy, and their fixed wing plane.  They were heading back to Juneau. The six of us hiked on and set up camp by 6:30 p.m.  While I was imagining the surveyors back in Juneau eating pizza and drinking beer at the local pub, we were greeted by our first, large brown bear.  Delightful.  This also proved to be the one and only night we tented by trees large enough to hang our food.
The omnipresent bear highway

Friday dawned sunny again.  We continued along the sand hoping to get past the outflow to the Mount Fairweather glacier within a couple of hours. But, we soon came upon the large boulder fields that we had been warned of.  The sandy beach became rock as far as the eye could see.
Day two - 5 hours of rocks
We headed into the woods in search of a bear trail that would parallel the coast and allow us to avoid the rocks. As my Juneau friends warned, we soon lost a couple of hours bush-whacking in the forest in an unsuccessful attempt to find a good bear route.

One of several inland journeys in search of bear trails
Think like a bear...where's the bear trail?

We had little choice other than to head back onto the rocks where we stayed, hopping from rock to rock for over five hours.  Some of my companions enjoyed the balancing challenge posed by traversing for hours over thousands of different shaped, multi-colored, very hard rocks.  I found it tedious because it required continuous and prolonged concentration - not one of my strong points.  However, the boulders were a colorful mix of igneous and metamorphic rock, highlighting the area's fascinating geologic history.

Days two and three prior to Dry Bay - boulders and more boulders

Despite all of the rocks, we made fairly good time and the clouds rolled in for our second evening.  Here we camped near an easy crossing and spent time drying out our clothes.
Night two - yes, it's a sock not a marshmellow
While we dried out, we watched a moose easily cross the shallow outflow we had just maneuvered in our pack rafts.  The next morning, Saturday, was overcast.  Soon after we emerged from our two tents a brown bear ambled towards our camp, but it ran away after we shouted at it.  By this time, after walking on large bear prints for hours along the bear highway, we began to expect a few large visitors.

Saturday turned out to be a treat.  Once again, we left the beach and trekked inland through dense, rolling forest replete with Devil's Club.  This time we were following, in reverse, the route taken by another party, Roman Dial and his crew, a few years earlier.  Following the GPS, we headed several miles inland and upwards hoping to find the lake in front of Grand Plateau Glacier.

Pack raft crossing - day three
The boggy and prickly hike was worth it and we emerged on the shore of a large lake filled with ice bergs.  Grand Plateau Glacier was visible in the distance.  It was stunning.  We quickly unloaded our rafts and prepped for the crossing.

Crossing the lake beneath Grand Plateau Glacier was magical

A trip highlight and worth the 3 mile bushwhack
Julie rafts through numerous icebergs

Crossing the lake was magical and a trip highlight.  Later I read Roman Dial's blog about their reverse route crossing of the lake and learned that his crew experienced a small tsunami wave following a five minute glacier calving.  Wow...our experience was pleasantly uneventful.  If you want to read about his mountain biking excursion along the Lost Coast check out:

Once across the lake, on the north side, there was a clear trail.  We exited our rafts as we entered the small western bay and heard the waterfall we had been warned of by my friends.  We headed down the trail and back to the beach.  We exited the forest ideally near the end of another long boulder field and were pleased to soon find dark sand.

Days four and five - lovely landscape with the St. Elias Mountains

Thousands of birds migrating through

The terrain changed north of Grand Plateau Glacier from the typical wet Southeast Alaska landscape with an abundance of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, Devil's Club and giant Skunk Cabbage to a drier, sandier terrain with pine and grass.

Monday morning bears

The views from Dry Bay to Yakutat were incredible

The views began to open up once we crossed Dry Bay, the outflow of the Alsek River, on Sunday just before noon.  At this point we were behind schedule.  We also knew we were facing an increasing number of crossings.  Because of our time limitations, we made no attempt to time any of our crossings with slack tide.

Crossing the Alsek - we were greeted by Sea Lions

Sunday's crossing of Dry Bay was windy and the longest crossing we had attempted so far.  A wave crashed over my raft as I began, so I crossed sitting in a puddle of water.  I have to admit the small pack rafts are sturdy, and I felt like I was sitting in a bathtub half full of cold water and hoped it would help with my ankles that were swollen from the rocks.  It was a gorgeous crossing; we were paddling vigorously.  There were a dozen curious seals popping up around us and another dozen, seemingly irate, sea lions waiting for us on the far beach.  As the first paddlers landed in their midst, they made a vociferous retreat into the water.

The endless beach was ours

Now we were on a march and had to make up some serious time.  We all had blistered feet after a few days but, hey, we were on a beach and were enjoying our own private paradise.  I started to think we would actually make it to Yakutat by Tuesday evening.  But, Monday proved to be the most difficult day.  A strong wind was blowing in from the ocean and we had numerous crossings - although at the time we really had no idea how many crossings were ahead of us as we marched along on the increasingly narrow sand spit.  The pack rafts are a necessity on this trip, but they are also a time sink because it took us about 90 minutes each time we unpacked our six pound rafts, inflated them, traversed across the water, deflated and de-sanded them, and packed them and the paddles away again.  And, on this day, we got to do it all in heavy winds with a sand storm.  You gotta love it.

Hours of beach walking - notice the continuous bear trail

Also, at some point on Sunday my GPS died.  Our replacement batteries proved defunct and lasted only an hour.  Without a reliable GPS, on Monday we lost one viable option we were considering which was to navigate inland six miles or so prior to crossing Dangerous River, to an airstrip and forest road.  We could have hiked the gravel road Tuesday all the way into Yakutat.  Hhhhmmm...let's think about that...if we'd had a working GPS we could have bush-whacked a bit and then hiked a gravel road all of the rest of the way to Yakutat.  Too funny.  

But, instead we found ourselves sitting two miles out from land on a narrow sand-spit that was quickly disappearing with the incoming tide.  The wind was blowing about 30 miles per hour (note to self: not good for contact lens wearer - me) and, oh yeah, we were rapidly running out fresh water which was somewhat paradoxical given that we were now surrounded on all sides by water.

Crossing Dangerous River - several times in a sandstorm

We had six crossings on Monday and hiked for over fourteen hours.  The above photo shows our last crossing across the Dangerous River outflow around 5:00 p.m.  Notice how far we are from terra firma?  The tide was flowing out, the wind was blowing in, and some crazy currents were running between the shrinking sand spits we were navigating to and from. The crossing was thrilling, but don't ask me whether it was good thrilling or bad thrilling.  And, don't ask me how many times I thought about the gravel road to Yakutat that was maybe six miles from our present location but not a plausible option because we didn't have a working GPS.  But, hey, we'd been duly warned and at this point we were all equally determined to be on that flight tomorrow night from Yakutat to Juneau.

Long days and short nights in late May
By the early evening on Monday, we seemed to have completed all of our crossings.  We kept hiking along the beach for several more hours and stopped sometime around 10:30 p.m.  We were fortunate because at this point we really were out of water (and dealing with numerous blisters) and suddenly the black sand spit opened up to tidal flats on the inland side and we found salty but drinkable water.  My tent-mates, Ann and Julie, and I all fell asleep within minutes of zipping up our tent, but the other tent (Dea, Ben and Heather) was treated to an amazing visit by several wolves just short of midnight.

On our final day, Tuesday, we broke camp by 7:30 a.m. on a mission to make our 6:00 p.m. flight. Personally, after the windy, rough crossings the day before, I was on a mission to time at least one of our raft crossings with slack tide.  From the tide schedule I had scribbled on the back of my map a week earlier, it looked like slack tide for the Situk River (our last crossing) would be around 10:30 a.m.  

Day 5 - 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (let's make that plane tomorrow!)
We made good time hiking along the beach and at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday we peered over the spit and got our fist glimpse of civilization since the prior Thursday morning.  There were half a dozen cabins on the shore a couple of miles across the river.  And, the Situk looked calm at low tide!  It was an easy crossing and we found a well-maintained gravel road about a mile inland from the river and headed northwest towards the airport.
No need for pack rafts here

Several hours later, around 3:30 p.m. we arrived at the Yakutat airport.  I walked into the airport and headed straight to the bathroom thinking only "water source...fill up."  Seriously.

Well, there you have it.  Despite the nay-sayers in Juneau, we made our six day trek from Lituya Bay to Yakutat.  It was an invigorating adventure and we had almost three full hours to spare before our Alaska Air flight departed for home.  Having worn the same clothes continuously and not having showered for six days, I was thrilled to see Kari at the Juneau airport.  Wow, my girlfriend sure did look clean!  Postmortem: I will say that the group dynamics on this trip were terrific given some of our challenges, and we were also fortunate that we experienced no major setbacks. In retrospect, if I made the sojourn again, I would take at least two more days, bring my own back-up lithium batteries and a back-up compass, time the larger crossings with slack tides, and maybe bring a sack of food to sell to my companions at a usurious rate should our luck ever run out.

Google Map - orange markers are past earthquakes


  1. Anne; you are amazing! What an experience. Thanks for letting me experience it vicariously (I would never be able to do it in reality!)

  2. Wow! I think I will do it, too. Not! But living it through your post was awesome.

  3. Spectacular story and photos, thanks for posting.

  4. wow that is something else, been reading Lynn Schooler's - Walking Home and have become quite fascinated with the area. Now I'm off to read Roman's piece. Thanks for sharing