We arrived in Yakutat to wind driven rain that would total more than 8″ before the storm ended. When we walked off the plane into the one-room airport, a steelhead fisherman asked us where we were planning on skiing. He reported that “the monsoon had blown out the creek” and said that they were waiting to catch the next flight out. We wondered if we should be doing the same.
Instead, we threw our old running shoes in the trash bin and pulled on the heavy plastic ski boots that we would wear daily for the next three weeks. On this traverse we used skis and packrafts to explore the connections between the ocean and the mountains, linking glaciers to ocean fjords that, not long ago, were glaciers themselves. Our plan was to start in Yakutat, a small community on the Gulf of Alaska, and ski and boat to our cabin near Haines. The route involved nine major transitions between glaciers and water (ocean, lake, or river). Because of this, our seasonal timing was critical. We wanted snow and Devil’s club-free travel at lower elevations but also to avoid soft snow and difficult trailbreaking on the glaciers.
After packing our bags with 200+ pounds of food and gear, we hitched a ride toward Russell Fjord, trees passing in a blur of water through the cracked windshield. The road ended abruptly in a snowbank where we donned skis and began to shuffle through the forest, stumbling occasionally under the heavy loads.
When we hit the edge of the fjord, we began paddling, our boats filling quickly with water. The rain found its way in everywhere, running down our long underwear and filling our boots, soaking our sleeping bags, making the maps soggy and unreadable. Avalanches rumbled down the slopes to the sea, and we questioned whether spring would ever arrive. But two and half days into the deluge, the rain and wind finally eased. A wolf trotted down the snow-covered shore of Nunatak Fjord as we spotted the first tiny break in the clouds.
The first glimmer of blue sky opened into sunshine as we climbed onto the toe of Nunatak Glacier. As we followed this to the Battle Glacier, we took breaks sprawled out on our rafts, our bare feet airing in the sun. After two glorious days of skiing in T-shirts, crossing wolf tracks and spotting mountain goats, we descended into the Alsek River valley. Strapping our skis to our rafts, we floated a stretch of the Alsek River, its banks still steeply walled with snow. At the confluence with the Tatshenshini, we hopped out and began to hike upstream. Canada and white-fronted geese post-holed in the soft snow, each step a reminder of the late spring.
Leaving the river, we headed up Melt Creek toward the Melbern Glacier. We faced miles of low-country travel and we worried that we would have to carry both skis and boats on our backs, making our already heavy loads almost impossible. But there was just enough ice lingering along the creek’s edge to ski, and we avoided the thick brush of the banks. When we reached the end of Melt Creek, we came face to face with glacial recession of staggering proportions. Our map, based on surveys from the 1970s, showed nearly 15 miles of glacier that has since turned to water, the glacier replaced by a massive, iceberg-studded lake. When we arrived, the lake was still frozen (or so we thought) and we skied into a headwind, surveying the ice as we went. We probed at patches of overflow and rotten ice and stared at the depth of clear pools formed by leaves melting into the ice.
As we reached the east end of the lake the snow disappeared and our skis slid easily across the strange blue surface. Over the wind we heard a creaking moan once, and then again. A quick drilling with the tip of the ski pole through the airy top layer revealed more rotten ice beneath. When the pole punched through to water, we both froze. Instinctively we pulled our rafts (currently serving as sleds) near us, now distrustful of our own body weight on the ice. We were stranded on rotten ice in the middle of a giant glacial lake and needed to get off, but very, very carefully.
Perched awkwardly on one tube of each raft, we repacked our loads so that we could prepare to switch from skiing to boating. Only moments after the unsettling discovery of a hole in one boat, blue ice shining through the floor, we spotted a large brown shape bounding down the hillside toward us. Bear?! (Meanwhile thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”) Only after the animal reached the shoreline did we see that it was not a bear, but a very large wolverine, its bristled back striped with blond. It stopped to stare at the two strange, colorful shapes on the ice before continuing along the lake’s edge. We scooted in our rafts, one leg in, one leg out, heading toward shore where an open lead of water ran along the shoreline. Safely on shore, we spent a night burrowed into the alders. The next day, it took us 8 hours to cover the three long miles to the toe of the Melbern Glacier. We paddled as far as we could, bashing through ice with our paddles. When the open leads disappeared, we crawled through thick brush or traversed along the boulders and scree of the steep shoreline.
After accessing the glacier, we spent the next two days in a whiteout, eyes glued continually to the compass needle. When we crossed a set of bear tracks, heading uphill from the coast, we followed these. The bear had almost certainly come from Glacier Bay’s Tarr Inlet and we figured it probably knew the best way down!
We heard the booming of tumbling ice before we spotted Marjorie Glacier calving huge pillars into the sea. Icebergs jammed the head of the inlet, and we wondered how we would navigate through the jumble of blue. When we woke in the morning, the winds had shifted and opened enough leads so that we could wind our way through, bouncing off blue ice in our rafts. As we paddled in clearing skies, we passed a mountain goat grazing on fresh shoots 10’ overhead and a brown bear cracking mussels in the intertidal zone.
Now almost two weeks into the trip, we had whittled our food rations down to almost nothing. Before leaving Anchorage we shipped a box of food to Drake Olson, a pilot in Haines, who we coordinated with for a resupply drop. Only one problem: the box never arrived! But our pilot gamely turned personal shopper for an afternoon and hit the local stores for some grub. Through the garble of the satellite phone, “cheese” turned into “peas” and he showed up with two bags of frozen peas (along with lots of other, much less strange, trail goodies!). He said he had wondered about us if we were requesting peas rather than whiskey, but who was he to ask…
After waving off the plane we hiked over the toe of the Carroll Glacier to access Wachusett Inlet and our last water crossing of the traverse. Two days of heavy rain left us cowering under trash bags, bailing water out of our boats as fast as it could accumulate. Late in the evening, we bumped into a brown bear at camp on Muir Inlet; so baffled by our strange, poncho-clad appearance the bear stared hard and then lay down before recognizing us as human and darting the other direction. After a slow morning in the tent, dreading another drenching, the rain eased and we began to head inland toward the Casement Glacier. We stripped down to our underwear when intense bursts of sun suddenly hit the glacier’s reflection.
The next morning we were slow to leave camp, vowing not to attempt a manic, one-day push to our cabin on Lynn Canal, still 25 miles away. But the north wind began to howl and a mellow day in the sunshine soon turned to a head-down, snow-blasted trudge. By the time we reached the top of the narrow valley where we would drop off of the glacier, we had both made up our minds—push it for home! As we descended, we crossed the chunky remains of spring avalanches and climbed over piles of debris. A mountain goat kicked rocks down from the bluffs above and a baseball-sized missile passed only inches away. We shimmied along the rock wall, out of the firing zone, to safety.
After bushwhacking through the valley, we reached tidewater just as the light faded over the peaks that we know so well. We inflated our rafts by headlamp and paddled the remaining miles in a surreal world of phosphorescence-dipped paddles and rolling waves. The northern lights danced high above, faint green strokes against the moon’s brightness. We arrived at our beach well after midnight and stumbled over cobbles to the dark silhouette of our cabin. For hours we sat mesmerized by the warmth of the woodstove. By the time we crawled into bed, the sun had begun to lighten the sky again and we fell asleep to the cheery calls of thrushes and warblers.
Check out more photos from our Yakutat to Haines traverse here…