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Alone in the Fortress of the Bears

Alone in the Fortress of the Bears

My NEW BOOK! Order today!!!  306 pages, a map, and 44 photos. If you like this journal, you’ll really enjoy the book.

(Also see my Trip Indroduction and GEAR LIST.)

June 25, 2014

I have been thinking about doing this trip for several years. I started general planning a few months ago and began serious planning in April.

Dungeness Crab Pot

Crab Pot, Landing Net Hoop, and Portable Grill

On Monday I took some gear to Alaska Airlines Cargo to ship to Petersburg to be ready when I get there. I just checked and am happy to see it arrived.

I fly to Petersburg on Monday, June 30 and will fly out to Admiralty Island by bush plane late Monday afternoon if the weather permits.

June 29, 2014

It’s my last day of trip preparations. There are many of the usual details to handle before any long trip. Deb, my neighbor, will be checking my mail and keeping an eye on my cabin while I’m gone. I’ve made sure all my bills are on auto-pay.

Some people have been curious how I chose this area of the state for my trip. The primary reason is the availability and variety of wild foods. Hunting season won’t be open for several weeks, but compared to the Interior of Alaska there are many more foraging/hunting/fishing options available. There is a reason the powerful Tlingit people defended that area so fiercely.

Another consideration was rainfall. Although this has been an unusually rainy June in Fairbanks, on a typical year it rains an average of about 11 inches. Southeast Alaska is much rainier. Ketchikan gets 154 inches of rain a year! Kake, perhaps the closest settlement from where I’ll be on this trip, gets about 54 inches a year. (Yes, 100 inches less!)

Originally I’d planned to leave in July and get back in October to better coincide with hunting season. October, however is the rainiest month of the year.

Obviously it was important to find an area that is public land and allows hunting and fishing.

Kootznoowoo Wilderness, Admiralty Island

Alaska Map Showing the Location of Admiralty Island

It was also important to me to find a place largely protected from the full brunt of ocean storms. Admiralty Island is in the “Inside Passage” with a buffer from the open ocean. When it’s rough in the main channels I’ll stay off the water completely or stay in protected bays.

Putting together a list of gear involved considerable pondering, trying to balance considerations of expense, bulk, and comfort. I’m confident I have what I’ll need, but after the trip is over it will be interesting to see what gear changes I would make.

One angle I hadn’t considered is the challenge of getting the current hunting regulations, harvest tickets and stamps this early in the year. Finally, on my last visit to Fish and Game, they gave me the newly arrived hunting regs. and this year’s newly printed harvest tickets. I still needed a Federal Duck stamp and that was a real stickler. The sporting goods store had them, but wouldn’t sell me one. I showed them the announcement that they had been officially issued for the year but they wouldn’t budge. Exasperated, I finally called the USFWS office to ask them to talk to the store for me, and the clerk said to come on over, they could sell me one. I was thanking the clerk and explaining why I needed a stamp now rather than in a few weeks, when a law enforcement guy showed up and told me what I was doing was illegal, I couldn’t hunt on Admiralty Island . It took a few minutes of explaining (I’m not hunting until season opens!) before it was clear it was all perfectly legal, but it’s fair to say I he was making me very angry. 🙂

It was surprisingly time consuming working out logistics. I was going to take the Alaska Ferry to the area, but after extensive research and phone calls found out that it would take about five days total to get down there including driving to Whittier, being on the ferry and a one or two day layover in Juneau. They also couldn’t tell me for sure if my bulky gear would be allowed on the ferry. It was somewhat more expensive, but much, much faster to ship most of my gear ahead and then fly down to Petersburg, so that’s what I’ll be doing, leaving early tomorrow morning.

Sitka spruce and hemlock

Spruce and hemlock. Note the hatchet.

Am I nervous? Excited? I don’t get jitters much before big expeditions and I’m feeling pretty calm about this one. At this point my biggest concern is hoping I can find a decent campsite where I plan to be dropped off, and hoping it’s not raining at the time. Other than that I’m excited to be starting a big adventure!

June 30

Today’s the day! My old smokejumper buddy Ken Coe was there bright and early at 4:15 AM to give me a ride to the airport. There was a nice view of Denali on the way to Anchorage, and now I’m midway through a 4 hour layover in Juneau.

When I get to Petersburg there will be a quick reorganization of gear that arrived via air cargo. I’ll change out of my flight clothes, which I’ll leave in Petersburg, and into the clothes I’ll live in for the next few weeks.

I’ve got a spot picked out to land, but I know from experience that it’s hard to evaluate camp spots until you’re standing there. If the landing spot is a good spot for a base camp I will get it all set up. If not, I’ll put up my Tarptent for the night and search for a better spot in the morning.

This evening I’ll likely not try to scrounge up food other than looking for nearby berries. In the morning, when base camp is all set up I’ll probably go fishing and hopefully have my first good meal before the end of the day. The third day I hope to start getting “ahead of the curve” with some extra food on hand. That’s the plan, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised to get a little hungry the first three days or so, after that I think it will be nothing more than an occasional skipped meal riding out bad weather.

If all goes well I’ve had my last shower until sometime in September. It will be sponge baths from here on out. Thanks for checking in. I’ll try to find coverage and post again sometime in the next few days.

July 3, 2014

Cessna 185, Pacific Wings

Unloading the Cessna 185

We flew out of a rainy Petersburg by float plane. We spotted humpback whales several times, and huge bunches of sea lions as well as mini ice bergs. The pilot dropped me at the head of the bay. I set up camp amid big spruce.

In the morning I went fishing and before noon I caught and grilled several dolly varden trout over a streamside campfire. Using the fish heads for bait I set a crab trap. I ate some sea asparagus and a bunch of half ripe blueberries. I caught a crab, but it was 1/8 inch too small to be legal! Later in the day I checked again and caught one 1/4 inch too small. Drat! I jigged for rock fish with no luck.

Yesterday morning I caught a big crab, and boiled it back at camp with some limpets. It was truly outstanding. I found some more blueberries and had trout for supper.

Last night I heard a bear outside my tent but it ran when I yelled. I chambered a round in my 30/06 but he was gone for good.

I have zero cell phone coverage, despite the ATT map which showed pockets of good coverage. I paddled for hours to reach a fishing lodge which has WIFI.

I will only update every couple of weeks or so. It’s too far to travel to the lodge and I have to wait for good conditions. There are always surprises on big expeditions like this. Guess I should have brought a satellite phone!

Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden char, part of my first meal!

It’s beautiful country. I’ve seen deer and plan to bag one when season opens. Seals and sea lions follow me often, sometimes within 15′.

Have to make this brief today. Happy 4th!

July 16, 2014

It has been a great adventure so far.

Don’t know if I’ve described the area in the last post. I’m at the head of a bay with my own little cove. There is huge, mostly virgin timber along the coast, primarily Sitka spruce and hemlocks, I believe, with some cedars in places. It’s green country, and branches are often draped with moss. Mountains several thousand feet high rise above the bay, on the sunny days when they’re visible, brilliant white snow sparkles against the green.

In places the forest is nearly impenetrable, a tangle of thorny Devil’s Club or alder and huge, slippery fallen logs. But in many others it’s fairly easy going through 4-5 foot tall blueberry bushes.

The ocean is clear with drifting seaweed. Sea lions and seals are common and often follow me. Out in my kayak there are usually eagles in sight. Sea ducks and seagulls fly to and fro. Mink scamper the beach. Blacktail deer sometimes appear along the edge of the forest. One day I ran across a couple of otters in the forest. The mother grabbed a large young one by the scruff of his neck and carried him into their den. There are countless billions of shells. There are many starfish of several species to be seen at low tide.

Alaska Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden char

The afternoon of my last post I paddled to another cove with a stream I wanted to try. As I approached the first freshwater pool two yearling brown bear cubs went running off, their mother somewhere back in the trees. I was happy to see three salmon, the first I’d seen. Having eaten nothing all day I was particularly enthusiastic to catch one but no luck. Further upstream I hooked and landed a fine dolly varden, then another and another until ten lay on the green moss. I lit a fire, burned it to coals and grilled 8 of them to perfection. To my surprise I was so exhausted mentally and physically I could hardly eat. It was my lowest point of the trip. It was a long, exhausting walk back to spike camp.

Blacktail fawn, Admiralty Island, Alaska

This fawn wanted a good look at me!

In the morning I was refreshed and ate several fish and cooked up the last two. I “refrigerated” the fish on the grill two inches above an icy brook, covered with moss. They kept perfectly. I also managed to pick about a quart of mostly ripe blueberries. The ripe salmon berries I’d expected to find locally were AWOL. Those nice trout and berries fed me well. At some point I realized: it’s the 4th of July!

Back at main camp I checked my trap and had 3 nice crab including one legal. I cooked up that crab which was as good or better than at a fine restaurant.

Over the next days I was getting by for food but wanted to get “ahead of the curve.” I’d thought there would be lots of salmon in the streams when I arrived but had only seen three.

Chum salmon male

Male Chum salmon in spawning colors.

I went to a different stream and saw about 15 salmon! I finally hooked a brute but lost it. I DID catch an 18″ trout though! I was hooking lots of those dollies so only kept those that were injured or especially big. Finally I had a solid hookup with a salmon. Very exciting. At last I had him on the gravel bar, a fine chum salmon, a male in full spawning colors which surprised me because he was assuredly just in from the sea and I thought pink salmon ran before chums. After a few hours I had my limit of trout (actually dolly varden char which I often call “trout”) as well as two big salmon.

I made the long paddle back to camp and over at my “cook camp” canned up 8 nice quart jars of fish. Food in the bank!

Giant vetch peas (research before eating, some tribes considered them poisonous!) huckleberries, salmon berries, blueberries and thimble berries

Giant vetch peas (research before eating, some tribes considered them poisonous!) huckleberries, salmon berries, blueberries and thimble berries

I’ve been doing lots of scouting around looking for fishing, good places for deer when season opens, and berries that are ripe. The latter are only in patches but in less than a month they should be plentiful. I’ve managed to find a small number of salmon berries, currants, and thimble berries. I picked two quarts of blueberries two days ago.

A few days ago I was going fishing and, at low tide, saw a Dungeness crab in shallow water. I kept watching and saw one that looked legal. Trapping had been slow and with nothing to lose I got my paddle and tried to scoop him up. I found, by herding and pushing that I could get him into shallow water and scooped him on shore. A keeper! I kept looking, and got another, and another and more until I had 8!!! Unbelievable. Back at camp it was all I could eat crab and two quart jars of canned shelled crab meat.

Then the real breakthrough, four days ago. At my prior salmon spot two different 2 year old brown bears scampered off but apparently had already chased the fish away. Upstream the fish were sparse but as I returned I found a pool where they were headed upstream in groups of about 5. I was using flies, mostly green “buggers.” The salmon were finicky but I caught 3 big males! The lowest pool was awash in high tide so I headed back up a bit and finally seemed to hit a good combo of purple leech flies and a very slow retrieve. At one point I looked up to see a young bear fishing my way. I yelled at him but he couldn’t figure out what I was. Curious, he loped my way. Finally he turned to run but had to stop twice more to stand up and look at me, his front legs looking surprisingly long as they dangled.

Finally I had five salmon, all my canner could hold I figured. It was a heavy bucket heading back to the boat! I stopped multiple times to switch bucket-carrying hands.

It was a real job filleting all those fish carefully and packing all the jars. 14 quart jars of filets! At 1:15 AM I had the canned fish hung up. 20 total jars of salmon, trout and crab are now on hand! Yahoo!!! I walked back to camp in the dark, crowded to the trees by a very high tide of 17 1/2 feet.

And boy, do I sleep good. Took off my rain gear and got on dry stuff and crawled into my dry, warm bag. I was sawing logs in no time.

Titanium Goat Tent

One of my base camps

Three days ago I moved camp, a federal lands regulation. It actually was quite a chore but I’ve got another good spot. Both of them are away from salmon streams and bear paths.

But you know the BIGGEST predators I’ve seen have been? I was relaxing in my tent and heard a whale “blow.” I scrambled outside and saw a long Orca fin sticking up! It sank and another rose, with a big puff of steam and a loud blow. This happened maybe 8 times. Don’t know how many were in the pod but it was really awesome.

Haven’t met any people out here but see crab boats about once a day and two or three times, at a distance, guided boats for people out bear-spotting.

It’s usually cloudy around here, and rains often. On rainy days I’m often “wet around the edges,” neck, sleeves and feet. The sun is especially delightful when it’s out. On sunny days the world expands dramatically, usually cloud-shrouded mountains appear above the bay and there are long views to the main channel.

Yesterday was perhaps the most beautiful of all. I spread everything out to dry in a very warm sun, solar charged my electronics, let the warm breezes blow in my tent, cleaned my guns (really needed it in this damp, salty air.) I hauled some water from the spring and heated it up at cook camp. I used it for a bath and to do my laundry.

I have a vague list of things in my head that I need to do. Many of these chores were planned for a day like this. The wind determines if I travel far by kayak. The water is usually safe to travel this far up the bay but strong winds are tough to fight. The tides determine where I’ll land my boat, and to some degree when I’ll go fishing or crabbing.

Boiled crab, pink salmon on the the grill

Boiled crab, pink salmon on the the grill

Many of us landlubbers don’t realize there are (usually) two high tides and two low tides a day, and here they can vary nearly 25 feet! The difference in appearance of an area can be startling between the extremes. The highest tides go up to the trees and the lowest may cause a half mile boat carry to get back to saltwater. I have to constantly remind myself to not walk away from gear below high tide. One advantage of this area is a firm bottom. I’ve been able to cruise across the tidal flats.

Until I arrived at the lodge today I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two weeks and I still haven’t heard any world news since I got here. It’s funny, I haven’t been craving normal food but the food cooking here smells good! I’m not taking any, though.

My internet time is very limited here and the speed slow so it will be only one photo and I may not get a chance to respond to every email.

To sum up, it’s definitely a challenge but it’s going well. I’ll try to post updates every couple weeks or thereabouts.

Thanks for reading!

August 1, 2014

Admiralty Island

Morning in the Fortress of the Bears

It is a beautiful sunny day today and boy does the sun feel good. I’ve been out here living off the land for a month now! The last two weeks went fast. Until I got to the lodge I hadn’t talked to someone in over two weeks, since the last time I was here. (Of course, I’m just here for the internet, no food allowed.) I see crab boats almost daily, other than that there’s not much human activity. I don’t even get broadcast radio here other that NOAA Weather, which is very useful. So if there are any big news events over the last month I don’t know about them.

Some gear molded! My cap before washing.

Some gear molded! My cap before washing.

I got the first real, serious rainy spell in the last ten days or so. 8″ I heard. It rained two full days straight without stopping, with plenty more the next three days. At 100% humidity, or thereabouts, things just start getting damp, even stuff out of the rain. Some of my paperback book covers were curling completely up! Yesterday I noticed my good ball cap was covered with mold. My shotgun and rifle which I’ve already cleaned twice were rusting, even though I have kept them out of the rain. Even my stainless rifle had a little rust. My old shotgun had a lot. I sat and cleaned them again yesterday.

Two days ago was a laundry and bath day. That 5 gallon bucket of hot water is a luxury. Even got my moldy hat looking pretty good.

I moved camp again, Forest regs. It’s a really big chore but gives me an excuse to sort and reorganize.

The fishing and foraging is going great. I notice I’ve lost considerable fat, even though I have plenty of food. The big differences are likely being active, relatively low fat foods, and only eating when I’m hungry.

There are enough salmon in the creeks so I can pretty much catch them at will. My last foray there were a bunch of big chums in a brackish pool and it wasn’t hard to get strikes on my purple leech flies. While I was fishing a brown bear came ambling down the bank towards me, looking for salmon. He didn’t see me until I yelled. That spooked him and he ran.

Dungeness crab trapping has been hit or miss. It’s not uncommon to be skunked, but I usually have one or two legal ones. They are my most common fresh meat and truly delicious. One day I caught 8, with six legal ones! I had to fire up the canner. The canner, by the way, has been a very key item to have on this trip.

Ripe salmon berries

Ripe salmon berries, these of the red variety

The biggest equipment failure is my Columbia brand rubber boots. I think they are less than two years old. They got a hole in them, then another. When I fixed them another big hole opened up and then yet another. They are shot. I’ve spent many days with wet feet because of them, and will have many more ahead. Luckily I have my waders and camp shoes.

Even in the rainiest, dampest weather I sleep warm and dry every night. I have dry sleeping clothes which I don’t wear in the rain. My body heat drives the moisture out of my down bag.

Still seeing lots of seals and sea lions and eagles. I’ve seen sea lions jump into the air after salmon and seen them fling salmon around in their mouths.

This place has the most mink I’ve ever seen, and they are bold and confident. I’ve had them come loping up to me to check me out. Today I had mink pass me three times on a path, just going around me by 8-10 feet! Other days I see none of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are the same ones living in this area. A few days ago I had one swim out to my kayak to check me out!

The best, though, has been the whales. I’ve followed orcas around from a distance, trying to get good photos (mostly unsuccessfully.) But humpback whales started showing up way up the bay here. It’s not uncommon now to hear a WHOOSH and see a plume of mist and a huge back rolling, sometimes with a tail flipping up for the dive. Near camp, they’ve surfaced with such a loud report it startles me. One for example, spouted so loudly and suddenly I thought it was a distant rifle shot, but it was a whale only about 100 yds from my tent!

The most I’ve seen together for sure is four, because they all came up at once.

I launched my kayak to watch one group and thought I’d lost them but saw a spout on the other side of the spit, in my little cove. I paddled around the point and saw a calf surfacing. It rested up ahead, it’s smooth dark back out of the water. Suddenly a giant barnacled creature shoots up, water boiling all around, just beyond the calf!!! They swam around for a while then headed out to deeper water. I saw the mother, or another adult, come rocketing out of the water with its huge mouth open. What a truly thrilling day. Note: I knew there were laws about harassing whales with powerboats, but I see there are specific regulations that apply to how close you can approach with kayaks as well, for example: It is illegal to approach humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska within 100 yards.

Food gathering is going great. Some foods I’ve eaten so far are salmon, trout, crab, limpets, blueberries, huckleberries, currants, thimble berries, salmon berries, sea asparagus, Goose Tongue (the plant), and beach peas. Finding berries was a struggle at first, requiring a lot of work to get a quart. Now I can usually gather just about enough by snacking as a travel around.

A relatively rare sunny day!

A relatively rare sunny day!

Deer season started today. I got a 5:30 am start to the lodge. I saw mink, river otters twice, a herd of seals, and.., deer! I stopped when I saw one and spotted 7 more feeding along the shore. It’s bucks only but I saw no antlers. I was paddling along the shore a bit later and suddenly spotted a big buck, only about 75 yards away. He saw me in a few seconds. I didn’t move and when he went behind some rocks I paddled for shore. As I got closer I could see bushes where he was feeding. When I looked over the rocks all I saw was a fawn, then another closer fawn spooked and they ran. Never saw the big buck again. It was extremely exciting. I REALLY want some venison.

That’s about all the time I have. Thanks for reading, and I’ll try to update in another couple of weeks or so!

August 16, 2014

It’s been two very adventurous weeks of living off the land.

My main mission was to bag a Blacktail deer, bucks only this time of year. I had really good luck seeing deer. On a typical day of going about my business I usually don’t see any deer, or if I do it’s usually one or two. But I was focusing on good deer habitat and hunting hard.

I spent many hours quietly kayaking along the shore and up little coves. In the best spots I’d often land and sneak along, looking and glassing. I was seeing about 10 deer a day on average but no antlers. Like I’d been told, most bucks will be up higher this time of year.

Licorice fern, Aaska

The Licorice fern, roots DID have a licorice taste!

One day I sneaked up on some deer along the edge of a grassy meadow and soon had 8 deer within range. When they dispersed, one doe came trotting my way to use the trail I was sitting on. She got closer and closer, shooing bugs with her ears and then noticed me, a shape in the shadows, 20 feet away. Unsure what I was she turned off and disappeared down another brushy trail.

Later that day a light rain began. I landed at another cove and immediately a doe stood up in the grass. When I began still-hunting I soon saw two deer walking up the hillside 75 yards away, the first looked like a buck! I sat down for a possible shot, and removed my scope covers, but my scope was foggy from the damp and they disappeared. Drat! Then I found “The Avenue of the Giants,” hundreds of yards of mostly open understory beneath giant hemlock and spruce. Deer often seem lulled in a light rain or mist and I saw deer after deer, many at close range. One little fawn was munching away, sampling various plants and noticed me. Baffled, he figured he’d better get a good look and ambled right up to me. Still had fading spots on him. Very cute. Most of these deer are normally very wary, which is wise in brown bear country.

My blacktail hunting lookout

My blacktail deer lookout.

One morning I sat on a 20′ high hill, shaded by big trees, with long spectacular views. I’d seen several deer here on day two of this trip but nothing today. In the nearby creek, mostly obscured by tall grass, I heard splashing and water flew high in the air. A bear was chasing salmon and I could follow his efforts by the sound and flying water. Then he climbed the bank with a flopping chum salmon in his mouth. He lay on the bank eating it, looking up occasionally while chewing with a contented look on his face. I saw that happen about 3 more times.

The pink salmon are running now, in incredible numbers, sometimes hundreds in a single pool. I’ve eaten several of them and they are a ready supply of fresh food.

Crab trap and kayak

A good catch of crab

My other common fresh food is crab which I eat about every third day. Things I like about them is they are easy and fast to cook, absolutely delicious, and when I get them it’s usually one or two, enough for one meal+.

I had spent a few hours halibut fishing with no luck. On the 7th I have it another try, with a giant white plastic grub with a 1 pound(!) lead head on it. Suddenly I had one on, and it was a big one. The fight went on and on until he was near the surface, but he wouldn’t give up. I slowly towed him to shore. With my heart pounding I stepped out of my boat to beach him. The line went slack briefly and when I reeled he was gone. I was stunned and hugely disappointed.

I checked my crab trap which contained only a starfish, and late in the day paddled for camp.

Alaska blacktail buck

A one-shot kill,plenty of venison, and short packout!

On the way I noticed a brown spot along shore and with my binos saw it was a bedded deer. I paddled closer but couldn’t see antlers. Closer still I thought I MIGHT see antlers when he turned his head. Finally I could see antlers for sure. In a few minutes I was on shore and he was down. It had taken a single shot.  I had my buck!! How quickly my luck had changed from the disappointment of losing that big halibut. It was extremely exciting and satisfying to know I’d just secured a big supply of venison.

The tenderloin I cooked over the wood fire was incredibly good. I ate the grilled back straps for breakfast. They had been rinsed in and seasoned by natural saltwater and were extremely good.

Had I gotten that huge halibut, I would not have gotten this deer which was even more important. Even bad luck can lead to good luck.

One day I saw a giant humpback whale jump out of the water and then again and yet again, a total of about 18 times! Incredible sight. Another day I saw a whale on his side and it looked like he was slapping the water with his very long front fin. Very cool.

I heard another brown bear near my tent one night, but he skedaddled. The bears are concentrated along the salmon streams.

Alaska halibut

First halibut, 53 lbs!

On the 12th I went back to the spot where I’d hooked that big halibut, about 75 yards from a rock visible near low tide. In short order I had a bite. Thinking it was just a sculpin I set the hook and knew it was a bigger fish. “A small halibut!” I said to myself. Then “maybe not so small!” as he made a powerful dive to the bottom. The fight went on and on as I pondered my options for landing him. You can’t net a big halibut or drag a live, big halibut into a boat. Too dangerous. I’d read they cut their gills in Canada so I’d brought my filet knife. It was extremely challenging to control the rod, reach the fish, and make sure I didn’t touch the line with the blade or puncture my boat with the blade or the huge hook. Finally the fight was out of him and he was lashed to the side of the boat, about an hour and a half after I’d first hooked him. Not until I actually carried him up the gravelly shore did I relax. He looked much bigger out of the water as fish usually do to me, 48″ long, weighing an estimated 53 lbs according to the charts! Awesome. The other fish was much bigger. He would have weighed at least 75 pounds if not over 100. I was totally thrilled to get this one and glad he wasn’t bigger. I filled up my entire grill with steaks as well as all my empty jars with only one remaining!

Filleting a halibut

Filleting a halibut. Surprisingly easy, great meat!

Some new foods I’ve eaten are red huckleberries, bull kelp, and blue currants.

I’ve lost weight, but in a good way. I darn near have my long lost 6-pack abs back ! :).

There’s been another round of serious rain and I’m looking forward to some more of those glorious sunny days for laundry, a bath, and drying everything out.

It’s definitely challenging, but often fun and interesting and exciting, just as a good adventure should be.

Please note that due to my brief internet time and a very slow connection, photos are difficult and I might not have time to answer your emails or your comments right away. But I’m reading them, and will try to answer them all after I fly out.

When I get home I’ll post a final update and a bunch of photos. Don’t forget to check back for that as well as my next update!

August 30, 2014

As a reminder I have no phone or internet (or radio, except for NOAA weather) out here so every two weeks I make the long paddle to this lodge to do this brief update. I read your emails and comments and hope to get caught up on responding on my return.

I will be adding photos when I update after my fly out, so please check back around September 8-10.

Fortress of the Bears

A brown bear and I were fishing this same stretch!

This is my 62nd day in “The Fortress of the Bears”.

The days are shorter and cooler. There’s been plenty of rain but nothing like the 8 inch and 9 inch rains of earlier.

When the sun comes out its glorious, and usually means a scramble to dry things, do some solar charging, and with enough sun, perhaps take a bucket-bath, do laundry and move camp. I don’t think there’s been any thunder or lightning.

The ocean isn’t as cold as I thought it would be. I’d say it’s nearly 60 degrees. I still often see seals and sea lions out fishing, as often as not they come to check me out. A few nights ago I heard splashing near the tent and guessed it was a family of otters. In the morning there were several whole red crabs abandoned on the beach. One of the otters must have sounded the alarm when they smelled camp. I heard a big animal outside my tent this week, likely a deer. I continue to see deer but not nearly as many as when I was hunting them. The fawns have nearly lost their spots.

There are more and more of the larger Canada geese. As it turns out, I will just miss the start of waterfowl season here, Sept. 15; most of Alaska it starts the 1st. I would have loved cooking up a big honker or two along with some ducks.

Mosquitoes have been a non issue. Usually bugs aren’t a factor at all. No-see-ums can be very annoying at times. I have a high tolerance for daytime bugs so only once have I used DEET, but many times have deployed a bandana hanging down from my hat, back and sides, which helps a lot.

Tidal pool

Starfish, Crab and other tidal pool life

One day I sat in front of camp and watched humpback whales feeding and resting in the bay. I haven’t seen orcas for a while.

There are a few chum salmon left in the streams and countless pink salmon. I catch and grill one when I like. I’ve tried to get some good bear photos. I found an awesome overlook of a salmon stream but the fishing is so easy for them I think they get their fill fairly quickly and head back into the forest. One day I nearly got good shots along a grassy stream but the auto focus kept focusing on the grass. Where’s that manual focus setting!? When the bear spotted me he stood on his hind legs and loped into the woods.

I saw a sow and this year’s cub in another place, and see other bears fishing from time to time which is always fun. One good thing is the bears are at the salmon streams and my tent isn’t!

With commercial crabbing season over I only see boats in the upper bay about once a week. When I’m out on the water I can see clear out to the Sound in places and often see boats there. Once, in the dark I saw the brightly lit decks of a big passenger ship, a world apart from my current experience. On some foggy mornings distant fog horns roll over the water.

Alaska salmon

Salmon for dinner!

My main foods continue to be venison, halibut, salmon and crab. I eat about 3 lbs a day of some combination of those foods. By the time I fly out that whole deer and big halibut, many salmon and much more will be gone! Crabbing has been fickle. One day I caught 9 at once, 5 of legal size, and think I’ve got crabbing figured out, then days will pass without a single crab. That’s what makes it interesting checking the trap, of course.

The main berries I’ve been eating were initially blueberries, then some salmon berries and excellent thimble berries, and as the latter fade I’m enjoying what I’ve found to be much sweeter late season blueberries, especially the ones from tiny plants only a few inches tall, sweet and with a smooth texture.

Some new foods I’ve eaten include crow berries, red elderberry, high bush cranberries, Labrador tea, and, the biggest surprise, crab apples! The latter are tiny and sour but a good change.

It’s not a matter of unzipping my sleeping bag and grabbing a handful of berries from nearby plants. Thimble berries have been the handiest with a good patch near my tent for about a month, now gone. Blueberries tend to be scattered and a matter of picking one at a time rather than bunches but I can get all I need for a day in an hour of picking or so. My good patches involve kayaking a mile or two to get there, followed by a short climb.

Brown bear claw marks

Brown bear claw marks on a log

I think it was Chris that asked about clamming. When I started planning I thought they would be a major food source and they are available in profusion here. But experts say to avoid untested beaches due to the dangers of paralytic shellfish poisoning. It can be fatal and it’s a needless risk, killing far more people in Alaska than bears.

It struck me recently that I am on a strict “paleo diet,” or what I imagine it would be. I would guess I’ve lost 20 pounds. I must weigh close to what I did when I was running seriously, even if I’m a whole lot slower now. 🙂

Alaska Thimbleberries

Thimbleberries were my favorite berry, sweet and oceanside.

I haven’t been craving foods too much except at times I’m reading about it. For example, I’ve read a couple of thru-hiking books here where the authors go on at length about being hungry and then arriving in a town, detailing their feasts on rich foods. One quote: “we are presented with a brownie cradling a scoop of vanilla ice cream decorated with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. ” Ouch!

Strangely perhaps, the thing I crave most often is fresh bread. My first meal “back” might be breakfast, and if it is I’ll likely have pancakes with a lot of butter and syrup.

Rainwater, gathered off a tarp is my drinking water source, and available in abundance. 🙂

I do look forward to hot showers and all that wide variety of good, readily available, rich food we take for granted, a warm cabin where it’s always dry, and to find out what’s happened in the world since the end of June.

Thanks for reading this, and don’t forget to check back for lots of photos and replies to your comments!

August 30 through September 8

Goose Tongue, Plantago maritima

Goose Tongue, Plantago maritima. One of my most common plant foods

It’s a long paddle back to base camp from my last update at the lodge, so I stop to pick berries in a good spot I found weeks ago. Near the shore is a nice patch of red huckleberries, on bushes about chest high, and I pick and eat them enthusiastically. They aren’t terribly sweet but they are nearly all good, unlike the somewhat sweeter black huckleberries, many of which on this trip have tasted bad enough that I spit them out. I also pick and eat blueberries and even some of the very sweet blueberries that grow an inch or three off the ground. As I get my fill I fill a quart jar as well.

I want a photo of the beautiful pattern of blue, red and black berries in the clear glass jar and take a shot of the colorful berries in a bright green mossy area among some unknown reddish-orange berries.

Out in the side bay I halibut fish. I inadvertently snag one, a two-pounder, and release him. It’s a long but easy paddle across calm water to get back to camp. I flip through the pages of my guidebook to identify those mystery berries: bunchberries. They’re edible!

Chum salmon and Dungeness crab

Chum salmon and Dungeness crab

My supply of canned fish, crab and venison is running low, which means I have enough empty jars to can a big halibut. My morning plans include trying to catch one, but it’s too windy. I’d spend all my time paddling back up wind. It’s raining, too. Instead, I decide to berry pick towards the “Avenue of the Giants” bringing my rifle in case I get a good shot at a buck. Berry picking is pretty good, but unlike last time I don’t see a single deer. The crab apple trees I’d found earlier are now easier to spot with some of their leaves turning red. Many of the marble sized apples have developed a rosy blush on one side. They aren’t sweet, but they are tart and good. I eat a bunch while filling a quart jar at the same time. There are numerous bunchberry plants in areas, and like their name would suggest I grab many clumps of 6-8 berries at a time. They are slightly sweet and “airy.”

When I get back to salt water I walk the rocky shore back towards camp, around numerous little headlands. I spot the distinctive look of highbush cranberry bushes, now showing some bright red leaves. Some bushes sag with heavy clumps of bright red shiny berries. In contrast to the effort it usually takes to pick a quart of most other berries, I fill most of a quart jar in minutes. They too are sour, but good, and I can almost feel the vitamin C coursing through my veins! On the rocky beach I recognize bladderwrack, a kind of seaweed, and sample it for the first time. Surprisingly, it isn’t salty, and has an agreeable, chewy texture. I pick up and munch more as I work my way home.

Fog, Admiralty Island, Alaska

Fog was common in the mornings

Another plant I look for is Licorice Fern, which typically grows on mossy branches or stumps. I quickly spot some and dig among the moss to separate out 2″ lengths of their reddish-green roots. Brushing off bits of moss and soil with my fingers I sample one. As I chew the licorice taste is evident. Cool! Something really different.

This evening in my tent I read about Stanley’s travels in Africa in search of Livingston. Tomorrow is September. It’s been a while since June 30th. Time is going fast now. It’s been a grand adventure but it’s exciting to look forward to the end of the trip. I decide my main goal is to catch one more big halibut and to fill up a bunch of jars, with halibut and/or salmon, to bring home with me when the trip is over.

Pressure canning halibut

Pressure canning a batch of halibut

I listen to the weather forecast. There’s sun predicted tomorrow, then a partly cloudy day, then two mostly cloudy days with a chance of rain, followed by three rainy days.

During the night a mouse runs across my head.


Today I fish hard for halibut. I am using a giant white jig with a one pound sinker! Seems huge to a freshwater fisherman but much heavier sinkers are often used. A three pound sculpin is all I manage to land but a halibut rips the tail off my jig, my last one. With dental floss I lash a smaller white jig to the main body so it’s tail in effect replaces the missing one.

Boats up at my end of the bay have been uncommon since the end of commercial crabbing, so I’m surprised to see one approach. It’s a fellow who lives next to the lodge, and old sourdough type. When I tell him I’ve been looking for silver salmon to show up in the streams he is skeptical that I’ll see any despite their reported presence on Fish and Game maps. That five minute conversation is the first of the entire trip except for my brief lodge visits.

My five gallon container I set out to catch rain water off my tarp has no problem rapidly filling in the rains of the last couple of days. It’s simply a matter of filtering out the spruce needles resulting in an endless supply of clean, fresh water. I thought it might taste “flat” or like spruce needles, but it tastes good.

In the morning I have a little trouble finding my halibut spot due to fog and the tide covering a rock I usually use as a reference point, but despite a strike or two I come up empty. Also empty is my crab trap.

Setting up the Titanium Goat Vertex 7.5

Setting up my tent during the camp move.

It’s time for a camp move and with a mostly sunny day I set to work. As usual I hang my sleeping bag, clothes and other items to dry in the sun, and move my tent and other gear by packing it along the shore. It’s a big chore, including taking down and setting up the 3-wire electric fence. The fence, I think, has been a wise insurance policy against having my camp torn apart by bears while I’m gone.

The day started out looking sunny, got foggy, then looked like it was going to close out beautifully, but when I look up dark rain clouds are rolling in rapidly and I can see rain already falling at the very head of the bay. I rush around gathering up drying items and have them secured in the tent before the rain hits. It’s not until nearly 9 PM and after dark that I’m all moved. I’m tired but it’s great to have my last camp move done.

Drying gear in the sun

Sunny days meant gear drying

With the halibut not cooperating I’m off on an expedition to another stream where there should be plenty of salmon. My goal is to get enough fish to fill 12 jars or so. As I land near the stream mouth a brown bear is chasing salmon around. A sow and cub run off to my left. I grab my rifle and gear and when I’m within a reasonable range to take zoomed photos of the big bear I reach for my camera dry box. No camera! I’d forgotten I’d pulled it out when I landed. It’s sitting on the boat. He walks out of sight ahead of me, giving a warning growl to what must be other unseen bears ahead. I walk towards my fishing spot, and the bears, in a place where visibility is good and none of us will be surprised at close range.

I spot my bear, sitting on his butt in the shallow water, grabbing salmon at will. Swirling wind eventually carries my scent to him and he scrambles up the bank, stands on his hind legs and bolts into the woods. A second bear approaches his fishing spot and he too flees as soon as he smells me.

Looking down into the clear water I see some large fish among the pink salmon. Silvers? There are countless pink salmon but for some reason they aren’t biting. I target one of the big salmon and miraculously manage to hook it in about three casts. It’s a fine chum salmon in good condition which I put in a stringer anchored to a bucket weighted down with big rocks.

Chum salmon, pink salmon, Alaska

Chum salmon with one male pink salmon

Over the next three hours or so I land four more nice chum salmon and keep one of the nicer male pink salmon I caught. It’s been a really fun day of fishing and I’ve got a great supply of meat.

I don’t get back to main camp until after 7. It’s time consuming fileting fish, filling jars, and heating the large pressure cooker, it’s water, and all that fish.

It’s well after midnight when I finally open the canner and begin pulling out the hot jars. The first one crunches as I grab it. Broken! As is the next, and the next, and the next. 6 of 12 are broken. It’s a huge disappointment and waste. These are the first broken jars. Why? I decide it’s through multiple reuse and sometimes bumping the jars, but mainly because I’ve been tightening the lids a little more each time. The lids were too tight. They burst under pressure.

The next day I try a new halibut spot, bringing my small tent to “spike out” over night to fish the same area again the next day, for salmon or halibut.

I’m out halibut fishing but not much is happening until I feel what I think is fish. There’s no doubt when it dives hard and fast, so violently that my rod tip is getting pulled into the water and it seems my rod or line is sure to break. I flip the reel’s bail to ease the pressure and when I tighten the line again he’s gone. I feel weak and shaken. That was cool.

I paddle far upwind again to start drifting back towards this area and briefly hook at least two more fish. Then another freight train takes off. I’ve checked the drag this time to verify it’s set right and when he dives I hang on tight and let the drag scream. Suddenly he’s off but it sure was exciting. By about 4 the wind comes up and I’m tired from paddling and jigging the heavy weight and cranking the reel all day, not to mention only getting about 3 hours of sleep last night after waking up at my usual 4 AM. I crawl in my tent and am soon zonked out. When I wake after a few hours I read for a while and think about making maple syrup next spring.

Kayaking Alaska

Heading out in the morning

The morning is unexpectedly calm. I’ll halibut fish until the wind comes up. In the same area I hook a big fish and hang on for dear life and this one stays hooked. He’s tiring. When I can hold him near the surface I put my plan into effect. I have a large hook taped to a pole and tied to a 5 gallon bucket. I hook him through the lip with that big hook. He goes wild but when he dives he’s fighting the bucket and my rod. I flip my pole around . A filet knife is taped and wired on the other end making a crude harpoon. I harpoon him hard in the gills but the blade snaps. He’s bleeding though. When he gets closer I take my pocket knife and slash his gills more and there are clouds of blood. I eventually get him lashed to the boat, triumphant.

Just as he stops struggling a huge sea lion pops out of the water only 10 feet away, startling me with his sudden appearance and big teeth. I think it’s kind of cute until he dives and I hear a breath behind me. I look down into the water and he’s circling my halibut like a shark. I grab my fish and heave him into the boat. Back on shore I get my camp and measure the fish. According to the charts he weighs 40 lbs. I am a happy fisherman.

Alaska halibut

My second nice halibut, a 40 lber.

A quartering tail wind comes up on my way back to base camp. I have to work my way across the bay and it’s much, much harder than if there were no wind at all. I have to paddle continuously to maintain my heading and it’s a real chore. My kayak rides the waves like a cork, though.

I save a full grill’s worth of halibut filets and fill 10 jars with pure meat. The grilled halibut is absolutely delicious.

With a bunch of jars still unused I decide to make one final expedition after salmon. It’s calm at first in the early morning but a half mile out the wind comes up and it’s a hard paddle to get to my targeted creek, still over 2 miles away.

At the creek, the wind starts howling and it’s raining like it means business. “Chance of rain and light winds” had been predicted. Wrong. And wrong. How there can be so many fish that aren’t biting is hard to understand, but that’s fishing. As I flail away in the wind I hear a big splash. A brown bear is chasing fish just out of sight. He is between me and my camera. My bear photography success rate is leaving something to be desired. I see some interesting bear fishing though, and capture some relatively distant shots with my iPhone.

Alaska Devil's Club

Devil’s club stickers and berries. Those stickers are evil!

The wind is so strong I wonder if I’ll be able to paddle home today. I head into the old growth to escape the wind and pick berries. The wind is much calmer there even if the drenched bushes makes things even wetter, if that’s possible. I pick and eat red and black huckleberries, blueberries, bunchberries and currants.

Late in the afternoon I look across the salt water and the wind has died somewhat. When I get out into the main bay the wind hits but I paddle steadily with another quartering tailwind. It’s exhausting and except for the berries I haven’t eaten for about 11 hours. OK, I am hungry. Mostly for carbs. I think about fresh bread with melting butter and peanut butter. I think about wandering the aisles of a grocery store buying anything I want, a crazy variety of goodies, and as much of it as I care to lug out of the store.

It’s September 7. Weather permitting, I fly out in the morning! My crab trap has four crabs in it with three legal sized ones! I release the small one and leave the other three in the trap in shallow water. It’s low tide and I manage to hand-net some more crabs in the low water but they are all too small. I carry my boat up to the trees and hike up to “my” local salmon stream. Three brown deer feed in a shaft of sun 1/2 mile across the bay. 200 yards away on my side are three more, these already turning winter gray, meandering along edge of the forest.

In the stream,where there were once hundreds and hundreds of fish, I see none. Finally I spot one, an old beat up fish swimming slowly along.

Brown bear and salmon

Bear feeding on salmon (autofocus on grass, rats.)

A brown bear sits up in the tall grass where he was apparently eating dead salmon. He doesn’t smell me at first but when he does he stands up, then whirls and crashes into the timber. In only a few more steps I see a second large bear, this one eating roots.

On my return trip a few salmon have appeared from somewhere. I hook and land one in very nice condition and keep it, then decide to head back. I pick a few more crab apples, then retrieve my boat and crabs and head for my cook camp. The crabs are soon boiling. When they are done I grill my salmon on the fire and eat the whole two pounds of filets right then and there. The crabs I save for later.

I dismantle my cook camp and put it’s tarp up near my tent where I begin stashing gear that’s all packed and ready to fly out tomorrow. The first rumble of thunder of the whole trip spurs me to get everything under cover. When the sun comes out again the first rainbow of the trip appears over the little cove I’m now camped near. In the evening I build a nice campfire, squandering my small, carefully hoarded supply of dry cooking firewood. I eat crab meat while I watch the flames dance in the dark old growth. It’s my last night alone in “The Fortress of the Bears.”

Alaska campfire

My last night in the wilderness

I’m up at 4 the next morning, and eat the last 1 and 1/2 crabs. The tide is falling. If the plane shows up on time at 8:00 AM it will be just past low tide, so as I pack my stuff down and stack it 4 feet or so above the water. When the sun comes up it’s a beautiful day with just a few clouds. What a lucky break! At 7:45 I do a last check of the whole area. Fortunately, because I find my fleece sweatshirt which I’d missed while gathering stuff up from the approaching rain yesterday.

At 8 I hear a plane approaching. He banks around, the blue and white fuselage glinting in the morning sun, and sets down with a roar, plumes of white water gracefully arching up from each float.

I’m going home.

September 8, 2014

I am back in Petersburg. What a different world! I had my pancakes, butter and syrup for breakfast after a good hot bath. I’ve been hearing the news from the last couple of months. I’m working on a carton of mudslide ice cream with a large pizza planned for supper. It has been a great adventure. I will post a bunch more photos of the trip in the coming days. Thanks for your visit!

Pink salmon male

Pink salmon male

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions, along with some other observations. If you have more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section, below.

  • I was out there about 70 days, from June 30 until September 8.
  • I lost about 20 lbs, despite having a reserve stash of food after the first week. There weren’t many chubby cave men I’ll bet!
  • The scariest moment was when I was awoken from a deep sleep on a dark night by the snuffling of a brown bear. It was an instinctive reaction. Most bear encounters were just interesting, not frightening.
  • Favorite fresh meat (cook and eat): crab.
  • Favorite overall meat: deer, because it was a good change from seafood.
  • Alaska Highbush Cranberries

    Alaska Highbush Cranberries. Tart and in nice bunches.

    Favorite plant food: thimble berries, almost always sweet, and usually in places they were easy to pick.

  • Best wildlife sighting: seeing whales jump clear of the water many times.
  • Lowest point: July 3, when I had been completely out of food for almost a full day and was too exhausted to eat much when I finally caught some char.
  • Biggest turnaround in mood: losing a giant halibut just as I was about to beach him, followed by bagging a Blacktail buck 30 minutes later.
  • Hardest part of the experience: eating what I could get rather than what I might want.
  • 2nd hardest thing: the wet conditions. Everything that could rust, did so. I did as much gun cleaning in 70 days as I usually do in 10 years! The threads on my pressure canner corroded so I had to use every trick I could think of to turn stuck knobs to seal it and open it. Mold grew on some items, like my ball cap and my wallet.
  • Things I didn’t expect: I didn’t see a single grouse or ptarmigan. I thought waterfowl season started September 1, and when the new regs came out I found it didn’t start in that area until September 15 so I didn’t get to hunt ducks and geese at all.
  • Alaska black currants

    Black currants

    I thought there would be lots of salmon in the streams when I arrived, there were none.

  • I thought there would be plenty of ripe salmon berries when I arrived. It took me days to find the first one, and there weren’t many in my area. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the many kinds of berries available: two or three kind of currants, red and black huckleberries, at least two varieties of blueberries, bunchberries, crow berries, high bush cranberries, and the most surprising plant food for Alaska to an inlander, crab apples.
  • Best gear decision: the pressure canner. It was vital to quickly preserve “windfalls” of food. I would have been unable to guard a smoking or drying operation, and it would have been illegal and unethical to waste meat that I couldn’t eat before it spoiled. The Rocket Stove also was a key piece of gear for cooking, especially for the canner.
  • Worst gear decision: it was a bad decision based on bad info, but I should have brought a satellite phone. There were supposed to be pockets of good 3G/4G coverage according to the ATT maps, there were none. A sat phone would have saved me a huge amount of paddling to get to the lodge for biweekly updates, and it would have been a considerable safety advantage.
  • Worst piece of gear: Columbia rubber knee boots. They self destructed. Not good. They were an important piece of gear!
  • Columbia Rubber Boots fail

    Complete boot failure!

    Best gear: my Aire Outfitter I inflatable kayak worked out really well. It was slow, but extremely stable and only weighs about 40 lbs. I was carrying it above high tide and back to the water over and over, so weight was a big deal. I aired it up when I got there, and it required zero maintenance the whole trip, not even a puff of air.

  • Best thing about the trip: “Living a dream.” I’ve wanted to do a long trip “living off the land” since I was a kid. It is extremely satisfying to have done it.
  • Takeaway lesson: that’s a good question someone asked in the comments. I think it’s realizing once again how lucky we are at this point in history. To have enough food to eat, not just enough, either, but such a wide variety of high quality. How we can turn a knob and access a plentiful supply of clean water, cold or hot. How lucky we are to be able to sleep warm and dry every night. How little danger we face compared to the past where saber toothed tigers or cave bears or lions would be stalking us at night, or when enemy tribes might attack at any moment. There is a lot to appreciate in this life if we look for the good in it.