By Kevin Grove, Sciences
Skis and boots and rope and paddles and raft?
After several hours of picking our way down the glacier, we reached the small lake. Fortunately, we were on the edge of the glacier and found one of the only easy access points to the lake among the bus-sized blocks of ice hanging on at the end of the glacier. We blew up our individual rafts and squeezed our bodies and large packs loaded with skis and boots into the rafts. Words cannot describe the views and feelings as we transformed from mountaineers to river runners. After paddling a short distance across the lake with giant icebergs, we scouted the river leading to Tustumena Lake. The river was quite swift, too swift in fact for Jan’s boat which was a cheap version and not nearly as nice as mine. Jan had kindly given me the real packraft borrowed from his brother, while he kept the $10 K-mart special, the ‘Explorer’. He became soaking wet in the Class two rapids and had to stop a couple times to empty out his boat. Nonetheless, we reached Tustumena Lake where we set up camp while basking in the evening sunlight.
The secret passage
Exploring in Alaska – check out that one inch freeboard
The following day, we set out to cross the four miles of dreadfully thick, brushy, forest to reach the Fox River. After waking at 4 AM, we paddled for two hours across Devils Bay, at the upper end of Tustumena Lake, to access the forest. The next four miles were pure hell. “Time to put on our game faces,” I said to Jan not fully understanding the severity of my own words. We covered our first mile in seven hours. Somewhere along the way, I lost my camera. Rejected, I concluded there was absolutely no way of finding it. Just before continuing ahead, I remembered taking a picture five minutes prior. With renewed hope, we decided to have a look. Our only good fortune of the day came as we backtracked five minutes and found the needle in the incredibly thick haystack. “Kevin, I found it!” Jan yelled with relief.
A whiff of ammonia emanated from my muscles as I lay in our precariously pitched tent in the jungle that evening, still one and a half miles from the Fox River. I had burned through all my body fat and was starting to burn muscle, desperately needing to increase my calorie intake. Twigs snapped close by our tent and visions of the grizzly bears outside kept me tossing and turning. “Can I really endure another mile and a half of this jungle?” I worried as I attempted to rest.
The next day, we hesitantly set out to complete our journey to the Fox River. My legs were worked and less than enthusiastic about stepping over more ‘pickup sticks.’ Fortunately, the hell parted, and we were able to cover the last stretch in a couple of hours. Reaching the Fox was a huge relief. We could now take off the heavy packs and ‘float’ home. Blowing up our rafts, we prepared for the last 20-mile stretch of river.
The river proved to be much more technical than I had expected. Swiftly moving water with several branches to choose from and a lot of downed trees and other objective hazards made the paddling very unnerving. Immediately after setting out, I made a poor channel selection – swerving right instead of left- and became pinned against a downed tree. Luckily, the raft stayed upright and intact as I jumped out into the cold water. I was able to extract my backpack and raft from the pinned log before taking a deep breath and recovering on shore. So much for floating home, I nervously thought to myself in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. We dodged more narrow escapes and made a portage around some downed timbers. Jan proceeded to break his paddle attempting to push off while getting back into the river. Once again, some crafty engineering work made our seemingly dire situation passable. He immediately set out to splint his paddle with ski poles. By creating a solid system of tightly wrapped coils with our climbing rope down the length of the paddle and poles, he was able to construct a heavy, yet functional paddle.
The river eventually made one large, mellow channel and the water slowed to a very comfortable drifting pace, taking the edge off. We could finally sit back, relax, and take in the beautiful scenery of incredible lupine and foliage on the riverbank. A huge bull moose waded in the stream and a plethora of bald eagles stood watch overhead. We stopped and built a fire on the bank while patching a hole in Jan’s boat. He was shivering and soaking wet, desperately needing the heat from the flames. I felt guilty for staying mostly dry in my expedition packraft. Eventually, at four in the afternoon, we reached the Kachemak Bay estuary. “I finally feel like we just might complete this journey in one piece,” Jan said with relief.
Awe…..relaxing at last!
Exhausted, we loaded all the gear on our backs for the final leg, a three-mile slump through a mud flat to the Russian village of Kachemak Silo. We reached the village and were gawked at like people coming from another land with skis, paddles, and life vests hanging from our huge packs. Three little boys rode by on a four-wheeler and asked us where we began our journey. Their eyes lit up large and wide when we said, “Seward.”
Over time, Jan’s blisters healed, my 5% body fat returned, and we have had many laughs reminiscing on the trek from Seward to Kachemak Silo. Looking back on the epic journey, I am proud that we both kept our chins up and heads held high in the most difficult of times. We strengthened our friendship with this unforgettable adventure. I look forward to more adventures in Alaska with my friend, Jan, in the years to come.