2014 - 2: Camping Taku Inlet
The Ronquil aground at Scow Cove
As a kid growing up at the lodge, I flew down the
and over its tributary valleys many times, gazing down at the
wanting to explore it, dreaming about which valley I’d most like to
when I was older, maybe with a cabin and a pet moose, and a big stack
for the winter. I don’t think ever fantasized about living there, but
valley in particular charmed me, and it was one that we passed almost
single time, a small round cove tucked into a steep, mountain not far
Taku and Norris glaciers. Scow Cove, where we looked for black bears in
green grassy plain, Scow Cove, which all the pilots flying from the
out over the radio: “three five zulu, Scow Cove, 500 feet.”
As an adult, I’ve passed Scow Cove every time I
went up the
river in my boat, and remembered my fondness for it. But, being not far
the cabin but on the other side of the sandbars, I never stopped. Until
weekend. Rob, Katie, Chris and I planned a Taku camping trip not to the
but up the Inlet. The prevalence of snow up the Taku and the fact that
was too late on Sunday to get me back to town in time for my niece’s
meant the cabin was not the ideal destination, though we did plan to
for GPS coordinates and to study the angle form the cabin to the Hughes
satellite for internet.
It all came together very fast, but the trip was
enough. Rob was kind enough to provide food for the entire weekend. We
the harbor around 6:00, loaded the boat, settled into our familiar
seats, ate Pizzeria Roma pizza, and drank leaving the harbor beers
puttering into Gastineau Channel. The evening was stunning and, other
little chop on the way up the inlet, the ride was tranquil. My hope was
at Scow Cove the first night, but we were already several hours into a
tide and Scow Cove is very much on the river. Around 7:15 we were
making our way up an increasingly defined channel along the
Flat Point, then encountered a sloping wall of mud as we came in front
Cove. It was an uneasy sight for me, realizing how wide the mud flats
between the river and the trees and seeing that I would have to leave
at the very edge of the current. The large creek flowing from the cove
already perhaps six feet below the top of the mud flats and did not
reasonable place to try the boat. The fact that we touched bottom a
times in the main channel didn’t help, nor did the fading light.
I still wanted to give it a try, and the next order of business was to
sure we could even walk on the mud. I pulled up the bank and let Rob
test it, then pushed back into the current and was swept swiftly
until I started the engine and eased my way back up. The mud was solid
all agreed to give it a try despite our various trepidations. I pulled
Ronquil up on the beach toward the upper end of the cove and anchored
it in the
mud; we all dumped a first load of gear from the boat on a small rocky
inside the mud flats before exploring the cove in search of a campsite.
On the way I worried that I’d made a huge mistake.
were incredibly wide between the river and the trees and gradually
bare mud by the river to sparse and hardy grasses (that improved our
considerably), to intertidal beach grass farther back, all interspersed
deep channels of fresh water coursing to the central stream. All the
Cailey romped with abandon, the only one among us who had no doubts
The scene at the back of the cove was less
I’d hoped. Having left Juneau in the wild throws of an early spring,
saturated with spruce pollen and the lush perennials already a couple
high, it was a bit unnerving to encounter a snow field in front of the
many of the fringe alders still pinned down beneath it. The forest
mostly free of snow and dry, but inhabited by dense devil’s club. I saw
places that we probably could have squeezed in our tents, but it wasn’t
inviting. We regrouped on the snow fields and pondered our options—even
option of sleeping on the snow itself. The creek was too high and brisk
consider crossing, but the options on the other side looked no more
Then I noticed a grove of tiny spruce trees, each no
more than a foot
tall, growing between the snow and the edge of the rushing creek.
trees,” I said, “are in no way intertidal, so that means they don’t get
at high tide!” Or something along those lines. It seemed logical at the
no spruce tree (or alder, for the matter) grows where its roots are
salt water on any tide.
In fact, the area turned out to be idyllic.
nearby snow, the site was dry, and the rushing creek a fine, if
companion. The land was quite flat and covered with dead grass. We
adopted it and returned to the Ronquil for our gear, finding it high
and dry on
the slope of the mud bank. Everyone carried another load back to the
gravel beach and then consolidated everything into one uncomfortably
each which we laboriously carried across the mud to our campsite in the
diminishing light. I immediately went to my usual task of wood
Chris set up the tent, choosing a site next to the creek while Katie
pitched theirs closer to the snow bank. The woods were delightfully
dead branches from the young spruces growing up close together around
alders—making me suspect that the forest there is fairly young—but the
through the snow, forcing myself through the tangled web of alders at
inside edge, was difficult.
But at last we had tents up and, with a few more
the others, a sizable stack of dry firewood. Chris lit a fire with a
and beach grass and I trekked back to check on the boat and adjust the
In the end, I withdrew some of the line I’d originally put out and
anchor back from the edge of the cove on the gravel beach and onto the
flats again in the hope that the boat would beach itself out of the
current but reasonably close to it (so it would float soon on the
the next day), and would come to rest north of the main creek gully,
would otherwise threaten to leave it askew on the falling tide (the
drawn to creeks as the tide falls). My theory was that the current
the boat pulling downriver, away from the rocks at the north end of the
despite the rising tide. Near the boat I saw grizzly tracks and another
tracks which I suspected were river otter, both washed with at least
I hoped my positioning would work, but the boat was then below the mud
and so could not be seen from the campsite, so I would be unable to
from a distance.
The fire was a cheery sight on my trek back across
We formed an arc of chairs around one side, with a blanket for Cailey,
the flats and the river, and drank wine, cider, beer, and rum and
to our own tastes, as we chatted into the night. Around midnight we
was a little chilly and so slept restlessly for a few hours. At 2:50 I
the sounds of the first dawn bird song—a Lincoln’s sparrow—followed by
thrushes. I must have fallen asleep immediately after hearing those,
awoke five minutes later as Rob called us, asking very casually if we’d
out the tent recently; when we said no, he responded “It’s worth a
ever so casually.
With 15 minutes until the high tide in
rising waters had flooded most of the mud flats and backed up the creek
it had begun to overflow its banks (the creek had been around 18”-2’
bank in our area when we’d arrived). It wasn’t immediately obvious that
had reached our tent, but it seemed wise to check it out, so I suited
stepped out. My boots squished as I walked around the lower side of the
so we decided we’d better move to higher ground. Chris got up and we
everything intact up next to Rob and Katie’s tent, which was clearly
survive the flood. Our camp chairs made a comical image, standing in
inches of water in front of a floating mess of charcoal and unburnt
good news was that we could see the boat floating nicely at the edge of
Chris imitates Cailey
Katie at the edge of Scow Cove
Rob and Chris loading gear
You can just see the campfire inside the cove from here
We move the tent...
After eating and lounging around, Katie did the dishes and I decided to make a quick exploration up the creek. The short valley behind camp (rising quickly up the mountain) made for dramatic rock displays: steep granite/diorite cliffs on the sides and a rounded, degraded promontory at the back. The creek rushed down the valley, not slowing in the 100 yards or so of it that I saw. There were openings along the bank not far up which looked to be alder meadows once the snow melted. It was beautiful with the big trees surrounding the openings and the cliffs behind, but I could see that it would be tough going in summer. The soft snow and unpredictably pinned alders made tramping around hard enough.
Back at camp I took our gear out of the tent and turned everything upside down along with the tent to let them dry out from their slight dousing the night before. Katie and Rob disappeared downstream in an apparent attempt to cross it. Chris and I watched as they rejected repeated crossing options, then donned our sandals and waded across a riffle near the campsite. The water was up to our knees at the deepest place. Then we raced down the opposite side to taunt Katie and Rob, who soon crossed a riffle close to the mouth in xtratuffs; Katie kept her feet dry, but Rob’s shorter xtratuffs failed him.
crossed the major hurdle, we skated across the slick mud toward the
cliffs on the south side of the cove, precariously sliding into every
slough we crossed. We found a tiny live eel-like creature on the mud,
deposited in a puddle, as well as some
strange skid marks that Katie
followed to their apparent origin near the cliff face, without
origin. Once there, we found one section of cliff that rose almost
from the mud, a towering face that looked enticing to climb (though I
unable to even start with my mud-filled sandals). Meanwhile, Chris and
round a jumble of rocks and crevasses nearer the river; Chris and
perched like mountain goats near the top and Katie soon seated herself
can only be described as a massive stone throne!
We lingered in the area for a while as the final
haze of the
morning burned away, revealing a stunning blue sky, and then slipped
back across the many small sloughs and across the main creek bed. Chris
by the boat and picked up a beer each, then met us on some comfortable
the north side of the cove for a drink in the sunshine. Eventually we
way back to camp and packed everything up in a leisurely fashion,
at the boat just as the rising tide was beginning to surround it. I
behind and by the time I arrived the tide had already risen
the others had arrived. Old hats by this time, we quickly stowed our
appropriately, then I ran back to the gravel beach to grab the anchor
the little tributary sloughs filled with too much water to cross (the
creek channel was far too deep to cross now) and Rob followed to grab
and paddle we’d stashed in the woods in case we needed to retrieve the
high tide. Back at the boat I dropped the anchor with a short leash and
Rob’s brilliant lunch in the sunshine as the tide continued to rise
He provided Chris with a pepperoni sandwich and me with a smoked salmon
sandwich, rounded out with an apple, chips, pretzels, and granola bars.
and I for one felt pretty satisfied with our first camp site.
But we were hardly up the Taku yet. I had two
accomplish at Bullard’s Landing, so we headed upriver as soon as we
finished with dinner. By this time it was 2:00 and two hours to high
on top of the rising water, the river was extraordinarily high and
no sandbars to be seen. We passed Grizzly Bar on the left and Hut Point
right, then hugged the cliffs as we headed toward the flats. We hit a
the way that was below the surface, but didn’t seem to sustain any
continued on our way. The river and the valley were sparklingly
the clear blue sky and the glassy high water.
For a spring presentation, I couldn’t have asked it to be more
picturesque for Katie and Rob, both new to the Taku. We arrived at the
with no further incident, tied up the boat, and immediately walked
the guest cabin. I used the outhouse, then took GPS locations at the
marker near the cabin and at the nearby waterfront. The ground was bare
the trees, but still several feet deep in open areas.
From there we headed up to cabin, seeing huge wolf
the snow (they were fresh enough that Cailey pressed her snout into
sniff). Most of the meadow around the cabin itself was bare of snow,
yet green. I opened the cabin and the shutters on the picture window
shutting some of the other shutters that had blown open over the
gave Rob and Katie a quick tour before heading onto the porch upstairs
some pictures in the direction of the mountain to the south and try to
how far above the horizon they are. The Hughes Net satellite is 24.5
the horizon, so I was trying to determine whether we had a clear shot.
Unfortunately, I’d left my angle measure at Snettisham, so I didn’t
right tools at hand. The mountain top due south was visible, but trees
either side and I couldn’t determine their angle above the horizon
there. So I
made do with photos, which I repeated from ground level. Then we all
upriver for mission #2: complete riverside GPS coordinates of the
I in no way expected this task to be so difficult.
imagined following a clear path over the snow along the trail all the
the meadows above. We did manage to make it past Debbie’s meadow with
problem, but the snow was four or five feet deep in most places and
the going was slow and Chris was particularly uncomfortable in sandals
retreated into my xtratuffs at the boat). He turned back at the meadow
wise to do so. The rest of us pushed on upriver, but the trail quickly
nearly impossible to find or follow. The alders and willows at its
bent over and pinned to the snow, so the snow on the trail looked
the snow in every other opening in the forest, which were many. I
barely touched the trail on the way upriver, and knew we were
hopelessly off of
it when I saw the river through the trees (the trail in that area is
close to the river). It was an unpleasant struggle, but we eventually
through into the beginnings of the meadow, snow free, and quite close
young cottonwood that marks the northwest corner of the property.
seconds, Rob had spotted the USFS boundary marker under an alder and I
position, then the nearby position of the top of the riverbank, then
position of the edge of the water where, at lower tides/water levels,
grassy marsh begins. I have a theory
that that marsh is reclaiming the land that was washed away in the last
by the river (which has now changed course and no longer erodes that
the current northwest corner of Bullard’s Landing is a full 240’ closer
mountain than it was in 1916.
We wandered upriver just a little to show Katie
and Rob the
meadows and the view of the glaciers, then retreated back to the cabin.
Thankfully I was able to find the trail since I knew where it would
the meadows and only had one major misdirection in the middle, during
found the trail and bailed us out. Thus, the trip back was shorter and
enjoyable. We lingered at the cabin a little longer while I took a few
coordinates, then returned to the boat and headed downriver. Given the
water, we certainly could have overnighted and been able to leave early
the next day to make my 6:00 commitment in town, but we already had
There was another valley to explore.
And so we sailed down the glorious Taku River,
back past Scow
Cove (now flooded again with high tide) and along the waterfall-strewn
shoreline beyond. I had to fuel up near the Annex Creek power station
a lovely waterfall, but before we knew it we were pulling into Sunny
campsite for the night. I dropped everyone off and then made long,
agonizing attempts to anchor the boat. I didn’t know the anchorage very
and was trying to use my fathometer to puzzle out the best location.
But it was
giving me puzzling and suspiciously low readings, even after adjusting
it a few
times underwater. I finally settled on my spot and then proceeded to
attempt after another to set the anchor. It seemed unwilling to catch
how much line I put out and I made several attempts before I was
satisfied that it caught. Chris had inflated the Howard Moon before I’d
anchor, so I made sure to shut off the fathometer, grabbed the cheese
request, and dropped into the dingy. The trip to shore—which seemed
despite the fact that I was only anchored in ten or twelve feet of
little harrowing, partly because there was a small leak in the bottom
raft just in front of my knees, and partly because I’d forgotten the
so was paddling awkwardly with a single broken paddle. In any event, my
were wet when I got to shore and I was a bit stressed out.
Thankfully, others took care of everything for the rest of the evening. Chris already had the tent set up, and beers were cooling in the snow, so I de-stressed with a little wood gathering. Everyone pitched in on this, and Chris found a stash of cut limbs from power line trimming which he and Rob pilfered with great success. After a little wood gathering, I gratefully settled down with a drink around the fire on the beach. This campsite was much more what we were familiar with—a saltwater/tidewater beach where we could set our chairs on the sand below the high tide line and build a fire that would wash away with a flood tide in the near future. There was also a fringe of snow between the high tide line and the forest, but it had melted away enough to reveal a strip of dry, dead grass perhaps 12’ wide for us to pitch our tents on. Carlson Creek rushed toward the ocean in front of our campsite and just upstream were the remains of the pilings that once support Taku Packing Company’s plant. Built in 1900 by John Ludwig Carlson, the plant is one of the properties I’m investigating in my historical research, as Carlson had both Snettisham properties surveyed in 1902 and is the only person I know who is associated with my Snettisham property, which remains largely mysterious.
But first there was dinner to consider. Once again, Rob outdid himself with Katie as sous chef. We feasted on pasta with fresh cheese and olive oil, veggies grilled over the campfire, and garlic bread. We ate with gusty as the sun slowly retreated down the long valley to the west. That evening I did make a short foray into the woods above the pilings, discovering many strips of metal in various degrees of decay, old stove legs, an iron stove or possibly a retort, a couple of wooden boxes that we later agreed were small animal traps, and many more animal remains. Katie had already found the remains of a porcupine, most of which I’d placed in a tree away from Cailey’s reach (though she’d found the skull which I threw into the water), and Chris found some large vertebrae; here there were more bones, two deer skulls (one with the antlers cut off, which suggests to me that it is an area frequented by hunters), and the remains of several birds, which made me wonder if an accipiter frequented the area. I also noticed that that there were more piling-like stumps in the forest and what looked like an artificial rock wall above the beach. While the antiquity of some of the items was in question, there was no doubt that the older iron artifacts are from the cannery as well as the pilings.
Despite a certain exhaustion, the fire and the company was so fine that I lingered on the beach longer than I normally would, finally retreating about 11:30. Cailey’s exhaustion was clearly showing in her face, but she remained unwilling to relax if anything of the least interest took place around her. In the tent I expected her to curl into blissful sleep immediately, but she was so far gone that she stared with her eyes open for a long time as though she’d passed beyond her ability to rest. In the middle of the night, after she’d slept some, she seemed much more normal.
Early morning in Scow Cove
The Ronquil perfectly positioned
Rob cooks bacon and flapjacks
Our relocated tent site
Look at Cailey!
Breakfast at camp
Rob and Katie slide across a slough
Cool eel-like creature
Cliffs of Scow Cove
Mountain goat Cailey
Rob and Katie crossing the creek
Packing up camp
Just north of Bullard's Landing
View from the corner of Bullard's Landing
More familiar salt water beach camping
Campfire and dinner!
Rob and Katie's tent
The Ronquil goes aground across the creek
Curious timbers on the beach
Pilings of the Taku Packing Company's cannery
Pilings continue into the forest
Another view of the dock pilings
That morning I’d broken out my new metal detector for the first time and had wandered down the beach toward the curious remains near our tent. The results were unclear, not surprising since I’d barely read the directions, let alone tested it out. Beeps of various tones were frequent and inconsistent, and it didn’t help that I had nothing to actually dig with. In one place where I was getting a lot of sound I kicked around with my heel and unearthed an old sterno can; I came back to camp triumphant with my proof of concept, if not a very interesting artifact.
So when we headed upriver to the cannery ruins, I was happy to have the metal detector along, but also happy to have someone other than myself wield it, as I could see that I needed more experience, that we would be lost without a shovel, and that there would probably be so much iron debris around that it would be hard to pinpoint anything exactly. Rob took it on the first leg and eventually sacrificed his mug when he finished his coffee to use as a digging tool. He dug down about 18” at one spot, scouring the dirt periodically to see if we’d shoveled anything out, and we eventually found an old pop can. Another proof of concept! I imagine it’ll be more fun in places with less persistent trash.
At the cannery ruins, we saw that the pilings in the woods (most no more than a foot or two tall) covered a very broad area and were in tidy rows, some with rebar-type iron sticking out of them. It looked like the whole structure was built up off the ground. We also found a large, half buried circular piece of iron (definitely historic--see photo to left) and a lot more angle pieces which we suspect were left from the power lines. Later I looked at the 1902 survey and saw that the cannery complex was indeed built right behind the dock. There were several other buildings, but I suspect whatever remained of them were destroyed by the power lines that run right through the property just behind what once was the cannery.
From there we wandered along the creek bank upriver searching for the cabin of the Taku Tlingit who’d sold John Carlson his cabin and moved upcreek three or four hundred yards from the cannery site. Rob paced it out and we found several lovely looking places for a cabin, but there was no evidence of it. If there was anything remaining it could easily have been under the snow or, again, demolished by the power lines or the people who built them. Or, long rotted into the land around it.
I was feeling pretty lethargic and not anxious to brave the Howard Moon again to retrieve the Ronquil, but soon it looked to be floating and the water was calm, so I slowly donned a life jacket and carried boat and paddle to the shore. With the incoming tide moderating the creek’s current, the float across and down to the boat was pleasant, the water boiling around me as the air in the mud flats escaped. I leisurely fueled up, pulled anchor, and puttered in to shore as the others began to tear down the tents. It was about the most leisurely and relaxed boat retrieval I can remember.
We slowly finished packing up and loaded the boat, pulling off the beach at 2:00. Cailey immediately curled up and went to sleep. The inlet was flat calm and hazy—the kind of wash of rainless white that depresses me on land, but feels wonderful and alive on the water. We went straight over to Was’as’e, the great scar below Jaw Point, and slowly puttered past the cliffs as Rob gave us insight into its structure and makeup. It was the breeding season and glacous-winged gulls dotted the cliffs on their nesting sites—some preening, some sleeping, some wheeling about. Since the tide was rising, we idled past the cliffs, then drifted back while we ate a lunch just as delicious as that of the day before, starting up the engine a few times to avoid collisions with the rocks.
After lunch we found ourselves unable to get back up to speed and discovered a large log stuck between the engine and the boat. Rob pushed it out and we were underway for one last stop on the trip at a possible location for the Point Greely Tlingit village. There are only a couple of possible beaches near Point Greely, and the one we chose for a quick pit stop was far too cliffy to be a likely candidate. We wandered around for about five minutes, then kicked off the beach again. That led me to believe that the village site is a little farther south in a very nice little cove with a creek running down—unfortunately also the place where the power lines from Snettisham and Dorothy Lake join and cross Taku Inlet, which means that any remains of a village have probably been destroyed.
But that would have to be an exploration for another time! We crossed the inlet and cruised uneventfully up Gastineau Channel, quickly and efficiently unloading a very silty boat and going our separate ways towards showers and the week ahead.
Cailey watches Rob walk to the boat
Rob returns with breakfast
Rock retaining wall (?) at the edge of the ruins
Nesting gulls on the cliffs of Was'as'e