Taku 2014 - 2: Camping Taku Inlet
May 16-18

The Ronquil aground at Scow Cove

As a kid growing up at the lodge, I flew down the Taku River and over its tributary valleys many times, gazing down at the landscape, wanting to explore it, dreaming about which valley I’d most like to live in when I was older, maybe with a cabin and a pet moose, and a big stack of firewood for the winter. I don’t think ever fantasized about living there, but one valley in particular charmed me, and it was one that we passed almost every single time, a small round cove tucked into a steep, mountain not far below Taku and Norris glaciers. Scow Cove, where we looked for black bears in the green grassy plain, Scow Cove, which all the pilots flying from the lodge called 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 from the cabin but on the other side of the sandbars, I never stopped. Until this weekend. Rob, Katie, Chris and I planned a Taku camping trip not to the cabin, but up the Inlet. The prevalence of snow up the Taku and the fact that the tide was too late on Sunday to get me back to town in time for my niece’s recital meant the cabin was not the ideal destination, though we did plan to stop there for GPS coordinates and to study the angle form the cabin to the Hughes Net satellite for internet.

It all came together very fast, but the trip was simple enough. Rob was kind enough to provide food for the entire weekend. We met at the harbor around 6:00, loaded the boat, settled into our familiar camping seats, ate Pizzeria Roma pizza, and drank leaving the harbor beers while puttering into Gastineau Channel. The evening was stunning and, other than a little chop on the way up the inlet, the ride was tranquil. My hope was to camp at Scow Cove the first night, but we were already several hours into a falling tide and Scow Cove is very much on the river. Around 7:15 we were gingerly making our way up an increasingly defined channel along the mountainside above Flat Point, then encountered a sloping wall of mud as we came in front of Scow Cove. It was an uneasy sight for me, realizing how wide the mud flats are between the river and the trees and seeing that I would have to leave the boat at the very edge of the current. The large creek flowing from the cove was already perhaps six feet below the top of the mud flats and did not seem a reasonable place to try the boat. The fact that we touched bottom a couple of times in the main channel didn’t help, nor did the fading light. Nevertheless, I still wanted to give it a try, and the next order of business was to make sure we could even walk on the mud. I pulled up the bank and let Rob off to test it, then pushed back into the current and was swept swiftly downstream until I started the engine and eased my way back up. The mud was solid and we all agreed to give it a try despite our various trepidations. I pulled the 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 beach 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. The flats were incredibly wide between the river and the trees and gradually shifted from bare mud by the river to sparse and hardy grasses (that improved our traction considerably), to intertidal beach grass farther back, all interspersed with narrow, deep channels of fresh water coursing to the central stream. All the while Cailey romped with abandon, the only one among us who had no doubts about our location.

The scene at the back of the cove was less encouraging than I’d hoped. Having left Juneau in the wild throws of an early spring, the air saturated with spruce pollen and the lush perennials already a couple of feet high, it was a bit unnerving to encounter a snow field in front of the woods, many of the fringe alders still pinned down beneath it. The forest inside was mostly free of snow and dry, but inhabited by dense devil’s club. I saw a few places that we probably could have squeezed in our tents, but it wasn’t very inviting. We regrouped on the snow fields and pondered our options—even the option of sleeping on the snow itself. The creek was too high and brisk to consider crossing, but the options on the other side looked no more inviting. Then I noticed a grove of tiny spruce trees, each no more than a foot or two tall, growing between the snow and the edge of the rushing creek. “Spruce trees,” I said, “are in no way intertidal, so that means they don’t get flooded at high tide!” Or something along those lines. It seemed logical at the time: no spruce tree (or alder, for the matter) grows where its roots are washed with salt water on any tide.

In fact, the area turned out to be idyllic. Despite the nearby snow, the site was dry, and the rushing creek a fine, if somewhat loud, companion. The land was quite flat and covered with dead grass. We quickly 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 nearby gravel beach and then consolidated everything into one uncomfortably large load each which we laboriously carried across the mud to our campsite in the diminishing light. I immediately went to my usual task of wood collection while Chris set up the tent, choosing a site next to the creek while Katie and Rob pitched theirs closer to the snow bank. The woods were delightfully filled with dead branches from the young spruces growing up close together around dying alders—making me suspect that the forest there is fairly young—but the trek through the snow, forcing myself through the tangled web of alders at the inside edge, was difficult.

But at last we had tents up and, with a few more loads from the others, a sizable stack of dry firewood. Chris lit a fire with a pizza box and beach grass and I trekked back to check on the boat and adjust the anchor. In the end, I withdrew some of the line I’d originally put out and moved the anchor back from the edge of the cove on the gravel beach and onto the mud flats again in the hope that the boat would beach itself out of the main current but reasonably close to it (so it would float soon on the rising tide the next day), and would come to rest north of the main creek gully, which would otherwise threaten to leave it askew on the falling tide (the boat seems drawn to creeks as the tide falls). My theory was that the current would keep the boat pulling downriver, away from the rocks at the north end of the cove despite the rising tide. Near the boat I saw grizzly tracks and another set of tracks which I suspected were river otter, both washed with at least one tide. I hoped my positioning would work, but the boat was then below the mud banks and so could not be seen from the campsite, so I would be unable to monitor it from a distance.

The fire was a cheery sight on my trek back across the mud. We formed an arc of chairs around one side, with a blanket for Cailey, overlooking the flats and the river, and drank wine, cider, beer, and rum and cokes, each to our own tastes, as we chatted into the night. Around midnight we retired. I was a little chilly and so slept restlessly for a few hours. At 2:50 I awoke to the sounds of the first dawn bird song—a Lincoln’s sparrow—followed by varied thrushes. I must have fallen asleep immediately after hearing those, for I awoke five minutes later as Rob called us, asking very casually if we’d looked out the tent recently; when we said no, he responded “It’s worth a look”--again, ever so casually.

Water! With 15 minutes until the high tide in Juneau, the rising waters had flooded most of the mud flats and backed up the creek until it had begun to overflow its banks (the creek had been around 18”-2’ below the bank in our area when we’d arrived). It wasn’t immediately obvious that water had reached our tent, but it seemed wise to check it out, so I suited up and stepped out. My boots squished as I walked around the lower side of the tent, so we decided we’d better move to higher ground. Chris got up and we drug everything intact up next to Rob and Katie’s tent, which was clearly going to survive the flood. Our camp chairs made a comical image, standing in several inches of water in front of a floating mess of charcoal and unburnt sticks. The good news was that we could see the boat floating nicely at the edge of the cove.

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

Flooded chairs!

We move the tent...

I woke up at 7:30 and decided to go ahead and get up to check on the boat. If I’d realized that I could now see the boat from our campsite, I probably would have merely poked my head out the tent and continued to snooze, but I didn’t know that until I was up and dressed. Cailey and I walked down to the Ronquil, which could not have settled down on the mud into a more perfect position—it was exactly what I’d hoped would happen. The sky was covered in a high, hazy overcast and everything felt very still and calm. I stopped by the alder fringe on the way back for a small armload of wood and found Rob up when I returned to the campfire. Soon we were all up and about, enjoying the warm morning and wide mud flats again stretching before us. Rob picked up breakfast supplies from the boat and cooked amazing bacon and flapjacks over Chris’s double burner camp stove while we drank coffee sweetened with maple syrup around a small campfire. My dream of a leisurely camp morning was coming true!


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.


Having crossed the major hurdle, we skated across the slick mud toward the sheer cliffs on the south side of the cove, precariously sliding into every little slough we crossed. We found a tiny live eel-like creature on the mud, which I deposited in a puddle, as well as some strange skid marks that Katie and I followed to their apparent origin near the cliff face, without resolving their origin. Once there, we found one section of cliff that rose almost vertically from the mud, a towering face that looked enticing to climb (though I was unable to even start with my mud-filled sandals). Meanwhile, Chris and Rob had round a jumble of rocks and crevasses nearer the river; Chris and Cailey were perched like mountain goats near the top and Katie soon seated herself in what 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 our way back across the many small sloughs and across the main creek bed. Chris swung by the boat and picked up a beer each, then met us on some comfortable rocks on the north side of the cove for a drink in the sunshine. Eventually we made our way back to camp and packed everything up in a leisurely fashion, arriving back at the boat just as the rising tide was beginning to surround it. I lagged behind and by the time I arrived the tide had already risen considerably since the others had arrived. Old hats by this time, we quickly stowed our gear appropriately, then I ran back to the gravel beach to grab the anchor before the little tributary sloughs filled with too much water to cross (the main creek channel was far too deep to cross now) and Rob followed to grab the dingy and paddle we’d stashed in the woods in case we needed to retrieve the boat at high tide. Back at the boat I dropped the anchor with a short leash and we at Rob’s brilliant lunch in the sunshine as the tide continued to rise around us. He provided Chris with a pepperoni sandwich and me with a smoked salmon sandwich, rounded out with an apple, chips, pretzels, and granola bars. We ate and I for one felt pretty satisfied with our first camp site.

But we were hardly up the Taku yet. I had two missions to accomplish at Bullard’s Landing, so we headed upriver as soon as we were finished with dinner. By this time it was 2:00 and two hours to high tide, but on top of the rising water, the river was extraordinarily high and there were no sandbars to be seen. We passed Grizzly Bar on the left and Hut Point on the right, then hugged the cliffs as we headed toward the flats. We hit a log on the way that was below the surface, but didn’t seem to sustain any damage and continued on our way. The river and the valley were sparklingly beautiful with 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 beach steps with no further incident, tied up the boat, and immediately walked downriver to the guest cabin. I used the outhouse, then took GPS locations at the USFS marker near the cabin and at the nearby waterfront. The ground was bare inside the trees, but still several feet deep in open areas.

From there we headed up to cabin, seeing huge wolf tracks in the snow (they were fresh enough that Cailey pressed her snout into them to sniff). Most of the meadow around the cabin itself was bare of snow, though not yet green. I opened the cabin and the shutters on the picture window (after shutting some of the other shutters that had blown open over the winter) and gave Rob and Katie a quick tour before heading onto the porch upstairs to take some pictures in the direction of the mountain to the south and try to determine how far above the horizon they are. The Hughes Net satellite is 24.5 degrees above 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 have the right tools at hand. The mountain top due south was visible, but trees grew to 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 headed upriver for mission #2: complete riverside GPS coordinates of the property boundary.

I in no way expected this task to be so difficult. I imagined following a clear path over the snow along the trail all the way to the meadows above. We did manage to make it past Debbie’s meadow with no problem, but the snow was four or five feet deep in most places and soft, so the going was slow and Chris was particularly uncomfortable in sandals (I’d retreated into my xtratuffs at the boat). He turned back at the meadow and was wise to do so. The rest of us pushed on upriver, but the trail quickly proved nearly impossible to find or follow. The alders and willows at its sides were bent over and pinned to the snow, so the snow on the trail looked identical to the snow in every other opening in the forest, which were many. I suspect we 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 never close to the river). It was an unpleasant struggle, but we eventually broke through into the beginnings of the meadow, snow free, and quite close to the young cottonwood that marks the northwest corner of the property. Within seconds, Rob had spotted the USFS boundary marker under an alder and I took its position, then the nearby position of the top of the riverbank, then the position of the edge of the water where, at lower tides/water levels, the grassy marsh begins. I have  a theory that that marsh is reclaiming the land that was washed away in the last century by the river (which has now changed course and no longer erodes that area), as the current northwest corner of Bullard’s Landing is a full 240’ closer to the 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 begin from the meadows and only had one major misdirection in the middle, during which Rob found the trail and bailed us out. Thus, the trip back was shorter and more enjoyable. We lingered at the cabin a little longer while I took a few more GPS coordinates, then returned to the boat and headed downriver. Given the high water, we certainly could have overnighted and been able to leave early enough the next day to make my 6:00 commitment in town, but we already had other plans! 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 just off a lovely waterfall, but before we knew it we were pulling into Sunny Cove, our campsite for the night. I dropped everyone off and then made long, drawn out, agonizing attempts to anchor the boat. I didn’t know the anchorage very well 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 make one attempt after another to set the anchor. It seemed unwilling to catch no matter how much line I put out and I made several attempts before I was finally satisfied that it caught. Chris had inflated the Howard Moon before I’d gone to anchor, so I made sure to shut off the fathometer, grabbed the cheese per Rob’s request, and dropped into the dingy. The trip to shore—which seemed quite far despite the fact that I was only anchored in ten or twelve feet of water—was a little harrowing, partly because there was a small leak in the bottom of the raft just in front of my knees, and partly because I’d forgotten the oars and so was paddling awkwardly with a single broken paddle. In any event, my legs 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

Enjoying coffee

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

I slept through to 8:00 with no interruptions except early morning bird songs (again featuring a Lincoln’s sparrow), and emerged to find the boat peacefully aground on mud flats extending from the opposite side of the creek. I fetched the food from its stash far down the beach and met Rob back at the campsite, soon followed by Katie. I gathered a little more wood and we started another fire and another leisurely morning around the campfire. However, breakfast required a trip to the cooler, which we’d left on the boat, and I found myself unwilling to brave the very swift current of Carlson Creek in the leaky Howard Moon. Rob rose to the challenge and bravely forded the creek in his waders, watched carefully by Cailey the whole time. When he returned to the creek to cross again, she erupted into a bay, then barked the entire time he was crossing. It was fascinating and puzzling and more than a little noisy! But Rob was unperturbed and soon set about cooking us luscious egg sandwiches for breakfast, with Katie assisting. I don’t know when I’ve eaten three meals in a row of such a high caliber! While they cooked, I finally managed to wrangle Cailey and force her to lie down on a blanket next to me rather than pursuing every possibly opportunity to steal food, which certainly made me more relaxed. She did manage to eat a large chunk of butter, but the rest of the food remained safe. So again we took our time in the morning and, waiting for the tide to raise the boat (which I suspected it would do around 1:00 based on the tides), we decided to explore upriver.


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

Porcupine sign!

Carlson Creek

Nesting gulls on the cliffs of Was'as'e


Rob cooks dinner at Sunny Cove