Taku 2014 - 6: Tramping
August 29-31


View from the edge of my property (probably?)

It’s almost six and Cailey and I have been back for about half an hour, beating the steady rain now falling on the roof by 15 minutes. I finally got the fire roaring (after I found the newspapers and stopped being lazy about laying it out properly) so I can’t hear it on the roof any longer downstairs. Other than a 15 or 20 minute break for lunch on a chunk of rock at the base of the mountain, we were tromping around today for close to eight hours (though the last hour consisted mostly of berry picking in the meadows). My goals were twofold: find the corner to my property (corner #3 of the original lodge homestead) and scour the mountainside from there to the river in the search of Kaxtuk, the cave that gave that area its Tlingit name.

We arrived last night on the tide. After opening up and lighting a fire (struggling again to light the pilots on the stove), we headed upriver with the clippers and began seriously trimming out the path just up from the cabin, which I’d neglected in favor of trimming the path farther upriver which I’d only recreated last summer. The results were very satisfying and I ended, a little worn out, at the motion sensor camera where I picked up the memory card and headed back to the lodge.

I didn’t have a very good night’s sleep despite being in the hammock with pelting rain on and off all night. Something wasn’t right with the bedding arrangement and Cailey got me up at 5:45 and paced around several times after that until I think she finally went downstairs. So it wasn’t until 9:00 that I got up (having finally fallen back asleep after Cailey left) and 9:45 when we headed out. The sky was overcast, but everything was wet from the night before so I was suited up in rain gear. Although I hadn’t meant to do very much trail clearing, I brought the clippers and Swede saw along in case I wanted to use them on the way back. But I find it very difficult to pass by overhanging branches with clippers in hand and not use them, so we spent a bit of time continuing to clear the trail beyond Debbie’s meadow. First I cut half a dozen alders and willows with the Swede saw, then, leaving it behind, continued with the clippers. I have to say the results were satisfying, and I’m nearly content with the state of that portion of the trail. Eventually I forced myself to give up the clippers too, having become worn out of clipping, but by then we were nearly at the meadows. I was disappointed again at how I could not tell that I’d done any work to cut spruces on our property, despite removing nearly 100 of them. It’ll take enormous effort with Swede saw and/or chain saw to really see the difference.

On the way down the road I tested some nagoonberries and found that there were enough not yet overripe to warrant picking in the future. I had five new tubs with me just in case. I also stopped for a flock of tittering birds, perhaps enjoying the respite from the rain, and was delighted to find migratory birds among the juncos—a yellow-rumped warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet. There were also several robins include a fledgling! He had a nearly full length tail, but still flew rather wobbly. Lovely to see late season fledglings when Juneau birds give every indication of having quit breeding a month ago. Later I would have several encounters with charming hermit thrushes in the woods, mostly bold enough to sit and watch me for some time a short distance away, such lovely birds. But for the moment we plugged on: next stop, the Forest Service boundary. Which I walked right by. It wasn’t until I reached the trail that leads to lot #15 that I realized where I was, but that was alright since I meant to follow that trail anyway. We walked out to the edge of that lot, then up the “road” that separates it from its neighbor, where I took waypoints on both sides of the road, the corner marker, and the river. I was hoping to line those up on my GPS (using my new MotionX iphone app) to follow the line to corner #3.

It didn’t turn out to be that easy. For one thing, the app stopped allowing me to zoom in enough to differentiate between closely spaced waypoints. I took a waypoint on the FS boundary at the road and again on the corner of Mike’s property (which I paced out at 60 feet from the edge of the road), then checked the notes on my phone for the width of his property (440’) and paced it out. By my reckoning, it ended in the middle of a small downed cottonwood cut in half with red paint on one side of it. I could find no marker, but I took a waypoint and considered my options. The trail I was following seemed to veer off in another direction, but it was clear that if I kept on the bearing I was traveling it would take me through a grove of devil’s club to some cottonwoods in the distance. I decided that was the only logical choice, confirmed by my compass which showed the same bearing (roughly) as I’d taken at the start of the trail (116 degrees). It was the start of a long tramp. I never found anything resembling a trail or a slash or any evidence of survey work. Slogging through the devil’s club and swaths of tangled high bush cranberries was bad enough, but when I reached the edge of timber it got infinitely worse. Alders and willows in a chaos of wild growth far over my head that didn’t seem to end. Promise after promise of the meadow ahead turned out to be just lower bushes for a few feet. I couldn’t believe how long it went on. At first I followed what appeared to be game trails (though “trail” is grossly exaggerating them) which could be discerned by the crushed ferns growing among the shrubs. Eventually I gave up and just made for the meadow, desperate to reach open ground.

It was long in coming. But reach it I did, right at the edge of a cove in the line of shrubs bordering the meadow, which was the same divot I had marked as the possible location of the corner based on an overlay of the lodge homestead plat that Torsten did for me a few days ago. To verify that, I carefully made my way over to a lone spruce tree surrounded by muskeg, thinking it would be a haven of higher ground. I took a waypoint there and scanned the meadow for anything shiny, or anything that stood out. The glory of the view and the freedom of the meadows was tempered by the exhaustion of the slog and the realization that my mission was likely futile. There was little chance I’d find the marker with what I had to go on and the jungle behind me. It didn’t help that my app seemed to show me much closer to the mountain than I was and very far from the possible location of the corner.

But since I was there, I wandered east a little, unable to focus on observing the meadow around me as I had to step from grass tussock to grass tussock to avoid stepping in deeper water. Then I turned around and made my way back into the divot and from there followed the edge of the shrubs west. Before long I found myself following a game trail that had bowed over the short grass, the creator leaving footprints in the sphagnum too small to be moose or bear. Before long I realized they must be otter, or possibly beaver (photo to left). Not far away, the meadow became a wall of brush, so I turned toward the mountain and followed the trail into the bushes there and soon found myself at the small headwaters of the slough, encountering a channel only a foot or two wide and near the mountain. Small willows and alders grew there along with high bush cranberries hung with endless clusters of red berries. I backtracked along the mountain for 50 yards or so to satisfy myself that there were no obvious caves there, then turned back to follow the mountain in the other direction.

I was hoping the walk would be easier and that, if I didn’t find the cave itself, I could at least verify that it wasn’t along that stretch of rock. It wasn’t nearly that neat or satisfying. Between the slabs of sheer, vegetation-free rock were long sections with such dense brush growing on it that you’d have to be in touching distance to see if there was a cave there or not. That would be fine if the base of the cliff was not such a tangle of alders and devil’s club that approaching was often times just not worth it. I did my best to peer through the web of branches to look for obvious signs of caves, but I was often forced to travel 20-30 feet away where I could make may way through the vegetation, often using the small trickles of water (overhung with alders but otherwise free of brush). At one point I encountered such a large and fruitful patch of cranberries that I couldn’t resist spending the ten minutes it took to fill one of my 3-cup tubs.

After that, the first interesting thing I came across was a two-branched waterfall on a pleasant sheer cliff with a small meadow of grass at its base. These are always charming locations and I paused there, after awkwardly climbing through dense ferns and salmonberry bushes at the edge of the slope to take a quick slurp of water and enjoy the view. A solitary cottonwood—huge—grew out of a meadow in the distance and I wondered why it alone had worked its way above the shrubs. A little farther on I came across a steep slope that climbed the side of the rock face with a crevasse at the edge of it—probably a large slab broken free and now covered in spruces. I climbed to the top and saw that I was not far from a house, no doubt the one at the edge of the lodge property whose owner I’d met at the state historical library. From there the going was easier as the spruces had made their way to the mountain and there was less brush underneath. Cailey and I paused for lunch on top of a large boulder that had broken away from the mountain and created a series of small caves between it and the rock face (or other loose boulders). Since I knew she’d be hungrier than usual from all the romping, I brought her some dog food; I ate brioche bread and horse radish havarti.

Soon after that we came to the lodge waterfall and I was relieved that there were no tourists to see us wander by. The going continued to be reasonable—there were overgrown boulders to traverse and plenty of salmonberries and alders, but nothing like the dense tangle behind me. Past the waterfall trail and at the back of the huge salmonberry patch behind the old dump I passed two trickled of water stumbling down the sheer face; I walked along the shallow pool beneath them and stopped to take a picture of a hairbell clinging to the rock face. Soon I was at the back of the valley and climbing up toward what looked like an outcropping from the talus slope filling in the crack there. I soon stumbled upon the old water system from the lodge, which I’d only just heard about from my parents. There was hardly a trickle coming down that slope, but there was a huge barrel with a pipe coming out of the top and a broken off piece of hose. The rest of the hose lay nearby, a flexible tan jobby, which disappeared down slope. There was also a length of metal pipe nearby.

And beyond that, where the sheer cliff face took over again from the talus slope, was a large crevasse that one could easily call a cave. I saw from the other side of the salmonberries that there was a large chunk of mountain sticking out from the rest of cliff, and this crevasse separated the two. It was only a couple of feet wide and Cailey and I climbed up about half of it, a steep and slippery slope, very wet, that I slid down on the way out. I used the flashlight to look around for human clues, but found none and, frankly, it did not seem like a place that anyone would enjoy spending time.

On the other side of the crevasse, though, I found the spot that I suspect is the same place I found as a child. A large boulder had dropped from the outcropping, forming a lovely picnic perch under a flat overhang of rock. The back half of the boulder, maybe six feet of it, seemed permanently dry from the protection of the overhang. It was separated from the back of the cliff by couple of feet, but we could easily climb up onto it from the north side (I’d come up the more difficult south side, but Cailey discovered the other way when trying to join me). I don’t know what prompted the local Tlingits to name Kaxtuk, but I could see how this would be a noticeable feature--maybe it was simply landmark. Or maybe Kaxtuk is somewhere else or no longer exists. Or maybe I just didn’t see it. My journey ended shortly thereafter where the mountain bends toward the river. I heard construction sounds too close for my comfort and could see the lodge property opening through the trees, so Cailey and I retreated back across the enclave of shrubs and joined up with the waterfall trail just shy of the waterfall. We followed it back to the road and headed home.

When I got to the FS boundary, I took another waypoint there and another on Mike’s corner and flagged both places. Then I decided I may as well have one more go at the trail, determined not to bushwhack this time. Where the trail veered off to the east at the edge of Mike’s property, I followed it. I figured it was probably a game trail since it wasn’t going in the same direction as the boundary seemed to be, but at least it was easy to follow. It went from one small cluster or solitary tree to the next, interspersed with patches of alder and other shrubs. Then I stumbled on an old blue tarp in the alders—a curious find—and hung it on a tree. Shortly thereafter I saw an alder that had been clearly cut and after that, a tree with red markings. I kept on the trail and found another alder cut, and then the trail veered off to the right again toward a tree. I followed that route and saw lots of moose droppings, so I figured that was a game trail, and turned back to the junction to follow what could have been the continuation of the trail into the land of dense shrubs at the edge of the forest. I never saw more evidence of a trail and turned back after taking a waypoint in the middle of the madness. Returning to the moose tree I found that some of its branches had been cut! So from there I charged back into the bushes, only to turn back again when it was clear that I would not reach the meadow again any time soon. Both of those brushy waypoints were in the general vicinity of where I thought the corner would be, but for all I know it is now in the shrubs and therefore virtually impossible to find.

I turned back and flagged a few points on the trail, finding the remains of a sign or something that had been secured to a branch but had little left other than some yellow background and the hint of letters. Then I started taking a GPS track to see just what this trail looked like on a map. It went along fairly straight, and then veered off to the right. I stayed on course but it quickly became clear that I was no longer on any sort of trail and I recognized nothing around me. I paused the tracking and took off to the right until I found the trail again, then backtracked to where I’d left it. Then I resumed the track and soon found myself back at the cut cottonwood where I think Mike’s property ends, discovering that the other side of the cut had a “Forest Service beyond this sign” marker on it. I finished the track at the Taku Road and headed home.

On the way I saw fresh 4-wheeler tracks on the ground and was afraid I’d run into folks from the lodge in the meadow, maybe berry picking. Thirty minutes later I took a waypoint at the Bradley Ogden Bridge, then continued on my way, feeling the weariness in my legs. When we reached the slough just north of the property line I was relieved to see that the 4-wheeler had turned around there and headed back—apparently they’d made their trip and returned while I was in the woods elsewhere. It was only 4:00 p.m. (20 minutes from the bridge), so I dropped my pack and started picking nagoonberries on our side of the slough and on our property. They weren’t super abundant and some were past their prime or not yet ripe (and probably won’t be at this point), so I picked a 3-cup tub and then returned with empty tubs to my favorite late picking area back to the north. I picked two tubs and was running out of berries and out of energy at that point, so we headed back in, paused to cut some more leaning and reaching branches along the way. After cutting a cluster of small alders at the edge of the trail, I reached down and boldly grabbed at them, feeling a stab of pain as I did so. My right index finger started bleeding profusely, so I wrapped it in tissue and only cut a few very obvious and easy overhanging limbs from there on. And so here I am, one beer and some dark chocolate into the evening, hearing another dose of rain on the roof now that the fire has died down a little. Cailey is curled up next to me on the couch (I hope she sleeps better tonight), the glacier has reappeared hazily from the fog, and I think it’s dinner time.


I look dubious skeptical about this hike

Fir trees!

The border trail to Mike's land

Following the slash trail along the border

This doesn't look like a trail

Dense, dense brush

At last the meadows

Cool waterfall

Huge tree growing on a steep slope

Cailey looks out over the terrain

What we were slogging through

Harebells grow in a crevasse

The old lodge water system

Not a very impressive cave

Overhang behind the lodge

Fallen stone below the overhang

One wall of the overhang

The overhang from a distance

That branch has been cut!

Is that a trail?

Berries

I slept better that night, but not as well as I would have liked—I just never got the bedding quite right. I did rig up a rope attached to a hook on the beam that enabled me to swing whenever I wanted to, though, which was fun. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure that out. We had a leisurely morning; I drank some café francais and read until 9:30 and then we packed up and headed to the boat to try our hand at fishing the slough. My dad and I both have a theory that coho nose into that slough on their way up the river to rest and/or sniff it out. On the way I cut most of the branches that were overhanging the road and trail between the dock and the cabin, making that a much more pleasant walk (and, I imagine, a much more pleasant 4-wheeler drive). I arrived an hour before low tide so the river water wasn’t being pushed back into the slough by the rising tide. It was interesting to see the sandbar crossing most of the slough mouth at that water level—a small island just below the root wad close to the bank on the upriver side followed by obvious shallow shoals downriver, and then, starting maybe half way down, a thin sandbar reaching all the way past the entrance. The only brown water escaping was between the point of that sandbar and the grassy bank below the slough, a passage maybe 15-20 feet across. This was consistent with the bar I’d encountered entering the slough twice this summer.

I nosed the boat to shore inside the slough where there was 100% brown water. River water was coming in over the shoal and/or between the root wad and the bank and mixing with the slough water for a portion of the entrance. For the next hour I fished along the bank from the very end of brackish water up the channel and into the solid brown water. I had two fish about six or seven inches long follow the lure in and nose at the side of it, but no evidence of coho. A light steady rain fell on a quiet, misty valley, a few flocks of ducks flew by, a lone songbird chipped here and there on the other side of the slough, and all in all it was a serene time. When I gave up on cohos, we puttered up the slough a little past the first islands, following the right main bank the whole way; it was shallow crossing the first small tributary, but otherwise deep with quite a few narrow-leaved aquatic plants growing. We startled some ducks into the distance and tried a few casts, and headed back to the dock.

It was 11:30 and I wasn’t quite ready turn in for lunch, so I grabbed the clippers and the Swede saw and headed back upriver. I thought I’d trim for an hour, then look for the trail my parents had marked out behind the cabin going toward the mountain. Although I had two or three leaning alders in mind for the Swede saw, I wound up cutting many more, as the clearer and wider the trail became, the more branches stuck out awkwardly. I kept trying to use the clippers while hanging onto the Swede saw because it was annoying to drop it every time I wanted to trim something (which was practically everywhere) and kept injuring myself when I did, once bouncing the teeth against my thumb gently and cutting it in a couple of places. Sweaty and exhausted, I eventually decided I was done. I’d started where the trail enters the woods after turning in from the river, so I decided to walk the rest of the trail to the meadow just to enjoy it. I discovered that I’d done so much trimming already this summer that there was only a short section left that had significant overhanging branches. I decided I should finish the job, and so I did. It is a paradise to walk now, a wide pleasant trail that requires no dodging or ducking.

On the way back I continued to trim the tiny stumps from the middle of the trail, particularly in the brushy section we cut below Debbie’s Meadow, but also wherever I tripped. Just the little I did that day has made a huge difference. Behind the cabin I found a blue flagging apparently indicating the trail my parents had marked. I didn’t see the next flag, but I did wander through the woods there, amazingly open between widely spaced trees, the undergrowth comprised primarily of moss and five-leaved bramble. I didn’t see an obvious route to the meadow that didn’t go through brush and, being well and truly tired of bush whacking, I turned around for lunch.

Before I’d left to go fishing I’d laid in a fire, so I had the luxury of simply lighting a match (and adding a bit of diesel) and I had a fire going. I gave Cailey a little lunch, dried her off, had some snacks and another cup of café francais and snuggled in for a rest and some house cleaning while the rain continued outside and the glacier disappeared and emerged from the mist. Around 3:00 I decided to do one more thing before I headed out—a little blueberry picking, as I’d seen some promising bushes around the property and on the trail (though some of them were a bit watery). I left Cailey inside, who was dry and no longer shivering, so she didn’t start the boat ride cold and wet. First I stopped by the work shop to return the tools and lock up, startled to find a creature scrambling about in the attic. The long, fluffy brown tail hanging down briefly between the boards across the ceiling rafters identified him as a martin! That left me in a conundrum. I couldn’t possibly lock him in the building, nor did I want to leave it open. I decided the best idea was to leave and hope he’d high tail it out when I was gone. So I went berry picking, wandering my way up the path behind the cabin and then to the trail upriver, turning around at the heavily hung bush on the newly-cleared path that I’d noticed earlier. I startled a robin eating berries and the martin’s poop suggested that he, too, had been berry picking. I’d copied two good videos off the motion sensor camera: a bear eating blueberries and a flock of robins eating blueberries. My 3-cup tub was nearly full when I returned to the lodge. There was no sign that the martin was in the work shop (I entered quietly, then banged and listened, banged and listened) and there was a sizable hole in the wall above one of the windows, so I went ahead and locked up.

Cailey and I took off from the dock around 4:10, an hour before high tide. We made it past the slough with no incident, then slowed down well in advance of the area I’d been going aground. Just when I thought I was home safe, we touched bottom and I was again surprised that there didn’t seem to be any deep water in that area, no way to go around it. Very puzzling. A log seems to be stuck in the same or a similar place as the root wad had been that indicated the shoals in the spring.

Though it felt like a breeze was kicking up from the southeast and it continued to rain, we encountered a gentle following sea around Flat Point which carried us all the way home. We went out the middle of the river as we’d come in, skipping the detour along the coast south of Scow Cove. We made it home in an hour and 40 minutes. Cailey, dry and curled up on her bed, never shivered and I kept warm by wrapping her extra blanket around my shoulders and keeping my hoody hood up.


The mouth of T'aawak Eix'i (the slough) showing the barrier bar