Six years ago, clad in duct tape and a few tattered fragments of raingear, my husband Hig and I paddled leaking Sevylor rafts through a maze of nets and fishing boats to land in the remote village of Chignik. We were desperately thin, despite having subsisted for the past week on jars of Betty Crocker frosting. We had been trekking along the Alaska Peninsula, through a remote wilderness of tundra and volcanoes, for two months and over eight hundred miles. Outside of the few towns we passed through, we’d seen zero people and eighty-five grizzly bears. But I was happier than I ever had been. And what was originally planned to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience would eventually become a way of life.
Since then we’ve walked and rafted over three thousand miles in the Alaskan wilderness, traveling through thickets of alder and devil’s club, down roiling rivers and past angry bears to some of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen.
On June 9, 2007, we will hand our keys to the landlord, shoulder our backpacks, step off our Seattle front porch, and head for the mountains. Our plan is to walk, packraft and ski four thousand miles from the heart of urban Seattle to the first Aleutian Island. We estimate the journey will take nine months, finishing in March 2008.
The Wild Coast Route Map
I’m not sure when the idea of walking to Alaska first occurred to me Perhaps it was on a flight from Seattle to Anchorage, gazing down on the enticing mountains and islands below. Perhaps it was staring at a road atlas of British Columbia, imagining the rugged topography out beyond the roads. In any case, the idea grew on us quickly, and what began as a plan to walk to Anchorage soon morphed into a trek all the way to the Aleutians.
Following the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean, this journey will take us through some of the most rugged terrain in the North America. This coastline is steep, fragmented, and remote. The line on our map follows no road or trail – nothing but plans, imagination, and hopefully some paths beaten by the bears. North of Vancouver, only a handful of roads even reach the Pacific coast. And beyond Anchorage, there are no roads. We’ll be traveling through forests, between islands, around glaciers, and across the tundra – through summer, fall, and winter. No one has done this before.
Hig overlooking Prince William Sound, Alaska
Our expeditions bring us to remote places, rarely visited – and to environmental battlegrounds at the far end of nowhere, sometimes far from the public eye. In 2003 we spent our honeymoon hiking and rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was the first wilderness I’d traveled in that was under an immediate environmental threat. The arctic was already well represented in the public debate, but it planted a seed in my mind. I’d seen what other photographers and adventurers had done in wild places across the world, from Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison in the arctic, to Michael Fay’s megatransect in Africa. Perhaps our expeditions could serve a broader purpose. Perhaps our journeys could educate more than just the two of us…
Over the past few years, I’ve used our journeys in the region of the proposed Pebble Mine to raise awareness of that issue. My website has become a primary source for information and photos on a place where few images could previously be found. Our mission is to make these places real for people. By combining adventure and photography with careful observation and analysis, we seek to inform as we entertain.
Nushagak River in the Bristol Bay watershed, Alaska
Our Wild Coast journey is much larger than any single issue or proposal. Here we plan to focus on the largest and broadest issues facing this region; clearcutting of the rainforests, the decline of wild salmon, pollution caused by mineral extraction, and global climate change. We chose these issues for three reasons: their importance to much of the terrain we plan to cover on our route, the potential for our journey to provide insights into what’s going on, and the ability for all of us to have an impact.
Our journey will take us through some of the most amazing wilderness in North America. But we’ll see much more than just wilderness. We’re doing the entire journey under human power, accepting no rides of any kind. This means that we’ll experience everything that lies on our route, from areas well explored by suburban commuters to areas rarely visited by a modern human being.
Salmon spawning in an Alaskan stream
Salmon are an iconic species of the entire Pacific Northwest, and the only species that ties together our entire route. They have been a keystone of ecosystems and economies in this region for thousands of years. But their unique lifestyle leaves them dependent on healthy ecosystems both at sea and on land. Salmon return to their home stream to spawn, making each river we pass a new experiment in salmon management. One of the things that makes this issue so interesting to explore on our journey is the huge variability in the fate of the salmon along our route. At the route’s beginning, salmon are at less than ten percent of historic levels. At the end, they’re still at one hundred percent. We’ll be passing through areas heavily impacted by urbanization and dams, by salmon farms, and by logging in the spawning watersheds. We’ll be passing through areas where salmon runs are large and healthy. And we’ll be passing through areas that are hanging on the edge – where the balance can still tip between preservation and restoration.
Rainforest in the Queets River valley, Washington
From journey’s start in Seattle to Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska, we’ll be walking the zone of temperate rainforest. In sheer mass of vegetation, temperate rainforests are the most productive ecosystems in the world, and support a number of wildlife species that exist nowhere else. But they’re rare – only occurring where temperate coasts are butted up against the high mountain ranges that trap the moisture. In the Tongass in Alaska, and the Great Bear in B.C., vast tracts of “forest” remain untouched. But the few remaining areas of productive lowland old-growth are dwindling fast. Logging has preferentially targeted the valley bottom forests – home of the largest trees and the most productive habitat. By bushwhacking through thousands of miles of forests, muskeg swamps, steep slopes, and clear cuts, we hope to highlight the difference between these places that fall within the shaded green of the map, and paint a broad picture of the forests’ current state.
Mining Exploration in Pebble Valley, Alaska
Salmon runs can be fished every year. Forests regrow on a time scale of centuries. But oil, coal, and metals are formed by geologic processes with a time scale of millions of years. These resources are concentrated in specific locations along our route, but the footprints of the extraction projects can be enormous. Mining is the most polluting industry in the country, responsible for acid mine drainage, cyanide spills, and heavy metal pollution. Oil drilling and transport carries the risk of devastating spills, like the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. We’ll be passing through sites of current extraction and past disasters, but we’ll be primarily looking at current exploration and proposed extraction sites. The key proposals along our route are the proposed mines in Bristol Bay and in Northwest B.C/Southeast Alaska and the proposed offshore oil drilling in Bristol Bay and off the B.C. coast. Mineral exploration happens in remote locations, usually well under the public radar. It can be very difficult just to figure out what exploration is happening, and often by the time the public is aware of what’s going on, it is nearly too late to do anything about it. At some of these places, we may bring the only eyes that aren’t flown in by the mining companies.
Global Climate Change
Bear Glacier Lake in the Kenai Fjords, Alaska
Climate change will affect the whole planet, but Alaska is a canary in the coal mine, warming much faster than the rest of the world. Here, the effects are not just hypotheses of scientists – people are living them, in the form of shrinking glaciers, melting permafrost, eroding coastlines and increased wildfires. We’ll be skirting some of the largest glaciers and icefields outside of Antarctica and Greenland, traveling over water, rocks and meadows that are still marked as ice on the map. The shrinking glaciers of this coast are a very visible demonstration of warming. Our journey will both show the current reality, and provide a comparison for future observations.
We’ve chosen a journey where our stories, photos, and observations can provide insights into these issues. But we’ve also chosen this region because the decisions that people make about it now will determine its future. Parts of this coast are as wild and remote as any place on earth, and the fate of much of the land is still being decided. Our ever-growing industrial appetites are driving new exploration and development throughout this region. Yet we still have the opportunity to influence what happens here – which areas are protected, which are developed, and how that development is carried out. That’s what makes this project so exciting.
Of course, an awareness-raising project is only as good as our efforts to publicize it. To this end, I’ll be continuing to develop the website at www.groundtruthtrekking.org, adding information, photos, writing, videos, and map-based tools that let people explore the areas of our trip. After the journey’s end, I’ll be writing a book for Mountaineers Books, articles for magazines (you’ll probably be stuck reading me here again too), and giving public talks. And because we can’t do everything ourselves, we’ve been working with a number of environmental groups in the regions we’ll be passing through, gaining their deeper knowledge and insights into some of the issues and sharing our photos and observations. Ultimately, we hope our broad exploration of the state of this coast will help communicate what’s at stake here, and help to chart its future.
Steep mountains, thick brush, heavy rains, and wild oceans have kept most adventurers away from this coast. Along our path, only the Inside Passage is regularly traveled by human power, and only in summer, by boat. We’ll be facing one of the world’s wettest climates, rainforests thick with brushy undergrowth and some of the largest glaciers outside Antarctica and Greenland. More brown (grizzly) bears live in this region than anywhere else on the planet. We’ll hazard fjord crossings in the wind and surf and experience the long dark nights of the Alaskan winter and temperatures that could dip to -40 degrees F (though it probably won’t get quite that cold). The winds of the Alaska Peninsula are legendary. On top of this, we must keep our bodies and minds intact for over nine months of physically challenging travel.
Six days of food
In summer and fall, we’ll be traveling largely on foot, through the thick rainforests of the B.C. and southeast Alaska coasts. In the winter, skis will carry us over the frozen tundra and marshlands of the Alaska Peninsula. We expect to be walking a bit over one-third of the way, skiing about the same amount and packrafting the rest. Across the whole nine months, packrafting is the key to this journey. Without a boat, we couldn’t make our way through the convoluted fjords of the Inside Passage, paddle glacier-filled bays on the Gulf of Alaska, cross wide and icy rivers or bridge the gap between the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak Island.
On this journey, our eating schedule will be at the mercy of the village groceries, where we will resupply as often as is feasible. On average, we’ll hit resupply spots about once a week. In urban areas, we might shop every day, but in the more remote regions of our trip it can be over three hundred miles between towns, and we may end up carrying up to 16 days of food at a time.
To train for this trip, I am typing this article, acquiring gear, and moving out of our house. Hig is finishing his PhD thesis. Aside from our normal city activities (I do aikido), we’re not doing anything particular to get in shape for this expedition. This journey is not a race. And the first 100 miles will be great training for the next 3900.
Though we’ll try to keep gear resupplies at a minimum, we will be mailing gear to replace worn out shoes and socks, mail home notes and pictures, and to pick up skis and warm clothing for the winter. We’ll also be mailing a laptop ahead of us to the larger towns, primarily as a way to back up our thousands of photos. Stay tuned for more on gear in the next article.
We’re starting in Seattle because it’s our current home; we’re ending on Unimak Island because that’s as far as our mode of travel can take us. The Pacific Ocean ties this route together, but across four thousand miles the character of our journey will change dramatically. The seasons will shift from early summer to late winter. The ecology will slowly transform from towering rainforests hugging steep island coasts to windswept tundra between the cones of volcanoes. And with the changes in ecology, geology, population, and politics, the issues will change as well. We’ll move from urbanization, to salmon farms and clear cuts, to remote mining prospects.
Cities, suburbs, and the Cascade Mountains – June 2007
Our Seattle neighborhood
On June 9th, we’ll step out our front door with the biggest crowd we can muster, heading north along a paved urban trail. From Seattle, we’ll walk east along the Tolt River aqueduct, which is the water supply for the city and connects us directly to the Cascade Mountains. We’ll hike through the proposed Wild Sky wilderness area avoiding the I-5 corridor, and explore some of the wilder chunks of Washington. From the Cascades, we will float the Skagit River to the coast, and walk beaches and roads north from Bellingham to Vancouver.
On this first leg of the trip, the landscape will be shaped by the people that live here. Over two million people live in the greater Seattle area alone. The obstacles we’ll encounter will be different from those we will face on most of our journey. We’ll choose our routes not for efficiency of travel, but to avoid the highways. And we’ll choose our campsites based on stealth, private property signs, and the likelihood of getting harassed by the cops.
Vancouver Island Coast – July 2007
Vancouver Island sits at the southern end of British Columbia, shielding the mainland from the storms and rain of the Pacific Ocean. As the tide wraps around the island, swift rapids form in the narrow channels, and boats line up to cross at slack tide. Ships of all sizes cruise up and down the passage, ferrying passengers and freight, netting salmon, or guiding tourists. We’ll be detouring through the mountains, paddling amongst the kayaks and ferries in our little packrafts and walking across many tiny islands.
Disjointed highways run along the southern end of the coast, connected by ferries. Logging roads crisscross the tiny islands. Most of the forests here have been cut, and some are now re-growing. Salmon farms speckle the sheltered bays, delivering their waste to the ocean and their diseases to nearby wild runs. Almost half the salmon eaten in the world now come from farms like these.
Great Bear Rainforest – July-August 2007
Extending along the British Columbia coast from Bute Inlet to Alaska, the Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining old-growth temperate rainforests in the world. It gets its name for its abundance of grizzlies and black bears, as well as the rare white variant of the black bear known as the Kermode or Spirit Bear. Salmon farms are rare here, and as we travel through the forest, the wild salmon will be returning to their streams to spawn.
The Great Bear Rainforest lies in the middle of the Inside Passage, an ancient transportation corridor for the native people who lived along the coast. With an abundance of salmon and cedar in its sheltered waters, the passage once supported one of the densest native populations in North America.
Tongass National Forest – October 2007
Misty Fjords Wilderness
In Southeast Alaska, the climate is cold enough, and the precipitation great enough, that the tongues of mountain glaciers begin to reach the ocean. Towering peaks and ice fields isolate the coast from the Canadian interior. We’ll be traveling through this rainforest during the rains of autumn, relying heavily on fleece clothing and dry suits to keep misery at bay.
From Ketchikan, we will detour into Canada, through the volcanic country between the Unuk and Iskut Rivers, past remote sites of mining exploration and abandoned mines. The Stikine River will carry us back into the U.S., and into the Tongass forest.
The Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S., but lies in a harsh climate, draped over steep and mountainous terrain. Much of what looks like forest on the map is rock, ice, or muskeg on the ground. Even the forest itself varies greatly with location. Old growth trees on the ridge tops are small and spindly, while huge trees live only in the few flat valleys near sea level. Most of these have already been logged. The Tongass was carved up for the benefit of two pulp companies in the 1950s, and was logged at an unsustainable rate and at enormous taxpayer expense ever since. Though these long-term contracts have not been in effect since the 1990s, it remains to be seen what will happen to the enduring wild areas of the Tongass.
Gulf of Alaska – November 2007
The Inside Passage, and most of its boat traffic, ends at Glacier Bay. From here, we will walk on a much harsher and wilder coast. The Gulf of Alaska is wide open to the fury of the Pacific Ocean, and no land blocks the storms. The few protected bays are headed by glaciers. 15,000 foot peaks rise barely fifteen miles from the sea, and where there are no fjords the glaciers spill out over the flatlands, nearly touching the shore. At high tide, the open Pacific laps at the toe of La Perouse glacier.
Some of the largest glaciers in North America line this coast. The Malaspina covers fifteen hundred square miles, and will take us three whole days just to walk around. Huge volumes of water spill out from under the glaciers in dozens of different channels, necessitating repeated packraft crossings.
Traveling in November, we may be exposed to some of this coast’s impressive storms, when we can expect twenty inches of rain to fall on us in a month. With protected boat harbors scarce, the Gulf of Alaska coast is a largely unpopulated place. We may need to walk over three hundred miles between Yakutat and Cordova without a resupply.
Prince William Sound to Cook Inlet – December 2007
Packraft and Oil Rig in Cook Inlet
Surrounded by the rugged Chugach Mountains, Prince William Sound is a bay of convoluted glacial fjords encompassed in the Chugach National Forest. We will walk and raft the eastern edge of the sound, sticking close to sea level to avoid the snow.
As the northernmost ice-free port in the U.S., Valdez serves as the endpoint of the oil pipeline from the arctic north slope, and was the site of the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Valdez is also the first place since Haines, in Southeast Alaska, where a road reaches the ocean.
As we leave Valdez, the last of the temperate rainforest will be behind us. The Chugach Mountains provide a barrier between the temperate ocean and the cold interior. Crossing them in December, we will enter the true depths of winter, switching our travel mode from foot to skis. After six months of travel, spare fat will have long since melted from our bodies, and in the increasingly cold temperatures we will be forced to carry more food for each day of travel.
After ten days of resting and fattening up in Anchorage, enjoying the wonders of electricity, we’ll point our packrafts across Knik Arm, along with any intrepid Anchorage packrafters who want to join us. Skiing down the west side of Cook Inlet, we’ll visit the site of the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine, and head over the mountains towards Lake Clark.
Bristol Bay Uplands – January 2008
Pebble Valley, proposed mine site
On Lake Clark, mountains separate us from the Pacific Ocean and its tempering effect on the climate. In the interior landscape of the Bristol Bay watershed, winter is dry and cold. Narrow strips of forest along rivers and lakes are surrounded by plains of rolling tundra. Where the country is open, travel on skis should be relatively easy. But the days will be short, and our winter gear will be both bulkier and heavier than in summer and fall.
At the end of Lake Clark, we’ll reach the familiar territory of Nondalton village and the Pebble Valley – a place I’ve visited three times in the past two years. Rarely seen by outsiders until a few years ago, Pebble Valley is at the heart of a controversial proposal to build one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world. The proposed Pebble Mine site lies at the headwaters of two of the world’s largest salmon spawning rivers, which drain into Bristol Bay. Heavily opposed by commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen, and heavily funded by the mining industry, Pebble’s fate is still uncertain.
From Pebble, we will travel south to Lake Iliamna. Following the route of proposed mine road, and against the prevailing winds, we will ski the frozen lake edge east, back to Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean.
Alaska Peninsula – February 2008
Packrafting Bristol Bay
The volcanic line of the Aleutian Range stretches southwest, forming the Alaska Peninsula. Bounded on the north by the cold Bering Sea, and on the south by the warmer Pacific Ocean, the Alaska Peninsula is in some places only a few miles wide. Winds howl across this thin strip of land between two oceans.
From Katmai Park at the base of the peninsula, we will travel southwest past the last of the spruce trees, into a wind-swept land of brush and tundra. In February, the region’s legendary bears will be asleep, the salmon still at sea, and the volcanoes snow capped and steaming.
Peulik Volcano on the Alaska Peninsula
We will ski over thousands of unmarked acres of mining claims and prospects, buried beneath the snow. No mines exist in Southwest Alaska now, but with metal prices rising, mining companies around the world are turning their attention to this remote area.
Unimak Island – March 2008
The Alaska Peninsula ends at a narrow strait, one mile from the town of False Pass on Unimak Island, first of the Aleutians. The Alaska Peninsula trends both west and south, and by the time we reach Unimak, we will be at the same latitude as Prince Rupert (on the B.C. coast). The Bering Sea keeps the climate far colder here, but as winter wears on, we may have to deal with warming spells.
Temperatures just above freezing present some of the most difficult weather in winter. Snow that brushes easily off our gear sinks in as rain, chilling us, and freezing solid when the temperature drops again. Hard snow can melt to slush, slowing travel.
From False Pass, we will skirt the volcanic cones to the black sand beaches at Scotch Cap, at the southwestern end of the island. Separated from the next island by twelve miles of stormy open ocean, Scotch Cap marks the limit of the range for all large mammals. It’s the end of the line for caribou, the end of the line for bears, and the end of the line for packrafters.
Gore Point Beach, Kenai Fjords, Alaska
I’m not sure why this is such a common question, but everyone seems to ask, “are you walking back?” No. After 4000 miles of human-powered travel, we certainly intend to take advantage of modern gasoline-fueled power to return from False Pass. Though I don’t even know what state we’ll end up in, I know what I’ll be doing: writing a book, and seeking in whatever way possible to communicate about the issues and the places of our journey.