PART III: SITKA
Our last full day in Juneau was pretty uninspiring. We got in late on the ferry the night before. We slept in before waking to the sound of rain. Originally I’d hoped to squeeze in a hike up Mount Juneau or Mount Roberts, since this would be my last chance of the trip. But with the rain and the peaks lost in the clouds, I didn’t see a point.
We spent the day resting and running errands. We walked into Juneau and got breakfast. Then we stopped at a gear store, where I picked up a foam sleeping pad (to replace my defective inflatable pad) and a new lightweight umbrella. Afterwards, we took a stroll through downtown. The rain had eased to a heavy drizzle by this point. We stopped for groceries on the way back to the hotel.
Once back at the Hotel Juneau we did laundry and began repacking for the next part of our trip. On Friday we were taking an early morning ferry to Sitka, which is west of Juneau on the Pacific Ocean. We would spend a long weekend there. First, we had reservations for a water taxi to take us over to Kruzof Island, on the far side of Sitka Sound. Once on the island, we would hike to the summit of Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano. After spending the night on the island, we would return to Sitka the next morning. Our final two days in Sitka were unplanned. If the weather was good, we would do a backpacking trip in the alpine country above town. If not, we would hike to the waterfall on Indian River and spend more time exploring the town. We also planned to visit the Sitka National Historical Park, which contains one of the most extensive collections of Tlingit totem poles in the world.
Christy took a nap that afternoon, and the rain had finally stopped, so I decided to explore. From the hotel, I crossed the bridge over the Gastineau Channel and did some road walking on Douglas Island. I walked all the way to the small town of Douglas, but views of the mainland were limited due to the stubborn clouds. By the time I’d walked all the way to Douglas I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the long walk back. So I caught a bus for a dollar, which took me back over to Juneau and dropped me off a couple of blocks from the hotel.
That evening we walked back to downtown and had dinner at the Saffron Indian restaurant, which was very good. Then it was back to the hotel for final packing. Packing was a little trickier this time, because we were just taking our backpacks with us. We would carry them most of the way up Mount Edgecumbe, so we couldn’t bring any extra clothes or baggage. I suppose we could have stored extra gear somewhere in town, but we were going for maximum simplicity. After all, it was only a 4 day trip. We stored our luggage at the hotel once again and headed to bed early since our ferry was departing at 6:30am.
Climbing Mount Edgecumbe was my #1 goal of the whole trip. The dormant volcano is only a little more than 3,000’ high, but the hike to the summit starts at sea level. The summit is actually the rim of the caldera, with an immense crater below. A smaller group of peaks surrounds another, deeper crater immediately to the north. Views from the summit are spectacular. The Pacific Ocean is to the west and south, while to the north, the rugged coastline and jagged peaks of Kruzof Island extend to the horizon. Back to the east is Sitka Sound, the town of Sitka, and the glaciated peaks in the vast wilderness beyond. Unfortunately, those views are rarely seen. Sitka is one of the wettest places in Alaska, and storms frequently sweep in off the Pacific. While bad weather had deterred us from climbing some of the mountains near Juneau, I was determined to climb Edgecumbe. We were climbing it, even if it rained the whole time.
No discussion of Mount Edgecumbe is complete without mentioning April 1st, 1974. The night before that infamous day, a local prankster named Oliver "Porky" Bickar pulled off an elaborate hoax. He loaded up a small plane with tires and flew them into the crater. Then, he set them on fire. The residents of Sitka woke that morning to see black smoke billowing out of the volcano. While that prank wasn’t very environmentally friendly, I have to admit that it was pretty clever.
We were up at 4:20am Friday for the taxi ride to the ferry terminal. We arrived a bit before 5am for the 6:30am ferry. That was plenty early, and we still had quite a bit of down time after checking in (that could’ve been better spent sleeping). The ferry ride was smooth, although we were disappointed that this boat didn’t have a full kitchen or a hot breakfast. Options were limited, but we managed. We departed Juneau in light rain under overcast skies, but conditions improved as we went. As we neared Sitka, we began seeing large patches of blue sky. This was more than just the occasional sucker hole – it was clearly a sign of improving conditions. The forecast had actually suggested decent weather for our first two days, with mostly cloudy skies on Friday and considerable sunshine on Saturday. If the forecast panned out, our timing would be perfect for climbing Edgecumbe.
The other highlight of the ferry ride was spotting a pod of Orcas. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any decent photos.
We arrived in Sitka about 45 minutes late. We caught a shuttle bus from the ferry terminal into town, which was a very reasonable $10 round trip. The bus will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. The driver dropped us off at Crescent Harbor, where we met John and Alison with Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures. They offer kayak rentals and guided tours and water taxi service to Kruzof Island and various other points in Sitka Sound. We also met Mitch, Kim, and their dog Banshee. They were sharing the ride over to the island with us. That was a last minute arrangement, but it worked out in our favor. Since we were willing to share the ride, John discounted our trip $100. The round trip wasn’t cheap, but getting the discount made it a good bit more reasonable.
While we were packing, a local strolled up to us and struck up a conversation. He was very friendly, and asked us what our plans were. We told him that we planned to hike up Mount Edgecumbe. We would stop at the trail shelter 4 ½ miles up the trail. At that point we would have 2 ½ miles and about 2,500’ of elevation gain to go. We told him that we might go ahead and summit the volcano that evening, if the weather looked good. If not, we’d get up early on Saturday and go for it. He looked up at the sky (which was mostly cloudy but not overcast) and said, “this is good weather. You should do it this evening”. He wished us luck before wandering off.
A few minutes later another local wandered over. We had essentially the same conversation with him, and it ended with the same advice. We should do it today.
We chatted a bit with Mitch and Kim on the boat. Mitch had lived in Sitka all of his life. He’d been up Mount Edgecumbe several times, but never in clear weather. This time, he was hoping for a different experience. With the favorable forecast, he was eager to see those views that had eluded him all of these years.
The ride across Sitka Sound was a little rough, but John was an excellent Captain. We saw one Mink Whale at fairly close range, and a couple of Humpbacks a bit farther away. John dropped us off a Fred’s Creek on the east side of Kruzof Island. There is a cabin on the beach here that is available for rent from the forest service. I had attempted to rent it in January, but it had already been booked.
Once off the boat we made our final preparations for our hike. We found the trail behind the cabin and headed into the woods. We’d been warned about heavy grizzly bear activity near Fred’s Creek, so we made a lot of noise. This must’ve been effective, because we didn’t see any bears (or other wildlife) along this stretch of trail.
The trail up Mount Edgecumbe is a masterpiece. It starts in deep forest, before ascending gradually through scrubland and muskeg. Long portions of the trail are on boardwalk through murky bogs. I can’t imagine what this hike was like before the boardwalks were built. In fact, at one point I lost my balance and fell off one of the boards. As I started to totter, my only thought was that I better land well. Luckily I landed on my feet in a fairly dry area with just a little mud. If I had fallen a second or two earlier or later I would’ve gone into a deep, dark pool.
Christy pointed out that this wasn’t the first time a hobbit had fallen in a swamp on the way to a volcano. Christy calls me her hobbit since I’m short and I have ugly feet.
It rained for about 30 minutes during our hike before clearing off. The volcano emerged in all its glory, towering above us as we toiled through forest and swamp. It was a spectacular sight, and it beckoned us on.
Over the first 4 ½ miles we gained only 700’ of elevation. That left over 2,500’ of climbing over the last 2 ½ miles. And even that elevation gain wasn’t even. We would actually climb 1,200’ in the last 0.6 miles. There is no official trail for that final stretch – just a slog straight up the steepest part of the mountain.
We stopped at the trail shelter to unpack and consider our options. The shelter is small (sleeps 6) but cozy, with a stream in front, a woodstove, bunkbeds, and a view of Mount Edgecumbe. The sky was mostly clear, though the summit of Edgecumbe was wearing a crown of clouds. What to do? The weather was pretty good – great compared to what we had experienced during most of our trip. The clouds surrounding the summit could break up, or they might persist. The forecast for Saturday was actually better, but the advice we’d received earlier from the locals was fresh in my memory. We should do it now. Also, it occurred to me that there wasn’t anything preventing us from doing it twice. If we did it that evening and we missed out on the views, I wouldn’t hesitate to rise early on Saturday for another attempt.
At the shelter we met a couple from Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Justin and Lucy were extremely friendly, and were planning to climb the volcano, too. They had arrived shortly before us, but were going to wait until Saturday morning to climb to the summit. We would be exploring the Yukon later in our trip, and they offered lots of recommendations and advice that proved to be helpful. Later we met Shane, Carrie, and their dog Sushi at the shelter. They were on an incredible trip. They had departed Vancouver in their fishing boat in June. They were planning to travel as far north as possible – at least to Glacier Bay, if not beyond. They were stopping at every place that caught their eye along the way, and weren’t planning to return until November!
We loaded my pack with food, water, extra clothes, and other essentials and departed the shelter at 5pm. Happy hour could wait – we had a volcano to climb!
The first mile beyond the shelter was easy. We reached a campsite in a clearing, which features a great view of the peaks surrounding Edgecumbe’s northern crater. When we returned that night we saw Mitch’s tent there, though there was no sign of Mitch, Kim, or their dog.
The next stretch was fairly steep, but on good trail through thicker forest. When we reached treeline we paused at a sign asking hikers to spread out for the final ascent to reduce damage to the vegetation. That is a nice idea, but it isn’t working here. The upper slopes contain broad stretches of bare dirt due to heavy use. It would be better to designate a single trail here to concentrate the impact.
The final climb was tough. It was just walking, but it was relentlessly steep. We made our own switchbacks as we climbed, which eased the grade somewhat. When we reached the summit we found ourselves in billowing clouds. They were rising up out of the Pacific and racing across the peak behind gusty winds. The clouds were thin, and occasional brief breaks in them gave us peek-a-boo views that teased us. The best views were to the south, over a wide swath of ocean, and down into the main crater immediately below us. That crater is a barren wasteland of rocks, pumice, and small ponds. The ocean to the south appeared endless, though there was an interesting series of volcanic, rocky pinnacles just offshore. Later we saw dozens of boats anchored around those pinnacles. Apparently it is a good place to fish, or to simply spend the night.
We walked along the rim of the crater as the clouds raced past. The views were extremely limited, but I didn’t mind. The experience was magical – it was almost like flying. The cold, biting wind was harsh, too, but I was so enthralled I barely noticed it.
The real magic came a few minutes later. Suddenly the clouds began to break up. Row upon row of jagged peaks marched away to the north. Below us, a vast bay surrounded by some of those same mountains emerged. It looked like paradise. When we return – and we will – I want to camp there.
The fog began to clear to the northeast and east, too. Sitka Sound, Sitka, and the snowy peaks beyond came into view. Best of all, we were suddenly able to see down into the northern crater, which was 2,700’ straight down. That view was fascinating. The floor of the crater contains several small lakes and an actual forest! I’ll bet that is an amazing place to explore! We heard a third-hand account of someone scrambling and rappelling down to the bottom of that crater. Apparently it requires technical mountaineering skills.
Clouds persisted to the west, obscuring our view of the vast expanse of the Pacific. Even without that, this was one of the best views I’d ever seen. We could see Russia AND Sara Palin’s house! I was running around like crazy with my camera, ecstatic at our luck. Most people that summit Edgecumbe see nothing except the inside of a cloud. All of a sudden, those endless rainy days in Juneau didn’t seem so bad. If that was the price we had to pay for this moment, it was totally worth it.
At some point Christy noticed that I was shaking – either from excitement, or the cold, or both. I finally stopped to put on warm clothes, but it was almost too late. My t-shirt was wet from sweat, so I stripped that off. Then I resumed running around in an attempt to generate some heat.
Camping up there would’ve been awesome. The sky continued to clear as the evening went on. Sunrise would’ve been incredible. But the wind was relentless, and it was already frigid despite the sunshine. Plus, hauling camping gear and enough water for two people to the summit would’ve been brutal.
We started down at 8:30. Our descent was slow, as Christy has to be cautious with her knees. Also, I’d developed a sharp, occasional pain in my right thigh. It had first cropped up after our killer bushwhack in Glacier Bay National Park. It wasn’t constant, but it certainly was squawking at me on the way down. We were treated to a colorful sunset on the descent, as the few remaining clouds hovering over the peaks to the east turned various shades of pink. We reached the shelter at 10:30, which was right around dusk. Yet again we finished a hike in prime grizzly bear habitat in the dark, but it had been worth it!
Justin and Lucy were already asleep, so we tried to be as quiet as possible while cooking and eating dinner. We went to bed immediately afterwards. Despite the success of our hike, I was still considering doing it again early the next morning, if conditions were favorable. Christy said that she would be more than happy to sleep in while I did that.
I woke at 6:30 on Saturday morning, tired and sore. My sleeping bag was warm and cozy, but I could see the mountain from my bunk. The sky was completely clear. I got up and went for a short walk to see if my legs were capable of summiting twice in less than 24 hours. The soreness abated somewhat with a bit of walking. I decided that I had to do it. I had a quick breakfast of cold granola cereal and joined Shane, Carrie, and Sushi for their summit attempt. Justin and Lucy started shortly after us. On the initial ascent, I spotted Mitch, Kim, and Banshee on the mountain above. They weren’t far from the summit when it suddenly clouded up. Unseen clouds had rolled in from the far side of the volcano and parked themselves directly above the summit.
We were at treeline and suddenly I was lacking motivation. These clouds looked more persistent than the ones we’d encountered the previous day. Plus, my right leg was screaming at me. I decided to declare victory and head back down. It would be nice to spend a lazy morning with Christy at the shelter, or a lazy afternoon with her on the beach.
Shane and Carrie continued ahead. I passed Justin and Lucy on their way up a few minutes later. Later in the trip we ran into each other at a ferry terminal. They said that they spent the entire day on top of the volcano, hoping that the clouds would break. They circled the entire main crater, but they never got more than a few brief peeks through the clouds. I felt bad for them, and for the other hikers we’d met. I particularly felt bad for Mitch, who had lived in Sitka all his life and had climbed Edgecumbe several times without ever seeing the view. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is a simple one – seize the moment. If the opportunity is there, go for it. We listened to the advice we’d received from the locals, and it paid off.
I returned to the shelter just as Christy was waking up. I made coffee as a large group of teenagers passed by on their way up. We also met Porter and Amber, who were climbing the peak in a single day. Porter was carrying a monster pack that hurt to look at. Porter was an extremely friendly local. He asked us about our trip, and I mentioned that I wanted to hike to Harbor Mountain that evening or on Sunday. The climb from Sitka is tough, and Christy wasn’t up for that. There is another trailhead though that starts at a higher elevation. We didn’t have a car though, and a taxi ride would be expensive. He gave us his phone number and told us that he would be glad to drive us up there. This was very generous, though ultimately we didn’t take advantage of it.
We hiked back down and reached the beach at 2:30. Our boat was due to arrive at 4. I lounged for a bit before getting restless. We’d been warned of heavy grizzly bear activity at Fred’s Creek, which was nearby. I decided to go look for bears.
If you weren’t already aware, I’m a little different from most people. Christy thought I was insane. Most people would probably agree. But I did at least take bear spray with me.
I bushwhacked along Fred’s Creek. There were numerous signs of bears, but I didn’t see any actual bruins. I was treated to one of the nicest bald eagle sightings of the trip though. He was perched in a tree, before soaring down across the creek right in front of me. Since I’d gone looking for wildlife, I’d already put on my zoom lens and adjusted my settings. I got several great shots of him flying before he disappeared into the forest.
I returned to the beach, and John arrived right on time. The water was less choppy on our return, and John went out of the way to look for wildlife. We saw a couple of whales, including a close-up view of a huge humpback. We also passed by several groups of sea otters, including numerous mamas carrying pups on their bellies. Cute! The highlight though was a vast swath of jellyfish. John spotted the school from a distance and stopped the boat right in the middle. The school was only 50’ or so wide, but it stretched as far as we could see in either direction. There must’ve been millions of them. Maybe billions. John and Christy each took videos of the jellyfish by holding their phones (in waterproof cases) underwater. Christy’s video is really cool – you can see an endless mass of jellyfish bobbing away!
We returned to the harbor. Our original plan had been to hike to Harbor Mountain, either from town or from the upper trailhead. However, rain had moved in, and the forecast looked awful. There was a 100% chance of rain Saturday night, Sunday, and Monday. There is a shelter on Harbor Mountain, but going up there still seemed pointless. Instead, we decided to hit the local hostel. We could stay there for a couple of nights, visit the totem poles at the National Historic Park, and maybe do a hike to a waterfall.
We were going to walk the mile to the hostel, but John insisted that we borrow his car. We drove over there, only to find out that the hostel was completely full. Apparently a large group of kids from Montreat College (in North Carolina) had booked the whole thing. What to do? We returned John’s car and headed to the nearest restaurant. A hot meal and cold beer would help us figure it out.
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