A Stretcher, an Advil, and a Beer

(August 10th, 2017)

I can’t put any weight on my left foot at the moment.  And those of you who have been on the Sail Alaska trip will be surprised to learn it’s not all Jim’s fault.  (Just mostly his fault.)

I set my alarm for 6:30AM.  We were in Bailey Bay, and we had an 8AM rendezvous on shore with Jim and the crew of Sea Pie to hike the hot springs trail.  It was said to be a difficult walk, but given the bear trails we’d been on, the fact that there was a human-grade trail at all would mean that, by default, it was the easiest trail we’d been on yet.  Plus, the girls should be able to make it two miles in, then two miles back, with a break for lunch in between. Half an hour later, they woke up and began getting ready for the hike with excitement and anticipation.  (Well, mostly.  There was a slight hiccup with Ellie refusing to get out of bed, but Ellie tantrums are usually short-live, and not worth writing about.  Don’t worry, we got a tantrum worth writing about later on.)

By 8AM we hadn’t launched our dinghy, so Jim offered to pick us up.  We hopped in, and sped to shore.  We hopped back out on the other side, and once the herd was circled up, we headed on into the woods. The sign at the trailhead confirmed our hiking plan was sound: The washed-out bridge was 0.7 miles away; the lake 1.2 miles; and the hot springs 2.3 miles.  Nothing we couldn’t handle.

Initially, the hike was steep, but well-formed with gravel and limited wood stairs.  After a quick, ten-minute ascent, we reached a beautiful mountain meadow, and the trail leveled out.  It was smooth single-track, although the instances of rocks, muddy patches, and tree roots slowly increased sat the hike continued.  It was quite some time before we saw any signs of bear, which we were pleased about because we’d been warned that a mother grizzly and her cub had been sighted in the area.  However, when Ellie said she wanted to run through the meadow, I held her back because we’ve learned that sleeping bears love just such sunny meadows.

Rich was recording the hike with his GPS watch, and pointed out that the meadow was about 0.7 miles into our hike.  This meant the creek crossing, with the washed-out bridge, was close.  So, we kept walking along.

The girls were doing well, and although they needed a little help in places, there weren’t any major falls or fits.  When our line of hikers got backed up, and we had a few seconds to dawdle on the trail, Ellie and I kept ourselves busy collecting blueberries, huckleberries, and delicious, ripe salmon berries.  We started to fill her hat with the few she wasn’t consuming immediately.

After a time, we still hadn’t arrived at the creek crossing, and the washed-out bridge.  But, we could hear the waterfall now, so we figured we must be getting close.  However, it wasn’t until 1.2 miles into our hike that we finally arrived at the creek.  It wasn’t deep, nor was it very cold, which made wading across it quite pleasant.  Walking on the uneven river rock was a bit of a challenge for girls and adults alike, but we all made it across without mishap.

Having crossed the creek, and having made it now 1.2 miles into our hike, that meant we were nearly at the lake, and we were more than halfway to the hot springs.  The girls were still charged, and the hike was quickly turning into a wild success.

Our sense of success skyrocketed when we stepped off the trail, and passed several bushes to  arrive at the falls.  It was spectacular.  Jim had touted it as the prettiest place on Earth, and he may have been right.  We stood right next to ancient rock covered in tumbling, turning, cascading falls, roaring in parts, and quietly babbling in others, for hundreds of feet in front of us and downward.  The view put the viewer at the absolute top of the world, with raw, beautiful wilderness all around.  It couldn’t have been more spectacular. 

Then, Jim tied up a line he’d brought with him.  With it, the crew climbed down the rocks to a lower landing while the rivers and streams tumbled downward right next to us.  It wasn’t something I normally would have let the girls do, but Jim told us how his girls had climbed down and found a great photo spot on the lower rocks, so I figured they ought to try if they were up for it.  Ellie scared me by landing, running, and immediately finding the slippery rock – she quickly learned (from multiple, mostly angry-sounding, sources) not to run on the rocks, and not to go near the slippery rocks.  The adults all followed, and we were relieved that the climb down wasn’t quite as hazardous as it looked.  We took our photos, and after a break with some snacks, we continued on our hike to the hot springs.

Back on the trail, we were over two miles in now, so the hot springs that the sign promised were 2.3 miles in total were close.  We walked, picking berries, dodging roots and mud patches.  We climbed through a cave, and we walked again.  We walked up, and we walked down.  Look ahead – another cave to walk through!  More up, more down, a second hatful of berries deposited into the berry box we’d brought, and back to berries and walking and upping and downing. 

At about the three-mile marker, we finally found the canoe.  You see, the falls came down from a long lake, with the hot springs at the far end of the lake.  The forest service regularly leaves a canoe just up from the falls, so that hikers have the option of hiking the last stretch to the hot springs, or hopping in the canoe, and paddling the last little bit. 

Our group was too big to fit everyone in the canoe, so the girls – who are young and spry, and at that point still had plenty of energy – were selected to walk.  Instead, the Sea Pie crew, except for two, climbed in the the canoe and started paddling.  Some time later, at the next point, the two Sea Pie crew that remained with the hiking group climbed in the warmish, crystal clear lake water and swam the rest of the way to the hot springs.  The girls were losing steam a bit at that point, so the canoe pulled over and picked them up, now full to the gunnel with passengers.  Rich, Jim, and I were the only ones left to finish the trail.

To call the route from the  point to the canoe end point a trail, or even a path, is an overstatement.  It’s best described as bushes.  Had we not put the girls in the canoe, there is no way they could have made it any further; at least us adults could machete through the brush, our heads protruding above the bushes.  The girls weren’t tall enough to see over the bushes, and we weren’t going to give them machetes, so they would have had to bushwhack with their arms as best they could while protecting their faces.  All the while, every bush whacked produced a cloud of gnats, and after a few feet of that, they would have sat down and refused to go on, despite the promise of hot springs at the end of the lake.

The canoers and swimmers reached the end of the lake several minutes before the hikers, who were stopped several times by significant falls.  I picked my way through the trail in front, only to have the trail fall out from underneath me, and slide down the hillside.  After a few feet of sliding, I was only able to stop myself by grabbing a handful of thorny salmonberry bushes.  It took me several minutes to figure out how to get back up.  The swimmers heard my fall, and notified Rich and Jim behind me that I was down.  After a few minutes, I still wasn’t back on my feet although I’d made it crawling back to the flat area that must have once been the trail, trying to figure out how to get the rest of the way back up.  Seeing me sitting there, Rich asked, “Where are you going?”  I declined him the courtesy of a response.

We finally rendezvoused at the end of the lake.  We were now over three miles into our hike, and the hot springs was right there.  Well, wait.  Not right there.  It’s just a bit up the trail here.  Wait, the trail keeps going.  Okay, at least it’s a trail now, so we’ll follow it over here… and we’ll follow it over there… and up, and around, and more berry-picking, and- Where on earth is this hot springs?!

We finally found it another half mile up the trail.  It was the longest 2.3 miles we’d ever hiked.  Rich’s GPS confirmed that’s because it was actually 4.5 miles. 

We changed into our swimsuits and climbed into the makeshift hot tub that some hikers past had built with the available rocks and a small amount of concrete.  My enjoyment of the hot tub was quite limited, spoiled by flies that wouldn’t leave me alone, some of which bit.  After a few minutes, when I couldn’t take any more swarming flies, I climbed out. I didn’t even bother drying off, and instead just put my clothes back on over my wet suit, to provide protection from the beastly little buggers.  We ate our lunches, and spent nearly an hour swimming and relaxing, and fighting off flies.

After our brief respite, we were all tired from the hike in and eager to get back to our boats.  Rather than have anyone walk the trail back, several canoe trips were made to ferry our group from the end of the lake back to the canoe landing above the falls.  The Sea Pie crew went in the first group.  One of them was kind enough to row the canoe back to pick us up in the second group.  Then, I would row back and pick up Jim and his crewmate.

Morgan led the way back to the canoe landing at the end of the lake.  The problem was, we have a rule that, in Bear Country, no girls can be first or last; they always have to be in the middle of the pack.  Of course, the purpose of this rule is to ensure the girls avoid bear encounters, and that an adult is the one handling the situation if there is one.  So, we reminded Morgan about the rule, and I politely asked her to let me by so I could go first. 

She looked down.  She crossed her arms. She planted her feet.  “NOOO!” she screamed. 

We tried to be nice at first.  We patiently explained the reason for the rule.  “But there haven’t been any bears!” 

“We haven’t seen any bears, but there was lots of bear poop on the trial, so we know they’re around here,” Daddy told her.

“BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!” she wailed. We explained again, and nicely told her that I was going to walk first, and each time we tried she screamed and cried and said she was going to lead, our no one was.  After a few minutes, our patience turned to frustration, and we became upset.  We told her she’s putting herself in danger, and she’s putting our family in danger by keeping us out here longer.  She was also making our canoe ferry woman wait, and none of that was nice. Morgan’s response did not change.

We couldn’t coax her to move, but we needed to move, not only for our sake, but also for the other canoers.  After several minutes, we told Morgan that she needed to walk, or we would have to bring her with us.  We told her we couldn’t leave her there because that wouldn’t be safe, so there was no choice, she was coming one way or another.  Rich guided her along the path using the handle on her backpack, but she screamed and cried and fought so hard that we weren’t able to make any meaningful progress.  Behind us, Jim and his crew member were yelling, telling us we had to go now, probably hoping Morgan might cooperate if she was told to move by a non-parent.  She was unconvinced, and continued to fight.  Rich gave up trying to get her to move.  I handed Rich my back pack and asked that he take Morgan’s also (in addition to his own pack), and I picked Morgan up and flopped her over my shoulder.  The entire family was completely exhausted from the hike in, and Morgan was holding us hostage.  We needed to get back to that canoe. 

Morgan screamed and cried and fought me for several minutes, just like she’d done with Rich, but I didn’t let go.  I kept walking, albeit slowly, one step at a time as I picked my way to safe footing along the path, balancing my flailing load as best I could.

Morgan kept trying to slide down my front, so I continued to hoist her further over my shoulder.  Finally, her screams of injustice turned to sobs of, “I’m scared, let me down!”  I asked her calmly if she was ready to walk in the middle.  After asking several times, she finally stopped screaming and said that she was.  I put her down, and she reluctantly, silently, started walking.  After a few minutes, I took my pack back, and Morgan even agreed to take hers.  By the time we reached the canoe, she was smiling and laughing again, as though nothing had happened.  But, I was even more exhausted than before, and so was Rich, and the extra effort required to get her safely out of the woods had used up the energy reserves we’d planned to use for the hike back.  I thought I might help Ellie for a bit by piggybacking her, or even Morgan, but that was now out of the question.  The girls safely in the canoe, Rich and I boarded, and slowly, with great effort, started the 15-minute paddle back to the canoe landing above the waterfall.

My shoulders burned.  The left was worse than the right, reminding me with every other paddle that carrying Morgan on that side was just as exhausting as I thought it was at the time.  But, we kept paddling, as hard as we could manage, and made slow progress along the shore.  At least, we arrived at the landing, and stumbled out of the canoe.

The Sea Pie crew member who’d rowed back to get us offered to go back and get Jim and his crewmate so that Rich and I could both walk back with the girls. Gratefully, we accepted her offer, and helped her shove off.  As she rowed away, we stumbled up the shoreline path to main trail.  There, we walked at a snail’s pace back down the nearly two-mile trail leading to the shore.  Despite our slow pace, it was the fastest we could muster, and we still had a number of falls on the way back down.  No crew member was spared, and we emerged from the woods onto the beach with Ellie bleeding, Morgan muddy, and Mama and Daddy exhausted and aching.  For my part, I had twisted my ankle lightly at several points in the trail.  I had twisted that same ankle two years back, and so the first few twists weakened it to the point that the last few twists were more severe.  It hurt to walk on, but knowing that continuing on was the only way we’d make it back, and knowing also that we’d have to continue to help the girls along the way, I ignored the ache and simply walked on.

In our fatigued state, the last part of the trail – which had been the first and easiest part on the way in – proved treacherous.  The clear gravel path that had made such good walking on the way up was slick, and the girls kept slipping on the loose rock and falling down.  Back at the beach, we were eager to get back to the boat.

Unfortunately, we’d given our radio to Jim so he could coordinate his canoe ride; so, we didn’t have a radio to hail Jim’s third crew member, who was acting as the dinghy ferry.  Nearing despair, but with everyone just managing to hold it together, we sat down on the beach.  Morgan had a sudden burst of energy, and started stomping in the shallow water in her waterproof boots.  But, the bottom was obscured by grass, and after several successful stomps, her foot found deep water.  We poured the water out of her boot, but the sea water was cold on her foot.  Without energy left to even talk, we waited on the beach until Jim would arrive, another 30 minutes, so we could radio for our ride.

When Ruby Slippers’ dinghy emerged from around the point, we felt like our desert island rescue had arrived.  Sea Pie had seen us sitting hopelessly on the beach, and had radioed back to Ruby Slippers for us.  We were saved.

We climbed onto the boat, hot, wet, and exhausted. I sat down in the cockpit and simply didn’t move for several minutes.  Everyone was moving in slow motion as they peeled off wet clothing and made their way downstairs.

Eager to get a move on, I pushed aside my fatigue and stood up to secure the dingy and get underway.  After a few minutes of sitting, my twisted ankle was not particularly interested in further movement.  I coaxed it, gently, to do just enough to get the dinghy in place and walk to the bow and back to release our mooring line.  The next time I sat down, I wasn’t able to put weight on it again.  I took a seated watch while Rich made a brilliant dinner of Cup O’ Noodles, Wheat Thins, and Cheese.  I splurged and also dipped my Wheat Thins in the salmon roe dip I’d made the night before.  The carbs and fat satisfied a craving none of us realized we even had.

The girls watched a movie, and Rich got them to bed just before we pulled into Loring and the anchorage at Roosevelt Lagoon more than three hours later.  We were tired and it was getting dark as we approached the Loring dock, looking for a place to anchor since the dock was full we probed around the area with the depth sounder, at one point finding a 2 foot depth rock that was not marked on the chart (no harm done) and finally Sea Pie took pity on us and asked if we wanted to raft to them.   We were thankful to have the offer, the only downside being that Foxy was the one actually tied to the dock, and Sea Pie was rafted to Foxy, so we’d be the third approximately 50ft long boat rafted out.   With no strong winds to worry about everyone felt comfortable with it so we tied up, chatted for a bit, and then helped Ruby Slippers stern tie (with an anchor out) to the small bit of dock that was available, something that we considered doing but weren’t sure about.  After that it was bed time.



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