Tuesday, July 28, 2020

HESKETH ISLAND 2020

The Hufford family loves a good adventure.  That's how we found ourselves aboard the DREAMCHASER and on our way to Hesketh Island which is located in Kachemak Bay, near Homer, Alaska.  As we left the Homer Small Boat Harbor a huge flock of gulls took to the air.  It seemed as though the sky was filled with birds as we passed under them.

Laura watches a flock of gulls as we leave the Homer Small Boat Harbor.
Laura aboard the DREAMCHASER passing under a flock of gulls as we depart the Homer Small Boat Harbor.

Captain Zach was at the helm and told us to be on the lookout for orcas which had been seen regularly in the area for the past few weeks.  Right on cue as we motored through Eldred Passage the whales appeared.  Zach slowed the boat and let us get a very good look at them as they surfaced in regular intervals.  It was an excellent start to an excellent trip.



                    An orca surfaces as we make our way to Hesketh Island.

As we arrived at the island Zach gave us some useful advice about how things work.   He told us about the catchment water system, the sauna, and some the activities we might pursue while we were there. Zach and his wife Becky own and operate Porter's Alaskan Adventures and they are awesome.  We have known them for many years and they are solid folks who know how to make their dreams come true and live them.  

We moved our gear into the cabin and immediately went back outside to enjoy the beautiful weather.  We took a short walk down the beach to the sauna and checked things out.  We met Zach and Becky there and had a good chat about our families and Hesketh Island.  Back at the cabin we all sat on the porch and soaked up the sun and view of Tutka Bay, which was directly across from our cabin.  I could have sat on that porch for a solid two days.  

But, we had some exploring to do.

                    The DREAMCHASER and Hufford family at Hesketh Island.

The cabins were built about 20 years ago and they remain as solid as can be.  Ours had sleeping arrangements for six and a galley with every utensil and cooking implement you could ever need.  The view out the front window is spectacular and can be enjoyed while eating meals or during rambunctious cribbage tournaments.

                    The cabin at Hesketh Island.
                    The well equipped galley area.

                    The view through the cabin windows.

In order to explore the nearby water we rented a double kayak from True North.  They delivered it to the island where it was waiting for us upon our arrival.  We were eager to launch just before high tide and paddle toward Elephant Rock.  We hoped to be able to kayak under the elephant's trunk and our timing was perfect!  Laura and I kayaked back and forth under the trunk trying to get good photos of our efforts.  

The next day Mrs. Huffy and I went for a ride, but she was unable to hold a paddle due to the thumb surgery she had earlier in the summer.  So, I paddled us to Elephant Rock and back from the stern position while she enjoyed the ride.  

We also took several additional kayak trips during our stay at the island to check out Grass Island and Kayak Beach.  There is no shortage of destinations for a paddler!

Emily and Mrs. Huffy in front of the cabin beside our double kayak.

Passing under the elephant's trunk at Elephant Rock.
Laura sea kayaking near our cabin on Hesketh Island.
A group of kayakers near Elephant Rock.  The tide was too low to kayak under the trunk at this time.

Our sea kayak cruising the waters near Hesketh Island.

(photo courtesy Laura Hufford)

As mentioned, we played a major cribbage tournament during our stay at the island.  Some of the games were louder than others as we worked our way through an extensive winners and losers bracket system.  All the results were kept on a chart and Emily was the ultimate champion.  She seems to win lots of cribbage tournaments.

We also spent some time using the binoculars to watch the wildlife and boat activity in front of the cabin.  Seals and sea otters passed by and we watched as several fishermen hauled in halibut while their boats were anchored not far offshore.  In the evenings, Laura and Elizabeth enjoyed the sauna and jumping into the ocean afterward.  We also found time to walk along the beach and look at the tide pools when the tide was low.

Emily...the Hesketh Island Cribbage Tournament Champion!
Cribbage concentration.
Using binoculars to watch the wildlife.
The sauna.
Sisters walking together along the Hesketh Island beach.



Two nights and three days passed quickly and the time to leave came too soon.  We slowly packed our gear and hauled it to the water's edge where Zach would pick us up and give us a ride back to Homer.  The adventure was nearly over, but we had a wonderful time on Hesketh Island, and I have a feeling we will be
returning in the very near future!


Below: A sea otter watched us as we kayaked around Grass Island.
(photo courtesy Laura Hufford)
mmm

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

TUTKA BACKDOOR TRAIL 2020




Julie, Dan, Mandy, Doug, Heather, Dylan, Wally, ready to board the floatplane for the flight to Taylor Bay.

THE CREW:
Dan Adair
Mandy Adair
Doug Armstrong
Dylan Hooper
Heather Hooper
Wally Hufford
Julie Stephens

LOGISTICS:
We drove to Homer, Alaska where we caught a floatplane via Northwind Air to Taylor Bay.  At the end of the hike we were picked up by water taxi at the head of Tutka Bay and returned to homer.





About to land at Taylor Bay.
Julie watches the floatplane depart Taylor Bay.

DAY 1:  (7/5/2020)
6.5 miles backpack

Once you step off the floatplane in Taylor Bay the Tutka Backdoor Trail goes straight up.  In fact, you spend the next several hours climbing straight up for nearly 1600 feet.  It will probably be the most demanding backpacking you have ever done.  Moving through forests and eventually breaking out above tree line into the alpine is the reward that awaits you.  In the alpine navigation is done by following strategically placed cairns.  But, fog and mist made them extremely difficult to find.  Our group depended on Dylan and his cell phone upon which he had downloaded a GPS track of the trail.  So, with the help of Dylan's phone we stayed within a few feet of the "trail" as we walked through the clouds.  And, it was cloudy.  On one occasion a pond appeared right next to us as the fog lifted.  It was just a few feet away from us, but we hadn't known it was there due to the fog.  By the time we reached to top we were ready for lunch which we ate in a small protected area out of the wind.  Full of food we happily stood up and set off for the Taylor River.  We crossed more alpine and eventually made our way back down into the forest.  Along the way we saw a black bear about 45 yards off the trail.  It hardly paid us any attention and we tried not to disrupt it as we walked along.  Arriving at the Taylor River we were relieved to see the water level was very low and knew crossing it would be easy.  We waded through the water and happily dropped our packs on the other side and set up camp for the night.  We were in a celebratory mood as we stood around a small campfire talking before going to bed at 8:00 PM.

Heather and Mandy in the alpine.

Backpackers in the fog.

Eating lunch in the alpine.

Mandy and Doug above the Taylor River.


Baackpackers in the fog.


Hiking cairn to cairn in the fog.

Backpackers passing through a ravine.

Backpackers conference.

Crossing a stream high on a mountainside.
Crossing the Taylor River.

DAY 2:  (7/6/2020)
unknown miles, backpack (miles are unknown due to batteries in GPS running out of power)

It started to rain in the middle of the night while we slept at the edge of the Taylor River.  We awoke to wet tents and a soaking drizzle.  However, after eating breakfast and moving around for an hour or so the rain subsided and we readied our backpacks for the coming day.  It was pretty much a repeat of day one--we started straight up another mountain right from the get go.  It was at least another 1600 feet of elevation gain.  Again the fog and mist created navigational difficulties but Dylan continued to keep us on course with his phone.  Then, just as we were about to cross the High Traverse we ran into another group of hikers.  It was none other than Hig, Erin, Lituya, Katmai, and Steve--the creators and maintainers of the trail.  They were out doing some trail maintenance.  We had a wonderful conversation about the trail and they gave us some helpful hints about what was to come.  Then we took off across the High Traverse which is high and on the steep side of a mountain.  Unfortunately, we couldn't see down very far due to the fog, but there was easily a thousand feet of nothing but air below our footsteps.  We eventually made it to a wide open plain where we set up camp.  We could tell there were tall mountains all around us when the fog would thin, but had no idea of their grandeur because the tops were encased in clouds.

Meeting Erin, Hig, Lituya, Katmai, and Steve near the High Traverse.

Camp 2 after the pinch and before Tutka Pass.

DAY 3:  (7/7/2020)
6.2 miles, backpack

We woke to much better weather and the views were spectacular!  Sharp jagged mountains reached up all around us.  We ate a leisurely breakfast while enjoying the view.  After breaking camp we made our way to the bottom of Tutka Pass which we knew would be another grind.  After a couple of hours we made it to the top and had lunch.  Looking down the other side of Tutka Pass we could tell we were in for some glorious hiking.  The valley we would be walking along stretched far into the distance and appeared to have a very gentle grade.  We took off walking from cairn to cairn and eventually found a tread which made for easy walking through the boulders.  We did have to leave the trail for a short distance in order to cross a sketchy segment of snow in an avalanche trough.  We could see numerous openings in the snow field where the trail appeared to go and decided it would be much safer to go down the ravine where the surface of the snow looked to be solid.  After crossing we hiked further down the valley. We made two stream crossings and arrived at a meadow area where we made camp.  This would make a wonderful place to stay for two nights as we planned to explore the nearby Infinity Pools area the next day.

Camp 3/4 near the Infinity Pools.

DAY 4:  (7/8/2020)
Day hike from camp to Infinity Pools

The big item on this day's agenda was a hike to the Infinity Pools.  They weren't far away so we took our time eating breakfast. Then we climbed a small ridge and hiked to the pools.  Everyone went their own speed taking in the surroundings along the way. A sow and cub black bear scrambled up the hillside as we walked along.  We lingered at the pools for a long time everyone going different directions and then gathering at a high point where we ate lunch and took in the views.  It was a beautiful place.  We returned to camp where we spent the remainder of the afternoon chatting and eating dinner.  Later in the evening we watched a black bear forage high on the ridges above us and spotted a mountain goat as well.
This place made me very happy.

DAY 5:  (7/9/2020)
5.3 miles, backpack

It rained for a good part of the night and it was still damp as we packed our gear and readied for the hike to the Tutka River.  Once again we followed cairns along the valley and ultimately came to a well established trail which we hiked along to Lunch Mountain.  The views from there were awesome.  We could see from Tutka Bay all the way across Cook Inlet to Mt. Illiamna.  We stopped to eat at Lunch Mountain and continued to enjoy the views.  Then it was down a steep descent to the Tutka River where we set up our tents for the evening.  We had lots of fun with a stone throwing contest at the edge of the river.  I used the inReach to contact our water taxi and arranged to be picked up at the head of Tutka Bay the next afternoon.


DAY 6:  (7/10/2020)
2.9 miles, backpack

We enjoyed a very leisurely morning and started hiking at noon.  It wouldn't take long to go the ~2.9 miles to the trailhead at Tutka Bay where the water taxi would pick us up and take us to Homer.  We made a quick stop at Fat Olive's for a celebratory pizza and we were on our way home.  Thoughts of a fantastic trip and plans for future adventures swirling in our heads.


Aboard the water taxi headed for Homer.


WILDLIFE:
Black bear-5
Mountain goat-2
Sea otter-1
Hummingbirds-many

KUDOS:
Erin, Hig, Lituya, Katmai and their maintenance teams deserve a huge thank you for all they have done to make this trail possible.  Their efforts have made this incredible landscape available to all of us.










Tuesday, July 24, 2018

WRANGELL/ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK BASECAMP TRIP 2018

THE CREW:
     Doug Armstrong
     Rick Green
     Dylan Hooper
     Wally Hufford
     Cari Martin
     Julie Stephens

LOGISTICS:
     We drove to McCarthy, Alaska in two vehicles.  Upon arrival we set up camp at the National Park Service Meadow Camping area.  We checked in with Wrangell Mountain Air that evening and had dinner at The Potato.  The next morning it was raining and snowing at the higher elevations.  We were supposed to fly to Iceberg Lake at 8:30 AM.  However, weather conditions prevented us from getting there and we ended up going to Hubert's Landing at 4:30 PM.

THE STORY:
     Our original plan was to fly to Skolai Pass and hike the Goat Trail to Glacier Creek where we would have packrafts delivered and essentially float back to McCarthy with a hike thrown in at the end.  We had spent months planning and prepping for this trip.  However, in a phone call with the Wrangell Mountain Air folks we learned that our desired route was impassable.  The high passes were filled with snow and the stream crossings were torrents of melt water.  Conditions were dangerous.  In fact, two people drowned attempting to cross a stream in the Park while we were there, and we later read accounts of several individuals being washed down streams as they attempted to make crossings.

     All Alaska backcountry travelers know that sometimes you are at the mercy of weather and circumstance.  Commonly referred to as "The Alaska Factor," any adventure is best approached with an open mind.  The ability to alter plans and objectives in accordance with unforeseeable changes in weather, flight times, abilities, and so on, makes being flexible an imperative trait.  The lingering late Spring and the current weather conditions were just another exercise in humility.  Nature's bold power was showing us who was boss.  So, we came up with an alternate plan deciding to fly to Iceberg Lake and take day hikes around that area instead.

     We were all set to go when we arrived at McCarthy and set up camp the night before we were scheduled to fly out.  About 2:00 AM it began to rain and we awoke to wet, soggy, sagging tents.  Everyone scrambled toward the Wrangell Mountain Air office where we knew it would be dry under the porch of the building.  Just a little more chaos to add to the fun.

     Following breakfast at The Potato, probably the finest eatery in McCarthy, we loaded our backpacks into a van and rode to the airstrip.  The rain continued as we transferred our gear from the van to a small plane with huge Tundra Tires.  Then we stood around waiting to hear the final assessment of the weather from our pilot.  After looking at the current conditions on an iPhone and getting a report from another pilot we were informed that visibility was not good enough to fly.  Back to the office we went for another cup of coffee and more food at The Potato.

     The day was spent drying gear, eating more food at The Potato, napping, and rearranging our plans.  There was 8-10 inches of snow at Iceberg Lake.  We weren't going there.  The Wrangell Mountain Air folks suggested a place called Hubert's Landing and we collectively shook our heads in agreement.  It was lower in elevation and there was a cabin we could utilize.  At 4:30 PM we were on our way back to the airstrip and loading our gear into a plane for the second time that day.

     The flight to Hubert's was nothing short of spectacular.  We flew over the braided Chitina River with mountains rising on either side and valleys, often filled with glacial ice and debris, winding their way miles into the distance.  We had a hard time deciding which direction to point our cameras as every square inch of the place was photo worthy.

     And, here's the best part, just as we landed on a gravel bar in the middle of nowhere, the weather began to clear.

   Once camp was established it was obvious that we were in a stunning, wild place that none of us had ever been before.  Beautiful, jagged mountains ran to the horizon in all directions and the wide Chitina River flowed into the distance beyond our ability to see.  There were several drainages we could explore and it didn't hurt that the weather was improving with a forecast including more of the same.  Civilization was several days walking away, but that really didn't matter because we had everything we needed--plus some.

     Over the years we have made many trips to extremely wild locations.  It is difficult to share a sense of these places.  Granted there was a cabin at Hubert's Landing, but it was surrounded by miles of nothing.  It is a nothing that touches your heart and calls to your soul.  Places of wilderness are that way.  They provide inspiration and purpose...a reason to keep your mind and body strong. That's why we go there.  It is also a silent place with the exception of the wind and water.  You can hear yourself think.

     Days were passed with combinations of hiking, playing cards, and eating.  The first day we enjoyed--ahem--a 7 1/2 hour bushwhack which left us tired and hungry.  We celebrated with freeze dried meals and adult beverages upon our return.  The next morning we took a 5+ mile RT hike up a drainage to a narrow canyon where we turned around after the canyon walls closed in tight against the creek flowing out from its depths.  The remainder of the afternoon was spent washing clothes and tending gear in bright sunshine.  The following days were spent in similar fashion as we also photographed plants and the prints wolves, coyotes, bears, and bison had left on the sand.  Even though we weren't lucky enough to see any wildlife it was good to know the area was home to a variety of creatures.  I'm certain they knew we were there.

     As for the weather during the remainder of our stay, it was making nice.  After all the turbulence and tumult it caused prior to our landing on that gravel strip, it couldn't have been minding its manners more perfectly.  Glorious sun drenched days followed each other and we soon took for granted the warm and dry air as we lived amid the raw beauty of a 'place that's always been.'

   On July 4th two of us flew back to McCarthy.   The evening flight was remarkable and upon our arrival we passed a large group of people dancing to live music as we made our way to the Wrangell Mountain Air office.  Our pilot accompanied us to The Potato where we ordered food while watching revelers celebrate Independence Day only as they are able in McCarthy.  It didn't go without notice that there was a barrage of the sounds of civilization from a live band, four-wheelers, a motorcycle, people talking, and shuttle vans driving back and forth.  There were even fireworks exploding in the Alaskan dusk at midnight.  It was a stark contrast to the serenity and solitude of Hubert's Landing.

     Several members of our party remained at Hubert's Landing to extend the trip a few more days.  The weather remained pleasant for them and they continued the daily hiking routine making it up a ravine and near the glacier terminus.

     In the end, even though our original plans were thwarted, we were able to spend time in a place that has no roads, trails, or hint of civilization (with the exception of an ancient, abandoned cabin), miles and miles from the nearest outpost, in the largest National Park in the nation.  We would embrace all those things and appreciate the wilderness experience swooning at the views and listening to the silence.   We created a sense of appreciation of the landscape that can only be built by soaking it in at a walking pace.  It didn't hurt that the finest weather of the season was bestowed upon us during our stay either.  Sometimes things work out just the way they are supposed to.

Here are some photos:

 
At the airstrip early in the morning.  It was a false alarm.  The weather wasn't conducive to flying so we went back to the Wrangell Mountain Air office.


Waiting around the Wrangell Mountain Air office.


Rick grabbed a few naps while we were waiting.


Coffee and food at The Potato was a popular pastime while waiting for the weather to improve.


Tundra tires.  Great for landing on gravel bars.


Finally loading up to fly out.


Bear spray canisters aren't allowed inside the plane.  They are duct taped to the strut for transport.


Ready to fly!


The pilot using an iPhone to navigate thru the Alaskan wilderness.




A braided river.


Part of the crew upon landing at our destination.  Two more members  arrived later.


The cabin at Hubert's Landing.


The finely appointed dining area at the cabin.


Heading out on a day hike.


Group consultation using a cell phone for navigation.


Bushwhacking.


Taking in the view.


Hiking up a drainage.


Playing cards in the warm sunshine.


Bear track and mountains.


Dryas (also known as Mountain Avens)