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When I heard that Erin and Hig of Ground Truth Trekking were taking their kids and hiking and packrafting around Cook Inlet, I dropped them a line and asked if I might be able to join them for part of Turnagain Arm. They were glad for the company, and so I planned to meet them as they came in to Hope, and proceed from there. I got the call a couple weeks ago, that they would soon be getting to Turnagain Arm. So, last Tuesday I gathered my gear and got a ride down to Hope, with the idea that they would arrive there at some point that night based on their progress so far. As with most plans though, things didn’t go as expected, and Chickaloon Bay’s thick mud was proving to be more challenging than expected.
I spent the first night camped at the mouth of Resurrection Creek and waited for Hig’s call. That first night, after staking out the tent and cooking dinner, I just sat and watched the geese out on the flats and enjoyed sunshine while I listened to music and triple checked all of my gear. The night was colder than I expected, and I barely slept. When the sun came up and the tent warmed up enough, I was more than happy to sleep in. Eventually Hig called and said they were still on their way, and probably would be ending their day in Hope. We agreed that I would hike towards them and meet at Halfway Island, between Hope and Gull Rock.
Not wanting to carry all of the food I had brought with me, I stopped and talked to Billy, a recreational gold miner camped in the RV park waiting for the season to open on the 15th. He agreed to watch my box of food until I returned with Hig, Erin, and their kids.
From there I set off toward Halfway Island by walking down the road through the still closed Porcupine Campround to the Gull Rock trail, and then on to just before the board walk section of the trail. It was there that I cut off the trail and bush-wacked down through last year’s devil’s club to the rocky beach. The tide was still quite low, and as I looked out toward Halfway Island, there was only one small trickle of a channel that I would have to cross, no more than six inches deep.
My big concern though was the idea of walking out onto the mud flats. Having lived in Alaska all my life, I’ve never heard anything but bad about the mud flats, from the story of the lady who drowned in the 80s when she got stuck and drowned by the incoming tide, to the urban legend of a man so stuck in the silt that a helicopter ripped him clean in half trying to lift him out. The stories, both real and imagined, are all based on the mud flats quicksand like silt. You can take a step, and in seconds be stuck up to your waist. Then, the suction is so great that you simply can’t get free. Combine that with the 20+ foot tides in the Anchorage area, and it’s a short time before you’re a goner.
So with all that weighing heavily on my mind, I extended my trekking pole and poked at the mud. It sunk in a short ways, but then found purchase. With that I gingerly stuck my foot out beyond the rock and onto the mud and poked it with the toe of my shoe. It gave a slight wiggle as if I’d just poked a bowl of Jello. I stood there for a moment and continued to consider my options. The tide was much lower than I was, and judging by the water line, I could venture out a little ways, and even if I got stuck and the tide came all the way in, I would still have most of my body above water.
With that rationale comforting me to some degree I stepped out onto the mud with all my weight on one foot. The ground wiggled but I barely sunk in an inch. I placed my next foot forward with the same result. Feeling a bit braver I started to slowly walk forward, probing the ground in front of me with my pole and listening to the SCHLORK SCHLORK SCHLORK sound of my feet. Before I knew it I was to the channel, then through it, and then standing on the gravel shore of Halfway Island. I’d crossed a few hundred feet of mud flats and I hadn’t sunk in even to my laces. Maybe I would survive this trip after all.
On the island I took off my pack, set up my solar charger for my phone, and turned my eyes out towards Chickaloon Bay to watch for movement. I heard a dog bark and voices out somewhere towards Gull Rock. There was somebody on the trail but not who I was waiting for. About half an hour later though I saw a tiny black dot on the water. I strained my eyes to see if it was moving but I couldn’t tell. Soon it appeared that it may be two dots, but just as quickly it looked like one again. I’d almost convinced myself that the sun reflecting on the water was playing tricks on me, but then the dots clearly separated and I saw the bright glint of the sun reflecting off wet paddles. I gathered my pack and moved to the North side of the island to great the incoming travelers.
“Is that Erik?!” a squeaky voice asked, followed by many other high pitched questions. I raised my hand and called out “Hello!”
Erin paddled a Red Denali Llama packraft with Lituya in her lap, while Hig paddled a Yellow Alpacka with Katmai standing up against the pack strapped to the front looking forward. They came in to the shore and we hauled their boats up onto the island while exchanging greetings as the kids ran and played among the rocks. We talked about the last couple days of their trip and discussed our next move. It was quickly decided that we would take the boats into Hope, so I got mine out and began inflating. Katmai and Lituya found my boat, with it’s alternating stripes of red and yellow, and my technique of squeezing the air out of the inflation bag into the boat, to both be highly humorous and entertaining.
As we got ready to push off from the island, I thought about all the warnings I had heard about Turnagain Arm, and it’s terrible currents. I was again, somewhat hesitant. Once we actually got on the water though, everything went very smoothly, and we were on the beach near Hope very quickly. In fact it only took about a quarter as long to boat back to Hope as it had taken to hike out to Halfway Island. We walked into town and met again with Billy and his wife to retrieve our box. We had a short conversation with them, talking about their feelings on matters pertaining to Alaska and about how the state had changed, and then went back to the grassy beach to camp. Before long though, Billy came walking up with a few bags, and generously gave us some steak, milk, lettuce, tomatos, and even bacon. We gave him our sincere thanks before enjoying a dinner of spanish rice with cubed steak.
The second night had been nearly as cold as the first for me, and to make matters worse, I woke up with a pretty bad headache. I figured it was probably one I could walk off though, and so I packed up my gear and got ready to leave camp. Katmai and Lituya were fascinated by the colors of para-cord I had with me for repairs and tying my gear up, so I gave them each a piece to play with which kept them entertained for a little while as their parents made final preperations to leave.
We hiked along the beach, crossing the dreaded silt sloughs I imagined would eventually swallow me whole. Some of them were sloppy, but none of them were terrible. At one point though, we took a break, and Hig, Lituya and Katmai decided to give me a demonstration of liquefaction. They danced in circles, as if performing a rain dance, in one spot. As they did, the ground wobbled and jiggled, and eventually started to flow downhill. Soon an area five feet across was slopping it’s way ever so slowly down towards the water. It really was very impressive.
After that, we continued our walk, and Katmai told me about some very interesting dinosaurs. Some of the dinosaurs he described I knew to be real, but others I wasn’t so sure about, like backpackasaurus and spaceshipasaurus. Nevertheless he told us all about their various traits and habits in great detail. My mind actually started to wander, and I caught myself trying to visualize spaceshipasaurus. It may become the basis of some art project later.
We took lunch at Windy Point, where we also sat and waited for the incoming tide. When it came there was no mistake about it. The bore swept up one channel further offshore, and then started back down the arm where it met another channel closer to shore. Soon the bore coming up that channel met the bore coming down it and they crashed together in a whirl of turbulent water. The sand bars were quickly disappearing as various whirlpools and rips formed and disappeared. Hig described what was happening in front of me from a Geologist’s perspective, and I was taken back to the feeling of being in science class, but the kind of class I actually enjoyed and wanted to participate in rather than the kind I’d rather skip.
As the tide continued to come in, the water started to calm down and level out, so we inflated our boats to take advantage of it. We made incredible progress very quickly. I was really almost startled by how powerful the currents really could be. It seemed less like paddling on salt water, and more like paddling down a river with an occasional series of low class 2 rapids. I few spots were choppy enough to get my adrenaline pumping a little even; especially where the channels came together to squeeze between Bird Point and the point on the other side of the Arm.
Eventually things calmed down though, and we were moving at a comfortable pace. At one point we even saw a seal bobbing around in the water, as well as many different eagles, hawks, falcons and others birds. The weather was good and my headache was getting much better. This stretch of the trip was one of my favorite. The sun was getting low and we started looking for a place to camp. We ended up pulling into a place called Sawmill Creek, almost directly across the water from Girdwood. We started a fire, ate dinner, set up camp, and went to sleep.
The night had been much warmer, partially do to our campsite being tucked back into the trees and protected from wind and partially due to the thick layer of organic material I had pitched the tent on. Also helping me sleep soundly was knowing that I was inside the protection of Hig and Erin’s electric bear fence. It all added up to me really not wanting to get out of my sleeping bag when I heard everyone else awake. I did however pry myself out of my tent and get ready for the last day of the trip (for me.)
Hig noticed in the morning, something he had not seen the night before. Our tents were only a couple dozen feet from the foundation of some old building. Perhaps the sawmill of Sawmill Creek?
We started the day off beachwalking again, and soon we realized we were following the tracks of a coyote through the mud. Wherever his tracks went, we seemed to instinctually follow, trusting the coyote to find us the best footing. We saw many beautiful points of tree covered rock, jutting out into the arm, as well as sea caves and nests of cliff swallows, all untouched and un-treaded by man in who knows how long?
It excited me to think that the place we were traveling may not have seen another human in many years, even perhaps decades. And why? People are so afraid of the arm. I hear the way everyone talks about it. We get it drilled into our heads that if the currents and raging bore tides don’t kill us, that the sucking quicksand will, and the end result is that we take it all as gospel and no one sees this place. I’m sure there is very real danger involved with visiting this part of the arm, but I have to imagine that it must be roughly equivalent with glacier travel, or a number of other risky activities Alaskans engage in on a regular basis. Why is it so universally excepted then, that this is an unhealthy unwise thing to do?
Before long, we came to Seattle Creek. We could see the evidence of man again, faint tire tracks in the grass, and some smoothly cut logs on a hillside, recent enough to be unweathered. The thick soupy mud we’d been walking on, gave way to sandy grassland as we walked out into the arm. We made a decision to walk until we came to the main channel, and then cross it with the boats. As we walked we came across an old weather balloon, stuck in the silt.
Not much further though, and we were to the channel, a mere couple hundred yards from the highway. The tide was coming in fast though by this point, and there was no high ground to flee to. We inflated our boats as quickly as possible, and by the time they were ready, with all our gear strapped on, we had less than a minute or two to spare before we would have been standing in water.
We pushed off into the channel and the current immediately took us. A steady wind blew in our faces, countering the current and causing waves to pile up. A few were large enough to break over the front of my boat and pack, and spray into my face. It was very exciting and a little hair raising. I couldn’t help but think how embarrassing it would be to have gone all this way and then need rescue within a stone’s throw of the highway.
We survived though, and pulled our boats up onto the banks at the mouth of Peterson Creek.
That was the end of the trip for me, but for Erin, Hig, Katmai and Lituya, they still had the rest of the Arm, and the rest of Cook Inlet to travel. Be sure to check out their progress and read their stories on their blog. I’m sure it will be worth following. They are one heck of a family.