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Section 4.2: Hot Springs, Bears, and a Portage

Updated: Jul 8

We said bye to Jordan and hello to Ken... and continue to struggle with urges to cover incredible distance. We stopped at two hot springs, did an overnight portage, and celebrated the 4th of July three separate times. Check out part 1 of section 4 and sections 1-3 to get caught-up on our adventure!

The last 27 days have been truly incredible! Almost none of this section's events were in our original plan, but all of them were awesome. The chain of events leading to where we are now is long and convoluted, so keep an open mind and bear with me as I ramble through it. This is the second half of a 2 part post

In the morning of June 26, we left the comfort of the Sagebrush Dry shop headed for Juneau. We had mailed a food drop to the UPS store there and had just confirmed that it would be held until the 5th of July. That date was now our deadline!

We set out with Ken from Point Macartney for the first leg; a two day journey to Baranof Hot Springs. It was a foggy morning and we were starting a 10NM crossing to Admiralty Island. The 1m chop and wind from the South was daunting, but we stayed close and followed our bearing. We pulled in for a quick lunch in the drizzle then headed West towards Murder Cove. We knew of a cabin near the cove where we'd be sheltered from rain and safe from bears.

Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands (known as Alaska's ABC's) have some of the highest concentration of brown bears anywhere on the planet. We were somewhat spooked, but trying to to keep a level head. We have bear spray, bear bangers, and our food is stored in smell-proof bags in sealed kayak hatches.

We paddled through a lot of mist and fog in the first few days of this section. Eerie and beautiful!

Right around 5:30, we tucked behind an island in the bay where we thought the cabin would be. Just as we rounded the corner, we came face to face with 3 brown bears - a mother and two cubs. Startled, they all stood up on their hind legs and scattered into the woods.

"I guess we're not camping here!"

To our relief, right across the bay we spotted the cabin. We landed and quickly set up for the night. 24NM down, 14NM to go in the morning to get to Baranof Hot Springs.

I found the best mug in the whole world on a shelf in the cabin

In the morning, we borrowed a cast iron pan from the cabin to make pancakes then paddled towards Chatham Strait. As we bagan our crossing, the fog settled in once again and we made our 4NM crossing on a bearing.

Just after lunch, we arrived in Baranof, pulled out our boats at the community dock, and were immediately greeted by Fred, a prominent whale biologist and Principal Investigator at the Alaska Whale Foundation. Fred gave us the lay of the land then we pitched our tents under the community picnic shelter and went for a walk up to the hot springs. They were glorious! Hot water pours out of a natural spring and is collected in a series of 2 bathing pools. There is a rushing river beside the springs with an alcove to freeze your butt between warm soaks. Once we were thoroughly cooked, we wandered back to camp to make dinner.

Baranof Hot Springs is pretty amazing. A boardwalk leads to a set of pools in the forest near a raging river.

In the evening, the three of us hatched a plan for the coming week. Two days North is the town of Tenakee Springs, with its own hot springs. We would paddle there for another soak, and then we would paddle West up Tenakee Arm for 25NM to reach a short portage. From there we would cross and paddle another 16NM to the the town of Hoonah. From there we would be 2 days away from from Juneau and could still arrive on the 3rd of July to collect our food drop from UPS and celebrate the 4th of July. This detour would add roughly 30NM of distance to our route. To further complicate matters, the high tide required for us to cross the portage route would be at 11:30 at night so we would be doing this entire detour in a single 41NM overnight push. A ridiculous plan by any measure!

We talked, and pondered, and discussed. Eventually we all came to the same conclusion. 'Screw it, let's do something crazy'.

In the morning, we checked-in with Jim and Lina - a couple who live in Baranof and who Fred had informed us might have information about Lituya Bay. During our chat it became clear that they didn't have much information about the Bay's condition's, but Jim put us in touch with his sister Judy who lives in Gustavus and has lots of information about the Gulf of Alaska. Her plot line will be important in future blog posts.

Around 10am, we paddled out of the bay and headed North towards the Trader Islands. After 24NM of slogging through Southerly waves, we arrived on the North side of the island and set up camp for the night. We were confident that we'd be safe from brown bears on our perch in the middle of the channel. On that night, we were proved right.

In the morning we made a delicious breakfast of grits and smoked salmon. The fish was a gift from a woman named Ada from Baranof. At this rate, there's no need for us to fish at all!

Smoked salmon and grits! I couldn’t resist taking a little nibble of the fish before I took a picture.

We paddled North through following seas and by 6:30 had reached Tenakee Springs. As we pulled up to the beach behind the community dock we heard a distinctly Australian voice call out to us.

"You boys hungry"

Heck yeah! We paddled ashore, pulled our boats up the beach and wandered over for some beef tacos and intense Aussie banter. We spent the night tenting under the community picnic shelter and went to explore the town in the morning. We had a quick dip in the springs (they're in a concrete bath house, gendered time slots, nude bathing only) then poked our heads into the grocery store for some ice cream cones.

Hot water bubbles out from a crack in the rock at Tenakee Hot Springs

We left the beach at 1:30pm and headed up the inlet. We reached our destination around 10:30pm and carried our boats across the portage. To our disappointment, we were greeted by deep sticky mud and fallen trees on the other side, so it took another hour and a half of dragging, lifting, and tripping over our feet in the dark before we were through. By 1:00am we paddled up to the Eight Fathom Cove cabin in the hope that it would be unoccupied so we could sleep. It was not... we downed some coffee and a snack and accepted our fate. 15NM of paddling in the dark before we would reach the town of Hoonah. We're putting together a more detailed account of this harrowing journey that should be out soon.

We reached the town beach at 5:45am, hauled our boats up to the grass, changed our clothes, and fell asleep on a park bench until 7:00am. We wandered over to 'The Fisherman's Daughter' restaurant for breakfast and coffee. Feeling slightly more alert and alive, we took a look around town. As it turned out, there was a parade happening that morning at 11 and a community party on the field all afternoon! The town of Hoonah celebrates the 4th of July on the 1st because most of the town works for the cruise ships on the holiday. We met one of the food vendors Rob as he was setting up his halibut taco stand and he offered his guest room for us to stay the night.

We watched the parade, napped, ate lots of delicious food, had a beer at the local brewery, and went for an evening drive with Rob and Erica to find some brown bears. We slept soundly in the guest room and were paddling away by 9:30am the following morning. Ken decided that he would paddle straight to Glacier Bay National Park and skip Juneau. We wished him well and said 'bye for now'.

Two days later, in the afternoon on the 3rd, we arrived at the Auke Bay campground. We booked a car rental and prepared to drive to the UPS store to collect our food, then to Costco to get any remaining bits and pieces, then downtown for a concert and fireworks.

We arrived at the UPS store at 7:00pm and learned, to our horror, that our boxes of food had been returned to Vancouver. After a momentary panic, we regrouped and decided that we'd have to buy, pack, and mail everything for the next 45 days of paddling. We raced to Costco and completed an aggressive speed-run of the store and filled our cart with what we hoped would be enough food. $700USD later, we rewarded ourselves with a soft serve ice-cream from the cafeteria and headed downtown to dance, watch fireworks, and unwind.

We bumped into Fred in Juneau at the 4th of July community concert!

Almost nothing in this section was in our original plan. The serendipity of events leading one to another is what has made the trip so special. In retrospect, I'm tempted to think it 'serves us right for trying to plan a food drop on a trip where nothing is planned'. Maybe it was inevitable that we'd end up in a situation like this one at some point. We're taking time to regroup and prepare and hopefully have smooth sailing on the next section.

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