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A Spooky Paddle: Tenakee to Hoonah, the Nonsensical Way

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Our overnight paddle from Tenakee to Hoonah was a dark, uncertain, and risky. Unfortunately we found no candy, probably because we mistimed it. We wish you a happy and safe Halloween, free of monsters, ghosts, and vampires.

Our hotsprings tour of Alaska brought us to Tenakee, a quaint town with few full time residents and an awesome bathouse. In attempt to stay safe in Grizzly bear country, we've been trying to stay on little islands, in cabins, or near communities. And the next town on our route, from Tenakee is Hoonah. Go into Navionics, and you'll find a very reasonable route that would take two comfortable length days with good camping along the way. The weather for us was great, so this routes exposure to Chatham Strait was a non-issue.

The sensible route from Tenakee to Hoonah. The route we did not take.

However, we'd heard stories of a portage trail connecting the Tenakee Inlet and Port Frederick inland on Chichagof Island. There's also a sweet forest service cabin back there. The cabin was booked, but we thought "maybe they won't be there." Or, even better, "maybe they will be and they'll welcome us in!" The route is just as long at about 40NM of paddling, and involves about 0.5 NM of portaging -- carrying our kayaks over land. And the icing, the route goes right through the one of the densest Grizzly territories on earth. Further complicating matters, the portage has to be done at high tide, 11pm-ish on June 31, the day we were planning our attempt.

The portage inland on Chichagof, highlighted in pink. The Nonsensical Way.

This all amounts to, to paraphrase my AOG instructor Finn Steiner, "introducing a lot of chaos." We'd be paddling 25 NM from Tenakee. If we arrived and found grizzlies, we'd be forced to return to Tenakee. If we arrived late, we'd be forced to turn around because we can't safely camp in that area. If we made the portage, but were not able to stay at the cabin, we'd be forced to paddle through the night to get to Hoonah. Also, it was raining, and being cold and wet aggravates all the other risks. Also also, we couldn't find anyone who'd actually done this portage recently, so it was entirely possible that it was impassable. So, lots of things that could go wrong. Lots of chaos.

Alas, Ken, Nathan, and I decided to send it. With regards to bear safety, we were clear. Any bears, or recent activity, warranted turning around. We made a lot of noise and kept our bear spray out. We always stayed as a group of 3, and did not stop on land where it was unsafe to do so.

Thankfully, we've only seen 4 grizzlies so far. This is the best photo I've got. I don't want to get closer.

So, after a morning bath in the Tenakee Hotsprings and some icecream, were set off at 1pm, aiming to be at the portage start by 10pm.

The paddle started off foggy and rainy at 13h Alaska Daylight Time (UTC-8) All good, thanks to our penchant for staying dry. We were even lucky enough to see a pod of Orcas, who we're guessing were gorging themselves on the jumping salmon.

We were grateful that it cleared up, and we were treated to a dry dinner break and a beautiful sunset at 21h.

The dusk mist was magical at 22h. The temperature dropped rapidly as darkness set in. I was grateful I layered up at dinner and had loaded up on snacks.

Nathan has a wild knack for spotting things at a distance. He quickly found the impossibly small opening for the portage trail when we arrived at 22h30. Perfect timing.

Buggy and dark, a bugnet hat & headlamp were appreciated for this portage.

Ken dragging his boat through the mud at 23h00, after our first group carry. Some downed logs forced a second carry shortly after.

By 23h15 we'd made it to a paddleable, but very shallow, waterway. We were on the clock with the high tide now dropping. Also, this is the grass that grizzlies like.

At 00h02 on July 1st, we found deep water and stopped to enjoy some chocolate as a reward. This was particularly necessary as we realized the cabin was Infact occupied and the person was sleeping. Decision made, we had to keep pushing on to Hoonah.

At this point, it was dark and overcast. Headlamps stayed on for the paddle so we could keep an eye on eachother during the paddle.

Daylight broke at around 03h00, when we put the headlamps away. We were treated to a stunning view of the mainland Alaska mountains at sunrise. This part of the paddle dragged on forever. My feet were hurting from bracing against the foot pedals and hull, so I paddled in some weird ways to get comfortable. I was especially grateful for the calm seas as a result. We could also see Hoonah for about 3 hours prior to arrival, which is a recipe for a slog of a paddle.

Our nonsensical route to Hoonah

We landed in Hoonah at 06h00, 17 hours after we left Tenakee and 21 hours after we woke up. We changed, and found a bench to nap on.

Our little sub-adventure was a bunch of fun. It was cool to push ourselves, line things up with the tides, and exercise our risk mitigation and decision making strategies. I'm glad we didn't see any grizzlies. Being unable to use the cabin was a bit of a bummer but was somewhat expected. This marks our first night paddle of the trip, as well as our first (and hopefully only) portage. A very fun adventure, but now I'm ready for sleep.

And, our advice for those who want to take part in this sillyness:

At a 4.8m tide at Port Frederick, the three of us were able to make the portage in about 1h15. You definitely want to leave buffer on the Port Frederick side to navigate the shallow marshland. This is not a place you want to get stuck, especially at night. There are trees down across some of the waterways, so be prepared for some extra carries. There's lots of mud and places to loose gear, so minimize unpacking your boat. If you can book the 8 Fathom Cabin in advance, definitely do so!

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