1. In The Land Of Ferries, Float Planes, & Mountain Goats
I’ve never lived so close to such amazing backcountry hiking. As we really only have one forty-mile road that stretches along the edge of Revillagigedo Island, all the trails on our road system are usually just minutes away. As soon as you step foot on the trails here, you are walking into a dense rainforest canopy of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and alders, and a trail brushed with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, ferns, and a plethora of berry bushes—salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries, and thimbleberries to name a few. Many species of mushroom and moss grow abundantly here as well. As you hike into the higher elevations on the mountain trails, you may find yourself walking through much more open muskeg meadows, with thinner and smaller mountain hemlock, yellow cedar, and the tough, knee-sized krummholz. In order to help better identify the flora here in Southeast Alaska, I highly recommend Jim Pojar’s and Andy MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. You may also want to pick up books on edible berries and mushrooms as well. A good place for information, brochures, and maps is our Discovery Center, run by the U.S. Forest Service, just a block over from the cruise ship berths. The U.S. Forest Service’s website offers information here on Alaskan poisonous plants and information on mushrooms here: Mushrooms of the National Forests of Alaska. A good rule of thumb is: if you don’t know what it is for sure, don’t eat it.
As soon as you are walking away from town, nothing but wilderness stretches ahead of you for hundreds of miles. Much of the wilderness is very difficult to access; often the only ways to get into the backcountry is by foot, boat, float plane, or any combination of these. Hiking off trail is very difficult here and not at all recommended for newcomers solo hiking. When leaving the trail, people do get lost in these woods and sometimes do not return. But most of the trails we do have are well-marked and easy to follow. The difficulty can be if the trails are covered in snow, then it’s not so easy. Our mountains hover around 3000-feet tall and often with a base starting right at or near sea-level, so that’s an entire 3000 feet of vertical from base to peak. Some of the higher elevations, such as hiking up toward Minerva Mountain from Carlanna Lake, you have to keep an eye out for the cairns to direct your path because there are not tall trees upon which to place markers, only a steep, vegetation-spotted rock slope. Even though our mountains are on the small side, we still have tree-lines on some of the mountains because of our northern latitude and extreme climate. Once you are in the alpine country, you may be above the tree-line and will only have the path below your feet to follow. Often, the direction to go can be pretty clear once you are up on the mountain ridges and tops because there are very limited choices of where to go due to precipice drop-offs. Usually during clear sunny days, visually orienting one’s self can be easier if you are familiar with the landmarks, such as other mountains, the ocean, and where north, west, east, and south are. However, if the high country is socked in with clouds, rain, or snow, navigating can become extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous.
For more challenging hiking, we have two mountain traverses here. The Deer Mountain to Silvis Lakes traverse is a fourteen-mile, one-way trek across some remote alpine country and climbs over Deer Mountain and Northbird Peak, skirts just below John Mountain and Mahoney Mountain, and ends up at the south end of the Tongass Highway. The Carlanna Lake to Perseverance Lake traverse is roughly ten miles, one way, and climbs over Juno and Ward Mountains. These traverses can be done in a day or broken up if one is willing to bring camping equipment along. People should only attempt these traverses if they are in great shape, are very good at sniffing out a faint alpine trail, know how to read the weather, and are proficient with using topographical maps with a compass or GPS. Several people have gotten into trouble on these traverses, especially the more popular Deer Mountain to Silvis Lake traverse. Do not underestimate the rigors of a traverse that crosses multiple mountains.
Cell-phone coverage can be very spotty on many of these trails. Without getting into each trail specifically, here’s a good way of thinking about how cell reception may work here. Out north and out south at the end of the Tongass Highway, there generally isn’t any cell service, nor for the trails there. Trails that can be accessed right out of town are generally a safe bet for cell service, all the way up to the peaks as long as you are on the town-side of the mountains. The Ward Lake area trails generally have cell service, except for the further you go into the backcountry out Revilla Road or out one of the longer trails like Perseverance Lake or Connell Lake. This area happens to be on the other side of the mountain ridges from town. Reaching ridges and summits again makes for a better chance of connecting with cell-phone towers from town. If you are in a cell-phone dead zone, it is often helpful to power down your phone so that the device doesn’t quickly drain from trying to continually search for service, thus preserving power for when you may need to use your phone for photos, time-checks, or emergencies. Otherwise, remember that you really aren’t out here to stare at your phone and check emails or Facebook because once you do, the Alaskan wilderness is already lost on you.
Transportation to the trails can be one of a few different options. If you already live in Alaska, you may consider putting your car on a state ferry so that you have your own vehicle for exploring the Ketchikan area. For those of you who are arriving by plane or boat, we have a rental car service that is offered both at the Ketchikan International Airport, which is on Gravina Island, and also here on Tongass Highway roughly two miles north from downtown. Ketchikan does not offer an Uber service, but we do have taxicabs whose drivers are willing to drive and pick you up from anywhere you’d like to go. We also have public bus transportation that goes out north as far as North Point Higgins Road, which is roughly near the fourteen-mile marker and goes out south as far as Franklin Roosevelt Road, about 6.5 miles. For any hiking off the road system, several float-plane businesses are available for hire as well as Baranof Excursions, a highly rated and experienced charter fishing company with boats that can transport people to remote cabins and trails in the surrounding area. Of course, sometimes aviation and marine transportation can be canceled due to unnavigable weather.
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