Friday, July 13, 2007

Bay of Islands

Sorry I haven't had the time to write an entry lately. Things are getting pretty crazy around here; lots of people and lots of bears. It might be impossible to describe the situation at Brooks Camp with mere words and pictures. Would you believe me if I said that this morning I had to put my waders on to cross the river because there were 8 bears within 50 yards of the bridge? How about if I told you that two minutes later, on my way to Brooks Lake to go fishing, I had to back off the trail to allow a mother brown bear with a cub to pass within about 20 feet of me? And if I said that as I was backing up, I allowed myself a calmer look at this sow and cub and realized I knew their names? Does it sound unbelievable when I returned tonight from Brooks Lake tonight, I actually was able to cross the bridge -- after the spring cub that had climbed onto it managed to find his way back to his mother and sibling, and after they and the other sow with her three 3-year-old cubs moved off? Right now I am using a computer in the ranger station; it's 1:00 in the AM and actually dark here. Imes popped in 5 minutes ago to tell me to be careful, he just saw the rear end of a large bear walking through camp. My roommate just came in and said when he opened the door of our cabin, there was a bear right in front of him. I am starting to wish I had brought a flashlight.

But there will be plenty of time to talk about Brooks River and its remarkable and hairy inhabitants. As you know, Brooks Camp is just a tiny dot on the map of a 4.7 million acre park that includes hundreds of miles of coastline, a stretch of the Aleutian mountain range containing 5 active volcanoes, the second biggest lake in Alaska, and the valley where the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century took place. I have decided that I am going to try and see as much of this incredible park as I can while I am here, and so last weekend I ventured to the North Arm of that aforementioned lake to a spot called the Bay of Islands.

I had run across some pictures of the Bay of Islands on one of our computers and decided I would like to go there. As it turns out, the Park Service has a backcountry cabin in the bay that can be reserved and somehow I was lucky enough for it to be open on my day off. So Ralph (a ranger from Savannah) and I took off bright and early in one of our boats loaded up with a couple kayaks so we could do some exploring once we got there.

In hindsight I should have taken a more pirate-like approach but at the time coffee seemed more appropriate than rum. It was an hour long ride around the corner of Mt La Gorce (link to map above) to get to the Bay of Islands, and as we got into the bay I was amazed at how a short boat ride could bring us to a wilderness so unique from the one we left at Brooks Camp. Here are those pictures had seen on our computer; they are an aerial view of the Bay and do the best job of acquainting you with the landscape:

As you can see, the Bay of Islands is a valley where the water level has risen to create a bunch of small wooded islands -- a great place to explore, camp, or fish. It has been described as the Everglades or Keys of Katmai, and I definitely got that feeling as I was kayaking around. There were some marshy areas that definitely reminded me a canoeing in Florida, if not for the huge mountains in the background.

Fure's Cabin is located a the end of the bay, in a small cleared area on the thickly forested shore. It was built by a trapper in the 1920s before that land was part of a National Park, and technically Roy Fure was trespassing from after 1931 when his land was incorporated into Katmai. He continued to live there anyway, and today the NPS maintains the cabin for visitors to stay at; you only have to reserve it (usually far in advance) and find a way to get there (boat or floatplane). Its red roof guided our approach from afar.

The cabin was cozy and clean, and you cant beat the panoramic view... (click for a bigger picture)

We dropped off our stuff at the cabin and set out in the kayaks to explore the nearby islands. They had mostly rocky shores, but I stopped at a few sandy beaches and was surprised to find bear and moose tracks at all of them. There isn't exactly a great food source on these small islands, unless you consider a white-crowned sparrow a hearty meal, so I wondered why a bear would take the time to swim across a huge lake to get to an small island without food. Maybe he was just passing through on the way to the salmon at Idavain Creek and decided he would swing over to a couple of islands to explore and claim them for his own. Maybe he caught a whiff of a good smell and decided to go check it out. What about the bears that beheld the islands with curiosity but decided to carry on with more important tasks? Either way, it must feel nice just to be faced with such a dilemma. The thought of such a wild and unconstrained choice makes me reconsider my notions of freedom.

As I paddled, I didn't see any bear or moose, only their tracks, but I did see some other fascinating wildlife that I have never seen before. Take a look: a goldeneye and some common loons.

Fure's Cabin has a wood stove for heat and cooking, so after kayaking around most of the day I set out that evening to do some fishing. I wasn't out there 30 minutes before I pulled up to the side of the boat the biggest trout I have ever seen in my life; a salmon-sized lake trout, 28 inches at least, fat all around. When I saw it came to the surface "oh my god" was all I could think of to say to myself. I reached over to grab it through the mouth to lift it into the boat, but for some still inexplicable reason I lifted it by the line, which of course broke. I watched that monster, our dinner, swim away slowly and disappear back into the depths. It is moments like these that make grown men cry. Somewhere in the Bay of Islands a massive lake trout is lurking on a sandy shelf, my neon green spinner proudly displayed in the side of his mouth. I should offer a reward.

Believe it or not, fishing takes on an entirely different feeling when you are really counting on it for food. I wasn't going to starve that night inside Fure's Cabin, but that lake trout would have been a hell of a lot better than the peanut butter and crackers I ended up eating. It was the thought of those crackers that kept me fishing for 3 more hours after I lost that monster laker, but to no avail. It was one of the few times I have been shutout since being in Alaska. From his vantage point back at the cabin, Ralph did not yet know I was returning empty handed.

After our disappointing dinner, we decided to take the trail from Fure's to Lake Grosvenor. This trail is part of the Savonoski Loop, an 86 mile canoe/kayak loop that takes you from Brooks Camp up through the Bay of Islands, down Lake Grosvenor into the Savonoski River, and back into the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake and to Camp. The only part on land is a 1.5 mile portage between Fure's Cabin and Lake Grosvenor, and as I walked it late that night I was glad I wasn't carrying a kayak. It was dark by the time we got to Grosvenor, but Ralph managed to get this good picture using some camera trickery, and it seems like a good way to say goodnight.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Glad to hear that you are not a pile of bear poop in the woods somewhere. Your mom will be glad to see that post, I'm sure.
It sure seems like an absolutely wonderful experience. Maybe in a few years, after I retire again, I'll go up there and join the rest of the rangers. After all, I have the insulation....
Take care--Uncle Steve

Mason said...

Uncle Steve --

You would definitely make it through the winter.

Anonymous said...

I hope you try to get that cabin while we are there. Looks great. Have some moose meat ready for us to take in case you lose another fish. Good artical, you can hear the contentment in your voice. I'm happy for you. But I have talked to a lot of locals and the stories about 40 below and cabin feaver don't sound that good.
Love, Dad.

city girl said...

my boyfriend was born on kodiak island-how long have you been there, and for how much longer?

Anonymous said...

Wow Mason,What a great trip you are on.The scenery looks wonderful!I just want you to know. when your out there hiking around, your pack should have at least 80-100 lbs of gear. This should Help when it comes time to pac Elk in Idaho.Dont be too hard on you father when he arrives.Maybe ya can show him a thing or two about fishin.Keep gettin the neat pic.Hope to see you soon.Cuz Doug

Anonymous said...

Glad to see a new entry. I have missed your writings. You are experiencing moments that will be with you the rest of your life, and it sounds like you are making the most of them. I'm proud of you! Don't ever stop.
Well at least now you have a fish story to tell your Dad that he can relate to.

Owen said...

aah, mason. you haven't bit it yet. I thought you were a goner for sure.

Anonymous said...

Mason sounds like you're in the middle of a most excellent adventure. The pictures are awesome, and your story telling is incredible. Keep on exploring. cuz's Ross & Cindy

Mason said...

Thanks Ross and Cindy, and Doug don't worry I will be ready to pack some elk. Owen-- are you email challenged? Write me back boy.