SITKA — Veteran solo trekker Mike MacFerrin possesses at least one valuable trait needed to complete an 18-day hike and paddle from Sitka to Port Alexander.
“Selective memory is the only way I keep doing these trips,” he said of his July 16-Aug. 2 overland trip through the southern part of Baranof Island.
MacFerrin, a 32-year-old graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has completed several solo trips in Alaska, including an 18-day hike around Cordova in the Chugach National Forest, a walk from Yakutat to Hubbard Glacer, and a float down the Situk River.
Last year, he hiked the northern part of Baranof Island, from Port Elizabeth to Sitka — well, almost to Sitka. On Day 2, his GPS signaling device became detached from his backpack somewhere in the Rodman Creek area. It had been set up to automatically broadcast its location periodically so MacFerrin’s friends and family back home could keep track of his progress. After the signal came from the same location for several days they worried that MacFerrin was injured or in trouble of some kind, and notified local search and rescue agencies.
Sitka Mountain Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard started a search, and found MacFerrin at Nakwasina Passage, about a day away from Sitka. He wasn’t lost or injured, but accepted the offer of a ride to town.
“It was a big blow to my ego to be picked up the first time,” MacFerrin said.
This year, he learned from his mistakes. He tethered his GPS Spot Messenger device to his pack, checked often to make sure it was still there, and carried a VHF radio as backup.
This time, the trip was a complete success. In order to meet his goal, he criss-crossed the island several times, floated in his pack raft down rivers, cleared peaks and paddled across a few stretches of water.
“Not everybody would find it enjoyable,” MacFerrin said. “In fact most people wouldn’t ... It’s not for everybody. You need a tolerance for pain, cold and discomfort. I have a selective memory. All I remember are the views and the euphoric feeling when I hit the tree line.”
MacFerrin is a graduate student and research assistant working toward a doctorate in geography. His area of study is the “remote sensing of glaciers and ice sheets.”
He grew up in Nebraska, earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering at University of Michigan, and a master’s in computer science at UC-Boulder. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he taught high school math in inner city Baton Rouge, La., with the Teach for America program, and spent three years teaching math at Madison High School in Portland, Ore.
“I was a flatland kid but I’d go on hiking trips with my dad, in Wyoming and Colorado,” MacFerrin said. “When I moved to Portland, I started loving the big, wet, green woods of the Pacific Northwest.”
He now is a graduate student and research assistant, working toward his doctorate at UC-Boulder.
Although the north-to-south trek over two summers may constitute a record of some sort, MacFerrin hikes for the same reason most people here do: because he loves the beauty and remoteness of the area. In his current home, in Boulder, it’s difficult to get away from others.
“The mountains are full of people there,” MacFerrin said. “The wilderness doesn’t feel as wild. ... I do enjoy the solitude immensely.”
MacFerrin has done some other exploring around Sitka. After his Rodman-to-Nakwasina expedition last year, he took four days to complete the cross-island route from Sitka to Baranof Warm Springs. He spent four days there and hiked back.
And this year, he started his vacation here with a kayak trip to Fred’s Creek, and a hike up Mt. Edgecumbe, accompanied by his fiancee, Barbara Cardinali, who then flew home.
He said this year’s trip went extremely well, with a combination of good weather and some rainy days. He always had a set of dry clothes to sleep in.
“If I was going to do it again, I’d probably make a few changes to the route, but for the most part, I think I did pretty well at picking routes that were safe enough given the weather conditions I’ve had,” MacFerrin said.
He finished the trip a few days early, taking advantage of a calm morning Tuesday to paddle down Chatham Strait from Port Lucy into Port Alexander.
MacFerrin said he’s not sure what his plans are for next year’s wilderness adventure, but hopes to spend part of the summer studying the Greenland ice sheet.