“Careful on that slippery rock,” he said. “There’s no easy way out if you fall in.”
I tip-toed along the mossy granite outcropping, hoping my Xtra-tuffs would hold against the slimy nature of the algae and evening frost.
What Ward Air Owner and Pilot Randy Kiesel said was true.
The rock sloped as steeply as a kiddy slide into the aqua waters of Turner Lake, and from there it disappeared into the dark deeps of the freshwater lake.
It was fall, and around the group of five — one journalist, one pilot, and three U.S. Forest Service trail crew members — rose numerous 4,000-foot peaks straight up into a sharp blue sky. Their caps were topped in a fresh coat of termination dust. A breeze tickled the lake’s surface. A stream babbled nearby.
There were no sounds of boat traffic. No hum of planes. Just the quiet of a place so remote, it feels like another world entirely.
This is the story of two cabins — both with historic significance — and of a lake, created with the recession of a glacier where today trophy cutthroat swim.
West Turner Lake Cabin
Perched atop a granite outcropping sits the historic West Turner Lake Cabin. This public use, USFS-managed structure was originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 40s and, to this day, retains an old world charm that subsequent renovations have preserved.
It began as a basic structure that included an enclosed bunk room with an attached, outdoor fireplace. The two shared a common roof, which certainly offered refuge from the frequent rains of this region. Historical drawings show a flagstone floor near the fireplace and a puncheon (wood which has been milled flat on one side) floor in the sleeping area, which was closed to the outside by thick Dutch doors.
Originally, the cabin was designed by Linn A. Forrest as an “alpine type one-story with fireplace” structure. Forrest is perhaps best known for his architectural design, and drew up the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the Federal Building and Timberline Lodge, near Mount Hood, Ore. During his time working with the Civilian Conservation Corps, he helped design many rustic shelters and cabins, according the USFS heritage report, and worked to restore more than 100 Native totem poles and clan houses.
The report also states Forrest designed two similar structures around this time — one was proposed for Turner Lake and the other for Florence Lake. No cabin with this design was ever constructed at Florence Lake, but the West Turner Lake cabin remains today, with the original Dutch doors, fireplace and flagstone flooring, just to name a few of the original features.
These days, the cabin is fully enclosed, thanks to work by the Territorial Sportsmen in the 1950s. A shake roof was replaced by sturdy metal, the siding refreshed and reinstalled where needed, and the original rock work that frames the fireplace and chimney was given a good pressure washing in 2008 by USFS Trail Foreman Rob Morgenthaler and his crew.
“We didn’t want to lose the historic character of the place,” he said. “It’s a big cabin, (these days) and usually gets used by larger groups.”
In 2008 crews also installed a float plane dock, which makes sense, since most visitors choose to take the quick, 20-minute flight from Juneau. The dock also serves as a place to tie up the two skiffs which are at the location at all times for cabin users. Each of the skiffs are compatible with a small outboard motor, but that’s not entirely needed, Morgenthaler said. There are oars provided at the cabin. Even so, on an 8-mile long lake, an outboard is certainly a handy machine to have around, he said.
The chalet-style West Turner Lake cabin is treated like any other public use cabin managed by the USFS. Reservations are first-come-first-served basis. The structure sleeps six people with two single and two double bunks. The cabin also has a table and benches, a broom, an oil heater, a cooler box for food storage, an outhouse and food preparation space. Full details can be found online at http://www.recreation.gov.
East Turner Lake Cabin
Six miles to the east sits a modest cabin on a little rocky spit on the edge of Turner Lake. Nearby, a boathouse — once a warming shelter — holds the tales of fisherman, and the evidence of celebrations next to a fire.
While there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the cabin — it’s constructed in the typical USFS panabode style — the boat house does have some history.
And here, near the headwaters of the lake, are where the big fish are rumored to lurk.
But back to the boat house for a moment. As the Civilian Conservation Corps did work to West Turner Lake Cabin in the 1930s, the Alaska Daily Empire reported lumber had been landed on the beach at the mouth of the Turner River and was being hauled to the “the upper end of the lake to the site on the sand spit.” While it’s hard to be certain, this was likely the lumber they used to construct a simple warming shelter. Later, once word spread about the great fishing on the east end of the lake, this structure was used regularly by the Territorial Sportsmen. Local tales abound, alluding to fishing derbies, good times and regular visits by outdoor enthusiasts.
Today, the markings remain of those who visited before. Scribed into the wood with knives, rocks or charcoal are the signatures of men and women. One, written in deep charcoal reads, “Going fishin’. Doc Burkett, Aug 4 1942.”
This site lends itself well to groups interested in staying in the cabin, or those who may want to camp — it’s relatively flat, with room to wander. The USFS also stores two skiffs on site, exactly like those found at West Turner Lake Cabin.
The East Turner Lake cabin sleeps six people with two single and two double bunks. The cabin also has a table and benches, a broom, an oil heater, a cooler box for food storage, a campfire ring, an outhouse and food preparation space.
Morgenthaler can attest to the good fishing in this part of the lake.
“The fishing is very good there — a lot of fun, great fun,” he said. “There are a lot of kokanee — land-locked sockeye salmon — and you can keep those.”
He said it’s rare that he visits the cabins without bringing his fishing rod.
“(The kokanee) take a little different technique; they live a little deeper down and what you use to fish with is a little different,” Morgenthaler said.
Turner Lake and fish that lurk
To say that Turner Lake is deep and beautiful would be an understatement.
“It’s unbelievable,” Morgenthaler said of the beauty of the area.
The geology was carved by a retreating glacier that gouged deep into the rock. A freshwater lake was left behind, reaching a max depth of 705 feet, according to research by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Today, an existing waterfall now separates the lake from neighboring Taku Inlet, but the resident kokanee indicate it was at one time connected to the sea.
And, it’s one of only a dozen or so trophy trout lakes in Southeast Alaska.
Which, according to Roger Harding, a Fisheries Biologist III with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, is not very many.
Harding has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game for more than 29 years. In the 1980s, Harding began studying the lake in earnest once it was identified and pursued as a possible source of both hydropower and as a rearing lake for sockeye salmon.
His team identified three species of fish in the lake, he said — cutthroat trout, Dolly varden char and kokanee.
“That was one of the first cutthroat trout lakes we looked at,” Harding said. “We started our abundance estimation study and the results seemed to be lower than we expected.”
In the end, he said, “we estimated there were about 2,000 cutthroat trout in the lake which were seven inches or larger.”
It was then the ADF&G decided to impose a catch-and-release only regulation with the hope the fishery would rebound.
“It is our only catch-and-release lake in Southeast,” he said. “(But,) I hope that our regs have worked to some degree; it may take many generations.”
According to Morgenthaler, the big fish are indeed in the lake and those big ones have taken years to get that large, Harding said.
“We found that it took 15 years for the fish to reach 21 inches or more,” Harding said. “Several fish that were marked, at three- to four-years-old, were around the big 25-inch mark at about 15 years old.”
The size of the cutthroat is largely due to the presence of the kokanee, Harding said.
“A fish can’t get to 20-plus inches just dining on bugs,” he said.
Instead, they prey on the small kokanee, which look like purple herring.
Anglers might be confused by the coloration of cutthroat trout in Turner Lake as some of the fish (particularly larger trout) are mostly silver with few spots.
But good fishing isn’t limited to the lake. Both Morgenthaler and Harding admitted the outlet — where the Turner River pours over a waterfall and mixes with the salt water — is highly productive for Dolly varden and pink salmon.
Getting there and other things to know
While most folks choose to charter a floatplane, the speedy, albeit more expensive route, Turner Lake is also accessible by boat.
Morgenthaler said a skiff or other shallow-bottomed boat is best, due to the shallow mud flats that linger at the outlet of the lake, they are especially prevalent during low tide. Timing is crucial, he said, and visitors should make sure to come in on a slack high tide.
Once the boat is secured, it’s a short .8 mile hike on a well-maintained trail to the West Turner Lake Cabin.
East Turner Lake Cabin is only accessible by float plane, since there is no true shoreline to Turner Lake.
Most of the local float plane operators in town are comfortable flying into Turner Lake. According to Ward Air, a four-person round trip will cost $870 and flight time is about 20 minutes.
The cabins are available year round, though few, if any visit in the winter. Most years, the lake ice is gone by mid June.
It’s then, in the balmy months of summer, the only nuisance of the lake arrives.
The bugs. According to both Morgenthaler and Harding they are bad — as in need-a-bug-net and swarms-chasing-visitors bad.
There are, however, ways to prepare for such an inconvenience, and Morgenthaler said he highly recommends coming prepared for the absolute worst.
“It’s the buggiest place in Southeast,” Harding said, “but it’s one of the most beautiful places you can access.”
Turner Lake and the cabins on its shores are steeped in history and surrounded by 4,000-foot peaks with flanks that disappear into aqua waters. Those waters hold fish — hulking fish that would send any fisherperson running for their gear.
Getting there takes a little planning and a little preparation. Most stay for a week or longer, and definitely come ready to battle the insects.
Visitors should be educated in bear safety, bring their own life jackets and number one heating oil for the cabins. Typcially, the heaters in the cabins use about one gallon of oil per day in the summer. It's also recommended users bring an outboard motor. For more information on the specific needs at each of the particular cabins, call the USFS local office at 586-8800. Reservations can be made at http://www.recreation.gov.
• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.