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Off the Beaten Path: Exploring the Stikine Delta by kayak, foot

Posted: June 20, 2014 - 12:02am
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The Stikine watershed encompasses 20,000 square miles of international country. Generally considered to be the second most productive salmon river in Southeast Alaska - the Taku is considered the first-the main channel of the river is around 400 miles long.  Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
The Stikine watershed encompasses 20,000 square miles of international country. Generally considered to be the second most productive salmon river in Southeast Alaska - the Taku is considered the first-the main channel of the river is around 400 miles long.

This spring I attended the Little Norway Festival in Petersburg. It seemed remarkably tame in comparison to the shenanigans I’d experienced there two years prior. Maybe it was me — perhaps I’ve lost my berserk. In the olden days I could bellow, [filtered word], throw herring, talk smack with inanimate objects and dump mead on my head with the best of them. By the end of the party I found myself in existential disarray (I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I know it’s not good).

On a walk in the Blind Slough estuary with my good friend Sam Muse, I tried to get my head on straight. While Sam talked incessantly about how much he enjoyed exploring estuaries, I stared into the reflecting waters and wondered who I was. So instead of returning to Juneau with the large contingency who’d ferried down to celebrate Little Norway, my friend Ben and I launched two kayaks in the Wrangell Narrows. The swift current carried us past balls of smolt, schools of dolly varden, flocks of sea birds and out into Frederick Sound. Sounding whales, a stiff southeasterly and torrential downpour made the day a wet and wild ballet of emotion.

By late evening, the wind had died a bit and we floated on the still waters of Ideal Cove of Mitkof Island looking for a camp spot. The following day we crossed Frederick Sound and, because we believe in a holistic approach to fitness, began making a fairly long and muddy portage across the Stikine Delta. Thankfully, it was raining hard enough to keep us from overheating. A few hours later, we made camp and began exploring an expanse of sloughs, meadows and tidal flats. I thought of Sam — I’ve heard the Stikine estuary is the largest on the west coast of America — and wished he could experience the magic that Ben and I were feeling.

Wolf, bear and moose tracks wended across the flats, northern shovelers and other waterfowl fed along the high tide line and when the occasional sunbeam poured through a black cloud. The scenery was enough to warm a cold, hard heart.

The Stikine watershed encompasses 20,000 square miles of international country. Generally considered to be the second most productive salmon river in Southeast Alaska — the Taku is considered the first — the main channel of the river is around 400 miles long. It was long used as a trade route between Tlingit, Tahltan and other people; early Russian fur traders came into the area around 1800. Fur trade dominated the region’s economy, but gradually a market for fishing and timber developed. Gold was discovered up the river in 1861, and steamboats hauling miners primarily up to Telegraph Creek became common. From there, the prospectors followed a trail to the Cassiar gold fields.

Ben and I’d been hiking across the flats for a few hours when we came to cliffs that made continuing difficult. Ben decided to take a short cut back that looked a little too bear infested for my liking. We split up — me feeling wise about my route and sticking to the edge of the tidal flat as the tide rushed in. Around a spit, a brown bear grazed grass and sedges along where I hoped to travel. It looked medium-sized and peaceable enough, so I walked a little closer hoping it would walk off. I noticed something small and brown laying in the grass nearby the bear. The wind shifted and the little brown spot metamorphosed into a second, very large, brown bear standing on its hind legs staring at me. I backtracked and hurried out on the flats hoping to beat the rush of the incoming tide and give the bears plenty of space. The big bear idly watched; I could have almost sworn I detected it chuckling when I came to the first knee-deep slough. The next slough was up to my mid thigh. The next was waist deep. The last crossing was up my chest. Soaked but feeling electric (It had been well over a year since the last time I’d been swimming!) I made it back to camp in the late evening. While I’d been swimming, Ben met a wolf at close proximity on his walk (of course he didn’t see any bears). Instead of running, the rusty gray wolf had stood up and stared at Ben for a half minute. It ran a short bit, then looked back a couple of times before disappearing into the woods.

After being in existential disarray from feeling disconnected from my Viking heritage, a big reason I wanted to make this paddle was to try to capture a good photo of a Southeast wolf. The Stikine and neighboring islands, particularly Kupreanof, are said to have so many wolves that THE Alaska Department of Fish and Game has approved a large scale experimental control program on some areas of certain islands. The next leg of the journey would take me to the control area on Kupreanof Island with the hope of seeing wolves. You can read about it in my column next week.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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