Walking around Douglas Island isn’t fun in the traditional sense of the word.
Most of the island’s beaches are rocky and there are a lot of cliffs from Point Marmion, on the island’s southern tip, to near the Hilda Creek tidal flats. If you don’t hit the tides right — and no one does the first time they attempt the 25 or so mile trudge — you can add several hours of zigzagging through brush and clambering over windfall in the woods. If everything goes perfectly — and I mean perfectly — the trek takes me about 11 hours. The first time I did it, the hike from the northern tip of the road back to South Douglas took me 14 or 15 hours. I’ve yet to fully circumnavigate the island; it just feels a little awkward to walk along the beach beneath houses and a road. If you want to make it more enjoyable you can spend a night or two. There’s no shortage of great camp spots on the backside of the island.
Recently I set out to do the trek — I usually do it once or twice a year. I began at the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail at South Douglas. An eagle swooped by with a branch in its talons and landed on a nest 50 feet above the trail. Wind off the icefield stirred the channel; ducks crowded in protected bights and on the shore. Three deer foraged at the edge of the forest; nearby, bones of their kin poked out of the snow above the high tide line. I neared Lucky Me, a cluster of cabins, as a fishing boat headed toward white mountains rising above Taku Inlet. A ceiling of dark clouds blotted out the horizon. It looked like NOAA was right about the winter storm they predicted.
I made it to Marmion two hours before low tide. If you’re coming from the other way, I recommend getting to Point Hilda about three hours before low tide. Traveling when the tide is low minimizes difficulties with the cliffs between those two points. That day, the snowy mountains of Admiralty Island glowed in the slate gray sky. I wondered how many bears were awake or stirring in their dens.
One of the best things about walking around Douglas is that it gives your mind plenty of room to wander. Among other things, I was thinking of Doug Peacock, a favorite author of mine. After returning from two tours as a Green Beret medic in the highlands of Vietnam, suffering from PTSD and disillusioned with humanity, Peacock sought solitude in the remaining wild areas of the West. He credits grizzly bears with saving his life, and details much of that journey in his near-masterpiece memoir, “Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness.” Peacock formed an intense and sometimes strained friendship with the iconic Edward Abbey. In an act that would color the rest of Peacock’s life, Abbey based George Hayduke, the celebrated, antisocial-eco-warrior-troglodyte-protagonist of his cult classic novel “Monkey Wrench Gang,” off Peacock.
I was thinking mostly about “Walking it Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness,” the last book I read by Peacock. It has passages so beautiful they made my skin crawl. I’ve never read a better meditation on coping with death, loss and pain. A lot of the book centers around Edward Abbey’s death, but it goes far beyond that and into the realm of wild adventures and insightful reflections. It’s a bit reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard,” but more hard edged.
I relate to a lot of things Peacock writes about. One of the most prominent is his need to go on long, most often solitary, treks to purge psychological poisons and renew himself. The longer and wilder, the better. Everyone deals with the crud of life differently. For me, “walking it off,” whether it’s a day trip around Douglas or a bike ride across the continent, has worked the best.
The mountains of Admiralty disappeared in clouds, a northerly picked up and wet snow began falling. A curious young sea lion followed me along the edge of cliffs. The world was soon reduced to the gray blur of a blizzard. The fresh remains of a deer that had been gnawed by wolves were scattered across the beach. I paused a moment to look for tracks but didn’t see any. At the tidal flats surrounding Hilda Creek, I kept an eye out for an odd arrangement of boulders I’d encountered with a backpacking class I taught for UAS a few years back. They were arranged in a way that looked uncannily like an altar. A student said something about human sacrifice and people got uncomfortable, so we quickly moved on.
By the time I rounded Point Hilda, I was incapable of doing more than fantasizing about beer and dinner. It was near dark when I limped the last mile to the parking lot at North Douglas. I was tired and my lower back was twinging but I felt better than I had in months.
If you’re looking for a hard-hitting new author to read this spring, consider giving Doug Peacock a try. And, if you’re looking for a way to “walk it off,” consider hiking around Douglas.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer, and his column “Off the Beaten Path” appears in the Outdoors section of the Empire every other Friday. His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” His second book, “Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Fishing and Hunting Tales,” was published April 3. You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.