Adventuring sideways in a vertical world

Juneau climber walks to Skagway along Lynn Canal shoreline

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2007

Courtesy of Mike Miller

Mike Miller lives for the world of three-dimensional adventure sports that thrive on ups and downs. Recently he decided to go sideways and walk from Juneau to Skagway along the shoreline of Lynn Canal.

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Walking, scrambling, climbing, bushwhacking, and swimming, Miller covered the 100 miles by splitting the trip into two separate legs. After finishing the haul to Skagway, Miller walked an additional 60 miles home on the west side of the canal to finish his personal circuit earlier this month.

"On the bushwhacking scale it was a seven out of 10," Miller said. "We certainly underestimated it."

At various points of the big walk, three others joined Miller, who may be the first person to cover the Juneau-Skagway trip under his own power.

"Even using every combined skill we had with climbing and route-finding, the trip was barely possible on a human scale," Miller said. A follower of human-power adventure philosophy, Miller once rode his bike from Skagway to Juneau over the icefield.

In 2005 Miller started the project by swimming across Berners Bay, then spent three days traversing the shoreline 60 miles to Yeldagala, just below Sinclair Mountain.

Earlier this month, he returned to the final 40 miles of the project, traveling 14 hours a day with Haines resident Will Wacker as they continued from Yeldagala along the vertiginous Taiya Inlet to Skagway.

"It's hard to find people to do this stuff," Miller said.

The idea for the big walk came naturally to Miller. Throughout the last decade he's spent nearly 40 days climbing in the remote area north of Juneau.

Along with climbing partner Ben Still, Miller has logged five first ascents of the granite peaks above his shoreline route. Approaching those various climbing trips put Miller on the shoreline at intervals along the canal.

"Climbing is one thing, but to get more, we do these long walks and swims," Miller said. By "more" Miller means something intangible, which he tries to describe with facial expressions and waving hands as well as words.

For Miller and partners the big walk was more of a "complete adventure" because of the combined technical route-finding, free climbing, coldwater swimming, scrambling and even a little walking.

The course traversed the shoreline, but Miller said the route required free-solo climbing up to a 5.7 rating that added up to 15,000 vertical feet after adding all the scrambling up and down, over and around.

The trip was about the aesthetics of light efficient travel through incredibly harsh and beautiful country. "It was a big challenge to not know what's around the next corner," Miller said.

Gear for the trip was minimal, at 35 pounds each, including dry suits for the swims.

Hoping to keep their adventure quota up, Miller and partners did not recon the route by boat before the trip.

"We almost chose not to bring a map," Miller said.

After a day of inching through boulder fields on the second leg, Miller and Wacker came to an impassible cliff. With the goal to stay as close as possible to shore, the pair pulled dry suits out of their packs and swam the three-quarters of a mile.

"The tide was with us," Miller said.

Part way through the swim they hauled out and slept on a cliff bench above the water line.

Though Miller is probably the first to walk and swim the route, he's not the first to think of it.

Back when Southeast towns were as wild as the high country, an outlaw name Rusteback tried to escape Skagway with the same route in mind, but he didn't get far before a mob caught up with him, Miller said.

Pre-trip research also turned up stories about a Juneau high school teacher who started the shoreline route from Juneau to Skagway in the 1950s.

"He turned back after 10 days," said Miller.

The mostly pristine terrain, unlittered by human leavings, was a bit like walking through a zoo, Miller said. At one point Miller and Wacker approached a Steller sea lion colony of hundreds.

"We could smell them before we could hear them, and we could hear them from miles away," Miller said.

Along the wild route, Miller saw Department of Transportation survey markers where he believes no one can build a road: vertical granite cliffs and 2,000-foot wide avalanche paths.

Miller said the DOT made a poor attempt to mark the roadway. A land route out of Juneau has been considered and argued for years.

"They mostly marked existing goat paths. When they came to the cliffs they just skipped them," Miller said.

"It's solid granite covered by the barest amount of earth. It just clings there."

Miller found road markers passing within 1,000 feet of the crowded sea lion rookery. He and his partner's quiet presence drove the animals into the water. "Imagine what a road would do to them," he said.

"If the cruise industry can move a million people from Juneau to Skagway in four months, we should be able to move around 30,000 on the ferries," he opined.

With the hardest part of the circuit out of the way, two stretches remain before Miller can say, "I walked around Lynn Canal." There's the leg from Haines to Skagway, and swimming across Lynn Canal from the west side to Tee Harbor, where he lives and works.

After that, Miller said "We still have the whole west side to climb for the next 10 years."

• Greg Skinner can be reached at

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