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Take the Oliver Inlet Tram to the island's long water wilderness

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2004

The all-water route from Juneau south to the head of Seymour Canal on Admiralty Island is about 100 miles around the Glass Peninsula. Thankfully there's a shortcut that saves more than 80 of those miles.

The catch is that boats using the shortcut need to go overland for more than half a mile.

Making boats go over ground, however, isn't as difficult as it might seem. Years ago the Territorial Sportsmen built a hand-powered tram across Admiralty's northeast side to make Seymour Canal more accessible to Juneau boaters. Today the tram is managed by the Alaska Division of Parks.

It runs between Oliver Inlet, on the northeast corner of Admiralty Island, and the head of Seymour Canal and actually seems like a little railroad. There are tracks across the muskeg, two cars, and you provide the engine's power by pushing or pulling the tram.

There's one other catch. The railroad's rails don't run to the water, at least on the Oliver Inlet side. That means boats must be light enough to be carried from the water to the tram cars.

On the Seymour side the tram ends at a creek. If there isn't at least a 15-foot high tide the boats will need to be carried to/from the water on that side of the tram as well.

Once across the tram, however, all the attractions of upper Seymour Canal are available. At the top of the list for many is bear viewing at Pack Creek, a wildlife sanctuary managed by the Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But that's just Seymour's headline attraction.

On my early-June, six-day, 85-mile kayak trip from Juneau through upper Seymour and back, I found plenty to keep me fascinated without even visiting Pack Creek. During my trip I paddled into Fool Inlet, hiked around Windfall and other islands and explored to the ends of both Windfall Harbor and King Salmon Bay.

Early June is baby time in Seymour. In addition to four fawns with their mothers, I saw seal pups on rocks and two brown bear cubs frolicking on the beach while their mother dug for clams.

The cuteness quotient zoomed off the charts while watching these newest members of Admiralty's wildlife family. However, caution soon replaced cute.

That's because the sow, with her two cubs bounding behind, eventually ambled up the beach and plopped down in a dry creek bed out of my sight.

If I had arrived at the beach with the bears hidden from view I might have taken a short shore break, as I've done many other times.

I could easily have startled a sow with two cubs, a most dangerous situation.

Rivers otters, not bears, however, provided the biggest animal scare during the trip. I was in the woods hanging my food from a tree one evening when I noticed movement off to the side. Turning quickly, I saw half a dozen adult river otters moving as a group around a big log and into some rocks.

They looked more like fur-covered crocodiles from Middle Earth than gentle river otters. I was relieved they moved away, not toward, me.

Not all the animals were on shore. I saw three orcas, and, on previous trips, I've watched humpback whales. Small fascinated me on this trip as I watched large schools of tiny fingerlings in the water. I guessed they were salmon.

Mostly the fish moved together, but occasionally, one would break ranks and flip on its side. Then a silver flash lit up the water, like a mirror reflecting the sun.

Although I saw animals every day, the trip's biggest pleasures came from the smallest events: watching an eagle stand stoically on a rock as the tide rose higher up its legs, investigating a beach log that from a distance had looked like a painted red and black Tlingit artifact, wondering at the history of pebbles in a pool while filling my water container, hiking isolated beaches, camping before postcard views and looking down through clear water while drifting in shallows and feeling I was actually suspended in space looking down on Earth.

In addition to enjoying the ethereal, these trips require the practical. Food, for example. Breakfasts were usually granola, a muffin with jelly and fresh fruit.

Lunches included combinations of cheese and crackers or a bagel and sliced meat supplemented with extras like carrots, an apple, gorp, etc. Suppers invariably were one-pot affairs. Quick-cooking pasta was the base with chunks of pre-cooked meat like ham or turkey mixed with onions, broccoli or carrots added. Usually a package of cookies also made it into a food bag.

Another part of the practical is sleeping. I use a small tent, always with a rain fly, a blow-up mattress and sleeping bag. Especially on Admiralty, I hang my food out of the reach of bears.

I've found that it usually takes a few days of being out on an adventure to replace city cadence the wilderness rhythms. Once that happens, invariably I feel more creative, more mentally active.

Unplanned ideas, new thoughts, greater insight and more clarity are the much appreciated byproduct.And while I'm out kayaking and enjoying this changing world inside my head, there's always something else to look at around the next corner. And of all the corners I've paddled around in Southeast, I've always found you can expect to see more in Seymour.

• Scott Foster can be reached at scottfoster@gci.net.



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