Alaska's Untamed Misty Fiords

By Réanne Hemingway and Don Douglass

"I've seen three treasures of the world-The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite--and this is every bit as beautiful and impressive . . . and much wilder," our photographer said quietly under his breath.

We had just entered Punchbowl Cove in Rudyerd Bay, probably the most spectacular and mysterious watery canyon in the heart of Misty Fiords National Monument. Our long-anticipated trip began several days earlier from Ketchikan, Alaska, aboard the elegant Nordhavn. Don and I had long looked forward to this moment. It did not disappoint us.

Our destination –Misty Fiords-is nestled up against British Columbia's northern border. Ketchikan, Alaska's first city and salmon capital of the world, lies on the western shore of Revillagigedo Island; Misty Fiords encompasses the opposite side of the island plus the mainland east of Behm Canal

To do this trip right, you need a comfortable, well-found vessel, a week of time to make the 200-mile trek, boots and rain gear, and your adventurous spirit. Here there are no navigational aids or man-made facilities of any kind. The water is too deep for your echo sounder to work, there is no radio reception on Channel 16, and no VHF weather reports. A fleeting visit by high-speed catamaran or a float plane flight allows only a few precious viewing moments; you must travel here on your own boat with time to unwind and sense the overwhelming size and grandeur of one of America's most spectacular national monuments. Here you can savor quiet, majestic beauty as you sail through this pristine wilderness.

The 40-foot Nordhavn, skippered by Brian Saunders, meets us at the south end of the Ketchikan airport-located on Gravina Island-where a segment of Seattle's old Lake Washington floating bridge is now used as a loading dock where small boats tie up temporarily. Also joining us was our intrepid photographer, Dave Shuler of San Diego.

The route we have planned takes us north from the airport, clockwise through Tongass Narrows into the Behm Canal which winds around Revillagigedo Island, first in a northeasterly direction, then almost due south. Formed by glaciers, East Behm Canal features a spectacular network of fiords pushing into the North American mainland. From the Unuk River outlet it stretches 60 miles down to Revillagigedo Channel near Dixon Entrance.

Walker Cove marks our entry into Misty Fiords National Monument. The Monument was designated in 1978 to preserve a prime 2.3 million acre parcel of untouched temperate rainforest wilderness. This pocket of land in Southeastern Alaska is so wild and isolated that it begs to be explored. On land there are no signs of civilization, no lighthouses, and mankind is only a short-term visitor. So many peaks remain unclimbed, rivers and creeks go unnamed, and Grizzly and black bear range freely over 1,000 square miles of raw Alaska. Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and cedar line the slopes of these mist-shrouded Fiords.

The first time Don and I entered Walker Cove we used radar to navigate through the dense fog-and until the following morning-we had no idea what splendor surrounded us. Now, many trips later, we are still stunned by the immensity and beauty of our surroundings. Forested hillsides contrast with granite walls of deep purple and violet; overhanging gardens of fern, moss and miniature evergreens line cracks in the rock. In spots, the granite is scrapped bare by slab avalanches that occur frequently due to the sheerness of the walls; the air is perfumed with the scent of evergreens.

Brian maneuvers the Nordhavn to a vertical rock face below a cantilevered waterfall; the water is so calm and the depths beside the wall so great that there is little danger to the boat. Don stands on the bow and takes a shower fully dressed! Invigorating!

As we move southward toward the Punchbowl, the clouds return to the Monument, reminding us of its well-chosen name. Fog and mist hang in wisps in several layers starting 100 feet above the shore, obscuring the high peaks of the Punchbowl. We are alone in the 10 mile long fiord save for one small fishing boat we saw earlier this morning; it is quiet and the water a mirror.

On this trip, fall is clearly on the way: the ground dogwood are in full fruit; berries, a Chinese Red, decorate the heart of four green, arrow-shaped leaves. The waist-high leaves of the skunk cabbage lie low along the ground with no sign of their yellow spiked blossoms that bloomed early in the summer. Salmonberries hang pendulous from their branches, a treat for the bears that inhabit the region.

Another sign of autumn are the hundreds of leaping salmon that gather at the mouth of Behm Canal's creeks in anticipation of a rainstorm that will raise the water and allow them to head upstream to their spawning areas. From the boat we witness numerous bears, eager to fatten themselves for their winter hibernation, gorging themselves on these unfortunate salmon.

As the Nordhavn navigates into the fiord, we are treated to a myriad of waterfalls along the Punchbowl that appear in the mist as thin, white stripes painted on the grey, granite walls. We watch as the melting snow tumbles nearly 3,000 feet from the high ridges on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. In places the rock is deeply cut indicating that a glacier worked its way out of the basin some millennia ago. Clouds continue to waft across the first layer of ridges as we pause to enjoy the tranquility. The sun ultimately makes an appearance, but all on board agree that the mist and clouds are what give the Fiords their mysterious, lonely and majestic quality.

We tie up at the U.S. Forest Service public mooring buoy near the head of Punchbowl Cove. A most scenic, but steep, boardwalk and dirt (sometimes mud!) trail leads to gorgeous Punchbowl Lake. Be sure to wear rubber boots; the trail, which gains 600 feet in three-quarters of a mile, is rigorous and slippery. At one point we pass a spot where the trail runs along a narrow rock ledge with a 300-foot drop to the north. In spite of its arduous nature, there are plenty of scenic vantage points to stop and admire the view (as well as catch your breath). After about half a mile up the trail we come to the Punchbowl Creek Waterfall overlook. Those who continue on to the lake and want to further their explorations will find a USFS skiff with oars available at no cost.

Our cruise to the bitter end of Rudyerd Bay is well worth it. With camera in hand, out on the bow in my slicker, stocking cap and gloves, I feel the full beauty of this shadowy place. On deck I see the little details I missed from below: a cascade of water every 100 yards, an overhanging arch, then another; a hanging valley out of which roars a massive quantity of water; and slick slab walls covered with eerie, green moss. The wind bites against my cheeks. I zip my fleece vest to the collar and seek protection behind the Portuguese bridge. It's nice to be able-when I've had my fill or as the rain increases-to re-enter a warm, comfortable pilothouse.

Veterans from 60 N to 56 S, Douglass and Hemingway have written extensively under about cruising Alaska and British Columbia. Reanne's bestseller, Cape Horn, has recently been published in French and Italian.


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