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Sierra Magazine
Good Going: Fortress of the Bear

Paddling in the wake of the heroes of Admiralty Island

by Paul Rauber

Terrestrial locomotion on Admiralty Island is hard enough for 700-pound Alaskan brown bears, let alone adventurers carrying canoes on their heads. Walking is frustrated by dense stands of old-growth hemlock and spruce, six-foot-tall stinging devil's club, mushrooms as big as pies, and lush thickets of pie fixin's-huckleberries, melonberries, salmonberries, and blueberries. Bears blaze their own trails (walking in the depressions left by generations of passing paws, you feel very small indeed) but they tend to lead from one berry patch to another. The path of least resistance across the island-for humans, at any rate-is a wet one.

Our party is commemorating a quarter century of cross-Admiralty canoe trips by Alaska Discovery, a conservation-minded outfitter born of the struggle to save this island in southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest from the chainsaw. A large percentage of those who have paddled its lakes and saltwater channels seem to have done so in the company of our veteran guide, Hayden Kaden, who is also celebrating turning the family business over to his energetic 24-year-old daughter, Sierra.

We had flown in to Lake Alexander, the easternmost lake, and retrieved five canoes from a gaggle of giddy and extremely dirty teenagers who had just finished a weeklong character-building expedition featuring no soap, no toilet paper (don't ask, I didn't), and food haphazardly chosen at the supermarket the afternoon before they left. Moral: survival is apparently not such a difficult affair after all.

For six days we hopscotch from lake to lake through what the Tlingit call "Khutz-n'hu," Fortress of the Bear, a land of orthographic as well as biological diversity. We time our passage of "Kootznahoo" Inlet to miss the tidal rush that makes it a Class III rapid. The blessed solitude we enjoy is guaranteed by the "Kootznoowoo" Wilderness, established in 1980 after President Jimmy Carter proclaimed Admiralty a national monument two years earlier. And early miners dubbed the island's moonshine "Hoochinoo likker," or hooch.

While some of the lakes are connected by pleasant waterways, where navigation is impeded only by a profusion of giant water lilies, others require portages ranging from a couple hundred yards to three and a half miles. Luckily, in the latter case we have an extra set of canoes stashed at the far end, so we don't have to hump our boats over the mountain. We rely on the portage trails constructed by Carter's Youth Conservation Corps and the old Civilian Conservation Corps before it: sturdy cedar planks laid in the muck, winding through the giant trees.

Had it not been for Carter-and a crucial lawsuit by the Sierra Club-we would have been walking on logging roads through an old-growth forest logged to the waterline. Instead, thanks to yesterday's conservation victory, we can take our place in a vital world. Bald eagles abound, striking patriotic poses in snags. Chum bump the bottoms of our canoes in their insane upstream urges, and Dolly Varden leap shimmering into our waiting tortillas. Midsummer bear are scarce, which is fine by us. Writer Frank Dufresne tells of watching an old Admiralty griz gorge on salmon one summer's day, and then-for no apparent reason-attack and demolish a large tree stump. He asked his guide for an explanation. "The grizzly's mad," the local declared, "because he ain't got nothing to be mad about."

Our last camp is on Mitchell Bay, only nine miles from the Tlingit village of Angoon, Admiralty's sole settlement. Even so, humans are still curiosities here. Huffing harbor porpoises cut perfect arcs through the tidal waters in the crisp evening air, while snooping seals eye us, trying to divine the attraction of bipedalism. Otters slide off rocks at our approach. Above it all soars Raven, the totem of one of the great lineages of the island, performing acrobatic half-rolls and dives for the pure fun of it. We lounge in the long twilight, relaxing sore muscles, eating crackers and salmon, and drinking high-grade hooch. Better the joy of Raven than the choler of Bear. An earlier generation of conservationists saved Admiralty Island, and thanks to them, we ain't got nothing to be mad about.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.


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