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Tongass Wilderness S t e wa r ds h ip E x pedi t i o n : P a c k r a f t i n g a c r o s s South Baronof Wilderness

Background The land enclosed in the boarders of South Baranof Wilderness is steep, remote, and difficult to travel. Over millenia, glaciers have carved precipitous walls and left long lakes bounded by sheer rock walls that come down right to the waters edge. Other than intrepid deer and mountain goat hunters, this Wilderness area receives almost no foot traffic. Cabins, located on a few lakes large enough to The land float planes, see slightly more use, although most Sitka Community recreational use occurs within a short radius of the cabin Wilderness Stewardship sites. Project In August of 2011, as part of the Sitka Community is a partnership between the Sitka Wilderness Stewardship Project, an expedition was Conservation Society and the US Forest organized to collect baseline plant and recreational use Service to collect necessary information data. Thanks to packrafts donated by Alapacka Raft on the health of Tongass Wilderness Company, the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) areas. Funding for SCS's portion of the Wilderness crew was able to complete a transect along project is provided by the National Forest the southern boarder of the Wilderness area. The crew Foundation and SCS. consisted of SCS Wilderness and Outreach Coordinator, Adam Andis; SCS Botany Technician, Tomas Ward, and volunteers Nate Borson and Kim Ney.


Trip Report I have flown over South Baranof Wilderness Area at least a dozen times in the last year, usually on trips to the “waterfall coast� on the western side of the wilderness area. In 2010, volunteers Nate Borson, Kim Ney and I paddled 225 miles from Little Post Walter, north around Baranof Island back to Sitka on a wilderness survey trip. We discussed the possibility of an over-land expedition to explore the interior of the Wilderness. After a winter of pouring over maps, we settled on a route paralleling the southern boundary of the Wilderness. Due to the topographic challenges of the route, I contacted Alpacka Raft Company, whose owner Sheri Tingey, graciously donated two packrafts. These rafts, weighing only 7 pounds and packing down to the size of a small sleeping bag, proved an integral tool to making our way across the glacially carved lakes. With the rafts, six days of food and fuel, ulta-lite tarps and tents, and as minimal other gear as possible, our packs ranged from 57lbs to 45lbs without water. The Sitka District of the National Forest Service was able to provide aerial photos which covered some portions of the route, but not the sections that looked to be most


challenging, including the pass separating the eastern and western sides of the island and the incredibly steep fjord walls descending to Patterson Bay at the end of the route.

3 August From the trip log: "I woke up at 0530 for a conference call after picking Kim and Nate up at 2100 last night. We packed food and gear. We consumed a fast pre-trip, calorie-boosting meal of burgers and fries under clear and sunny skies, then slammed chocolate malts right before our flight at 1500." We landed at Port Banks, a popular bear and salmon viewing destination. We try to survey ares like this with high traffic often to chart changes that result from over use. The tideflats we had landed on were rapidly disappearing as the tide came in and forced us to inflate one raft just to ferry gear to shore. Tourists in a skiff photographing leaping salmon at the falls warned us of three bears they could see in the forest by the river. We walked a wide berth around them, bushwhacking through the shrubby understory. We had heard rumors of a fishing trail up to Plotnikof Lake which we hoped

to document. Eventually we happened on an historic trail which seemed to have been used before the designation of the Wilderness in 1980. It proved almost easier to bushwhack than to climb under and over the log jams on the old trail. At 1930, we found a flat campsite next to the river. Threatening skies showered down intermittent rain.

4 August Wet, wet, wet, wet, wet. It rained throughout the night. Packs were loaded and we were on trail by 0930. We were relieved of soggy bushwhacking by crisscrossing game trails which grew more frequent as the valley steepened. The only sign of human presence was an old ladder, barely discernible, likely a relic of the days when the coast of Baranof Island hosted small fishing and logging operations. Plotnikof Lake was our first paddling section of the trip. After only a few minutes of inflating the rafts, our armada was floating along the bank. After hours of bushwhacking with heavy packs, the paddling


sections never seemed long enough. My favorite part of this trip was leaning my head back, reclining in the raft, and spinning myself with one quick paddlestroke. Looking up, the walls of the valley seemed so close as the panorama rotated around me. After deflating and repacking the rafts at the opposite shore of Plotnikof we hiked uphill a few hundred feet to a plateau where we miraculously stumbled upon a long muskeg. This unexpected paddle section

through dinner-plate-sized lily pads, brought us to just about 10 yards from Kvostof Lake. Unfortunately, that 10 yards included a 300 ft descent to the lakes edge. The wind picked up on Kvostof Lake. Everyone was cold, wind-wipped and mildly hypothermic by the time we reached the far shore. After warm layers, warm beverages, and pasta, our bodies began to thaw. As the rain fell and the wind whipped through the trees, we slid under our tarps, into sleeping bags and hoped for better weather the next day.


5 August Breakfast offered some quality drying time on the beach in welcoming rays of sun. There was easy walking through big, flat, old forest trails to Rezanof Lake, the longest paddle section of the trip. Rezanof Lake is 4 miles long, but less than ½ mile across at its widest point. It is rimmed by 3500 ft ridges. Historically, two Forest Service cabins have been in use at the lake. One cabin was demolished in a snowslide, the other remains standing, but its maintenance was discontinued by the Forest Service in recent years. Since then, recreational use of the lake has diminished. Other than the abandoned cabin, we saw no signs of human use, although, this area hosted some of the most perfect campsites I've ever seen and would make a great recreation destination. We hit the opposite shore of Rezanof Lake at 1400. The Matsoutof River drains into Rezanof along a 3 mile watershed from the pass separating the eastern and western sides of the island. This productive valley makes for a gorgeous panoramas, but horrendous hiking. We spent the last half of the day in the “green tunnel” thwacking over car-sized boulders and under fallen trees, all flush with thick devil's club, spiny salmonberry, and mangled alder. With no camping options in the valley, we pushed our exhausted bodies on to find a marginally flat spot to sleep. By 1930, we had made it all the way up to the cirque at the headwaters of the Maksoutof River. The shrubs had given way to talus covered in heather and snow fields—no better for camping. We found enough room to wedge ourselves in between uneven, sloping rocks for the night. A bear appeared, traversing the snow slope just above our camp while we cooked our third pasta/soup meal of the trip. From our cook site by the river, we could see the pass over the divide. Based on the topos it looked like a doable hike over, but topo lines can easily hide enough steep terrain to shutdown any expedition. If that was the case, we would be forced to repeat our entire bushwhack back down to Rezanof. We finished our meal under headlamps. I laid under my tarp, supported by 2 half paddles, my raft rolled up as a pillow, and hoped for a safe route over the pass in the morning.

6 August Despite low clouds, we could still see all of the pass in the morning. A snow-filled gully led us up most of the

Botanical Surveys

Plants are great indicators of ecosystem health. Species' ranges can shift over time as conditions change. SCS conducts botanical surveys in Wilderness areas to establish ranges and occurrence. From this baseline, we can track changes that may indicate threats to the ecosystem.

Purple Monkey Flower

Rockbrake or Parsley Fern


cirque headwall. As the route steepened the snow yielded to wet, super-slippery copperbush. Our feet slipped and we cursed, but made it to the pass without much trouble. The view from the pass, looking down the Rezanof Valley to the west and Brentwood Valley to the east, was a highlight of the trip. Having made it over the pass, my next concern was the descent into Patterson Bay. I had seen the proposed route from the water on a kayak trip the previous year and knew that there was a good chance navigating the cliff walls would be impossible. That thought rarely left my mind for the next two days. The banks of Upper Brentwood Lake are steep and bare rock, which made me worry more about our descent. Those steep walls had created some amazing snow caves though. On the shaded section of the wall at water's edge, the snow melted slowly. Snow on the top of the cliffs in sun, however melts quickly and runs down the face. The meltwater flows under the huge snow banks and carves out massive caves, caves large enough for all four of us to paddle our rafts into. The clouds cleared once we made camp. We sprawled our gear in the rare chance to dry out. That night, the clear skies sparkled. Laying in my sleeping bag, I stared up at the Milky Way spilling over from wall to wall across the valley and the longest shooting star I have ever seen.

7 August Thick black flies forced us to pack even quicker than usual. We tried to float the river into Lower Brentwood Lake, but spent more time hiking up and around impassable sections. We ate an early lunch on the far shore of Lower Brentwood Lake looking down to Patterson Bay. The water from Lower Brentwood pitches out of the outlet into a 60 ft waterfall then continues cascading down smaller falls another 800 ft to sea level. I was thankful that the clear skies had dried out the descent. We picked our way down shoots, where water has trickled through and eroded the bedrock. Holding on to copperbush, we lowered ourselves down the steep shoots foot by foot until we got to the balds. The balds are amazing rock formation, big pillows of rock with ribbons of scrubby pines running between. After some scouting, we found a narrow gap the led down a steep gully through the worst cliff section. Judging by the density of animal trails, this was the only path up or down through this section. Below the cliffs, historic bear trails led us to an old stream bed, the end of which was the saltwater of Patterson Bay. On the beach, we took a gratuitous group shot. Relaxing on the rocks, with the challenges behind us, I


Recording Encounters


was relieved to have completed the trip. As we snacked on the beach a humpback whale surface a stone's throw from the beach. It was a nice welcome back to the coast.

8 August We searched for camping, but the estuary was too dense and the fjord walls were too steep. Eventually, we camped on the only clear, flat spot we could find, directly on top of the intersection of three bear trails. We packed up for the last time. The float plane took a long sweep down the fjord, a tight circle, then landed on Patterson Bay. We flew back over our route, in 20 minutes covering the ground it had taken us 6 days of hard work to complete.

For more information, contact: Adam Andis 907-747-7509 adam@sitkawild.org

Resources for Wilderness Stewardship: www.wilderness.net

www.sitkawild.org/wilderness

www.wildernessalliance.org

www.fs.fed.us www.lnt.org


Packrafting Across South Baranof Wilderness