August 201

By Phyllis Dawson

Part 2

August 21

It was raining when we woke up, a light drizzle.  We cooked Bisquick biscuits with honey and bacon, and ate it out on the porch.  The jays came to breakfast; they were shy at first, but getting more comfortable with us.  We held crumbs in our outstretched hands, and they would swoop down and grab the morsels off of our palms.  We looked them up in the bird book; they were Gray Jays, also known as ‘camp robbers.’
We decided to take the boat out and go fishing.  We collected the seat cushions and life vests from the cabin, and extra fuel from the shed.  There were explicit directions concerning the care and storage of the boat fuel hose; apparently if not properly stowed away at night the porcupines would eat it.  After several failed attempts (and Jineen reading the directions), George got the motor going.
We headed up toward the top of the lake, with George driving and Jineen trolling for fish.  It was very cold and raining, and I definitely had not dressed warm enough.  We stopped in a cove, and George and Jineen fished while I shivered.  We saw a salmon jump, but no bites.  

      We crossed the lake to visit Dick Proenneke's cabin, coming to shore on a little stony beach with a dock.  There is a park service cabin nearby, and a volunteer ranger is stationed there in the summer to look after Dick’s cabin.  We were met on the beach by the ranger’s brother who was visiting, and he somewhat crossly informed us we were on the wrong beach.  Moving the boat further down the shore, we found the Proenneke cabin, where we met up with the ranger, Laurel.  
Dick’s cabin was very interesting.  It was simple and rustic, just a rectangular room built of logs, with a sod roof made of living tundra.  An American flag flew on a short pole above it.  There was a storage cache high up on stilts, to protect supplies from the bears, and behind it were a tool shed and woodshed, all handmade by Dick.  Laurel showed us around, answering our questions and telling us stories about Dick, who she had known in his later years.  She told us about some of Dick’s favorite hiking trails, which we planned to come explore later.  She also mentioned that a black bear had been hanging around Windsong.

Dick Proenneke's cabin.

     The workmanship that went into the cabin was amazing.  Dick had cut every log and board with a hand saw, and carefully shaped and fitted them to perfection.  He had searched all over the valley to find just the right trees for each project, bringing them back to the site by canoe.  We marveled at the craftsmanship of the hand-hewn boards and finely made wooden hinges of the Dutch door.  We ducked under the low doorway and went inside.  All of Dick’s furniture, utensils, and tools, most of them handmade, were there in the cabin, as if he still lived there and had just stepped out for a moment.  Laurel explained the use of some of the tools; Dick had delighted in inventing little devices to make work more efficient, and in recycling materials.  Almost everything in his cabin was either hand carved from wood or made from old tin fuel containers.  Having read Dick’s book and fantasized about living his lifestyle, it was really interesting to see the things he had built.


     We crossed the lake back to the cabin for some hot soup and more clothing.  The thermometer outside the kitchen window read 42 degrees: just the right temperature for a refrigerator, but putting the milk and other perishables outside was not an option because it could attract bears.
Now wearing more layers, we braved the wind and rain again and set out in the afternoon for more fishing.  George taught me to cast the spinning rod.  I had never really been that interested in fishing before, but in this setting the idea of catching fish and frying them up for dinner really appealed to me. 
We headed down to the end of the upper lake where the connecting stream flows into the lower lake, trolling for trout along the way.  Slightly less cold, I could really appreciate the scenery.  The water appeared a milky grayish green under the overcast skies, and reflected light formed a glowing silver line along the far shore.  Thick white bands of mist stretched across the middle of the brooding mountains. 

     We tied the boat and walked along the connecting stream, casting our lines.  George, in his waders, worked his way down through the swift current, casting from thigh-deep water.  Jineen and I, trying to move further downstream, scrambled along the shore through dense shrubbery on a nearly non-existent trail, carrying our rods.  The going soon became unrewarding, so we made our way back to the boat.  There had not been so much as a nibble from the fish. 
We motored back up to where Emerson Creek flowed into the lake, which we thought might be a good place to catch graylings.  We cast from the shore but nothing was biting.  I had had enough of fishing for the day.  I stood admiring the incredible panorama of mountains across the lake, with the summits obscured by mist.   I looked forward to seeing them on a clear day.


     When we returned to Windsong Jineen and George headed for the cabin, but I went for a walk along the lake.  I followed the shoreline for half a mile or so enjoying the solitude, then stopped and built a cairn of rocks.  A light rain was falling, and there was a sort of mystical quality to the scene.  
Back at the cabin, we fed leftover biscuits to the jays, who would now take crumbs right from our fingers.  We had wine and potato chips for happy hour, but indoors, where it was warm and cozy with the woodstove going.  Jineen went back out to the lake to give fishing one last try – and she caught a fish!  It was a small lake trout, about eight inches.  We cooked it and ate it as an appetizer for dinner, and it was superb.  It was just getting fully dark at 10:30, which was nice because it wasn’t pitch dark when making that last trip up the hill to the outhouse.

August 22
We got up early and went fishing before breakfast, but didn’t catch anything.  George is a very good cook, and he fixed pancakes and an omelet for breakfast.  The orientation book said that the jays’ favorite food is pancakes, so we tested the theory.  We stood on the balcony and held out pancake bits, and the jays went through what seemed to be a regular routine.  They would gather in the nearby trees, and then one bird at a time would fly from tree to tree, like negotiating a course, before swooping down from the big spruce to sit on our hand and accept a tidbit.  As soon as one jay flew off with his bite of pancake, the next one would be coming in for its turn.   

Jineen bonds with a jay.

     It was cloudy and 42 degrees, and it looked like it could rain at any minute.  We planned to go hiking, but hoping it would warm up a bit first, we spent some time looking through the scrapbooks in the cabin.  We came across an old newspaper article about Gary Titus and his girlfriend being attacked by a bear.  We read that they had been hiking up on the mountain above the cabin, taking all the proper precautions, when suddenly they came face to face with a mother grizzly bear and her cub.  The grizzly grabbed Gary’s girlfriend and started dragging her down the mountain, so Gary attacked the bear.  It let go of her and went after him, and he fought back.  Gary and his girlfriend managed to get away, make their way down to the boat, and get to the ranger station for help, and they were airlifted out to the hospital for recovery.  Wow.  Suddenly we were glad George had insisted that we each have a can of bear spray for hiking, and that he had brought the gun.

     We took the boat back down to Emerson Creek where we had fished the evening before, but this time we went hiking.  We had been cautioned to leave nothing in the boat because the bears would eat it, but we took our chances with stowing the life jackets in the bow.  Donning our backpacks and George carrying the rifle, we set off up the creek.  We hadn’t been twenty feet before Jineen found a prize, a good fishing knife, lying on the ground.
Gary had recommended this hike, and had written these directions: Hike up to Emerson Falls: Emerson Creek is the one flowing into Upper Twin Lake near the connecting stream on the north side of the lake.  Follow the stream up on the up-lake side until you reach a beautiful viewpoint to watch these falls.  Moderately easy: takes 1 hour each way.  Sounded great.  A clear destination and a route that was off the beaten path.  Just what we liked.
It was simple at first.  There was no actual trail, but it was easy to make our way along the watercourse.  We followed the creek upstream, picking our way across the gravel bars, crossing the braided channels several times.  There was an incredible variety of rocks of all colors and shapes.  We picked up several smooth round white stones; in his book Dick Proenneke had called these grizzly eggs.

Emerson Creek

     Presently, to continue following the stream we had to scramble up a steep slope into the woods.  We found a tiny path along the edge of the ridge and followed it, ducking under low branches and through thick undergrowth.  Mindful of the possibility of meeting bears, we kept up a stream of conversation, often addressing them. “Hello Mr. Bear!”  Most attacks happen if you inadvertently surprise a bear; when hiking one should talk, sing, and make noise so they can hear you coming, and they will usually move away and avoid confrontation.  “Don’t worry, Mr. Bear, we are just passing through and won’t bother you, Mr. Bear!”  Sometimes on a long hike it gets hard to think of things to say.
The path we were following petered out.  We pushed ahead through the tall trees and mossy undergrowth, heading steadily uphill.  It was not raining, but the trees and underbrush were very wet from the mist and dew, and soon we were soaked.  After a while we found another small trail, which meandered a while before also disappearing.  It soon became apparent that there was no real path, but rather we were following a series of game trails that crisscrossed through the forest, and there was no way to tell them apart, or to remember exactly which way we had come.  This definitely did not match Gary’s directions.  We thought about putting out bread crumbs so we could find our way home, but we figured the bears would eat them.  We tried to keep heading in a direction that roughly paralleled the stream and hoped for the best. 
     As we climbed higher, the spruce trees gave way to aspens, and the forest was more open, with areas of tundra and wild berry patches.  We stopped for a while to pick blueberries; they have a fresh tart flavor that is indescribably delicious.  We ate some, and stowed more in our packs for making pancakes.  We had read that blueberry patches are one of the most common places to encounter bears, so we thought we’d better reassure them.  Hello Mr. Bear!  Don’t worry, Mr. Bear, we aren’t eating your blueberries!”   Bears probably do not like to be lied to.  “Well, maybe just a few!”

George stands guard while we pick blueberries above Emerson Creek.

      Presently we came to the end of the woods, where we hoped to have a view of the stream.  We scrambled up over the last rocky knoll and came out at the top of a high cliff, and looked around in amazement.  Before us, Emerson’s Creek thundered through a narrow valley and cascaded over a series of waterfalls, dashing down to the rocky flats below.  We scrambled out over some boulders, peering down over the ledge, craning to see the churning pools and cascades hundreds of feet below us.  It was dazzling, exhilarating.  I clutched somewhat nervously at the small trees at cliff’s edge, fear of heights making me anxious.  George seemed to share my concern, staying well back from the edge, but Jineen tiptoed around just inches from the precipice in her usual cavalier manner.


     Looking upstream, we sighted another ledge a bit further up that looked like it might have an even better view.  Though it was not far away it was tough going; there was no trail to follow as we made our way across a gully and up a steep slope choked with willow thickets, blueberry bushes and swampy tundra.  We scrambled through the dense underbrush, barely able to see where we were going.  “Hey Mr. Bear!”  
We reached this higher outcropping, and it exceeded all expectations.  To our delight, we could now see another big waterfall, further up the valley, which had been hidden from our previous viewpoint.  The beautiful violent water fell in a roaring torrent into a deep pool below.  It was spectacular.  We stood on the ledge watching the waterfall and reveling in the beauty of it. 


     We sat on a rock, enjoying the view and snacking on some trail mix.  Looking around, I got the bright idea that we might be able to go just one more ridge up.  If we could just get up to that higher knoll, we should be able to see the lake from there.  Jineen, who should have been the voice of reason, joined right in with my foolish plan.  So off we went, scrambling for the next ridge.  If we thought the going was tough before, it was nothing compared to this.  ‘Off the beaten path’ was definitely an understatement.  What had looked like tundra from a distance turned out to be extraordinarily dense willow thickets.  We scrambled up the sheer slope, hand over hand, climbing through the bushes and fighting our way over saplings, falling and getting up again, gasping for breath, our legs trembling.  How come we always end up doing this?  You’d think we would have learned better by now.  
      It was all we could do to make it to the top.  Poor George was even more hampered by having to drag the rifle the whole way.  We finally staggered up to a rocky ledge above the treeline where we had a view down over the whole valley, though partially obscured by the rising mist.  Our eyes followed our route, from the waterfall back along the curve of Emerson Creek, all the way to the lake in the distance.  We were impressed by how far we had come.  
We asked ourselves - how many people have stood here, right in this spot, ever?  Not too many, we guessed, even if you counted back through time.  That is one of the great things about Alaska; there are still places where you can stand and look down a valley that few people have seen.  We built a cairn of rocks on the outcropping to mark our passage.  

On Falls Mountain, above Emerson Falls.

     The only problem was we were too tired to enjoy it.  Considering the convoluted route we had taken to get there, we realized retracing our steps was clearly impossible.  We just headed downhill, looked for the path of least resistance, and hoped for the best.  It took much less exertion going down; gravity was on our side as we scrambled through the dense willows.  We made our way down on legs of rubber.  If we met a bear now, we would be toast.
Eventually we found a path that looked familiar, but it was hard to tell as the game trails tended to all look alike.  When we were almost down to the river we saw a sudden flash of movement ahead - swaying branches and an impression of something large moving swiftly away from us through the brush – we were pretty sure it had been a bear.  
Following the rocky riverbed, it was much further back to the lake than it had seemed on the way.  We were really knackered by the time we got to the boat, which to our relief, was still there.  A high wind came up as we made our way back across the lake to the cabin, and it was all we could do to unload the boat at the heaving dock and then pull the boat up on to the skids.  We stowed the lifejackets and oars in the shower house to protect them from porcupines.

     Hmm, I don’t remember seeing that before, I thought as I carried my pack up to the cabin.  There in the path about thirty feet from our door was a big pile of bear scat; it definitely had not been there when we left.  A little further up the hill, between the cabin and the outhouse, there was another pile of poo; its blue and purple color was evidence of the bear’s affinity for the blueberry patches.  While we had been out hiking, calling out “Hello Mr. Bear,” apparently Mr. Bear had come visiting.
We called home to check in using the satellite phone, which only got reception if we stood out on the dock, which was rolling and heaving in the wind.  George made us hot toddies, consisting of hot tea liberally dosed with lemon, honey and bourbon.  (Fortunately he’d had the foresight to pack bourbon in his water bottle.)  We hung our wet socks out to dry above the woodstove.  We had just settled down in front of the picture window with our drinks in hand, when suddenly we heard a noise from underneath the cabin.  We listened intently . . . now all was quiet - no, wait, there it was again!  A sort of scratching, scraping sound, coming from beneath the side window.  Something was down there.  Something big.  Something trying to gnaw its way in. 

     Jumping up, we rushed to the side window just in time to see a black bear come out from under the cabin, apparently alarmed by the noise we made.  We got a quick glimpse of him as he dashed away, and again as he passed the kitchen window, hurrying through the narrow space between the cabin and the woodshed.  I grabbed my camera and ran outside, hoping for a photo op - I really wanted some good close-up bear pictures.  I waited, not straying too far from the cabin, and after a few minutes I saw him again, peering around the corner of the outhouse.  He paused there for a few seconds, staring at me while I took his picture, and then lit off into the woods. 


     Back inside we finished our drinks, keeping a good eye out the window.  Sure enough, before long the bear was back again, coming out from behind the woodshed.  We watched from the window as he ran through the brush below the cabin and disappeared down by the lake shore, right where I had gone walking the evening before.  George named the bear Barney.  Examining the outside of the cabin, we found fresh claw marks gouged into the logs beneath the side window, and a few tooth marks where Barney had been gnawing.  The importance of putting out the bear mats in front of the cabin doors and windows was evident. 

     We thought it was really ironic that having hiked all day through the rugged countryside up the mountain, carrying bear spray and a shotgun and taking precautions to avoid meeting bears, we then come back and encounter a bear right by the cabin and beside the outhouse.  This definitely crossed our minds each time we visited the outhouse for the rest of the trip, especially if it was near dark.  It also gave new meaning to the claw marks we had seen on the bottom of the outhouse door; I wonder if someone was inside it when they were made?
     After resting a bit and finishing the hot toddies, Jineen and I went fishing.  We walked along the rocky beach, casting, but the wind was really strong and nothing was biting.  For dinner we had fried potatoes with onions and Brussels sprouts; it would have been really good with fish.  The jays came to the window during dinner; they would look in the picture window and gather whenever they saw people eating.  But by the time we finished dinner and went out to feed them, the wind was so strong that they were nowhere to be seen.  
We were feeling somewhat grubby after two and a half days without a shower, but the lake water was so cold that we couldn’t face bathing.  We made a point of not drinking too much water with dinner - after the bear’s visit, the 300 feet to the outhouse had taken on a whole new significance.  

~ Continued on next page ~

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