August 2013

By Phyllis Dawson
Part 4

August 24
     We woke up early to a beautiful morning.  The sky was clear and the wind had died down, so the surface of the lake was much calmer.  There were half a dozen ducks bobbing in the water near our cove. We went fishing, even before morning coffee.  I was just enjoying the idyllic setting, but George was really determined to catch a fish.
     Casting the spinning rod from the shore, I experimented with how fast to reel the line in; reeling slow would hook the pebbles on the bottom and let you at least think you had something for a moment.  At least I was getting more consistent with my casts.  Just as we were considering giving up and going to fix breakfast, George caught a lake trout, about 12 inches long.  At last!  This gave us incentive to keep fishing.


     I moved further down the shore.  The mountains, bathed in sunlight, were set against a brilliant blue sky.  The water was a rich turquoise color, and the far shore was rimmed with that silver glowing line of reflected light.  As usual I alternated between fishing and taking photos - I think George thought this somewhat of a sacrilege.  
Presently I noticed a disturbance on the surface of the water near where I was casting.  Looking closely, I could see it was a group of tiny minnows, swimming rapidly in circles.  Maybe if there are little fish, I thought, big fish will be lurking around to eat them.  I cast right past the minnows, and pulled the line in through the churning frenzy.  Then suddenly, bam!   I felt a hard jerk on my line, and I jerked back.  I had hooked a fish!
     Holy crap!  I have a fish! What do I do now?
     The fish was leaping and fighting as I reeled him in, but I managed to land him.  He was big, about fifteen inches.  George and Jineen were there to cheer me on as I caught my first ever fish.  I hadn’t even been sure I liked fishing, but heck, this was fun! 

     We had fried lake trout for breakfast, and it was awesome.  Rolled in flour, then dipped in egg, then rolled in Bisquick, and fried up in one of the heavy iron skillets.  It was the best breakfast I ever had.  (Yes, I know, I said that yesterday about the blueberry pancakes.)  There is nothing like fried fish for breakfast, caught, cleaned, cooked and consumed all within the hour.  And I caught the biggest fish!  Well, I’m not sure it’s really fair to say I caught him; George provided the gear, taught me how to cast, put on the lure, took the fish off the hook, and knocked it in the head so it wouldn’t suffer.  Then Jineen cleaned it, filleted it, and cooked it.  But hey, I will take the credit!

I caught a fish!

     After breakfast we took the boat across the lake to Hope Creek, near Dick’s cabin.  George stayed on the shore to fish for grayling while Jineen and I went hiking.  Our path started out through the woods alongside Hope Creek, but soon turned up a steep slope, climbing up the side of the mountain via a series of switchbacks.  It was a plain trail, easy to follow - very different from the previous two days’ hiking.  
We followed the switchbacks up through fields of blueberries.  Some areas were full of ripe berries, while other had been grazed by the bears - the tips of the branches were all nipped off.  We called out.  “Hello Mr. Bear!  Or maybe Mrs. Bear?”  We stopped to pick berries for more pancakes.  “Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Bear, we are only taking a few blueberries, and there are plenty for all.”  It is important to reassure the bears.
     We came up onto the Cowgill Benches, a series of half a dozen broad flat plateaus, terraced into the mountainside overlooking the lake.  Dick Proenneke had often referred to hiking the Cowgill Benches in his book One Man’s Wilderness.
     We were above the timberline, and wide open vistas stretched before us.  We paused on the first ledge, admiring the scenery.  As we continued up bench after bench, we found that the views got better with each elevation gain.  We stopped on the third bench and sat for a while, just soaking it all in.  It was utterly peaceful; the silence was broken only by the light breeze and a few birds, and we could see no signs of civilization.

The view from the Cowgill Benches.

     The twin turquoise lakes stretched out below us, majestic peaks rising above.  The mountains across the water were a swirl of browns and grays, like paint being mixed on a palette. We could see glimpses of glaciers and snow fields amid jagged peaks.  The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the world was at our feet.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.  We were sorry George wasn’t with us.

     We continued up through blueberry fields, talking and calling out as we went, especially when crossing ridges or gullies where we couldn’t see far ahead.  “Hey Mr. Bear!”   We were discussing the downside of following safe bear protocol; if you make noise to warn them of your approach then you don’t get a chance to see them.
     “Well there’s one now,” Jineen said conversationally.  Sure enough, a black bear was poking his head up over the ridge, about fifty yards in front of us.  He stared down at us for a second, and we stared up at him, and then he ducked back below the ridge out of sight.  A few seconds later he poked his head up again, a bit further down the slope, checking us out. Then he took off down the creek.

Well, there's one now!

     We veered uphill, seeking higher ground.  Once we were safely above where we’d seen the bear, we stopped and scanned the area.  (I’m not sure why being above the bear felt safer; did we think bears can’t run uphill?)  Soon the bear appeared again, coming out of the gully below us, about 100 yards away.  He meandered slowly along, pausing to graze on the blueberries.  He would lie down to eat, biting off the ends of the bushes - berries, leaves, twigs and all.  When he had eaten all the berries he could reach, he would get up and move to a new patch.  He glanced up at us occasionally, but seemed unperturbed by our presence.
     We were reassured by the fact that this was a black bear; they have a much less fearsome reputation than the Alaskan brown bear (grizzly).  Brown bears can be very territorial and unpredictable, and are more likely to attack, but black bears can also be dangerous.  In fact, an Alaskan old-timer had told me once that black bears are actually more troublesome, because occasionally they will stalk people.  “A black bear, he’ll hunt you and eat you,” he said.  “Where a grizzly, well, he’ll just ruin your day.”

We met this fella on the Cowgill Benches.

         We stood watching the bear for quite a while, taking photos.  He looked up at us again, nonchalantly, and started moseying up the trail in our direction, stopping along the way to eat more berries.   I was finally getting my chance for some close-up bear photography.  
The bear continued toward us, more purposeful now, peering up at us and sniffing the air.  He was now less than 75 yards away.  We had read that it is illegal in Alaska for hikers to approach a bear closer than a quarter of a mile.  Did the bear know the law?  I suspected not.  We were starting to get a little bit nervous. Bears have poor eyesight, but very keen senses of hearing and smell.  Was he stalking us?  Being eaten by a bear seemed a particularly poor way to go.   

Was he stalking us?

     Enough close up photos; it was time for some action.  We decided to have a little talk with the bear.  Jineen and I checked that our bear spray was within easy grasp, and stood close together with our arms above our heads in order to appear big.  
“Hello, Mr. Bear.  Just wanted to let you know, we have pepper spray, Mr. Bear!!” 
I called out loudly.  Upon hearing this news he looked at us, sniffed the wind once more, and deciding discretion was the better part of valor, he loped away down the mountainside.


     Wow, that was awesome!  We were sorry George had missed it.  We waited for a while hoping for another glimpse of the bear, but he was long gone.  We could see two hikers with a dog over on the ridge on the far side of Hope Creek, more than a quarter mile away, looking our way with binoculars; we joked that they would probably go tell George we were up here with a bear.  And him not along with his gun!

     We continued on the little path up the mountainside, and then scrambled off-trail up over rough tundra to a big square standing rock at the bottom of the scree slope.  From here we had a good view of both lakes and the rows of mountain peaks and glaciers beyond.  We sat on the rock and ate leftover blueberry pancakes.  Two Dall sheep, far across Hope Creek, stood out brilliant white against the brown mountainside.  Dark cloudshadows raced across the turquoise surface of the lake.  We felt close to heaven.


     We found a faint path that rounded the shoulder of the mountain and continued up the Hope Creek valley.  The trail became steeper and more treacherous as it traversed a series of gullies and ridges, crossing slippery scree slopes.  The brushy gullies would provide cover for bears, so we kept talking in case they were listening.  “Hello Mrs. Bear, was that your husband we met earlier? A fine handsome fellow he is!” 
     We came to a viewpoint where we could see further up through the valley.  Steep mountains rose up on either side of Hope Creek, and around a corner another vale opened up to the side.  We could see the Dall sheep again, now far ahead - or perhaps these were different ones.  The trail went on, and we longed to follow it and explore the valleys - but unfortunately it was getting close to the time we had arranged to meet George so we had to head back.  
We made our way back down the mountain, pausing to pick blueberries for tomorrow’s breakfast.  George was in the boat when we reached the lake shore.  “I hear you were up there with a bear!” was the first thing he said when he saw us - the hikers on the far ridge had indeed come by with a bear report.  George had a successful day’s fishing – he had caught half a dozen graylings where Hope Creek flows into the lake.  He had kept three for dinner and released the rest (he later hinted that some of the releases may not have been entirely voluntary). 

George fishing for grayling.

     Sorry that George had missed the stunning landscape, we talked him into going back up on the Cowgill Benches with us.  We took the boat across the lake to get George’s hiking boots (he wouldn’t get far hiking in his waders) and clean the fish, then back over to Hope Creek.  We headed up the trail again; somehow the slope seemed a little steeper the second time around.  George left his gun behind since we had already scared away the bear.  We hiked up as far as the second bench, from where we could see the whole upper lake.  We sat and watched the late afternoon light playing across the mountains, with colored clouds glowing in the radiant sky.


     Back at Windsong, Jineen and I each took a much needed shower.  The solar shower unit was somewhat less sophisticated than the name would lead one to believe; you filled a plastic bladder with water and left it out in the sun hoping it would warm up, and then you hung it up and showered with it.  Perhaps it would work better in a warmer climate; after being in the sun all day our water had warmed up to a toasty 45 degrees, so the showering was invigorating, to say the least. 
     We had a leisurely happy hour, with wine and chips.  George taught the jays to land on his head and eat off of his hat.  We battered and fried the grayling for a late dinner; they were delicious.  The milk and other perishables were still fresh after almost five days without refrigeration; it made us realize how well we could do without such luxuries as refrigerators, electricity, and showers.   
After dinner we walked down to the edge of the lake.  It was a clear night full of brilliant stars, and Cygnus the Swan flew high overhead.  We stood on the dock and savored the night, with a soft wind on our cheeks and the moon reflecting in the water.  We made our last outhouse trip at midnight, mindful of bears.

August 25
     This was our last morning at Twin Lakes; the plane was to pick us up after lunch.  We had been going hard and were tired, but we were sorry that it was our last day in this beautiful place.
     The sky was crystal clear, and for the first time there was no wind.  I took my camera and went down to the shore.  The lake was absolutely still, and the mountains were perfectly reflected in its mirror surface.  The ever-present silver line rimmed the lake, separating reflection from reality.  It was breathtaking, magical, like a scene out of a dream.

Magical morning

     We made blueberry pancakes again, the best ever.  The jays joined us for our last breakfast at the cabin.  We packed up all of our leftover food - eggs, fruit, bread, cheese and veggies - and took it across the lake to Dick Proenneke’s cabin to give to Laurel, who was very appreciative.  Crossing in the boat, we marveled at the looking-glass surface of the lake, and the amazing panorama of mountains reflected in it.   
We visited Dick’s cabin again, and Laurel showed us around. We were impressed anew at the craftsmanship that went in to building it.  “I hear you were up on the Cowgill Benches with a bear yesterday,” Laurel said.  My, how word gets around!

Dick Proenneke's cabin

     We hiked up the Teetering Rock trail, which Laurel had said was one of Dick’s favorite places to take visitors.  The path started behind his cabin and followed the creek through the woods, before ascending the mountainside in a series of switchbacks, climbing through blueberry fields and a sparse scattering of spruce trees.  We were on the opposite side of Hope Creek from the Cowgill Benches.  As we got higher the views were fantastic, similar to the previous day but from a different perspective. 

Teetering Rock

     It was a considerable climb, but on a plain trail that was easy to follow.  We went along the open ridge, in the same area where we had seen the two hikers the previous day.  Presently we came to Teetering Rock, a big slab of stone that was precariously balanced on an outcropping.  You could climb up on the boulder and shift your weight, making the rock teeter back and forth, a disconcerting feeling at best.  We took turns teetering the rock.  Wanting a group photo, I used George’s gun as a tripod to take a timer shot of the three of us by the rock.  Then we just sat for a while, enthralled by the beauty of the mirror-calm lake below.

George teetering the rock.

     When we came back down to the boat, we saw Laurel’s brother in a canoe, paddling, dragging a floating log across the lake.  Laurel had told us that while working for the park service at Twin Lakes, they were not allowed to use any power tools or motors.  I thought it was really great that they preserved the integrity of the wilderness, living a lifestyle similar to what Dick Proenneke had.  We didn’t want to know what they thought of our motor boat!  We did regret that we had not found an opportunity to take the canoe out; this calm morning would have been a perfect time, but now we had to leave.  We vowed to do it next time.  

The view from the beach at Dick Proenneke's cabin.

     We skimmed back across the mirror-perfect lake.  Packing up our stuff, we cleaned the cabin and put away the boat equipment.  We ate leftover bean soup and blueberry pancakes for lunch.  The jays berated us for not providing bigger morsels, so we gave them the last of the blueberry pancakes as a special goodbye. Then we dragged our stuff down to the dock and waited for our air taxi.  The plane was late, which we didn’t mind a bit – we were very sorry to be leaving, especially on such a fabulous day.  The jays came down to the swing by the water for some final ginger snaps.  Presently our floatplane arrived; it was a different pilot this time.  We had less weight than before because we didn’t have the food, but we were packing all of our garbage out, and the pilot admonished us for not having it properly divided up to fit in the floats.

Flying above the peaks.

     Because of the fine weather, instead of flying through Lake Clark Pass our pilot took the little Cessna up over the tops of the peaks - he said that the weather is not often clear enough to do this.  On the way up our wingtips seemed to pass within feet of glaciers, but once above the mountains we saw the landscape from a completely different perspective.  On the way in we had been up close and personal with the mountainsides, but now we were high above them.  Row after row of jagged peaks marched across the horizon and seemed to go on forever.  This time we were looking down at the ice flows and glaciers, and into deep valleys with lakes and braided rivers.  If there are 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, we must have seen half of them on that flight.  Two huge mountains stood out, towering above the others; our pilot said they were Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt, both active volcanos.  As we approached Cook Inlet, we could see Mt. McKinley in the distance to the north.

Mount Illiama

     Back at Lake Hood, Jineen and I said goodbye to George (he was going fishing on Kodiak Island with some friends), and went to the airport to get our rental car for the second part of our trip. We returned the satellite phone and shopped for happy hour supplies; we bought wine, cheese, crackers and bread, but nobody in the grocery store knew what chutney or pâté was. After five days in the wilderness at Twin Lakes, we were suffering from a bit of culture shock being back in the city. 
     We drove an hour and a half north to Hatcher’s Pass and checked in to our cabin at the B&B.  This area is really beautiful, though being convenient to Anchorage it attracts its share of visitors.  Being back to civilization did have its perks; a hot shower felt wonderful.

~ Continued on next page ~


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