If you really, REALLY want to get away from it all: TV’s, cellphones, spouses, kids, work, escape to Alaska where it is easy to get lost! What’s that saying about dating in Alaska? “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” Pretty sure there is some truth to that saying based on what I have seen. What does that have to do with travel you say? Absolutely nothing.
After plowing through multiple guidebooks, Lexi and I concluded we needed to reserve a cabin in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast (SE) Alaska – we wanted to experience the true Alaskan wilderness and exit off the grid for a few days with Greg and Todd in tow. I did a bunch of research – went to Outside and Backpacker magazine websites and Google, scouring for reviews on the experience. I came across a few but never found the information I was looking for – what to expect, what to bring, how to get there, etc. Hopefully this blog will save you some time and reduce the headaches associated with planning a trip like this.
Here is the low-down on the cabin situation. There are approximately 150 cabins in SE Alaska. The cabins are managed by the US Forest Service and can be further researched at http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/cabins/cabins.shtml. Descriptions on this site are relatively good and will inform you as to the location and the basic (VERY) amenities available – bed configuration, fire ring, boat availability and hiking opportunities. They are generally located on pristine lakes, rivers, streams and salt water beaches and require a float plane to access.
First things first. You have to figure out just how remote you want to be and how much time (and money) you have on your hands. The islands in SE Alaska are not connected by highways so your mode of transportation is either by boat, float plane or by Alaska Air – as you can imagine, they have full marketshare of the airways up there so options are slim. Because the islands are not easily connected, the time to get from place to place can take some time.
We were limited on time and cash so we chose a cabin that was very close to Juneau on Turner Lake. At first, I was disappointed it was only an hour from civilization. I really wanted to be WAY out there. However, the further out you want to go, the greater the cost – similar to the cost to fly to Europe – fuel costs are ridiculous. In the end, it doesn’t matter where you are. You will definitely feel as though you are away from it all.
Key Tip: Book the cabin at http://www.recreation.gov/ as soon as the reservation systems open up for that time period – at least 6 months ahead. Note the cabins closer to Juneau have a tendency to fill up fast.
The next item to tackle is to determine how you are going to get there. We chose Ward Air http://www.wardair.com/. We have a friend who works there and has been a pilot in Alaska for a VERY long time. We called other companies to validate pricing and they were all pretty comparable.
Key tip: Book well in advance and ask for pilot Dan at Ward Air to escort you on your journey. Also inquire about potential boondoggle routes you can take – over glaciers, special lakes, etc. It will cost extra but it is well worth it!
Packing the right clothes and gear for a trip like this can be a challenge – mostly because it can be cold and rainy (even in the summer) and if you are on a lake, you may be able to partake in some fishing, kayaking or swimming activities.
Key Tip: Bring a fishing pole (there is potential for snagging Salmon and Trout depending on cabin location), warm and cold weather clothing – preferably not cotton – that stuff doesn’t dry, I don’t care how cute it is – and rain gear. Also, march down to your nearest bookstore and load up on books. You will not have the option to check Facebook or read this blog! If you want to bring a kayak or 2, don’t be shy about that – the plane should be able to accommodate you, however, I would double check with the float plane company. You will have to bring a sleeping pad and sleeping bag with you as the beds are not equipped with mattresses.
Face it, unless you plan on hunting and fishing to feed your family and friends, you need food and drink to survive out there in the wilderness. Pack as though you are car camping and don’t skimp. We ran out of adult beverages on day 2 and it was painful.
Key Tip: Bring a camping stove and plenty of fuel (cabins are not equipped with kitchens), utensils, foil (for cooking fish on the fire ring) and bring coolers of food and drink for a few extra days beyond what you are planning. We brought backpacking cooking gear with us and that worked out fine too – it just limited what we could cook. Also, pack a water filter so you can drink the water from the near-by lake. Chairs are a must, we had backpacking chairs which worked great. Double check with the float plane company to see if they have weight restrictions.
Now for the good stuff. From the moment you take off in the float plane, you will instantly feel as though you are part of something special. Pilot Dan took us on a boondoggle past some of the most phenomenal glaciers I have ever seen in my life. After about an hour of flying around in paradise and a surprisingly smooth water landing, we made it to our destination – a small, log cabin on an emerald colored lake – nothing surrounding it but an outhouse and a couple of aluminum fishing boats. I think all of us were so excited we nearly peed our pants.
We unloaded our gear and said goodbye to Dan who said, “I will see you Tuesday noon, assuming the weather is good.” What does THAT mean you ask? The weather in SE Alaska can be, shall we say, moist. So much so, the pilots cannot always come and get you as scheduled, hence the dire need to pack more food and drink than you need. It could be days before you see your pilot. It drizzled about 80% of the time we were there, so when Tuesday noon rolled around, we sat there like anxious dogs waiting for their owners to come home from work (he showed on time).
One last parting comment: If you happen to see coarse, brown fur wedged in the cracks of the outside awning of your cabin and claw marks on the door and windowsills – yes folks – that means you are in the midst of grizzly country. Understand it, respect it, and by all means, don’t do something stupid like leave your food and cooking equipment outside over night. If you do so, rest assured you will have a visit from one of these 600 lb creatures – you could potentially put yourself and others in harms way – can’t say that would be a pleasant experience for the animal either, unless you have some tasty thighs on you.
Sound fun? To date, It is in the top 10, “most fun things” I have ever done in my life. I say, jump on the life bus for the experience of a life time and give it a go – grizzly bears and all.