Bushwhacked

“Here bear! Here bear!” shouted Mark, our guide, as he led us up a creek bed, into the forest. It was bear country after all and you couldn’t be too careful. Coastal brown bears are bigger than their mainland grizzly cousins and as much as we would love to see one from a distance, none of wanted to surprise one at close range.

“Let’s head up this embankment,” he said, pointing up a cliff. We thought he was joking. There are very few hiking trails in Southeast Alaska, so unless you can find a Forest Service road, hiking is usually bushwhacking or “exploratory” walks, meaning you were heading off into the bush with no real idea where you’re going. We had just been dropped off on the beach by the skiff driver and, despite the fact that I felt like we were in an episode of the reality TV show “Lost,” Mark had a GPS and did know, kind of, where he was going: Cool Lake.

We started up the embankment, grasping anything for support on the slippery, moss-covered rocks. The undergrowth was lush, thick and green. Soft sphagnum moss covered the ground and every non-leafy surface. It was like walking on a Tempurpedic mattress–at least if we slipped our fall would be padded.

We made our way to the top and followed an animal track along the edge of the cliff. Mom identified most of the plants: mosses, sedges, grasses, ferns and flowers, including a tiny little white orchid growing out of a pile of bear scat. Above us towered spruce, cedar and hemlock: the holy trinity trees of Southeastern Alaska. We were in a temperate rainforest, part of an ecosystem that extends all the way down the Canadian coast to Washington State, where I live. This was not a foreign landscape to me, in fact, this neon green felt homey.

“This is kind of precarious,” said Mark. We were caught between the dense undergrowth and a 50 foot drop off. “Let’s head back to the drainage.” We headed back down the embankment and to the creek bed. We followed the creek bed up a ways and then tried, unsuccessfully to ascend the embankment on the other side.

The great thing about exploring is that it doesn’t really matter if you get to where you wanted to go, or if you even get anywhere. As long as you’re not too lost. In about two hours of walking we’d covered less than a mile and it was now time to return to the beach. A light rain started to fall as we stood in the bear grass and waited for the Zodiac to come fetch us, hoping it was indeed not an episode of “Lost.”

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