Cruising Alaska: Boot-Sucking Mud and Virgin Forests

Still thrilled after our bear encounter (see my post from last week), our American Safari Cruise motored to the next stop. Up in the bridge, I studied the traditional yellow charts and learned to navigate the software program with those same charts digitized. A channel led to the distant horizon, evoking the mystique of the Pacific Ocean. Between us and the open sea was a dramatic landmass. The captain said, “That’s Admiralty Island — 1,700 square miles and 1,700 bears, one bear per square mile. Tlingit Indians called it the ‘Fortress of the Bears.’”

Anchoring in Thomas Bay, we geared up for a hike along Cascade Creek. In Southeast Alaska, the metabolism of nature seems to churn at a high level. While the region has a thousand estuaries, the entire area could be considered a single, vast estuary. Geologists figure more freshwater flows into the sea in Southeast Alaska than in the Amazon basin.

Everyone on board was issued rain pants, rain jackets, and rubber boots. While I wanted to use the hiking boots I packed from Seattle, it was the ship’s rubber boots that served me best. In this area, there are almost no trails and certainly no docks. Skiffs skid to a stop on wild beaches. Boatswains expect to ding up propellers on their outboard motors. Our 90 HP Yamaha outboard has a guard for the propeller — but they still get bent up, and the ship comes with four replacements for each skiff. Hopping out, then walking through marshy tidal flats, we often encountered the notorious “boot-sucking mud” — mud that could literally pull the boot right off your foot. The other risk was “topping off” — stepping into a river or tide pool that was deeper than your boots were high.

Boot-sucking mud at low tide.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Our hike followed the aptly named Cascade Creek up and up. As is the case when experiencing Southeast Alaska, the trail didn’t actually take us to a particular destination. Time after time, we’d venture in some direction, and the venture itself was the reason. We’d hike, motor, paddle, or gaze until we’d seen enough…then turn back. Things don’t seem to end around here. Stand on the prow of the ship and pan slowly in one direction, and the view doesn’t stop. Things just keep going.

It was amazing to think that the very rough Cascade Creek trail, apart from faint and unseen animal trails, was the only path through a vast wooded mountainside that towered mightily out of the sea. It led deep and high into a vast yet rare-on-this-planet coastal temperate rain forest. This climb took concentration, as each step needed to be carefully placed on a notched stone, exposed root, boggy ground, or stretch of boot-sucking mud. Walking sticks were so helpful it almost felt like I was cheating.

For the photographers, this was a chance for extremely close-up work: spider webs beaded with dew drops; armies of tiny mushrooms festooned in red, marching up a nursery log; and vibrant bouquets of little flowers growing in vertical gardens on the dirt-caked root system of a once mighty but now upended tree.

Sun and shade were nature’s sweet and sour, as a towering canopy filtered the light, and silver rims of backlighting seemed to direct my attention. Standing silently, I listened, smelled, and looked. Turning very slowly 360 degrees, it was as if I was in a fertile world where the cycle of life was a slow-moving carousel and the only color was moss.

Old growth and adventurous cruisers.

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