Essay: A weekend at Situk Lake, Tongass NF, Yakutat, Alaska

First posted in August, 2004

Summer is drawing to a close. You can see it in the overly ripened salmon berries, in the past-peak fireweed, in the first hints of yellow seeping into the forest. Those plants that have not yet sown their seeds are now doing so, and those that have completed their tasks are fading from view or have already gone; the river is thick with sockeye and pinks, pushing toward their final goal. This closure to summer is tinged with melancholy, for I am fairly certain it will be my last Alaskan summer for quite some time, perhaps forever. I will miss the beauty of this place and the wealth of experiences it offers.

Sunday was excessively warm by Yakutat standards, and so we waited until the cool of evening to make our way toward the lake. Sam and I had reserved the Situk Lake cabin within the Tongass National Forest for two nights at a cost of $35 each evening. Not a bad price really; the cabin is quiet, three miles from the nearest road, accessibly only by foot, on the edge of a beautiful lake at the base of the mountains, and the cabin fee includes use of either a canoe or a row boat.

We arrived at approximately half past seven, having played Botticelli during the hour-long walk to the cabin to keep the bears away. Heavy smoke was still floating over the mountains from fires of the Alaskan and British Columbian interior, settling against the earth in a thick blanket, and the sun was disappearing early behind the artificial horizon. I unpacked as quickly as possible, for light was quickly fading inside the cabin, and carried everything we would need to make supper out toward the bank. Seated on blocks of hewn wood, we cooked supper and watched as the sun slowly faded into the smoke beyond the western shore of the lake. Scoters meandered along the surface of the water, while eagles occasionally flew overhead, and on the other side of the trees in a nearby cove we could hear the repetitive and frequent splashing of some unseen animal. We spent time debating what it might be - a river otter? More scoters?

We had a very satisfying meal of herb and parmesan angel hair pasta with straw mushrooms, which I cooked on a portable propane stove. We split a bottle of red wine. Just before dark, Sam carried the pans down to the bank to wash them in the deepest spot he could find, while I gathered everything else and retreated inside the cabin. I made Ants on a Log for dessert (Sam watched me construct these with great curiosity, as the combination of celery, peanut butter and raisins was completely foreign to him). I lit six candles for light, and Sam taught me a wonderful new card game with the rather unfortunate name of Shit Head; it's my new favorite and I hope he doesn't grow weary of me wanting to play it. I must remember to teach him Thirty-One.

We woke rather late the next morning, as is Sam's desired schedule, and had a light breakfast of oatmeal. I enjoyed some butterscotch hot chocolate, Sam had vanilla spice tea. I boiled water to replenish our drinking supply and left it to cool while we went on a morning hike.

The trail takes on a different character above Situk Lake. I can't quite put my finger on what it is. Perhaps it's that it's on higher ground and less boggy. Perhaps it's that it plays tag with the stream that drains Mountain Lake into Situk Lake. This morning, the stream was filled with spawning reds, their massive green and red shapes distinctly visible from the trail above. Recent bear sign was everywhere, as might be predicted for a trail running so close to a salmon stream in season. About three quarters of a mile from the cabin, the buzz of flies drew our attention to a sockeye head discarded among the trees. We discussed turning back, but ultimately decided to make our way cautiously up the creek at a slower pace than usual so as to give the bears plenty of warning of our arrival. Multiple games of Twenty Questions/Animal Vegetable Mineral ensued in order to keep the conversation near-constant so that the bears might better hear our approach.

We made it to Mountain Lake without incident, except perhaps for the shock of having to cross the chilly thirty-foot wide stream without our shoes over rather sharp rocks. Our feet recovered soon enough, and we spent some time sitting on the mossy bank just north of Ken Fanning's presently unoccupied hunting camp. Situk Lake had been a pane of absolute glass, yet just two and a half miles away Mountain Lake was gripped in a constant wind that rustled everything overhead and ushered a never-ending series of waves toward us; everything was rushing wind and crashing waves and the sound of the trees moving overhead. I welcomed the feel of the wind against my skin and reveled in the way it made the growing heat of the day more bearable, but the constant assault of sound made me weary. This coupled with hunger forced us back across the frigid river and back down the trail to the cabin, where we guiltily indulged in Velveeta Shells and Cheese. "It's absolutely vile but sooo good," Sam said as he ate his half.

About two o'clock I grabbed my swim suit, a Ziploc bag full of notebooks and books, two life jackets, some pistachios and dried pineapple, and met Sam down at the shore. He'd gathered the oars and prepared the row boat for launching. We pushed the boat out into the lake until it was finally clear of the shallow silty bottom and rowed off toward the mysterious splashing of the evening before. "I have a new theory," said Sam. "I think it's fish." And he was right.

We tried sneaking up on the sockeye with the row boat so that Sam could get a closer look at them, but they always noticed us coming and moved on before we arrived. These attempts led us over a particularly deep stretch of water, inky black with no bottom in sight. Conveniently, this deep pool rested within mere feet of a sandbar, and we beached the boat for some swimming. I never imagined that I'd want to go swimming in Situk Lake, but it was another unseasonably warm day, over eighty degrees, and I was happy to test the swimming hole. Sam watched me change into a swimsuit, made comments about what an incredible prude I am, stripped down to nothing, and then happily snuck off toward where he'd last seen the salmon splashing. I spent the next hour or so alternating between dipping into the dark (and unbelievably cold) swimming hole of undetermined depth, sitting in the warmer shallow water fending off the attacks of brave little salmon fry who kept nipping at my toes and feet, and watching Sam wander about in search of adult sockeye, a look of stealth on his face that did nothing to counteract the blazing white brilliance of his skin that surely announced his arrival to the fish from a great distance. Ultimately, he made it to within ten feet of them. I was impressed. He was not satisfied.

We packed up our things and headed back to the cabin. The remainder of the afternoon was spent reading, Sam curled up in the moss at the base of a hemlock, content in his sarong, me seated atop a large mossy stump that overlooked the lake, still wearing my swimsuit under my favorite hiking pants, which were rolled to the knee like Tom Sawyer. As early evening approached, I decided I was hungry and cracked into a Meal Ready to Eat that someone had left in the cabin; Sam had been curious about these pre-packaged military rations, and so I shared a bit of my fettuccini alfredo with him. He is no longer curious, and I predict that he will never again eat an MRE without extenuating circumstances. This snack (meant to keep a soldier fighting the 'good' fight) merely made us more hungry, and so we made minestrone. It was good, but terribly insufficient given the calories we'd been expending; both of us were still ravenous afterward. Sam had a bowl of oatmeal - the end of the surplus food we'd brought, aside from more celery and carrots (which would do nothing to satiate my hunger), and so I dipped into more of the cabin's surplus stash. I ultimately crafted a rather vile sounding but yummy mix of plain long-grain rice and Jimmy Dean instant country gravy. It took nearly an hour to make, wasted a ton of my propane, but was exactly what I wanted (for some insane reason). I took it off the stove and we headed back down to the boat for the evening "dinner cruise."

I indulged in my heinous carbohydrate-laden concoction while Sam rowed us out toward the center of the lake. With each stroke of the oars, new mountains came into view to the northeast. We passed our swimming hole and made our way a bit further into the lake, but our ultimate goal was simply to drift, to enjoy the sunset, to read our books. Sam successfully placed his body horizontally across one of the seats without capsizing the craft, his head padded from the gunnel by a floatation vest, and delved back into Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I tried to get back into the book Sam had lent me, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but found myself constantly distracted by the mountains to my right and the sunset to my left. The smoke seemed significantly less dense this evening, and I watched the sun descend slowly toward the real horizon - the jagged skyline of the flat conifer forest that extends from Situk Lake to the Gulf of Alaska. The wind began to pick up, creating ripples on the water that broke the sun's fiery reflection into shimmering slices until the sun disappeared behind the trees altogether. The wind was growing in intensity, and we'd drifted out quite far into the lake, so we decided to head back to the cabin. Sharing the work at the oars, we were able to make decent progress against the headwind.

I came away with a blister on the inside of my left thumb. I always get that blister when I row, and I should know by now to tape the damn thing in advance.

As with every Alaskan summer evening, it remained dusk for quite awhile. We made hot chocolate with butterscotch Schnapps and sat on the front porch of the cabin, watching the bats begin their evening hunt. We talked. I think I saw Sam smile more times that day than I think I've ever seen in a single week; it's so good to see him happy, and I wish we'd gotten out more this summer. It's so easy for the two of us, reclusive little souls that we are, to spend our weekends around the house puttering about on the computer or on writing projects, but I can't tell you how many sunny days we wasted that way this year. Granted, it's been sunny more often than not, a rarity in Yakutat, and we have been out a bit, but I still feel we should have gotten out more. The summer is drawing to a close and there are so many things left undone. Things that will probably never get done.

But I suppose I can always return here if the timing and conditions of my life are right.

We went to bed soon after dark, no card games. I slept solidly, and the growing pain in my thumb from the blister I'd developed led to an awful dream which I shouldn't recount in any detail due to the fact that it's rather disturbing, but these are the sort of dreams I have from time to time and they don't bother me in the least. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you're the squeamish sort... I looked down in my dream and noticed that the skin had been peeled from the last knuckle to the tip of my left thumb, removed like a glove, and that the digit had been incised from every side so that it was hanging by a thread, that thread, in theory, being the ligaments which hold the proximal and distal phalanges together. I seemed rather unconcerned about bandaging the avulsion, but instead went on a quest searching about the places I'd recently been looking for the skin of my thumb so that I might get someone to put it back on for me. This led to me accidentally thumping the thumb on something, which popped the ligaments and I lost the distal portion of my thumb. No matter, because I saw where it went and it was about that time that I noticed the skin as well (nail intact! huzzah!) and happily scooped them up and took them to a very nice woman who unlocked the clinic and put everything back in place and within an hour it looked like normal. Yes, I know. I know.

We woke late again the following morning and lounged about for quite awhile in our surprisingly comfortable wooden bunk (due to the addition of two Therm-A-Rests I'd brought as well as a couple of inflatable air mattresses that someone, probably the Forest Service, had left at the cabin). We ate the last of the oatmeal, had some vanilla cardamon coffee, and enjoyed our final meal seated on the stumps between the cabin and the lake.

I heard a whistling in the distance and looked up to see Daryl James, a USFS employee and the father of one of my employees from last summer. He was hiking alone, up to check on Fanning's two hunting camps in the area. We chatted for a bit about the condition of the cabin, wildlife sightings (or lack thereof) that we'd had during our stay, etc. I confirmed with him that checkout time was indeed noon, finished my coffee, and began packing up around eleven. We were packed by twelve and on the trail ten minutes later, headed back toward town.

And apologies... I had fully intended to take photographs, but forgot the memory card for the camera at the house. Sometimes, however, it's better to simply focus on the scenery to capture it in your mind without the distraction of trying also to capture it on film.