The Great Alaska Wilderness Adventure
Ryan and I used to be junkies for adventure. We were always on some sort of quest, looking for new and interesting places such as caves, mines, old towns and the like. That’s why the opportunity to search for old plane crashes was right in line with what we did for fun. Early in 97, we met a guy from Soldotna named John. He was on the island doing research for an aircraft salvage company, and had been staying with a friend of ours, so we had spent a bit of time talking about the gig. He told us there was a finders fee for locating wrecks, and I’d been around the airline biz in Alaska since I was a kid. We were more than up for the idea.
Being that this was the AOL dialup era, the sharing of information on the internet was a little more limited, so I relied on the old time pilots I knew for most of my information, but then found the NTSB website, and started finding all the crashes back to 85, and there were more on the island than we imagined. This was gonna be good! That is, until John bailed out of town, and we learned he’d been embezzling money from the company........ Oh well, now we were talking with the head honcho, and he was still planning on coming down and trying to find some of the crash sites, so Ryan and I kept looking.
We’d heard of a few crash sites around the Hollis - Karta Wilderness areas, so we started trying to find them. We headed out one day to the Hollis area, up the Maybeso Valley, and started climbing up the mountain with maps and notebooks. We were trying to find a quick way to Karta Lake, which we knew of at least a few planes in the lake itself. It was a wilderness area, so no roads in or out. Climbing the Hollis side was no good, almost vertical, very brushy..... Crap, looks like we would have to find a better way in. As we sat on the side of the mountain, we started looking at what appeared to be an old trail system, coming into the wilderness area from a road system on the North side of the lake system (The wilderness area consisted of Salmon Lake and Karta Lake). If the roads were still open, then we could drive in, and then the trail would only be about 3 miles in to Salmon Lake. The trail then continued all the way down to Karta Lake, then to the bay, with several Forest Service cabins along the way. That settled it, we headed back to town and loaded up my truck. The only problem was, we didn’t tell anyone our plans, and last anyone knew, we were going to go camping toward the North end of the island.
The drive over was less than an hour, but since we started late, we decided to camp at the truck that night, then head in first thing in the morning. We found a landing on a clearcut that looked like it matched the map for hiking in to the trail system. That night, we drank around the campfire, a normal tradition with the two of us, and talked about our game plan for the morning. At first light, we packed up out gear, grabbed our rifles, and headed out. Down the clearcut, skirting around a hill, and then dropping down into a drainage. Sure enough, after an hour or so, we hit an old road network. Huh, must be what they are showing as the trail system on the map, we though. Without hesitation, we kept going. Mind you, this is early March in Alaska, and snow can hang out inland in SouthEast for most of the spring. And hang on it did. The road started becoming impassible, the snow had bent the Alder trees down into a mangled mess. The lake has to be just another mile or so we thought, so we’ll head off the road and go South. First mistake.....pushing it when we should have stopped and gone back. This leads us to the second mistake. Neither of us brought a compass. I usually had one in my pack, but somehow misplaced it.
Eh, it’s not much farther....we thought. We kept going, and found a creek heading South, which by our map would have been Anderson Creek. Anderson Creek ran right into Salmon Lake, so we were going to follow it down. By now, the weather was coming in, and we had no landmarks to follow with our map, but we’d pushed it so far, in our minds it was wiser to find the lake and hike the trail out to another trail system than bust brush back the way we came. That was the third mistake. Next thing we know, we are standing in the creek looking down about a 60 foot waterfall. We’d followed the creek into a ravine, so it was straight down, back out the way we came (which was at least a mile), or straight up. We opted for the up, since there was at least trees and other hand holds, versus wet, moss cover rock to climb down.
We made it out of the ravine, down the hill, and hit the creek again. Now its dark....... and no flashlights. The plan was for a day hike, so we didn’t pack the right gear, but we at least brought sleeping bags and a tarp. Ryan was kind of starting to show some panic, so I told him to drop his pack and start looking for firewood. It was a moot point to build a fire, since it was pissing rain so hard you’d never get one going. It at least took Ryan’s mind off the situation, and gave me time to take stock of what resources we did have. I told Ryan to forget about the fire, and to get out the tarp and his sleeping bag, and just to hunker down for the night. Tell you what, if it wasn’t for total exhaustion, that was the absolutely one of the most miserable nights of my life. We were able to get a few hours of sleep here and there, and by sun up, the rain had quit. Now all our clothing and gear was soaked, so our packs felt like they weighed a ton.
We knew which direction to head to work our way back to civilization, but we had no idea how much farther we had to go until the second day of hiking was done. We kept following Anderson Creek until the banks became to marshy to walk on. We opted to head SouthEast, since it would insure that we would hit the lake regardless. Along the way, the sun decided to come out, so we threw all our gear out on a rocky sandbar to try and dry it all, and ended up taking a short nap in the sun. Just guessing, but we estimated that we’d walked about 15 miles by that point.
After about an hour, we packed up, and headed out. Ryan was leading, and found what looked to be a game trail that was heading in the direction we wanted. At least we thought it was a game trail, until we came across a log that had fallen that looked as if the center had been cut out of the way of the trail. Ryan kicked the moss off one end, and sure enough, it had been cut with a saw. I took the map out and gave it a second look. Turns out, the road system we camped on was new enough it wasn’t on our map, and the road system we thought was the trail was what the map showed as where we thought we started from! We’d finally found the trail that was on the map, no where near where we thought it was. So be it, we were committed to following the trail now, no way we were going out the way we came. The Salmon Lake cabin was just a few more miles ahead, so it became our goal for the day.
The trail eventually worked its way along the shoreline of the lake, so we knew that we going to be just fine, even if we still had about 20 miles and a mountain between us and the closest town. About a mile from the cabin, we stumbled upon a Department of Fish and Game camp on the lake shore. They’d built a platform, and left a tent set up at the camp, so we took a peek inside. In one corner was a plastic tote with a few cans of food left in it. All we had brought for food was a few packages of top ramen, so it was quite tempting. We continued on, and eventually made it to the cabin. First order of business was to get a fire going to dry out our clothes and sleeping bags. Next was to eat and refill canteens, so I set about to boiling water, and Ryan went back to the tent and grabbed a few cans of food.
We felt as if we were eating like kings, Spam and chili next to a warm fire with dry clothing. While eating, we read through the cabins visitor log. Turns out, the trail used to be a major portage from the East to West side of the island, back in the fur trading days. The Fish and Game camp was due to crews coming in during the summer to rebuild sections of the old trail. We hoped that meant it would be an easier walk the rest of the way to the bay. Of course we wrote up our own entry, signed as “2 Dumbasses From Craig, Ak.”, figuring that future visitors might find our story entertaining. The next problem, besides getting to the bay, was the fact that we had to get to the other side of the lake to even think of getting out of there. The plan was to hike the trail to where the lake system turned into the Karta River, cross the river and work out way to the beach. From there, we could hike the beach to Hollis, and call someone to pick us up. We did devise a back up plan, but it would involve another full day of hiking to even get to a road, and then another 10 miles to a main highway. We didn’t want to think about that option, but it was an option available to us.
The next morning, with full bellies, dry clothes, and a good night sleep, we hit the trail once more. Of course our contentment would be shattered within a mile, were Senator Creek flowed into the channel running between Salmon and Karta lakes. At one time, there had been a foot bridge crossing the creek, but now, the bridge was gone, and we would have to suffer wading through waist deep water. To reduce the misery, we removed socks and jeans, and proceeded to cross the creek. Waist deep spring run off is not fun first thing in the morning, it falls into the insult to injury category. With that obstacle behind us, we continued on to our next stop, the Karta Lake cabin. It was only another mile down, but it was possible that someone either left supplies behind (common for visitors to leave food), or that someone could be staying there. The cabins were usually booked up this time of year for the spring Steelhead run. Upon arriving at the cabin, it was obvious that someone was staying there, but weren’t there at the moment. About another 2 miles down was a trail to the river, which we figured to be the best point to try a crossing. Boy, were we wrong. Because of the spring run off from hundreds of small streams into the lake system, the river could qualify as Class 5 rapids. There was no way possible to safely cross.
The only other option for our current plan was to continue to the bay, and hope that there was still a boat at the cabin. It had been a few years since I’d been to that cabin, we had to fly some gear in for a group that was staying there, and at that time there was a pair of small aluminum boats. Along the trail, we came across the Karta Lake cabin residents, a couple in for three days to fish. They told us that a group had just flown out of the bay cabin, but they’d left a box of food behind. We acted pretty casual, which wasn’t easy for living on Spam, chili and top ramen for the last few days, and thanked them for the information. As we lost sight of them on the trail, out casual attitude gave up, and we sprinted our way down the trail. Ryan made it first, and as I rounded the corner to the cabin, I see him standing inside stuffing his face with Dorritos! We were set...... They left bread, soups, a six pack of Coke, and half a bottle of Johny Walker Red Label. Our elation was quickly replaced as soon as we noticed that there seemed to be no boats anywhere in sight. Upon further inspection, the largest “piece” of a boat we could find was a chunk of aluminum about a foot square. The boats had been destroyed on the rocks during a winter storm.
Our plan for getting out of the wilderness was smashed in that instant. Our only option was another two days of hiking to get close to any chance of getting home. By now, we were fairly certain that our friends and family would be starting to look for us. Counting the night we spent at the truck, we were on our fourth night, where we had only intended on being gone for two. Getting the map out, we measured the distance of out travels. Close to twenty five miles, and we would have about 15 more to even find another person to help us get home. We didn’t sleep as comfortably that night, with the prospect of more hiking looming over us.
We awoke the next morning to the sounds of aircraft engines overhead. It hadn’t occurred to me earlier, but this was right along a major travel route between Craig and Ketchikan. All of a sudden, another option came to mind. I was taught from when I was a child how to make distress signals to catch the attention of passing aircraft, and at this point, it seemed to be the wise choice. If anything, we could get someone to land and have them relay a message to friends and family that we were alright, and where we were at. It was settled. I dug into my pack for the roll of orange ribbon I always carried, and proceeded to lay out a ten foot X on the ground. Ryan started gathering green cedar boughs, and built a fire. Along with the cedar, a sleeping pad was shredded into pieces to make a nice smokey fire for when the next plane flew overhead.
With all of our preparations in place......... Nothing. The planes seemed to quit flying over. So we waited for what seemed hours, then we heard it. A Cessna flying right down the lake system. As soon as it crossed the tree tops over the bay, the cedar and pad foam went onto the fire, and a huge plume of smoke was sent skyward! He saw us, as he made several circles overhead. Great, we’re saved! We ran back to the cabin, and grabbed up our packs. Someone should be along shortly, we thought. About 15 minutes later, we hear a helicopter. Wow....ok, we weren’t expecting the Coast Guard or anything, a float plane would have been more than adequate. Nope, it ventured on in a different direction. Looked like we’d be waiting a little longer, so we decided to clean up the ribbon on the ground, and extinguish the signal fire. While in the process of cleaning up, all of a sudden the float plane we spotted came roaring overhead at around 500 feet . Ryan grabbed up the bundle of ribbon and started to wave it in the air, and sure enough, he landed out in the bay.
Of course it was low tide, so we had to run about a quarter mile down the tide flats to get to his landing spot. That’s when I realized who had landed, Max Lukin. He was an aviation pioneer in the area, having been flying around South East Alaska for decades. He owned his own charter flying business, and flew for the remote school districts. He walked back on the float and yelled out “What happened? Your ride forget about ya?”. When we reached him, I explained what had happened, and if at the least we could get a message to our families, he would be helping greatly. He leaned in and asked his passenger “You mind if we give these boys a ride? Looks like they been lost out here a few days”. His passenger, a school administrator from Seattle became all excited, getting to participate in a wilderness rescue, and was more than happy to share his flight with a couple of haggard young men who looked a little bit like Grizzly Adams by this point.
We piled our gear in the back, and climbed in. Max leaned back and asked us where we needed to go. I told him Hollis would be just fine, since it was only about a 10 minute flight from the bay, and we could call a ride from the payphone at the floatplane dock. Landing in the Hollis bay was an incredible feeling, knowing that our ordeal was over. After unloading, I turned to Max and said “Hey, I don’t have any money on me, but if I owe you for the flight, I’d be more than happy to send you money”. Max looked at me, shook my hand a simply said “Naw, saved your feet some walkin’, and now ya got stories to tell”. He just smiled, and pushed away from the dock. We trudged up the ramp to the payphone, dug through all of our pockets and finally found a quarter.
I knew that my mom would be at work, so I called there knowing that we had a ride. “Hey mom, we’re in Hollis. Long story. Bring food”. Ryan and I simply collapsed on the ground, all we had to do was wait about forty five minutes, and we’d be on our way home. We ran out of cigarettes the day before, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask my mom to buy some. I told Ryan I’d kill for a smoke. He dug into a pocket, and pulled two cigarettes out. I could have killed him! He said he was saving them for either when we were rescued or about to die. That’s Ryan, a smart ass to the end. Mom showed up, and gave us a much appreciated ride to our house. She told us to come over for dinner later, since my dad would be home by then, and would want to hear the story. We tracked down Ryan’s folks, and any friends that would be looking, and made sure they knew we were back.
That evening at dinner, my dad wanted to hear the story, so I told him about the ordeal. I ended the story saying “Yeah, we figured flagging the plane down was the best way, figured everyone would be worried about us”. My dad looked at me and says “I wasn’t”, very matter of factly! Great, the one time I really am lost and in trouble, and my dad acts nonchalant about it! Then he explained why, because he was the one who taught me to survive in the woods, and he knew that I could do it.
A few days later, Ryan and I had to conduct an experiment to see for sure if Spam really was as good as we thought............ Maybe if you’re starving, I haven’t touched it since!