Travels of the Past #3: Shuyak Island, Alaska

During the summer of 2007 I decided to go out into the wild. Living in Ontario for three years had given me a taste of the north with it's long and dark winters, but I wanted to go further towards to the pole. Something was, and is, calling me to the poles. So I hooked up with the Alaska State Parks and landed a volunteer job as a backcountry ranger assistant. The job description implied that we would be doing lots of trail work, cabin maintenance, and looking out for illegal fishermen and hunters. At the beginning of spring I flew from Toronto to Cincinnati, after a couple weeks in Cincinnati visiting family I flew to Anchorage then to Kodiak. Once I got to Kodiak I had about a week to get my training done and stock up gear.

For the week of training our ranger team (Gabe, Jim, and I) were stationed in an off-grid cabin at the Abercrombie State Park in Kodiak. From the very beginning I was in awe of the size of the flora and fauna.

The first day I camped out in the ranger visitor center. I spent the majority of the night watching movies on bears and the history of the Kodiak park system.
Then I got upgraded to the cabin where I bunked with Jim. Jim was a Vietnam veteran, age 65, and was really into martial arts and fishing. Ranger Gabe was our leader and he wasn't really a ranger, instead he was a park technician with many skills, age 27. At the time I was 21.
Abercrombie Park is famous for it's WWII bunkers and bomb scraps.
A 15 mile drive out of town and you can get to the base of snow caped mountains and do a bit of climbing and boarding.
One of the neatest things I learned from this Alaskan expedition is the importance of talking to the local biologists about native medicine and edible herbs. Books are great, but sometimes it can be very tricky to tell two closely looking plants apart... and as you know from the movie 'Into the Wild' (a copy of my journey) if you pick the wrong plant you can die. So, be safe and talk to the locals. If you must go by book, then when you pick a plant rub a bit on your skin. Don't eat it right away. See if turns your skin red or causes any irritation. After a half hour if all looks okay then take a small nibble of the plant that you think is edible. Give it a couple hours and see how your body reacts. If all good, then consume in moderation and slowly. Here was Jim and I hanging out the a biologist in Kodiak, I think she was trying to show us beach greens.
Abercrombie had some great sunsets.
After our week of training it was time to take off to the bush :) We were headed to Shuyak Island State Park. Shuyak used to be ancient Allutiq and Inuit sites... dating back to 3,500 years ago. We came across aboriginal skulls in burial grounds every once in awhile while on kayak trips. In the 1950s and 1960s the US military established communication bases and repeater towers on the island so that the interior of Alaska could communicate with the Aleutian Islands. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, after the war, folks bought up the land and built mining camps. I heard that there is a potential to find gold, but not much has been found so far. The best mineral to be found is Alaskan jade. In 1989 the Exxon spilled a bunch of oil into the gulf and the effluent decimated the coasts. I feel bad for all the otters that had to swim in it. Wildlife populations dropped drastically and the Alaska State Parks got some funding from the oil company... a few million was given to Shuyak Island for restoration and protection efforts. So, ASP kicked off all the land ownders and turned the island into a state recreation park while leaving a chunk of it for native claims.
Logging is a big threat to the forests on Kodiak. These are pictures from the southern region of Afognak, which is about 30-60 miles south of Shuyak. Thankfully ASP is expanding their park territory from Shuyak to Afognak. Where there is a park, there cannot be logging.
Here is the Big Bay ranger station. It was built about a decade using handmade, natural tools. The park ranger at the time wanted to be as eco-friendly as possible during it's construction, and I must say that it's one of the best cabins I've been in.
Things were simple. Water from a rain barrel. Clothing is washed about once every three weeks using rain water and soap. Our dishes are washed on the beach. Fire keeps you warm. A solar panel and wind turbine charged up our battery bank. The battery bank gave us VHF radio power and electricity for watching movies on our laptops on really rainy days. Sitka Deer and Grizzlies were our neighbors. A 10 square mile island all to ourselves with the occasional kayaker that gets flown in by a beaver and stays for a week or so.
I dug in my roots and began to meditate on the native sites. The legend has it that big grizzlies protect the native sites. I didn't believe the myth, so I camped near one of the sites and got visited by a giant grizzly during the night. I hid in my sleeping with bear mace in one hand, a knife in the other praying that the bear smells my food on the beach before eating me. I survived, but never again did I camp on a native site.
Lots of time was spent kayaking. Sometimes I'd get chased by a barking walrus or paddle through an otter nursery. There is nothing like being two miles out in the sea on a small kayak with no obligations except to get back to camp in a few days. Safety was of high priority and at all times I had my GPS and VHF. But, even with those tools I felt alone... I felt it was me against the world, or better said... me holding the arms of the world while floating on the eternal waves universal destiny.
Even when I was without many survival tools I could find hoards of things on the beaches. Buckets, various types of lumber, string, lures, shoes, glass, etc. The litter was a gold mine.
Jerry the bear. This guy was about 2-3 years old and hung out by our fish weir often. I got about within 20 feet of him one night because he crept into the weir while we were counting fish. Gabe had the gun cocked and ready, but everything was at peace. I told the bear we were trying to protect his food (salmon) so please leave us alone. Bear were everywhere. We had to keep loud when hiking the trails just to give our human signal out and a sawed off-shotgun was always by our side. It was like we were three alien visitors on an island full of bear that have been living there for ages.

They weren't afraid to leave their marks, in fact I think they took pleasure in defacing our smokers and cabins.

My weekends consisted of kayaking, survival and beach camping.
It's not like I was 'into the wild'... it's more like I was (am) the wild. A remote beach on a castaway island feels more like home to me than the city o r the suburbs.

Here's our ranger team along with the Abercrobie rangers putting the wier together. A fish weir is a device that forces the salmon to migrate upstream to spawn by going through a small hole in a dam that blocks the rest of the creek. It doesn't do much harm to the fish population, and from our counts we had at least 20,000 pink salmon. That was a sign of a very healthy ecosystem and that also told us that the net boats weren't doing too much harm.
The Coast Guard flew in one day and gave us a ride in the emergency evac basket. When you got about 20 feet from the heli the basket spun around crazily and it was so cool. A deal was made between then Coast Guard and Alaska State Parks. The ASP would build an emergency fuel cache at the ranger station for the helicopters and the Coast Guard would do emergency training with the ranger staff and volunteers every year.
I love cutting wood.

I love trail work.
I love halibut!!! We lived off halibut and potatoes/rice. Of course there was a bunch more food to chose from, but all we wanted was halibut. Fried halibut. BBQed halibut. Lemon and basil baked halibut. Cedar smoked halibut. Halibut sushi. etc. etc. etc.
Good food = good work.
Patience = big fish :) Note: Gabe was a fishing guru.
When we weren't catching or eating fish we were counting them for Fish & Wildlife's biological studies.
So many salmon. You could pick 'em up by your bare hands if you wanted to.
The fish Gabe has was already dead... we just had to dispose of all the dead fish at the weir so that the bear wouldn't have a dead fish feast at the weir.

Everything, from our recreation to our work was controlled by the tides. Some cabins weren't reachable during low tides.
This dude brought us food, mail, and beer every once in a while.
Hmm... who looked at the tide chart this moring?
Sometimes we'd get onto a beach and head in the forest for a few hours of work. If we didn't get back in time our boat would either be anchored in deep freezing water or it would be dried up on shore depeding on what tide it was. In other words, there was no getting done early... we got done when the tides said we could move on.
The best work I've ever done.
Cold and rainy... that's Kodiak in early spring.
We got to bust into a few old mining camps. No gold, just bear marks, squirrel terds, and lots of old books and tools.
I'm laying in a bear bed.
Here's deer haven cabin.
Sometimes I got lucky when kayaking and came across a vacant visitor cabin. That gave me a place to dry out my clothing and get warm again.
Mmm... granola.
One of them warrior of the woods...