The 30-mile Cross-Admiralty Canoe Route could be seen as a straightforward trip: start in Angoon (Aangóon, or “isthmus town”), where Tlingit people have lived since time immemorial. Travel to the head end of the at-times treacherous Mitchell Bay, don backpacks, hike into the rainforest and portage and paddle a series of Admiralty Island’s lakes, until you get to Mole Harbor, on the other side of the island. Along the way, you may fish for cutthroat trout; you may see brown bears. You’ll clamber over slippery logs and use them to cross beaver-flooded sections of trail. You’ll glimpse deer along the lakeshore. You’ll see flickering schools of juvenile fish, eat wild mint and you may get a few new blisters and calluses.
In another sense, however, the cross-Admiralty Island trip — which three Angoon high schoolers, two Southeast Alaska Expeditions guides, and a couple of storytellers, myself included, did for the first time last August – is much more than that. It’s Angoon’s backyard, and a portal into the interior of the island. Our trip was the first of what will hopefully be regular trips across the island for Angoon residents and Kootznoowoo Inc. shareholders. It was an introduction to a potential career in land stewardship for the three youth on the trip. And it was one of the first projects funded by the USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, a new approach in Southeast Alaska that finds ways to support community and Indigenous-led sustainable economic development and land management.
Day 1 – Mitchell Bay to Davidson Lake
Beebuks Kookesh, Sam Fredrickson and Trevor Fredrickson, all friends, cousins and Angoon high schoolers, met the four of us adults who were along to guide and document the trip — Haines-based Southeast Alaska Expeditions guides Beth Fenhaus and Jeff Moskowitz, U.S. Forest Service and Sitka Conservation Society storyteller and videographer Lee House, and myself — at the head end of Mitchell Bay, where we had all been transported by Beebuks’ father, Ed Kookesh. Along the way, Ed pointed to historically important places and trees downed by windstorms the previous winter.
I’ve talked to people who have done the route who say the first four-mile portage from Mitchell Bay to Davidson Lake isn’t very difficult. The previous winter’s windstorm must have complicated things, because that first portage isn’t something I would describe as“easy.” Downed trees lay across the trail, especially in the last couple of miles. We had to clamber over them or squeeze ourselves and our packs along the ground under them. One of the crossings had flooded due to beaver activity, and while crossing a slippery log set over a waist-deep beaver slough, one of us slipped backward and got soaked. (Only Beebuks still had dry Xtratufs at the end of the trip.)
Darkness caught us before we were where we planned to camp that first night. We pulled out our headlamps, contemplated and rejected the idea of camping amid a bunch of blowdown, scarfed handfuls of dried fruit and jerky, refilled our water bottles at a muskeg pond and began what would become one of the most iconic parts of the trip — listening to music provided by Sam, dubbed “DJ Bear Scare” — by the time we arrived at Davidson Lake around 9 p.m. Things just don’t feel the same when 2Pac is your soundtrack.
At Davidson, Beebuks immediately got out his fishing pole and began to cast.
Admiralty Island is called Kootznoowoo in Lingít, the language of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. It translates roughly to “The Fortress of the Brown Bear.” The island has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world, at one estimated bear for every one of the island’s 1,600 square miles. It’s also home to runs of wild pink, coho and chum salmon, and king salmon, as well as cutthroat, Dolly Varden and other species of fish.
The island’s health is due in large part to Tlingit elders in Angoon, who traveled to Washington, D.C., and successfully advocated for the island to become a national monument, which would protect much of it from the clearcut old growth logging taking place across Southeast in the last few decades of the 20th century.
Now, decades later, Kootznoowoo continues to be one of the most ecologically intact islands in Southeast Alaska — and Kootznoowoo Inc., the Alaska Native corporation of the village of Angoon, is working to springboard that natural beauty, intact wild habitat, and the U.S. Forest Service’s new focus on sustainability, recreation and resilience into economic opportunity for the village of Angoon.
Day 2 – Davidson Lake to Hasselborg Lake
There’s no way not to feel lucky when you find yourself in the woods and on the water for three warm, dry, bluebird days in Southeast Alaska. As we blew up our packrafts and paddled into the sunshine on Davidson Lake that first morning, it almost felt like the island was welcoming us.
Pale-green lichen hung down from the trees. A deer emerged from the brush and darted back into the forest. Sam immediately dug a piece of flagging from his pack and began imitating a deer call, trying to call it back.
We drank the muskeg “tea water” we’d gathered the day before and stopped for a delicious meal of crackers and coho salmon Beebuks’ uncle had caught in Yakutat and his family smoked and jarred in Angoon.
As we neared the end of the lake, a loon chortled across the water. Marsh grass waved in the breeze as we paddled through the lilypad-dotted slough leading from Davidson Lake to Lake Guerin. Big bull pines, their roots in muskegs, dotted the shore.
The interior of Admiralty Island is a ridge of mountains, and at Lake Guerin, our surroundings began to grow higher. We paddled past mountains with green alpine. Sam, Beebuks and Trevor, all of whom grew up hunting and had already gone out in search of deer to fill the freezer that year, speculated about where the deer might be.
At the end of Lake Guerin, we pulled up to a grassy, lilypad-lined bank and walked the one and a half-mile portage, through patches of devil’s club. As we descended a small hill to the three-sided shelter at Hasselborg Lake, Sam was playing Ice Cube’s “It was a Good Day.”
That night, Trevor, Beebuks and Sam made a fire by the side of the lake, then took out the rowboat to fish at the mouth of the creek. Reaching the lake before it got dark, and getting to go fishing for cutthroats, would be one of the boys’ favorite points of the trip.
Day 3 – Hasselborg Lake to Mole Harbor
The next morning, after breakfast, Beth got us oriented with a map and a rundown of the plan for the day, which included staying close together, as Jeff’s packraft had developed a hard-to-mend leak at the seam. (Later, the kids would say “don’t leave anyone behind” is one of the key lessons they learned from our fearless guides.) We set out across the lilypads in front of the cabin and paddled past the mouth of Hasselborg Creek.
At the start of Beaver Lake, we re-inflated our boats and set off for the final paddle of the trip, through a sunny slough where we watched schools of juvenile fish flicker in the shallow water. From there, we paddled to Alexander Lake, where the wind picked up, blowing us backwards. As we paddled, we passed a cabin and a boat of people fishing. The breeze calmed, and it was so sunny that one of them jumped into the lake to cool off. “Better now,” he declared.
At the end of Alexander Lake, we hiked up a hill into a forest of big hemlock and spruce trees, and then into stands of cedar. We passed through grassy muskeg filled with scraggly trees and puddled boardwalk, dodged our way around a few more downed trees, and descended the hill to the three-sided shelter at Mole Harbor. Lee, the kids and I walked across the tidal flat to the ocean to talk about the trip.
“You guys just paddled and hiked across Admiralty,” I asked. “What are your first thoughts?”
“It feels good to hear the ravens,” Sam said. As he pointed, one croaked on cue. “And to feel the breeze on the water.”
“Relief and accomplishment,” Trevor said. “I just got excited when I first saw it. I got happy, seeing the ocean through the woods.”
“It was rough, climbing over all those trees,” Beebuks added.
“I was surprised we made it here in two nights and three days,” Trevor added. “We covered the hard part the first bit. I’ve never hiked that long before…. It was kinda cool to see all the lakes that people keep talking about in town that they really want to go to. A lot of people talk about Hasselborg and Davidson… This trip has gone by pretty fast, too. What really kept me motivated hiking was when Sam would play music for all of us. Music — it just makes you feel like you can go on forever.”
Later, as we got started on dinner, a bear emerged from the woods across the tidal flat. When it heard us, it turned and bounded back into the trees.
Day 4 and beyond — flying home — and a new year
The final morning, we packed up for the last time and hiked down to the shoreline, then walked a mile up the shore to our pickup point. A doe and a fawn emerged from the grass to forage along the beach. Shortly afterward, we passed a tidal stream full of spawning pink salmon. Sam immediately got out the fishing pole, and all three of the kids splashed through the stream in their Xtratufs, thrilled at the chance to see what they could catch. A flock of gulls lifted into the air. Eventually, reluctantly, we left. Sam, Trevor and Beebuks grinned as they boarded the plane.
This summer, all three students will be doing the cross-Admiralty trip from Angoon to Mole Harbor again — except instead of being guided, they’ll be working, paid to help guide other Angoon residents and/or Kootznoowoo shareholders.
“As the Native Village Corporation for Angoon, one of our goals at Kootznoowoo is to provide the hard skills and opportunities for young people in our community to make a living, sharing the traditional lands and values of their Elders, with visitors to Angoon,” said Jon Wunrow, Director of Tourism and Natural Resources for Kootznoowoo Inc.
Guiding is a career path Beebuks is interested in, fueled by his passion for fishing.
Sam and Trevor are interested in being guides, though they’re also interested in other career paths — Sam in joining the Coast Guard, Trevor in being a CSI (Crime Scene Investigator.)
Either way, after this summer, they’ll have job experience co-guiding two trips, one in May and one in July, in their backyard — and some of their friends are now interested, as well.
“There’d be quite a bit of hills and long hikes, but it’ll be fun to be on the lakes,” Beebuks said he’d tell people making their first trip across the canoe route.
When they got home to Angoon, Sam said he would tell people “how fun it was to get to explore more of the island of our hometown.”
• Mary Catharine Martin is the communications director of SalmonState, an organization that works to ensure Alaska remains a place wild salmon and people whose lives are interconnected with them continue to thrive.