The engine of the Cessna increased in pitch and volume as the small plane accelerated down the beach and lifted into the air. It climbed above San Juan Bay and curved behind Stair Mountain, leaving only the sound of waves crashing on the sandy beach. My partner and I looked at each other and laughed nervously. We’re here now, nowhere to go but forward.
My partner Ben Americus and I had just landed in San Juan Bay on the southern tip of Montague Island in Prince William Sound of Alaska. Our goal: to traverse the length of the island from south to north along an approximately 60-mile long spine of mountains. Until 2010, when the US Coast Guard decommissioned their base on Attu Island in the Aleutians, Montague Island had the distinction of being the largest uninhabited island in the country. Now the second largest, it’s home only to salmon, coastal Alaskan brown bears, and Sitka blacktail deer.
With the plane gone, we turned and headed for the forest to start our journey. The initial half mile was our only portion of trail for the entire trip as it led to the San Juan Bay Cabin. From 1988 to 2018, my father came here every year deer hunting. I joined him in 2009 to help fill the family freezer. The cabin was just as I remembered it, and flipping through the worn log book was a walk through time. I read past entries each with a similar theme of bear, deer and weather, tracing my father’s past trips back to the early 2000’s. The October 2009 entry was written in my scrawling script as 14 year old Miles described a 5 day storm and sparse deer. After appreciating the cabin, we had a quick lunch and pointed ourselves towards the ridge, just visible above the towering stands of spruce and hemlock.
We crossed open muskegs with high bush blueberries and salmon berry bushes bending under their late summer bounty. We grabbed handfuls of the sweet fruit as we hiked up. In typical Alaskan style, we very quickly found ourselves in a thick ravine of brush and were soaked in minutes. Although the day was blue and bright, the vegetation held onto the previous day’s rain. For an hour and a half, we battled our way through the coastal Alaskan jungle, grunting and cursing as we occasionally lost our footing and slid back down the slope. After a futile foray into a hemlock thicket that we thought was a shortcut, we finally burst onto the ridge, blue sky above and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching unbroken to the South and East. To our North and West lay the myriad of islands, inlets and coves of Prince William Sound crowned by the high glaciated peaks of the Chugach Range brilliantly white against the blue sky. We couldn’t believe our luck at the weather and with our spirits buoyed by being out of the brush, we started North along the ridge.
At an elevation of about only 1300 feet, the beginning of the ridge was just barely above treeline. We weaved back and forth on and off the crest to avoid more thick hemlock clusters that straddled the crest. We bumped in and out of small bowls, spooking deer out of each one we entered. With the ridge trending up in elevation, soon the trees were left behind and we were greeted with open tundra. Prince William Sound is among the wettest places in the country. Averaging over 200 inches of rain and 250 inches of snow a year, Montague Island is a place dominated by water. The tundra was unlike any I had seen elsewhere in Alaska and more closely resembled a bog even on the rocky ridge. Shin deep sphagnum moss and deer cabbage blanketed the slopes and even on a warm and sunny day, our feet were soaked all day long. Small pools and ponds lay in the bowls and muddy puddles clung to shelves on the ridgeline.
From carefully examining the latest satellite imagery of the route with the Sentinel Weekly layer, we were able to see how much snow and melt water to expect on the trip. Initially we were worried about access to water, but thanks to this recent imagery layer, we were able to see that there would be plenty of places to fill up our bottles. To learn more about using weekly satellite imagery, check out the Sentinel Weekly section of the CalTopo user guide.
With each summit and point crested on the ridge, we were met with the ever increasing realization of the enormity of the task that lay ahead. The range we planned to traverse is vast and rugged. At times, we walked on cat walks the width of our shoes as the ridge fell away to either side. The terrain was incredibly engaging and breathtaking and easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. But as the day wore on into the evening, we realized that the movement was much slower than we anticipated. The slippery and ankle breaking tundra, loose scree and occasional fin of rock warranted slow and careful movement to avoid falling and we moved with care. We averaged about 1.5 miles an hour with each mile containing large climbs and descents.
During the planning phase of this trip, I used the Global Imagery and Scanned Topo layers to identify potential campsites along the route for each day. It was really satisfying to spend so much time looking at the imagery at home to then recognize the location in real life. The accuracy and pin point detail of the layers meant we could quickly and easily find a place to set up camp. We called it a day after 12 hours and settled into our tent on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean, sun setting on the peaks around us.
I was awoken abruptly sometime in the early hours of the morning by heavy rain hitting the tent. I carefully unzipped the tent to look outside and was immediately greeted by a wall of white clouds. We knew that we had weather coming in, but the storm came in fiercer than forecasted. Perched up on the ridge, the Pacific Ocean stretching unbroken until Hawaii below us, the storm slammed our little tent. My partner’s tent, although super light and packable, meant that I was unable to stretch out fully so I was left in a half fetal position as the water started to pool in the tent at our feet.
Pushed in the zipper seams by the wind, the rain puddled and we used a gallon Ziplock bag to bail out a liter of water at a time. Ben used that time to catch up on sleep after a stressful previous week moving back to Alaska. Unable to get fully comfortable in my half curled position, I slowly felt the damp of the tent saturate my sleeping bag and tried to distract myself with a book. The winds picked up in the afternoon and we traded turns holding up the tent with our arms.
As I held up the tent with an outstretched arm, wind pushing back and fabric snapping in the wind, I was struck with the most intense feeling of exposure and vulnerability I’ve ever experienced in the outdoors. With nothing but a not so waterproof layer of nylon between us and the storm outside, I suddenly felt very small. I tried to make myself as comfortable as I could and focus on my book, but the feeling didn’t let go of me until the storm abated 30 hours later.
The next morning after 2 nights and one full day of storm, we awoke to a brilliant blue sky again. We commented on how quickly this place would go from heaven to hell and back again. Checking weather data after the trip, I found that it had rained 2 inches on us. Less than one percent of the annual amount. We felt humbled indeed.
We pulled out our wet sleeping bags and turned the tent upside down, water gushing out. Having only gotten out of the tent twice in 30 hours, and spending most of that time in the fetal position, I felt aged and stiff. We packed our bags, wet gear hanging off our packs and continued North along the ridge again.
Checking the weather forecast on our Garmin InReach, we knew we had about 48 hours before another even larger storm rolled in again. This storm looked to extend beyond our forecast range and promised even more rain. We communicated with our pilot and planned a pick up for the next night before the storm. We felt motivated to cover as much ground as possible.
It felt like we had crossed some sort of invisible geologic line as the ridge suddenly became more knife edged and the slopes to either side steepened. The terrain was constantly engaging as we crested summits, dropped to saddles and traversed incredible ridge lines. Some sections required short scrambles of what we called “tundra-neering”. Short almost vertical sections of tundra required using our trekking pole tips almost like ice tools to gain purchase in the slippery tundra. As we continued along the ridge, bowl after bowl opening before us, we received a disappointing message from our pilot. Due to the incoming weather, and schedule conflict getting other flights out before the storm, he had to pick us up that night. We sat for a moment in disappointment. We had about 8 hours left in the trip, and we were determined to make the most of it.
We quickened our pace but could see in the distance the terrain becoming more rocky and technical. It appeared to be our technical crux thus far of the trip. Knowing we had to find a landing zone for our pilot in his helicopter, we tediously continued, making mental note of possible landing sites. A couple hours later, we reached a point that continuing on meant moving into more technical terrain and risking our ability to find a spot for our pilot to pick us up. We were in no way going to risk getting stuck on the island for a week or more in bad weather. The thought of repeating the 30 hours in the tent, but stretched out to the length of a week-long storm was enough motivation for us to end our Northward progress on the ridge and find a decent site for the helicopter.
With a full day hiking already behind us, we found a beautiful alpine pond situated on a bench with the perfect landing zone. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun, swam in the snow melt pond and made dinner. With the sun setting on us, we tried to enjoy our last hours on Montague Island. The disappointment was palpable, but it was hard to be upset given our beautiful location. With the sun setting on us, we sat on a moraine and reflected on the trip. I feel like I’ve never learned as much on a trip as I had the past three days. The remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain pushed me in ways that I had never experienced.
As our pilot picked us up, and we lifted into the air around 10 pm, the lingering late summer Alaskan light painted our route on the ridge line in reds and yellows. The pilot took us back North along the ridge in our intended direction and we were hit with just how far and ambitious our goal was. In two days of walking, we had covered about one third the distance. The entire route would take at least 6 to 7 days of walking barring any bad weather. Having just walked a section of the ridge, we sat with a new found awe of it as we flew north. It was an awe born of having already spent hours navigating its slopes and peaks getting to know each foot step intimately.
While we certainly tasted defeat, I in no way felt like the trip was a failure. The amount of learning done on this trip will be carried forward with me to every other I embark upon. I feel truly grateful to have experienced such a wild and remote place under the power of my own two feet. This island still remains large in my mind as a place of intense beauty, mystery and challenge, just as it had growing up hearing my father’s stories before me. Now, having taken my own journey, I can add my stories to the anthology of beauty and ruggedness that is Montague Island.