Mug Tom Hesse

We’re headed for ambitious times.

After more than a year beset by plague, economic dysfunction and tragedy, we’ll soon emerge with a newfound appreciation for things big and small and, in many cases, a fistful of money from the government.

I, for one, am excited for the generational-defining flood of poor choices this collective effort to make up for lost time will soon produce.

You’ve certainly noticed the burbling excitement in your own life, be it planning more trips than any year could possibly contain or pledging to never again pass on the tiramisu.

Friends of mine who’ve never bothered to drive up Mount Evans now speak of summiting five 14ers in a single summer. Others, who haven’t been cycling since Lance Armstrong was reputable, have purchased bikes with a suspension that looks (and costs) like it was designed by NASA.

The off-ramp from the COVID-19 pandemic will, for some, be more of a luge track.

Amid the post-COVID ideas pitched to me was actually an old, bad idea that a friend of mine wants to take another stab at.

Once inoculated, my friend wants to try to complete a hike that thwarted us six years ago. It was a silly endeavor then, which makes it perfect for the daydreaming only a yearlong public health crisis can inspire.

So here’s the story of that hike, which I’m definitely not doing again.

The hike was a west-east crossing of an island in Southeast Alaska. I’m withholding some details because, for one, it’s tradition among those who try it, but also because the hike has caused a great deal of consternation for the regional Coast Guard Air Station, which has spent an incredible amount of taxpayer-funded flight hours retrieving the various doofuses who imperiled themselves on the journey.

An oft-repeated anecdote involves a Boy Scout troop from the Lower 48 (a term Alaskans occasionally, but not always, use derisively and certainly in this context it’s meant derisively) got a stern lecture from federal authorities after needing to be rescued from the hike in back-to-back summers.

The hike is appropriately coveted. It leaves from a sheltered bay housing the occasional humpback whale and climbs a few hundred feet through dense forest to one of the prettiest lakes holding water.

Some intrepid soul once hauled an 8-foot, flat-bottom boat up to that lake, and it’s been the default ferry ever since.

What it lacks in seaworthiness it makes up for in being your only option.

On the inland side of the lake, another few miles of thick woods await on the way to an alpine watering hole. At this point, the hike transitions out of brown bear country and into mountain goat country, though you still shouldn’t leave your food out.

You’re still several miles from the other side of the island at this point, which features hot springs and a float plane trip back to civilization.

The ridgeline that carries you to the other side of the island is accessed only by an impossibly steep spine that runs up the mountain and into the alpine. It goes without saying that there’s no actual path to be followed during any of this.

When it comes to hiking in Southeast Alaska, I caution everyone (myself included) that no amount of Rocky Mountain adventuring really prepares you for how dense the vegetation is and how wet the footholds are. The mountains are shorter, but steeper. No afternoon thunderstorms to sweat, only dense clouds that can sock in your approach and make it impossible to navigate.

One member of our troupe was, like me, a veteran of Wyoming backpacking and hiking. All my forewarning still failed to prep him for what it was like to hike in wilderness that’s wet 365 days a year.

Think climbing Mount Garfield in the rain. Unlike Garfield, however, there is plenty of vegetation to grab onto. It’s covered in thorns, but it’s there.

Ascending this spine makes you extremely confident in the fact that you don’t want to descend it, and therefore gives you the feeling of being pot committed to a hike that’s not even halfway over.

Camping in that alpine remains perhaps the most serene natural experience I’ve ever had. Many environments in many regions feature vistas impossible to describe but, in places like Alaska, you wonder if what you’re looking at has ever seen human traffic.

This was a needed highlight because we wouldn’t make it too far the next day before learning we’d go no farther.

The glacier crossing at which we had to turn back is the most challenging element of the hike. There’s about four lines that people can take, each requiring you to sidehill a face that slopes toward an abyss of your greatest fears. Also, probably death.

As soon as we reached it, it was clear the ice and snow had melted too much to cross safely, making it prudent to turn back — a fact made even more stark when the local Coast Guard helicopter passed by on a routine flyover.

Our retreat was more art than science: We put on all the rain gear, trail spikes and ice axes we had and resigned ourselves to leaving a rope or two on the mountain.

Everything from there was smooth sailing after climbing down the spine save for the matter of hiking out near a salmon hatchery in the dark during the start of the salmon run.

It was a worrying endeavor and we could certainly hear the bears snorting in the trees. But, when there’s salmon around, the bipedal crowd doesn’t interest the bears too much. I can relate.

After we made it back — just in time for last call — the consensus was we’d been soundly beaten but could hold our heads high that a branch of the U.S. military hadn’t been deployed to ameliorate our futility.

I assumed that would be the last of it, and it might have been if my friends hadn’t spent a year in quasi-isolation dreaming up new adventures. But, with spring on the way, vaccines rolling out and lost time to be reclaimed, bad ideas are starting to sound good again.

May at least half of them work out.


Tom Hesse is city editor at The Daily Sentinal.