Our hike begins with a plunge through knee-deep glacial meltwater. We’ll be out here for at least eight hours, and I’d rather not hike in soaking wet XtraTufs all day, so I take off my boots and socks, roll up my pants legs, and pick my way gingerly through the rocks to the grassy estuarine edge. I hope I don’t get sliced up by barnacles, but the water is cold enough that my feet are numb and I may not even notice at the moment. This could be a really dumb move; maybe I’ll be lucky. Most of the other hikers in our group have simply walked through the water with their lightweight hiking shoes on, resigned to being wet already, this early in the day.
The new Tutka Backdoor Trail doesn’t extend quite all the way to a versatile water taxi landing spot yet, so we have to improvise. Depending on the tide (in this case it’s at about thirteen feet, and coming in) pickup and drop-off sites will vary for this hike, until the trail extension can be built. It’ll be low tide after our hike today, so we’ll have to get on the water taxi in a different spot farther out in the bay, where the water is deeper.
The head of Tutka Bay is strewn with dead and dying pink salmon, their humpy-backed carcasses draped over rocks, barnacle beds, and grass flats. Many more are still alive, drawing their spawned-out bodies up-river, up-stream, up-country. Their dorsal fins and the tips of their tails stick up above the surface of the braided streams. Glaucous-winged gulls and black-legged kittiwakes gather in great numbers on the bay, for once in their lives well-fed.
After wading through the flats, we rendezvous on slightly higher ground, go around the circle and share names. We’re a mixed group of nine folks and from Homer and four from Seldovia, representing both sides of Kachemak Bay. Christina Whiting, the State Park’s volunteer coordinator, has put together this event, where we will explore the brand-new trail, and do a bit of trail work. It’s called the “Backdoor” because it starts on the populous Kachemak Bay side of the southern Kenai Peninsula and goes up, over, and across the mountains to the backdoor wilderness Gulf of Alaska side. Bret “Hig” Higman (along with two other trail parents, Erin McKittrick and Jeff Lee) was instrumental in the permitting, design, and construction of the trail. Hig tells us about the process of creating a new trail through the wilderness.
We enter the forest. It is raining. Sound gets tamped down, padded by moss. All the hikers grow quiet, slow down, breathe deeply, absorbed into the many shades of green. And the trees! It is good to be back among them, after a summer on the Bering Sea. I marvel, not for the first time, at the diversity and wondrous beauty of this planet. Two very different expressions of tree-ness: great magnificent vegetative beings of the rainforest; St. Paul Island’s tiny maritime tundra willows, the size of my pinky finger.
Moss, lichen, mushrooms. Running water, bear trails, salmonberry. There are salmon everywhere: in the trickling creeks, in the brambles, in the forest pools. Most of them are humpies, but a few reds catch the eye, a miracle of color in the lush green. I am reminded of a painting by Alaska artist Ray Troll, “Deep Forest.”
We climb up and over a small ridge, through the ferns and devil’s club. Alaska’s September autumn colors are delicate and subtle, not like a deciduous forest’s, but they shine through the rain. Edible hedgehog mushrooms and deadly poisonous amanitas revel in the moisture.
The trail follows the edge of the river for a bit. Alder thickets could hide bears, but there are enough of us humans in this big group that I’d guess any bear is long gone. Three winter-plumage Spotted Sandpipers flush from the edge of the water and flutter-fly upstream. When they land they bob their tails. A Belted Kingfisher makes its rat-a-tat-tat call.
We re-enter the woods, and cross another knee-deep tributary. Salmon, both living and dead, are underfoot, both in the water and on the land. They splash around, are stranded in piles, scattered through the trees, lying across the trail. Bright pink roe spills out of the females. The eyeballs are the choice bits, and so they get eaten first. Empty eye sockets stare blankly at the white sky. Fish are dissolving, melting down like Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” painting. Soft parts go away, leaving only white backbones and spikey ribs.
We climb up, up, up. This was billed as an “easy” hike, but even the Austrian who spent her childhood climbing the Alps says it is not easy. Everything is relative, and I have found over the last few years that Seldovians, especially those who grew up amidst the mud, devil’s club, slippery boulders, stair-master root-ball trails, and dayhikes to the alpine zone, are superhuman — perhaps even mythical – in their hiking abilities. I don’t trust any of them anymore when they say something is “easy.” But I still take every opportunity I get to go out hiking with them.
I’m super happy to be here, and relatively comfortable, but am observing that I miscalculated when I made my clothing choices for this hike. It’s been raining the whole time, and somewhere in the low- to mid-fifties. My Marmot raingear failed a while ago, and my backpack isn’t waterproof at all. Plus, it’s too heavy. Why did I even bring my binoculars? My camera will survive the rain, mud, and spruce sap, I hope. I’m too warm when I’m climbing up the mountain, but cold when I get to the top and take a break. And I’ll probably get chilled on the ride home. Next time I will bring a drybag and stash it in the trees at the trailhead, so I’ll have a change of clothes at the end of the hike. Cashmere, merino, and fleece: yes. Cotton: no.
Giddy and tired on the way down. The group of hikers spreads out. Some of us get to hike alone for half an hour or more. The solitude is a welcome change. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Black-capped Chickadees squeak and chitter, hidden in the thick vegetation. A Fox Sparrow perches where I can take a nice long look. I nibble blueberries and look at plants, stop for a chocolate and water break. Now I am lonely, and wait up for the next hiker back. Eventually a group of similarly-paced women, four of us, non-superhumans, end up hiking together. The companionship, like the solitude, is a lovely gift.