It's one of the most vertical, not to mention evocatively named, places in Alaska.
A place with granite walls reminiscent of Yosemite – if Yosemite plunged down to seawater – with sprays of fragrant cedar branches looping out over the water, and if Yosemite had grizzly bear scat dolloping the trails, and whirlpools of pink salmon at the creek mouths. If Yosemite had fleeting black wolves in a bonsai forest near mountain lakes.
And if Yosemite had no cars and cleaner air and was way too wet for rock climbing.
To be sure, El Capitan and Half Dome are in a league of their own, but Misty Fiords National Monument feels raw and young and a long way from a freeway.
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And it happens to be the closest part of Alaska to Washington and Oregon. On the southern tip of southeastern Alaska, the national monument bumps up against British Columbia north of Prince Rupert. A two-hour flight from Seattle to Ketchikan gets you within about a one-hour motorboat ride out to the start of Misty Fiords.
So why haven’t you heard of it?
Misty Fiords doesn’t have the sexy calving glaciers thundering and cracking into seawater, as Glacier Bay does farther north, or roads that let you peer at the foraging bears of Denali from the safety of a tour bus.
Misty has no roads to speak of, no lodges and just a light scattering of infrastructure: a few widely placed U.S. Forest Service cabins for rent, some open-air shelters. There’s not much in the way of built protection from the 160 inches of annual rain.
The Forest Service people who manage the national monument like it that way. And they’re not launching any PR campaigns to become more popular.
SUITED TO SEA KAYAKS
“It’s a great place to go if you want to be by yourself,” says recreation and wilderness specialist Karen Brand of the Tongass National Forest. The goal for Misty, like other designated wilderness areas, is to encourage a primitive landscape where people can “experience solitude and challenge themselves,” she says.
For many people, it’s an off-the-radar national treasure whose nooks and crannies are well-suited to stealthy human-powered transport: the sea kayak. The protected waters of Misty’s fjords mean that even relative beginners paddle there, though they shouldn’t tempt fate if the winds and waves come up in Behm Canal, the two-mile-wide natural waterway that runs through the national monument.
It’s hard to reconcile Brand’s vision of solitude with what can happen in Rudyerd Bay on a sunny summer day. On the unguided sea kayak trip my husband, Dave, and I did there last July, seeing the occasional tour boats wasn’t so bad, nor was the one small cruise ship we saw. But the roar of radial engines from lines of low-flying floatplanes was something else.
“We don’t control the air space,” Brand told me later.
It’s enough to frustrate those who come there to listen to the water dripping off their paddle blades.
A BONANZA, AS IT TURNS OUT
For their part, many people in Ketchikan were outraged when Jimmy Carter, faced with stalled legislation to create more parks in Alaska, resorted to the Antiquities Act to create Misty Fiords National Monument by executive order in 1978.
In that tense time, some of the most vocal opponents of the national monument were the air taxi services who flew personnel and supplies around for logging companies, says charter boat skipper Malcolm Doiron, who named Misty Fiords and was a leader in the 12-year battle for national monument status.
Now the flightseeing trips to Misty have turned into a bonanza for the air services and Ketchikan in general.
In the end, for us the scenery in Rudyerd, where we spent three days, trumped the decibel level that we endured for a few hours.
It’s a big park, 2.3 million acres, and the floatplane barrage was just a small piece of our eight-day paddle trip in Misty. It was eight days of unlikely sun and heat in late July.
We did find all the solitude we wanted in the further reaches of the park, including at a charming shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s or early ’40s on Manzanita Bay, and at a great campsite at Hut Point at the mouth of Walker Cove. Walker is the solitude seeker’s fine alternative to Rudyerd.
But part of the joy of the trip was the adventurers we met in the more heavily traveled parts of the park. In Punchbowl Cove, we camped across from 3,000-foot cliffs with Timothy Nicotera, who had gotten there by pedaling a “water cycle,” made by Open Water Cycling of Redmond.
A CLASSIC CABIN
One highlight of the trip came early, though. Our first two nights were at the Forest Service cabin I’d reserved at Winstanley Island, where a motorboat from Ketchikan dropped us off with our rented kayaks.
The cabin, due to be torn down and rebuilt this year, perhaps in late summer, was classic 1970s Forest Service-style, with four plywood platforms for bunks, a rickety mouseproof cupboard, a wood stove, a couple of nails to hang your shirt on – and a sweet little beach in front. Gentle water laps up against it, and you get to look across a quiet channel, Shoalwater Pass, to the mainland. Over your shoulder, snow mounds up on the mountain tops.
We paddled on a day trip to the trailhead to Winstanley Lake, hiked up a slick, steep trail with Alaska-size steps, up through deep lush forest past a broad waterfall, and broke out into an open, boggy area that the locals call muskeg, with short, twisty pines.
Past the muskeg, the mountain-rimmed lake was a huge one to have all to ourselves. The bears were hunkering out of sight in one of the longest hot, sunny spells Southeast Alaska has had in locals’ memory.
We swam the salt off ourselves.
On the hike back, a critter broke out of the heath and Labrador tea near the lake and ran across our path with a glance over its shoulder.
“Honking huge coyote,” Dave said.
Except that it wasn’t.
It was our first-ever wolf.