Alaska’s Lost Coast: Follow the Yellow Brick Road
Iris runs her finger along the wrinkled topographic map as we get our bearings along the Lost Coast approximately 50 miles southeast of the Yakutat airport. The maps were produced in 1961, and we soon discover that some of the features—such as rivers—have shifted, dried up, or been replaced with dense vegetation. “Hey Cam, the topo shows we’re paralleling the Akue River and there’s a ‘tractor trail’ on top of the bluff. It appears the path leads all the way to Dry Bay. Since the sand is getting softer and harder to ride, we should check it out!” Leaving the sandy beach, we enter tall grasses that cap the bluff and begin pushing our bikes to what might be a road.
To our complete surprise, we find a perfectly manicured jeep road that meanders through waist-high grasses. “This is crazy! I can’t believe we stumbled upon a super-cruiser trail out in the middle of nowhere. I wonder where it leads?” I exclaim, as we hop on our bikes and begin pedaling over firm sand and dirt. The scent of strawberries is rich and fills the coastal air, as we roll South toward Dry Bay.
Cresting a shallow hill, I see the golden fur of a brown bear not more than 200 feet away. I jam my foot between the front tire and the fork and stop almost instantly. I release my bear spray from my bike and flick off the plastic safety. “Hey bear, hey bear!” I yell out. Iris rolls up behind me and blurts out “Hey beaaaaar!” The bear pops up out of the grass and stands up. Even though it’s only a mid-sized juvenile, it’s still plenty big and weighs a couple hundred pounds. As the bear teeters on its hind legs, its wet snout twitches and tries to pick up our scent. I grab a pot and start banging it with a carabiner. The bruin drops to all fours, runs across the path in front of us, and rambles into a thick cluster of brush and stunted pine trees. Twitching with adrenalin, I keep the safety off my bear spray as I pedal past the area where the bear disappeared.
The trail continues, but the vegetation changes. We leave the high grasses and now find ourselves winding through a dense forest made of thick alders and spruce trees. Our fat tires squish through puddles of mud and over fresh bear scat the color of beets. From the recent encounter, I’m on high-alert as we quickly roll down the jeep trail. If we happened to spook a bear at short range, it could be a disaster.
I swear I hear something, so I stop pedaling and coast to a stop. Iris who is next to me, slows down, too. “Hey Iris … do you hear that noise? It’s getting louder.” Sounding like some strange motorized contraption from Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, we tune in and listen. Within minutes, we’re staring at the rusted grill of an old, beat-up truck. Through the cracked front window, I can see a well-stocked gun rack behind the bench seat. We pull over, to let the truck pass and the driver slows down and rolls down the window and flashes a smile. Whew, he’s friendly, I think to myself as I give a nod. Over the horribly loud idle, the griseled driver says, “Hi, what’re you two doin’ out here?” Iris chimes in, “We’re riding our bikes to Juneau. Do you know how far away Dry Bay is?” We get a chuckle. “Well, why don’t you come visit … just follow this road down and it veers left. You’ll see my place. Swing on by and we can talk.”
Following the pungent aroma of exhaust from the old truck, we arrive at a plush cabin at the head of the Akue River. Soon, our shoes are off and we’re drinking orange juice and chatting with Dave. Dave is an ex-bush pilot that owned a floatplane service in Juneau. After years of hearing the same old tourist jokes and one-liners, he decided to pack it up and move out to what’s commonly referred to as “the bush.” To earn a few bucks, he works on the Auke as commercial fisherman four months out of the year and enjoys the simple life.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
With a blend of excitement and nervousness, we spill our plans. Dave, rubs his overgrown beard, lights a Camel and matter-of-factly says, “Naw, it ain’t gonna happen. Up to here, it’s been a cake walk and you have some easy beach ridin’ for bout five miles, give ‘r take, then you’re goin’ to see the Alsek River. At the mouth, there’s 15-foot standin’ waves that explode in whitewater. The current’s fast, too. Even our skiff has a hard time goin’ upstream with full power. Past the Alsek the fun doesn’t stop. There’s Cape Fairweather, Lituya Bay, and miles of huge boulders. Even if you make it past those obstacles, you’re not gettin’ past Cape Spencer and Icy Straight. The cliffs drop right into breakin’ surf. I’ve flown this country since the mid-70s and know every mile like the back of my hand. You’re more than welcome to spend the night and think about it. But if I was you, I’d think about turnin’ around.”
Through a bank of swirling smoke, I look over at Iris and say, “Well … what do ya think? We have a couple hours of riding ahead of us, and maybe we can cross the Alsek before nightfall?” I could sense some reluctance with Iris, after all, the thought of sleeping in the comfort of a heated cabin and being protected from bears did sound appealing. However, I didn’t want the comforts of home. I was eager to keep the adventure rolling and shed my connection with the rest of the world. We discuss, and I persuade Iris that we should gather our belongings and continue down the Yellow Brick Road. We say our goodbyes, and soon we’re back on the tractor trail.