Halfway Up Copper Mt., Prince of Wales Is., SE Alaska
(Photo by Ralph E. Pray)

In Alaska's Rainforest

By Dr. Ralph E. Pray

The pilot circled the Ellis Airlines passenger ship over Prince of Wales Island, Southeastern Alaska, on a bright, clear day, then settled into a glide path to aim the Grumman amphibian toward an inlet of smooth Pacific water. I sat in the copilot's seat and felt the first hammer-blows of water ripples on the fuselage far beneath my feet. The twin-engine plane slowed and settled as the pilot, Paul Matley, headed for a shore of tidal flats, rocks, and huge trees. There were no longer signs that anyone had ever been here. This was Alaska bush.

I hustled out of the cockpit, down the aisle between curious passengers, and swung the side doors open. Water was below me, the wing above. I hoisted my weight up on the wing and reached down for my pack, held aloft by a passenger who then closed the doors. Meanwhile, Paul was bringing the ship close to shore so he could swing a wing-tip over the beach while turning around. I rushed to the tip of the wing, my body buzzing with the increased vibration of the engine on that side while Paul steered with propeller power. As the wing-tip swept an arc over the beach below me, I pushed my pack off. I followed my pack, jumping off the wing to land on the small rocks. The engines roared with a metallic thunder as the pilot neatly pulled the ship away for take-off.

I stood there on the glistening shore of Hetta Inlet watching the plane disappear, and may as well have been a thousand miles from the nearest human until the ship returned for me the next afternoon, weather permitting. The jump-off? It's a thing you only do once, I guess, at least by choice. All the charter planes in Ketchikan were out of the city, and I was determined to make a quick trip up Copper Mountain for mineral specimens on this weekend. Actually, jumping off the wing of a moving airplane wasn't as tough as getting the ride. The day before, I'd called the president of Ellis Airlines to get his okay.

"What? Ralph, you've lost your marbles," Bob Ellis said with a laugh. "We can't do that. Think of the liability. You could break a leg. You'd be taking too much risk, let alone the danger to the plane and the people aboard. Also, no sane person goes to such a remote area and gets dropped off alone." I had to present my side. "It's only five or ten minutes out of your scheduled flight to Klawock. The weather tomorrow could be perfect. And you have the best Grumman Goose pilots in the world. Quit worrying." When he finally gave in he asked, "Can I have one of your mineral specimens for my desk to remind me how soft in the head I am?"

I shoulder my Trapper Jim pack and step out for the mountain. The sky is so clear and blue I regret leaving it to enter the rain forest and its dark canopy. Sunny days are not the rule here. We average 140 inches of rain a year, and once hit 200. The sun can disappear altogether for thirty straight days. I wear thick, water-proof, snag-proof canvas trousers and jacket. My boots are heavy rubber below the shin, with leather uppers. My pack is heavy canvas fastened to a wood frame. It contains empty canvas sample sacks, a Zeiss camera, smoked salmon for seven days, a sleeping tarp, sweater, carbide miner's light, small can of carbide, pistol, utensils, first aid, and prospecting pick. Water is never carried.

Leaving the seashore smells of salt air, of little lives and deaths, I enter the woods a few dozen steps away. The slapping sound of wind-blown ripples rolling onto the stony beach is overcome by rustles in the treetops. In this part of Alaska, the Tongass National Forest, Sitka spruce and Douglas fir reach heights of several hundred feet. Tree trunks six feet in diameter are not unusual. I thread my way between them while climbing the gentle slope where Copper Mountain begins.

A bush called devil's club, with arms and needles reminiscent of southwest desert prickliness, lurks in the shadows. Foot-thick carpets of intertwined growth lie across partially sun-lit open spaces in the clustered wilderness. The foot sinks slightly and silently into sponge-like muskeg. No rock or soil is evident. I search for a deer trail through the undergrowth, but have no luck. The sour smell of wet plant roots rises to meet the tang of tree bark and evergreen fragrances. The call of a seagull, perhaps scanning the tidal flat near my jumping-off place, is a weak cry. I zigzag uphill and take note of the increasing steepness.

The rush up the mountain is overly-aggressive, without my walking near a stream or creek. By late afternoon I'm thirsty and have an ear tuned for the sound of running water. At dusk the welcome music penetrates the bush. I rush upward to a small spring in the crevice of a canyon. The water is ice cold and too friendly to leave. I set up camp.

A rotted-out tree, as thick as I am tall, lying on the forest floor, becomes my abode for the night. I hollow out a dry room with my pick and build a small fire to heat soup. While sipping from a metal cup and looking into the fire I think of the many solo trips I'd taken in the Alaska bush, and of several near-disasters. You cannot make mistakes, even little ones, and get home every time. There's little chance of danger during this short excursion. In a world so close to perfect, nothing more could be asked for that night. I sleep soundly.

In the morning, after a smoked salmon breakfast, my ascent toward the crest continues. I walk blindly into the overgrown passageway between the mine, last operated in 1905, and the beach below. A straight path about one hundred feet wide is speckled with much smaller trees than those on either side. Minutes later I see the mine dump a few thousand feet ahead, at the upper end of the path. Curiosity drives me quickly up the hill, topping out at about 3,500 feet above sea level. At the base of the large rock dump, I gaze up to see a deer with a large spread of horns. He looks down at me, not more than two hundred feet between us. We both freeze. His magnificent head is outlined against the clear blue sky. I slowly swing my pack down to get the camera out. But he disappears. I hear a clatter of many hoofs. On my way up the loose rock pile I see a dozen mule deer running away single-file through the bush.

The site is a bonanza for a mineral collector. In a few hours the specimen bags are full of apple green, botryoidal malachite. I'm singing with joy over my luck to reach this place. My ten-piece collections of "Minerals from the Mines of the Far North" are advertised in the Shopping Guide section of the New York Times every fourth Sunday. The source and a story are given for each of the ten minerals. This copper oxide specimen will replace one less attractive in color and story. I stuff about one hundred pounds of bagged rock in my pack, hoping this will be enough to break into four hundred chosen samples. The mineral thing is a hobby, but it's nice to be able to pay expenses from the sales. And the letters arriving with orders from the east coast liven up the day in my Alaska State Division of Mines office and assay lab.

Setting the pack down on the edge of the mine dump, I carefully poke deeper into the old workings. From a promontory I look across a ravine and see half a dozen black bear, feeding on berry bushes in a huge muskeg area. I hadn't seen bear sign on the way up, and realize I'll have to watch out during the return trip. Calculating the time for the downhill hike, and hoping to arrive at the beach an hour before plane time in the afternoon, I figure I'd better start back. I realize the boots I wear are not tight enough around the ankles to avoid injury in the event of a misstep. For my hundred and eighty pounds the boots are okay. For two-eighty I have to place each foot carefully on the soft path.

An hour later, midway down the mountain, I watch as a thick stand of bush and high grass part before me, about one hundred yards below. It looks like a bear sized swath, rather than that of a deer. I stop. It's coming directly toward me, on the trail I had taken going up. As the parting of the bushes comes closer I see it's a half-grown bear sniffing my trail, maybe fascinated by the smell of rubber and thinking it was following me. I yell "Yahoo." The bear turns around and knocks down everything to get out of there. I keep a sharp eye out for Mother Bear and for possible trees to climb as I continue walking.

At the beach I lay back on my pack to rest, looking down the shores of the inlet. The pack is too heavy to pull on in a hurry when the plane comes in, so I leave it on. A bald eagle, to me the most magnificent of all wildlife animals, flies into view over the beach, coming in my direction. I remain motionless as he circles a tree almost above me. In the stillness of the afternoon, the eagle settles on a top spruce branch, gripping it so tightly with encircled talons that shreds of bark come whispering down through the foliage to settle like rain on the muskeg below.

After a lengthy inspection duet, without thinking, I raise my hand to look at my watch. The eagle dives off its perch away from me, spreads about six feet of wing, and powers away. A few minutes later Ellis Airlines makes an appearance between its regular run from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales Island settlements, logging camps, and Indian villages.

I wade out into the surf at waist height as Paul taxies close to shore and turns the ship to offer me the open side door. I slither another ten feet and I'm at the door, but the water is chest high. I grab the handles on each side of the door to pull my way up and in. I can get up about two feet, but the instant my pack gets out of the water I suddenly weigh about three hundred pounds and my arms are useless. I'm in trouble.

An offshore breeze is blowing the plane into deep water. Paul is gunning the engines to stay in shallow water, but he has to turn the ship to do it, which drags me around and loosens my grip on the handles. If I lose my grip in six feet of water I'll sink like a rock, indeed. The sodden pack straps feel welded to my body. Paul sees my problem and heads the big aluminum plane for shore. Suddenly the door above me is filled with two men, passengers from the logging camps. Hands on stout arms plunge down to my shoulders and lift me with steel-like grips. I push on the step with both feet, straighten my legs, and get hauled aboard like a wet, hooked fish.

We take off for Ketchikan and more composed activities.

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Published in California Explorer, 2000.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386