paddling the past
100 years in 700 miles
Words and Photos by Conor Phelan
The wind ripping over the ridge parted the clouds just long enough for a glimpse of the summit. It didn’t appear to be much further, but if I hesitated any longer the swirling mist would eliminate any chance of a view. I unbuckled my pack, dropped it to the ground, and went for it.
Twenty minutes later I was out of breath, clambering on my hands and feet, my mind in a state of suspended disbelief. Sweat stung my eyes and my heart was pounding so furiously its rhythm reverberated through my skull. I took the final strides to the peak, and collapsed on a moss covered rock, wearied more by emotion than from the climb. As my heaving lungs settled, I buried my face in my hands and gathered myself for a moment. When I finally looked up, I could scarcely believe the magnitude of what lay in front of me. There I was on a pinnacle of rock, flanked on all sides by plummeting, 500-foot cliffs. I had made it to the top of Freeburn Mountain.
Measuring 50 miles wide and 75 miles long, Chichagof Island is among the largest in Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago. In the early 20th century, my great-great-grandfather, William Freeburn, spent much of his adult life on Chichagof’s remote and windswept outer coast, where he was the superintendant of the Hirst-Chichagof gold mine and a community leader. Only a few hundred hardy souls lived and worked in the mine, which was among the most successful in American history, extracting almost $1 billion in gold, at today’s rate.
Decades after William Freeburn and his family left Chichagof, the mine was abandoned and the vast wilderness reclaimed the workshops, docks, and homes that made up this tiny outpost on the edge of existence. But before this fate befell the town, the locals honored my great-great-grandfather by bestowing his name upon the three-peaked mountain that towers across the bay, a gesture of gratitude for the role he had played in developing the community.
I was a young teenager when my mother first told me about our ancestral mountain. At the time, I struggled to understand its reality, picture its slopes, or align its existence with my own. Periodically I would bring it back up in conversation with my mother, but when it came to details, not much was known about the summit.
As I grew older and found a renewed interest in the story, I reopened the investigation. Starting simple, I entered “Freeburn Mountain Alaska” into Google Maps. The screen revealed a heavily pixelated, brown and green swath of land. I zoomed out further—no roads, no trails, no towns, no nothing for miles. Just getting to the bottom of the mountain was going to be a colossal endeavor. A few quick logistical calculations regarding flights, mileage, and weather reports made it clear that to do this right, I needed to go big or stay home.
So, I spent more than a month’s salary on a complex, 16-foot folding expedition kayak. The purchase kept me motivated in times of doubt for the two years that separated the day I bought my kayak from the moment it touched Alaskan waters. Not once did I let myself believe the trip wouldn’t happen. I collected all the necessary gear, recruited my friend and coworker Kyle Smith as a partner in crime, and spent hours poring over maps, blogs, trip reports, and articles slowly piecing together the 700-mile network of waterways that would make up my route. As the journey took shape, we grew increasingly excited to trade our desk chairs for collapsable sea kayaks.
Standing on the dock in Ketchikan, our starting point, I had that palpable feeling of time simultaneously compressing and stretching. A trip that had been no more than a distant idea 10 years before was now my reality for the next 60 days.
The path I chose was not an ordinary one—far from it. Instead of following the protected waters of the famed Inside Passage, we had to veer to the far western edge of the archipelago to reach the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, where Freeburn Mountain stands sentinel. Almost all of our trip would take place in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the system. To put its size in perspective, at 17 million acres it’s considerably larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Denali, Redwood, Olympic, Death Valley, and Grand Canyon National Park combined.
Every 10-14 days of kayaking led us to a town where we could resupply on food, fuel, and social interaction. Sitka, the biggest stop along the way, only has about 8,000 residents, and some of the smaller towns counted below 100 locals in number. Between these rural garrisons, humanity seemed almost to have never existed. Just a few days outside of Ketchikan we had already become attuned to what we referred to as our wilderness rhythm: the ritualistic breakdown of camp each morning, 15-20 miles of paddling, and subsequent establishment of camp in the evening. By the time our kayaks pried the waters of Wrangell’s harbor—our first stop—we were already more at ease in the forest than the hustle bustle of human civilization.
In my journal each night, I scribbled a daily total of the wildlife we encountered. I gave up trying to count bald eagles, and by the time I reached Juneau, I had tallied several hundred otters, seals, and sea lions, dozens of humpback whales and porpoises, a large number of brown and black bears, and many other species.
Our interactions with the wildlife and our physical environment molded each day into its own micro-adventure. No two days were alike. Categorizing our days into “good” versus “bad” trivializes the range of emotions we were bombarded with. The hair on the back of my neck has never stood as straight as the evening we were hissed at by a large brown bear after accidentally invading the animal’s small island home. My mind has never experienced an adrenaline rush as powerful as the day I found myself riding steep 14-foot ocean swells alongside 30-ton humpbacks in a channel called Icy Strait. I have never been as astounded as the morning I broke out onto the beach to find myself standing a mere 10 feet from a majestic lone wolf.
Perhaps the most difficult moment of the trip came in the small town of Pelican. Having just kayaked the epic coast of Chichagof Island, and climbed Freeburn Mountain, our spirits were high. Unfortunately, Kyle was experiencing bouts of intense pain due to a torn abdominal muscle. He was able to gut it out until we reached Pelican, but by then it was clear that he would paddle no further. The serious waters ahead would have no mercy for someone suffering from an injury. It was a somber moment watching Kyle’s float plane bank to the right, and disappear over the mountains as he headed towards a warm bed, a hot shower, and medical attention in Juneau. I, on other hand, was facing ten days on my own. While it was disappointing to lose my partner, I still had a mission to accomplish. I was healthy, paddling strong, and eager to see what the final leg of the trip held in store for me.
It felt strange setting off alone that first evening. For almost a week I didn’t see, much less speak with, anyone else. Suddenly thrust into utter solitude, my mind seemed to enter a primal state. My vision and hearing became hypersensitive to the point where the wind and rain at night was deafening. One evening in particular still gives me goosebumps; I was camped on the edge of the Dundas River in a secluded corner of Glacier Bay National Park when four large brown bears emerged to chase after fish the entire night. I could almost feel the ground shaking as the bears charged back and forth through the water and along the bank. The next morning I found the beach near my kayak covered with prints almost a foot across. Standing next to those massive paw prints, the reality of my isolation hit me like a brick. Yet never before, or since, have I felt so liberated.
On the final morning of my journey, I awoke to a thunderous crashing as several humpback whales leapt out of the depths. Sitting there on that rocky beach, just a day’s paddle away from completing my mission, I began to realize how deeply I had bonded with Southeast Alaska. Having had to face fears and challenges so far outside the realm of normal everyday life forced me to reinvent what I thought I was capable of. As I loaded my kayak for the final push to civilization, the humpbacks made their way south, and disappeared into the mist with beautiful, slow waves of their tails, a fitting farewell.