Like most Alaska families, ours takes great pride in flexibility, especially when related to weather. Last Frontier seasons are bipolar at best, swinging wildly from rain to snow to sun and back again, especially during the “in-between” months of April and May. 2017’s May weather was hot, almost downright balmy, with shorts and flip-flops the uniform of choice around here. I cannot say the same about 2018, which is why, when we made plans to visit Caines Head State Recreation Area near Seward to check out a new public use cabin, I made sure to think ahead. So it wasn’t really my fault when one thing after another seemed to fall apart last Friday morning after checking and double-checking the backpacks, food bins, and camp stove of AK Fam.
Here’s the thing about Seward. It’s located at the end of Resurrection Bay, a deep fjord of steep mountains, cold water, and wild currents. What makes the bay a popular place to boat, fish, and hike is the abundance of marine and land-based wildlife, from humpback whales to black bears. Caines Head is located about seven miles from downtown Seward, with two options for reaching this rugged, scenic stretch of coastline: by water taxi or on foot.
Getting to Caines Head utilizing human power is actually both simple and complicated. The first two miles from Lowell Point are upon upper stretches of the point, well above tide line. The remaining two and a half miles, however, must be hiked only during low tide. It’s not unheard of for hikers to forget about the warnings and plunge out to North Beach and the fascinating man and naturally-made features of the area, only to find themselves stranded when the incoming tide moves faster than they thought.
Seward’s water taxi businesses thrive – most of the companies and their captains know these deep-to-shallow and back again nooks and crannies like the back of their hand and the subsequent white knuckles that come with navigating the area’s rip currents and sand bars.
And then there’s that weather, which is where our story begins.
Even before we left Anchorage on Friday morning, we knew the forecast wasn’t good. Strong winds were already knocking things around on the front porch (but our recently-repaired roof was holding fast), and blowing coats out of the boys’ arms as they loaded them into the truck. We had barely cleared the highway on ramp when my phone buzzed, then buzzed again. It was the captain of Seward Ocean Excursions, telling us there was no way his little craft would hold up to the sideways currents buffeting our landing spot at Caines Head. Shucks. (Important to note, however: Captain Bixler of SOE was a champion at getting us OUT of Caines Head Sunday afternoon. But that’s another story.)
I called the Caines Head State Rec Area ranger, who offered in the best show of gallentry I’ve ever witnessed, to haul our gear (we were prepared for water taxi camping, which is very similar to car camping, gear-wise), including a heavy jug of water and a two-burner stove, over most of the trail. I’m not an ATV user, but I can tell you no acronym every sounded so sweet at that point.
The Seward Highway stretched out along Turnagain Arm and the winds grew stronger, blowing surf across the highway and causing our Ford to lurch and buck like a drunk moose. By the time we reached Turnagain Pass, the rain had turned to snow. Wet, heavy, slushy snow that caused the backseat-driving teenagers to wrinkle their noses in disgust.
Cell service returned closer to Seward and with it came a slurry of messages from the ranger, and their urgency was obvious.
“There’s a rockslide along the road to the trailhead, and the City is going to close it. Let me know what you want to do!” was the theme.
Do? The hell if I know.
We regrouped at our favorite Seward coffee house with high hopes that a miracle would occur and somehow, some way, we’d be sleeping in a cozy little Caines Head cabin that night. Our friends and their tiny children bailed about 60 miles prior, keeping with them both the interior lighting sources and the scotch whiskey.
Fortunately, the fantastic folks at Major Marine Tours’ Harbor 360 Hotel heard of our predicament and offered us a warm, dry room and a swimming pool for the night, and a we gratefully took it. AK Dad and I put our feet up while the teenagers swam in the pool, all of us glad for a respite from decision-making for a few hours.
Caines Head ranger called again that evening, saying that he had found an alternative water taxi captain with a landing craft that could manage the twisted currents and high winds the following afternoon, and I accepted as part of my command decision-making authority (don’t judge). After all, we had come this far.
We relaxed, carb-loaded at another favorite Seward establishment, and went to bed knowing (hoping?) that on the morrow we’d be bumping down the bay to the cabin.
Captain Louis Garding of Alaskan Coastal Safari sauntered his boat to the Seward public docks Saturday afternoon in a driving rainstorm while I hurried my own crew to grab packs, boxes and jugs and load up. I took the co-captain seat up front, and the guys huddled around the galley table, *some* of them already rolling their eyes.
Swells were thick once we passed the city harbor, and more than once Louis had to all but stop any forward momentum to wait out a wave trough that slammed the bow into the water with a powerful crash.
“Hmm,” Louis commented calmly, “This is a bit worse than it looks from town.”
We made it though, and were able to nose that landing craft right up to the shoreline and toss gear onto the black sand beach. We shook Louis’ hand, gave him a wave, then collected ourselves and our stuff.
The cabin was right there, brand new, and it welcomed us to stay.
The rest of the story about our time at the new Tonsina Cabin, located at Tonsina Point two miles from Lowell Point, will be published in the Anchorage Daily News on Tuesday, May 15. You’ll want to catch up to this, because Tonsina is going to be a hot destination this summer no matter how cool the weather might be.
- Always be flexible. Alaska weather makes some forms of transportation, like flying and boating, dangerous when conditions are unfavorable. Trust your guide, captain, or pilot. If he or she says the weather is too bad to head out, he or she is probably right.
- Plan other activities beforehand. Luckily, I know Seward, and the city chamber of commerce website, where tons of fun things are listed for visitors. We attended First Friday, sampled treats from a business grand opening, and were able to reach Hotel 360 quickly to secure a room.
- Dress for the current and possible weather. I noticed early-season tourists walking the downtown area and imagined they must have been freezing in the rain/snow mix. Always, always bring the full rain gear, boots, gloves and a warm hat. Always.