Friday, November 25, 2022

Culross Island Ski - May 2022

When I moved to Alaska 2013, I spent the first summer here working as a fishery technician sampling spawning salmon in the Prince William Sound. Coming up for air between rotting fish carcass dissections, I was blown away by the beauty of coastal AK - a place indescribably different than the arid Rocky Mountains where I grew up.

Immediately, I wanted those emerald waters, abundant wildlife, and lush bushwhacking to be part of my life. Moreover, I drooled over dreamy stories of skiing the postage stamp islands that dot the protected waterways of the sound. Between sunk boats, swamped boats, and flaming boats, learning how to make this dream a realty has not been easy for this landlubber.

Photo Dmitry Surnin

Over years of experiences that some would call adventures, others would call misadventures, but everyone would call memorable, we've slowly been taught to be slightly less of liabilities on the water. If nothing else, I've at least learned to always pay for insurance and Sea-Tow.

In early May, with a forecast for calm seas and clear skies, Dmitry and Scott entrusted us with their lives, or at least their weekends, and we buzzed out of Whittier...but only after a pit stop on the beach to saw off a malfunctioning addition to the boat.

There is lots of good ski terrain in this emerald gem, but this weekend our destination was Culross Island. Leaving Whitter, we motored across the jaw-dropping mega-fjord of Port Wells highlighted by glaciers tumbling 10,000 vertical feet to the sea. Turned the corner towards our lumpy island destination, we dropped our shrimp pots on the way to anchoring in Culross Bay.

In the bay there were places that still had five feet of snow at the beach. We looked around to find a dry camp spot tucked into a cove before skinning into the temperate rainforest.

Speckled with low elevation muskegs and meadows, the approach to the alpine was easy. Some might say too easy.

Scott dwarfed by Mount Gilbert.

Chris, Dana, Heidi, and their hound Magpie were anchored in Goose Bay, so from our first summit on the north end of the island we descended south in hopes of meeting up with them for some turns.

Scott with the waters of Port Wells stretching out behind him.

The pictures from this place can be utterly jaw-dropping, but they can hide the reality of what conditions are actually like: the snow on the first lap was so sticky that we all just focused on not faceplanting as our feet froze in place. Lesson learned: no more skiing on due south aspects.

With our skins reapplied to our dripping skis, we worked our way across the wandering tracks of hungry bears and up towards the next high-point with the intention of skiing a more westerly, and hopefully less sticky aspect.

Photo Dmitry Surnin

From the point we looked down towards Culross Passage and a group that we hoped were either our friends or friendly bears.

The west aspect was much less sticky and we were able to actually focus on the ridiculous experience of island-skiing instead of the ridiculous experience of trying not to endo. Descending until the spring snow lost its strength, we transitioned to chase after Team Magpie on the skinner above us.

Captain Magpie and one of her trusty first mates:

Back at the top, the group figured we might as well take advantage of the stable corn skiing for one big party lap together.

In our land of big terrain filled with potentially bigger consequences, its not every day that a group this large can coexist without increasing the hazard and logistics for everyone involved. It was special to be out together enjoying a place just as beautiful as any national park.

Above Dmitry are Naked and Perry Islands which somehow maintain small populations of deer despite being caked in snow all winter long. Good thing those yummy little deer like the taste of seaweed. Maybe that kelpy umami is what makes them so delicious.

Hours seems to fly by on these endless spring days, and it was already time to start our northward progression back towards camp. On the way we stopped to snag a lap above Hidden Bay. Dmitry:

Like Culross Bay, Hidden looked to have easy access to potentially fun terrain. We took note of the options figuring we'd probably head there the next day.

We surfed soft corn snow towards Hidden Bay until it became infinitely soft and equally unsupportable, then started the last ascent up to the ridge separating us from dinner.

Photo Dmitry Surnin

Wondering how fresh they were, we followed bear tracks to the top of the ridge above Port Wells. From the summit we looked into those deep waters that never cease to take my breath away, then watched as Nyssa and Scott dropped in:

With a little shuffling, sidestepping, and bushwhacking through the rolling terrain of the muskegs, we made it unscathed to the beach for a short walk to our tents.

We were all hungry, so Scott and Dmitry scavenged for water to boil from a trickle of a creek while Nyssa and I went to check the shrimp pots in the calm waters of evening.

Any number of shrimp greater than zero is a victory for us, so we happily kept the few we caught, reset the traps, then cruised back to Dmitry and Scott. At camp a river otter was playing in the shallows of the cove. These big water weasels are such charismatic animals, and watching this one splash around reminded me of finding snowy otter slides in the woods of Hinchinbrook Island while Toni taught Andrew and I the basics of deer hunting.

After dinner we explored the beach still stained with a hydrocarbon sheen from the Exxon-Valdez spill more than 30 years ago, then fell asleep as the calm ocean lapped quietly against the smoothed rock flakes of the beach.

Saturday had been hot, and we were worried about snow conditions, so were relived to wake Sunday to a light overnight freeze. We packed up camp, checked the shrimp pots, then followed the rugged shoreline of the island for a day in Hidden Bay.

Coasting past the granite slabs that make up the shores of the bay, we dumped our gear on shore, found a safe spot to anchor, then clambered into the jungle.

Access to the ski terrain here was downright civilized. We were, dare I say, too easily and quickly into the alpine.

Reaching the top of our first run of the day, we found more tracks from the peakbagging bears of Culross.

Below us, a series a ridgelines tumbled towards Culross Passage and Port Nellie Juan beyond. It was just a matter of picking which one to ride first. Dmitry:

The first run was a rolling rib with a fun angle and an interesting double fall line. We skied until we ran out of pitch; hungry for more corn, we headed back up.

Photo Dmitry Surnin

For the next lap we were tempted into a more southerly lap, but our eyes were too big for our stomachs. The solar face was already cooked by the spring sun's warm rays, and we lurched our way down the sticky snow. Scott making superglue skiing look good:

Having learned this adhesive lesson for the second time in two days, this time we pointed our stairmasters in a more westerly direction.

Dropping into a steep basin lined with granite cliffs, this would be our last run before we'd need to orient our skis in the direction of the boat. Nyssa:

With a convex pitch that increased as we descended through undulating terrain, every turn felt as if we might ski off the edge of the earth's sphere. I think it was my favorite run of the trip.

Now all that was left was one last climb then the descent to Hidden Bay. Descending towards the boat, we carved towards the aqua-blue meltwater growing on the surface of the frozen lake.

Returning to the jumble of smoothed tan granite boulders making up the beach, Scott paddled out to retrieve F/V Sexy Bitch while Dmitry went for a dip.

If it weren't for the feet of snow in the background one could almost think the water looks warm!

We piled skis, gear, shrimp pots, and four weekend warriors into the boat then set sail towards port through a world more beautiful than a fantasy.

Back at the Whittier boat ramp, the usual clock was ticking to sprint to retrieve the car in time for the next tunnel. Fortunately, Scott has nearly infinite training in running under pressure - I think we were actually a little early for the tunnel.

It seemed like we were home free. Until, with an explosion of steam, the head gaskets blew as we drove home along Turnagain Arm. Add that to the ever growing list of expensive boating adventures.

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