When hiking alone in Alaska, I’d been told, make noise. The last thing you want is to surprise a bear. And so I was doing my best to fill the woods with song, belting out Broadway tunes as I trekked the Denver Glacier Trail, when an enemy stepped right onto my path. This was no bear, however, but the beady-eyed state bird of Alaska, the ptarmigan.
The bird looked at me warily, and when I continued down the trail, charged at me, neck stretched and feathers puffed. I scurried back up the path and waited for it to retreat. Instead, it lingered in the grass, trailside, watching me survey alternate routes. To my left was steep mountainside; to my right, river rapids. Trapped, I could think of one solution: face my adversary and attempt my own charge.
Finding a long branch, I held it like a sword at hip level and ran as fast as a person could run downhill in rubber boots, past the lurking ptarmigan. Hearing it flapping loudly, I screamed and kept up a sprint for another half a kilometre, all the more eager to reach my destination.
I’d reserved a night at the Denver Caboose cabin, one of more than 200 public-use cabins in Alaska, most available to rent year-round. These austere outposts, most maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, are scenically located along lakes, atop mountains or on coastal islands. At $25 to $45 a night, the Forest Service cabins are coveted rentals during Alaska’s high season, when locals and tourists alike hit the trails.
(Reservations can be made 180 days in advance through recreation.gov, and Marc Ramonda, a local ranger, said that right at that six-month mark, “There’s people clicking.” Since the cabins are not locked, reservations work on the honour system.)
So charmed was I by the website’s photos of the Denver Caboose, the retired train car equipped with bunks that would be my first stop (it looked like the perfect retreat in the woods), that I paid little attention to its remote location. In fact, it would take a train ride, a puddle jumper and a face-off with a ptarmigan to reach it.
My plan was to stay in five public-use cabins over five days, using Juneau, where I showered, stocked up on water and dumped trash, as my base. Limiting my cabin search to the notoriously marshy, mostly road-less wilderness of Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, I found a nice mix of getaways, some with rowboats, others with mountain views, all quite rustic. Most Forest Service cabins lack plumbing, heat, bedding and cooking utensils (a number of cabins have stoves, but none offer any kitchenware), which meant I’d be hiking 10 to 14 kilometres a day, with everything but a tent strapped to my back.
Denver Caboose, though, did not disappoint. The burnt-sienna cabin, created from a red 1960s railway car, was nestled right along the tracks of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, an old gold rush route. Inside the caboose, I crawled up a ladder to what past guests referred to as “the observatory penthouse” in the cabin guestbook. Surrounded by windows on all sides, this elevated loft was the perfect place to turn in, as the sun sank behind the Sawtooth Mountains.
On my second night, I was due at Dan Moller, a classic log cabin that was rebuilt last year. The trailhead, halfway down a residential street outside Juneau, primed me for an easy hike. Little did I know that I had a 518-metre climb ahead of me, up wooden planks and through pastures of melting snow and bright yellow skunk cabbage. But it was worth it. The Dan Moller Trail is downright Seussian, a lush and winding route bursting with proof that southeastern Alaska is indeed a temperate rain forest.
By the time the cabin’s modified A-frame roof appeared, its new wooden beams resplendent in the late-day sun, I was so high up the mountain I could make out ski tracks on the ridge. After catching my breath on the cabin deck, an idyllic perch facing the bowl-shaped valley below, I checked the cupboards for sign of recent cabin life. Most guests, while careful to “pack out” their trash, had left behind remnants. Here, I found playing cards, a sled, a Kerouac novel and two unopened bags of marshmallows perhaps the last evidence of an abandoned plan for s’mores. Maybe my predecessors couldn’t build a fire either, I reassured myself, hopping around the chilly lodge in my sleeping bag for warmth.
Hike No. 3, to Peterson Lake cabin, was mercifully flat. One local had warned me not to expect much wildlife. This woodland was quieter, a mix of fallen timber and saplings. Infant trees sprouted from rotting trunks. Twice, I had to crawl on all fours under fallen trees carpeted with lime green moss. Finally, a lake, still as glass, came into view. Teasingly, the cabin hid another half a kilometre ahead.
A red-cedar, kit-assembled Pan-Abode dwelling, Peterson Lake looks like something straight out of a 1980s advertisement for family camping. The interior, outfitted with four bunks, was dim and musty; it seemed to be shooing me outside, mom-like, to enjoy the lake.
I moseyed down to the dock, where the “Planes Only” sign brought to mind an easier way to reach the cabin. Planes are the taxis of Alaska, reasonably priced and easy to reserve. But by now, I couldn’t imagine skipping the hikes. What made these sanctuaries in the woods so sweet were the ever-changing obstacle courses between them.
The obstacles intensified on hike No. 4: Windfall Lake Trail. Spotting a black bear by the trail head was an unnerving, if ultimately uneventful, start to my hike, but it was the towering trees that lined the trail, with their stubby branches draped in gauzy yellow lichen, that gave the route a spooky, haunted feel. Alone, I jogged most of the way to Windfall Lake cabin, desperate to see something man-made. Reaching the deck of the isolated lodge, I noticed a mostly submerged rowboat, glimmering beneath the surface of the lake. Just when you feel humbled by Alaska’s wilderness, nature makes it even clearer. You could vanish here.
I had a simple wish for my last night in a cabin: I wanted company. Forest Service cabins are set up for big groups, many with bunks for six. They’re also communal dwellings, open to the public between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. All week, I’d had just one drop-in guest: Kevin, an outdoor studies professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, who hiked onto the deck of Dan Moller during my stay there, but he didn’t even stay long enough to split a granola bar.
Luckily, I’d met Shona Strauser on my first night in Juneau. Shona, who lives outside downtown Juneau, is so passionate about Forest Service cabins that she had once lugged a half a turkey through the woods to celebrate Thanksgiving in her favourite cabin, John Muir. In Juneau, I told Shona that John Muir was my final destination, hoping she’d tag along. So I was pleasantly surprised when she showed up on a rainy night, after work, with two friends, head lamps and a dog named Tutka, who had apparently once chased off a grizzly.
Come midnight during the Alaskan summer, there’s still light in the sky, but little that reaches the forest floor. Head lamps fastened, we climbed the rain-drenched planks of the trail. Only in open pastures could we make out paw prints in the mud. I let the others sing out to bears, too preoccupied about losing my balance on the narrow beams that traversed the mud flats with 11 kilograms strapped to my back.
Shona motioned for us to turn around, to see the city lights of Juneau glowing in the distance: We had reached the top of the mountain. A few dozen planks later, John Muir appeared, a sudden and blessed sight. The stout log cabin had enough wall hooks for a full entourage of campers, not to mention bunks for eight. We peeled off our filthy boots, let our backpacks drop to the floor and turned the indoor picnic table into a banquet of smoked salmon and salami on baguettes, accompanied by paper-cup martinis. Out the window, the night sky slowly began to brighten. By 3 a.m., we could see the channel leading to Juneau, a pair of islands dotting the expanse of pure blue.
The next morning, Shona was up early, cooking blueberry pancakes on a portable stove. After a week of snacking on trail mix, they were a sweet reward for our trek. Warm and sated, we stayed a long while.