Lessons Learned in Halibut Cove
Plans go awry in Halibut Cove on the Lagoon Trail
by Diane Rose
I have spent my whole life camping and enjoying the outdoors. I am a planner who is very organized and I always try to anticipate what may go wrong before it has a chance to happen. So, I’m usually the one in the hiking group doing much of the planning: choosing campsites, calculating mileages each day, knowing what to expect on the trail and always carrying (and checking) the map. This is a tale about how quickly things can go wrong in the Alaskan outdoors when the best laid plans are changed by encounters along the way.
…we descended down onto a spit of land forming the narrow entrance to Halibut Cove Lagoon, and the trail just petered out.
In mid-August of 2010, my sister, Shari, her 13-year-old daughter, Tori, and I decided to rent one of the public-use cabins at Halibut Cove Lagoon. Shari lives with her family in Anchor Point and her husband had a boat, so he could ferry us from Homer across Kachemak Bay to the cabin. We planned to explore the China Poot Lake Trail during our one night stay. Normally, we tent camp so this was a treat to not have to worry about campsites or bad weather. The evening before our trip was to begin, I was once again looking over my favorite hiking guide and noticed a six-mile trail leading from a marked trailhead just outside the lagoon to the area where our cabin was located. The trail wasn’t discussed in detail in the book, but was just a dotted line marked “Lagoon Trail.” My brother-in-law liked the idea of dropping us there rather than entering the lagoon itself because the narrow entrance is highly subject to tide times to be deep enough for boats to pass. What a great idea: we can be dropped off about lunchtime, hike the six miles to our cabin in the afternoon and explore the rest of the area the following morning before our noon boat pickup time. A perfect plan!
The weather was glorious for the time of year, sunny and warm, with only a few tiny clouds dotting the blue sky. We waved goodbye to the boat and set off. The trailhead started with stairs up the mountain away from the bay. We climbed for about 15 minutes, found a junction of three trails and sat down for lunch. During our break, we noticed that the Lagoon Trail was the least used and barely discernable in the overgrowth. We decided we better get moving. The bushwhacking we had to do was unexpected and we had to keep our eyes to the ground constantly to keep from stumbling on roots and rocks. The terrain was across the side of a fairly steep mountain and there were many steep ups and downs. This would end up being the case the entire day—a big energy zapper for sure. After a while we began to encounter lots of deadfall consisting of beetle-killed spruce trees. Some seemed impossible to pass. We climbed under, through, and over so many in the first two miles that we lost count. I even managed to take a fall off the downhill side of one into a patch of devil’s club that left many thorns in my exposed flesh for the next week. A bit farther down the trail I realized that my bear spray had fallen out of its pouch on my pack in the fall, but there was no way I was going back to fetch it. Thankfully, Shari carried hers.
At the two-mile mark, we descended down onto a spit of land forming the narrow entrance to Halibut Cove Lagoon, and the trail just petered out. Already quite sweaty, scratched up and exhausted, we were perplexed as to what had gone wrong. The dotted line on my map showed the trail bypassing the spit altogether, but after more than an hour of searching for it we sat down to form a better plan.
The last mile was close to torture. The approaching darkness made it even harder to see the trail…
About three hours had passed and we had only gone two miles? This was a bit of a problem since daylight in mid-August only lasts until just past 8 p.m. We could clearly see our starting point a short distance back across the water, which seemed impossible considering the effort it took just to get where we were through the forest. We still had four miles to go and, given the trail conditions, time was of the essence to reach the cabin before dark. The area we were in is bear country and we’d spotted plenty of sign already. Tori had been physically ringing her bear bell loud and clear all the way. We were sitting on a log next to a stream that runs out to the bay checking our guide book when, sure enough, a curious young black bear sauntered up on the opposite bank. Now, Shari and I have been on plenty of hikes, but this was the closest we had ever been to a bear. All three of us stood up, moved close together, and began waving our arms and telling the bear what its next move should be in loud stern voices. The seconds ticked off and the bear turned as if to leave, but instead ducked behind a bush to watch us. I grabbed a couple rocks, lobbed them into the stream and our furry visitor finally made a retreat into the willows. Thank goodness he decided we weren’t worth his time, but our hearts were thumping loudly!
We went back to finding the trail. The guide book gave a telephone number for the State Parks, so since we had a cellphone with signal, we gave it a try. But it was getting late in the afternoon, so we only reached a recording. There was also a contact number for a local water taxi business in Homer (for transportation to this area) so we called them. How funny I must have sounded explaining our predicament from a spit across the bay. When the woman on the line heard the name of the trail, she immediately interrupted me to say, “Oh no, that trail is mostly a bear trail, it is hardly passable and we don’t recommend hikers attempt it.” I again explained that we already were attempting it and needed any information she might have about where to pick up the trail again. She told us we must go out to the very tip of the spit to ford the stream at its shallowest point while the tide is out. Then hike around the point and back to the mountain where we should see a trail marker. Her last words were, “And you have about 20 minutes left until the tide turns, so you better get going.” I will never forget this friendly and knowledgeable woman. She saved our day.
So, with about three hours of daylight left and much ground to cover, we were on the move again. After a knee deep frigid water crossing and about half a mile through the sedge grass flats, we found the orange trail marker. From there the trail climbed straight up for at least a mile. Bear tracks and scat covered the trail. Tori exclaimed how cute the fresh baby bear tracks on the trail in front of us were … Shari and I were not interested in dealing with any baby bears (and Mama) at that point so we tried to move faster. We were increasingly tired, dehydrated, and low on energy. We did not want to stop for snacks or water so we tried to replenish ourselves on the move. I was not successful at this which became evident when my mood became a bit sharp and I snapped angrily at both of my partners. Shari insisted that we stop and rest, eat a snack and rehydrate. I was amazed how much better I felt. Several kinds of berries were ripe and we ate those too. Lunch seemed like days ago and the trail seemed to go on forever.
Finally, as dusk was approaching, we spotted some cabins and the dock through the trees. We collapsed on the bench near the dock, completely spent. Seven hours to go six miles?! When we discovered that our cabin was one more mile west, I think we seriously considered sleeping right on that bench! Shari was suffering the beginnings of more serious dehydration/heat related issues. She needed to rest as did Tori and I. The last mile was close to torture. The approaching darkness made it even harder to see the trail and we arrived at the cabin just before complete nightfall. Our arms, in short sleeves, were scratched, bug bitten and full of devil’s club thorns. We were never more happy to see a cabin—no camp to set up. We cooked a warm dinner and went straight to bed. We never did get to see China Poot Lake, as hiking a couple miles the next morning was the last thing on our minds.
To this day, the Lagoon Trail is still the toughest route I have encountered on my hiking adventures. We still talk about all the things we learned on that trip and even other things that could have happened to make our bad situation worse. We did not have a tent. We did not have a flashlight. We could have spent the night out there, but we weren’t prepared to. We had an inexperienced young person to watch out for. We had plenty of food and water, but we learned how fast one can become lost even on a trail. We also learned how fast our bodies suffered the effects of real exhaustion/dehydration because we did not allow enough “fueling stops.” The weather could have easily changed for the worse. The entire experience made us realize how fast things in the outdoors can become dangerous with just a few miscalculations. I am sure I became a tougher person and a better hiker from that trip forward.
If you enjoyed “Lessons Learned When Plans Go Awry in Halibut Cove,” check out another article in Halibut Cove – “Stunning Views Along the Trail to Grewingk Glacier.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.