Monday, June 16, 2014

The Honker Divide on Prince of Wales Island, Day 4

To see the beginning of this journey click here. For days 1 and 2 click here. For day 3 click here.

Day 4

We were exhausted so we slept in a bit and took our time making breakfast and packing up camp. We made jokes that each day was more difficult than the last and so it made sense that our final day would me the most difficult of all. Little did we know! Before we even got into our kayaks we were making loose plans to celebrate the end of our journey with a dinner and a cold Baranof on draft at Zat's Pizza in Craig. We finally got rolling around 11:30.

Our awesome campsite in the daylight. This spot ruled!

Leaving Thorne Lake. Looking at the map it was just a short jaunt to the next lake. It looked so short on the map we didn't even bother putting on our waders.

This was the outflow of the lake. I followed Gina's lead and just went ahead and immediately put on the waders. Despite the distance between the two lakes being only around a quarter mile it took about 30 minutes due to the slippery ass rocks and the endless uneven footing. There was no paddling in this section.

Finally reaching the lake!

Poking around looking for the start of the 2nd portage.

It's hard to see in the picture but the only sign of a portage we saw at this lake was a red diamond trail marker at the bottom of this tree near the exit of the lake. We searched the lake's edge where the map showed the beginning of the portage but we didn't see anything. We took this trail marker as a sign to follow the Thorne River to the falls and start our portage there.

The end of the lake.

We looked around the lake shore for the beginning of the cross country route with no luck. I'm glad because that would have meant that much more lugging our crap through the woods. When we did start the second portage we did find the trail running back towards the lake. It was there somewhere but we missed it.

Like the rest of the trip this was pretty much all walking. Just too shallow to sit in the kayaks.

Lots of this.

Very beautiful! According to the Google Earth path function the section from the lake to the 2nd portage is around 8 tenths of a mile long. There was no paddling in this section. Only slippery slow walking while pulling the kayaks.

After an hour or so we could hear the falls and we spotted the trail markers on the left river bank. The trail ran straight up the hill about 100 feet.

Looking down from the top of the hill.

Gina checking out the impassable falls. Her reaction inspired by the look of the portage: "I think we could push the kayaks down these falls and they would be fine!" Memories of our first portage lingered!

First thing we did was walk the trail with a few bags to do some recon.

David doing some trail maintenance with his machete.

This second portage was about half wooded trail and half muskeg.

We would see an occasional trail marker to guide us.

The terrain eventually became this marshy tall grass. We lost the official trail and followed some animal trails around until we eventually spotted the portage sign on a tree. We left our bags at the end of the portage (more on that later) and headed back for the yaks. Walking unburdened on the way back took 45 minutes.

What must be done is sinking in.

We unloaded the kayaks, tied two ropes to the front and dragged them vertically up the hill. It was exhausting but there seemed to be no way around it. We then reloaded the kayaks with all of our gear and literally drug them through the forest. After the exhausting multiple trips of the first portage we figured this 'pull the kayak' method might take as long but only needing the recon trip and the gear trip instead of three more trips would be an emotional victory in our tired state. It was difficult to for me to face this part of the journey but we didn't have an alternative. We considered just lowering our boats back down to the river after the falls but we came to the conclusion that even though there were no obstacles marked on the map there must be a reason for the trail. It would have been terrible to continue down the river only to get stuck in a ravine where we would have to backtrack for hours. The trail even dropped in elevation all the way back down to the river's edge at one point but we kept trucking over land to be safe. At least we knew where we were headed on the trail. And besides... the next and final section was the wide gentle deep Thorne River. At least we had that to look forward to! A few days after our trip we learned from Instagram users akbeckman and mackie114, who had done this trip 3 years in a row including the week before us, that they learned the hard way that it is, and I quote, "waaaaaaaaay easier" to just lower the boats back down to the river immediately after the falls. Their first time on the journey they actually camped halfway through this portage!

Gina taking a break. The method I mostly used to drag my kayak was to wrap the rope around my waist and then wrap it around my hands in front of me. This allowed my legs to do most of the pulling. It was brutal work and we were all sore for days after this. My hands in particular were stiff and hard to close from holding the rope, but my legs and back were mad at me too. It did feel pretty studly to do this insane amount of physical activity in successive days. Gina just ran a marathon for fuck's sake!

Here's a poorly drawn rendition of what pulling the kayak was like. Sometimes when I'm really jamming on my snowboard I'll stop and realize that I'm panting heavily and didn't even know it. That's what much of this journey was like. It was so physical that I was literally panting much of the time. Not shown in this drawing: blood, sweat and tears.

David on a short downhill section. After a bit I just gave up on trying to control any downhill momentum my kayak would get. I would stand back so it wouldn't knock me over and usually it would stop by ramming a rotten stump or some bushes.

Trying the glove method.

David helping me navigate a corner with a trail marker in the background. Corners were grueling due to the length of our kayaks. Luckily none of us had a fiberglass boat! These plastic boats are tough as shit.

Dropping back down to the Thorne River before we climb again.

A look at my boat in the muskeg. I would wrap the rope around me and mentally gear up. Then I would pull for as long as my legs could take it, usually about 50 to 100 feet, before I would need to take another break.

A 360 pano that shows my kayak in the middle of a muskeg field. Yeah!

An action shot of dragging the boat!

Tons of super bad ass carnivorous Sundews in this section of Muskeg.

We were hoping the tall marsh grass would make for easier pulling but it was actually even a bit tougher than the muskeg as the grass created friction.

There were a couple of creeks that ran through the marshy area. You know when you stand on the marsh stuff and it sinks? It was like that. One was a bit wide and Gina didn't quite make it across. She ended up waste deep in the water. Here David is working on crossing one.

We finally made it to the end! A 6 hour portage! It was around 8 pm when we got here. Directly behind Gina, who is taking the picture, is a marshy water area where we would launch our kayaks. We sat here for around half an hour collecting ourselves and loading our kayaks. I didn't bother putting on my waders as I knew that in just moments I would be on easy street riding a mellow current to the pacific Ocean. Then? We might be late for pizza but a cold beer and a grilled cheese at Hill Bar sounded like fucking paradise!

A 360 pano that shows the sliver of water we launched into. Bad ass!

Here's a screenshot of the pano. All that grass with 3 dead ends!

We could have avoided 99% of the second portage by dropping back down to the river immediately after the falls.

As tiring as it is to line the kayak through the shallow waters over slippery rocks it was better than portaging over land with all the gear we brought. I still don't know what the river was like below the falls but if it was more of the same it would have been fine. As I said before, akbeckman and mackie114 said it was way easier and they have been on both routes.

Nothing on this trip was as easy as we had hoped and the section following the second portage was no exception. Where the portage ends is a maze of beaver dams and channels. Gina went left to a dead end. I took a right and followed a path to a dead end beaver dam and David followed a third and final path that was narrow as shit and lengthy and eventually ended in yet another dead end. WTF? I could hear David warning bears that we around by clapping from across the marsh. Tons of knocked down grass animal trails through the marsh grass!

Gina returning from her dead end. We were stumped for maybe an hour and dusk began to set in. We were debating weather to go cross country towards the direction of the Thorne River but none of us wanted to portage anymore and we didn't see any definitive trail signs that indicated that was the right route. We debated calling someone who might be able to guide us, but who? I decided to follow Gina's dead end and get out of the boat in the marshy grass where the water ended. From there I could see a navigable marshy waterway that led to what looked like, off in the distance through the dying light, a small lake past a fallen tree. Gina then said that on her map it appeared that the blue line got thicker under the red dashes that represented our route. Maybe that little lake was the thicker blue line? I decided to check my iPhone and incredibly I had perfect LTE service. I Google mapped my location and it showed a blue river line leading from that lake to the Thorne River! Yes!

If you look closely you can see a path through the lily pads out of the lake! Man... what did people do 3 or 4 years ago when they were lost? This is the actual screenshot that led us out of the maze of beaver dams. We made our way to the lake pulling our boats over a couple of beaver dams. We then found the path through the lake to the Thorne River. The beaver dams are so well constructed that one of them created a 2 or3 foot difference in water elevation. What studs!

Darkness falls as we make our way through the lake and lily pads.

David and Gina off in the distance.

The red line is the path we took to escape the confusing as shit beaver dam area. The yellow line is the path recommended to us by akbeckman and mackie114. It would have saved us from the daunting second portage and getting lost in the marshy beaver area.

 Here's a guide to all the interesting details I told you about involving this exciting part of the journey. Brace yourself!

Finally made the Thorne River! It was dark as shit on the entire river so I only took one picture. This is it. We dug out our headlamps and that was all the light we had. But, as per usual for this trip, the Thorne River did not turn out to be this 12 or 13 miles of smooth sailing waterway that would be a dream of minimal paddling and relaxation as the current guided us to the end of our adventure while we drink beer after beer discussing our hot food options in the big city of Craig. Instead, due to the low water level, it turned out to be more of the same. In and out of our boats over and over and over. I immediately put on my waders; in the first 100 feet I could see what was coming. There would be lengthy sections of walking and then nice sections of paddling that might last 5 or 6 minutes but usually closer to 10 or 20 seconds. We started to not even get in the boat during sections that were deep enough because we knew it wasn't worth the effort to get in and then just get out 10 seconds later. Gina fared a bit better here due to her light weight. On the maps you can see where tributaries flow into the Thorne but none of these added enough water to raise the level enough for the river to be navigable. On top of the 6 hours of brutal portaging we had finished we ended up having to walk most of the Thorne River. We could see on the banks that very recently the water level was a good 10 or 11 inches higher. That would have made this section much easier. In my communications with akbeckman and mackie114 after our trip they told me it was the lowest water level they had seen in the 3 years they had done it. Any dreams of a cold beer at Hill Bar in Craig were long dashed as now our only goal was to try and make it to the ferry terminal in Hollis by 7 in the morning. We potentially could miss our ferry ride! 

An interesting aspect of this section was throughout the miles of paddling and walking we saw distinctly different sections of the riverbed. There were gravelly sections and boulder sections and a section of rough bedrock and a section strange underwater plants that were smooshy. We also saw some creepy unblinking eyes in the woods that we figured were deer. Scary!

Dawn starts to break around 3 am. There were two sections of short rapids. The first was kind of fun but the second one could lead you into the bank and some bushes. David was the first to go and ended up in the bushes yelling warning to Gina and me. I stuck to the left on this second rapid which turned out to be swift but too shallow to ride. More walking...

Finally made it to the bay! Smooth and exhausted sailing!

The town of Thorne Bay. The final destination of our trip!

Gina savoring the final moments on the water.

A celebratory selfie! We finally finished at around 4:30 in the morning. It was a 17 hour day without even time to drink a beer until we hit the bay. We actually had 4 or 5 beers left when we finished. That's how non-stop this trip was.

Organizing our shit. It took us around an hour to unload, change into dry clothes and pack up the truck. The hour drive to Hollis is a gnarly blur. David was tasked with keeping me awake and it worked great. He said he would be talking and then all of a sudden be like "how long was I asleep." I never noticed. I was focusing intently on the road. I pulled over once to walk it off for a minute in the cool morning air. We arrived at the ferry terminal at exactly 7. I was loopy as shit. We instantly crashed on the boat back to town. Picture not posted here to avoid domestic conflict: close up of Gina's face passed out in the back of the truck.

Daily beer count: 2 (terrible work! Just horrendous!). One in the kayak to celebrate the bay and one at the truck while loading our gear. 

We got back into Ketchikan, checked into the Gilmore, took showers and long naps. Then we hit the 'Dough for some freezing beers straight from the fucking tap. Well earned! Thanks Elijah!

I still plan on making this shirt I drew on a napkin at the 'Dough. We saw 100,000,000,000 conks (also spelled conch according to my Google search but Wikipedia says conk) during our journey and this was the best pun I could come up with. Hey akbeckman and mackie114, let me know if you want one! We're part of a select group of heroes who have Conkered the Honker!

We met up with Max and had a shitload of beers to celebrate his birthday. We must still be a little loopy because this is a picture of David and Gina playing air bass and air clarinet in front of the Potlatch. I'm still debating whether to use the stock market advice we overheard at the Potlatch from a drunk fisherman on his iPad.

Walking by my former place of employment on this beautiful night.

Daily beer count: Back in the saddle with 10! 10 celebratory beers in honor of finishing the Honker and Max's birthday.

Some video clues we made on the journey for work. There's some clips of the Honker in here!
Here's a pic I made to send to friends who wondered how our Alaska trip was going.

David and I at our campsite in Canada. We draped our wet Honker Divide clothes all over the place to dry out.

Final Thoughts
You know when you read a trip report and you wish they had some 'final thoughts' about what they would have done differently or if they would recommend the trip? Here's mine concerning the Honker. Now that it's been a couple of weeks since I stepped out of my yak this trip has become, as could have been expected with epic journeys like this, a very fond memory. While doing it we all expressed our feelings about how ridiculously hard it was and that it's funny that its called a 'canoe route' and that we would never recommend it. I'm still not sure I would recommend it but I probably wouldn't try very hard to talk someone out of going. I would instead just try to communicate my experience and the difficulty and fun that we had. Give specifics on our timeline and what the water levels were like and how that affected us. It will be great memories for me with some of my best friends and I cherish that.

I'm not sure I will ever do it again (but never say never) but that is only in part because of the difficulty. It's also very remote, time consuming and expensive to get to Alaska and POW if you don't live there and the list of shit to do in this world is really,really long. Our driving force for the trip was the POW marathon. The Honker was secondary. Having said that, if I did do it again here is what I would do differently: I would treat it like a backpacking trip rather than a boat trip. We probably spent 90% of our time walking and 10% paddling. The two big portages took us 11 and a half hours and we walked most of the waterways too. The paddling was mostly done through the lakes but even the longest lake (Honker) could be done in under an hour while most took less than 10 minutes. I would pack very light, as if backpacking in the mountains, and either search for a tough inflatable (this might cause trouble due to the chance of puncture, but so, so light!) or getting the lightest fiberglass canoe you can find. It's all about weight because the portages are long if you have a bunch of heavy shit like we did. A higher water level would have helped tremendously (but not too high because of the upstream and the GD Rockpile) but if you're planning this trip you may not have the ability to wait for a good rain so you'll have to make do with whatever conditions exist. I also would have fully skipped the second portage except to circumnavigate the falls. We would have missed out on the exciting maze of beaver dams but it would have saved us half a day of brutal portaging and probably 4 or more hours of travel time. I never felt in danger or scared on this trip, but during the second portage we did joke that maybe we would never make it out... we would have to live off of skunk cabbage roots and conks. Also, my iPhone with AT&T had service often. If you needed to make an emergency call wherever you are you wouldn't be very far from service if you didn't already have it. I had one bar on a rock in the water in front of the Honker Lake cabin and a couple of bars on Skull Island. And finally, we never did see the trapper's cabin. Must have been hidden in the silent darkness as we walked on by with our headlamps blazing towards the river bottom.

"They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm." Dorothy Parker

Fuck yeah!

I'm including this picture because these studs were heroing out in front of Seton Lake, Canada, and they looked like they were having the time of their life. What bad asses! Fully chillaxing! Role models!

To see the beginning of this journey click here. For days 1 and 2 click here. For day 3 click here.


  1. Hey thanks for the detailed trip information. You just helped me out a ton. Thanks for thinking of so many helpful details to share!

  2. Won’t be doing the Honker - want to do more paddling than lining canoes through slippery rocks! Thanks for the great info and congrats! You are badasses in my book!!!