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Alaska 2000

By Rob Harper

It's true confessions time. Many years ago when the earth was young and we still called SRT "abseiling and prusiking" (and other people called it a suicidal cult that would never replace ladders) I was a Wessex member.  Yes, I know, it's hard to believe but I was.  I still occasionally go to Wessex Anonymous meetings.  However I digress.  In those days I caved with a fellow by the name of Paul Hadfield who left Britain in 1980 to take up residence in British Columbia and become, eventually, an avalanche technician.  He got married to Dooley Walsh (also Wessex) and over the years we kept up an intermittent flow of correspondence about two rungs above the once-a-year-Christmas-card level.  His caving days seemed to be over by the end of the 80's.  All his letters and telephone calls kept urging us to "get our arses" over there to do some "serious ski touring". Certainly when we visited him in the early 90's he confirmed our worst suspicions.  There was apparently too much fishing/canoeing/climbing/skiing to do.

The first inkling that this situation had changed came not from Paul himself but from J’rat who casually remarked to me in the Hunters one day that Paul had telephoned with an order for caving equipment.  My curiosity was aroused and at our next contact I asked about it.  Apparently he had been bitten by the bug again after hearing of cave discoveries on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Park in Alaska. This island is only about 100 miles, as the crow flies, from his abode (at that time) in Stewart.  By the standards of caving in that region that's closer than Cuthbert’s is to the Belfry.  He went across one year and has been going back for about a month each summer ever since.  Eventually we succumbed to his tales of misty forests and virgin cave on every trip (and his lies about no bears!) and this summer Helen and I plus Keith Sanderson from the Wessex travelled over to meet him and Dooley on the Island.

Time now for a bit of background on the area and the caving politics.  Prince of Wales Island is one of an archipelago of karst islands that lie a few miles off the coast of British Columbia but actually belong to Alaska. Together with a small area of the mainland they make up the Tongass National Park.  The whole area is densely covered with temperate rainforest.  POWI itself is the third largest Island in the USA at about 120 miles long and a maximum of 50 miles wide and aligned in a NW-SE direction (see map).  Currently caves are have been located in small clusters at locations all over the island.  The caves are almost certainly far more widespread.  However due to the immense difficulty of moving through the forest once a cave is located there tends to be fairly intensive investigation in the immediate vicinity.  Hence the clusters.

The forest is potentially a source of enormous income for the local people most of whom are ethnically Native Americans/First Nation - it's not very PC to call them Indians these days.  So they want to log it.  Before they can log it the Forestry Service need to produce an environmental impact assessment.  Are you with me so far?  Concentrate because it starts to get even more complex in a moment.  Also, in the USA, they have something called the Cave Protection Act, which as the name implies confers a degree of protection on any cave system. In order to assess the importance of a cave system and thus its level of protection it needs to be explored and surveyed.  To comply with these regulations the US Forestry Service has funded an exploration programme each summer in which they provide free accommodation, food, transport and group equipment in return for exploration and survey work by any cavers who turn up.  However conservation groups (AKA "tree-huggers") are convinced that the Forestry Service survey programme is not good enough in a number of respects.  Therefore they have banded together and obtained grants to fund an independent exploration and survey project known as the Tongass Cave Project - henceforward referred to as the TCP.  The main agenda of the TCP is not exploration of caves but collection of information to use to try and preserve the primary forest in the region.  We were caving with the TCP rather than the Forestry group. According to Paul they are slightly less regimented.  Also we were told that the newly appointed liaison officer with the Forestry Service had not managed to organise a schedule this year and thus there was no official exploration programme.

That's enough of that - now back to the narrative.

Continental Airlines (not quite the cheapest but it felt like it) got us to Seattle via Newark in 18 hours; arriving at 11:35pm local time.  The 11-hour wait until our onward flight to Alaska was passed by scouring the airport for somewhere quiet and deserted to kip down.  A couple of hints - go to the mezzanine floor, as it's quiet but don't sleep on the baggage trolleys as someone turns up at 5 am to claim them. A 90 minute hop with the world's most amusing airline, Alaska Airways, and we were in Ketchikan in time for a couple of pints (Alaskan Amber - excellent) lunch and a long dozy afternoon before catching the 11pm ferry for POWLI.  This utilitarian vessel dropped us at POWI ferry terminal at Hollis (two huts and a car park) at about 1:00am and after a quick search for something better it was out with the mats, sleeping bags and bivibags and off to the land of Nod.  Helen claims that a crowd of people turned up for a 6:00am sailing but we only have her word for it as Keith and I slept through.  We awoke to a bright and sunny mid-morning - in fact for the bulk of our stay POWI had a freakish spell of warm dry weather.  Two brews of tea later our transport arrived in the form of Val White the partner of Pete Smith (they are a local caving couple who are one of the mainstays of the TCP).  We piled into the old pickup and headed towards Whale Pass a small community in the North of the island stopping en route to do food shopping at the last supermarket and to view some old totem poles.

Map of Northern USA to show the location of  Prince of Wales island

POWI is a bit like being in a mega-version of Stock Hill Plantation.  Miles and miles of dirt roads through rolling hills covered by trees, trees, more trees and yet more trees punctuated by the occasional lake brought us to a sign hanging over the road saying, "Welcome to Deliverance".  Thus we came to Whale Pass a scattering of forestry tracks, dwellings and abandoned vehicles in the forest tucked at the end of a long inlet from the sea. Val took us for a tour of the sights, both of them, the shop (a locked Portacabin) and the post office (a wooden bus shelter with shelves).  Then it was back to our accommodation a half built wooden house - even half built it was vastly better than a lot of caving huts.  This house belonged to Kevin Alldred who has been the major figure behind all the cave exploration in this region.  We dropped off our kit then headed around the corner to Pete and Val's for food.

Pete and Vas' place was a self built wooden house - two living rooms over a large workshop with a spare room downstairs and an outside toilet.  An aerial wooden walkway led to a second workshop just big enough for three or four lorries.  Pete and Val had designed and built this all themselves starting by selecting and felling the trees!  They are fairly heavily into self sufficiency so we also admired the solar panels, hydroelectric generator etc.  Besides trapping, killing and preserving the local wildlife Pete also makes fuel for the lorries from leftover cooking oil!  We were left feeling a bit lazy and inadequate.

Back in the house there was fresh salmon for tea. I only mention this in passing.  It sounds great but I do have to say that at this time of year in North Western America you can get a bit fed up with fresh salmon.

After an extremely short session of small talk Pete sat back, fixed us with a gimlet eye and asked, "Can you sketch?"  It took a few questions to sort out exactly what he meant.  I had to translate for Keith, as his Essex accent, unsullied by quarter of a century of living in the Dales, was unintelligible to the Alaskans.  Apparently in the States the person on a survey team that we know as the "recorder" is known as the "sketcher" and there was a serious sketcher shortage in the TCP.  Because Helen (the obvious choice) was not going underground at all, Keith had never done any surveying and Hadfield was still on his way to POWI.  I became, by default, the new sketcher on the block.  Which meant that Keith had to learn to be the tape/compass/clino man.  Next we were handed a printed sheet of detailed instructions for producing a survey to the satisfaction of the TCP and sent back to our accommodation to learn it ready for a test in the morning.

Next morning Pete drove us about three miles into the woods and en route we had our first bear sighting. While on POWI we were to average one bear encounter per day (thanks Hadfield) but these all consisted of the bear running away at high speed.  Pete's first lesson was tree identification followed by emphasizing to us the dangers of this area.  Unlike tropical rainforest the fallen trees in temperate rainforest take decades to decay. Therefore the "ground" is often a layer of dead and rotting wood up to three metres in depth. Combine this with the dense new growth of conifers which restrict visibility to about a metre or so and it means that you can easily walk over the edge of a shaft without noticing it for the few nanoseconds before gravity kicks in.  Suitably impressed with the couple of examples he showed us we were then rounded up, loaded back into the vehicle and taken off for some cave surveying practice.

The chosen cave, Whispering Canyon Cave, was only about 70m from the track where we parked.  Carrying full kit we thrashed through the undergrowth, teetered along fallen tree trunks and traversed past an intimidating eyehole into the 50m entrance shaft of the next-door cave ( Thunder Falls Cave).  Whispering Canyon was a short winding vadose passage that led after 80m or so to a sump. Keith and I blundered through our first few survey legs ("shots" in American cave-speak) and slowly built up a reasonable rhythm.

Pete, Rob and Keith at entrance to Whispering cave

 At least we thought it was reasonable.  Since Pete is one of those people who habitually wears an expression that suggests that a close member of his family had recently died it was difficult to tell what he thought.  Several points were discussed at length including the metric vs. imperial argument, which had already been thrashed through the night before. However it was re-opened when, all prepared to work in feet and inches; we were presented with a tape marked out in tenths of a foot!

We must have done something right because next day we were allowed to go solo on a survey of Starlight Cave.  This cave was much more spectacular.  A 20m abseil over poised logs down one wall of a 50m-diameter collapse shaft ended on a floor of logs and scree ("talus" or "breakdown" in American cave-speak).  Left was a spectacular 20m x 20m x10m chamber leading to a short scramble over ice blocks and up a scree slope into a canyon passage varying from 15m x 10m to 4 x 4m and ending in 2 daylight avens after about 100m.  A short side passage ended in a silt choke.

Rob Harper at the entrance of Starlight Cave

Right from the bottom of the entrance led to a boulder choke where we stopped at a squeeze due to lack of time.  Back at base Pete scrutinised our efforts and announced, with the air of a man who obviously felt that beggars could not be choosers, that we had done sufficiently well to be allowed to do some real surveying.  Suitably pleased with ourselves and fortified by yet more fresh salmon we stumbled back to our accommodation only to be awoken by the Hadfields arriving in the middle of the night complete with dog and cat.

Next day the weather was still fine and, so far.  There was dearth of seriously biting insects - even the locals felt that this was all a bit spooky.  After a leisurely breakfast, several brews and a catching up on Mendip gossip we headed around to Pete's place.  There were cavers everywhere.  As well as Keith, Paul and myself we were joined by Dave Lodge (TCP caver) Pete Smith and Pete's two sons (Jedediah and Kina - yes those are their real names, they're that sort of family).  We all piled into Pete's cooking-oil-fuelled ex-US Army truck, threw the caving kit and dog in the back, plugged in our ear defenders and headed off up into the hills.  Six or seven miles of ear battering and bum-numbing travel along forestry tracks and we pulled off in the bottom of a steep-sided valley.  All out, packs on and quarter of an hour of sweaty thrutching through dense undergrowth and up steep gullies got us to a large gully cum small gorge ("solution trench" in American cave-speak) at the bottom of which was the entrance to "Kamano Cave".  Here we left Keith, Dave and Paul who had been instructed to reclimb and rerig an aven that Pete had bolted the year before.

Pete and I and his sons then spent another happy twenty minutes searching for another cave entrance ("Snow on the Ground Cave") which the boys had discovered while out ski-ing but which had not yet been descended.  Eventually this was found.


Descending into Starlight cave

Yet another gully/gorge this time with a small stream in the floor which sank into an entrance at the bottom of a small doline type collapse.  A rope was slung around a convenient tree and Pete descended into the doline.  After clearing the loose logs and rock he disappeared from view amidst much crashing. The boys were next and then myself. The 3m-diameter entrance shaft dropped about 8m to a ledge and then on down a further 4m or so to a cobbled boulder floor in a 1m x 15m descending rift.  The limestone was originally very light almost white but had been heavily stained by tannins from the undergrowth above.  The rift soon entered a muddy bedding plane with a vadose trench in the floor, which meandered around to a 'T' junction.  To the right the bedding plus trench ended in a 10m aven and left the bedding disappeared and the trench could be followed to a small stream passage, which still continued.  All this was surveyed.  A small passage that appeared to be a stream overflow at the downstream end was pushed for a short distance with no conclusion.  Probably no more than 50m in total and all fairly small.

Out and down to Kamano Cave to wait for the others and then back down to Pete's place for large helpings of lasagne (made using the last of the bear meat!).

Once again next day was bright and sunny.  I felt that I ought to complain.  This really was not good enough. We had been promised miserable rainy weather. However we just bore it with typical British fortitude, daft hats and masses of insect repellent.  Today's objective was the survey of the inlet in Kamano Cave that the others had re-entered the day before after an epic of bout of climbing and falling and climbing again. This time it was just Paul, Keith, Dave Lodge and myself (plus Paul's dog "Vlu").

Kamano Cave turned out to be very pleasant.  A short crawl led to a winding vadose rift very reminiscent of many of the Yorkshire entrances, which dropped in 3m steps to a short bedding plane passage with a slot in the floor.  After about 40m we arrived at a 10m-diameter chamber with a Swildon's sized stream falling from a passage high on the left and disappearing down rift on the right.  The streamway was accessed via a series of bolts on the wall of the chamber, which did not give the best of hangs.  However everyone managed to struggle to the top to reach a spectacular little streamway with deep pools and cascade climbs to a cobble floored rift passage.  Paul and I surveyed from the floor of the chamber and Keith and Dave went to the "end" (or at least were it got down to a low crawl in the water but still going) and started back and we met in the middle.  This came to about 80m in total.  Going back down the waterfall we were supposed to put on another rope as the original had nearly frayed through - don't believe anyone who tells you that Bluewater is totally indestructible.  I led off and managed to find a deflection that at least meant we were not in the full force of the water but at the rebelay I found that the existing rope was tied into a screwgate krab that couldn't be opened. So I cut the rope off it.  Much grumbling from Pete when we got back!

Next day was a lazy sort of day.  I spent a lot of the morning expanding my survey notes and drawing some extended plans and profiles to try and help the person who would actually be drawing them up. The others packed up the vehicles in preparation for a move to a camp up in the forest where we would be based for exploring a cave known as Zina Cave.  The camping party consisted of the three UK based cavers plus the Hadfields plus Bruce White (a TCP caver).

Now ALL Alaskans are a bit odd but even they thought Bruce was a bit weird.  He was a science teacher, part-time radio religious broadcaster who had an obsession with Barbie dolls (right down to having a caving Barbie complete with her own helmet, light, sit-harness and full set of SRT kit) as well as having a dozen machine guns with ammunition buried at various locations in the USA/Canada/Alaska "just in case".  He says he is coming to England in a few years - we suggested that he stay at Braida Garth and give a Caving-Barbie lecture at BCRA Congress.

Rob "sketching" at Whispering Canyon Cave

Packed tightly into two large 4WD Tesco-shopping type vehicles ("sports utility vehicles" in American-speak) we drove for fifty miles or so.  En route we stopped for essential supplies at a small store. Having bought several boxes of beer and some crisps we left civilisation behind and ground slowly up into the hills. A fallen tree across the track posed a problem for a while which, after several ingenious engineering solutions were proposed tried and rejected, was eventually solved by the simple expedient of unloading Paul's SUV and taking the obstacle at speed.  Thus we arrived at the campsite, which was a small clearing in the forest at a fork between two tracks.  Tents were pitched.  A dining shelter was erected.  Wood was collected for a fire.  Food was made and eaten.  A few beers were drunk.  Bruce showed us his handgun, (10mm stainless steel Smith and Wesson revolver for those who might be interested).  Then we went to bed and lay there waiting for a bear attack. Paul's dog brushed past the tent sniffing loudly which was enough to send our pulses up to about 300/min. Convinced that we were about to be savaged by a large black bear we set about making ourselves safe by pulling the sleeping bag over our heads!  No attack came and over the next few days we became inured to the nightly canine ritual.

Paul is an early riser so he brought us tea at 5:30am next morning.  He felt that this would ensure that we into the cave at an early hour but the rest of us interpreted it as the cue for an extremely leisurely breakfast.

After Pete had arrived we ambled over to the entrance shaft (approx. 50m away) at around 10:30am. Zina Cave apparently needed to be resurveyed as the original was not good enough so Keith and Bruce became one party, Paul and I another while Pete set off with a drill and some ropes to rig a traverse line to the head of one of the pitches in the cave.  From the lip of the 8m diameter entrance shaft a 17m steep slope cum pitch over mud, rock and fallen trees drops to the floor of a chamber.  From here right leads to a series of steeply sloping muddy tubes, which Keith and Bruce started to survey, and left to a steeply sloping narrow high rift.  Paul and I followed this rift until it became too tight after about 10m.  A large passage 3m up on the left wall led to a 10m roped traverse to a single bolt at the head of a 13m pitch.  The rope on down the pitch from this bolt was not joined in any way to the rope on the traverse nor was there any attempt to protect it from any abrasion.  I stopped for a moment or two to join the ropes together which at least gave us some chance if the bolt were to fail and then headed down trying to ignore the rub.  From the bottom of the pitch a dry vadose canyon led after 70m to a slot in the floor and just before this the other series of passages from the bottom of the entrance shaft entered on the right.  Paul and I slowly surveyed our way through to this point and stopped. Pete had been worried that this "squeeze" or another just beyond it would prevent me going any further into the cave.  So just before we left I had a go at it and found that I hardly touched the sides! Confident that it would be no problem we headed on out for beers and food.

Another crack of dawn tea round from Paul and then he and I spent the next day tidying up loose ends of our survey in the cave while Bruce and Keith procrastinated long enough to put off caving for the day.  Paul and I also re-rigged the 13m pitch with a rebelay, which did not entirely eliminate all the rubs but made it considerably safer.  Out to find Dooley waiting at the lip of the entrance shaft with a couple of bottles of beer.

That evening we are joined by Kevin Casey a Forestry Service employee who is in charge of the only show cave on the island and has been invited up by Pete to help with exploration of Zina.  When Pete arrives next morning he and Kevin head off down and the rest of us follow half-an-hour later.  At the pitch we find that Pete has put it all back to the old less safe situation including belaying to a single manky bolt without joining it to the traverse rope (also using the same bolt) as a back-up.  We catch up with him at the slot where he is drilling some shot-holes to enlarge it and Pete and I have a full and frank discussion about his rigging. Once the air has been cleared Pete used Hilti type charges to blow some of the lip off the slot and we all follow him down.  A 3m pot leads to a 10m "T -section" crawl to another 3m pot. The Alaskans think that this is tight but I find that it is easier than say the Devil's Elbow route into GB. From the bottom of this second pot an 8m-boulder slope led to the head of a 20m pitch.  A deflection at the top of the pitch gives a free-hang down the middle of a spectacular vadose canyon between 3m and 4m wide.  At the bottom Paul and I follow the stream for about 200m at various levels to another short pitch where we stop.  Pete is somewhere ahead of us but is stopped at a sump a short way beyond.  Upstream from the big pitch leads to a free-climbable waterfall about 6m high to a small active streamway that continues unexplored.  All out without too much trouble although it is noticeable that the Europeans with a "frog-type" rig have much less hassle than the locals who are using 3-point rope-walking rigs when it comes to deflections and awkward manoeuvres.  Pete and Kevin go straight home that night.

At last the next day is cold and misty and raining.  This is more like it.  Helen and I elect for a rest day in camp and the others all go off to do a tourist trip in a cave about an hours drive away.  I fester and read all day.  H goes berry picking in company with a bear.  When the others arrive back they come bearing a grouse that Bruce has shot - it took only three 10mm rounds to bag it and this is a gun that he told us would stop a bear in its tracks!  A pleasant evening is spent under the dripping awning covering the dining area.  As the booze goes down taller and taller tales are told, old jokes brought out and dusted off and we finish by grilling the grouse over the fire.

Another cold and misty day dawned.  Enthusiasm for going underground is noticeably absent.  Eventually Bruce persuades me to help him finish his section of the survey. Since we have to move out that day anyway I figure this will get me out of packing up so I agree.  We spend a miserable four hours but at last we get his survey tied into a known station on mine.  As predicted just about everything is packed away by the time I get out so it's out of the kit, into the vehicle and back to our home- from-home in Whale Pass not forgetting to pick up some more beers on the way.

That was the last of the caving for this trip.  We whiled away a day or so on POWI fishing and a few more days in Washington/Oregon sightseeing, drinking and eating before flying home.

To sum up - my feelings about this trip are very mixed.  On a personal level it was great to see Paul again and as always when you travel in good company we had a lot of fun.  However on the caving side the caves were small, short and cold.  Despite the fact that there is a lot of potential virgin cave out there it is likely that most of it will be the same and we certainly had the impression that we were being steered away from anything really interesting. The local cavers were fairly welcoming but they are very parochial in their outlook.  Like the Mendip cavers of the sixties and early seventies they give the impression that they feel that their own little patch is a major caving area in global terms.  Possibly because, like their Mendip counterparts of thirty and forty years ago, they are mostly home grown and have done little if any caving elsewhere.

Would we go back? Well certainly not to POWI. However Hadfield has list of other sites in remote locations that need looking at both in Alaska and BC which sound more appealing.  So watch this space.

Apologies to Rob if some of the picture captions are incorrect - Ed