This was my first full day back in Sitka and I thought it would be nice to get out on a short hike at the very least. My brother had already planned to meet Dorothy Wilson and do something with her since she didn't have to work. They decided to go on a hike and let me come along. We discussed a number of different places to go and finally decided to hike from Thimbleberry Lake to Heart Lake. My brother said he had read that the trail was four feet wide and all gravelled for wheelchair access. I knew that there had been a lot of trail work done over the past three years, but that seemed a little bit much. As it turned out, he was partially correct; the trail had been rebuilt up to Thimbleberry Lake and it was now wheelchair accessible that far, however the trail beyond the lake is (very) unimproved.

Upon making the short hike up to Thimbleberry Lake and seeing that the trail was unimproved beyond the lake, we took a short break to decide whether or not to brave the rest of the trail to Heart Lake. In the end, we decided to go for it. We had seen some bear sign along the trail to Thimbleberry Lake, but that's not very uncommon around Sitka, so we did not think much of it as we continued on the trail as it rapidly headed into heavy brush.

The trail goes through a powerline corridor which had been clearcut in the not too distant past in order to avoid the possibility of trees falling into the lines during windstorms. (Incidentally, forest succession in Southeast takes place primarily through trees being knocked down by wind. In most of the rest of the continent, including Washington and Oregon and up through British Columbia, the primary means of succession is fire.) As most experienced Southeast Alaska hikers probably already know, old clearcuts around here generally mean two things: old rotten logs and stumps which are invariably quite slippery and incredibly thick brush (usually with at least some thorniness).

Ordinarily I would prefer to avoid such an area if at all possible, however in this case I figured it would not be so bad since my brother had made the hike before and didn't remember it being that bad (as an aside, never trust a hiker's memory when it comes to how bad a route was in the past). As it turned out, whoever had done the clearing had done a good job of getting out the old logs so we didn't have to worry about trying to climb around on them. That just left getting through the brush as the main difficulty. When a trail passes through heavy brush that is not cleared for a while, what tends to happen is not that stuff grows up on the trail, but rather all the plants on either side begin to crowd over the trail. What this means in practical terms is that it's possible to make a way fairly easily through brush which looks basically impassable, but only if you can manage to stay on the trail. This is not always easy since the trail is at your feet and your eyes are generally a few feet above the ground where all that can be seen is a sea of green (if you're tall enough to see above the plants, anyway). On the plus side, it does not take long for you to realize you are off the trail, should you happen to stray. This is due to an incredible increase in the resistance you encounter when trying to move forward. An approach which is sometimes effective is to crawl; this way you can usually see the path you are trying to follow. However, the way I like to wade through brush on an overgrown trail is to do something of a backstroke motion with my arms as I walk forward. This has the effect of lifting of the overhanging branches so that I can better see where I am trying to go, but even this was not entirely effective.

Since Jonathan had been this way once before, we let him start out in the lead. Occasionally he would manage to lose the trail, and when he did, I would take over the lead until I lost it. Jonathan had taken the lead as we were headed up a small rise. To our right there was a gully where a small stream was flowing down towards Thimbleberry Lake. I was a few meters behind both Jonathan and Dorothy when I heard them talking a little bit. I could not really understand what they were saying until I heard Jonathan say "Hey Bear!" I just thought he was telling Dorothy what she should say if she ran into a bear in the woods. Presumably they were having a friendly discussion about such things since we had seen quite a few bear droppings and a fairly fresh track closer to Thimbleberry Lake before we got into the brush. I was forced to reconsider my original thought when I saw Dorothy making a few hurried steps back down towards me and heard something crashing through brush and then splashing in the creek. I walked up to where Jonathan was standing and we watched the bear run up the other side of the gully and look back at us a couple times before it disappeared into the trees. Apparently Jonathan had been commenting to Dorothy about the droppings he saw and the noises he heard in the brush nearby. At this point he called out to the bear and it stood up to get a look. He said it looked a little bit surprised and turned and ran. This is when I heard it. My brother said it looked like a pretty good sized bear from where he stood, but I don't think it looked too big. He did have a better look at it though, since I did not see it until it was a little distance away and partially obscured by plants. I'm sure the bear was probably just snacking on the various berries which were quite plentiful in the area. Fortunately for us, it decided not to react aggressively (which is actually what happens most of the time, though it's the relatively rare aggressive responses which are most often reported).

Suffice it to say, seeing a bear at close range while hiking was the high point of this particular hike. Even the brush thinned out as we got closer to Heart Lake. The topographical map I have of the area indicates that a trail goes around the southwest side of the lake, but we did not take that trail. We continued to follow the powerline corridor until it got close to Heart Lake and at that point we went to the lakeshore and made our way around from there with a minimal amount of wading. (This is where hiking in sandals and shorts really makes sense. Unfortunately for 99% of the hike it really didn't, and the scrapes and scratches which covered my legs by the end prove it.)

A view of the two lakes from the top of Verstovia (taken the next day)
My brother's account of this hike

Thimbleberry Lake Trailhead
Thimbleberry Lake
Brush Along the Trail
Following the Leader
Jonathan and Dorothy Wade through the Brush
Dorothy Breaks Free
Jonathan Breaks Free
Heart Lake
Old Mill Site

Home | Journal Index | Summer 2000