The planning of this trip began with an innocent comment made by an individual that has never volunteered to go out and sleep in the woods upon entering adulthood. He pitched me the idea of heading up north to go winter camping by Byer’s Lake, and I was shocked that he even suggested the idea. I was onboard immediately. I did some research, and actually stumbled upon reserveamerica.com, which gave me results of all the public-use cabins around Alaska. While looking at the Byer’s Lake cabins, I brought up the cabins beyond Lowell Point in Seward. For the average Anchorage-dweller, Byer’s Lake seems like quite the adventure, but my mind got set on the Derby Cove Cabin which is located in Caines Head State Recreation Area. Caines Head is roughly five miles beyond Seward and is home to Fort McGilvary which is four miles past the cabins. The fort was built in 1942, and ordered abandoned after World War II, only three years after construction began.
This trail seemed challenging to me because I needed to time the trek with the tide--something I was inexperienced at. The Derby Cove and Callisto cabins are only accessible at low tide, as the tide swallows the trail roughly twice every 24 hour cycle. Another control factor is the amount of daylight you have to work with, and early March in Alaska means that the sun sets around 6:00pm. I pitched it to my partner, and he agreed to go even though it wasn’t his first idea. I told him it was a five mile hike, which he took to mean five miles total.
When we got to the trailhead, he discovered that meant “five miles in, five miles out”. We got situated and began our trek through ankle deep snow and ice at around 3:20pm, because low tide was set to hit around 5:30pm that day.
After about 40 minutes steadily gaining elevation through the trees, we descended several icy switchbacks that took us down to sea level. We crossed a bridge, and took the scenic route around the beach instead of cutting through the forest. (Code for: we lost the trail.) As soon as we hit the beach, we discovered that many of the larger rocks that are under the water during high tide were absolutely ridden with mussels larger than our thumbs!
We took our time gathering shells and mussels as we rockbusted our way south. Hungry and tired, we paused for a bit and ate some sandwiches that I had packed for the drive down to Seward. Less than half an hour later, we reached a little valley that held Callisto Cabin, and five minutes after that, Derby Cove Cabin. We reached the cabin right at 6pm, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was fully stocked with firewood. Planning for a cold evening in without a heat source, we had decided that a small propane heater was worth the extra weight on our backs. The light was waning fast, so Liam started up the wood stove while I began the process of boiling water for the mussels and mountain houses. The cabin was cozy that night, long after the fire had gone out. (It would end up that driftwood doesn’t burn very long.) I had my Thermarest Questar 20 bag, and I had loaned out my old synthetic North Face bag.
We settled down for the evening and were thrilled to notice that there was a freshwater stream not ten yards from the cabin. I was laying out the bed rolls when Liam decided to go down to the stream to do the dishes and fill our water bottles/bladders. I followed him down because I wanted to make sure he wasn’t in any danger of falling in or slipping. Ironically enough, I followed him and fell in myself! Luckily instincts kicked in and I went down on all fours, only ending up with a single wet boot and pant leg. My pants dried nearly immediately and my boot held the same status by morning.
When we awoke the next morning, the wind was blowing, but the valley remained calm, peaceful, and relatively warm when compared to the Anchorage bowl area. We discussed our options for the day, which were rather few. Hiking out and driving home was not a choice at the time, due to the impressively high tide that had swallowed up our trail from the night before. So, we could either wait in the cabin for the tides--watch a movie, eat, etc--or we could continue on the trail south and explore Fort McGilvary. I made the call to continue on to the fort. After stumbling about the cabin in our pjs, trying to get a fire going and heating more water up for another mountain house and oatmeal, we finally hit the trail around noon. (It would seem that I cannot head out on any trail at a decent time.)
We left our packs in the cabin, only taking a single water bottle, snacks, gloves, down layers, and windbreakers. (Whenever you leave something behind as we did, it is a common courtesy and safety measure to leave a note with the current time/date, as well as your expected return time/date.) I had warned Liam that this would add an expected 7ish miles to our trip, and approximately 1500 ft of elevation gain. He remained adamant about his willingness to go, but I have my suspicions that he was doing it for my benefit. It was easy to stay on the trail, but there are a few forks along the way that it was helpful to have a map for. The elevation gain wasn’t anything to be upset about, but when you combine the action of walking uphill with a foot of snow, the difficulty of the trail doubles. Along the main trail, you will encounter an old docking site and plaque that goes with it, as well as an old ammunition bunker that is holding up incredibly well given the inclement weather that the peninsula often experiences. Once you hit the bunker, you’ve got a little less than a mile to go before you come across the fort, and there’s really no missing it. The trail we took lead us directly to the central entrance of the fort.
There are several rooms and tunnels that take you off in all directions. Bring a light, and beware of small animals that may have claimed any one of the given side rooms. We did not come across any live animals, but we did see a porcupine that had fallen into one of the man-access holes. From the central entrance, head straight down a corridor, and then you can turn right and that will take you out to the east entrance, which will take you further on to explore the rest of the fort property. If you head left, you will end up at one of the battery sites the fort boasts. The view overlooking the bay from the battery in nothing short of spectacular. It directly overlooks Hive and Fox Islands, and makes for an excellent lunch spot, complete with a picnic table. We dawdled for 45 minutes, taking our time enjoying the view and wandering around the fort while we ate.
The trek back was 90% downhill and we treated it as such, even picking up a light jog a few times. We reached the Derby Cove Cabin at 4:30 and we debated on making a more elaborate lunch so that we could refuel for the hike back. Looking at the time, we changed our socks, took a moment to catch our breath, and determined that we would already be racing the daylight and tides as it was. We started gearing up, and I decided to ditch my down layer and replace it with my gore-tex jacket overtop a lighter fleece pullover due to the windy conditions. Liam and I collected our packs, loaded my chocolate lab, Keira, up with hers, and headed out. We didn’t make it fifty feet from the cabin when Keira sat down and gave up. I decided to load her pack on mine, which gave her a much needed second wind. We headed out of the cove and made steady time along the beach. Reaching our 9th mile of the day, we found some dry rocks higher up on the beach and took a quick snack break.
At this point, our feet hurt more than our legs did. I had been rockbusting over shale and sharp mussels for hours, in boots that hadn't quite been broken in. Liam had opted to wear his six year old machining boots that are covered in metal slivers and various oils, and was feeling the harsh terrain even worse than I was. We began approaching the ascent off the beach and discovered that low-light and muscle fatigue don’t mix well with ice. We scrambled past many of the switchbacks in an effort to stay off the ice. The sun had set and we were working with the dimness of dusk by the time we reached flat ground again. From there, we estimated we had another forty minutes out to the car. We alternating putting Keira between us and in front of us, stepping on her heels and giving her nudges in her behind to keep her going. Her unwillingness to continue actually benefited moral. We figured we were both in better shape than a high energy chocolate lab, which is always a laughing matter. We finished our 13th and final mile that day in a slow, slippery waddle.
Things I learned from this particular trip down south: Seward can be sunny, but don’t plan on it. Do not take a beginner on a 17 miler, or risk burning him out (though this was not the case in this instance). A headlamp is always a good investment. And--I cannot stress this enough at this point: microspikes.
An honorable mention to the products wear-tested on this trip: The Alpine Forest Tidewater base layer and Mountain V Neckwarmer. The second day would have been miserable with the wind threatening to burn my cheeks the whole day without my neckwarmer. I didn’t take my base layer off the whole trip and I don’t want to think about how bad I would have stunk the whole car ride home without it.