Words and images by Jason Condon, Coast Guard pilot.
We made it. Finally floating down Baranof River. This was so much better than traveling through the thick brush. Never mind that we spent the last 3 hours rappelling alders and only covering a ¼ mile. It’s a lot of fun being an amateur packrafter: I get nervous and excited about the smallest rapids. I love moving with the pace of the river and the anticipation of what is coming up around the bend. From the air I wasn’t sure if Baranof River would be deep enough, but things are always different from the air and low draft of the packraft has no problem hovering over the boulders. Soon the small whitewater opens into Baranof Lake and we have to start paddling. However, this is a victory paddle and hot springs are our prize. It feels good to navigate a new route across Baranof, but I cheated.
Baranof Valley is just one of many beautiful places that I have the privilege of flying over as a Coast Guard pilot. When we are spending countless hours training and becoming intimately familiar with a place that can be absolutely beautiful one day and storming the next, it’s hard for me not to land, shut-down the helicopter and enjoy a particular spot. On one of our transits across Baranof back to Sitka, Baranof River stuck with me and I wanted to figure out how to get back there.
Since moving here from Astoria, Oregon in 2014, I have had the good fortune of spending a lot of training time flying over the Tongass National Forest. From the rugged islands of Dixon Entrance to the long stretches of sandy beaches in Yakutat, and all the way East to the Stikine valley, I am lucky to see so many wild places from the air and it fuels my desire for adventure. I often come away from a flight wanting to explore islands by kayak, walk beautiful ridgelines, fish remote stretches of river or snowboard aesthetic peaks.
I would venture to guess those exciting feelings of wildness, exploration and appreciation are sparked every year in the majority of approximately 700 new Coast Guard personnel who move to Alaska each year. For many, this is the first time they have been to Alaska and their duty enables them the once in a lifetime opportunity to recreate in this awe-inspiring place.
Every year we instruct the incoming personnel to respect Alaska’s valuable resources. They’re also given valuable emergency preparation tips in order to be self-sufficient and smart in this isolated environment. As Coast Guard men and women, our typical tour of duty can range from two to four years, so our time to experience Alaska is limited and we often feel a pressure to experience as many things as we can before we have to move on to the next duty station.
As a search and rescue (SAR) asset to the residents of Southeast Alaska, the Coast Guard plays a key role in serving and safeguarding the people who live and work in the Tongass. Unlike other Coast Guard Air Stations, Air Station Sitka is very active assisting local and state agencies during inland SAR cases. In the lower 48, local agencies, state National Guards, and the Department of Defense play a larger role in assisting people who are in distress on land. In Southeast Alaska, it’s often the Coast Guard that gets the call when a hunter is injured or disoriented, there is a bear mauling, or a small plane crashed on land or water. As a Coast Guard member, I appreciate my duty to assist people recreating or making a living here because, as an individual, I understand the value of this area and its resources.
As parting safety note, as a Coast Guard Search and Rescue professional, my best piece of safety advice is: always have some form of dependable communication as you explore the precipitous peaks, verdant forests, and splendid lakes. There are so many varying pieces of communication gear that can save your life and make our job easier and safer. Depending on where you go, this can range from a cell phone, VHF radio, InReach device, PLB, EPIRB, or satellite phone. By having a dependable means of communication, the Coast Guard can take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue and increase the likelihood of survival. Flying over the backbone of Baranof Island, I can see a vast land of untouched wilds that not only deserves my infatuation, but also all of our respect because of it’s rawness and ability to turn a beautiful hike into a life-threatening search and rescue case. That being said, don’t be afraid to get after it and enjoy these beautiful public lands we are so lucky to share. Just remember to be smart, watch the weather, and be prepared.