Caines Head Independence

I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. – Leonard Cohen


July 4-6, 2012,
My brother-in-law and I, along with our families, set out to spend a long Independence Day weekend in Caines Head State Recreation Area, south of Seward, Alaska. We reserved the Derby Cove cabin for two nights, planning on that serving as our home base as we explored the surrounding area. Since we were staying two nights, and we were bringing all of our kids, we weren’t exactly packing light. To accommodate this more conveniently, we decided to hire a water taxi to take one of us and all of our gear over to the cabin while the rest took the coastal hike to the cabin. While the trail isn’t particularly arduous (save some challenging spots on the beach if you grow impatient waiting for low tide), lightening the load allowed the kids (and adults) a more comfortable hike over and allowed us to carry more gear. We decided that I would take the water taxi and all of the gear, secure it in the cabin, and then hike back towards Seward after the tide had lowered to meet the rest of the group somewhere in the middle.

Leaving Miller's Landing
Leaving Miller’s Landing

The water taxi took me from Millers’ Landing, at Lowell Point, to Derby Cove in about 15 minutes. The captain of the small skiff pulled the boat right up onto the beach, I threw all of our gear onto the beach, and hopped out. The taxi pulled away and headed south to some other patron. It was now just me, a hundred or two pounds of gear, and everything that this Alaskan wilderness rainforest had in store for me.

Resurrection Bay and Derby Cove
Resurrection Bay and Derby Cove

From the beach, I couldn’t see the cabin and wasn’t quite sure where it was; however, an orange buoy hanging from a tree seemed to be propitious. I walked towards it and noticed a trail heading back into the rainforest. I pulled our gear up to a point that I felt was out of the reach of the tide and waves, strapped on my pack, and headed up the trail. A raven flew overhead just as I entered the trees. It made a call and plopped down on makeshift bench fabricated from driftwood.

Just a few steps into the trees, I became slightly overwhelmed as the rainforest instantly consumed me. To my right, a steep slope was decorated abundantly with ancient spruce trees adorned with large clumps of soft moss on nearly every branch. To my left, a low-lying wetland with small meandering streams drained the mountains into the ocean. The path was narrow, but the footing was fine. I felt small amongst these ancient, behemoth trees. About 50 yards in, the trail widened. I could see a gray outhouse ahead. A few more steps in, the cabin became visible. To the right of the cabin, a small, yet powerful, waterfall came cascading down through the trees. Near the front of the cabin its flow slowed and pooled up, from there becoming a more casual stream that, after a few twists and turns, relinquished itself to Resurrection Bay. This all made for one of the most wondrous camping locales I’ve ever experienced. A small foot bridge took me over this stream and to the steps of the cabin. Inside, two sets of bunk beds, a wood stove,  a picnic table, and some shelves. Enough light came through the windows to allow me to observe the cabin’s interior, but the light came filtered through the thick forest which created a surreal and subdued atmosphere. The quality craftsmanship of the cabin softened the sounds of the rushing water just outside. To sit in this cabin and to do nothing else would have been a relaxing retreat all on its own.

But there was some work to do; no time to get comfortable yet. I made a few trips to the water and back, dragging most of the gear up to the cabin. I left a larger, heavy tote to cart up with the help of my party once they arrived.

Excited to be able to show off  our new home for the next couple of days, I decided I’d skirt the coast and head north towards everyone else, albeit at a pace dictated by the shrinking tide. A light rain combined with the ocean to create a comfortably humid environment. The coast in this area consists of steep cliffs to the west and Resurrection Bay to the east. Sections of these cliffs jut out further towards the ocean, while in other areas they recede for a few yards, exposing a larger beach area. My trip north had me waiting for the tide at some of the rocky outcroppings. The rock was slicked with slimy green algae, and sloped directly into the water. I, admittedly ill-conceived, risked climbing over some of the segments; one simple slip on this frictionless foundation would immediately crash my bones down on the rock and then summarily deposit me into the frigid ocean.

I got lucky: I only slipped in once.

So I trekked north, crawling into pockets of exposed beach and waiting for a few minutes for the tide to recede so I could make it through another segment. A tour boat slowly motored up the Bay. I could feel the passengers training their binoculars on me.

“Is that guy trapped? Should we call for help?” The vessel’s Park Ranger would assure them, “Nah, he’s just stupid”, and then resume his lecture on how evolution has spent millions of years naturally selecting only the best-adapted wildlife to find this environment habitable.

After making my way just over half a mile, I passed the other public use cabin in the area: Callisto. Unlike the Derby Cove cabin, Callisto is fairly visible from the beach and the water. It’s not immediately on the beach, but the area in front of it is cleared out making it easy to spot. Damp wood was burning in Callisto’s stove, exhaling soft white smoke through its rooftop chimney. A family of four were on the beach in front of me, presumably Callisto’s residents for the day, exploring the rocky beach. I passed them by, continuing towards my approaching family.

Piles of surf-smoothed rocks.
Piles of surf-smoothed rocks.

I came upon a large rock that rose abruptly out of the water and connected with the cliff bluff. As I examined it for a potential way to get over or around it, I heard voices over the other side. I was able to climb up enough to peer over the top, and there was the rest of the gang. Terry was just on the other side of the rock, facing the direction of the rest of the family that were huddled up a dozen or so yards further north. I made some sort of loud silly remark, activating Terry’s hyper-startle syndrome. The noise he made attracted the rest of the family and we began talking to each other over the rock. For awhile, I was just a few feet away from my family, but I may as well have been separated by miles. Through very careful and deliberate acrobatics, I was able get up and over the rock and reunited with everyone else. Our team was complete, but we were still over a mile away from the cabin. Between Terry, a dog leash, some grippy barnacles, and myself, we got the entire family–and dog–over the rock and safely onto the beach from whence I had just came (honestly, by the time we were all over the rock I do believe the tide had receded enough that we could have just walked around it). No more obstacles to maneuver, we had an enjoyable walk to Derby Cove; whales splashed just off-shore and the kid investigated the nooks and crannies of the cliffs bordering the beach.

Whales in Resurrection Bay
Whales in Resurrection Bay

We arrived at the cabin and got settled in. Terry popped open a 10-serving can of Chili Mac Mountain House and we had ourselves a splendid little feast. It had been a long day for all of us, getting up and driving to Seward, the hike and water taxi, and hauling the gear to the cabin. The rain picked up and we snoozed under the sound of rain beating down on the cabin’s tin roof.

The next day we got up, had breakfast, and set out for Caines Head proper and on up to Fort McGilvray. The rain continued through the night and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. From our cabin, we had a short hike that climbed us over the hill that dropped down to what’s officially considered Caines Head State Recreation Area. There you’ll find a ranger’s cabin, a rocky beach, and–most likely–tents, kayaks, and fellow adventurers. From the beach, an old military road, though now a trail, was our path to Fort McGilvray. You could tell that the trail was well-cared-for and normally pleasant to travel upon. On this day, however, the trail seemed less footpath and more streambed.  The trail had a few moderately steep sections that, when covered in running mud and water, were tricky to get us and the kids through. There was no getting through the trek without getting soaked, and the sooner we realized it the easier the hike became. We were all thoroughly soaked, but we all handled it well. The trail alternates between dense forest and jaw-dropping views of Resurrection Bay. Along the way we found and explored a couple of bunkers or caches of some sort, concrete and steel that a World War would inspire. We continued on and finally arrived at the fort.

Trail marker
Trail marker

Fort McGilvray is a subterranean military fortification built into the rock cliffs 650 above Resurrection Bay. It existed as one of a number of facilities built by the Army during World War II in an effort to thwart any attempted Japanese invasions. Short-lived, construction began on the various facilities in 1941 and by 1944 the installations were ordered to be dismantled. Many of the buildings were simply abandoned and are–though empty–well-preserved to this day.

We all put on our headlamps that we brought specifically for the fort, and began exploring. Numerous pitch-black rooms are connected to the main corridors. Every emitted sound echoed throughout the entire building, making it nearly impossible to gauge where it originated. I had my fun sneaking around and spooking the kids. Around the outside of the fort, we explored other buildings, assumably lookout positions, and massive pads for gun mounts. I located and signed a  surprise geocache that contained the most-delicious Coors Light I can remember drinking.

Scooby Doo-esque
Scooby Doo-esque
Gates of Fort McGilvray
Gates of Fort McGilvray


After an hour or so playing around the fort, we headed back down the even wetter trail back to the cabin. When we arrived back to the beach by the ranger’s cabin, the tide had risen and met the swollen drainages from the mountains. A rushing creek now blocked our path. Our kids graciously accepted the challenge and foraged for a number of large pieces of driftwood and created an improvised bridge; it worked perfectly.  Once back at the cabin: We ate. We dried out. We slept.

The next morning we got up and packed our things up for the hike back to Seward. This time I took the hike with the kids, while Terry took the gear in the water taxi. I was glad to get to experience this half of the trip that I had missed previously. Our timing was perfect and there was no waiting for the tide or any challenging obstacles to cross, just an enjoyable walk along the beach to Tonsina Point, where the forest trail connects you to Seward, via Lowell Point. Some of the forest we went through near Tonsina Point  was even more amazing than the forest outside our cabin. This was straight out of the Star Wars world of Endor. The rain even stopped for a few moments here and there, as sunlight filtered through these ancient behemoth trees. The smells, the sounds, the sights: it created a beautiful piece of zen.

After crossing some creeks, the trail climbs up a few switchbacks and then descends down an old road and into the parking area at Lowell Point.

Even though the rain was unrelenting and prohibited some of the side excursions I had hoped to undertake, our time at Caines Head was an Independence Day I’ll never forget. The area is one of my favorite places and I anxiously look forward to the next time.

2 replies on “Caines Head Independence”

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.