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Adventurers plan hike to Fire Island

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 21, 2009

Fourteen, maybe 15, adventurous souls plan to risk their lives in a trek from Anchorage across the treacherous Turnagain Arm mud flats to isolated Fire Island this week.

Or so some believe after two teenagers had to be rescued from rising tidal waters off Kincaid Park on June 9.

Since the youths were plucked from mud flats that disappeared beneath chest-deep water, The Anchorage Adventurers Meetup Group's planned Friday hike to the island has become the object of some concern.

"I know some of my friends think I'm crazy," said local photographer Tim Poulsen, one of 14 now firmly committed to the second annual trek.

He's not worried about the risk, though the mud flats off the state's largest city have a deadly reputation.

Silt from the glacial Susitna, Matanuska, Twentymile, Placer and other rivers accumulates at the head of Cook Inlet just off the Anchorage shore. The mucky silt has been known to grab people like quicksand and hold them as the tides come racing back.

Rescuing anglers stuck in the mud off the mouth of Ship Creek has become an almost regular summer activity for the Anchorage Fire Department.

No one has died there, but a woman who got stuck trying to free a four-wheeler along the south shore of Turnagain Arm near Seattle Creek east of Hope in 1989 was not so lucky. Preoccupied with the struggle to get her new husband's off-road vehicle out of the mud, she worked her legs deep into silty goo as the tide was going out.

The dropping tide sucked the water out of the goo. It set up like cement around her legs. Valiant efforts by an Alaska State Trooper and firefighters could not free her as the tide came rushing back. She drowned, trapped beneath the flood.

Dangerous mud is not everywhere along the coast, however, and those who have made the trek to Fire Island and back say the dangers of the soils off Kincaid Point are overrated.

"I think you just have to do it at the right time," said Khalsa Gurubandhu of Wasilla, one of those helping organize Friday's Adventurers' outing. "You can't just look out there and say, 'there's no water there,' and go for it."

A safe crossing, he said, takes careful planning. But with careful planning, he and others argue, the danger can be cut to a minimum.

"I went last year with the group," Gurubandhu said, "and we made it fine."

Pete Robinson, who has made the trek several times over the past five summers, is somewhat more circumspect.

"I sincerely do not recommend it for anybody," he said, "but I don't recommend hang gliding either."

Robinson compares the 3 1/2 mile journey to the island, a seven-mile round trip adventure, to climbing without the protection of a well-anchored rope.

"It's not dangerous until you get stuck in the mud and die," he said. "Then you're a damn fool."

Still, despite whatever he might think about the risks, Robinson has taken his wife across with him to the island, and says he has seen plenty of other people out on the broad, coastal flats.

"There's always damn fools out there," he said.

And moose and bears, according to those who have made the crossing and seen the tracks of both in the mud and the sand of what is only partially a mud flats. The surface varies, Robinson said. It's not all gooey, though there are gooey spots.

"Last year I was walking along and got a foot stuck in the muck," Robinson said, "and I just fell flat on my face, which is a good way to get out of it. There's a channel right by Fire Island, too, that's up to your knees and a little mucky."

How many people have splashed across that channel to reach the beach beneath the high sand bluffs on the east side of the island is unknown. But Jim Jager, a spokesman for Cook Inlet Region Inc. -- the Alaska regional Native corporation that owns the majority of the land on Fire Island -- said he has met a number of people in recent years who have confessed to hiking to the largely CIRI-owned island.

Technically, anyone wishing to enter the CIRI lands on the island needs to obtain a permit www.ciri.com/content/community/land.aspx, but the sands and mud below the mean-high water mark around the island are state-owned tidelands. Thus anyone can walk to the edge of the island and back when the tide is out without trespassing.

The important thing there is getting the tide right.

"There should be a book on how to do it," said Poulsen, who believes the rescued teenagers wouldn't have needed a rescue if they'd only understood a little bit more about how fast the tide comes in.

Keith Mobley, an Anchorage soil scientist who has studied Turnagain Arm, likewise believes the danger of crossing is not so much in the footing as in the flooding.

Soilwise, he said, "it's not any different than walking on a beach in California. If you keep moving, I don't think you'd have a problem."

But the 25-foot tides of Turnagain Arm are unlike anything seen in California, except maybe in a disaster movie. These tides rise to the height of a three-story building and, Mobley said, they come roaring in at the rate of an inch a minute. That might not seem like much, but consider this observation from the scientist:

"The average person from the ground to the nose is only one-hour tall."

Mobley said he has no desire to try to do dash to the island between the cycling of those tides. Too old, he said; too slow.

Gurubandhu said he's been screening the Adventurers who want to tag along Friday to make sure they're all fast hikers, though he personally doesn't consider the trek any more dangerous than scrambling around in the surrounding Chugach Mountains. Done right, he said, this is just a long, pleasant -- albeit fast -- walk across a giant beach.

"Actually, I'd recommend doing the trip barefoot," he said. "It's hard packed almost all the way out there. It feels good on your feet."

By CRAIG MEDRED

cmedred@adn.com

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