Eric Speck traverses a snowy cornice in 2011, en route between Whale Bay and Deep Cove. Most of the terrain covered in the hike was far above treeline. (Dan Evans photo)

A pair of Sitka adventurers has just wrapped up a six-year odyssey in their own backyard.

Eric Speck and Dan Evans are likely the first people to walk the length of Baranof Island, north-to-south.

They did the trip in segments — hiking a total of 32 days — through some of the most rugged terrain on the planet.

They stopped by KCAW to share their story with Robert Woolsey.

Downloadable audio.

Listen to an extended interview with Dan Evans and Eric Speck.

In all of Alaska’s huge landscapes, Baranof Island just doesn’t seem that big. It’s the eighth-largest island in Alaska — just over 1,500 square miles — and about half the size of Kodiak. The tallest peaks top out at something over 5,000 feet.

Since it’s only 100 miles long as the crow flies, how come someone couldn’t knock out this hike in a week? What are we missing?

“There’s weather, too,” says Eric Speck. He is the “yin” in this duo. “There’s weather, which just has a tremendous impact on how quickly you can move, and that’s hard to plan for here.”

Dan Evans is the “yang.” His take on the weather is a little different. This is how he recalls their descent off a ridge into Big Branch Bay, in the South Baranof Wilderness, during a torrential downpour.

Eric Speck fords a stream on the first leg of the hike. High water was a common. Their strategy when soaked was to warm up on the move. (Dan Evans photo)

The valley down there was flooding. The rivers were flooding into the brush. We had to cross this river late at night and Eric kept wanting to cross at this one spot, it looked like the only place. But I didn’t like it. We’d go out halfway, we’d come back. Go out halfway, come back. And then it was like, We gotta do it. So we locked arms and crossed the river. And as we’re crossing I started feeling my legs kind of picking up off the bottom. The next thing I know Eric has peeled off of me and I saw his red rain jacket go downriver, as I was already swimming for the cut bank on the side of the river. I grabbed on a bunch of roots, and I grabbed on this dirt pile, with my pack on, trying to pull myself up the bank. I work my way up the roots to the top of this dirt clump and I finally look down to see if Eric’s all right and I see about 50 feet downriver — just before this log jam — Eric’s climbing up out. And this was like, 10 o’clock at night. And we’re just totally soaked and it’s raining hard, and we got together and said, Let’s go, just to keep moving. And we went for another hour ‘til camp.

This may sound like foolhardiness to you, but Evans and Speck have been taking calculated risks together for a long time. They first crossed Baranof Island together east-to-west about 20 years ago, where they hatched the idea for the north-to-south journey, and have had some adventures along the way, like summiting Denali.

Speck ascends a ridge in the South Baranof Wilderness. Topo maps of the island are 100-foot contour. “A lot can happen in 100-feet,” says Evans. The pair often had to retrace their steps to find a better route. (Dan Evans photo)

But Baranof Island, unlike Denali, is trackless — peak after peak, unbroken and mostly unexplored, for 100 miles.

Mostly unexplored by humans, that is. Speck says they did have help from what he calls “game wisdom.”

“We’ve learned to follow the animal trails, because if you’re on something that’s really steep, and looks like it’s a cliff, and looking down you can’t quite see the bottom, and there’s a goat trail or a bear trail or a deer trail going down — we know they’re not going down it if there’s no way down. We’ve also learned that even if it looks good and there’s no game trail to be found, to exercise extreme caution because there’s probably a reason they’re not going that way.”

Their preferred trails are made by deer. Goats choose routes that are too steep, and brown bear trails are…unsettling, according to Evans.

Evans – Sometimes bear trails end up being tunnels through the brush. We’ve crawled through them in the dark.
Speck – In the rain!
Evans – I remember sticking my hand in a pile of fresh bear crap. And I remember turning aroun d to Eric and just saying Bear crap!

The pair often saw brown bears, but only had one threatening encounter with a large boar they believe they startled from sleep. Another time in Whale Bay, a menacing bear forced them break camp and paddle inflatable kayaks late at night back to Evans’ anchored boat.

It was an experience they’ll never forget.

“And the phosphoresence in the water that night was better than any I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Evans. “The glow off of the kayaks was awesome. And it was in the fall — September — and the pink salmon were coming in. And you’d paddle across a school of pink salmon, and it’d be like a lightning storm in the water. We paddled for two hours in that. It was fantastic.”

Baranof Island is predominantly massive, east-west valleys. In fact, a hike from Sitka to Warm Springs Bay can be done in a day. But the north-south route winds over an estimated 600 miles, say Speck and Evans. Someone might be able to do it “in 10 perfect days.” (Josh Houston image)

The Whale Bay leg was a day trip — about 16 hours of hiking to “connect the dots,” Evans says, between the longer legs of the journey which were complicated by every imaginable setback — from cliffs to whiteouts to food rationing. A well-known story from the very first leg of the journey took place when they grossly underestimated how long it would take to hike between Silver Bay and Avoss Lake: They predicted 2, but it took six. By the last day they were down to a single pack of hot chocolate between them.

These circumstances would test any relationship. Eric Speck says that he and Evans are a good team because neither wants to give up, and neither wants to die.

Speck – We’re not making choices that are putting our lives in jeopardy. If we think something is sketchy, we’ve got a gauge where, Okay if we slip here, or mess up, we could get hurt, but we’re not going to die.
Evans – That’s how we define sketchy. We can get hurt here, but we probably won’t die.
Speck – If it’s 10 o’clock at night and we’ve been going all day, and it looks like it’s the only route off that mountain, then we might push it a little bit. But if it looks like we might die if this doesn’t work out, obviously we won’t do it.
Evans – We’ve never done any of those.
Speck – We don’t make that choice. It’s not worth it. We both have families. So no.

At roughly one-and-a-half miles an hour, Speck and Evans estimate that they hiked around 600 miles — traversing ridges, peaks, and valleys — to cover the 100 mile length of Baranof in 32 days. Evans says that now that there’s a route, someone might be able to do it faster “if they had 10 perfect days.”

Probably not going to happen. You’re better off learning how to camp like a Southeast Alaskan.

Evans – Take all your clothes off that are soaked and flop them down on the ground with a big thump – sploosh!
Speck – Outside the tent.
Evans – Outside the tent. And then in the morning you’ve got to put all that stuff back on.

And, lastly, you’ve got to know how to build a fire in the rain. Evans and Speck say that your body will warm up your wet clothes, but there’s no help for wet feet and boots but a big fire, every day.

The secret is in the feet. Dan Evans (l.), 56, and Eric Speck, 48, relied on “game wisdom” to find routes through the rugged valleys of Baranof Island. But they also applied common sense: They built large fires almost every night (even in the rain) to dry out their boots. (Dan Evans photo)