The loon’s singular call is soon joined by a cacophony of others: a pair of honking Canada geese, a shrieking golden eagle, a cackling raven, and a hidden thrush.
But the soul-stirring sound I’m listening for is the baritone rumble of a Pratt & Whitney R-985 engine on a de Havilland Beaver, the workhorse floatplane that transports visitors daily throughout this mountainous rainforest region—and it will soon carry some of our group back to Ketchikan after several days of hiking and fishing at a rustic cabin on the shoreline.
A network of more than 140 no-frills wood structures similar to the one that has been our refuge was built during a 30-year period beginning in the 1950s, and they’re maintained throughout the vast Tongass National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service. The cabins are treasured by floatplane fliers, hikers, hunters, fisherman, and adventurers in this unique and wondrously wild region. But budget cuts, shifting priorities, and a pandemic-inspired drop in visitors has put some of the cabins at risk of being demolished or abandoned, and once removed they’re unlikely ever to return to this protected wilderness area.
Our hosts at the Tongass cabins are Jeff and Kari DeFreest, Ketchikan residents and owners of a float-equipped Cessna 180, an ideal aircraft for dropping into some of the more remote lakes that can only be reached by air.
Heckman Lake is close, less than 20 air miles from Ketchikan, although getting here with the notoriously low and persistent coastal clouds often requires a circuitous over-water route that avoids the jagged mountains that rise from the Pacific. We board the DeFreests’ canary yellow 1967 Skywagon on straight Edo floats at the Murphy Seaplane Dock near downtown Ketchikan, and Jeff powers the airplane down a wooden ramp into the cold seawater of the Tongass Narrows, a half-mile-wide sliver of ocean that separates two long islands. The steeply sloped ramps allow pilots to store their airplanes on a solid surface out of the saltwater that causes corrosion on metal seaplanes. Amphibians have the option of landing on the hard-surface runway at nearby Ketchikan International Airport, but DeFreest and other local pilots prefer the lighter weight and mechanical simplicity of full-time floats.
DeFreest is a longtime fan of the Forest Service cabins and, as a recently retired U.S. Forest Service ranger for the Tongass and Misty Fjords district, he’s intimately familiar with their history and the policies likely to determine their future. In fact, pressure to close the cabins began while he was a U.S. Forest Service manager here (from 2010 to 2017), and several cabins were decommissioned during his tenure despite his impassioned advocacy on their behalf.
“I tried to protect them and did everything I could internally,” he said. “The use rate was low, and we had to make some tough decisions. I wanted to preserve all of them, but in the end, I just couldn’t get traction.”
Now, DeFreest is an Alaska regional representative for the Recreational Aviation Foundation, a volunteer group founded to expand access to backcountry airstrips across the United States.
In the narrows, a pod of four humpback whales rises in unison, their gaping mouths scooping up herring that move into the area each spring. The herring also provide an indication that the salmon that feed on them are close behind. Those salmon and as well as seagoing steelhead trout are a few weeks away from charging uphill into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.
On the aircraft radio, DeFreest announces our departure to the Ketchikan flight service station, and then he makes a couple position reports as we exit the heavily traveled airspace at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, then cross into the roadless, mostly trackless wilderness areas to the northeast.
A light northerly breeze ripples the surface of Heckman Lake as we arrive overhead, and conditions are ideal for touching down and docking.
A series of left turns allows us to follow the steep contours of the heavily forested terrain on final approach, and DeFreest sets the manual flaps to about 30 degrees before we cross the rocky shoreline and touch down lightly on the water.
His brown, knee-high Xtratuf rubber boots have thin, treaded soles that allow deft rudder control while also preventing slips on treacherous wet docks and seaplane steps. Xtratufs are the footwear of choice in this soaked part of Alaska that gets more than 12 feet of annual rainfall, and they’re also handy for differentiating tourists from locals, and locals from each other.
“Anyone wearing worn-out Xtratufs is almost surely a local,” DeFreest said. “Shiny Xtratufs are new arrivals. And no Xtratufs are visitors.”
DeFreest shuts down the Skywagon’s idling Continental O-470 engine and glides to the dock at the U.S. Forest Service’s “southeast” cabin, one of two on this lake. Maggie, the DeFreests’ Labrador retriever-influenced, mixed-breed dog, barks incessantly in the back of the airplane.
“She loves this place,” DeFreest said. “Probably as much as we do.”
He steps out the left-side door to the small, floating dock, then secures several lines to it. There are no cleats on the dock, and some of the woodwork itself is loose, so DeFreest takes care to make sure the lines and bumpers are attached firmly. Squalls, storms, and high winds can pop up quickly, and there’s no guarantee that today’s benign weather will last.
A light rain is falling as we carry our supplies up the steep steps to the cabin itself. AOPA Director of Photography Chris Rose asks whether anyone has the key to the cabin, and DeFreest chuckles.
“There aren’t any keys because there aren’t any locks,” he says. “They’re open all the time in case anyone needs shelter. The ability for people stuck in the woods to use the cabins on an emergency basis can save lives, and it’s yet another reason to keep them.”
There’s an unwritten etiquette for cabin life, and it aligns well with the Girl Scout credo of leaving every place “a little better than you found it.”
The previous visitors at this cabin did just that. The floor is freshly swept; there’s dry kindling and split firewood by the stove; extra cans of food and mosquito repellant are stacked neatly on the shelf, and even the cabin chess board has all its pieces in place for the next game to begin.
Forest Service employees stack a large supply of firewood and an ax at each cabin every spring, and it’s up to visitors to split what they need for a wood stove that can be used for both cooking and heat. The cabins don’t have electricity or running water.
DeFreest notices the remnants of burnt firewood in a stone ring outside the cabin and disapproves.
“Cut firewood shouldn’t be wasted on bonfires,” he said. “It’s meant for the stove. Driftwood is for bonfires.”
The main cabin accessory Rose and I care about is a metal skiff. The boat is near the dock, and we drag it there and hook up the 2.5-horsepower motor that DeFreest brought.
We grab a few fishing rods and a tackle box and head out onto the water. A light rain comes and goes, and the lake surface is mostly glassy. A river flows into the south end of the lake, and it seemed like ideal trout habitat when we overflew it before landing.
A few black-tailed deer watch us approach in the skiff and keep grazing.
We catch and release a few small rainbow and dazzlingly colorful cutthroat trout, but the far larger salmon and steelhead are still a few miles away in the ocean.
After an hour or so, we return to the cabin to dry out, eat moose steaks the DeFreests brought, and prepare to sleep in a pair of wooden bunkbeds. I inflate a bedroll and camp pillow, unfurl my sleeping bag, then crawl into a bunk to test it out. It’s only 8:30 p.m., and the sun is a full hour from setting, but I fall deeply asleep and don’t awaken until morning. Bed test, satisfactory.
Kari DeFreest made breakfast burritos and coffee, and that seems like an ideal start to our first full day on the lake.
The eggs taste so good I ask whether they’re farm fresh, and Kari assures me they’re not. “Everything just tastes better out here,” she adds.
Last year, on Jeff’s sixtieth birthday, they stayed in a cabin and Kari baked a three-layer Black Forest cake on the camp stove. It was an accomplishment they still laugh about.
Instead of bringing drinking water, she carries a water purifier that filters lake water.
“The water purifier is a lot lighter than packing in your own water,” she said. “You can drink as much as you want, and it tastes just as good.”
Other cabin essentials include a fuel source (fuel oil in some cabins, fire-starter for wood stoves in others); food, as well as a meal plan; sleeping bags; survival gear, satellite messenger; batteries, and toilet paper. The DeFreests carry a personal locator beacon and a Garmin InReach satellite messenger, file VFR flight plans, and they let friends know where they’re going, the route they’re following, and when they plan to return.
Southeast Alaska is bear country, and the DeFreests bring handguns for protection. (He has a Colt .45, and she carries a .357 Magnum.) Maggie the dog with her sensitive nose is usually the first to sense bears.
“She’ll bark like crazy,” Jeff says. “And then she’ll cower behind you.”
Best deal in aviation
We ride the skiff to the north end of Heckman Lake and beach it at the vacant Forest Service cabin there. Then we follow a hiking trail to Jordan Lake about two miles away. The trail follows a river downstream, and fallen logs, tree cover, clear water, deep holes, and abundant insects make it a trout haven.
It’s rainy, and the trail is soggy and slippery in places. Much of it is made from wooden timbers with steep steps that must have taken exceptional effort to build. Maintaining the trail from damage by erosion, harsh winters, and trees that fall across and splinter must take a great deal of commitment.
The cabins themselves can be reserved up to six months in advance, but locals typically don’t book that far out.
“We usually wait until we know there’s going to be a stretch of good weather, or we’ve got visitors coming to town, and then we reserve the cabins online a few days prior,” Jeff said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic it was easy to get cabins a day or two before. Now that people are traveling again, it’s smart to reserve them earlier than that.”
There are 142 U.S. Forest Service cabins in the Tongass National Forest, and about 40 are accessible by seaplane only. Just four—Eva, Heckman Southeast, Virginia, and West Turner—have their own docks.
DeFreest said cabin “poaching” (unauthorized and unpaid stays in Forest Service cabins) doesn’t seem to be a significant problem, but there’s really no way to know. A U.S. Forest Service airplane sometimes overflies the cabins, and it’s easy to spot floatplanes on a dock or tied up on a beach, but the odds of getting caught are low.
“These cabins rely on the honor system, and the vast majority of cabin users are honest,” Jeff said. “People who use them want to keep them. And, let’s face it, they’re an exceptionally good deal.” The Heckman Lake Southeast cabin, for example, costs about $75 a night total for four people.
“That’s cheaper than just about anything else in aviation.”
The sound of the de Havilland Beaver is faint at first. But the crescendo steadily builds, and soon the unmistakably throaty roar of the nine-cylinder radial bounces off the steep-sided mountains and seems to fill the air.
This airplane owned and operated by Misty Fjords Air in Ketchikan will take Rose, Kari, the outboard motor, and our photo and camping gear back to town. Jeff, Maggie, and I will return in the Skywagon.
One of my last cabin tasks is signing the logbook to make a record of our visit for the U.S. Forest Service and anyone else who cares to read it. The logbooks themselves make interesting reading with some entries dating back 20 years or more.
A complaint from a previous visitor about “feral gerbils” (also known as “mice”) had us questioning the writer’s terminology. We didn’t see rodents of any kind on our trip, but you’ve got to admit, cabins would surely be inviting to them, especially when the fall weather turns frosty.
Our fishing fortunes didn’t improve after the first day, and I noted as much in the logbook for future visitors: “We left lots of fish in this lake, so think of us when you catch the big ones that eluded us.”