Some men have a mountain inside of them

— Conor Phelan, ’13, more so than most.

His metaphorical mountain is a tower of strength not easily moved by fear or challenge or a lone wolf standing, staring, 10 feet from where Phelan has stopped, stone still, before reaching for his camera. His philosophical mountain is the rhythmic working of his mind, much like his footfalls while a Spider distance runner, now focused on shortening the distance between his life and that of ancestors removed by a hundred years and a continental divide.

And then there is Phelan’s actual mountain, 3,200-foot-high peaks that jut out of the cold sea pounding southeast Alaska’s coast, age-old lava ravaged by wind and ice and stamped on maps with a name from his maternal lineage, “Freeburn Mountain.”

Last summer, Phelan set out to become the first family member to see Freeburn Mountain in nearly eight decades. The 700-mile kayak trip took him back a century to days when gold flowed from mines and dreams of adventure ran through men’s veins. The trip would confirm that he, too, had the family blood for adventure, as well as the drive to surmount the most harrowing challenges the wilderness would send his way.

Tongass Narrows

On the first day of Phelan’s seven-and-a-half-week paddle, the two friends nearly died.

Phelan and Kyle Smith had flown into Ketchikan, the southernmost commercial airport in southeast Alaska, along with gear including two collapsible kayaks. Now assembled and loaded with supplies, the boats sat waiting for Phelan and Smith to push off.

The water looked a bit choppy. They checked the wind speed. “Are you sure you want to go out?” the locals asked.

They most certainly did. The pair had been planning the trip for months, accumulating maps and gear. Their route would take them north through the Inside Passage of the Alexander Archipelago before heading out to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean that broke at the base of Freeburn Mountain.

But first, they had to paddle north through the Tongass Narrows to an open-water crossing. And the weather was not cooperating.

Fifteen minutes after pushing off from the marina, gale-force winds whipped the chop into white-capped waves. The friends rocketed along, wind pushing them perpendicular to the shoreline, as they tried to maintain course and contact with one another.

They might have made it if they had been fighting just wind and waves. But Tongass Narrows is an active waterway sailed by ferries and shipping boats.

There was also a submerged dock floating right in their path. Phelan cut left, aiming for the center of the channel, while Smith dug right, skirting the shore with the dock bobbing between him and Phelan. With each paddle the men focused on the patch of water immediately ahead, so neither saw Smith’s error until it was too late: a double-hulled tugboat sat at the dock’s end, blocking Smith’s path to open water.

“I just reached over and grabbed the dock, hugged it,” Smith said. Phelan whipped around his kayak, cutting back into the wind, worried that Smith would be sucked under the bobbing dock and drown. The two worked together to flip Smith’s kayak onto the dock and then hauled Phelan’s up beside.

Twenty minutes of intense paddling left them wet and exhausted. Phelan and Smith climbed on shore and decided to spend the night at an inn. There, they talked — Smith rattled and reluctant to commit, Phelan unsure if he could go it alone.

Smith remembers looking at his friend and recalling why, three months previous, he had agreed to join the trip both men knew would tax their physical and mental limits.

“I’ve never met someone who’s so optimistic — that’s not even a strong enough word — so calm under pressure, reassuring,” Smith said.

The next morning, they awoke to find blue skies and water like mirrored glass.

“That really helped to sway the decision to get back in the boat and back out in the water,” Phelan said. “We realized it was a fluke and that was not how the trip was going to be.” Smith trusted his friend, and Phelan trusted their months of preparation.

That day, during the open-water crossing, humpback whales surfaced ahead of them, signaling the way forward toward Freeburn Mountain.

Chasing gold

Phelan was barely a teen when he first heard of the mountain in the family.

Giana Phelan, keeper of family history, mentioned to her three sons living in Rochester, New York, that their great-great-grandfather had once lived in Alaska. James Freeburn was superintendent of the Chichagoff Mining Co. at a time men chased veins of crystalline quartz deep into the rock in search of gold and silver. Employees living in the town of Chichagof* so appreciated his hard work that they named the three-peaked mountain that dominated their view for the man.

The mountain came up again when Phelan was studying geography and biology at the University of Richmond. Giana Phelan was transcribing an autobiography by Phelan’s great-grandfather, Henry Baumann. Titled Concerning Myself, the manuscript chronicled Baumann’s travels to Chichagof Island as an assayer, testing the purity of the gold and overseeing its transformation into bricks. He married the superintendent’s daughter, Louise Freeburn, and was promoted to superintendent himself. From 1906 to 1938, the company mined gold worth more than $805 million by today’s prices.

* The mine incorporated with a variant spelling of the town name.

The water looked a bit choppy. They checked the wind speed. 'Are you sure you want to go out?' the locals asked.

Baumann was the Instagrammer of his time, carrying his camera throughout the islands to capture images of natural beauty and human ingenuity. Phelan turned the pages of his great-grandfather’s photo album, sepia-toned images jumping off black paper. Under each photo, Baumann had penned a caption in silver ink, detailing the people and locations captured on film.

“What must these places look like today?” Phelan thought. He Googled “Freeburn Mountain, Alaska.”

“Given how they seem to have everywhere on the planet mapped very well, it was surprisingly pixelated and not very detailed,” Phelan said.

Far from being disappointed, Phelan was energized by what he saw — or didn’t see.

“I’m someone who is drawn to those more remote, hard-to-get places, so I relished the fact that it wasn’t right next to a big city or wasn’t in a town,” he said. “I just zoomed out from there, took in the surroundings and where it was. I realized I had the opportunity to make a pretty cool trip.”

Phelan got a taste for Alaska the summer after graduation, when he worked as a conservation intern in the state’s interior. He returned home even more determined to chase the mountain and search for the spots where his great-grandfather once stood, camera in hand.

During his three years as a project manager for the Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis, Maryland, Phelan planned and saved. When Mom told him she’d never let him go alone, he invited Smith. When Phelan needed open-water kayak experience, he took to the Chesapeake Bay. Phelan, a competitive distance runner through high school and college, found kayak training similar to reaching mile 5 of a 10K on the track. “There’s that same mental well you’ve got to pull into,” he said.

Steve Taylor, his running coach at Richmond, saw Phelan’s determination many times, whether diving into academics or a new workout.

“When he would try something new, he wanted to master it,” Taylor said.

For Phelan, the trip was a journey back in time to connect with characters out of a book. But for his grandmother, these were people she knew: the grandfather she met just once, the father who had moved the family from the Pacific Northwest to the shores of Lake Erie.

Claire Baumann Marrone of Buffalo, New York, was born in 1932 to Henry and Louise Baumann after they had left Alaska. She said she recognizes in Phelan the same drive that had sent her grandparents and parents to Alaska, spurred her brother to become an international courier, and propelled other grandchildren toward Namibia, Siberia, and South Korea.

“It’s endemic to the clan,” said Marrone, 85, who’s taken the train cross-country five times — the first time at age 2, her first solo trip at age 16. “I wish that my father knew that members of the family were moved to do what they did because of what he did in his life.”

Mountain magic

Every day in Alaska, their routine was nearly the same: Wake up. Break camp. Paddle 15 miles. Set up camp for the night. Sleep.

During the day, Phelan and Smith were wedged into their boats; at night, they were hugged closely by their hammocks under rain flies. They cooked as little as possible, worried they’d entice the locals, a brown bear population believed to be the most concentrated on the planet. The friends dined on pre-packaged Indian food and pouches of peanut butter, supplemented with Snickers bars to pack in the calories. Still, each man, who launched from Ketchikan strong and toned, would finish the trip minus 10 pounds — and plus a full beard.

There were days of pure joy, of watching the otters play or paddling with a pod of orcas.

And there were times that tested their strength. Two weeks before Freeburn Mountain, Smith pulled an abdominal muscle. Coupled with repetitive stress on his wrists from paddling, his pain became so intense that the two needed to decide whether it was safe for Smith to continue. They resolved that Smith would continue on at least to Freeburn Mountain.

There is no road on Freeburn Mountain, no trail to guide an ascent.

The morning of July 7, the men set out to sea at first light. The rising sun set the world aglow, blinding the difference between ocean and sky. It was a long day’s paddle that could be among their most dangerous; open ocean and jagged cliffs would mean disaster should the weather turn. But it held, and as they approached, the three peaks and hanging glacial valleys of Freeburn Mountain dominated their view.

There is no road on Freeburn Mountain, no trail to guide an ascent. Part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness, the mountain and its surroundings offer little connection to the civilized world. If the men were going to get to the top, they’d have to forge their own path.

Phelan described their ascent, the biologist noting the changing flora of the landscape. The men first had to beat their way through dense vegetation of cedars, firs, and spruce covered in moss. As they gained altitude, the trees gave way to an alpine environment, with short grasses and lichen.

The higher they climbed, the more their previously blue skies clouded over, until the men were walking high in the mist.

They’d paddled 450 miles to get here, but Google Maps hadn’t shown Phelan what to expect when he arrived. If the summit required rock-climbing skills, he’d have to turn around.

“Until the day I finally climbed the mountain, I had no idea how possible it was to climb the mountain,” Phelan reflected.

Then the friends reached the knife edge, a thin ridge of rock that connects the land where the men stood with one of the mountain’s peaks.

Smith sat down. Afraid of heights, this challenge was more than he could muster. He pulled out a pouch of peanut butter and waited for Phelan to return.

One foot in front of the other, Phelan continued the climb. The sky opened up as he reached the summit. At the top, Phelan looked down on the land of his ancestors.

“The entire ocean was clouds, and the clouds were coming in and filtering among the mountains,” he said. “It was something phenomenal, something magical. I remember when I came home I commented to my cousins: ‘We don’t just have a family mountain in Alaska, but it’s a beautiful mountain, and a dramatic mountain, and a very serious mountain.’”

Then and now

Atop that mountain, Phelan pulled out his camera and took a photo of his feet dangling off the peak into the cloudy abyss.

It was one of about 1,500 he took along the trip. The conservationist in him captured the fragility of nature and the interconnectedness of species — even when he found himself uncomfortably connected. (His encounter with the wolf ended when the wolf wandered off, and Phelan checked another item off his bucket list.)

Phelan is also interested in how humans have altered the wild landscape. Inspired by his great-grandfather’s photo album, Phelan re-created a dozen of Henry Baumann’s photographs, including scenes from the mining town (see below). The day after they summited the mountain, the men found that the Chichagof neighborhoods had rotted back into the forest, porcelain toilets among the surviving objects that hinted at its past inhabitants. A vault door also survived, the backdrop for a photo of Baumann’s young daughter posing with gold bricks. That child grew to become Phelan’s great-aunt Mary Lou, with whom he’d visit periodically after she retired as a university professor.

A hundred years had passed, and Baumann and Phelan were sharing an experience, possibly even the same footprints.

“Relatives like that, of generations that you don’t get to interact with, they’re usually no more than stories told by the family around the dinner table,” Phelan mused.

With the mountain and the town rediscovered, the friends still had a month and 250 miles of kayaking ahead of them before reaching Juneau and their plane tickets home. But Smith’s body could not withstand the daily punishment, and he was airlifted out, leaving Phelan to paddle home alone.

Solitary and focused, Phelan found himself not speaking for days. His heightened senses absorbed the natural world around him.

On his way toward Juneau, the waters turned rough. Deep sea swells caused his little kayak to rise as he saw all horizon for but a moment and then plummeted 15 feet down toward the wave’s trough, before rising again on the next wave.

Over and over he climbed and plummeted and paddled. From the swell in front of him, a humpback whale exploded out without warning. It launched itself in his direction and dove just shy of his craft, slipping under him and out of sight.

Phelan looked back to see the school-bus-sized animal resurfacing. It continued its swim in the direction of Freeburn Mountain, where all wild things are drawn.

There are still two unclimbed peaks of the family mountain. Phelan will be back.

Use the sliders to juxtapose Phelan's recreations with Henry Baumann's photographs from a century ago.

Henry & Louise Baumann on top of Doolth Mountain look out towards the Pacific, Chichagof Island.

Russian Orthodox Church in downtown Sitka, Baranof Island.

Paddlers in the western part of Klag Bay, Chichagof Island.

My great-aunt Mary Lou posing by two large blocks of gold in front of the vault door, Chichagof Island.

View of Freeburn Mountain from a clearing part way up Doolth Mountain, Chichagof Island.

A seasoned hiker and camper, Michelle Tedford once paddled through hazardous waves during a small-craft advisory on Lake Superior as she headed toward the Apostle Islands. The following day brought blue skies and bolstered confidence. She writes from her home near Dayton, Ohio.