Alaskan Wilderness Adventure
by Mary Griswold
(excerpted from Small Boat Journal)

Two years ago, a great adventure began to take shape in my mind: a 700-mile round-trip skiff tour of a part of Alaska accessible only by boat or plane. We could see the two largest lakes in the state, float a premier trout river, and explore the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge—home to some of Alaska's largest brown bears as well as moose, caribou, wolves, and eagles.

So last winter we added our order to those already scheduled and built a skiff designed for long-distance cruising. The Tolman Skiff is a ribless, sewn-seam vee-bottom hull built of marine plywood and epoxy and customized to each buyer's intended use, which varies from sport and commercial fishing to family outings on Kachemak Bay. We built ourselves an 18-footer with a transom cut for twin motors, added a recessed bow deck and storage locker, incorporated a 30-gallon gas tank beneath the center thwart, and built a Rotation-storage compartment under the splash box in the stern. We mounted a shallow storage box on the stringers aft of the gas tank and our plywood grub box on the stringers forward.

By rearranging some of our gear, we could spread our sleeping bags across the tops of the storage units. An oar set athwartship and a large canvas tarp would provide a make-shift shelter for sleeping on board if necessary. (We were a little worried about camping among those large bears.) We mounted a hand bilge pump within easy reach of the helmsman and installed a drain plug in the stern. The 8 pound Danforth anchor hung in a bracket aft of the bow deck with extra line stowed alongside.

After considerable deliberation, we decided to run two 30-horsepower outboards. Should there be engine failure, one 30-horsepower motor could push the loaded boat much
better than a small kicker. At 113 pounds, the 30 horsepower is about all one would want to lift on and off the transom if repairs were necessary. Since the motors were tiller controlled, once both were up to speed, only one had to be steered while the other ran straight with its friction screw set fairly tight.

We were done building boats and ready to go the first week in June. We bought last minute perishables, filled 2 and 3 quart plastic containers with everything from granola to noodles and pancake mix to last a month, packed fragile foods in two 5-gallon plastic pails, and stashed light items like cookies, crackers, and extra clothes in the forward locker. Frequently used food went in the grub box; other food and our tent and sleeping bags stowed in two waterproof sea bags. Two survival suits lay on top and all was covered by the canvas tarp. We secured four plastic 6-gallon gas tanks under the storage box, which we filled with fishing tackle, shot gun, radio, compass, and charts, while we piled spare parts, tools, axe and come-along into the stern compartment.

Loaded for Adventure

At an estimated gross weight of 2,000 pounds, the skiff felt sluggish as I pulled it from the trailer to the dock at the harbor launch ramp. We were apprehensive that we had too much gear or not enough power, but once clear of the harbor, Renn brought both motors up to cruise and the skiff planed easily. We rounded Homer Spit and enjoyed a pleasant evening boat ride past the town's waterfront, then ran up the coast 18 miles to Anchor Point. Pleased with our 20-knot speed, we turned into the Anchor River at 10:30 PM, anticipating an early morning blitz across the inlet.

We had decided to cross Cook Inlet from the Anchor River because, even though the total distance from Homer is greater, the crossing leg is shorter. By getting an early start, we hoped to avoid the day breeze that aggravates
the tide rips in the middle of the inlet. We had also checked the tide book to avoid fighting the 25-foot fluctuation between high and low water. After anchoring the skiff in mid channel so it would still be floating on the morning low tide, we set up the tent for a short sleep.

At 4 AM, with the first streaks of light through the grey overcast, we took our compass heading for Chinitna Point, 36 miles away. Bundled in warm clothes and raingear against the chill, we settled down for a smooth ride across the inlet. About 40 minutes later we had our first misadventure. The port motor suddenly tilled forward, propeller cavitating, as a small log shot out behind the skiff. Somehow in passing, it managed to snap the throttle linkage. Renn jury-rigged a control, but no sooner had we got underway than the other motor dropped to one cylinder. After trying new spark plugs, we assumed the coil was at fault, but rather than attempting major surgery in the middle of the inlet (or worse yet, retreating to town!) we decided to get to the other side and work on the motors there.

As we approached the West side of Cook Inlet, the rugged headlands began to fill in below the towering 10,000-foot snow-capped volcano, Mt. Iliamna. We turned south at Chinitna Point to follow the rocky shoreline 20 miles to Iliamna Bay. After the 4 1/2 hour run, we were glad to stretch ashore and cook a hot breakfast.

Although we waited until nearly high tide, the extensive mud flats at the head of the bay were barely covered. The silty, glacial water obscured the bars and channel as we idled along probing for deeper water with an oar, following the willow wand markers that meandered to the dilapidated dock that is Williamsport. From here, the Iliamna Transportation Company meets the high tide twice a day to haul freight and commercial fishing boats across a road blasted up the side of a mountain, through a pass, and down a beautiful lush valley 15 miles to Lake Iliamna. But no one was there to meet us.

Portage to Lake Iliamna

We figured that because there wasn't enough tide to float a fishing boat onto the trailer used for the portage and no one knew when we were coming, there wasn't any reason for someone to drive the rough gravel road. That afternoon, the east wind freshened to 30 knots, loyally followed by the rain. Happy to be across the inlet ahead of the storm, we didn't mind waiting a couple of days if necessary for our ride to Lake Iliamna. Renn fashioned a more sophisticated
throttle control and replaced the coil on the other motor. A short test running in neutral seemed to confirm that it was now running well.

Rugged 18 foot Tolman skiff was an appropriate
camp cruiser for the Alaskan frontier

When the tide level was adequate, the Peterbilt tractor trailer braked its way down the mountainside, looking for business. A gillnetter who had arrived the night before was hauled and chocked in place behind the big rig, then they retrieved our skiff on a flatbed trailer behind a 3/4-ton pickup truck to Pile Bay.

The weather was reasonable when we arrived at Lake Iliamna. As soon as we were launched, we topped off our gas supply at the company dock and headed for Pedro Bay, a native village 1.2 miles away, to pick up a spare coil. It soon became apparent that we were still running on only three cylinders. At Pedro Bay, we exhausted our repertoire of repair routines and conceded that the problem was beyond our ability. The next morning we ran back to Pile Bay and, via microwave telephone, arranged to have the Homer outboard motor dealer send us a new motor by plane. We took advantage of the delay to explore the nearby Iliamna River, fishing for dolly varden and rainbow

The evening was unusually calm as we set off down the lake to break in the new motor. We had planned to stop behind Tommy Point, one of the few protected beaches along the rocky shoreline. Since there was still plenty of light at 9:30, we decided to take advantage of the good weather to get across Kakhonak Bay, known as a dangerous wind tunnel for easterlies coming through the low pass from Bruin Bay. At midnight, we were 50 miles down the lake, still 20 miles from the outlet into the Kvichak
River. It was just getting dusky as we approached Big Island, where we decided to stop for the night rather than chance passing by the river entrance in the dark.



(click image to enlarge)

Renn awoke at 4 AM, imagining that the wind had come up. As much as I wanted to stay in my warm sleeping bag, I agreed it was a better idea to get into the river while it was still calm. When we narrowly missed two large boulders lurking in the shallow water just outside the entrance, we were glad we hadn't tried to make the river at night. Across from the native village of Igiugig, we pulled in against the cut-bank to build a fire for breakfast and get our fishing rods ready for action.

The Kvichak River is included in the Bristol Bay Wild Trout Zone, which restricts sport fishing to unbaited, single-hook artificial lures. Renn landed a 19-inch rainbow on a fly, and I got a smaller one on a Mepps spinner. With lunch assured, we drifted downstream into Kaskanak Flats where the river widens from a narrow ribbon into a maze of interconnected channels.

Kvichak Wilderness

The flats are usually a frustration to navigation, but they are an exciting place to view wildlife. This is a nesting area for scoters, teal, bluebills, widgeon, swans, sandpipers, plovers, and seagulls. Beaver lodges bristle with scrub birch and willow cuttings, and caribou tracks cross the gravel bars. The flat, spongy tundra stretches forever above the brushy river banks with only occasional clusters of spruce or birches to break the monotony.

We spent five days drifting down this 65-mile paradise. This early in the sportfishing season there was little human activity on the river. We caught fresh fish—dollies, rainbows, or greyling—for lunch or supper each day and made a comfortable camp on the bank at night. As we approached Levelock, we began to feel the influence of the tide from Bristol Bay and had to use more power to make headway against it. We had hoped to buy gas here to run directly to Egegik, but the fuel barge hadn't yet made a delivery to the village tank farm, so we had to detour
into Naknek.

The blustery wind laid down during the night, but when we were ready to go the next morning, the tide was still racing upstream. We drifted with it up past the village to take another look at the waterfront: derelict barges serving as wharfage for gillnetters, salmon nets piled on the beach for mending, drying racks waiting to be filled, and the ubiquitous three-wheeler trails leading to the small cluster of plywood houses farther up the bank. Abruptly, the current slackened, and we headed downstream into Kvichak Bay.

The salmon tenders were beginning to assemble in the lower Naknek River. We pulled alongside the first one that showed signs of activity to buy 24 gallons of gas and headed quickly back into Kvichak Bay, intending to ride the tide south to Egegik. Just outside the entrance buoy, the motor with the jury-rigged throttle made an ominous clunk and then another. We ran the motor slowly with the cover removed hoping to find a loose part. No such luck. We were forced to run up the Naknek River 17 miles to King Salmon where there was a good outboard repair facility. While we waited a couple of miles upstream for the tide to return to cover the gravel bars, we examined the engine more closely and discovered a ragged hole torn in the lower unit.

Two days and a substantial amount of cash later, the case and broken gears were replaced and the throttle linkage repaired. We were lucky to break down where we did. King Salmon, with a population of only 450, is a major center of transportation for Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula. If we had broken down anywhere else, we would have had to get here for repairs.

Outfitted once again, we set out for Egegik in a moderating 20-knot northwest wind. Because the waves had little fetch, it was a comfortable downwind run except around the headlands where the sweeping current exaggerated the chop. Just outside the Egegik River estuary we ran aground.

As we hurried overboard to push the boat back into deeper water, we noticed bars emerging offshore. The receding tide made it imperative that we stay afloat to avoid a 5 or 6 hour layover on the flats waiting for the next tide. With no way to see where deeper water might be, we gingerly probed our way toward a skiff pulling in a net in the distance. When we got closer, the skiff turned out to be a pick-up truck on the mud flats with the net spread out to dry alongside. Fortunately, we wandered into deeper water again and planed around the corner to Coffee Point. Here we were joined by Derek Stonorov, a friend from Homer who had studied the bears of Becharof for three summers in the late 1960s and was interested in revisiting his old haunts.

We met his flight on the beach airstrip and cheerfully freighted his boxes of fresh food to the skiff. We stopped at several tenders before we found one able to sell us gas. This was going to be the longest leg of the trip: upriver 28 miles, about 45 miles on Lake Becharof, and return, roughly 150 miles. We figured we were getting about 3 mpg: It would be a long row if we made a mistake in our calculations. We filled an extra 5-gallon pail and headed upriver with 60 gallons.

The Egegik River is muddy and shallow; we soon got weary of searching for a channel and pulled ashore to wait for the incoming tide. The remaining hazard on the river was a 1/4-mile stretch of rapids at the lake's outlet. The Civilian Conservation Corps blasted this channel in 1939 to provide access to the lake. Fighting the strong current, Renn ran one motor at 3/4 throttle while Derek directed our course and I stood in the bow watching for boulders in the now crystal water. Passing over some streaked with aluminum and paint increased our vigilance. After what seemed like hours, we broke free of the current and glided onto the
mirrored lake.

Mountain Splendor

We were surprised to find calm water, but gladly took advantage of it to run to the archipelago near the head of the lake. Although we passed right under Mt. Peulik, a 4,835-foot volcano whose lava-spewn slopes descend to within a few miles of the lake, it was obscured from view by the low dense clouds. We set up our camp in a well protected bight chosen also for its proximity to an active population of caribou and bears on the mainland across the narrow channel. We spent the next week hiking on the tundra, cruising among the scores of islands, and enjoying the wildlife, while miserable weather plagued us at least part of each day.

At the head of Lake Becharof is what remains of the Kanatak Portage, a trail that provided access to the now deserted native village of Kanatak in Portage Bay on the Shelikof side of the Alaska Peninsula. Against a 30 knot wind, we hiked across the tundra and picked up the trail as it wound out of the ribbon of alders that choked the old roadbed into the rocky terrain above the vegetation line. Looking down into Shelikof Strait, we could see giant frothing combers, while snug behind the headlands of Portage Bay a dozen seiners lay at anchor, hiding from the storm. We returned to camp to catch three fat char for supper and huddled around the smoky campfire as the rain pommelled us for another dinner hour.

A low pressure area centered south of us was supposed to dissipate, but as each forecast predicted a break in the weather, a new low moved in and the wind and rain continued. We made two short legs down the lake during lulls in the storm before holing up at Featherly Creek, where we waited four days in a protected cove. Finally, the wind relented.

With a southeasterly at 20 knots, we headed downwind to Gas Rocks, about halfway to the outlet. Although we wanted to stop to explore the recently created volcanic crater whose blackened slopes were visible from the beach, we decided to get off the lake while we had the chance. The outlet was difficult to identify because the shoreline bluffs were so uniform. We expected to see the river as it left the lake, but because the rapids fall immediately, there was nothing to see from our low angle. We headed toward shore with following seas of 2 or 3 feet; but as we approached the beach, we suddenly found ourselves in 6-to 8-foot waves, the tops of some starting to curl.

As the water was sucked out of the troughs, large boulders lunged dangerously close to our hull. I was waving and hollermg from the bow: "Go that way! Oh, no, go THAT WAY!" Then Renn spotted a cresting rogue behind us that was bent on broaching us and dashing us gracelessly on the rock-strewn beach. He gunned the motor while Derek and I clung to the gunwales. The boat climbed up the wave just as it curled, lifting the bow sharply and dropping us into the next trough as it passed underneath. The next "waves were less severe as Renn turned the skiff back toward the river. Within minutes, we were through the relatively tranquil rapids. Past the last riffle, we pulled ashore to steady our nerves.

The run downstream to Egegik was more relaxed. When we tied up with the fishermen on the mudflat below the cannery, we learned that the recent "Big Blow" hit 103 knots in Egegik.

While we were topping off our gas supply (We still had 22 gallons), out of the crowd appeared a friend who was flying his plane to spot salmon for a consortium of drifters. We enthusiastically accepted his invitation to stop at his house in Naknek for hot showers and ice cream. We dropped Derek off at Coffee Point to catch his flight home and rode the tide up the bay to Naknek. On the run north, we left behind the nasty Egegik weather. As we approached the Naknek entrance buoy, the sea was calm and the mottled sky settled.

Fresh fish bolstered the menu
for the two intrepid boaters

Refreshed from our brush with civilization, we got an early start the fresh fish bolstered the menu for the two intrepid boaters next morning. We enjoyed a leisurely run back up the Kvichak River accompanied by sunshine, light breezes, and 1.2-million sockeye salmon, several of which provided an evening banquet. The drone of float planes and outboard motors now replaced the screeching cries of the ducks and gulls as the sport fishing enthusiasts migrated to the river, but by evening we had the beauty all to ourselves.

From Lqiugig, we ran the length of Lake Iliamna in one day with a stop at Belinda Creek to catch trout for lunch, and trailered across the road to Williamsport to launch on that evening's high tide. We spent our last night anchored around the corner in Iniskin Bay and, for the first time, set up the onboard sleeping accommodations. Snug under the tarp hanging just above our nose, we were grateful that it was a pleasant, cool evening rather than the usual Becharof offering.

We were home the next morning before many people had finished breakfast, but not without incident: The brand new motor that had been flown to Pile Bay coughed onto one cylinder just as Renn slowed down at the harbor entrance. We just shrugged this time. It didn't matter. We were home.

This is MARY GRISWOLD's first
Boat Journal article.