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.
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
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
• 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
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
• 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.