Boating in the Backcountry
It is quarter to nine, dinner is cooking, and fantastic pink and purple castle-building clouds hide the sunset. Stopped by the wind about two and a half miles from the put-in on Lake Kontrashibuna, in Alaska’s four-million-acre Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, our group of four is camped on a small beach littered with moose tracks. To reach the lake from the tiny bush community of Port Alsworth, we hiked the only trail in the park, passing Tanalian Falls, along the Tanalian River, a tributary of the enormous 40-mile-long Lake Clark. After spending a year in the high desert of New Mexico, I feel blessed to be surrounded by the many waters of this unique park, one of Alaska’s least-known gems.
Lake Kontrashibuna winds into the Chigmit Mountains, whose peaks average 4,500 to 6,000 feet (not including two volcanoes within the park!). At 15 miles long and three quarters of a mile across at its widest, the lake seems more like a clear-running river than a lake. It is glacially fed, which means one can leave the filter and iodine in the hatch. In fact, the water is clear enough to cause vertigo. Looking down into the depths from my kayak one morning, I thought I was at about 5 feet, only to realize that I was seeing 30 feet down. The illusion gave me the sensation of falling out of my boat, never a good idea in 40-degree water.
The surface of the lake is blessedly calm on the morning of our second day out. We hurry with breakfast to get on the water as soon as possible, knowing that the wind will probably pick up in the early afternoon. The plan is to paddle to the headwaters of the lake, stash the boats, and hike up to Gladiator Basin, a spectacular valley some 2,000 feet above the lake. We pass small creeks and sandy spits, and the surrounding peaks close in on us as the lake winds farther into the Chigmits. The sun puts on a magic show, disappearing and reappearing, the diffuse light playing upon the stands of spruce, alder, birch, and willow that cover the shores and surrounding mountainsides.
Up ahead I can see craggy peaks and wicked spires rolling in and out of veils of mist. If I weren’t the practical individual that I am, I might be convinced that I have fallen through a portal and landed in a Tolkien or C. S. Lewis story. The swirling and changing colors caused by the light, mist, and reflection of the water prompt our guide, Derek, who leads trips in the park for Alaska Alpine Adventures, to describe the landscape as a “living, moving watercolor.”
Our watercolor fades away, however, as the weather changes without much warning, something to get used to on the Alaska Peninsula. We are practically blown out of our boats by the wind (okay, I’m exaggerating, but it sure felt as though I might be blown away at any moment), and stop on the lee side of a small island for lunch.
Sitting on a game trail munching a macadamia nut cookie, I notice some white, fluffy balls of hair nearby–wolf hairballs, according to Derek, though he might be pulling my leg, Alaskan style. However, this is home to wolverines, lynx, wolves, moose, black and brown bears, an enormous herd of caribou, Dall sheep, eagles, and an impressive assortment of waterfowl.
Our trip to the head of the lake takes us three days. I don’t mind our slow pace; I accept that the water and the weather in this wild country are much more powerful than my companions and I. At times the water is simply too rough to continue paddling. We hit the shore, take naps, and explore the creeks that feed the lake.
As we paddle the remaining miles on the afternoon of the third day out, the silence is broken only by the faraway whisper of rushing water. Derek points up to the source of the sound–waterfalls on either side of us, in tiers of three or four, in thin veil-like ribbons, or falling in families of five or more down the steep faces of the granite walls towering over us. As we approach the head of the lake, the water turns a Caribbean blue-green and the sun makes another appearance, lighting up the shallows and the waterfalls above. We spot a moose watching us from the far shore. He stands there, a one-moose welcome party, before taking off into the bush, leaving us to cruise into shore, with the wind, finally, at our backs.
Getting There: Lake Clark is accessible by small aircraft only. One- to two-hour flights from Anchorage, Homer, or Kenai will get you to Port Alsworth, from which you can easily get to Lake Clark or Kontrashibuna. Lake and Peninsula Airlines serves Port Alsworth out of Anchorage’s small-aircraft airport, Merrill Field. Call (907) 781-2228. If you don’t want to fly your boat in, you can rent one from the outfitter mentioned below.
Logistics: Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a wilderness park. There are no roads or trails within its boundaries. Self-sufficiency is a must, and this is one park where it is not a bad idea to go with a guide if you are not completely confident of your backcountry navigational and survival skills. The park’s Web site is excellent and can give you plenty of information to help plan your trip, including separate pages for flight operators, outfitters, and lodging. Log on to http://www.nps.gov/lacl; the park office telephone number is (907) 781-2218. Also, the Alaska Travel Industry Association can be reached at http://www.travelalaska.com or (800) 862-7275.
While You’re There: Take your fishing rod, as there are arctic grayling, arctic char, and lake trout aplenty. If you feel extra fit and brave, make a summit attempt on Mount Redoubt or Mount Iliamna, two active volcanoes within the park.
Lodging: The tiny bush community of Port Alsworth has both B&Bs and lodges to accommodate you before or after your trip. Here are two that come highly recommended: Wilder House B&B: Dave and Jacque Wilder, (888) 741-2228, offer a self-contained cabin that sleeps five, with access to a hot tub and exercise room; Lake Clark Inn: Sandy and Mark Lang, (907) 781-2224, www.lakeclark.com.
Outfitters/Resources: Alaska Alpine Adventures is the sole outfitter offering backcountry kayaking on Lake Kontrashibuna. Their gourmet cooking, knowledge of the area, and transport of boats make it well worth the cost. They also offer paddle trips on Lake Clark, backpacking, river-running, and mountaineering within the park, and kayak rentals. Call (877) 525-2577, or log on to www.alaskaalpineadventures.com.
Emily S. Crawford is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.