Looking across Lake Grosvenor from a small island, patiently waiting for the weather to improve before continuing our kayak voyage through Katmai National Park.
Katmai National Park & Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula provides a kayak route, known as the “Savonoski Loop“, which connects a series of large lakes and rivers with only one portage. My friend Brian Sweeney and I completed the ~ 100 mile loop in 8 days in early July 2015. Last year I had kayaked the first part of the loop with friend Chris Allen. Returning someday to do the entire Savonoski Loop had been on my mind for a long time. My original plan was to spend a month in Katmai focusing solely on photography. When Brian asked to come along I knew he would be a great partner for the Savonoski Loop and I would take a week off from serious photography and go on an adventure.
The notorious willawaw winds of the Aleutian Range coupled with a large storm system added some spice to our trip. The two large lakes on the loop, Naknek Lake and Lake Grosvenor, develop very rough seas during storms and periods of high winds. All boats, even small ships, take shelter when the dangerous waves suddenly appear. As a measure of safety we tried to kayak close to shore. With no wind these big lakes are very placid with mirror like smooth surfaces.
The first crux is padding around La Gorce Point which separates two big arms of Naknek Lake and has strange currents and shoals. Getting around La Gorce Point is always a relief. Once we rounded the point I knew the beautiful Bay of Islands were are our next destination. We took a break on the shores at La Gorce Point amongst large wolf prints in the sand.
The Bay of Islands is a whimsical place. It looks very tropical with deep blue waters and lush islands everywhere. We paddled the back channels to the SE of the main lake. This route is sheltered from winds experienced out on the main lake. The solitude in this maze of islands is surreal. The kayaks silently glided along allowing us to get close to moose and all kinds of waterfowl and eagles. Loons, eagles, mergansers, and other ducks were surprised to see us. If felt as if many of these back sloughs and bays are never visited by man.
We tried to camp on islands because they seem to have less bear traffic than on the shoreline of the lakes. Shoreline beaches are “bear highways” since they provide easy pathways that avoid the dense forests. Bears are great swimmers though and they are seen on many of the islands. Smaller islands are preferred over larger islands — assuming that there is less for a bear to be interested in on a smaller island. Following the rule of thumb “bears can be anywhere in Katmai” is wise though. I have experienced bears on islands in Katmai NP a few times.
We had an electric bear fence, bear spray, bear canisters for our food, and used marine air horns to notify any bears in the area of our presence — avoiding any surprises. We also talked loudly as we entered dense forest areas. Since so many bears walk the shorelines one tends to avoid camping on the main shore of the lakes, even when waves on the lakes are treacherous. In other words paddling out to an island in rough waters just to avoid camping on the shore because a bear might walk by. This is a huge mistake in my view since the most dangerous risk on this trip was the rough waters — not the bears.
Our minuscule elevation gain on the loop would be made on a 1.5 mile portage from Fure’s Cabin to Lake Grosvenor. Not a very long hike and not very steep. The challenge of the portage is bushwhacking on a swampy bear trail. In past years there was a “problem bear” in the area of the portage and we were anxious about meeting this bear while schlepping our kayaks through the dense forest (see my blog post from last year for more about this bear).
Brian and I chose to take Brian’s Folbot Greenland II tandem kayak “Big Blue” over the portage first. You know, do the hardest job first. When we hit a large section of windfall downed trees we came to a stop. Luckily Brian had brought along a hatchet. For a few hours we had to trim branches off the downed trees so we could carry the kayaks over the downfall without ripping the fabric of the Folbot kayaks. I wish had packed the folding trail saw like I had planned on doing! Eventually we decided to leave Brian’s kayak at the midway point of the portage, hike the entire way to Lake Grosvenor to clear the way first. We left a load of gear at Lake Grosvenor inside our bear fence and hiked back to Fure’s Cabin to pick up my Folbot Yukon “Little Blue” kayak and our remaining gear. It is risky to leave any gear unattended in bear country. Returning to find your kayak shredded would be life threatening situation in this remote wilderness.
Portage slings were made from climbing webbing and carabiners. We had to use them in such a way that Brian, in the front, had to have me clip the kayak to his harness while he kneeled. What this meant was that he was basically immobile, and unable to detach the kayak if needed, in case of a bear encounter. Likewise, I had the rear of the kayak strapped to my shoulders. Luckily we did not encounter any bears during our 12 hour ordeal.
By the time we got all the gear and both kayaks across the portage it was around 1:00 AM and dark. We loaded up the kayaks and paddled off into the darkness on Lake Grosvenor to camp on an island. Getting in the kayaks after the thrashing we took on the portage felt great. Paddling in the dark still water was eyrie. The time of day becomes irrelevant on these trips. You do what you have to do to get where you need to be, and then sleep or eat.
We woke up the next morning after a few hours of sleep on our little island in Lake Grosvenor to heavy winds and rough water. Winds and bad weather kept us there an extra day and night. Sleep, sleep, more sleep. Get up and eat a little bit of food, then go back to sleep. This was the routine while waiting out the winds.
Priorities change on these wilderness trips. When storms require you to stop and bivouac, other things like plane flights and appointments are secondary. Some relatively new technology helped us in this regard. We both had DeLorme InReach Explorer GPS two-way satellite text devices with us. Brian was able to notify home and have his flight rescheduled. We were also able to get weather updates from friends at home who were following local NOAA weather reports and satellite imagery of the storms. Thank you Dale, Andrey, Melinda, and Bill for these weather reports! Knowing whether or not a storm is going to last a day or a week is very valuable when out in the boonies.
After watching the winds and waves yet another morning, we decided to go for it. I am not sure why, perhaps boredom influenced us. The water on the lake was still very rough. Our little island was protected in the lee of a headland. We could see large waves and whitecaps out in the middle of Lake Grosvenor. We thought we could paddle very close to shore and wait on the downwind sides of the small peninsulas for favorable conditions to paddle like hell around the headland and back to sheltered bays on the other side. The shoreline was a rock cliff and did not provide many areas for beaching the kayaks if needed. I peered around the first big headland and retreated a few times until we felt the winds had calmed and it was time to go. Once we got in the main channel the waves ranged from 4 to 6 feet high. We could not see each other’s kayaks even though we were close together. Confused waves from water reflected off the cliffs and collided with the large waves coming off the lake.
In the confused waves the kayak had a mind of its own. All I could focus on was paddling fast and trying to keep the kayak somewhat perpendicular to the large waves coming in from the lake. The real challenge came after passing the rock cliffs of the headlands and trying to turn the kayak back towards shore without capsizing. I looked out at the incoming wave train and tried to time things so I would turn the kayak on a smaller wave. The reality was more like sheer chaos though. After negotiating a few of these headlands in the rough water we headed to shore. We covered a total distance of only one mile that day! Our emergency stop on shore ended up lasting two nights while we waited for the winds to calm down. At one point they were blowing so fierce that the whistle I keep on my PFD was blowing loudly by itself. Sleep, sleep, more sleep as we wait for the windstorms to clear.
Finally after two days camping on this bear trail the winds calmed down enough for us leave camp in the afternoon and paddle late into the night. Paddling at night on these lakes when they are quiet is magical. The reflected sky in the water makes it feel like you are kayaking in midair. Sounds travel very far as they reflect efficiently off the flat lake water. We could hear our echoes from miles away. When the echo of our voices came back to us they sounded louder than when they started. Trumpeter Swans and Loons floated next to us in the long Alaska twilight. It felt great to be paddling long distances again.
We setup camp at 2:30AM on top of a shoreline cliff next to a beaver lagoon. The campsite had a bear trail going right through it though. One of our least favorite chores was trimming the tall wet grass so the bear fence could be setup. Since we did not have a lawnmower with us, this was done using a knife at a very painstaking slow pace. A short nights sleep renewed us. Our big day of paddling the Grosvenor River and the Savonoski River awaited us.
Grosvenor River is a gentle stream flowing out of Lake Grosvenor and into the Savonoski River. Although it is very short we saw lots of wildlife along it. Beaver dams, a family of Great Horned Owls, Bald Eagles, Belted Kingfishers, Common Loons, and Common Mergansers. The water started to get cloudier as we coasted down the Grosvenor River. We knew that up ahead we had our work cut out for us on the treacherous Savonoski River. Known to be full of pumice and floating logs and trees, deadly strainers and sweepers, and lots of bears. All reports we read on the Savonoski River said “No stopping or camping for 12 miles” due to heavy bear activity.
The mellow Grosvenor River entered the Savonoski River at a right angle. We merged onto a wide brown mess of a river, full of dead trees and snags. The Savonoski river carried a high sediment load of pumice from volcanic ash in the mountains above. As I entered the fast current I kept looking for safe passages between the strainers (downed trees in the river that are deadly to boaters). The trick is not to look at the obstacles and instead look at where you want to paddle. Just like in skiing and mountain biking. It worked pretty well until my kayak ran aground on gravel bar in shallow water. The front of the kayak stopped suddenly and the strong current rolled me out of my kayak into the muddy mess. Luckily I was able to run with my kayak and guide away from a strainer and get back in. You can not tell how deep the water is on the river since it is opaque with pumice sediment. I remembered how to look for smooth flowing “slicks” in between tiny surface riffles to find the deeper channels.
Bears were my least concern on the river. Although we had been warned of many bears fishing for salmon right where we would be kayaking, the obstacles in the river had all of my attention. Eventually we started to see bears fishing amongst the flowing junkyard of dead trees. I watched them staring at the opaque muddy water wondering how they can see any salmon? At first the bears seemed to ignore us as we paddled by. As I paddled through some haystack rapids I noticed a bear on a small island in the river. He was behind a downed tree which he stood up and peered over to get a better look at me. The curious bear then ran downstream on the island parallel to me. To my surprise he then entered the river and swam upstream at a 45 degree directly towards me! I could not believe this was actually happening. For a moment I thought to myself “so, here is how it ends, in a muddy river attacked by a bear”. Brian was behind me and I yelled for him to come closer so the bear could see there was more than one of us — hoping the bear would retreat. My bear spray was under a bungie cord on the deck of my kayak and I could not let go of the paddle as I negotiated the rapids (better to have it on my PFD). As I back-paddled in the rapids trying to slow the kayak and avoid a collision with the bear I could see he was focused on getting to the other side of the river — to his place of refuge. The problem was that we were on a collision course. I could hear Brian adding some humor to the situation by calling out “Bear Shark! Bear Shark” (an inside joke we had about bears that might come attack us in our kayaks). The near miss was avoided as I turned the kayak past the poor bear. I felt bad for the bear, he had probably never seen a person or kayak before and was just trying to get to a safe place.
After 12 long miles we exited the Savonoski River as its muddy waters mixed with the turquoise blue glacial flour laden water of Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. Strangely the mixing zone was well defined with a sharp boundary between mud, floating pumice rocks of all sizes, and dead trees. Oh it felt so good to get off that possessed river!
In years past a float plane landed on the Savonoski River with some fisherman. The plane started to float away after landing and the pilot swam after it failing to stop it from escaping down river. The plane was never found after that! The river swallowed up an airplane!
That was a good day as we paddled ~ 25 miles or more of lakes and rivers. Spruce Island in the Iliuk Arm was our target destination after the long paddle. It glowed in the evening light as we paddled across mirror smooth water with huge trout rising to Blue-winged Olives. Nesting Bald Eagles scolded us we when got to the island and a huge male Brown Bear spied us from the lake shore. This bear’s behavior was different. He was not going to move off like most bears in the wilderness seem to do. He crouched down behind a tree and watched us closely. It seemed that he did not want us to camp on Spruce Island. We cooked up a great dinner on some rocks on the other side of the island and then departed in our kayaks to camp a few miles away on smooth, flat granite rocks along the shore below Mount Le Gorce. It was a great setting, sleeping without a tent and our heads a couple feet above lake level.
Waking early the next morning to perfectly calm water covered by a dense layer of fog allowed our kayaks to glide quickly back towards Brooks Camp. Seeing all the float planes and people after eight days in the wilderness was a bit of a shock. The winds had been so bad during our trip that a float plane had flipped over at Brooks Camp with the pilot and three passengers. Luckily nobody was hurt. When I heard about the accident, and saw the submerged plane, I realized that we were smart to take refuge from the storms along our route.
We did it! It felt great to step on shore where we had started more than a week earlier. Brian and I headed to the cafeteria in time for lunch. We proceeded with caution though as our systems were used to eating minimal amounts of food. During the trip I had dreams of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread with a glass of milk — real food instead of bizarre backpacking dehydrated versions of Red Curry or Pad Thai. One of the angels at Brooks Lodge, Vanessa, brought us each a nice PBJ with a big glass of cold milk. Yum!