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4 Hours v. 10 Minutes

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Monday, 14 August 2023, Lake Clark NP



I finally figured it out! During one of the close bear encounters in Katmai, a grizzly must've caught and eaten me. After all, you have to be dead before you can go to Heaven, right?


Yes, I enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities. I've bicycled across the US. I've climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I've litter-picked nation-wide. Still, there is nothing that speaks to my soul, that erases my anxieties more than paddling.


As I first planned these park ventures, <oops, a little interruption - the Lodge staff just came to ask me weight prior to my flight out>, Lake Clark stood out as one of my most highly anticipated, as well as a park I'd never visited before. Unfortunately, I'd failed to convince anyone to join me in kayaking a remote Alaskan wilderness.


I rejoiced when I saw the AAA package combining Lake Clark with Katmai. That would get me to this gorgeous park, and I could add on a single night to let me dip my paddles in the water.


That day has arrived.


The view that greeted me at 6:30 elevated my hopes: broken clouds, patches of blue, moderate temps, no wind. I shot a few photos in the rich morning light

before heading to breakfast. As I sat with the new AAA tour, I made the mistake of mentioning last winter's dog sled adventure. Soon everyone was asking me questions, and I let my motor-mouth run. By the time the others had finished their food, I still had half my breakfast before me.


With no time left to pack my luggage, I wandered over to the Cranberry Cache store at 8:30 to meet Beth from Tulchina Adventures and get set up on my rental kayak. Besides my boat, PFD, and paddle, she provided a sea skirt (to keep waves from splashing into my cockpit), laminated map, bilge pump, and spare paddle. "When you leave our harbor, hug the right side," she suggested. "Stay away from the middle of the channel, since we get a lot of float planes using that. Now a lot of people will head east along the shoreline to the point across from Little Tommy Island. That's about four miles. If you'd like, you can cross the open water to the island."


She helped me adjust the rudder pedals and my seat, then wished me a good float. I returned to my room to finish packing and check out.

By the time I got back to shore and my boat, 9:30 had come.


Once I bore right upon leaving the harbor, the noises from Port Alsworth faded away. Beyond the occasional angry-hornet buzz of floatplanes taking off, the only sounds were the soft gurgle of my paddles slipping through the water and the rhythmic lapping of small waves on the stony shore.


Time slowed down. I softened my stroke, cutting the noise I added to this cathedral of nature. I slid by the green slopes of Mt. Tanalian, with its upper reaches still draped in clouds. Views spread to the north side of the lake, where peaks towered above wispy clouds strewn about like fluffy white cotton socks.


Beth had said the forecast called for increasing winds this afternoon. Port Alsworth lay on the cusp of the weather system. Thus, I didn't fret as the breeze to my back sent small waves my way.


I kept about twenty yards offshore, watching the trees, checking the scenery.

A few fish jumping from the water caught my eye; a family of ducks kept their distance from me; a raven flew overhead. (Craig, it's Raoul from Cataract Canyon, taking a vacation in the far north!) I most enjoyed the bald eagle that buzzed me.


The sun struggled to pierce the clouds that continued to dominate the sky.

The waves picked up as I continued east. Then the shore bent northward as it moved out on the point. The formerly flat shore now had a pitch to it, a stony slope, and the waves increased in size. I bulled through the last yards to the point, vetoing any thoughts of crossing open water to Little Tommy Island.


I'd been out two hours; time to head back. The heightened waves fought my attempt to turn the boat, but eventually my thirty years of paddling experience helped me win that battle.


I now could see a lakeful of waves ready to fight my progress. Every second or third stroke resulted in cold water splashing my right hand. Thank God I had a sea skirt to keep the water from pooling in the kayak.


Had the forecast winds come in early, reaching as far as my shoreline? I realized the waves had increased the longer I'd been out; if they continued to worsen, I feared for my ability to fight them for over two hours back to the harbor.


As the waves pushed against my progress, my thoughts turned to Sitka Harbor, 1991. I'd gone for a solo paddle, but with me on the far side of that harbor, a storm had blown in. I quickly headed for the shelter of the pier, but my rudder got stuck, making navigation a challenge. The episode had really shaken me. Had I blundered into a worse situation?


I had to face Lake Clark waves with no safe cove within a two-hour paddle - and with no hope of a rescue boat coming by. As the waves tried to push me onto the gravelly shore I dug in with the paddles, struggling to keep on track. It took ten minutes, but I finally got past the bend, at which point the waves lessened.


The more progress I made toward the harbor, the more the waves dropped off. Partway back, I found a nook in the coast that qualified as 'partially sheltered',

barely the size of my kayak. I put to shore and detached the sea skirt to get at my water bottle. By the time I shoved off again, I had regained my kayaking calmness, easing my paddle into the water as the landscape slipped past.


I could see the white veil dropping from the clouds to the west, indicating rain. It reached me as I approached the harbor entrance, first as a mist, then as a light shower. And you know what? It didn't faze me in the slightest. Hey - it's Alaska, that's the price I pay for being in this paradise.


Summed up, it was four hours of soul-nurturing serenity sandwiching ten minutes of abject terror.


But I still had time to correct the mistake I'd made. I beached the boat

and headed to the room holding my luggage. There I grabbed the GoPro I had foolishly forgotten earlier, returned to the beach, and set off for another hour of weaving through the water.


After returning my sacred vessel - hey, I'm in Heaven now, right? - I sat on a bench and gazed out on the bay. That's where the Lodge workers found me, to ask if I could estimate my weight. "I usually weigh in at 192 or so, but wait, I'm carrying the water bottle and camera. Tell you what - when I stepped on the scale at Merrill field five days ago, it said 212. Use that." Later, I caught up to them and added, "I almost forgot - I've had two days of meals here at Farm Lodge. You'd better add ten pounds to that weight."


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