Alaska: Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay trip report
In late July my buddy Brent and I set out to fat bike/packraft the Iliamna portage from Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay. We began our trip with a free ride across CI on the Helenka B. landing craft, captained by Bruce Flanigan. Access to Williams Port in Iliamna Bay is possible only during spring tides. In July this gave us a window of tides around the 22-25th. We ended up crossing on the evening of the 24th and arrived around 5:00 AM on the 25th.
The trip across the Cook Inlet was beautiful and calm and the company was great, so neither Brent or I slept during the crossing. Once we disembarked from the boat we waited for the light and began riding the well maintained dirt road over the coast mountains to Lake Iliamna. This 17 mile road is perhaps the prettiest road in Alaska. The portage has been in use by Alaska Natives for millennia and is currently maintained by the William's family, who for three generations have operated their shipping/transport business.
After a brief visit with the William's we inflated our rafts and began working our way West along the North shore of Alaska's largest lake. Our goal was to bike as much as possible and after a night of sleep the cycling began. Until we reached Iliamna village we often had to be creative in our route selection, often going inland or swimming with our bikes to avoid using the rafts. Once past Iliamna/Newhalen (villages) however the cycling became straight forward beach or tundra trail riding. It took us 7 days to reach the Kvichak River.
While we were traversing the lake the daytime temperatures were in the 70s but when we began paddling down the river the weather changed and continued to deteriorate the further down river we went. The Kvichak is intertidal very far upriver and Bristol Bay has very large tidal exchanges. This in conjunction with gale force headwinds and bottomless mud made the second chapter of our trip much more difficult than the first. We paddled 6 hours, nonstop, at one point to make 4 miles of progress. It would seem logical to wait for better conditions, but the land had absolutely nothing to offer, other than mud and grass growing in mud, so we kept going.
It ended up requiring 4 solid days of paddling the Kvichak River from Igiugig Village to Pederson Point where we were able to ride a dirt road to Naknek. I had grossly underestimated the river and wished we had brought a tide book.
We met many awesome and inspiring people on the trip and were invited to use shelter cabins and stay with people more than once. This is an area of the state that is in remarkable transition. If Pebble Mine is permitted this whole route will be transformed and I am incredibly thankful to have seen it, as it is and has been. Another bonus of this route at this time of the year is the availability of sockeye salmon. We were able to coax them out of the streams and into our dinner with our very primitive means.
All told the trip took us 11 days from Cook Inlet to King Salmon where we flew back to Anchorage from. I have yet to calculate how much distance we covered on the bikes verses the rafts but I believe that we rode over 80% of the North shore of the lake.
This is an amazing route that I would recommend to anyone looking for a wilderness route through a large and diverse swath of Alaska.
Photos here: Mjölnir Photography: Hunting for Monsters
Screenshots of maps here: Mjölnir Photography: Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay map(s)
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