National Park Number: 15 of 59
When we were researching this park before our visit, what we read most about was its isolation. There are no roads into Lake Clark and in its entire 4 million plus acres, there are only three short maintained trails. Many years, it is the least-visited park in the NPS system. People seem to come here to get away from civilization—the park’s most famous resident, Dick Proenneke, lived alone here for 30 years in a cabin he built himself; his writing is famous for its focus on wilderness and solitude.
We planned to fly into Port Alsworth and backpack from there to Lake Kontrashibuna. The lake is only 3 miles or so from the airstrip, so we figured it would be a perfect backcountry experience with the kids; if anything happened, help wouldn’t be far away. Even so, we expected and were looking forward to a few days in the mountains on our own, relaxing, rowing on the lake, and being away from humanity.
We flew from King Salmon in Katmai to Port Alsworth with the wonderful Lake and Pen Air, who are based out of Port Alsworth. The flight was stunning and as we looked down on turquoise lakes, braided rivers, and miles of pristine forest, we were getting very excited for our wilderness foray.
We landed, packed our gear and food for 3 days, stopped in at the Visitor’s Center, and began our little hike to Kontrash.
Before we got to the trail, as we were walking on the gravel runway (which is also Port Alsworth’s main road), David stepped on a rock, twisted his ankle, and fell, tearing a tendon in his knee in the process.
Not part of the plan, obviously, and we weren’t quite sure what to do. We had no cell service and knew no one in town, and as we tried to get David up and walking, there were no other people in sight.
We’d made a brief stop here on our flight into King Salmon and our pilot then, Amy, had pointed out some features of town, which consists of the airstrip, NPS visitor center, post office, two-teacher school, a smattering of homes, and a health clinic. It was this last that we hobbled to, hoping we could find someone to take a look at David’s knee, though it was early evening on a Friday and we weren’t hopeful. Indeed, the clinic was closed, but the door was unlocked. We looked for someone inside and, finding no one, were leaving the clinic when a man who introduced himself as Ralph found us and politely inquired what we were doing.
We told him the story and he called Rosemary, who runs the clinic; she was at home, but rode her four-wheeler over to check David and lock up the building. She confirmed the torn tendon, bandaged some gashes from the fall, and made us promise we’d change our plans—David was ok to walk carefully, but couldn’t carry a pack. We promised, and Rosemary started calling around town, looking for a place we could camp.
We ended up setting up right off the airstrip, on the lawn of Lake and Pen Air’s owner’s parents. Before we could even get our tent pitched, three different people had offered us their homes and we’d been invited to Sunday’s church meeting and a Saturday-night fish fry.
People in Port Alsworth are just uncommonly kind and generous; they are also hardcore, folks who have to ship everything in by plane or through a complicated series of cargo boats and backroads, which means most of them subsist as much as they can on what they can hunt, fish, and harvest. Residents of the national park have the benefit of being able to hunt on land and fish where almost no one else can, and the people are frugal and practical in their use of what they have. As it turns out, the people attracted to such a living situation are INSANELY COOL.
We got to meet loads of summer inhabitants, who come to volunteer with a program that flies wounded veterans and their spouses into town every Sunday for a week of marriage counseling and rest. One of Lake and Pen’s pilots invited us over for breakfast and we had the loveliest morning watching our kids play together and chatting about Alaska and flying and canning salmon and how one gives birth in the bush. We hung out at the Lake and Pen Air office with the funny and warm Wilder family. And Ralph magically appeared as we were walking back on the airstrip one day; David’s knee was achy and swollen and Ralph pulled right up to offer us a ride in the back of his pickup to our campsite half a mile away.
David stayed off his knee all night and half a day, and afterward it was feeling mobile enough that we were able to take a hike up to Kontrash. We hiked through woods and scrubby meadows and the whole scene was like something out of a fairytale, complete with sparkling turquoise water and speckled red mushroom caps. We half expected to stumble upon some elves along the way (spoiler: we didn’t. But we also didn’t see any bears, which was a win. Salmon-stuffed coastal brown bears are one thing; scrappy, scavenging grizzlies of the interior are quite another.) We waded around Tanalian Falls, and at Kontrash we found a public canoe on the lakeshore that we took out for a paddle. It was a lovely day, slow-paced and sunny, and we were happy to return to our cozy little runway spot to sleep that night.
I’ve mentioned Lake and Pen Air several times in this post; if I could, I’d stand on a rooftop somewhere and shout out to everyone how stellar this little company is. Lyle and Heidi, who bought the company from Lyle’s parents a few years ago, agreed to fly us to Katmai and Lake Clark in exchange for some marketing work from David. The flights we took, especially the flight between Anchorage and Port Alsworth, took us over the most incredible scenery I’ve ever witnessed. On our way back to Anchorage, Lyle gave us a stunning show flying over the peaks of Lake Clark’s wilderness. We saw dozens of glaciers, an ice field, two active volcanoes, Little and Big Lake Clark, Lake Blockade filled with chunks of glacier, and a pod of surfacing beluga whales. The whole thing was mind-blowingly beautiful, but what really made the whole experience was Lyle, who is a FREAKING AMAZING PILOT. This guy has been flying over the area since he was a kid and he knows it in and out, which meant he knew exactly how to show it off. We flew low and close to the action, and the whole flight was like watching the most dramatic, surreal IMAX movie ever made. Seriously, I cannot use too many superlatives to describe it. Completely epic.
Our experience at Lake Clark was unexpected; we came away feeling awed and restored, but also cared for and stimulated and hopeful (and in David's case, a little swollen 'round the knee.) We expected to see no one, and instead got to know a bunch of wonderful someones, and though we're not thrilled about the knee situation, it was delightful to see how kindness and humor and homemade breakfast and rides in the back of a pickup can turn the lousiest moments into the most blessed ones.