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French traveler known for taking risks missing in Southwest Alaska

Michelle Theriault Boots
Francois Guenot eating breakfast at the Kokhanok home of Glen Neilsen. Photo courtesy Glen Neilsen

Last fall, a traveler with an improbable story began appearing in the villages that dot the shores of Lake Iliamna in Southwest Alaska. His name was Francois Guenot, but he quickly became known as “the crazy Frenchman,” said lifelong Kokhanok resident Gary Neilsen.

Guenot told locals he had rambled across Canada and through much of Alaska on salvaged bicycles, canoes and his own feet. He said he had crossed Cook Inlet in a makeshift kayak created from two broken ones he salvaged in Seldovia. He was trying to get all the way to the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia, separated from Alaska by open ocean.

In the Lake Iliamna area, he endeared himself to some and worried others with his casual approach to the Alaska wilderness. 

“He was a nice guy and everything,” said Jim Tilley, who lives on the lake’s Intricate Bay, and who spent time with Guenot last fall. “Everyone likes him. He was just aloof to the dangers of Alaska.” 

Now, Guenot is missing.

He was last heard from on May 26 near Kamishak Bay on the coast of Katmai National Park, about where the southern end of Cook Inlet runs into the northern end of the Shelikof Strait, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

On Friday, Katmai park rangers found a kayak believed to belong to Guenot on a beach about 12 miles south of Cape Douglas, along the Shelikof Strait, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst. 

A waterproof bag with some identification in it was found 3 miles south of the kayak, DeVuyst said. 

Coast Guard aircraft and a vessel from Kodiak searched the area starting Friday night, but suspended the search by Saturday afternoon after turning up no sign of Guenot. 

A journal, found with the other possessions, included a last entry dated June 15.

An unusual journey

Guenot started his North American journey in the summer of 2011, making his way across Alberta to the Yukon Territory by canoe, bicycle and foot, according to an account he gave to the Yukon News, a newspaper in Whitehorse. 

In January 2012, the newspaper profiled Guenot after he nearly died falling in a river, getting lost and running out of food on a solo walk in December from one Yukon community to another. 

“I want to learn about the wild lifestyle,” Guenot, then 32, told the newspaper. “I am respectful about the old people and their ancestors.” 

After wintering in the Yukon, Guenot later told Kokhanok resident Neilsen, he crossed into Alaska and made it to Fairbanks. Then he found a bicycle at a Fairbanks dump, pedaled to Homer and made his way to Seldovia. According to Guenot’s story, he there found two busted kayaks at a dump and somehow used the parts to make one whole kayak seaworthy enough to navigate across Cook Inlet. 

In the fall of 2013, he was bouncing around the Lake Iliamna area.

He spent much of the winter living with Neilsen’s family in Kokhanok, on the south shore of Lake Iliamna, taking care of his small dog team and sleeping in a tent on his property. 

“Sometimes when it was too cold he slept in my steam bath,” Neilsen said.

Guenot’s English was strong and he was pleasant to talk with, Neilsen said. 

“We’d stay up until 3 a.m. talking philosophy.” 

He worked hard. But in some ways, he seemed to be dangerously naive, Neilsen said.

“He once told me he was going to turn my dog team loose after feeding them (on a mushing trip) so they could play,” Neilsen said. “I said, no, no, no.” 

Once, he said he was going to go on a walk. With minimal gear, he left to circumnavigate Lake Iliamna on foot, traveling over rotten spring ice, Neilsen said. He was gone for about three weeks but came back in one piece. 

“We told him he was the luckiest man in the world. That he should be playing the lottery, he was so lucky.” 

In May, Guenot set off on another adventure. He first told Neilsen that he intended to kayak to Perryville, hundreds of miles away on the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula. 

“He could not get it into his mind the distances involved here,” Neilsen said. 

It’s not clear where Guenot settled on going. But he had a kayak, personal gear and about two months of food, Neilsen said.

Neilsen said he is concerned for Guenot but believes he may be alive. 

Perhaps he ditched his kayak on purpose or lost it after a high-tide on the beach but is traveling on foot, he said.

Guenot had mentioned meeting up with some visiting friends in the community of Igiugig, located at the southwest corner of Lake Iliamna, on July 19. 

“If we hear nothing by the end of July, he’s probably dead,” Neilsen said. 

One thing is clear to Neilsen: Guenot seemed to be doing exactly what he wanted to do -- he told Neilsen once that he had worked in a bank in France and hated it.

“His philosophy was ‘I’d rather die in the ocean than die chained to a desk like a dog.’”

Contact Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com.