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Ragtag adventurer from France still missing along Gulf of Alaska coast

Craig Medred
Francois Guenot at the home of Glenn Neilsen in Kokhanok. Photo courtesy Glen Neilsen

* MORE ALASKANS MISSING:  See We Alaskans magazine in Sunday's Alaska Dispatch News

Friends of Frenchman Francois Guenot still aren't sure of where he was going when he disappeared along the Gulf of Alaska coast in June, but they have begun to resign themselves to the fact they will likely never hear from him again.

Guenot — "The Crazy Frenchman," as some knew him — was trying to make his way to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia from the village of Kokhanok on the south shore of giant Iliamna Lake, the eighth-largest in the U.S. The easiest route would be down the lake, out the Kvichak River to Bristol Bay and then west across the Bering Sea.

But the 32-year-old Guenot chose to go overland from the village to Kamishak Bay on the wild north coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. He was last seen there on May 26 at Amakdedori Creek, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Three weeks later, his kayak was found washed up on a beach near Cape Douglas. There was no sign of Guenot. Not a hint of him has been found since.

He is now among the dozens gone missing in the wilds of Alaska (see cover story of We Alaskans magazine in Sunday’s edition of Alaska Dispatch News).

'Sketchy' attitude 

The prevalent belief is that Guenot got washed out of his kayak in a June storm that ripped the Katmai coast, and that he then fell victim to the cold waters.

"It gets kind of shallow and reefy around Cape Douglas,'' said friend Bjorn Olson from Seldovia. "It's weird that his kayak isn't more damaged, but...”

Olson admits he had concerns about Guenot's survival before he left Seldovia for Homer in early 2013 on a continuing journey across North America toward Russia. Olson describes both Guenot's gear and attitude toward Alaska wilderness travel as "sketchy.''

Hig Higman, another Seldovia friend, thinks Guenot might have been drawn to the Gulf Coast by the spectacular scenery.

"Francois was not very goal-oriented,'' Higman said, "though he did have a leaning west. He picked the route that seemed interesting to him, and the Pacific coast is way more interesting than the Bering Sea (at Bristol Bay). Both have their thing going on, but Kamishak, Katmai, etc. is a truly amazing wild coast. I'd have gone the same way."

In fact, Higman did go the same way. He and wife Erin McKittrick hiked and packrafted the Pacific Coast from Seattle north past the Kenai and out along the Katmai coast all the way to Unimak Island in the Aleutian chain over the course of two years in 2007 and 2008. McKittrick later wrote a book, "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boat, Raft and Ski,'' and a movie titled "Journey on the Wild Coast'' followed. 

"Francois might have been inspired by Hig and Erin,'' said Olson. But Guenot was different from the Seldovia couple who've made themselves famous as Alaska adventurers.

Ragtag adventurer

Higman and McKittrick complete sometimes seemingly dangerous treks with ample pre-trip planning and an overdose of good judgment once underway. Along with traveling the 4,000 miles of North America's North Pacific coast, they've overwintered in a tent on the weather-pounded Malaspina Glacier with their two small children and taken the kids on a romp around Cook Inlet, parts of which are notorious for potentially dangerous quicksands, although the sands aren't as dangerous as they are purported to be if approached in the right manner. 

Where Higman and McKittrick are meticulous and precise, Guenot was whimsical. His was a ragtag adventure, Olson said, born following a night of playing the board game Risk with French friends. 

As the story is told, everyone ended the game with a corner of the globe, and then everyone agreed they would go there. Guenot got Kamchatka. He set about trying to reach it from east to west across the North American continent. 

He arrived in Alberta, Canada, in 2011. The details on how he got from Maiche, France -- where he'd been a ski instructor -- to Alberta are unclear. The Yukon News in early 2012, however, documented his travels and misadventures north and west across Canada.

"French traveler Francois Guenot is lucky to be alive" began the story in the Whitehorse, Yukon, newspaper. The story detailed how Guenot arrived unexpectedly and on foot in remote Mayo, a village of only a couple hundred people, in midwinter after falling through the ice of the Stewart River.

Soaked and in trouble, he sought help by knocking on doors in the village. Josee Lemieux-Tremblay opened hers and let him in.

"I offered him emergency kind of help,” she later told the Yukon News. “He appeared to be a really nice person.''

The ultimate improviser

Guenot would later meet others in Alaska in much the same way. Craig Barnard of Seldovia described Guenot as hugely likable, but "he would go through phases of people getting mad at him.''

Guenot, who overwintered in Seldovia in 2013, would go to great lengths to try to make amends. One Seldovia woman had him show up to cook breakfast for her in an effort to make up after she grew irritated at his antics, Barnard said.

The Frenchman had arrived in the isolated village near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula after paddling a salvaged kayak across Kachemak Bay. The folding kayak had been built of parts of from a pair of kayaks the Frenchmen found in the Homer dump.

"He's the ultimate improviser and always with a smile on his face,'' said Olson, who like Barnard, Higman and McKittrick makes his home in the seaside community of Seldovia, about 15 miles across Kachemak Bay from the end of the only major highway on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. 

Barnard met Guenot there in the fall of 2013 and talked him out of paddling to Kodiak Island, the Frenchman's original plan. There is almost 50 miles of open ocean between the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and the Kodiak Archipelago, and it is some of the most storm-tossed water in the world. 

Fall and winter is when it is at its worst. Barnard suggested it might be a good idea to stay in Seldovia until the weather settled down in the spring.

"I kind of talked him out of going,'' Barnard said. "It was kind of late in the season.''

Guenot, his Alaska friend admits, had a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the risks of dangerous travel in the wilds of Alaska.

"He was kind of, 'Who cares?''' said Barnard, himself a veteran of big adventures.

Guenot told the Yukon News he left his homeland because he didn't "want to stay like a dog on a leash in France. ...I want to learn about the wild lifestyle.''

Wild-and-crazy slide show

After leaving Mayo in the Yukon, Guenot reportedly dragged a canoe overland to the Yukon River. The trip wore out the bottom of the watercraft.

"He used plastic shopping bags and sap, and he fixed his canoe,'' Barnard said.

It was in this craft that he started down the Yukon River, hoping to float to its mouth on the Bering Sea and then paddle across to Russia.

He had problems, however, "and gave up on it,'' Olson said. He then met someone who gave him a ride downriver to the Dalton Highway bridge north of Fairbanks in Alaska. Someone near there gave him a bike. He found a wheeled garbage can and fastened it behind the bike as a trailer.

"It was one of the big ones that his old expedition pack would fit into,'' Olson said. "He threw his backpack in there and rode to Homer,'' where he dumped the bike, built his kayak and paddled south.

Much of this trip was documented with a simple point-and-shoot camera, said Barnard, who added that Guenot had a wild-and-crazy slideshow documenting his adventures.

After wintering in Seldovia -- and convinced that paddling a patched-up, 14-foot, red-and-white Folboat across the Gulf to Kodiak really was crazy — Guenot paddled back to Homer and then north across Cook Inlet.

Guenot was not foolhardy. He stuffed the kayak with flotation so that no matter what happened it would stay above the water. That might explain how it came to wash up onto the beach near Cape Douglas.

'Aloof to the dangers of Alaska'

It is unclear how Guenot made it across Cook Inlet, but it is obvious he made it to the north coast and then west along the coast to the head of Iliamna Bay, where a rough and rugged road leads from Williamsport to Pile Bay Village. How exactly he got from Williamsport to Pile Bay is unclear, but by the summer of last year he was working his way west along Iliamna Lake in his kayak.

Jim Tilley, who lives on Intricate Bay nearly a third of the way between Pile Bay and the western end of the 75-mile-long lake, met Guenot there.

"He was a nice guy and everything," Tilley told the Alaska Dispatch News. "Everyone likes him. He was just aloof to the dangers of Alaska."

Guenot paddled past Intricate Bay and reached Kakhonak, about halfway along the lake, by late fall. There he endeared himself to Glenn Neilsen and spent the winter with the Neilsen family living in a tent and helping with the family dog team.

"Sometimes when it was too cold, he slept in my steam bath," said Neilsen, who like others developed a fondness for the Frenchman. "We'd stay up until 3 a.m. talking philosophy."

In May, Guenot left Kakhonak for the Gulf coast. He'd earlier arranged to have his kayak and a couple months of food flown there and cached for his arrival. Neilsen said Geunot talked about paddling to Perryville, more than 300 miles southwest of Kamishak Bay along the Alaska Peninsula.

In late June, Neilsen still had hope that Guenot might show up in Igiugig, a community at the far western end of Iliamna Lake. Guenot had talked about meeting up with friends there in mid-July.

Sadly, there is no route from where Guenot's kayak was found overland to Igiugig.  Nearly 7,000-foot Fourpeaked Mountain towers between Cape Douglas and the lake more than 75 miles to the north. Glaciers sweep down off the mountains flanks. The passes and valleys through which travel would be possible lead not to the lake but back to Kamishak Bay, where Guenot's last adventure began.

The area is thick with grizzly bears. If Guenot were to come back from this, it might be a miracle. But friends still cling to a glimmer of hope. Barnard noted he once nearly died after falling out of his kayak into the cold water of Kenai Lake, but he managed to backstroke to shore and, despite suffering serious hypothermia, he is alive today.

"We're really hoping he pulls one of those,'' Barnard said.

Guenot, they hope, could still stumble out of the wilderness alive, but that is unlikely. Highly unlikely.

"If we hear nothing by the end of July, he's probably dead," Neilsen conceded.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com