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Touring Kachemak Bay State Park with packrafts and children in tow

Erin McKittrick
This map shows the route of the author's tour of Kachemak Bay. Map by Hig Higman

SELDOVIA -- He wanted his own piece. Rubber boots splashed into the gray edge of Grewingk Lake. A pair of 5-year-old arms cradled what looked like a dripping boulder of glass. He shattered it into chunks and dropped each one into the pot that sat on our alder fire -- as if that shimmery lump of glacier might melt into something magical -- instead of something rather gravelly. At our last camp, one of my companions had wondered for an instant if those glowing white shapes floating in the distance were sailboats. 

"Icebergs," I replied. 

This was camp two -- the second day of a 10-day journey by packraft and foot through Kachemak Bay State Park. A few pieces of lichen from our first camp on the tundra (and more than a few squashed mosquitoes) still clung to my socks. At this point in the trip, we were a pair of 5-year-olds, a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old and four adults. Even at the sprint-crash-whine-snack-play speed of preschoolers, the transition between environments seemed dizzying.

Kachemak Bay State Park is Alaska's oldest state park, encompassing 400,000 acres of the rumpled southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula -- ice fields and glaciers, craggy peaks and smooth tundra ridges, wildflower meadows, forest-lined lakes and rocky fjords draped with anemones, mussels, and scuttling crabs. It's my backyard. 

Nearly 15 years ago, long hikes into the backcountry reaches of the park were my introduction to Alaska. At the time, I discovered the park also contains a lot of thick alder, steep cliffs, devil's club-infested spruce forest and beetle-killed deadfall. 

Helpfully, the good folks at state parks have pushed some of this maddening thicket aside with a series of trails. On the south shore of Kachemak Bay, between Mallard Bay and Jakolof Bay, are 82 miles of hiking trail, in loops and lines that begin and end at ocean beaches -- almost as if they were built for a packraft to connect them.

Paddling near Grewingk Glacier

We chewed fat. salty blades of goose tongue greens at the ocean mouth of a creek. The kids wrestled in a spongy cushion of blooming alpine heather while clouds flowed into the crannies of Kachemak Bay. We blew up our Alpacka packrafts, paddling as close as we dared to the sun-pitted slabs of white and gray that formed the face of the 13-mile-long Grewingk Glacier. 

Then we rolled up the 5-pound boats, stuffed them in our backpacks and joined a handful of locals and tourists on the popular Saddle Trail, with its squint-into-the distance view of the much-retreated ice. 

And while a parade of water taxis arrived to whisk away the rest of the visitors (and some of our friends), we blew up the packrafts and continued on to the calm waters of Halibut Cove, where tangles of sea stars rested just below the water line, waiting to seize the mounded colonies of fat mussels encrusted on the rocks above them. 

Easy to pack and carry

Packrafting has become much more popular over the last decade, but people rarely bring packrafts into the ocean. Perhaps it's the psychological vulnerability of the enterprise -- paddling out to sea with only a pillow of air between you and the big blue water. 

If you leave a packraft untethered on a windy day, it might even blow away (don't ask me how I know). But they're sturdy -- barnacle-scraping, wave-riding sturdy -- and can be thought of simply as small, slow kayaks. And for beginners, they're more stable and easier to get in and out of. On a nice day, in protected waters (like the fjords of southern Kachemak Bay), a packraft will wiggle you along at an easy 2 mph. And while it's far less efficient than a kayak, who wants to carry one of those over a several-thousand-foot peak?

So we paddled into Halibut Cove Lagoon, passing shyly curious seals and unconcerned sea otters on our way to the next trail head, where cascades of blooming dwarf dogwood spilled over the stumps that lined the path and the official trail reports painted a terse and unreliable picture of our future. If you want to know where bear trails and salmonberries might muddle your route, you'd be luckier to run into the trail crew. 

My 5-year-old dawdled through a forest the beetles had attacked long ago, a lush understory of flowers, ferns and berries beneath an open sky, carefully touching the tip of a spruce cone to every blossom. "This is a pollinator mouse,” he said. “He pollinates for fun, because he really likes to eat berries and wants to be nice to them."

After a day or so, we stopped trying to count the wildflowers. Each child found one ripe berry on a south-facing slope on the last day of June. That was during the long walk down from a long hard scramble up 2,600-foot Poot Peak (and no, you shouldn't take a 3-year-old up Poot Peak). Afterward, they rested their feet in our laps in the packrafts as we snaked through the rushing silty curves of the Wosnesenski River. That murky current shot us back into the clear blue ocean, where we darted in and out of sea caves along a rocky coast. It was almost time to climb another mountain.

Later, my 3-year-old straddled a log that bridged the trail, distracted in the midst of an obstacle by a bit of oddly-shaped wood. 

"This is a fish! And this is my kitchen!" The spruce-filtered sun splashed her hair bright orange and the devil's club bright green, and she cried when the timer on my watch began to beep and I told her we had to move on. On the 10th day, I carried handfuls of empty Ziplocs -- only the last few crumbs of our least favored snacks remained and we needed to reach the road to catch a ride. But the rhythm of the trip had pulled me in. It felt like we could do this forever (with a stop for some extra supplies). And why not?

I began to plan for our next expedition. 

Click here to see a slideshow of photos from the trip.

Route of multi-day tour of Kachemak Bay

A packraft traverse is an affordable, unique and diverse way to experience Kachemak Bay State Park. Many potential variations or additions can be made to our route, detailed here. We started in Humpy Creek, easy to reach via water taxi from Homer ($80 roundtrip).

Humpy Creek to Jakolof Bay

All together, it’s 24 hiking miles, 18 flatwater (lake and ocean) paddling miles and 8.5 river paddling miles. Skill levels needed: basic sea kayak paddling and class II river rafting. Water taxis make regular runs from Homer to the park. Wildlife includes black bears, mountain goats, sea otters and harbor seals. Wildflowers are abundant in early summer, salmonberries and blueberries later in the season. Trails and topography are marked on the National Geographic "Trails Illustrated" Map of Kachemak Bay State Park. It took us 10 days at 3-year-old speed, but adults should be able to finish in no more than seven days. To break it down section by section: 

• Portlock Plateau and Emerald Lake, 6.7 miles: From Humpy Creek, a trail heads northeast along the beach and then up into the alpine tundra of the Portlock Plateau before dropping down to Emerald Lake and then to Grewingk Lake. 

• Grewingk Lake and the Saddle Trail, 6.6 miles: Paddling the lake, you can visit the icebergs and approach the face of the glacier before following the Saddle Trail to Halibut Cove. 

• Halibut Cove to China Poot Lake, 5.9 miles: Paddle from the Saddle Trail beach into Halibut Cove Lagoon. The current doesn't begin flowing into the lagoon until a few hours after low tide, so plan accordingly. Find the trail to China Poot Lake (as well as a ranger station and trail reports) from the public dock at the back of Halibut Cove Lagoon.

• Poot Peak, 5.3 miles: From China Poot Lake, you can follow a 5-mile loop trail to the peak. We found the North Route to be steep but in good shape, while the South Route was very overgrown (though we did quite a bit of clearing). The view from the top is rewarding, but the spur route to the peak is extremely steep, especially at the top, with scree chutes and rock scrambling. The official trail description cautions that "only people with rock-climbing training should continue beyond this point." There's also a nice viewpoint around halfway up the spur, before the steepest climb. Back at China Poot Lake, follow a trail to the Wosnesenski River.

• China Poot Lake, 2.2 miles: As a mellower alternate to Poot Peak, follow the hiking trail directly from Halibut Cove to the Wosnesenski River, past China Poot and 4th lakes. Or paddle the lakes, using a small (unmarked) portage trail between them.

• Wosnesenski River, 8.5 miles: This braided glacial river is a class II float, and paddlers need to be prepared to avoid sweepers and strainers. A trail follows along river right, but hazards can usually be portaged on broad open gravel flats.

• Eldredge Passage, 6.1 miles: The Wosnesenski River will spit paddlers out into the ocean waters of Kachemak Bay, where you can paddle around a series of beaches and headlands to Sadie Cove. At Sadie Cove, paddle across about a half-mile of water to reach the north end of the Grace Ridge Trail. Usually an easy paddle, but as in all ocean paddling, you may have to wait out strong winds.

• Grace Ridge Trail, 7.5 miles: This trail climbs from the ocean to follow a long alpine ridge before descending to Tutka Bay. Beautiful views and good camping possibilities high up, but the only water is a little north of the peak. 

• Tutka Bay and Tutka Lagoon, 2.9 miles: Tutka Bay is the longest ocean crossing on the route at a little under a mile, about a half hour in a packraft. Though usually straightforward, strong winds can sometimes blow out of the bay, forcing a paddler to wait for the weather (there is good camping where the trail meets the beach). Near high tide (preferably rising), paddle into Tutka Lagoon past the hatchery. If it's not high enough, you might have to portage your raft around some of the channels to get to the back of the lagoon. 

• Jakolof Bay, 4.4 miles: From the back side of Tutka Lagoon a short trail through forest drops you into a clear cut. Turn right at the logging road and follow it to the Jakolof Bay Road. This road is accessible by car from Seldovia.  Walk the road or beaches (at low tide), or paddle the bay (the most scenic option) to the Jakolof Public Dock, where you can catch a water taxi back to Homer. 

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.