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Search suspended for Frenchman missing along Alaska's wild Katmai coast

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy of Gary Nielsen

Francis Guenot, the wanderer who some in rural Alaska refer to as "the crazy Frenchman" has joined those gone missing, possibly forever, in the 49th state.

The 32-year-old Guenot, a French national, disappeared into the wild land of the 4-million-acre Katmai National Park sometime in May. A kayak believed to be his and gear that included his identification were found along the Katmai coast, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, last week.

Rangers who patrol the little-visited park and preserve spent two futile days looking for Guenot with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and then turned the search over to Alaska State Troopers.

With no real idea of where to look for the missing man, troopers suspended the hunt shortly thereafter.

"He could be anywhere between Kokhanok and Chignik," park ranger Wendy Artz said Monday. Kokhanok is on the south shore of giant Iliamna Lake. About 170 people live there in an unorganized community the U.S. classifies as a "census-designated place

Chignik , about 250 air miles to the southwest, is even smaller. A seasonal fishing community that comes alive when the salmon return, it is home to fewer than 100 year-round residents.

Guenot, according to troopers, left Kokhanok on May 9. He was last seen on May 26 at Amakdedori Creek, about 40 miles to the west on the shores of Kamishak Bay. On that date, officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game found him squatting in a state cabin used by salmon counters and, according to troopers, illegally netting fish out of the nearby creek.

Such illegal fishing and sometimes hunting is not uncommon among people traveling long distances cross country in the 49th state, where there are no stores and resupply is difficult. Guenot had, however, managed to make prior arrangements to have a collapsible kayak and some food flown from Kokhanok to near the mouth of the creek on a bay off Shelikoff Strait between Kodiak Island and the Alaska mainland.

Jim Tilley, who lives along Iliamna Lake spent time with Guenot last fall, said the Frenchman was talking of plans to paddle the kayak west along the Alaska Peninsula to the Aleutian Islands and hopefully on to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The journey is not impossible, but it is dangerous.

"Everyone likes him," Tilley said Sunday . "He's just aloof to the dangers of Alaska."

The outer coast of Katmai is a land of wave-pounded headlands and vast beaches with big surf interspersed with a few protected bays.

More than three weeks after Guenot's contact with state employees near Amakdedori Creek, Bill Sims from the Newhalen Lodge was flying that coast. He spotted a battered, old red-and-white collapsible kayak -- apparently a classic Folbot . He landed nearby and then found a backpack, said friend Clint Hlebechuk, owner of the nearby Hallo Bay Bear Camp.

"Bill couldn't sleep that night," Hlebechuk said Monday via cell phone from his home in Homer. "He came back the next day and poked around."

The weather was nice that day, Hlebechuk said, and Sims borrowed a skiff from the camp to go patrol the beach. It was then he found a waterproof duffel bag.

"He found this duffel bag...with a log book," Hlebechuk said. "The log book ended on the 15th."

Hlebechuk went back and checked his weather records. On the 16th, he noted, the winds howled in the area, peaking with a gust of 72 mph.

"That whole coast is exposed," Hlebechuk added. "We're just speculating, but (Guenot) might have gotten tangled up in Douglas Reef," or he might have tried to make a beach landing in big surf and lost his boat, something that is easy to do.

Hlebechuk thinks there is a possibility, remote though it may be, that Guenot could have made it ashore.

"He might have crawled back into the brush," said the long-time operator of the wilderness camp. The tides on June 16 were near their summer maximum. They could have washed away any sign of someone dragging themselves across the beach.

Hlebechuk still hopes Guenot could emerge from the wilderness. Others share that feeling. He "is known to be an avid outdoorsman in good physical condition," a trooper dispatch noted. Kokhanok resident Gary Neilsen said Guenot earlier this year did a three-week circumnavigation of Iliamna Lake on foot over rotting spring ice and lived to tell about it.

"We told him he was the luckiest man in the world," Neilsen added.

But if Guenot made it to the safety of land this time, he either wasn't alive or in no condition to emerge from the underbrush and wave at searching Coast Guard helicopters thump, thump, thumping along the coast. And a ground search, beyond the limited effort put in by rangers, would be hard to organize in the remote area where it is now considered likely that Guenot drowned.

The waters of Cape Douglas are notoriously dangerous. Currents can run to 10 mph on the change of the tides, Hlebechuk noted. The late Timothy Treadwell, a "bear whisperer" who became famous after he was killed and eaten by a Katmai brown bear, once complained that the U.S. National Park Service was trying to kill him by forcing him to move about this coast by boat.

To make it more difficult for the California-based Treadwell to spend his summers living with the bears, as he desired, the park service enacted a regulation requiring campers to move their tents at least a mile every seven days. Treadwell thought the moves dangerous enough he eventually just took to hiding his camps.

He considered the coastal weather and seas far more dangerous than the 1,000-pound bears, which tend to be amazingly placid when well stuffed with sedges, grasses, clams and salmon during the summer. Treadwell petted some and kissed others over his 13 summers in Katmai, but unfortunately he once extended his stay in the "Grizzly Maze" into October, when bear behavior changes. He and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten on Oct. 5, 2003.

Guenot's kayak was found not far north of Treadwell's beloved Hallo Bay, but the bears, in this case, do not appear to have been involved in the man's disappearance. And what exactly happened to Guenot may never be known.

He could join the likes of 31-year-old German Thomas Seibold , who went missing near Ambler in Northwest Alaska in the fall of 2012. A skilled woodsman, Seibold had been staying in a friend's cabin upriver from the village, and planned to hike about 30 miles southwest to Kobuk to catch a flight back to Wisconsin to rejoin his wife.

He never made it. A cursory search of the most obvious routes to Kobuk found no sign of him. Friends from Outside organized a more intensive hunt. It found nothing either.

Alaska is a big wild place that sometimes just swallows people.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com