One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Kayaking in Wood-Tikchik State Park

   

For those who don't stray from the beaten path, "wilderness kayaking" in Alaska can be rather populous. In tourist strongholds such as Prince William Sound and Juneau, paddlers from package tours tend to string out like ducklings, bobbing along in the shadows of the big cruise ships. But don't despair: If you're willing to venture a little farther afield—to a park few have heard of in a corner of the state nearly everyone overlooks—you can find the lonely, birch-shadowed paddles of memory. You just have to find your way to Wood-Tikchik State Park.
Little known outside Alaska, Wood-Tikchik is actually America's largest state park, dwarfing even such national jewels as the Everglades and the Grand Canyon. Roadless and wild, its forests ranged by grizzlies and caribou, Wood-Tikchik is dominated above all by its lakes, their snowmelt-fed waters spectacularly clear.

To begin a paddle of this remote spot, you must first arrange a floatplane lift from Dillingham, the nearest town (about 350 miles from Anchorage). Ask your pilot to drop you at Lake Kulik, south of the Ahklun Mountains; it's the entry point to the six-lake Wood River chain, the most accessible—a relative term—of the waterways in Wood-Tikchik. Narrow and chilly, Lake Kulik twists like a sea serpent for 20 miles between alders and draping willows. After lazily exploring the shoreline, make camp on the north side, ensuring yourself a spectacular view of the 1,000-foot-high waterfalls cascading down the far shore's rock walls.
Wind River is just ahead, commencing at the southwest end of Kulik. A pleasant riffle of Class I and II rapids, it soon widens into tiny Mikchalk Lake, and then, 2.5 miles farther along, into Lake Beverley, one of the loveliest lakes in all of Alaska. An immense, curvy, 26-mile-long body of water, Beverley culminates in two spectacular fjords, the Golden Horn and the Silver Horn. Before exploring them, make camp at Hard Luck Bay, on the north side of the lake. Then pull out your telephoto lens, patiently wait for dusk (it arrives at about midnight in June), and try to capture the gold and pink light playing off the pelts of the 250,000-strong Mulchatna caribou herd feeding along the low tundra to the east.
After Beverley, conditions become less placid, as the Class II whitewater of the Agulukpak River whirls you into the largest and most treacherous of the Wood River lakes, Nerka. Ringed by towering, glaciated mountains, the broad expanse of Nerka is often plagued by 50-mile-per-hour williwaws (glacier winds) that roar down off the peaks and whip up four-foot whitecaps. It's best to navigate the lake in the morning or early evening, when the winds have subsided. Conveniently, these also are the loveliest times of day: The sunlight is low and golden, the lake's surface shimmers like glass, and a few salmon break the surface with piscine joie de vivre.
To arrange a guided trip down the Wood River chain, contact Tikchik State Park Tours (888-345-2445). Five-day paddles cost about $1,700 per person, including airfare from Anchorage. To do it yourself, call Bay Air in Dillingham (907-842-2570). Its pilots will drop you in Lake Kulik and retrieve you in the village of Aleknagik, at the end of the Wood River chain, for about $525 per person, including transport of your gear.

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