Alaska is home to 8 National Parks; and 4 of the 8 are among the top 10 least visited. This may be why Alaska is in my ‘top places to visit in the world’, I love to find remote places few people visit! Alaska is a vast wilderness, and most people only see a minuscule part of what it has to offer. The state set a new record of 1,857,500 million out-of-state visitors from May to September 2016. However, very small percentages actually venture off into what makes Alaska so special, the wilderness. And ironically most tourists say that’s what they want to experience, but they seldom do it.
The reason for this is because it’s hard to get to these remote parks and lakes. You have to have the right training and equipment, else you can find yourself in a dangerous situation pretty quickly; just look at Christopher McCandless and his story of Into the Wild.
On my first trip to Alaska, I visited a number of Alaska national parks, but I didn’t have time to really go deeply into them hiking and camping. I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska again without having a proper camping and wilderness adventure.
You might think that remote camping is something I do all the time, but it’s not. I love adventures, but I get to do few real hard-core adventures because I don’t have the experience or the gear to do them normally. And – little known fact – I’m kind of intimidated by the wilderness and back-country hiking. So I contacted the experts in remote wilderness adventure, Alaska Alpine Adventures.
Lake Clark National Park and Twin Lakes Alaska
Coming in at #2 on the least visited National Park list is Lake Clark National Park with 17, 818 annual visitors and it was my destination of choice.
Situated where the Alaska range collides with the Aleutian range, Lake Clark is a back-country park; meaning there are no roads or campgrounds, and only one hiking trail. The only way to move around the park is by foot, kayak, raft, boat or small plane. It consists of over 4 million acres making it twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and larger than the state of Connecticut. This is not a place where you want to go alone if you don’t know what you are doing!
Alaska Alpine Adventures (AAA) knows Lake Clark NP, and it really knows Twin Lakes, the turquoise crowning jewel of the park, and home to Dick Proeneke’s famous remote cabin.
“To this day, Lake Clark National Park represents the roots of our enterprise. Not only is it where we guided our first trip and the base of summertime operations, it is also the backdrop for most of our itineraries and, quite simply, our favorite place on earth to explore.” –Dan Oberlatz founder of Alaska Alpine Adventures
Their Twin Lakes Paddle Tour was named one of the National Geographic’s Tours of a Lifetime and for good reason. I’ve done a lot of travel to amazing places in my life and this by far was one of the most beautiful, rugged yet pristine places I’ve ever seen and experienced.
However, the trip is not for the casual wilderness lover; don’t expect to go look at pretty views and have your guides to do everything for you. This type of adventure travel is a real team effort and a hands-on experience. In fact, before signing up AAA has a very realistic description of what to expect that sort of freaked me out and made me think twice about if I was prepared enough to take this trip.
“Physical conditioning and consistent exercise prior to these trips is essential. You will be sitting in and paddling an inflatable sea kayak for up to 4 continuous hours. You also will be hiking off trail over steep and uneven terrain, often covering more than 10-miles in a day. You may encounter short stretches of thick vegetation and may also experience Alaska’s diverse selection of insect species. You will be camping in a very remote wilderness, sleeping in tents, relieving yourself in places with a stunning view, and sometimes enjoying all of the above in the rain. You will be expected to load and unload your own gear, carry a portion of the group gear from our drop-off location to our various camp locations, and manage your own physical comfort and well-being. Pre-trip physical conditioning should begin no later than 2 months before departure and should include walking or hiking.”
However, I totally appreciated their honestly and directness. They certainly don’t want to be out in the wilderness with people who aren’t prepared to be there as that’s when it becomes dangerous.
Let’s Hear it for the Girls
I do a lot of guided adventures, but I’ve only had a few adventures led by female guides. I’m always excited when I get to hike with women because it gives me a great role model to aspire to. They are smart, independent, and typically badass. Haley, our Alaska Alpine Adventure Guide, was as badass as they come. It was as if she had been raised by a pack of wolves in the wilderness she was so comfortable in the backcountry. No pack was too big, no situation too dangerous, and no wind too strong for her to kayak through. Yes, that’s right, I had a girl crush. Actually many of the AAA guides are surprisingly women – something I don’t see too often in hard-core wilderness companies.
We met our guides, Haley and Brian, in Anchorage at the AAA office to pick up gear and ensure that we had everything we would need for the week. Then the real adventure began!
The First Adventure? Getting There
The fog looked like cotton candy hanging in the trees. Braided, muddy rivers feeding into glacier blue lakes mesmerized me. I stared out of the small airplane window overtaken with the Alaska beauty from above. This was the first of many small planes I would be in to get to Twin Lakes. This small charter flight from Anchorage took us over glaciers and mountains to Port Alsworth, a small, scenic town of 150 people situated on Lake Clark. It’s the National Park field headquarters and the jumping off point for many park adventures.
It was here where we loaded the multiple floatplanes with all of our gear (tents, food, kayaks) that AAA provided and started off on leg number two to Twin Lakes. I sat in the front seat with the pilot and all of the gear was in back. We took off in pretty ominous looking weather. The clouds had dropped down even lower and shrouded the mountains surrounding us. The fog was so thick I was afraid we’d run into a mountainside. Small planes don’t bother me; however, we were basically flying around the peaks at eye level with giant mountains. It’s unnerving flying in the fog when you can’t see the mountains, but you know they are there. The visibility was so poor, we had to turn around and go back to Port Alsworth and wait a few hours to try again. Floatplanes don’t have complex radar systems, they are more like driving my grandpa’s old loud pickup.
Two hours later we were on take two. The clouds had cleared a bit, but the pilot decided there still wasn’t enough visibility to get thorough the pass safely. Good decision, as I was already biting my nails! He decided to go around the mountains taking a long and scenic journey around all of Lake Clark NP.
Finally the turquoise Twin Lakes were in our view and we made a big loop around to land. And right as we landed the weather turned again and we were unloading everything in the pouring rain – I was pretty happy I packed good rain gear for this trip.
As the planes flew off and we scrambled to set up and organize camp I paused for a second to watch and listen to the planes leave. It was this moment where I realized we were really alone, cut off from civilization. It made me a bit uneasy, I wasn’t used to being this remote. Heavy clouds hung over us and the last hum of the plane disappeared in the distance. Was I cut out for this? I sure hoped so. I looked around at my ‘wilderness team’ working hard at camp prep and building comradery and decided I was in pretty good hands for the next 5 days.
Guns and Bears
Among the deluge of rain Haley set up a little tarp for us to all gather under so she could go through some quick safety topics. We were now going to broach the subject I’m actually pretty terrified about in the wilderness – bears. I have a weird history with grizzly bears, a curse, and I really do believe when I do see a bear it might not be a good situation. So I intently listened (and took notes) as Haley gave us her bear safety presentation.
She explained her bear spray in detail, showing us how to use it and where it was kept. We learned there are two times when bear spray doesn’t work – in the wind and in the rain. Suddenly I’m hyper aware of the sounds of the rain as it pelts our tarp.
Then she goes over plan B. I honestly didn’t know there was a plan B, but I watched intently as she nonchalantly pulled out an old revolver out of her pack. It looked like it was from a Clint Eastwood movie. She covered the details on the revolver and 6 bullets she’s carrying. She showed us the gun and explained there is no safety on the gun; her safety was she doesn’t load the first barrel. She carried it with her at all times along with the bear spray. So now you get the picture – Haley is pretty badass, and I’m glad she’s with me. And I’m glad she has bear spray and an old revolver!
Blazing Our Own Trail on Lower Twin Lake
The first night sleeping in a cold tent is always an adjustment. However when you wake up the next morning, unzip the tent ‘door’ and see the pristine view, it’s all worth it. The rain had finally subsided for now and the sky was starting to clear up. Haley and Brian had a breakfast feast going and we didn’t waste any time breaking down camp and getting the kayaks blown up. Today we were moving by water.
It was a beautiful calm paddle on the inflatable kayaks; I was amazed at how sturdy they were and how much weight they could carry. I loved being on the water surrounded by peaks – and no fear of bears jumping out at me! We kayaked 4 miles to our next stop at Beach Creek Camp. We set up camp near the water and immediately went for a hike to stretch the legs. It was actually less of a hike and more of a bushwalk through the tundra. We plowed through heavy brush on spongy, uneven ground, up a ridge, through a mossy area, and finally to a sight where we could look back at Twin Lakes. I huffed and puffed my way through the hike. But the view was worth it.
It was a very cold night dropping into the low 30’s, which is why I was out doing high knee marching on the beach before going to bed. In addition to doing a light jog or calisthenics right before going to bed to heat up, I also used a canteen of hot water and put it in my sleeping bag, which kept me pretty toasty warm.
The next day we used the kayaks to go to the other side of the lake and do a hearty 7 ½ mile hike up to the Lower and Upper Falls with an incredible lookout of the lakes. We saw a grizzly – luckily it was on the other ridge and it looked like a little speck of pepper on the mountain. However we did see plenty of bear fur stuck to the trees we passed. The bears often rub on the trees when they have an itch. We might have been the only humans in the park, but we were not alone.
We were certainly roughing it, but we did have one ridiculous creature comfort. Our camp menus read like a menu in a NYC restaurant; olive tapenade, mufalata sandwich, mango coconut cashew cous cous, pancakes with maple syrup, chicken enchiladas, curries, butterscotch treats, coffee toffee brownies, and more.
Alaska Alpine Adventures has their own camping food line, Adventure Appetites, that is incredible. The quest to create the perfect back-country menu is a big part of AAA. They have created whole back-country menus that are lightweight, nutritious, balanced, durable, stable, and tasty. Plus, they cater to any allergy or food requirement.
They have camp cooking down to an efficiency that I’ve never seen before. All of the meals were made out of 2 pots and 2 tiny camp burners. All of this gourmet food was served up in thermal mugs with sporks instead of plates. After dinner they’d pour a little hot thermos water in the mug, add a drip of dish liquid, we put on the lid and shook it clean. No hand washing necessary. They cooked better food on those little two burners than I can make in a fully functional kitchen. I love how camping makes you be efficient and inventive; and it keeps things simple.
Paddle Power on Upper Twin Lake
We were back on the water and in the water on day 4. This was the day we had to portage the kayaks between the two lakes. The good news was that we could do it by walking through the water and pulling the kayaks along instead of dragging them through the thick bush. However. the bad news was the current between the lakes can be really strong and we had a really windy day on top of it. We had our work cut out for us.
We celebrated after we got to the upper lake, but our work wasn’t done. We had to get to the other side of that lake to our campground and we had white caps staring right at us crashing into shore. This was going to take some paddle power.
After a long slog, we made it across the lake to Hope Creek Camp Ground and set up camp among the trees and out of the wind. The day had changed and we had an incredible afternoon. We spent time with the park rangers who showed us around Dick Proeneke’s famous cabin in the wilderness. A highlight of the trip.
We had one final day of hiking up through the alpine tundra the next morning to the Eye of the Needle – an obscure rock formation at the head of one of the many tributaries of Hope Creek. With the colors of fall in full swing, and various wildlife out on the steep mountain slopes, it was a spectacular walk. I did half of the hike due to my ongoing ankle injury – but doing half was way better than doing nothing at all!
It was as startling to hear the hum of the floatplanes coming in for a landing on the water, as it was when they left us alone at Twin Lakes. I had gotten used to the silence of the wilderness. The five days went incredibly fast; but it was worth every cold night, tough hike, and arm-numbing paddle to be one of the few visitors to Lake Clark National Park.
Book your Own Twin Lakes Paddle
Adventure Appetites meals can also be ordered online for your next camping adventure.
I was a guest of Alaska Alpine Adventures and the Adventure Trade and Travel Association for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.