Lake Tustumena: An Exploratory Trip With Photos

Dad after day, I guide our guests out on Kachemak Bay. Then I retire to bed, and if I have the energy, I research maps, and the internet – for new places to explore. I’ve had a keen interest in Lake Tustumena for several years now. At roughly 73,000 acres, it is reportedly the 5th largest freshwater lake in Alaska, and the largest on the Kenai Peninsula. And, it’s only an hour down the road from Homer.

I set a boundary this past weekend: NO GUIDE TRIPS! I did that so my son Ben and I could go explore Tustumena. Most people from the lower 48 don’t understand this – but up here, there just is no road system to get you out into the country. So, you have to either plan some long, grueling hikes – or, you use rivers and lakes to get to your destination via boat or plane. The attraction of Tustumena is that it is accessible via the Kasilof River, is 25 miles long, and butts up against the northwest corner of the Harding Ice Field. For a couple of centuries – this has been a great area for big game hunters – who pursue moose, caribou, sheep, goats, black and brown bears, and small game too.

Before Tustumena became part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge – made so by President Teddy Roosevelt, it was frequented by a handful of big game guides and trappers – who built cabins on its shores, and used them as base camps. These cabins were built and owned by private individuals, but when the area became a refuge, the cabins became the ownership of the federal government – who now keeps them up, and rents them out on a permit system. It was also my plan to check out these cabins – to find out where they were located, if there were boat anchorages nearby, if they were in close proximity to a few remote trails that I had researched, if there were salmon running in the streams, and if there were brown bears in those streams.

After helping Maria feed the multitudes at the B and B, Ben and I left Homer about mid-morning, stopping only to gas up the boat, and get a cooler full of groceries. We launched at the public access on the Kasilof River, and motored the mile or so up to the west end of the lake. We noticed a few kayakers in the river, and one boat headed from the lake back into the mouth of the river, but that was the last we saw of any civilization.

The water was shallow and a turquoise green in the river, and in the bay just outside – a dead giveaway for glacial runoff water. We saw a few salmon jumping as we headed off into the massive lake. A large peninsula and series of islands juts out on the right – which we were careful to keep a safe distance from. Then, we began making our way across the lake to the far northern shore – and that’s when we began to notice the wind. Going straight into the wind was giving us a good beating, so I “drove the troughs” till we hit the north shore, and then began making our way up the coast. Google maps showed us a series of structures which were once “Tustumena Lodge”, which I think is no longer in operation. Ben and I tried to land the boat to have a look around, but with 2-4 foot rollers coming in on that beach, it soon became evident that this would have to wait for another day.

We passed Bear Creek – a trailhead, but the creek was too shallow for boat anchorage, so we continued on. It got more and more windy. The boat was up, and down into a trough, with the next wave coming nearly over the bow – and Ben exclaimed “THIS SUCKS. I DON’T WANNA DO THIS ANYMORE!” with maybe another expletive or two. I promptly turned the boat around and ducked around the next point behind us – which offered a little shelter. It was then that Ben noticed a rooftop back in the trees. We made for that, and found one of the cabins mentioned in my research – The Pipe Creek Cabin, whose tiny creek was just wide enough and deep enough to get my 20 foot Lund out of the now 4-6 foot swells crashing onto the beaches of this entire lake.

Ben and Sam-E outside the Pipe Creek Cabin

The only safe anchorage we could find on the entire north side of this lake – just perfect for my Lund.

Ben in the Pipe Creek Cabin, just before lunch.

A harrowing story of three fisheries guys attacked by 5 brown bears. They narrowly escaped serious injury and death.

Wood stove and sleeping area in the Pipe Creek Cabin.

 

I had read about the brown bears that frequent this site on various internet forums and articles – so, we didn’t go anywhere without our guns. Ben carried a 12-guage pump with 5 slugs, and I carried a lever-action .45-70. Both are small cannons, and would even the odds in the event that the rare attack occurred. The plan was, at the first sighting of a bear, yelling would commence, and backup would come running. Any bear would have its hands full with the two of us scrappers!

I was surprised at the reasonably good condition of the cabin. The Forest Service had added bunks, a wood stove, a picnic table, some hooks for hanging and drying clothes, a relatively new outhouse and shed for wood, a fire pit, and a fish-cleaning table. The walls of the cabin left a little to be desired, with lots and lots of cobwebs, and the mud plaster between the logs falling out. The door didn’t fit shut – so in came the mosquitos. 

There wasn’t much to do. No trail heads nearby. No salmon in the creek. We brought in the cooler and enjoyed some lunch. I was going to check out the outhouse when I heard Ben yelling – “There’s a bear over here!” I came running – only to find out that Ben, with his keen eyesight, had spotted a brown bear on the beach over a half mile away. There was no need for my assistance after all (shucks) – cuz I’ve always wanted to do battle with a big brownie. What a way to go! Ben and I jumped into the boat, and made for the bear to get a closer look, but it took off FAST on our approach – probably seeing the sun glinting off our windshield. We got on shore to have a look around, and Sam Elliott, my 10 month-old Gordon Setter, found a female Common Goldeneye to chase around in a small pool of water just over the hill from the lakeshore. Then, it was back to the cabin for a nap, and hopefully things would calm down enough for us to have a look around.

Sam Elliott in hot pursuit of a female goldeneye – who leads him away from her young while they go hide. Gotta love his energy and desire!

Five hours later, it was 8:00, and still blowing like a son-of-a-b. We decided to go for it – and braved the waves all the way to the east end of the lake. It was slow going, and one would think that going into the wind – it would eventually get more and more calm – but exactly the opposite happened. Going into the wind coming off the Harding Ice Field, and the Tustumena Glacier – the wind got more and more ferocious the closer we went. I kept the boat pointed straight into the wind, going only 5-10 mph. We passed Moose Creek, with it’s trailhead up to the glacial flats, and found no safe anchorage for our boat. Same with the Emma Creek Trailhead. We discovered two more cabins – one public use, and one private held by a man named Jim Taylor – whose entries were common in the journal that each cabin had for visitors to write about their trips. It seemed that Jim had been around for decades, and liked to keep a watchful eye on the condition of these beloved cabins. How I’d like to sit down and have a pot or two of coffee with this man…, and so I’ve made a mental note to return, and try and track him down.

On the shores of the lake, near these two cabins, we found plenty of evidence of brown bears. Their tracks were on the shore, going both directions. A fresh pile of dung caught Sammy’s attention, and mine. Ben and I were alert, and on point for a sudden bear encounter at any moment, while Sam E found a nest of swallows in a hollow tree, and commenced chasing the flying birds everywhere – even into the icy-cold water. Ben and I admired the handiwork of these cabins; their history was posted on the interior walls. I let my mind wander – to imagine what it must have been like to be Andrew Berg back in the early 1900’s, one of only 90 people who called the entire Kenai Peninsula home at that time, and live way the heck-and-gone out here on this lake, to live a secluded life of scratching out a living in the wilderness. That may have been me if I were born back then, if not for just awhile.

On the shores of Tustumena

Andrew Berg’s Cabin

Closer look at the previous shot – I just like it 🙂

History of Andrew Berg Cabin

Brown Bear Scat. Hey, that’s more than scat. That’s a three pound pile!

Handiwork of the old-time cabin builders.

Kind of weird feeling – to be out in the middle of nowhere, to not see a living soul for two days – but someone was recently here to mow the lawn? The park ranger left his card on the table.

Big Brown Bear Track on the beach.

Ben and I surfed our way back to the cabin, arriving around midnight. We pulled into our safe anchorage, made sure the coast was clear of bears, and settled in for the night. It was a fitful nights sleep as we alternated between trying to get comfortable, and swatting the mosquitos that came in through the cracks in the walls and door. Somewhere in the night, I heard the wind finally die down. The trees outside the window stopped flapping, and the water stopped crashing against the beach – but I was too tired to do anything about it. The next thing I knew, it was 6 am, and the waves were pounding again.

We arose at 8 am to have a quick breakfast of fruit and energy bars, with my usual Coke and Ben’s usual Monster drink – then loaded the boat and headed out. The waves weren’t unlike the 4-6 footers we see in K-Bay on the days when they have a “small craft advisory” warning. Ben declared this lake “The Ass-Crack of Satan Himself” the way it always blew. Thank God it didn’t stink. Internet reports warned us of the high winds; now we knew.

On the way home, we saw a small brown bear sow out in the surf, trying to catch a fish for her two cubs; she was fishing at the mouth of “Bear Creek”; how fitting. Ben got a few shots of her as she caught our scent, gathered up her two younguns, and skedaddled. In the photo below, you can see the surf coming onto the beach, and the leaves of the trees turned upside down from the wind. The rest of the trip back was uneventful. The wind subsided the farther we got from the glaciers.

Momma Brown Bear running for cover

I’d sure like to know if there are regular weather patterns on this lake? If mornings are typically calm? Just how big the Lake Trout and Steelhead get in this lake? If salmon pack into the small streams in August, and draw good numbers of brown bears? I think of these things, not only for my enjoyment, but to be able to offer another type of wilderness side-trip for our guests at Majestic View. I think a meeting with this Jim Taylor would prove useful…

All in all, it was good to get away from the hustle and bustle of the bed and breakfast – if only for a night. Though we didn’t get to fish or hike, we did get to “lay eyes on” the lake, get a feel for things, locate cabins and trail heads, and see 4 brown bears on our own. I’d call that a successful adventure!

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