Swiss paddlers arrive in Bethel after 700-mile journey down the Kuskokwim

two people at a table
Thomas and Tomi Isenschmid with a map of their route down the Kuskokwim. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

A father and son from Switzerland paddled ashore at Lomack Beach in Bethel last week. They had kayaked around 700 miles down the Kuskokwim to get there from Lake Minchumina, but Thomas and Tomi Isenschmid’s journey got off to a rocky start.

Their first challenge was to carry all of their gear, kayak, tent, food and supplies, 10 miles from their starting point at Lake Minchumina to the North Fork of the Kuskokwim. They had to carry 350 pounds of gear across the tundra, Tomi said.

It took him and his father, Thomas, a week of walking back and forth from their camp to their starting point on the river. Their hiking boots got soaking wet trudging through the soggy tundra.

At first they couldn’t even find their entrance point to the Kuskokwim, the river they’d traveled from Switzerland to paddle down.

“The first day we made a terrible mistake, you know. We went more or less in a circle. We worked for six or seven hours, completely frustrated,” Thomas said. “We were doubting whether we could do it.”

A trapper in Lake Minchumina helped them with directions. They’d been looking on the left, but the way out was on the right.

“And then the next morning we made it to the North Fork,” Thomas said. “And that was really highlight: when you see the water of the North Fork for the first time. That was really great.”

The Isenschmids said that once they started paddling down the river it got easier. It felt more like the adventure Thomas had planned to do with his son. In a year off from work, he did a trip with each of his three adult children.

Thomas estimated that only four parties have paddled that far down the Kuskokwim, at least in the past 30 years.

Getting onto the river didn’t mean their challenges were over. Their first day paddling, a black bear with two cubs stood up behind their tent and smashed it down. Thomas was able to scare her away with bear spray, and there was no damage to their tent. But when they got back to their boat they found it ransacked: parts broken, supplies pulled out.

“That was the second moment where we thought ‘this is the end.’ First day on the river. This is the end,” Thomas said.

But they were able to fix what they needed to to get back on the water. There’s still a small chunk ripped out of one of their Klepper foldable kayak’s seats. The kayak is a German design inspired by traditional Yup’ik kayaks, Thomas said proudly.

Thomas Isenschmid shows a piece of of his Klepper folding kayak frame.

For about three weeks, the father and son saw no one: no people, no other boats. They fished and hunted geese, and they paddled.

“You’re very busy, and you’re busy with really the basics,” Thomas said. “How can I stay warm? How can I get food?”

The Isenschmids did a 100 mile, week-long kayak trip to prepare in Switzerland. But it’s a different experience in Alaska in that you’re far away from help if there’s an emergency.

“When you think: ‘Is this it? Is this the end?’ You start feeling the heat rising in your body and you start thinking there is nowhere you can go,” Thomas said. “There is no immediate help, not even within a day or two. And this is really a special feeling. But it’s also a good feeling. Because you can see you can really do it.”

The Isenschmids paddled ashore at Lomack Beach on Sept. 23.

After two weeks of paddling, they reached McGrath. From then on they started to encounter more people as they traveled down the river.

In Akiak, people brought them food, coffee and dried fish when they camped by the village for two nights. One night, they went into town to play bingo and they won the $228 jackpot.

They said that many locals they encountered also gave them advice, like the best fishing spots or which channels to take.

“Some people were telling us how it was like 50 or 60 years ago,” Thomas said. “How they camp and how it has changed. It’s interesting to hear and exchange, and people are really very nice.”

The Isenschmids aren’t the only ones to complete challenging paddling trips in the area this summer. Thomas Dyment and Luke Wenger paddled 850 miles from Fairbanks to Bethel.

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