Kenai Peninsula Week
Day 24: Back to Anchorage
While our time at Alaska West had ended, we still had to get back to Anchorage to meet up with fishing buddy James Kelley to start our Kenai Peninsula leg. To do that required the reverse of how we got to Alaska West….. Step 1: boat ride from the tent camp to the native village of Quinhagak. When we got there, the tide was at a crazy high at 14.2 feet up, meaning our guides navigated the jet boats through a scattering of native’s boats, and up a road that was well underwater. It was funny seeing the guides looking at one another, wondering what was the best way to go. But…. we made it out of the boats and after a short walk, we boarded our “school bus” for a short ride to the Quinhagak airport terminal.
What you have to understand about the Quinhagak terminal, is that it’s a small house, with no “security”. We didn’t see any TSA agents, only a native selling trinkets and wolf hides in the “gift shop” area of the small terminal/house. It was raining, of course, as we walked out to our small, 8 passenger single prop plane and took off down the runway with a large “bump” in it. Luckily, the plane had lifted before we hit the bump (we hit it on landing a week earlier).
After a short flight from Quinhagak to Bethel, we located our luggage and fish boxes (yes, we brought out 100 lbs of salmon). We proceeded to “formally” check in at the Bethel terminal, have our bags weighed, lamented how our bags were left behind last time on this leg and waited. Finally, we boarded a Dash 8 and took the 1.5 hour flight to Anchorage…. where we found James waiting for us at baggage claim. We grabbed our rental car and headed to the Kenai Peninsula and the little community of Cooper Landing, right on the Kenai & Russian Rivers.
Barb and I celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary with James by having dinner at the Kingfisher, a local restaurant and bar located right on the water. After a good meal and lots of story telling, we headed to our cabins for the night.
Day 25: Quartz Creek Stomping
We met Matt Marchaund at Alaska Troutfitters and headed out to Quartz Creek for the day. Barb and I had fished with Matt on the Russian earlier on our trip and he’d talked about how Quarts Creek was ‘coming into shape’ and might be a great option. After parking at the Crescent Creek campground, we fished our way upstream through several holes, hooking into a fish here and there. It was still early for the Quartz, but, we were encouraged seeing a huge King salmon. At some point eggs would be laid, and some would drift downstream to waiting trout and dolly varden, but not just yet. Still, we found several willing fish to hit our egg beads.
We had lunch, sitting on the bank of the river before heading downstream to fish a few holes. We crossed over Crescent Creek, which was flowing strong, before hitting a couple of really nice spots and hooking into more fish. We’d had a great day fishing with Matt and headed back to our cabins and dinner at Sacketts… pizza!
Day 26: #100… CHECK!
This was the day…. our chance to fish the Kenai River, which would be the 100th river on the TU list we’d been fishing. We met our guide for the day, Simmons Adickes of Mystic Waters Fly Fishing, in front of our cabin and headed off to the Sportsman’s Landing launch. After putting on our life vests, getting our safety instructions, launching and getting our fishing instruction, we started. Within 15 minutes we’d landed (Barb, of course) our first of many Kenai River fish, a feisty rainbow.
We fished through the “Refuge” section with really good success, picking off rainbows and dolly varden with regularity. We’d also seen eagles (bald and juvenile) around every bend in the river. Simmons told us how one bald eagle, Frank, had bombed his boat when we was landing a fish for a client. Frank literally flew down and plucked the fish right from the net, and proceeded to fly away with it. We were laughing so hard as the story continued…. turns out, the fish was still hooked by the angler, so as Frank flew away, the fly line was screaming off the reel of the angler, but, it was 40’ in the air as Frank was taking the fish to his nest. Just like bears always win when it decides it wants your fish, so do bald eagles. Frank got the fish (with a hook still in its mouth) and the angler got his line back, hookless.
We went through the “canyon” section with less fishing success, but it was absolutely gorgeous. The rapids were large (Class III) so we sat a lot as we rode them out, but fished some gravel bars along the way. At the end of the “canyon” section, we emerged into Skilak Lake where Simmons turned on the motor and we started our 6 mile trek across the lake. About 2/3 of the way across, we encountered some big waves caused by a westerly wind which made us a bit nervous, but Simmons navigated us safely across. We even saw a small black bear perched on a ledge along the lake.
When we landed at the boat ramp, and exhaled having successfully crossed the lake, we smiled as we remembered that today, we’d crossed off river 100. While our quest to fish (and land a fish) in each of the TU Top 100 trout stream, we still had more days to fish.
Day 27: DIY
This was our DIY day, with the three of us heading off to fish both Quartz Creek and the Russian River on our own. We started on Quartz Creek by hiking up a trail from the Crescent Creek campground for about 1/2 mile. After bushwhacking our way to the river, we found good spots to drop in and proceeded to fish our way downstream, hole by hole, back to the parking lot.
Barb was on fire, picking up beautiful dolly varden in most every hole, but James had the “hook up” of the day. He hollered at me to come help and when I got there and looked into the water, I saw a huge sockeye salmon fighting James line. Now understand, James had hooked into numerous sockeyes when we fished with Matt a couple of days earlier, and Matt had showed him how to point the rod at them and get the hook out. You really don’t want to fight a sockeye with a 6wt rod you’re using to catch rainbows and dolly varden. However, there was more than met my eye.
When I looked closer, I saw that in reality, James had hooked a nice dolly, and in the process of fighting it, the line had crossed through the mouth of the sockeye, and he was fighting BOTH of the fish. We had a small trout net with us that was of no use in landing the sockeye/dolly combo, so we tried to work it out of the sockeye’s mouth. After a few minutes, the sockeye turned, the line came out and we landed the dolly successfully…. whew!
We grabbed lunch at our cabins as we were heading over to fish the Russian River. We parked at the Grayling lot and headed down to the river. When we reached the banks, looking both up and downstream, there were salmon anglers everywhere. We decided we still had to fish, so, with our trout rods and dry flies at the ready, we began fishing. At that same moment, a black bear decided to grace our fishing spot for a few moments, pausing to notice us, but walking away quickly.
We worked our way upstream, dropping into holes that looked ‘fishy’ whenever we could, but the salmon anglers were still everywhere. I was able to snag a nice dolly tight line nymphing, but the real highlight of the afternoon was still to come.
As we were walking downstream, back to the Grayling parking lot, we encountered anglers talking about a bear. When we got to one of the angler access points, we saw a couple standing there with bear spray out and even a knife at the ready. We walked out onto the small deck they were standing on and proceeded to watch a grizzly, slowly making his way upstream, pausing periodically to take a few bites out of salmon that had been caught and filleted by anglers upstream. The anglers had tossed the remains of their catches in the river and the grizzly was feasting on their discarded salmon. He put on a good show for us for about 15 minutes before heading back into the woods.
Day 28: Mystic Waters
When we began planning our Alaska leg of our River Ramble, we worked with the folks at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing. They’d recommended we contact Stacy at Mystic Waters Fly Fishing for our Kenai river adventures. We met Stacy at 7am and prepared to embark for our second Kenai river trip. First, we had to decide what section to fish…. remember, our Skilak Lake crossing the last time with Simmons had made us think about not fishing the “canyon” section which required the 6 mile lake crossing at the end. After checking the weather conditions for the day and talking with Stacy, the fact he’d been guiding on the Kenai for 20 years, we headed back to fish the “Refuge” and “canyon” sections again…. really great decision.
We hooked into a lot of nice fish early on the trip, but it really got “hot” when we pulled into several back eddies. The rainbows were hiding in the slack current of the eddies still awaiting the big drop of eggs from the king salmon and later the sockeyes. We took turns fishing these spots, and each landed fish when we dropped in. Fun!
At the end of the day, when we got to Skilak Lake, it was so calm and clear. The reflections off the water of the clouds and the rock cliffs surrounding the lake were incredible. We’d had another banner day on the Kenai fishing with Stacy and decided right then, we’d have to come back.
Day 29: Upper Kenai
Our last “fishing” day in Alaska started with packing up and getting ready for the drive back to Anchorage. However, we wanted to fish more, so we set off with Mike of Alaska Troutfitters on a 1/2 day float along the Upper stretch of the Kenai, a stretch we’d not fished. While the calm, slow water at the launch site at Cooper Landing was comforting, the wave fishing we’d be doing later was a challenge that we met head on. Mike said “the Kings make their redds here, so the big trout line up behind them”… and we were fishing for big trout. Go big or go home was our motto.
After fishing for a bit, we pulled into a couple of backwater areas and fished first for trout and next for silvers. James had success at both, hooking into a nice trout as well as a big sockeye. Mike was a great guide and coach for us along the way, but of course, Barb was schooling us both…. most fish, biggest fish, you name it.
When we reached the boat ramp at the end of our float, it was a bit of a bittersweet feeling. This was our last fishing day in Alaska, and the last fishing day of our TU Top 100 River Ramble. It’s been an amazing adventure and the memories will last forever. The stories we have will continue to be told forever as well. So while we were excited for achieving our goal of fishing (and catching a fish in) the TU Top 100 trout streams… we were also somewhat sad it was “over”.
Day 30: Saying “Goodbye”
We said goodbye to James as he headed back to Nashville and then spent one more night in Anchorage. Waking up early, packing everything up, grabbing our 100 lbs of salmon from the hotel freezer and heading to ANC, our last day in Alaska was another day of travel…. But wait, we’d already talked about coming back to Alaska in 2020 to fish during prime time on the Kenai and Russian Rivers… and…. we’ve talked about going back to Maine, and our newly minted state of WeNoCarNoGaEaTen (aka. Western North Carolina, Northern Georgia, Eastern Tennessee), California, Pennsylvania and our home waters around Montana, Idaho and Wyoming…. it seems line our Rambles will be continuing. Alaska simply confirmed our passions to continue our fishing adventures.
Day 17: Lost Luggage
After taking the hotel shuttle to ANC, we dropped our bags at the Ravn Air counter and proceeded to our gate. As we found a spot to sit, we couldn’t help but overhear everyone’s stories of the upcoming fishing trip. It turns out, if you’re flying to Bethel (AK), you’re either a local native… or you’re going fishing. As we listened in, we heard JEB Hall’s name mentioned. JEB was our guide during year 1 on the Davidson River in western North Carolina. When we turned around, there was JEB, sitting there, headed to the Kanektok for a two week stint of guiding. Small world indeed.
When it was time to board, we walked out onto the tarmac to our Ravn Air Dash 8 aircraft, boarded, found a couple of seats together and settled in for the first leg of our trip to the Kanektok. As they were about to close the door, a ground agent boarded the plane and told everyone that we were overweight, and several bags were being held off the aircraft. You can see where this is going already as indeed, we were the lucky losers whose bags got held off. But no problem, they’d be on the next flight out.
We arrived in Bethel where they confirmed it was our bags that got bumped, but, we were assured the bags would be on the next flight to Quinhagak (AK), our last flight leg before we’d be boarding jet boats for the 30 minute trip upriver to camp. The skies were getting somewhat ominous but we took off from Bethel for Quinhagak. When we were descending to the Quinhagak runway, if you can call it that, we couldn’t help but worry. The ceiling was so low, the pilot was motioning and talking with the co-pilot saying “I think it’s over there” as he pointed to about 10 o’clock off our heading. We couldn’t see the ground at all, but we knew we were getting pretty low.
As we watched the altimeter going down, down down…. it reached 300 feet and was still going down when finally the ground appeared. The pilot made a slight left turn and we landed almost immediately. When we landed, “Chick”, one of our camp cohorts asked the pilot what his “ceiling” was before he wouldn’t land and he told us…. 300 feet. We were VERY happy to be down. What’s even crazier, is that the only reason we didn’t fly direct from Anchorage to Quinhagak is that the runway has a “bump” and would only accept smaller planes. When we landed, you could see the “bump” clearly in the runway and the pilot simply bounced over it, tilting the plane and all of us to the side before setting it down.
We were met at the plane by the guide staff of Alaska West, who took our luggage…. oh wait…. our luggage wasn’t here. They took us to our boat for the ride upstream to camp. It was pouring rain, and our raingear was in our luggage… so… we wrapped ourselves in trash bags and jumped in our boat for the ride. What we didn’t learn until later, as we were waiting for our luggage to arrive on the next flight into Quinhagak, was that there wasn’t going to be a next flight… they’d closed the airport due to weather conditions. We were shown to our tent, in fairly soaked clothing. Luckily, there were great heaters in the tents and the beds had numerous blankets on them, so, knowing we’d be wearing our same clothing the next day, we disrobed, hung our clothes to dry and jumped into bed. What was so funny to Barb and me was that every time Jason, the camp host/guide came to our tent to give us an update about our luggage, we were practically naked laying under the covers. Priceless!
Day 18: Kanektok Intro
We got word around 10am that our luggage was indeed on the way. Everyone else was already out on the river fishing at 8am so Barb and I did get to sleep in and since it was raining hard, we stayed dry for the time being. Our luggage arrived around noon, we grabbed some lunch, wader’d up, and headed down to the “beach” to meet Jason and go fishing on the Kanektok.
We landed our first “Silvers”. Silver Salmon are the main event at this time on the Kanektok River. They are big fish for sure, but what makes them so special is their feisty nature. When you hook into one, they run and jump like no others. During the week, I got taken into my backing numerous times by these acrobatic salmon. We had a blast.
Day 19: Silver Mania
A “typical” day at the Alaska West tent camp begins with hearing the generator turn on at 5:45am. It’s not that it’s really that loud, but that it’s really that quiet here. We’re miles and miles by boat from the nearest “civilization”, the small native village of Quinhagak, population 600, on the Bering Sea. At 7am, the breakfast bell rings and everyone heads to the dining tent. By everyone, I mean about 5 staff members, 10 guides and 16 guests. After a hearty breakfast, everyone waders up and heads down to the boats to meet their guide for the day and heads off up or downstream.
Our guide this day was Eric, from Crested Butte (CO) who we learned in addition to being a fishing guide here, was a ski patrol member at Crested Butte. We had great conversations and fun with Eric all day as we were on a quest to catch our “limit” of Silvers, 10 for the day. We fished several holes for silver salmon and had our limit by noon. After dropping off our bounty of Silvers and grabbing lunch in the boat, we headed upstream to fish for trout and Dolly Varden’s. We caught some beautiful rainbows but it was the “Dollys” that blew us away. Eric called out, you’ve got one “clowned up”, which simply meant the orange and green highlights on these Dollys were in full regalia. The moment we caught our first, we were quickly becoming Dolly addicts.
Around 5:30pm we headed back to camp, taking a great ride downstream in the jet boat, enjoying the views of tundra everywhere. As we arrived, we couldn’t believe the day we had and how it could possibly get any better. Hors d’oeuvres were awaiting us around 6:30 and we’d brought a 12 pack of Alaskan Amber and a bottle of tequila for our cocktails. 7:30 brought dinner and afterwards…. SLEEP!
Day 20: Limit by 9am
We were in “rise and repeat” mode each day, so breakfast, wader up, boats, go fishing was the order every day. However, this day was something absolutely insane. We met Cole at the boat, launched and arrived at our first hole to fish for silvers, aptly called, “Bay of Pigs”. First cast, silver on, landed…. I look over at Barb and her rod is also bent… silver on… landed. Keep in mind, the time frame from “fish on” to “fish landed” with silvers is often 5-10 minutes. These fish don’t give up early…. EVER! They run, jump, let you bring them close, before they run, jump over and over… when they see the landing net, you know what they do…. again… and likely again. By 9:00 we’d caught our limit, which is truly rare given you often will hook these gymnastic masters but not land them because every jump brings the chance of losing tension on the line and the fish swimming away with nothing but loose line in your hand.
We looked at each other…. Cole, Barb and I…. and said… “well, what do we do now?” Turns out that’s a very silly question because we could continue to catch silvers, we just couldn’t keep anymore, we’d “limited out”. We drove up to camp, dropped off our 10 silvers, and headed upstream to fish for trout and dollys. Now it was about more than just catching dollys; we were going to have a shore lunch, and NEEDED to catch a few dolls to filet and enjoy. Turns out, it didn’t take too long, so we set off to gather wood while Cole did the filleting, seasoning and cooking. It was so special to catch and eat lunch like this; on the river, middle of nowhere, no one around.
Later on, Barb hooked and landed a 24” dolly which was the biggest of the day in camp. We also found a nice 20” rainbow among many smaller ones. Great day… back to camp…. appetizers, drinks, dinner… and sleep.
Day 21: Getting our “Bering”s
Each evening, our guide for the next day would come by the dinner table and ask us what we wanted to do that day. When Lucas came by, he had some ideas of what we might enjoy and asked us… “Have you been to the mouth of the river? To the Bering Sea?” We were so excited to embark on this adventure we said yes in a heartbeat. So, Day 21 began with a boat ride downstream, past the native village of Quinhagak, to the mouth of the river where we stared out at the Bering Sea. It was really breathtaking and awe-inspiring realizing where we were sitting. We sat there and talked for about 20 minutes, about life, shared anniversaries and how small we felt in that moment.
After a brief ride upstream, we started our daily quest for silvers. At about the third hole we fished, we’d reached our limit and headed upstream, but not before Barb had landed her biggest silver of the week. The routine continued as before, drop off fish for Doug to do his magic on them, and head upstream to fish for trout and dolly varden. Before we started to fish, Lucas took us all the way up to the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge boundary…. so cool. We then found a sweet run on a braid of the river where Clear Creek flowed into the Kanektok and it was game on with landing bows and dollys. Of course, Barb landed the biggest dolly of the week at this point, 28”.
Lucas is an accomplished photographer and took tons of photos of us during the day. A few are above, but, when we get back home and can do it properly, you’ll see even more of his amazing photos!
Day 22: Tom Tom
Tom was our next guide who took us out hunting for silvers, rainbows, dollys and more. We landed silvers of course, but also chum and pink salmon. What is amazing is that Tom took us to parts of the river we’d not yet seen. This fishery is so vast with braids everywhere upstream. The highlights of the day were Tom finding more “holy” rocks and I got a beautiful grayling which seems like a prehistoric fish of sorts. Tom indicated he’d not seen a grayling this big this season and it was likely 25-30 years old. Tom also introduced us to the term “Tundra Turd”.
At the end of the day, we’d request to fish for some silvers, so Tom found a good hole and we proceeded to hook into a few. Tom asked if we’d mind keeping these so the chef could make some salmon dishes for dinner and of course we agreed. It was going to be special knowing we’d caught dinner for the camp guests and crew.
Day 23: Kanektok Krazy
Every day we’d say “It can’t possibly get better” or “I feel sorry for our next guide given what our guide yesterday put us on”….. yet every single day we were amazed with the fishing experience each guide at Alaska West gave us. When we found out Cole was again going to be our guide for our final day on the Kanektok, we wondered how on earth he could top the day we limited out by 9am…. but read on.
We started the day fishing poppers for silvers at a hole called the “Silver Hilton”… yes, most big holes on the river have names. After hooking into several silvers on poppers and streamers we decided to head upstream even further to fish for rainbows and dolly varden. We decided to eat lunch first before grabbing our rods and beginning to fish.
We were standing on this huge rock/gravel bar that ran on one side of the river which made an almost horseshoe bend. Cole put me at the head of the run and walked across the rock/gravel bar about 40 yards with Barb which put her about midway through the run. If you’d followed the river between us, it would have been more like 80-100 yards. On my first or second cast, boom! My strike indicator jerked down, I set the hook and had a good sized fish on. Most of the time, we never know what we’ve got until it jumps or until we get it closer to us. Unfortunately, Cole was over with Barb 40 yards away with the net so I hollered, he saw my rod bent and came running across 40 yards of rocks to help net a nice 20+ inch dolly varden. About this time, we hear Barb and her rod is bent good, so Cole high tails it across the 40 yards of rock/gravel bar to help Barb. I’m guessing by now you see where this is going and my emphasis on 40 yards of rock separating Barb and me. This went on so long we’d hear Cole yelling “Can you wait a sec…. keep it wet and I’ll be there soon”. It was so crazy that one time I had a really big fish on and waited for Cole to help get a big dolly off for Barb before yelling for help with the net. He called back, “What is it?”…. and I knew he was thinking…. if this is another dolly, I’m going to take my time…. but it wasn’t. You should have seen his eyes light up when he saw it was this huge, 22” leopard rainbow. He sprinted the last 15 yards with the net to help me land it.
After countless trips back and forth, Cole taught both Barb and me a trick to help us get our fish off the hooks more easily when we had a big fish on and no net to land it. It worked great and I’m sure Cole regretted not showing us this trick before he’d run enough 40 yard sprints to equal a mile easily. Finally, Barb decided to walk over to where I was fishing and watch for a while. This obviously relieved Cole from his back and forth exercise but not from continuing to help land fish. At one point, I cast six times and caught six fish…. hence Kanektok Krazy, but it got even better.
At this point, we were laughing so hard and having so much fun we decided not to push our luck and call it a day early. However, since this was our last day, we wanted to each catch one more silver salmon before calling it a day. The first spot we stopped on the way back toward camp was one we’d fished earlier in the day and had landed several silvers. This time, nothing…. not a bite, not a tug…. nothing. But we were on a mission, so we jumped back in the jet boat and headed to another spot. On my first cast out, boom, fish on and after a moment, there came the jump and it was a silver. I looked over at Barb with a big smile on my face and as I was just starting my fight, I see the line snap tight on Barb’s line and then a huge jump out of the water. We both had silvers on…. if only we could land them both, this would be epic. After about a 5 minute fight, Cole netted mine and we both looked over at Barb to see she’d coaxed her silver in close, but it had a couple more runs and jumps before it ultimately surrendered to the net. Two huge silver salmon in the net Cole was holding. We snapped a picture of these two big, beautiful fish in the net and was ready to say goodbye to them and call it a day before Cole said “NO WAY!” He was determined to have a picture of us holding our fish together. Now realize, we’d always had our guide hold the salmon for us…. they’re huge and we knew we’d drop them. But again, Cole was determined to have this picture. He taught us how to hold them and hoist them up for the photo and lo and behold, they cooperated. We had a double walk off silver picture. What a way to end our last day of fishing on the Kanektok.
That night, we had a special celebration where everyone shared their pictures courtesy of Lucas, one of our guides for the week. He had some great music playing as the background for some incredible pictures from everyone’s cameras and phones. I promise when we get back to Bozeman, we’ll put a bunch of the pictures from Lucas and others up to music to celebrate our time on the Kanektok with Alaska West.
The third leg of our Alaska adventure had ended, but the fourth leg was about to begin, and we were so excited because James Kelley was joining us to fish our 100th river of the TU Greatest 100 Trout Streams. It was hard saying goodbye to the Kanektok, which is absolutely one of the most amazing fisheries in the world. Only one member of our group got the “Super Slam”, which is catching 8 species of fish in one day; king salmon, pink salmon, chum salmon, silver salmon, sockeye salmon (that’s the “Slam”) – AND – rainbow, dolly varden and grayling. Throughout the week, Barb and I had caught all but the King. The Kanektok will always hold a special place for us on our River Ramble.
Day 9: Kenai Peninsula Travel Day
After sharing a cab with Ferdinando and Eleonora from Iliamna Air Taxi to the airport, we picked up our Hertz car and headed for…. ok…. we headed for Chinese food. We had spent 7 days being fed incredible meals… and no internet…. so we each luxuriated over a two-item plate at an Anchorage Panda Express and relished their hi-speed wifi connection. Both were sublime.
After our two hour lunch / internet fix, we headed for the Kenai Peninsula and our cabin in Cooper Landing (AK). We were staying with Alaska Troutfitters (ATF) in their “Eagles Nest” cabin which was comfy, roomy, equipped and had a gorgeous view of the glacial blue Kenai River. We walked down to their dock and were in awe of just how beautiful the water looked. Dusty, the owner at ATF, had set us up for this stay as well as when we head back on August 12th for our full “Kenai Week” (Part 4). We headed further down the road to Gwin’s Roadhouse for dinner (fish and chips!) and a few Alaskan Ambers before calling it a day. Travel days are always tough, especially given our day started with walking to a boat dock to get on a float plane to Iliamna Airport, transferring to another plane to get to Anchorage and then a two hour drive to Cooper Landing.
Day 10: Road Trip to Seward
When I was booking our travel, I was intrigued by how close we were to one of the “deep water” ports in Alaska, Seward. Cook Inlet, on which Anchorage sits, is too shallow at low tide to allow large ships to enter and stay in port at Anchorage. So, the closest deepwater port to Anchorage is Seward. We’d decided a “Road Trip” to Seward was in order and that IF the weather was cooperative, we’d consider taking a 4 hour “cruise” in Resurrection Bay and beyond to perhaps get a glimpse of calving ice, killer whales, puffins and other wildlife. When we arrived, it was cold, windy and we found a great brewery right on the main street in town, aptly named, Seward Brewing Company.
We sidled up to the bar, grabbed a couple of stools and proceeded to get a flight of their beers; Japow!, Red 6 Rye, Summer Skool Sesh IPA and Pinbone IPA. As it turned out, all but the Red 6 Rye were quite “hoppy”…. not our favs, but we still found the bottom of all 4 glasses. We were told this was a great place for food as well, but we were on a food quest at that moment, looking for salmon patties. We’d had them twice during our stay at Intricate Bay Lodge and our cravings had returned.
We proceeded to walk up and down the main street in Seward, popping our head into stores, snapping some pics of some “signs” (some humorous, some reflective) and reading every single restaurant menu on the street looking for salmon patties. Alas, we struck out but slowly learned that salmon wasn’t really “king” in Seward as it was in Cooper Landing, but Alaskan crab and halibut were. OK…. so the “quest” turned into Alaskan crab cakes and we headed down to the “port” area of Seward where we saw a huge Holland America Cruise ship and a couple of nice seafood restaurants right on the water. As we perused their menu’s, another menu trend emerged…. on the water, very expensive…. and furthermore, they were loaded with folks just off the cruise ships wanting a “fine dining” experience. If you’ve not noticed in our previous posts, Barb and I search out the “locals” places and the “dives” with great food. We were lucky and found one on the side of the street away from the water. We ordered a seafood basket of halibut, rockfish, salmon and calamari and went to town on it. YUM!
After dinner, we headed back to Cooper Landing to get ready for….
Day 11: Russian River
The Russian River is one of the TU Top 100 Trout Streams and would be number 98 of the 100 we’ve fished. It was billed in the book as “great for sockeye’s during summer”, which translates to “combat fishing”. Imagine a thousand anglers lined up shoulder to shoulder…. also, as John Ross, the author of the TU book puts it “Imagine a coxswain calling out this rhythm: ‘One, Two, Three, CAST! Drift, Drift, Drift. Ready. Set. Retrieve!’ ….. It’s not about fishing – it’s a trip to the circus.” Fortunately, this is NOT what we came to the Russian River to do.
We were fishing for trout, and had the pleasure of fishing with Matt Marchound of Alaska Troutfitters, who wanted to show us his river, the Russian. We were staying at Alaska Troutfitters so all we had to do is walk up from our cabin to the fly shop to meet Matt. We jumped into his Subaru and headed for the Pink Salmon Parking Lot along the Russian River. We proceeded to hike upstream, sometimes on a trail and sometimes in the water, fishing holes that seemed “fishy”. To Barb and me, it ALL looked fishy but Matt steered us to spots he felt really good about and spots that were away from other anglers. Most people we encountered were fishing for sockeye salmon but we’d had our fill of “flossing” for sockeye, so we continued to target trout. I fished dries most of the time while Barb was alternating between dries and a nymph rig. We started catching trout regularly in the 10-14” range… and on a 4 or 5 wt rod, in fast water, it was lots of fun.
Of course, we encountered bears, but this time they were all black bears. We saw two solo and one mom with a cub in tow. Lucky for us, they were always on the other side of the river from us, but the river was only 20’ wide typically, so we were still pretty close. At one hole, one of the solo bears decided to jump in the water and began swimming toward us. Matt quickly said “reel ‘em in” and proceeded to escort Barb away from the bear, which was swimming directly at them. As it turned out, the only thing the bear wanted was a piece of sockeye salmon that was floating downstream.
Remember earlier, I’d mentioned that most of the anglers in the river were fishing for sockeye salmon. They weren’t in “catch and release” mode like we were, they were in full on catch, filet on the spot and keep mode. Therefore, there was often chunks of salmon floating downstream that was attracting the bears to an easy meal. They weren’t actually having to catch live salmon in the river, but were scavenging angler’s scraps. Smart bears!
After fishing and hiking our way upstream to the point where the falls came in and sockeye anglers were lined up “flossing”, we stepped out of the river and began our journey back to the parking lot. Matt took us up a beautiful “short cut”, which required a little climbing…. which didn’t seem to be on a path, but on a long, uphill rock strewn runoff bed which they called Highway to Heaven. We climbed and climbed, finally reaching the “Falls Trail” and had a nice, DOWNHILL walk out. All told, Barb’s watch showed we’d hiked 4.78 miles, much of it in the river. Honestly, this may be one of our favorite things to do….. creek stompin’ fishing.
After we got back to Matt’s car, we headed back to Alaska Troutfitters. We had one more thing to do, a “Guide Talk” with Matt. He had the perfect spot for us, the floating dock down on the Kenai River. Stay tuned for that post, Matt was awesome!
Day 12: Road Trip to Talkeetna
When we booked our stay at Alaska Troutfitters, the owner, Dusty, asked where else we were going. When we told her Denali National Park and Preserve, she immediately said we HAD to stop in the little town of Talkeetna, so we booked a couple of nights there for some sightseeing and hopefully fishing. Further, when we told Chace Booth, the head guide at Intricate Bay Lodge about fishing near Talkeetna, he immediately said we had to stop in at 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle in Wasilla, which was on our way. This road trip was becoming an adventure, just as we like it!
We pulled into Wasilla, found 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle, took a pic to send to Chace to let him know we’d made it. We met Mike, the owner, inside and told him Chace had recommended we stop here and Mike just smiled. Turns out Chace and his brother, who grew up in Palmer (AK), a few miles away, frequented Mike’s shop a lot…. and Mike had experienced seeing Chace and his brother grow up in the area. We told him of some of the stories Chace had shared with us…. to which Mike replied…. “and they’re ALL true and MORE!”. It’s funny, we knew Chace was a special guide who not only knew his stuff but had lived it. Mind you, Chace is a young man…. but has spent his life fishing and hunting in Alaska. Hearing Mike talk fondly about knowing him and his brother only made our memories even greater.
Mike also tried to find us a guide in the Talkeetna area, but we’d waited too long and all were booked. This was pretty awesome customer service and it got even better. Mike said, “I’ve got a place you can go on your own”, and proceeded to tell us how to access Montana Creek near Talkeetna, and even set us up with the flies and leader/tippet we’d need. If you’re ever around here, stop into this shop…. some of the most knowledgable and friendly people you’ll find anywhere.
So, we headed for Talkeetna, fly boxes full and excited about fishing again. I can’t remember the exact spot where it happened, but as we came over a hill, the skies had cleared…. and right in front of us was Denali. We were over 100 miles away from it, but there it was, looming over everything along the horizon. We were quite in awe of it as we took the Talkeetna Spur turnoff and headed for town and our home for the next two nights, the Swiss Alaska Inn (coincidently, run by Dusty’s brother). We arrived, stowed our gear away in our room, loaded back in the car and headed for a vantage point.
We drove to a nearby resort on a hill not only overlooking Talkeetna, but with a breathtaking view of Denali, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. We parked quickly, grabbed our cameras, strolled innocently through the hotel lobby and out the back doors onto an observation area and again, WOW! There it was, big, majestic, snow covered Denali. While we took some great photos, we just stood and looked at it for the longest time…. soaking it all in.
For dinner that night, we took a back way from the Swiss, through a forest, across the Alaskan Railroad tracks (secretly), and into the little village of Talkeetna. What a trip! Here we found the coolest restaurants and shops as well as the Nagley Store where the mayor of Talkeetna once hung out. Thing is, the mayor was a cat…. Stubbs, who passed in July 2017 after serving as mayor for 20 years. And we thought Austin was keeping it weird. We settled in at the Denali Brewing Company’s original location, now the Denali Pub, and had a great dinner and even better beer. Afterward, walking back to the Swiss, we passed Shirley’s Ice Cream and of course, had to sample her wares.
Sometimes travel days can be boring and exhausting. This one was filled with fun, majesty, wonder and of course, great beer.
Day 13: Montana Creek & More
The next morning, we woke up, had a hearty breakfast, made our PB&J’s for lunch and headed for Montana Creek. We followed the directions Mike had given us…Talkeetna Spur to Yoder Road and park next to the bridge. We decided downstream was our best bet, geared up with Dali Lama’s and headed out. The very first hole we hit… Barb gets…. tug…. tug…tug….. FISH ON! She landed a nice rainbow and we had visions of an epic fishing day. As it turned out, our numbers that day weren’t great, but our fishing was still epic. What happened was…
We stopped in a hole that seemed filled with sockeye salmon, and hoped that the rainbow trout were hanging below them waiting for eggs to drop. On the second swing through the hole, I felt a huge tug on my line and realized quickly, this wasn’t a trout. As I watched the fish dart directly away from me, peeling line off my reel, I realized it wasn’t a sockeye either. So, what had I just hooked into?
The real problem was, I was using a 6wt fly rod/reel combo, which is tailor made for trout fishing, but a couple of sizes too small for landing sockeye or a fish of the size I’d hooked, whatever it was. Also, we’d planned on catching 12 – 16” trout, so we didn’t have a net. The battle was on, and what a battle. I was fighting the fish for a while and realized that Barb might not be able to grab the fish and get it off the line if I could get the fish close enough to land it. So…. I handed the rod to Barb and let her fight it while I prepared to grab the fish when she got it close. Finally, the fish tired, Barb reeled it close in, I grabbed the tail…. and we’d caught a Chum…. a member of the salmon family. Whew!
We sat and enjoyed our PB&J’s sitting on a log on an island in the river, each of us looking in an opposite direction, just in case a bear wandered by. We always talk about the “team fish” we catch at times, with one of us catching the fish but the other netting the fish. We laughed as we thought about the one we just landed.
After fishing, we headed back into Talkeetna, got cleaned up, and headed back to town for dinner, this time at Mountain High Pizza Pie. It turned into our favorite trifecta after a long day on the water….. great food, great beer and live music. We just caught the end of one band’s set before The Holler! from Ft. Collins took over. I’d describe them as a “Jam Band” in the spirit of a Dave Matthews type, and the audience was responding to them in kind. Of course, after this perfect day’s fishing and dinner experience, back to Shirley’s.
Day 14: Denali Bound
We’d decided to stop on our way out of town to get a “sweet” for breakfast and dropped in on the Flying Squirrel Bakery and Cafe. When we made our way to the bakery case, we were greeted by an employee but our eyes were focused on what was behind the glass… Pumpkin Pecan Coffee Cake, two types of Rugelach, Morning Glory muffins, …. is your mouth watering yet? We grabbed coffee cake, rugelach, three cookies and hot coffee to sustain us for the two hour drive to Denali National Park.
As we later learned, only 30% of visitors to Denali actually get to SEE any of the mountain. Most often, Denali is shrouded in clouds caused by the winds and shifts in temperature as moisture approaches the mountain. This day, it was invisible… this giant 20,310 foot mountain was no where to be seen. As we drove closer and closer, we were hoping the clouds would lift, but not this day.
After checking into our hotel, we did a quick stop in Denali National Park just to get our bearings for the next day when we were going on a bus tour. Once we’d found where to meet the bus and had enjoyed the Visitor Center movies and displays, we headed to our lodging for the evening. About an hour later, as we were thinking about heading to our restaurant on site, the power went off. We weren’t in the dark, as that doesn’t happen here until about 11:30pm, but the cafe was dark as well. So on to Plan B.
We drove back to another area outside the park that had several restaurants and settled on The Salmon Bake, better know as just “The Bake”. We decided to sit at the bar for dinner, Barb with a margarita and me with a beer of course, a Baked Blonde Ale from 49th State Brewing. Why that beer? The pic above the bar spoke to me.
After dinner, we headed back to our cabin. The lights were on again, so the heat worked and we nodded off fast.
Day 15: Denali
We were up early to catch the 6:50 “Tundra Wilderness Tour” bus for our trip 63 miles into Denali National Park and Preserve. The road actually goes back 92 miles on the “Kantishna Experience Tour”, but a 7-8 hours round trip “Tundra” tour was plenty for us. So off we went in something more than a school bus but less than a motor coach. The day called for clouds all day, so we’d set our expectations accordingly…. likely no Denali sightings but we were ready for animal and bird spotting. The “Big Five” in Denali are: moose, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep and of course, bears. We got them all… amazingly, although our moose sighting was actually the day before…. one inside and one outside the park. We also saw golden eagles and the Alaska state bird, the ptarmigan, among our bird watching. While the rivers looked fishy from the roads, we learned that there weren’t any fish in them beyond some tiny ones. We’d packed our rods/reels in our rental car for post-“Tour” IF we’d heard a better fishing report.
When we got to the Stoney Hill Overlook stop, we all piled out of the bus, but no Denali. The clouds engulfed the area where we were told it was. Nevertheless, many people had their pictures taken by our tour guide with the clouds in the background. We can all just imagine Denail was there.
What makes Denali look so huge, other than the fact it IS huge, is its prominence (not to geek out too much). While Denali is the tallest mountain in North America in terms of elevation, it doesn’t even crack the tallest 100 mountains list. But if you look at the measure of “prominence”, Denali is the third most prominent mountain in the world. So when you do see Denali, as we did from Talkeetna, it looks just surreal.
After we’d written a few postcards, we headed back to our cabin to start packing for our trip back to Anchorage on Saturday, Day 16. When dinner time came round, we decided to treat ourselves to a gourmet meal at… “The Denali Doghouse”…. Barb with a Chicago dog and me enjoying a Coney Island. Perfect ending to our Denali excursion day.
Day 16: Back to Anchorage to Get Ready for Tent Camping
We kept looking out the rearview mirrors of our rental car to see if by some miracle Denali would show itself, but to no avail. We’d had our look from Talkeetna and now it was time to drive the four hours back to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, return the rental car and check into the Long House Alaskan Hotel.
We dropped our bags at the hotel, returned our rental car and caught a cab to the movies since we couldn’t check in to the hotel until 3:00pm. We saw Mission Impossible: Fallout… good summer movie that was at 97% critics and 92% audience on Rotten Tomatoes. After an Uber ride back to the hotel, it was laundry, get organized for tomorrow’s flights to Alaska West and get some needed rest.
We know that we’ll likely not have any internet access at Alaska West as its a remote tent camp along the Kanektok River. The closest village is 30 minutes by boat and that native village is only 669 people. We’re back to Anchorage on Sunday, August 12th to meet up with James Kelley and head back to the Kenai peninsula. Until then…