PROLOGUE: We are just back to a spot where there is wifi and cell service. We’ve been in a “remote” location for the past week and honestly, we have limited wifi/cell now as I write this post. Since we talked about this being our “30 Days in Alaska” trip, I decided to share our day by day adventures in that way. Also, with such limited wifi/cell, it’s impossible to post the kinds of videos, guide talks and highlights we’ve done before. We’ll update everything once we have strong wifi/cell, with some amazing video footage we’ve shot here so far, but for now, we’ll share some favorite pictures (hopefully) that dovetail with each part. Here goes….
Day 3: Intricate Bay trip begins
After a quick stay in Anchorage, we continued our journey with a flight in a 10 passenger single prop plane from Anchorage to a small native village, Iliamna (pop. 109), which sits on its namesake, Lake Iliamna. It is the largest lake in Alaska and the third largest lake entirely in the US with an average depth of 144’. However, we weren’t to our first fishing stop just yet.
We were met at the Iliamna Airport by Brian Harry, the owner/operator of the Intricate Bay Lodge (IBL) which would be our home for the next 7 days. He brought a large passenger van up to the door where we loaded all our gear and took a two mile drive to a lake, where our next transport was waiting….. not a boat, but……the “Dirty Girl”, officially known as a “de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Mk.I Beaver”…. yes, a float plane.
I’m going to pause here, and do some reflecting…. Barb and I have talked about ultimately writing a book about our “River Ramble”. Neither of us are writers, as our high school english teacher Mrs. Seiter would definitely tell you, especially me. I mean, our senior paper which was our “final” and counted for much of our grade was to be on our favorite author…. you know…. Chaucer, Shakespere, etc….. So of course, I wrote mine on those famous authors Charles Shulz and Walt Kelly. It was titled “Peanuts, Pogo, People and Politics” and while I thought it was EPIC…. Mrs. Seiter disagreed. I did pass Senior english, but barely. The point of all this is, after this last week, we’re now committed to writing a book about this adventure and as I write this post, I’m finding myself starting to write it….. SO…. since this is a blog and not a novel, I’m going to try and hold back a bit…. ok…. a lot. Now back to our abbreviated blog stories!
We flew over Lake Iliamna, landed in Intricate Bay and taxied to this beautiful lodge where we were met by the entire staff; we felt pretty special (and relieved we’d survived our first float plane ride). After settling in, we threw on our waders, headed back to the dock, jumped in jet boats, and headed for the Copper River, one of our Trout Unlimited Top 100 Trout Streams rivers. (Note to self, brevity in blogs… you can do it!). The ride to the river was an experience that can only be told in video, so stay tuned for later (see Prologue).
After landing a few nice rainbows, our guide for the day, Monte, took us to a great looking hole and just as we were about to jump out of the boat and start fishing…. BEAR! Yes, a young brown bear walked up along the bank, staring down into the river exactly where we were going to cast and began searching for fish. Ultimately, he dove into the river, ran up and down the “run” we were going to fish, tried unsuccessfully to get a fish, decided to “snorkel” for fish (yes, it’s a real thing they do, snorkeling for fish) and then run over onto the same gravel bar where we’d docked our boat, at which point Monte grabs his bear spray and begins to scream at the bear. We learn over the course of the week, step 1, scream…. step 2, spray with bear spray…. step three, pull gun. Honestly, step 1 did the trick all but one time when step 2 was deployed, and never step three, but it was always an option as each guide was always “carrying”. I share all this now, so that in later days writings, I’ll just say “bear experience” to encapsulate these moments. Bottom line of the day: We checked off our 96th river in our quest to fish the Top 100 Trout Streams in the US.
After more fish, we headed back to the lodge for dinner. Thank goodness they had a keg of Alaskan Amber, we needed it. We also got our itinerary for the next day after dinner, written on the chalk board…. 7am breakfast, 8am shove off, Copper River, guide… Chace.
Day 4: More Copper River adventures (pic 1)
We had a full day on the Copper River with Chace, who was the “head guide” at IBL. Again, we had this amazing jet boat ride to get to and then up the Copper River, having a mama duck fly directly in front of our boat part of the way. We learned that the boat, which was flying upriver, came near her babies and she flies away in front of the boat to lead us away from them. If only she’d known we were going fishing she could have chilled out instead of flying like crazy ahead of us.
The day was much like Day 3’s fishing; we’d move upstream finding great “runs” to fish, hook into some nice rainbows and move. It was all using the jet boat to move from spot to spot, we never fished from the boat, we always got out and waded a section of the river. Which lead us to another “bear experience” here and there. Actually, on both day 3 and 4 we saw 8 bears along and in the river. We were fishing a “run” when Chace said “turn around”. When we did, we saw this huge bear “snorkeling” down the channel right behind us. I’ll never say we got “used” to being in such close proximity to bears (within 10-20 yards), but we’d come to realize that with hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon in all the rivers in the area, they weren’t really the least bit interested in us, unless of course we were in their favorite fishing hole (see Day 3 above).
At the end of the day, we decided we’d like to try fishing for some of the sockeye salmon that everyone else was actually fishing for…. as we’d been targeting rainbows all day. You really aren’t technically “fishing” for sockeye as the guides called it “flossing”. Essentially, you’re throwing out a line with a small fly/hook on the line and dragging it through a mass of sockeye just holding in a spot. Eventually, the line will go into….. wait…. brevity Tom…. write more in a book…. onward.
Day 5: Moraine Creek (pic 2)
All of our guides asked “Why isn’t the Moraine on the list?” Truly, I don’t know why. I think it was in the original 1999 version of the book, but for some reason, not the 2013 version we are following. In any event, the “Dirty Girl” landed in a spot called “Pothole” where we carried rafts, paddles, fishing gear, dry bags, lunch bags and more up a ridge where we staged everything before going back down the ridge and into Moraine Creek. Whew!
This day was pretty much like the other days, so far, except for two things: we were in a raft floating downstream and…. the “W” was happening. The “W” was howling at a steady 30mph with gusts to 40+. Our guides were fighting it all day to keep us in good drifts. Oh, and I didn’t mention it was raining and a windchill that was ridiculous with that much “W”. All that said, we caught lots of gorgeous rainbows, had a bear encounter that was a bit too close, but ultimately it only lead to “step 1”, although “step 2” was out and ready. I think our guide Chace was ready for a massage after rowing us down the Moraine. Everyone was exhausted as we awaited the “DG” to come back and pick us up for the trip home. It was fun seeing her land directly ON Moraine Creek, then “sail” back down to pick us up. It’s one thing watching drift boats and rafts coming downstream in the current toward you, quite another seeing a float plane doing it.
Day 6: Alagnak River. Battle Creek. Moraine Creek and HOME! (pic 3)
We could easily write a short novel about day 6. Let me try and summarize it. From IBL, we were the first to even fish the Alagnak this year and probably ever, but T-Bird and the “DG” got us there along with our guide Hayden after we’d dropped off two other guests and new friends from Italy, Ferdinado and Eleonora, at the Moraine. However, when we landed in Kukaklek Lake, whose outflow is the Alagnak River, one of the TU Top 100 trout streams, T-Bird said “We may have to fly out of here soon. If the waves on the lake get too high, we’ll be stuck here”.
OK…. no pressure…. we’re wading downstream into the Alagnak River, our pilot has warned us that we may have to leave at a moment’s notice…. and we HAVE to at least get a fish out of this TU Top 100 trout stream. In 15 minutes, swinging a Dali Lama stream, tug…. tug…. tug…. SET! Got’em! We netted a small rainbow, documented the catch and then, hightailed it back to the “DG” to get out…. mission accomplished.
So, with all this excitement, dropping off a group, then flying to the Kukaklek, snaring a rainbow from the Alagnak and racing upstream back to the float plane, it was only about 10am. Where to next? We debated a lot, and for the sake of time, we decided to head to Battle Creek and in this case, it was the first time this season that anyone from IBL had been to Battle Creek. We fly in, land and begin our taxi toward the mouth of the river and find ourselves in shallow water until ultimately, the “DG” runs aground and cannot move. It was the first trip of the season to this spot and the river channel had moved…. as it turned out it was about 40 yards away.
Long story short (I can do this), we fished Battle Creek, I caught the biggest rainbow of our time there (25” and VERY fat), we fished about two hours, came back to a “beached” boat and found out that we didn’t have enough gas to make it back to the lodge. T-Bird calls the lodge on a sat-phone, finally gets hold of Mark to bring us gas, but Mark hasn’t been to this location, so we’ll need to fly to the Moraine pickup spot. At this point Barb politely asks “Do we have enough gas to get there?” After assurances from T-Bird, the adventure continued.
We now had to move…aka… PULL the “DG” about 40 yards across shallow water, literally dragging it over the gravel in about a foot or two of water to get it to the new river channel so we could take off. We landed at our Moraine River takeout spot, Mark landed soon after, we loaded about 15 gallons of fuel into the “DG” and with perfect timing, here comes Ferdinando and Eleonora with their guide Chandler. We grab them and head back to the lodge. Again…. WHEW! But Bottom Line: We crossed off the Alagnak River…. we are now at 97 of the TU Top 100 Trout Streams…. and most importantly, we’d had the most adventurous day being first to the Alagnak AND Battle Creek.
Day 7: Gibraltar River…..ummm… No. Moraine…ummmm…. No. Battle Creek…. YES!!! (pic 4)
Our day was supposed to have been a nice, short float plane ride to the Gibraltar River for fishing. However, when we flew over, the Iliamna Lake was getting swells that caused T-Bird to go into “Plan B”, the Moraine. When we got to the Moraine, the weather actually worsened to the point we couldn’t land there either, and T-Bird had to go to IFL navigation…. “I Follow River”. We got an amusement park ride at this point as T-Bird literally didn’t just follow the river but flew low over it, below the worsening cloud cover, weaving and banking left and right until we were able to get some clearing. We then went to Plan C, back to Battle Creek. This was good, because now that we did our “recon” the day prior, we knew where the channel was and easily made it to the river and had 2 hours of great fishing.
When the weather cleared a bit, we got back in the “DG” and flew over to the Moraine and repeated what we did on Day 5, albeit with no rain and slightly less wind. We were fishing all day with Chandler who it turned out worked in Bozeman for a time at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing as well as at one of our favorite fly shops in Livingston, Sweetwater Fly Shop. Great day and a great, uneventful ride back to IBL.
Day 8: Gibraltar River… YES! (pic 5)
To get to the Gibraltar, we ferried over in IBL’s “big” boat, towing a smaller jet boat behind. We beached the big boat, got in the jet boat and headed upstream to fish. We’d fished a few holes, caught a few nice bows and lots of smaller ones when Chace, our guide, decided he’d walk the boat downstream and let Barb “nymph” a bead through a run from the boat. I was to follow down, wading and swinging a leech. The picture of Barb drifting down with Chace guiding her was too priceless not to capture, so, I got out the camera and took a picture. I put the camera away, took my rod back to cast and proceeded to fall into the Gibraltar.
The Gibraltar is not a big river, in fact, where I fell in, I’m guessing its only about 20-25’ across. When I fell into the river, I immediately did what you’re supposed to do and got my feet downstream. Barb and Chace turned and saw me, so Chace pulled Barb to shore and started up to help me. However, this one day I had forgotten my wading belt. Unfortunately, this allowed the river to completely fill my waders with water and begin pushing me downstream. I dug my heels in, but I was no match for the river. Little did we know at first, I was really in a bad spot, unable to move at all and ready to head downstream weighing about 400 pounds with water-filled waders. Chace comes and I grab hold of his legs. I am in the river, arms wrapped around him as he literally drags closer to the bank. We had to unbuckle my waders to get the water out of them to get me “light” enough to continue pulling. When he finally had me beached, I stood up, stripped down to my skivvies, and contemplated what’s next. We were a few miles upstream, there is no one around anywhere, and I’m standing nearly naked on a gravel bar. Of course, both Chase AND Barb wanted pictures of me now….. LOL!
Chace went downstream to the big boat to get another rod since I’d lost mine in the river. Luckily Monte had an extra fleece, which while two sizes too small, I managed to fit over my head and was thankful to have it and Chace had an extra pair of socks which helped me to stay warmer. I pulled on my base layer pants, which were still soaked and cold, put on my waders and boots, and we continued to fish, of course.
Not only did we continue to fish, Barb had an over 30 fish day and I caught some massive rainbows. We lunched on the banks of the river; told stories and laughed hard. At the end of the day, standing in the middle of the river in about 3.5 feet of water, Barb and I had a double of beautiful rainbows. What a way to finish the day.
Retrospect is a wonderful thing. At the time of the fall, I wasn’t worried, I figured that I had Chace, Barb and a boat downstream of me and I’m a good swimmer. However, I’d never swam as a 400 pound guy, wearing a water sock set of waders in fast moving water; it was like having bricks tied to my feet. As I reflected on it, and as Chace and Clair told me later, I was in serious danger in that moment. There is a reason you always wear a wading belt. I’d simply forgotten mine at the lodge and assumed I could make it that day. After I had the “accident” I took the belt off my fishing pants I’d been wearing beneath my waders and securely pulled it tight around my waders.
Day 9: Heading Back to Anchorage
After saying goodbye to all the IBL staff, we all got back on the “DG”, flew to Iliamna, unloaded then reloaded for our flight back to Anchorage. At this point, we said goodbye to our 7 new friends we’d shared the week with at IBL: Arturo, Arturo, Jr., and Raquel (Mexico); Ferdinando and Eleonora (Italy); Hadley (NC) and his son, Sherwood (San Francisco). It was an experience we shared and we’ll all never forget… the “Alaska Experience” as we’d heard it said… but more on that in another post. For now, it’s time to continue our “30 Days in Alaska” and….