PROLOGUE: For Days 1-2, visit “Air Crosswords of the World”. For Days 3-8 visit, “Alaska – Part 1”.
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…