July Alaska Trip Report
by Malcom Quentin
This past trip was definitely vastly different from the June trip. And although the June trip was fun and worth doing again, the 55-mile float down Lake Creek offered many exceptional experiences that passed by far too quickly on a four-day trip.
First and foremost, the success of a four-day trip is entirely dependent on so many factors coming together at the right time that we were very fortunate to have had everything go off perfectly with no hitches at all. Knock on wood for the next trip in August.
Dick and Harold flew into Anchorage the afternoon of Thursday, the 23rd, while Jaime and I flew on redeye flights arriving in Anchorage at O-dark-30 on the 24th. This meant Dick and Harold spent the night at a hotel while Jaime and I tried to get some shuteye on a bench at the airport. Anyway, Jaime and I took a cab for 10 minutes to the Puffin Inn from the airport to meet Dick and Harold at 5:30 am for breakfast across the street at the Village Inn. We then took the hotel shuttle to Regal Air for free - about a 5 minute drive to the northern end of Hood Lake. We saw a bull moose on the side of the road on the way, an exciting way to start the journey to remote Lake Chelatna below the southern reaches of Mt. MicKinley. Meeting for breakfast so that all of us were together and eat a full breakfast was a good idea that solved some issues of last year's trip - people showing up at random times and late for Regal Air. This time there was no uncertainty as we arrived at Regal Air by 6:45 am for a 7:30 am departure with plenty of time to pay balances, fill fuel bottles, get my AVENGER XX made by Dave Scadden at North Fork Outdoors out of storage, weigh the passengers and equipment and load the Beaver float plane. Dick and Harold's cataraft from Alaska Raft & Kayak was there waiting for us as planned (hurrah). We had a weight constraint of 1250 lbs which we met with 25 lbs to spare. Regal Air folks commented they thought we were going in light, but we had been planning our equipment since January. The only risk was our dependency on catching fish to supplement our menus!
Of course there was a slight rain upon our departure from Hood Lake which would never let up the entire four days. Yup, rain, rain, and more rain the entire trip. And did I mention it rained constantly? What about the wet weather - did I mention that? Made me miss BC and the Northwest.
On the way to Lake Chelatna we saw some moose and black bears from the plane. One black bear had two cubs with her. We also were able to fly adjacent to most of Lake Creek and observe its conditions before we floated it. It looked clear and low, and we only saw one other raft about two days in front of us. We arrived at Chelatna Lake during a momentary reprieve in the rain and assembled the rafts on the shore where we were dropped off. The Beaver took off as soon as we were unloaded which made us realize 'Wow, we are all alone now.' That was nice, but it wasn't very nice that there were no instructions with the cataraft. That was awkward to figure out. Alaska Raft & Kayak posts instructions on their website, but they also say renters just need to tell them their trip plans and they'll pick all the equipment needed, which they did, but since Dick and Harold were told they would get a 14' inflatable raft and a cataraft showed up, who would have printed out 6 different sets of instructions beforehand? Actually, a raft would not be a good choice for Lake Creek given all the boulders and sinkers (boulders just below the water's surface). Nevertheless, everything was there including spare parts and a repair kit - which were needed! So, after a little puzzle work piecing everything together, we were off within 2 hours. Just a few hundred meters away was a pair of bald eagles near their nest atop a fir tree. By comparison, Jaime and I are pretty quick at setting up the AVENGER XX and are able to help Dick and Harold afterwards.
The river was shallow, wide and slow as it left the lake. No one caught any fish before lunch, which we ate near a wier that the AF&G folks had set up to count the salmon going upstream to spawn. The two folks camping there said 100% sockeye that day. We floated a little ways downstream from the wier and tried our luck for sockeye with no such luck. The scenery was absolutely fantastic with open bright green fields lined with masses of pink flowers. The bushes and trees were sparse along this area of the river. That afternoon we started fishing from the boats as we floated. The AVENGER XX affords a better platform from which to fish because it has a hard aluminium deck on which to stand and a lean bar for support while fishing. While I rowed Jaime fished and she soon began to catch rainbow trout and grayling on egg patterns. Dick was also fishing off the side of the cataraft while Harold rowed. Dick and Harold switched the rowing responsibility every hour while I hogged the rowing job in our boat so that Jaime could focus on fishing. Besides, I liked navigating through all the boulders, shallows, logs and whitewater.
Dick was the first to land an impressive fish - a nice rainbow trout about 16 - 18", which ended up as supper for the first night. Rainbows are catch and release on lake Creek, but for some reason, this fish didn't make it - so we ate it! The meals were pretty impressive and varied from person to person, as meals were assigned as part of the trip planning process so that each person responsible for a meal could conjure anything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to stuffed salmon with a fennel and lemon sauce. Dick's trout did not fail to satisfy, especially with a bag of wine!
We set up camp at Sunflower Creek the first night, just about 10 river miles from Chelatna Lake. It was an easy day that afforded us some time to relax and fish once the fire was lit and the tents were erected. The day's rain wasn't too heavy so dry wood was still available to be found, but as this site had been used as a camp a lot, heavier wood to keep the fire burning had to be sought. We mostly found branches washed down the river and accumulated on the shore. That first night we set up a tree rigging system to keep the food and trash elevated in bags away from the bears. To be honest, the trees were not adequate to get the bags high enough, and that if a bear had wanted the contents of the bags, it would not have been a problem. Luckily, in the morning, we still had our food supply.
Getting up around 7:00 am was not that difficult Saturday morning, but with each day we became more and more tired. After a nice hot breakfast from the fire, we were on the river by 9:00 am. Saturday proved to be a good fishing day. I think Jaime caught 16 fish from the boat. The river was picking up speed so that we made it to Camp Creek in 1 1/2 hours. We stopped there to fish but became discouraged and were packing up to leave when Jaime located a school of salmon. Dick and Harold had just pushed off into the river while I joined Jaime for some excellent salmon fishing. In fact, I caught a sockeye which would be for supper that night. On the map, we were supposed to pass one tributary halfway to Home Creek, but we were making such good time, when we reached Home Creek, we thought it might be the tributary. Jaime and I pulled over while Dick and Harold continued on. It was in fact Home Creek and Jaime and I got into the chinooks. We hooked some monsters but were unable to land any of them. This would be a common theme whenever we hooked into a chinook greater than 20 lbs. We were told that there were not that many chinooks left in the river, and when the AF&G folks said all they were seeing were sockeyes, we were not that optimistic at finding them. The truth is, they were at every stream and pool for 3/4 of the trip, through the canyon down to Yenlo Creek. When Jaime and I caught up to Dick and Harold they reported that we were nearing the canyon and had passed Home Creek. This confirmed that where Jaime and I had stopped to fish was indeed Home Creek. Our GPS's confirmed this. Actually, aside from missing some great fishing, this was good news as Sunday was planned as a long river day to navigate the Rock Garden, two Class III rapids and the canyon. Making greater distance on Saturday meant less distance to travel on Sunday. Dick and Harold saw a black bear along the shore just minutes behind Jaime and I had passed that area ahead of them.
There was a couple in a raft that passed us on the first day that were now camped on an island in the river in front of us so we decided to float about 15 minutes more to be by ourselves. The topography and vegetation changed with each day so that the shore areas were steeper and more treed. We stopped on a rocky section of shore just a little later and set up camp there. Setting up and tearing down camp was getting faster with repetition, as was collecting firewood and getting a fire going for our meals. By now, our outer wear was soaked and most of our bags were wet. The dry bags were performing well, but anything exposed to the constant rain was wet and staying wet for the remainder of the trip. The tents were wet too, but kept us dry when we were in them. I felt as long as the clothes against my skin were dry, and I was dry, I was happy. Jaime praised the wide brimmed hats all of us had for keeping our heads dry and the rain off our faces. Wearing waders all day also aided significantly in keeping us dry. The waders in combination with good, lightweight rain jackets were awesome in dealing with the water and rain. Also indispensable were the collapsible stools each of us had. We also brought gloves for rowing, and aside from helping prevent blisters, it might be that their wetness and our wet hands helped make our skin more elastic and less susceptible to wounds. That being said, we still got blisters from rowing, and that coupled with battling monster chinooks approaching 40 lbs ensured our hands were sore, swollen, throbbing, aching and weak for the rest of the trip.
Moreover, Saturday saw increasing boulders in the river which meant constant pushing or pulling with the oars, in addition to muscling the rafts off boulders when they got stuck. The lighter, smaller Avenger definitely was appreciated when navigating the boulders and having to lift the boat through shallows or over sinkers. The amount of boulders and navigation challenges cannot be overstated - it was significant and would be for all of Sunday and into Monday too. The bad news was that earlier in Saturday, the cataraft hit a boulder sideways with a jolt and Dick's fly rod fell into the water into a pool. He saw the reel take the end of the rod down into the pool while the rod tip waved for his grasp, but to no avail. Upon hearing this, I was reminded of the Diamondback 6wt I broke in the Avenger earlier in the year on the Colorado River with Jaime, and the time on the Arkansas River through Brown's Canyon when we flipped and Jaime's camera got soaked and ruined. These are expensive lessons that everything in a raft needs to be secure at all times - but in the heat of rafting or fishing, this is not always the case, and that is how these things happen.
Sunday was a fun day. After about an hour we approached an area we thought was the Rock Garden. It didn't seem as ominous as we had thought and even though there were plenty of boulders everywhere, it was not that bad to navigate. Next, we approached a landmark indicating Cutoff Rapids at the entrance to the canyon. The plan was to scout the Class III rapids before we ran them and the expectation was that we could pull over to the left of the river in order to do so. As we approached a bend which indicated the entrance to the rapids around a corner it was evident there was no way to pull out on the left because of all the boulders and shallow water. Specifically, if the rapids were immediately after the corner, we would not be able to enter the rapids from a safe position after coming off the left shore. At this point, Jaime and I were comfortably stuck on a sinker and waiting for Dick and Harold to approach us. I informed them I thought the rapids were right around the corner, but as none of us could see them, we could not know for sure and it did not seem we will have the chance to scout them beforehand. This was leading to us moving forward into the unseen rapids with no knowledge of their condition. The look on Dick's and Harold's faces indicated a lack of comfort. There were two Class III rapids on this river which we had anticipated and now we were faced with the first one with not the best information going into it. All of us had negotiated Class III rapids before, so we just needed to remember that... and off we went - Jaime and I first.
The main flow was obvious with the whitewater and waves building with force quickly. Yup, immediately around that corner were the rapids. It was over quickly and without consequence. Dick commanded the cataraft through the rapids next. He bounced off a boulder near the top and pivoted around it - a potentially risky approach to the rapids if he stayed sideways. Dick quickly got the cataraft facing the right direction and floated above the waves with ease the remainder of the way. Stopping right below the rapids at a large pool afforded us the opportunity to eat lunch and fish for a variety of salmon. Dick was off to catch a monster with my 8wt while I was off to try for pinks with my 6wt. I did in fact land a nice pink salmon which we kept for Jaime's supper, but not after landing a 15 lb chinook with it. That's right, my 6wt landed a chinook!!! All of us enjoyed some nice fishing for an hour at that pool.
But with plenty of river still ahead of us, off we went. Coming up were the second rock garden and Canyon Rapids. There were plenty of steep canyon walls above deep pools and occasional attractive campsites. The canyon would have been a nice place to have planned a night and some fishing. This was also the place where Harold caught the largest rainbow trout of the trip - a beauty approaching 20 to 22". Our expectations were that the rainbows in Lake Creek were in the 10 to 12" range, but all of us were catching them around 16" and larger. They loved egg sucking leeches and egg patterns. We used the GPS to help us identify our approach to Canyon Rapids. Dick and Harold went first. The strategy was to float into the rapids on the left side and then navigate sharply to the right of a large boulder. Dick made this look easy, perhaps too easy. As I entered the rapids I was too far to the left and was unable to make the sharp turn to the right around the boulder. This lead Jaime and I into the part of the rapids called the 'Hole.' Normally higher water creates a huge wave with massive hydraulics which were not that bad and my navigation mistake was not of consequence - fortunately. However that part was just the entrance, the rapids continued for another 500 meters or so and were just as exciting. Still, they were only Class III so that we were able to manage them easily. This left only a few miles to Yenlo Creek where we planned on spending the last night. Soon upon our arrival a black bear introduced himself and then left. I think we smelt bad.
The fishing at Yenlo Creek was awesome. Jaime and I hooked into a lot of chinook and this is where I caught my 6th and final chinook. The bad news is that the pink salmon I caught earlier, and had cleaned, fell out of the Avenger as a result of the constant tossing and turning that afternoon. The good news is that Jaime caught another pink salmon at Yenlo Creek to save the day and provide supper. And more bad news is that much later that night I was using Jaime's 10wt, hooked into a monster chinook that I had stopped at about 100 meters, even though it was still pulling line out slowly. It just went head down and kept tugging and tugging and tugging. Disappointment occurred the minute the nail knot failed letting the chinook take off with the hook, tippet, leader and fly line! Only the backing remained on the reel. There were several moments before that event where both Jaime and I had similar battles only to have the knot at the fly or a blood knot fail. In some instances the tippet or leader broke instead. None of us ever landed a chinook over 20 lbs as something along the line always failed. This requires some learning to figure out how to avoid these failures in the line next time. But at the time of losing the fly line, it was time to quit for the night and get some much needed rest. It was a good thing we had a 6wt and either an 8wt or 10wt, to include and extra 8wt, but we did not have an extra reel. Dick did have extra fly line, but for the last day Jaime didn't feel the need to set up her 10wt again - her 6wt was plenty for the pinks!
We awoke to a morning where the rain had stopped. This allowed us to break camp and pack up in the open without getting more wet. This was only the calm before the storm however. As soon as we got onto the river the heavy rain began and never let up until we reached the Yentna River. That morning we saw two beavers and three river otters. Eagles were seen multiple times each day - they are everywhere along the river.
Monday was spent navigating the many braids of the lower Lake Creek and our first sight of jet boats from the lodges at the confluence with the Yentna, where we would be picked up by a Regal Air float plane. The salmon were thick in the lower river. Tons of pinks everywhere and quite a few sockeye. The coho and chum were present, but not in large numbers. Jaime and I stopped here and there to try our luck and hooked many fish but never landed any - probably mostly pinks. The most exciting part of the morning was coming around a bend and seeing a tree fully blocking the river. It was rooted on the bank at one time and had fallen across the river to the other side. It was about 20" in diameter for its full length and about 2' above the river. This made going under it impossible. At first thought, panic; at second thought, the AVENGER XX only weighed 85 lbs and we only had 50 lbs of gear each. Jaime and I lifted the front of the boat onto the log and then pushed it from behind. It soon became balanced on the log and with one more push the front fell onto the water on the other side of the log. The real trick was to see if we could also do that with the heavier cataraft. Jaime and I waited for Dick and Harold. The looks on their faces must have been the same as the looks on our faces when they first saw that log. But, with four people, leveraging the cataraft over the log was similarly not a problem and off the two boats went. As the Yentna came into view, Dick and Harold pushed forward to Lake Creek Lodge while Jaime and I tried our last hand at catching more salmon. As before, we hooked into many and landed none, but that is still fun - to play a salmon for 5 or 10 minutes. Often it was the hook that got loose or a knot that failed.
And once again, the rain let up as we arrived at the lodge allowing us to tear everything down and pack up for the float plane in relative dryness. If you think about it, the times it didn't rain were the times we really didn't want it to, so that even though the entire weekend was rainy, it was actually pretty cooperative.
Wow, what an amazing trip, and a trip that passed far too quickly. I definitely want to do that float again but doing it in a week or 10 days would be better. Alas, four days is all I had this time.
There was a difference between the rafts which were noticeable on the float: The AVENGER XX has a 12' wrap-around hull like a Zodiac with no floor or transom, and with an aluminium frame for one rower and one passenger. The cataraft was 14', also with a rowing frame for one rower and a passenger, and with a net for a floor. The cataraft's rowing frame was much heavier than the AVENGER'S and required a wrench to assemble each joint. The AVENGER XX has quick release pins for which made it a snap to assemble. The AVENGER'S oars were also lighter and shorter - a key advantage navigating the tight boulder fields. Of significance was that the width and height of the cataraft was much more than the AVENGER'S. All in the AVENGER weighs just under 85 lbs while the cataraft weighs about 195 lbs. Quite a difference, You really feel the difference in performance on the river. Given all the boulders strewn all over Lake Creek, the heavier, wider, higher and longer raft posed a little more of a challenge - but still very capable. Bottom line is - I am very happy with my AVENGER - it performed very well!
Back at Hood Lake we made our way back to the Puffin Inn to get cleaned up before we went into Anchorage for supper. Dick and Harold were not flying out until Tuesday while Jaime and I couldn't resist the redeye once more. Before we knew it we were back home wondering if it all ever happened; but it did and what an awesome float fishing trip! Dreaming of floating the Talachulitna Creek in August... where we will have less rowing and more fishing!