Friday, November 13, 2009

Alaska, Part 1, July 2009

Alaska. The name alone can evoke images of endless expanses of raw wilderness, abundant wildlife, and perhaps most significantly for the angler, rich opportunities for large trout, char, and salmon. Regan and I made a trip up to the 49th state for over 3 weeks in July and August, after months of planning, as one of the highlights of our travels throughout the spring and summer. We decided to explore Seward and the Kenai Peninsula for the first part of the trip, and then Lake Clark National Park for the latter half. This post focuses on the first part of our adventure, and I will inform readers in advance that it does not deal primarily with fishing (although it still includes some fly angling, as shown below), but hopefully still provides enjoyment and inspiration to those who have thought of experiencing (or revisiting) Alaska. Also, the posts on Alaska following this one, taking place in Lake Clark, feature plenty of excellent fly fishing, in remote, beautiful settings.

We traveled by train along the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward, and stayed in the coastal town for a few days, during a stretch of uncharacteristically sunny, beautiful weather. Here is a view of snowy mountain peaks overlooking Resurrection Bay, a backdrop for the town. Mountain ranges like these seemed to be everywhere as we traveled through this section of Alaska, attesting to the vast size of this place.

We camped next to the bay, and even near town wildlife was noticeable. A pair of Snowshoe hares had taken up residence near our campsite, and proved to be quite tame. A closeup of one of them is shown above.

Here is a picture of Exit Glacier, in the more accessible corner of Kenai Fjords National Park, on a day trip from Seward. We saw a number of spectacular glaciers, adding to the mind-numbing scenery, although this was the only one we approached closely.

The bulk of our visit to the Kenai Peninsula was spent hiking along the Resurrection Pass trail (one of the few major maintained trails in this part of Alaska, not to mention the entire state), and staying at a couple different backcountry cabins. We took a break and appreciated thundering Juneau Falls along the way, visible in the image above. We also encountered a porcupine on the trail near dusk, as we approached our destination for the first evening. The porcupine came quite close to us, before sensing our presence, flaring its quills, and bolting up a tree.

Finally, we arrived at Romig cabin, about 9 miles from the trailhead.

The cabin was set next to Juneau Lake, which contained Rainbow trout, Arctic Grayling, and one of the few populations of Burbot in the state. I fished a bit here, but was unable to land anything sizable (although I hooked several decent trout prowling the shallows on soft hackles and small streamers).

Wildflowers were abundant everywhere here in the short summer season, particularly Fireweed above, and Monkshood below.

I also photographed the strange blooms emerging from a stalk of Sitka Burnet below.

Another lovely group of wildflowers grew nearby; here is a cluster of Star Gentian.

I took a photograph of Regan eating breakfast in Romig cabin, before we prepared for more hiking. These backcountry cabins are scattered throughout certain sections of Alaska, and while they often need to be reserved in advance, they provide a great alternative to camping.

Eventually, Regan and I continued onwards towards our next destination, West Swan Lake cabin, one of the most remote and least visited cabins along the trail system. This particular cabin has no trail leading to it, and can only be reached by getting flown in, rowing across the lake from the more accessible east side of the lake, or hoofing it cross-country, over an alpine pass, and down to the cabin on the other side. We decided on the latter option, which may not have been the best choice in retrospect, as we encountered some rather brutal hiking conditions, but it did take us through some rugged and spectacular country, and we saw a Black bear early in the hike, and later a Brown bear (the same species as a Grizzly, but with a different name in Alaska, when found less than 75 miles or so from the coast). Both of these bears were seen from a distance, which is usually the way you want to encounter these big mammals.

Here is an image of Regan wading through a slope of Fireweed and other wildflowers, not far above where we parted ways with the trail, and had to rely on our own route-finding and orienteering abilities to get us to our destination (I had a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map of the area, and a good compass, which certainly helped in this regard). At times, the Fireweed often grew as tall as her.

We were climbing up the side of the ridge in the photo above, and approaching the alpine zone. The picture doesn't do the scene justice, but the slopes were consistently steep, and tiring with a heavy backpack.

Finally, we made it to the top of the pass, and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Kenai Mountains, in the Chugach National Forest. Swan Lake is visible between the steep mountain ridges. As this photograph indicates, one of the things that can get you in a visit to Alaska is the immensity and wildness of the landscapes--sensory overload of the best sort, that often defies description.

Regan looks back for the camera, before preparing to gradually descend towards Swan Lake, and eventually, the cabin. We spotted the Brown bear while up in this area; it was several hundred feet downslope, and bounded away with remarkable speed after sensing us (pretty much exactly what you want a bear to do).

At last, after weaving through dense alder thickets and thick stands of spruce (and encountering a lot of moose scat and tracks, but thankfully no startled animals), we found ourselves looking down upon West Swan Lake cabin, a sight for sore eyes. We made our way through the last stretch of trees, crossed the outlet of Swan Lake, and dropped our loads at the cabin, weary and relieved to end our strenuous trek, and call the place home for the next couple nights. Here is an image of the lake near sunset, the end of a long summer day in Alaska.

We awoke the following morning to find a Black bear clawing on the side of the cabin, and saw it sniffing about when we peered outside. Unfortunately, by the time I grabbed the camera, the bear had disappeared (although we did get the same bear on video that evening, along with her two cubs--quite a sight, and we were happy to have a cabin separating us at that point). Still, here is a view of the west end of Swan Lake from the cabin porch.

And here is Regan standing in front of the cabin. Claw and tooth marks were visible all along the sides of this structure; this spot receives much more regular visits from bears than people throughout the season, judging by the abundant bear sign, and only a handful of entries in the cabin log book for the season.

I was able to get in some fishing during our stay at this remote cabin, and spent most of my time exploring the outlet and downstream, along the headwaters of the Chickaloon River.

As the photo above shows, the sunlight of the morning gave way to clouds and wind, and scattered showers in the afternoon.

Birds were attracted to the stream and lake as well. An Arctic Tern perches on a log protruding from Swan Lake, and an American Dipper searches for aquatic insects at the outlet. We were greeted by the haunting calls of loons every day and evening of our stay at all the lakes we visited, and Bald Eagles were also conspicuous.

Here is an image of the Chickaloon River, a tiny forest stream at its source, a few feet across at its widest, and surrounded by thick vegetation.

While the creek was small, I soon found that it was loaded with fish, mostly Rainbow Trout, but a fair number of Dolly Varden as well (Swan Lake is supposed to contain some large Dollies, 16-20", although I did not catch anything sizable in the stillwater). Both of these fish are native here, along with a run of Sockeye Salmon that make their way up through this watershed to spawn in the lake, around this time of year. The Dollies were a new char species for me, and both these and the Rainbows were as wild and beautiful as their surroundings, and probably had never seen a hook before.

While the fish were not necessarily large by Alaska standards, they were big for the creek, and I managed to land an acrobatic Rainbow of 15". A detail of the head is shown below.

The trout grabbed a #16 Deerhair Caddis from the head of the run shown below, and somehow I was able to keep it on, despite the fish leaping and running through the deadfall.

I also landed a lovely Dolly Varden at the tail of this run, the best char I caught from this stream, again on the Deerhair Caddis, a good foot-long fish with golden flanks and tangerine fins tipped with white.

Here is a closeup of the flanks, fins, and colorful spotting of the char, right before release.

We said goodbye to West Swan Lake cabin the following morning, and decided to use the rowboat provided by the Forest Service for cabin visitors (most of the cabins we encountered at Swan and Juneau Lakes had one or two watercraft associated with them, a nice resource). We transported ourselves and our gear to the east end of the lake, where the Resurrection Pass trail meets the lake shore and another, more accessible cabin.

We spotted a group of brilliant red Sockeye Salmon spawning in the shallows, as we approached the east end of the lake. We also saw a herd of Mountain Goats, and several more Black Bears, along the steep slopes looming above the water.

Eventually, we made our way back to Juneau Lake, as shown above, and stayed at Romig cabin one last night, before returning to the trailhead.

Mosquitoes and biting flies were a nuisance at times, hence the head net that Regan is wearing in this picture. We also used bug spray when needed, which proved effective.

Regan and I returned to Seward for a couple more days after finishing our backcountry trip, and treated ourselves to a delicious seafood dinner at Ray's (one of the best restaurants in town, and the King Crab was superb). We also watched the antics of a couple Sea Otters in the harbor as we ate--one of these is seen in the photo above, munching on a shellfish.

We visited Kenai Fjords National Park again, although the weather this time was significantly cooler and wetter. We saw two more Black Bears while hiking, and I spotted this Northern Saw-whet Owl perched in a tree above the trail.

This part of our trip approached its conclusion, as we took the Coastal Classic train along the Alaska Railroad once more, from Seward back to Anchorage. I would highly recommend this relaxed, scenic route and mode of transportation--in addition to glaciers, mountains, sweeping meadows, and tumbling rivers, passengers stand a good chance of seeing Dall Sheep, Bald Eagles, Moose, and Black or Brown Bears (we saw the first three along the ride).

One of the glaciers we passed is shown above, and a cascading waterfall is included below; again, the country here is almost always raw, wonderful, and breathtaking.

Eventually, the train ride came to an end, and with it the first half of our Alaska trip, full of spectacular sights and memories. We prepared for the second leg of the journey, a backcountry camping and fishing odyssey in remote Lake Clark National Park, that will be covered in the following two posts.

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