Saturday, December 5, 2009

Alaska, Part 2, July 2009

Regan and I began the second half of our Alaska trip in the air, making our way from Anchorage to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, via a small passenger plane. The Park is located about 100 miles due west of Anchorage, and noted for superb fishing, hiking, and wildlife-viewing opportunities, but it is also separated by Cook Inlet, several rugged mountain ranges, and utterly wild, roadless country, as indicated in the picture above. As a result, planes are the only viable transportation option, and the cost of this travel along with the wilderness aspect of the place ensures that only the most determined people visit.

Fortunately, we had saved up some money to make this venture possible (not to mention our travels throughout the spring and summer), we both wanted to camp and explore in wilder surroundings, and I had researched the Park and made reservations with Lake Clark Air, one of the few operations that provides fly-in services to many of the breathtaking lakes and landscapes in the Park. Regan and I are shown above along the shore of Lake Clark and Port Alsworth, a tiny bush community that sits on the edge of the Park. The small passenger plane landed here, and we transferred our gear to a float plane that would transport us to our backcountry camping destination. Glen Alsworth Jr., who runs Lake Clark Air, is also shown near us, preparing the float plane. I would highly recommend his services; he was a top-notch pilot, extremely knowledgeable about the area, and an all-around decent guy. He also loaned hip waders to Regan for use on our trip (as seen in the photo), which turned out to be a key item when traveling along lake shores and streams that abound in this corner of Alaska.

We soon found ourselves leaving Port Alsworth, and flying above incredible landscapes, populated with pristine forested valleys, winding streams, and mountain peaks that trailed into the distance. Lake Clark is visible in these two photos, one of the dominant features in its namesake Park.

Smaller lakes dotted the virgin landscape as well--the abundance of these lakes (particularly on the western, relatively dryer side) are one of the features that make Lake Clark National Park and Preserve a coveted destination for wilderness hiking and fishing.

The float plane carried us about 30 miles north to Snipe Lake, our predetermined destination. Regan and I unloaded our gear on the rocky shore, and then watched as Glen spun the float plane around, and departed back to Port Alsworth.

We gazed out at the lake and surrounding country, not a sign of humanity in sight, and then gathered our belongings, and began to prepare our campsite uphill from the shore; our home for the next week.

Here is an image of the southern end of Snipe Lake. While the lake was decent-sized by Lake Clark National Park and Preserve standards, it still measured close to 3 miles in length (which is plenty big in my book). I decided on this lake as our base for camping, after consulting Glen Alsworth Jr. via numerous e-mail conversations, because it offered a lot for both Regan and myself--great hiking options in all directions, the potential for good wildlife-viewing, and some exciting fly fishing opportunities. As it happened, we found all of these of things during our stay.

On our first full day, we hiked to Bear Creek, a drainage to the south, by way of a small outlet that drained Snipe Lake, and eventually joined the larger stream. Regan is shown walking through the outlet on the way to Bear Creek; no trails existed here, except for game paths from caribou, moose, and bear, and waterways, when available, often provided the easiest routes for travel. In any case, hiking in this remote area without a developed trail always took longer than might be expected, and we tried to keep that factor in mind throughout our stay.

Bear Creek was a lovely stream, crystal-clear and passing through overwhelming country. I think that both Regan and I were constantly awed and humbled by our surroundings throughout this portion of our Alaska trip. More than once, I found myself feeling fortunate beyond words, to be wandering through terrain so untouched by humanity, and thankful to know that these places are protected and thriving.

I quickly got down to fishing, tied on a #10 black Marabugger on 3X, and drifted the streamer through the many shallow riffles and occasional deeper undercut pools, in the hopes of connecting with a good char or grayling (both Arctic char and grayling are native to the streams here, and Lake trout, also native, are found in many of the stillwaters along with the first two species). I soon connected with a fine Arctic grayling, a good 15" fish that fought doggedly before coming to hand.

Here are two closeups of the fish, showing the beautiful olive, turquoise and lavender hues this species can possess.

An image of a Grizzly bear track is shown below. We saw plenty of sign of these big animals (proving that this creek is aptly named), along with plentiful moose tracks. The tracks and scat were constant reminders that we were the visitors here (actually a refreshing and comforting thought), with the responsibility to remain vigilant and practice leave no trace, as a matter of personal safety. We did see a bear from some distance away later in the day, walking along a mountain slope, and also spooked a young bull moose hiding in the willows along the streambank, which proceeded to crash through the water and then trot downstream (a briefly scary moment, until we realized he wanted to avoid a confrontation as much as we did).

I continued fishing downstream, and found that fish distribution was spotty--some likely runs seemed to be devoid of fish, followed by short stretches that were more productive. I found a mixed school of decent-sized grayling and Arctic char in the run below, but they refused a variety of streamers and nymphs I presented to them, and generally seemed disinterested in feeding.

However, I was more successful in a long riffle-run just downstream, where I caught this fine 16" grayling (note the black cutthroat marks, a common feature on these fish) on a #12 Krystal Hare Nymph (one of my own creations, dubbed with dark gray hare's ear, pearl krystal flash for the tail and legs, ribbed with copper wire, and weighted with a wire underbody and tungsten beadhead, a great searching pattern).

I also hooked into a large Arctic char in the same run, near the riffled head, that grabbed the same nymph. The fish charged about the stream on repeated reel-screeching runs, and proved difficult to subdue. Eventually though, I pulled the bruiser in, and gazed at a perfect, 20" male Arctic char.

Here is a detail of the head, showing some of the beautiful coloration of the fish, and the noticeable kype.

I also included a closeup of the side of the char, to showcase the red spotting against the greens and pinks of the body.

And one last image of the Arctic char, before I returned him to the clear, olive and jade currents that matched his hues so well. This fish was one of my favorites of the trip, and the first Arctic char I have had the pleasure of catching and briefly admiring. Sometimes, a fish like this one can embody an area, with its wildness and pristine beauty.

Regan and I continued exploring Bear Creek for a bit further downstream, and I caught a couple more grayling in the low to mid teens.

We turned around at this riffle run, and returned the way we came, enjoying the multicolored stones of the streambed, the sunlight that increasingly filled the skies, and the sweeping big country before us.

We returned to our campsite as the long Alaska day approached evening. The view below is from our tent, looking east, with some of the many low-elevation mountains providing a backdrop. We saw some fantastic wildlife later this evening along the lake shore, including a family of River otters, a Grizzly Bear, and a Lynx. The haunting calls of loons also greeted us, along with the darkness.

Sunset displayed some brilliant colors to mark our third night by Snipe Lake.

Our tent is shown in the photo below, with Snipe Lake in the background. We tied cord to the ends of the tent and conveniently placed spruce trees, for added support in the event of high winds (which did occur). In fact, the winds were prevalent for much of our visit, and while they lowered temperatures a bit, they also largely kept mosquitoes and biting flies at bay.

I am preparing to feast on some wild blueberry pancakes on one of the mornings of our trip. The blueberries were harvested from around our campsite, and seemed to be growing everywhere in this landscape; we saw several Grizzly bears over the length of our stay, and they were usually feeding on the abundant berries as well. Note the bear-proof container near me--this was a must-have item, to keep our meals secure, and to keep the wildlife from getting habituated to human food.

In terms of fly fishing, I spent the rest of the time casting along the shoreline of Snipe Lake, experimenting with a variety of nymphs and streamers (I never saw much in the way of hatches or risers). On the second full day of our stay, I was slowly stripping a #10 white Hareabou Leech (another creation of mine, basically a rabbit strip with pearl crystal flash for the body and tail, white marabou for the collar, and silver hourglass eyes for added flash and weight), when my leader and line suddenly dove under, and I was attached to a good Lake trout. The fly eventually simply came out of the char's mouth in heartbreaking fashion (that seems to happen at times with streamer fishing), but I continued to cast and retrieve later in the day, and hooked up with several other Lakers, including this fine specimen, somewhere around 19".

I employed this technique of slowly stripping and pausing the same streamer pattern over the next several days, and while the action was never nonstop, I managed to connect with at least a few Lake trout every day, and they seemed to average 18-20" and 2-3 lbs. Most of the fish were hooked in shallows that sloped away into deeper water, and I suspect they were prowling close to shore, searching for smaller fish that might provide an easy meal. Actually, I figured that a few Arctic char might show up as well, but the only fish I caught were Lakers. No matter though, this was my first experience with these big predatory char, and I found them to be fascinating fish and great fly fishing quarry.

This Lake trout measured 21-22", and made a couple of strong runs during a lengthy fight. I used a 7 weight rod here, and throughout our visit to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (the end of the writing on the butt of the rod measures just under 19", for reference), and was thankful for the extra backbone it offered when battling these fish; both the char and grayling were tireless, and seemed to show the wildness of their surroundings when battling against the rod and reel. The Lake trout above grabbed the streamer in the shallows near the outlet, and the fish below followed suit shortly after.

The Lake trout pictured above stretched beyond 24", and weighed perhaps 7 lbs, based on its girth. I have heard of Lake trout going 10 lbs and more in this lake (and certainly Lakers can get enormous elsewhere), but this fish was large enough for me, and ended up as the big one for the entire Alaska trip.

I included details of the tail, spotting and fins to show some of the splashes of color on this fish. Lake trout are not generally known for vibrant colors, but this one certainly possessed patches of brilliant hues.

The Lake trout also exhibited one of the more scorching initial runs I have experienced from a fish. After inhaling the streamer, the char immediately proceeded to race towards deeper water away from shore. The fish ran and ran while my reel sang, taking me deep into my backing, until I started worrying that the backing would reach the end, and the char would simply break off. Thankfully, it finally stopped, and I started reeling the beast in, but not entirely before the Laker made several other powerful runs. In short, the fish wore me down, and I felt privileged to appreciate the impressive char up close. Here is one last image of me with the Lake trout (courtesy of Regan, who came along just in time to see the bruiser and get the photograph), before I returned it to the cold waters and untold depths of Snipe Lake.

Regan and I decided to climb the low-elevation peak near the outlet after I released the big Lake trout, and we looked back towards mountains and rain clouds to the north and east (the rain found us soon after this picture). It is difficult to convey the sheer size of the land here, but gazing out across this lake to valleys and peaks beyond was humbling, and put life in a different perspective.

I am including several more landscape shots from the following day, when we hiked up to a mountain peak on the eastern side of the lake (during an extended period of sun breaks), to give more of an idea of the size of this area.

Scattered clouds loom over the eastern shore of Snipe Lake, with higher rugged peaks in the distance.

We explored a smaller lake lying next to Snipe Lake, and decided to hike up the smaller mountain shown in the middle ground of the photo above.

Here are two views looking west from the smaller lake, as we climbed the mountain's slope (Snipe Lake is visible in the distance).

We found some wildflowers along the way, such as these Fireweed clustered around the husk of a Cow Parsnip.

Ptarmigans were a frequently sighted bird, particularly near the top of the low-lying mountains we climbed.

We also sat and watched a Grizzly bear that bounded down the slope of the same mountain that we later climbed, cleaned itself in the lake, and then wandered along the shoreline, searching for any food in its path.

The bear is shown above, foraging on blueberries. While it would have been nice to get a closer shot, we didn't want to press our luck, and settled on our memories of seeing the large mammal more closely through binoculars. Below, I am scoping out yet another Grizzly that we spied down in a valley, once we reached the top of the mountain that the bear pictured above had occupied earlier. Again, mountains and lakes stretch to the horizon.

And here is one final Lake trout that I landed, a good 21" or so, caught just downslope from our campsite.

This part of our Alaska trip was unforgettable, for the fishing, the wildlife, and the ruggedly beautiful landscapes we visited. The experience was demanding, but rewarding, and I would highly recommend it to anyone up for the challenge and adventure. We did not see another person the entire time, until Glen returned in the float plane at the end of our week-long stay, transporting us back to Port Alsworth for a few more days of hiking, camping, and more fabulous fly fishing. This last chapter of our Alaska trip will be covered in the next post.

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