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.

Searun Cutthroat, OR, July 2009

After returning to Portland with my dad from the trip we took together, I decided to spend a solo day in search of searun cutthroat. I visited the Wilson river, another place of my youth, and a coastal stream that is known for strong runs of chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat. Searun cutts are the anadromous form of coastal cutthroat, and while they do not reach the size of steelhead and salmon, they are beautiful fish, and perhaps the best indicators of a coastal river's health in the Pacific Northwest, since they spawn in the uppermost tributaries of a watershed, and require extremely clean, oxygenated creeks to reproduce successfully.

The Wilson river is typical of coastal streams in the Northwest, surrounded by lush vegetation, bigleaf maples and looming conifers. It is a classic freestone river, and relies on rainfall to feed its flows. Fortunately, I visited after a bout of rain, which can often trigger a run of fish (both cutthroat and steelhead at this time of year) into the river system, and the fish seemed to be invigorated by the overcast skies and recent precipitation.

I hooked a handful of searun cutts, including a good one in the run shown above. I fished a #10 Crawbugger, a brown wooly bugger I tie with rubber legs and weighted hourglass eyes, that seems to imitate both crawdads and baitfish well, and swung it through the currents of the run. Near the tail end, a cutthroat hammered the fly, and then proceeded to jump repeatedly, and fought tirelessly. I pulled the fish towards the bank eventually, and admired the bright silver, brassy yellow, and violet hues of a perfect searun cutthroat, fresh from the salt.

This fish measured a good 15", nice-sized for a searun. A close-up of the head is shown below--note the orange-red slash under the jaw (this marking becomes more vibrant as the fish remains in freshwater longer).

I proceeded to connect with another energized cutthroat in the next run downstream, in a deeper, slow-moving pool.

This fish also repeatedly ran and vaulted from the dark currents. The trout emerged as another lovely searun, a solid 14" or so.

I also managed to hook into a bright buck steelhead further downstream, which I estimated at about 12-14 lbs. Unfortunately, the fly simply came out of its mouth after I battled the fish for several minutes (it would have been challenging to land on my 9' 5 wt anyway). It was good to see a fish like this in the river though, and along with the cutthroat, indicates that the Wilson river is doing well with the health of its fish runs.

Deschutes River, OR, June 2009

There are rivers, and then there are rivers. I treasure all of the places I have been able to explore and enjoy with a fly rod, but some locations I hold particularly close to my heart. For me, the Deschutes river in central Oregon has to be included in this list.

I was born and raised in Portland, OR, and had the great fortune of growing up in a state rich with fishing opportunities (especially for wild and native trout). Among the very best is the Deschutes river, widely considered one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country, and populated with both native resident trout and steelhead. This is a river that always feels like home to me, a place I associate with growing up, learning some of the finer points of fly fishing, and a destination that never fails to give me a sense of peace and reliability. I also associate the Deschutes with my father (and first real fishing companion), as I have spent many a day along its banks with him, and I know he too holds the river dear.

It was fitting, then, that my dad and I made a trip over to the Deschutes, near the small town of Maupin, in search of redsides, the local vernacular for Columbia basin redbands, a desert-adapted strain of Rainbow trout native to these waters. Here is my dad, rod case in hand, ready for a showdown with Deschutes trout, fly fishing style. We both wore thin neoprene socks and booties, but otherwise waded wet, as this getup can often be more comfortable than waders in the heat of the desert canyon along this river (actually, I have increasingly worn these in favor of waders with most of my fishing ventures, unless the air and water temperatures require more layers and warmth).

We hiked upstream, to a section we have both enjoyed over the years, that can contain numerous larger fish. The Deschutes is a large, powerful river, and can be intimidating to newcomers, but the fish are there, with the best ones often in remarkably shallow water, right up against the bank. Here is a photo of one such spot, part of a huge reverse back eddy that flows next to shore and overhanging grasses--perfect for a large redside to hide and feed on drifting aquatic insects with minimal effort.

I approached quietly, and cast up under the trees visible in the picture. This river is a virtual bug (and trout) factory, and both PMDs and tan caddis, about a size 16, hatch here throughout the summer (the Deschutes is perhaps best known for its Salmonfly and golden stone hatch in late spring, at least by anglers, although not neccessarily by the trout). I tied on a #16 tan parachute sparkle dun to a long length of 5X, cast up into the current close to the bank, and let the mayfly imitation drift quietly under the shade of tree limbs. A large, dark trout head slowly materialized from the blue-green water, and confidently inhaled the dry--this is one of those moments in fly fishing that always brands itself in my brain, makes time seem to stand still, and never ceases to make my heart miss a beat. After that, all hell broke loose.

Deschutes redsides are superior specimens, capable of blistering runs and often tireless fighting, some of the most powerful trout I have had the opportunity of hooking. More than a few of these fish have taken me deep into my backing, and broken me off after a lengthy fight (some simply run towards the far side of the river once hooked, and part ways in one way or another). They take full advantage of the big powerful currents, and at times look and act like an extension of the river, making a person feel humbled and on the edge of control. While it may sound like I am waxing poetic about a river I love, these fish are different, and I would recommend to any angler that they try pursuing and battling the trout of the Deschutes.

This bruiser was no different, and charged about the large eddy and main river currents. Fortunately, I was able to land it, a male I suspect, judging by its dark coloration, measuring a good 20", one of the best fish I have brought to hand on this river. A good one here averages around 15", and anything reaching 18-20" that is landed should be considered a great fish (I have seen some fish that are significantly bigger, but these are generally uncatchable). The image above shows the trout against the rod, and I included a head shot below, before returning the beauty to its native waters (note the sparkle dun at the front of the lower jaw).

I met up with my dad farther upstream, in another highly productive eddy, where I managed to hook and land another large, dark mature redside, right at 18". He also hooked up with a trout while I looked on, as shown below.

Here is my father with the fish in hand, a fine, 14-15" Deschutes redside.

One of the big guys in this run also stretched to 20", and my dad finally fooled this one on the last day of our visit to this magnificent river (no pictures unfortunately, as I was exploring some water further downstream). I also hooked another redside of similar dimensions on the middle day of our visit, that broke me off after tearing downstream--landing these trout is never a given, and when it happens, is always a moment to be savored and appreciated. Here is another image of my father casting up through the shallows of an eddy, desert cliffs in the background.

It was a great trip to the Deschutes river, one of quantity over quality, and a chance to spend some good fishing time with my dad, which is certainly at least as meaningful to me as the fly fishing itself.