It was early July and as the floatplane ascended, wings waving in farewell as it headed back to Dillingham, I tried to ignore the slight pang of uneasiness that welled up. It was the full realization of being truly alone. My partner Cindy and I were left to our own devices in a wilderness worthy of Jack London.
A veteran of numerous adventures in the Alaskan backcountry, many before affordable satellite phones and SPOT devices, I was nevertheless suddenly very aware of the distance that separated us from the comfort and safety of civilization.
It is in places like this that one becomes truly cognizant of just how reliant upon society we have become. Today, even in rural areas, we have information at our fingertips, most desires or needs no more than a phone call away, but not here, on Nishlik Lake, hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost.
I reminded myself to be hyper-vigilant and make wise, well-thought-out decisions.
From the past I knew that as the days progressed things would begin to settle into a bit of a routine, my initial unease replaced by an overriding sense of fascination and wonder at being amidst such vast unspoiled terrain, and where the fishing, even by Alaskan standards, was expected to be beyond belief.
Besides, I’d begun planning this trip long ago, accounted for every contingency, made every effort to make it as comfortable and safe as possible. It was time to relax.
Besides, we were in amazing country, at the heart of Wood-Tikchik State Park, at 1.6 million acres, the largest state park in the country. It is a land of glacier-carved lakes, varying in length up to 45 miles long, with the rivers connecting them a key component in the salmon spawning cycle.
It is a place I’d always dreamed of visiting, home to all five pacific salmon, which in turn support abundant populations of rainbow trout, grayling, lake trout, char, and northern pike, enough to make any fisherman more than anxious to wet a line.
The uplands around Nishlik Lake afforded ample walking, literally as far as the eye could see, and thus access to most of the lake’s nearly 14 miles of shoreline. It was stark, but otherworldly and full of life, with the cacophonous calls of nesting birds, caribou prancing over tussocks, and even a small bear ambling along the beach. With a weighted leech and sinking line we would search out the occasional drop off, where we hoped lake trout would be lurking. About every third cast I would sense a reluctant bump or two before the final tentative bite, nearly mistaking it for bottom. But with a quick hook-set there was little doubt, the leader tightening and the fight on. For two days that’s how it went, numerous lakers in the 7- to 8-pound range, and on the fly. It was difficult to leave, but with 60 miles of river ahead we figured we’d better get going.
Unfortunately, our first few days floating the Tikchik River were accompanied by exceedingly strong, upstream winds and a stinging torrent of rain constantly blown into our faces. When, a day or two later, we came across a near perfect campsite, we decided it might be smart to wait the weather out. Fortunately, on day five we awoke to a changed world. We took the opportunity to spread all our soggy clothing out on the tundra to dry, and after a leisurely breakfast set out with a fresh attitude, all due to this nearly forgotten bounty — the simple, beneficent warmth of the sun.
Now we could continue at a relaxed pace, stopping on any likely gravel bar looking for rising grayling. With the grayling’s propensity for feeding on the surface it presented a welcome change of pace from our usual arsenal of heavily weighted flies.
For hour upon hour we would lavish in the sun, casting to rising fish. Unlike the 13- to 15-inch grayling typical to the Kenai Peninsula, these were consistently large, regularly breaking the 20-inch threshold and putting quite a bend in our 3-weight rods.
Our luck, in the form of good weather and grayling, would continue all the way to the river’s terminus at Tikchik Lake.
Later, at the river mouth, large char and rainbow trout would be the fish of choice. Though we’d just missed the peak of the smolt migration, it was obvious these fish, ranging in the 24- to 28-inch range, were still on the hunt for juvenile salmon. Since smolt move predominately in the evening, I forced myself to stay awake and fish at dusk, in this case well after midnight. But it paid off. Every second or third cast an extremely spirited char or trout — fish that very likely had never been hooked before — ripped at my fly, and took off on a run that could only be described as electrifying, putting a serious strain on both my 6-weight and my forearm, and with each succeeding dash reminding me once again of the incredible good fortune I had to wet a line in such a unique and unspoiled land. This is indeed a true fisherman’s paradise, made all the more pleasant because we had the right equipment, knew our terrain, and planned the trip early.
Heading out into the Alaska backcountry has many rewards: great fishing, hiking, wildlife, but under certain circumstances can also be fraught with danger. Inclement weather, flooding, and unwanted bear encounters, can make things tense, especially if help is far away. Flight services or boat charters also often need to be checked out and reserved.
That’s why planning a trip should begin early. Start by contacting the government agency that oversees the area where you are heading. Some destinations require permits. If not, they will still have information on traveling to the particular area, often including a list of private outfitters and air charters that service the region. Head to the internet and search for articles written about the region as well, and if possible attempt to contact people who have actually done the trip you are planning.
At a minimum trip leaders should have knowledge of how to use a map, compass, and GPS, and be comfortable camping in bear country.
They should know how to operate their watercraft and be able to safely navigate the streams and lakes they are traveling.
With all the right gear and information, stress is minimized and fun maximized, and that’s what it’s all about, fun.
The following is a short list of essentials someone heading into the Alaskan bush might want to consider. While some items, such as a satellite phone, are not absolute necessities for the do-it-yourselfer, they are a relatively cheap insurance policy in case of an emergency and a good way to call flight services if there is a change of plan or weather delay.
Conspicuously absent from this list is fishing gear, which is species dependent and would require an entire article on its own.
■ Satellite Telephone
■ SPOT Device (or similar Satellite GPS Messaging) that allows you to send pre programmed messages to friends and shows your location on Google Maps. Also will send a “911” alert if there is an emergency.
■ Maps, compass, and GPS
■ A top quality 3- or 4-season tent.
■ Good quality sleeping bag and back pad
■ Small emergency kit: to carry while hiking etc., which may include first aid supplies, emergency fire starter, space blanket, hand warmers, bivy sack.
■ Bear protection: bear spray and/or firearm.
■ Bear fence: electrified fence to surround camp.
■ Top quality camp stove.
■ Cook kit
■ Camp saw
■ Layered clothing, starting with polypro, then fleece, and a shell. Don’t forget a warm hat and gloves.
■ Top quality rain gear and/or wading jacket.
■ Emergency repair kit: for boat, also Duct Tape and/or nylon tape for general repairs.
■ Sun block
■ Mosquito repellent
■ Water purifier
■ Dry bags
Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas,” will be published later this year.