Spring Update: Waterfowl

By Ken Marsh

No luck this morning on my annual quest for Morchella, but it’s early yet. The springtime dance has barely started here at north latitude 61.2 degrees. We’re getting close, though. The birch buds are just one sunny afternoon away from popping the country into an explosion of green. The morels will appear soon after, but for now signs of the season can be found in the arrival of winged things.

They’ve grappled with the winds, crossed swaths of open sea, and pushed through high mountain passes, yet now freshly arrived in Southcentral Alaska, the birds of spring look generally no worse for the wear. Every day brings new raptors and songbirds of all kinds – birds large and small – but I’m particularly interested in waterfowl. Look up toward the horizon here and you’re likely to see them passing in flocks, or hear their cries in the distance. Geese, cranes, and ducks of many species are winging on to nesting grounds; some venues are close by, others remain ice- and snow-covered two more mountain ranges and many hundreds of miles to the north.

An Arctic tern, seen on Sunday, May 9, stretches its wings after a long flight from the southern tip of South America.

I encountered my first Arctic terns of the year over the weekend, world-champion migrators known for their biannual, 30,000-kilometer (or more than 18,000-mile) round-trip trek between the Antarctic and Arctic circles. Those around Anchorage appeared to be setting up to nest around town in their usual summer spots. They seemed not only healthy after their long flights, but saucy, screaming at gulls and magpies that passed too closely by.

A pair of gadwalls are seen feeding on Sunday evening. The hen, in the foreground, can be distinguished from a female mallard by the white speculum seen here on its wing.

Newly arrived duck species also crossed my radar on Sunday. My first gadwalls of the year appeared locally, a couple pairs in different waters. Drakes guarded hens closely on Sunday, threatening the occasional intruding green-head mallard. Called gray ducks by some, gadwalls are appreciated by many for their beautifully understated breeding plumage.

The gadwall drake’s breeding dress includes jet-black bottom, red-brown patches on the forewings, and handsome tweed flanks over which lightly colored hackles are elegantly draped. The hens, meanwhile, resemble female mallards. So much so that even experts sometimes get confused.

One September day decades ago, after hunting ducks in the marshes near Anchorage, a friend and I were stopped by a federal wildlife agent at a check station. The agent needed to inspect our harvests and record the number and species of ducks we’d bagged. Dutifully, we turned over our birds and the agent began calling out the tally to a partner who recorded the count on a tablet. When the agent picked up a medium-sized brown duck and cried, “Mallard!” my friend corrected him. “No, that’s a gadwall.”

The agent began to argue and my friend, a police officer with a booming voice, pushed back. The exchange got a little loud, so I stood by and let the guys go at it, in a verbal sense. In the end, my friend pointed out the white speculum on the bird’s wing, distinctive to gadwalls. Mallards, he noted, have blue speculums. It was a valuable learning moment for the wildlife agent, though my friend continues to this day to shake his head and mutter when reminded of that encounter.

A gadwall drake, left, and hen take a break on a handy beaver log.

After time spent watching gadwalls, I heard a higher-pitched quack that I recognized immediately. I craned my neck, searching, when they flew by me like a squadron of tiny jets: Green-winged teal. Two vibrantly-colored drakes were competing for a fast-flying hen.

Green-winged teal are small ducks, about a third the size of a mallard, but what they lack in size they make up for in flying agility and, the males, in vibrant breeding colors. The little ducks’ swift twists and turns in flight no doubt save them frequently from hungry raptors. The males’ rusty-red heads are highlighted by broad, iridescent-green stripes that sweep from the eyes down to the base of the skull. Their flank feathers resemble the finest tweed and are topped by long gray saddle hackles that hang over white, black-bordered rumps.

The hens, in keeping with maintaining low profiles from predators while eggs are incubated and young tended, are a dull brown.

A green-winged teal drake, named for the species’ iridescent green wing speculum, cruises a wetland shoreline for food.

Later in the evening I found a pair of common mergansers. These fish-eating waterfowl can be found even in the winter in Southcentral Alaska, as long as open water is available. They’re hardy birds and, on Sunday evening, were obviously feeling frisky.

At one point the male headed my way, white chest offset by its dark green head. It seemed to clutch something in its scarlet-colored bill. At first it resembled a bit of foliage, which seemed odd for this species to be eating. On second glance, I realized the male actually had the female’s head crest clutched firmly in its serrated red bill. The female, meanwhile, was completely submerged while the male “rode” it.

Turns out, I was witnessing a private moment. After a minute or two, the male released the female who shook itself dry and continued on as if nothing had happened.

All in all, it was an evening well spent in the wetlands close to home. I’ll keep on with my spring rite of hunting for wild mushrooms. But not at the expense of watching the birds return to add color and music to the gentle season’s palette.


Don’t Mess with Mama Moose

By Ken Marsh

The cow moose seen above in an image taken today in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park is so pregnant that she appears ready to pop. And, in a way, she is.

Moose in Southcentral Alaska typically calve between now and early June, with the number peaking around May 25. New mothers can be hyper-protective and wise photogs and woods-people don’t mess around with them. They give these critters and their newborns plenty of space.

The best advice is to stay alert in the woods this time of year to avoid accidentally bumping into cows with new calves. In the frightening event you find yourself charged by an 800-pound cow moose, run! Moose aren’t predators like bears so running doesn’t cause predatory instincts to kick in. If anything, running away indicates a healthy respect for those lethal flying front hooves. Try to put a tree or car or something big between you and the moose.

Bear or moose bells don’t necessarily work to frighten off cows with wobbly-legged newborns. Rather than depart, cows this time of year often stand their ground to protect helpless calves. Keep your dogs close – preferably on a leash – as dogs fleeing charging moose have been known to bring raging cows back to their owners. And definitely don’t try to creep in close for that glorious photo of that cute little baby moose.

Avoid confrontations with protective cows from the git-go this spring and early summer, and stay safe. For more information about safety in moose country, see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game webpage at https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livewith.aggressivemoose


Morel Challenges

An amateur Alaskan mushroom hunter learns of resilience and revival.

By Ken Marsh

“There is something inscrutably satisfying about finding a good patch of morel mushrooms that travels far beyond their excellent flavor, perhaps a trace of the glad hearts of hungry earlier gatherers in the long weary path of evolution.” 

 – Jim Harrison
“The Summer He Didn’t Die” 

The fire had withered the ferns and devil’s club leaves and burned off the sphagnum mosses that once shag-carpeted the forest floor. Skeletally the forest still stood, the trees charred and lifeless as telephone poles, but the shrubs, grasses and mosses had burned completely, the ground left blackened and bare. After the fire burned itself out, the autumn rains came and when snow fell early that winter everyone seemed to forget the fire and left the place for dead.

Now a year had passed and we’d returned, parking our Subaru wagon south of Big Lake off a remote gravel road the flames had jumped. The morning was still and mild as we started walking, the air smelling of stale ashes. Wood frogs uttered love songs from the snowmelt-filled ditches bordering the road and buds sticky with sap opened in green splashes against the blackened moonscape. At last, the new season had settled in and there in the sunlight with the frogs singing and buds popping it was easy to forgive the past winter’s bitterness and accept the losses of the fearsome wildfire summer that preceded it.  

For twenty minutes we pitched along, stopping and stepping over fallen trees, my eyes sweeping the ground for something specific but new to me. Natalie, 4 years old, followed closely asking about the birdcalls, stumps, and bugs around us. I remember feeling lucky to have a daughter who shared with me such enthusiasm for nature. 

I’d answered Natalie’s latest question, prompted by a woodpecker heard tapping on a charred spruce, when I spotted at my feet a rubbery protuberance. 

“Natalie, look.” 

Natalie scurried forth and crouched by my knee. The object, about the length and diameter of my thumb, was unmistakable. Tan with dusky highlights and topped with a honeycombed cap featuring the pits and ridges typical of the genus Morchella, we’d found our first morel.   

I reached and pinched the stem where it met the soil and, as I turned, Natalie whispered, “I see another one.”

And so she did. Not a foot from the first. Indeed, as we scanned the area, we saw morels all around us, emerging from the ground singly, in pairs, and occasionally in clusters. 

Wild morels are elusive, or so lore had it. Locating them requires experience and exhaustive searching. Yet scattered there before us not 100 feet from the road, popping up among fireweed sprouts and bursting from soot-covered soil, were more of the coveted mushrooms than my daughter’s blue gallon beach bucket could hold. 


That first hunt for wild mushrooms 25 years ago this spring was inspired by my readings of the late poet and novelist Jim Harrison, a renaissance man who wrote fondly of morels (along with the subjects of birding, fly-fishing, food, and French wines). 

“Mr. Harrison has a peculiar passion for morels,” observed The New York Times in a 1994 profile, “Will Write for Food.” Indeed, best known for his novella, “Legends of the Fall,” Harrison was also famous for preparing multicourse meals featuring morels. The mushrooms accompanied his wild food creations of roasted ruffed grouse and woodcock, while more civilized entrée favorites rolled on like a listing by Forrest Gump’s shrimping buddy Bubba Blue: Morels with chicken in puff pastry, porterhouse steaks covered in morels, morel-stuffed raviolis. …

A self-styled weekend chef, I was intrigued by the idea that morels might be found in the forests around my Southcentral Alaska home. So, in late winter 1997 I began researching local wild mushrooms. In the mornings over tea, or at night with a finger of scotch, I read and learned. And as the snowbanks outside softened and withered, I was delighted to find that morels, related closely to truffles and similarly cherished for their savory flavor, are indeed present here in springtime. Further, because not all mushrooms are edible – certain species are known for toxic side effects – I was encouraged to discover that morels are easily recognized, even by those new to gathering them, for their distinctive high-topped, deeply pitted caps.  

So, where precisely might a guy in Alaska, this big, wild country, begin to look for these tiny truffles? References tying morels to wildfires seemed key. Species like Morchella tomentosa, the gray morel, were said to bloom bountifully on lands scorched by forest fires the year prior. And as it happened, a large blaze the previous summer had stormed through the forests all too near our home.   

Devastating at the time, the 1996 Miller’s Reach blaze consumed some 37,000 acres and more than 300 structures. Our house was among many threatened as flames rampaged west of Wasilla, gray smoke spanning the horizons and billowing three miles high. Forced to evacuate, we’d joined the refugee hordes fleeing bumper-to-bumper out Knik-Goose Bay Road. Luckily, strong winds turned the fire and ultimately our place was spared. Unlike some, we returned home, grateful, after three days away.

Now a year later, our good luck held. As we drove home, Natalie riding shotgun in her car seat, the little blue bucket on her lap heaped with morels, I knew without question we’d witnessed a resurrection.

Driving east the Talkeetna Mountains rose before us, the Chugach Range holding strong to our south, high, pointed peaks bright with sunlight on snow. Natalie had fallen quiet, her cheeks pink as wild rose blooms, blue eyes reflecting in our family wagon’s passenger window. We’d walked common ground, father and daughter, a privilege worth more than anything else. And along the way we discovered a pursuit that would ignite in me a lifelong passion.

As for the morels, I would prepare them simply that first time. Clean them on the kitchen counter, halve them lengthwise with a sharp knife, and sauté in butter. Lightly seasoned they would be succulent, of course, and for a time the house would smell rich and wonderful. 


The Alpine News

The hike begins early in the morning, around 5:30 for we with creatures to meet and places three miles up the valley to be. I don’t know if snowshoes will be needed, but a mix of deep drifts and warm April days have conjured visions of post-holing to my thighs. I’ll attach the snowshoes to my pack with a bungee and have them handy.

I reach the appointed rendezvous site early, my long walk made easy because the trail this morning remains frozen hard. The time is now 6:30, but the light remains murky. A 6 o’clock (on the nose) sunrise didn’t happen here. Instead, the horizon was blocked by a ring of high, rocky peaks. For now, surrounded by all that high, weather-sculpted stone, I remain in relative darkness. At the same time, I am humbled. There’s a strong sense I’ve entered a massive cathedral and the Creator Himself is present.

Anyway, sunlight won’t spill through a notch-like pass to the east until sometime after 7 a.m. Which is fine. I’m where I need to be. And the willow ptarmigan whom I’ve come to photograph are stirring.

A male willow ptarmigan peers curiously from an alpine willow thicket.

I sit for a while in the dim light watching the sun glow on the highest crags. Below me, in a willow flat on the valley floor, the mutters and cackles have begun. Willow ptarmigan by late April have paired up, males and females, and set up territories. The males cackle periodically the way domestic roosters crow, to welcome the morning and warn away would-be interlopers.

After I’ve cooled down from the hike, I stand up and walk slowly toward the nearest cackle. I take perhaps 20 steps before the first ptarmigan appears. It’s a male, no doubt the cackler himself, decked out in classic breeding colors including chocolate-brown head and neck highlighted by scarlet eye combs. The remainder of his suit is pure white.

A male willow ptarmigan, decked out in classic spring breeding plumage of chocolate-brown head and neck highlighted by scarlet eye combs, dashes across the snow.

I pull out my camera, dial up the ISO, and hazard a shot or two. It’s still a little dark. Suddenly, a snowball rolls out of a patch of shrubs to the left and comes alive. It’s a female willow ptarmigan. Her springtime dress is solid white, better to keep her unseen and safe from predators.

The reluctant sun makes its appearance even as I raise the camera. The male struts over and collects his mate. The two trot off, and so my day truly begins.

A male, rear, and female willow ptarmigan trot across the snow. This is a typical breeding pair.

I begin walking up a creek channel, careful to avoid open leads, and encounter more ptarmigan, all in pairs. The cackles of possessive males, tiny feathered mountain kings, ring out everywhere. They sound a little like laughing Jokers in a Batman movie, but with slightly higher-pitched voices.

A female willow ptarmigan leads its mate on a chase along the creek bottom. Males this time of year follow the females closely wherever they go.

If you find a male willow ptarmigan this time of year, a female is certainly nearby. The males are loathe to let the females out of sight, and chase them everywhere.

A cock willow ptarmigan pauses at the creek’s edge.

At one point I follow a pair of birds up a steep hillside. A large south-facing patch of tundra was exposed by the sun and I’m startled by how starkly the birds stand out against the snowless ground. Apparently, no predators lurk nearby.

A willow ptarmigan hen stands out against a patch of snowless tundra.

The birds don’t feed long in the snowless patch. I’m relieved when they hop back into the snow, the pure-white female blending in perfectly.

I spend a few hours in the high country, chasing tundra chickens like a man possessed. But as the sun warms and the trail grows punchy, the snow softening and grainy like coarse sugar, I know it’s time to pack up and hike out. Willow ptarmigan are clearly made for alpine tundra, but it’s no country for old men.

A willow ptarmigan hen steps through the willows that provide these birds food and cover year-round.


Spring Dispatch

It’s happening already. Springtime has barely arrived and I’m already so busy outdoors hiking, photographing, and watching nature that I’m falling behind on posts. I visited a favorite wetlands area early last week and was happy to find snow geese among the Canada geese, northern pintails, mallards, and trumpeter swans.

Newly arrived snow geese fly over Turnagain Arm with the Chugach Range in the background.

Snow geese in groups small and large could be seen scattered across the flats and in the skies. Many were mixed in with Canada geese creating salt-and-pepper flocks of 100 – 300 birds. The snows flew by so closely that I could clearly see their eyes blinking and, on their breasts and heads, see Cook Inlet mud staining their white feathers.

A flock of snow geese flies toward me, right off the deck.

Pintail numbers are increasing here by the day and I was fortunate to have one bunch fly by fast, but very close. These ducks are streamlined and seemingly built for speed. A northern pintail can fly as fast as 65 mph.

Pintails rocket past on their northward journey to distant nesting grounds.

In the mix were plenty of mallards. The males’ iridescent green heads flashed in the evening sun as the birds, most flying in drake-and-hen pairs, passed overhead. Most landed among large groups of geese that stood on open ice or fed in muddy, grassy areas of exposed beach.

Wild mallards own a rangy appearance and cagey demeanor that set them apart from their semi-tame bread-fed counterparts often seen in city parks.

Early as it was, a pair of sandhill cranes had arrived and seemed to be staking out a local nesting territory. Summers in Alaska are short, so migrating waterfowl waste little time establishing territories, building nests, and raising progeny. Young birds of the year need to be fully fledged and strong to take to the skies and travel south come September.

A pair of sandhill cranes appear ready to nest.

The Canadas, of course, were arriving in droves. As the sun set and the skies darkened high-flying wedges of geese set wings and spiraled down, down, into the marsh. They might spend the night, a day or two, then continue north. A few will no doubt nest nearby.

Canada geese sail over Turnagain Arm early last week.


And Just Like that, Spring Was Here

So last week’s subzero temperatures finally vanished. Overnight. And just like that the snow started melting as days warmed into the mid-40s and 50s F. Even more miraculously, the waterfowl began to arrive.

First, I saw trumpeter swans. They came in pairs or small flocks, landing on ice shelves near open water. Their hornlike calls echoed like brass through the trees and across the marsh as they stretched their wings and rested.

A pair of trumpeter swans prepares to touch down among colleagues Tuesday evening in Southcentral Alaska.

After that, it wasn’t long – less than an hour – before I started hearing geese. Then, Canada geese in long skeins appeared overhead.

Canada geese arrive in Southcentral Alaska as spring migration begins.

Trumpeter swans are always among the first spring migrants to return to Southcentral Alaska, with geese not far behind. But Alaskans know springtime is here when the pintails arrive. And here they were, drakes in flight already competing for reluctant hens.

A small group of pintails soars low through the marsh.

Wildlife activity has certainly increased with the warm weather, and those movements aren’t limited only to waterfowl. An otter stopped by later in the evening, preceded by three young bull moose.

A curious otter pauses in the slough to consider a nosy photographer.

I’ve been a hunter most of my life and was raised on moose and caribou meat. But as I get older, I’m finding greater pleasure in photographing birds and animals, too. I’m able to incorporate my hard-earned hunting and stalking skills to get pictures. It’s fun, challenging, and the pictures last longer than the meat. Of course, it’s all good.

A young bull moose gazes at a pair of newly arrived trumpeter swans.

The seasons change swiftly here in Alaska, this land of extremes as it has been called. It’s part of the fascination of living here. That, along with the wild lands and wild creatures that accompany it all.


Snow White & Waiting for Spring

Just over a week ago, the temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska, were dipping down below zero degrees F. This white-tailed ptarmigan tried to make the best of the cold weather it by hunkering in a beam of sunlight.

Incidentally, white-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse. Adults top out at weights of around 12 ounces, on the hoof.

Ptarmigan country in Chugach State Park last week, overlooking the city of Anchorage.

I was fortunate to encounter a lynx in the half light prior to dawn. Sadly, my camera was stuffed in my pack for the hike into the high country and by the time I pulled it out, Mr. Lynx was gone. So, no actual pictures of the animal, but I’ll never forget the way it wagged its black-tipped, bobbed tail before vanishing into the alpine hemlocks.

All that was left of the lynx I saw – and the photograph I missed.

Ptarmigan were not plentiful this time, though last year on the same date willow ptarmigan – Alaska’s state bird – were abundant. The paucity of birds may have been related to the park being open this year to snowmachines (that’s Alaskan for snowmobiles). Fast, noisy engines hurtling through a narrow alpine valley is not conducive to wildlife viewing.

But, near the head of the valley where snow machine activity thinned out, signs of ptarmigan began to appear.

Ptarmigan tracks stitch the snow in Chugach State Park last week.

Eventually, I heard the slightest sound of ice crystals collapsing and looked up near the trail to see a living snowball. It was the white-tailed ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan I would see that day. I was glad to see it, initially at first light and again on the trail home when I found it bathing in morning sunlight.

Only a week later, I would be watching newly arriving trumpeter swans and Canada geese arriving in the lowlands nearby. More on that later.


Three-Thousand Rivers

Alaskans rely upon rivers for travel and sustenance the way people of the Lower 48 depend upon highways.

By Ken Marsh

I don’t remember our destination that muggy July day on the Yukon River – likely some abandoned mining camp or ghost town – but I do recall spotting the swimming wolf along the way. We were upstream of Eagle, several of us in a riverboat piloted by a family friend who collected Gold Rush relics, when I spotted the animal dogpaddling mid-channel. I was 12 or 13 years old then and pleased enough to be in a boat on that wide, historic stretch of water. The swimming wolf was an added delight. So I shouted and pointed and our skipper, formerly a fighter pilot in the Korean War and Vietnam, grinned gamely and swung the boat around.

Muddy with sediments and a quarter-mile wide at that early point in its 2,300-mile-long journey, the Yukon downstream of its junction with the heavily glacial White River is nearly impossible to swim. For starters, the river here is coldblooded, reputed to chill, cramp and paralyze its victims. Even more insidious, locals used to say, are the glacial silts; word was the flour-fine grains of rock collect quickly in the clothes of those who capsize or fall out of boats, dragging down even the strongest swimmers.

At that time, the early 1970s, one Dawson City man – I believe it was local sternwheeler captain Dick Stevenson, though I can’t be sure – was rumored to have successfully swum the Yukon, bank-to-bank, on a dare. Legend had it he’d foiled the river by downing a few shots of hard liquor to guard against the cold, and that he beat the silt by stripping to his undershorts. Whether or not the tale is true I cannot say; more than 40 years have flowed by since I last heard the story and time’s currents have a way of eroding memories. 

In any case, the power of water moving at 227,000 cubic feet per second cannot be overstated. And neither can the determination of the swimming wolf we encountered that day long ago. 

“Want to pet him?” our skipper friend asked as he eased us close off the animal’s side.

I balked, processing in my mind the snapshot I carry with me to this day of that canine head, dry and smoky-white, followed by a soggy mane, the wolf’s back and plume of a white tail submerged and trailing in its wake. Now a few yards off the starboard gunnel, the wolf ignored us as it worked against the roiling current, its yellow eyes never leaving the far shore.

“Here,” the friend said, “use this.”

He handed me a canoe paddle, kept for emergencies in the bottom of the boat. I understood why he thought an Alaska boy should seize the opportunity – for the novelty of it. After all, what could be more “sourdough” than petting a wolf as it swims the Yukon? By then the others in the boat had joined in, encouraging me to punctuate our encounter with a harmless touch. 

For an instant I considered how I might, in the spirit of counting coup, reach out with the paddle and lightly stroke the wolf between its ears. Intent on its fight against the Yukon, the animal probably wouldn’t flinch, even as everyone in the boat cheered. Imagine the glory!

In the end, though, temptation lost out to compassion. The wolf and the river weren’t playing, even a boy could see that. Further distractions were unwarranted. To my onlookers’ collective disappointment, I shrugged and set down the paddle.

The boat then turned and we motored away, leaving the wolf alone with the current. Now whenever I reflect upon the prominence and power of Alaska’s rivers, I picture the events of that day – wolf versus river, two natural forces engaged in a contest of strength and will. I like to think the struggle ended in a draw, that the wolf unfazed by silt and cold survived the crossing, though not before being swept far downstream. 


Beyond that, a question whispers over the eddies of time: Why might a wolf dare swim the mighty Yukon, anyway? The answer, of course, is simple and very old: To reach the other side. 


The Maclaren River, which crosses the Denali Highway, is one of 3,000 rivers that flow through Alaska.

The Yukon is Granddame of Alaska’s rivers, the North’s own long, broad, brown Mississippi. Rich in Native history, passageway for early Russian fur traders and Gold Rush stampeders, she flows 400 miles through Canada before transecting 1,875 miles of Alaska, draining along the way 330,000 square miles of raw, virtually trackless country. Still, she is but one river among many. Some 3,000 others flow across Alaska, fed by untold thousands of lesser streams, brooks and rills. Indeed, this wilderness state is in large part defined (along with its mountain ranges and ice fields) by its rivers. 

Like rivers everywhere, ours in Alaska are metronomes, conductors of water, measurers of time. Too, they are conveyors, offering passage to destinations near and far. In that respect, and considering that our fewer than 6,000 miles of certified public roads and highways hardly probe this 570,374-square-mile state’s edges, rivers here are especially important.  Even if you were to include the 9,000 miles of lesser city streets, alleys and frontage roads overseen by towns, villages and municipalities and stretch them out across the hinterlands, Alaska’s river networks would offer far greater span. For this reason, our dependence on rivers for instate travel is critical, particularly for rural residents whose road systems are at best localized and short.

To greater or lesser extents, Alaskans depend upon rivers to lead us to our homes, livelihoods, recreation, and food sources as surely as citizens of Seattle, Los Angeles, Memphis or Pittsburg rely upon freeways to access the same things. River travel occurs here year-round, except for the brief periods of freeze-up in fall and breakup in spring, when ice forming or thawing makes for treacherous going. In summer we use riverboats, rafts, canoes, kayaks – even tugboats towing barges – to navigate the Kuskokwim, Copper, Tanana, Chena, Kobuk, Koyukuk, Wood, and hundreds of others. In winter these rivers and others like the Susitna, Gulkana, Sagavanirktok, and Yukon freeze and are transformed into highways for snowmobiles, dogsleds, ATVs, and even cars and trucks. The famous 1,100-mile-long Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog snowmobile race, each retracing historic travel routes, follow hundreds of miles of frozen river channels.

This coziness with rivers is to be expected in a frontier state where many still rely on game and fish as dietary staples, where log cabins hewn from local spruces remain unremarkably common, and where the presence of wilderness looms large on the edge of every port, city and mind. 

Rafters float the Gulkana River north of Glennallen.


Of course, there are two sides to every river. And even as rivers here serve much of the time as highways for men and machines, occasionally they are nothing less than formidable barriers. Yukon-swimming wolves would agree, I’m sure, as would the engineers and grunts who tackled the Copper River in 1908. Back then prospectors had discovered enormous copper deposits in the Wrangell Mountains. Unfortunately for them, the Copper River blocked the only practical transport route between the mining community of Kennecott and the Prince William Sound port town of Cordova. The only solution was to build a bridge. 

Imagine in those elbow grease and horse-and-buggy days bridging a swift, swirling glacial monster a third of a mile wide, its channel an expressway for icebergs calved from glaciers upriver. Figure too that the Copper is hardly stable, its water levels fluctuating as much as 24 feet between July and April. All told, you’d need a bridge that would stand well above the high-water mark with enough clearance to allow icebergs rising 20 feet above the water to pass safely underneath. You’d be looking at placing four steel spans, each weighing roughly 4 million pounds and – here’s the incredible part – every last ounce would have to be transported at least 20 miles upriver on barges and canoes towed on ropes gripped by men scrambling through alder tangles and over boulders ranging in size from bowling balls to motor homes.

The job seemed impossible. In fact, it still seems impossible, except that through a mix of genius and sheer cussedness the engineers and scores of laborers pulled it off. The Million Dollar Bridge, as it was named for its construction cost, was completed in 1910. And so the big, fast Copper River, that roiling glacier-fed giant, was tamed. That is, at least, for a while. Gravity got the last laugh 54 years later when the 1964 Good Friday earthquake savagely shook Southcentral Alaska, collapsing the bridge’s fourth span. The broken structure now stands as the terminus of Cordova’s abbreviated Copper River Highway.


A riverboat is tied up on the Koyukuk River near Ella’s Cabin.

So rivers surge and ebb, flood and dry up. They busy themselves cutting new channels and, sometimes, they forget things such as old bends left behind to stagnate as oxbow lakes. As often as not though, rivers are revealers. One September, while traveling in a riverboat up the Koyukuk River, Charlie Green of Galena pointed out some sandbars where that Interior Alaska river frequently exposes the carcasses of woolly mammoths.

“I like to take my kids there sometimes and look for bones,” Charlie said of one sandbar.

In that sense, Alaska’s rivers have a way of revealing ancient truths. Many here cut through the permafrost-encased graveyards of ice-age elephants, bison, and saber-toothed tigers, reminding us there’s more to this place than normally meets the eye. Along the way, tiny bits of mammoth matter – bone and even hair – are picked up and carried in the current. Think about that the next time you have a glass of Interior Alaska river water.

At the same time, Alaska’s rivers are loaded with present-day life. Our state is famous for its fish, particularly salmon, grayling, trout and char. Fish feed us here. Indeed, our salmon fisheries help nourish the world. We catch our salmon in commercial nets in the Yukon, for subsistence by fish wheel and personal-use dip net in the Copper, and for sport by rod and reel just about everywhere. 

Many years ago, I spent an early autumn week with friends rafting a river northwest of Dillingham. Our trip began at the river’s headwaters lake high in the mountains. At the foot of the lake, where the river spilled out, the channel was a vermillion ribbon of spawning sockeyes – “red” salmon – mixed with a few humpbacked pinks and the odd coho.

We caught and released a few salmon and trout, then hopped aboard the raft to ride the river and witness a weeklong progression of water, fish, wild country and life. The river wandered modestly at first, gathering as it flowed a fullness that was sleek and direct. I watched the land pass by as the current hustled us along and was reminded of my mortality as the river measured my minutes, hours and days passing on the planet. 

Late one evening, with the rest of camp gone to bed after a long day of rafting and fishing, I was left alone with the river. The current’s volume seemed to increase as daylight faded and, cued by fresh snow topping the hills nearby, flights of southbound ducks could be heard passing low overhead on whistling wings. 

From a gravel bar near the river’s center I found an eddy so full of bright coho salmon that every cast drew a strike. All I had to do was drop a streamer fly into the eddy’s head, let it drift into the sweet spot, and — POW! — a salmon would wallop it. From there the coho would tear downriver, leaping and dancing in the darkness. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them splashing and feel their heaviness and insane energy telegraphed through the line. 

My feeling of joy, of happiness to be alive at that instant, was intense. I had the river to thank for that. And that was not the first time, or the last, that I’ve felt that way on a float trip. Alaska’s rivers can do that – deliver us, provide enrichment for our starving souls. You need only hop aboard and let the current take you along. Some journeys are longer than others, yet when you reach the end it’s always the same: You look back and realize that life is a river, and the river is always too short.


All I had to do was drop a streamer fly into the eddy’s head, let it drift into the sweet spot, and — POW! — a salmon would wallop it.

Southcentral Alaska’s Alpine Angling Options

Here’s why some Southcentral Alaska fishers are casting in high places.

By Ken Marsh

On a hot day in mid-July, at the end of a dusty mountain bike ascent high into the Kenai Mountains, Crescent Lake sparkles like an ice-blue promise. To get there I’d grinded my way over the sparsely traveled Crescent Creek Trail, up near-vertical inclines and around hairpin switchbacks broken by rocks and roots. The going had been challenging, though not overly so for an angler willing to break a sweat for solitude, adventure and — legend had it — tremendous fishing for some of the biggest, meanest grayling in the state. 

Now the lake sprawled before me, windless and surrounded by 5,000-foot-tall mountains, its surface reflecting ridges, crags and cobalt skies. From my daypack I removed an assortment of fishing paraphernalia and assembled my four-piece fly rod and reel. Grayling fed and splashed in the lake out front; one, two, three … easily a dozen could be seen sipping bugs off the surface nearby. I pulled up my skin-thin Gore Tex waders, stumbling at the distraction of all those fish, then stepped into the shallows. A grayling swirled close by and, in a heartbeat, I was tearing line off my reel, calculating the distance of the day’s first big cast.

A fly-fisherman readies his float tube for grayling in a high country lake.

Welcome to one of Southcentral Alaska’s premier high-country fisheries. Set in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, in the center of the 5.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest, Crescent Lake is locally known for grayling that grow close to two feet long and weigh three pounds or more. That’s impressive for a naturally diminutive species whose official state sportfishing record stands at 5 pounds, 1 ounce. Yet these fish, like those found in other mountain lakes scattered throughout the Kenai and Chugach ranges, receive little angling pressure. In fact, the trout, char and grayling found in many of these upper elevation jewels are probably more likely to die of old age than end up in a camp skillet. 

Of course, the reason for this is simple — in Southcentral more easily reached fishing options wait just a scenic drive down the road. State highways from Homer to Denali Park parallel salmon-rich rivers and creeks, and scores of lakes and smaller streams offer drive-up fishing for trout, grayling, char and other species. So the question is inevitable: Why knock yourself out to reach waters a mile (or six) off the road when fish can be caught a short cast from a parking lot? 

Why indeed. That is, unless your notion of fishing extends beyond merely catching fish. For many anglers, the appeal of high-country water is in leaving the tamer, more peopled places behind. Reaching these out-of-the-way spots is a cherished part of the process. Whether you hike in, take horses, ride a mountain bike or fly, you will climb through an extraordinary natural progression. You’ll watch the land around you evolve, from big timber to wind-stunted shrubs to wide-open alpine tundra. You’ll sense the air thinning as you gain elevation, notice the wind feeling cooler on your face. Wildlife sightings are likely and may include moose feeding in muskeg ponds, black bears hunting blueberries on sunlit hillsides, spruce grouse clucking on the trail ahead. And of course, waiting at the far end of the trail are those mountain lakes, deep and cold, holding hungry trout, grayling and char eager to strike flies, spinners or spoons. 

A flyfisherman pauses with his mountain bike along Lower Russian Lake on the trail to the Upper Russian River. The trail is well groomed and easily hiked or biked.

Perhaps the best news for anglers is that many high-country lakes can be reached via groomed trails within a morning’s hike of local highways. The Chugach Forest offers a great network of trails leading to fine fishing, including the Resurrection Trail system between Hope and Cooper Landing, the Johnson Pass Trail off the Seward Highway, and the Crescent Creek and Russian Lakes trails off the Sterling Highway.

Where exactly you decide to go is best planned well in advance. Start by being honest with yourself about your physical condition and wilderness skills. Know what kind of challenges you’re up to and plan your fishing trek accordingly. Using topographic maps and information provided on the Web, find out how far off the road you’ll need to travel and, while you’re at it, research the trail — is it suitable for mountain bikes, or would hiking be a better option? If you’re short on time or simply not up for the physical demands of a long, steep expedition, consider a floatplane charter into one of the larger lakes. Floatplane charter outfits can be found in Anchorage Seward and Cooper Landing. Most offer day drop-off packages; comparison shop to get the best deal.

If you’re in Alaska on a brief visit with minimal gear, it’s easy to broaden your high-country horizons by renting what you need. Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) in Anchorage rents camping gear such as backpacks, tents and sleeping bags. Mountain bikes can be rented for reasonable rates from any of several local vendors, and at least one Cooper Landing horseback outfitter specializes in Chugach Forest backcountry trips.

Beyond good fishing, Crescent Lake and tarns like Rabbit Lake in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, or Symphony Lake out of Eagle River, promise admission to primal worlds that time and most anglers have forgotten. The reward at the end of a brisk hike, mountain bike trek or horseback ride: solitude, pristine water and some of the planet’s most marvelous scenery. From the shorelines of these far-flung lakes — and others like Johnson, Bench, Carter and Juneau in the Kenai Mountains where grayling, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden rise among the reflections of sheer rock walls, upended peaks and treeless hills — it is easy to pretend that you are, as the late journalist Charles Kuralt once wrote, “alone in the universe.”

An angler fly-fishes for rainbow trout in Rabbit Lake lake near Anchorage.

Back on Crescent Lake, grayling rose all around me, their snouts gently breaking the surface and leaving silver rings. My fly was a tiny speck on the water a good, long cast out front and I was watching when it suddenly vanished in a swirl. I yanked back on my rod, to set the hook, and was surprised by the heaviness telegraphed back to me. Instantly the fish surged deep, shaking its head like a pit bull. All I could do was hang on, try to keep the tension in my line, wear the fish out.

There was another short drive for the deep, dark water before the battle moved to the top. I watched as the grayling made run after thrashing run, its marlin-like dorsal fin cutting ragged wakes across the surface. Eventually, though, each run grew weaker until, finally, l was able to lead the fish in and hold it in my hands.

Twenty inches long (measured by tape) with purple and blue scales that sparkled like sequins, I guessed the grayling weighed close to three pounds. It was one of the big ones — one of those living legends Crescent Lake is known for. Over the next couple of hours I would catch one more that size, and many other good fish that would range from 12 to 15 inches long.

For the moment, though, the game was over. I eased my hook from the grayling’s jaw and lowered the fish into the lake, among the reflections of mountains. Then I found a gap in the crags, and watched the fish vanish into the sky. 



Here are a few possibilities worth considering for this summer:

Johnson Lake: Rainbow trout in this Johnson Pass Trail jewel are rumored to grow extra large and hungry. Access options include the north trailhead located at Mile 64 of the Seward Highway east of Granite Creek Campground, or the south trailhead at Mile 32.5 of the Seward Highway west of Upper Trail Lake. The trail is roughly 20 miles long, with Johnson Lake marking the approximate halfway point. The lake can accommodate floatplanes. Nearby Bench Lake offers fishing for grayling. The trail is suitable for hiking, mountain bikes and horses; seasonal restrictions on bikes and horses may apply. 

Rabbit Lake: The route to this beautiful Chugach State Park lake in the mountains overlooking Anchorage begins south of town at McHugh Creek State Wayside at Mile 15.2 of the Seward Highway. The trail is a steep seven miles one way, but rainbow trout to 18 inches prowl the lake. Along the way, keep an eye out for ptarmigan, marmots, Dall sheep and grizzly bears.

Symphony Lake: Grayling head the menu in this alpine opportunity a short drive from downtown Anchorage. State sport fish biologist Dan Bosch hiked into the lake recently with a small spinning rod and enjoyed great fishing for grayling 18 inches long. “They’re just gorgeous fat, fat fish,” he said. “I landed three and probably lost three or four in about 15 minutes.” 

To reach Symphony Lake, drive south on Hiland Road seven miles to South Fork Eagle River Valley Trail Head in Chugach State Park. From there, the trail to the lake is five miles. The hike in took Bosch about two hours. And finding the fish required some walking around the lake’s 1.2 miles of shoreline (he found them on the lake’s far side).

Juneau Lake: Located on the Resurrection Trail system, this remote fishery is known for its rainbows, grayling and lake trout. The trailhead is located at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway. The lake can be reached via a six-mile hike over a well-maintained trail, horseback or plane. A U.S.D.A. Forest Service cabin is available for overnight stays and must be reserved in advance.

Crescent Lake: This hot grayling lake can be reached from two trailheads. The Crescent Creek Trail located 98 miles south of Anchorage off the Sterling Highway is one option. The trail to the lake is 6 ½ miles with a gradual elevation gain of 1,000 feet. Anglers can reach the lake on foot, mountain bike or horseback. The other route involves a steep 5½-mile hike over the Carter Lake Trail off the Seward Highway out of Moose Pass. Crescent Lake opens for fishing on July 1; Forest Service cabins are available.

Russian Lakes: Trailheads to the Russian Lakes Trail start at the Russian River Campground near Mile 52.6 of the Sterling Highway, or via the trailhead at Cooper Lake off Snug Harbor Road. The 21-mile-long trail traverse excellent fishing for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Fish can be caught in Upper and Lower Russian lakes, though the best fishing is in the Upper Russian River, which connects the lakes. Forest Service cabins and skiffs are available at both lakes.

High Country Tackle

Float tubes, also called “bellyboats,” are usually truck inner tubes or large rubber air bladders lined with fabric and rigged with a seat. They allow you to propel yourself around a lake by kicking your feet, which you fit with diving fins. Float tubes can make all the difference by providing easy access to deeper areas that shore-bound anglers can’t reach. Just remember, all of this stuff has to go in on your back. Shop for light-weight tubes that are easily inflated by mouth (Caddis makes a very light and affordable U-shaped model) and ultra-light Gore-Tex waders, to keep the weight and bulk down on the hike or mountain bike trip in. Deflated float tubes are also easily stuffed into floatplanes.

A flyfisher uses a float tube to reach rainbow trout in a Southcentral Alaska lake.

Tackle: Ultralight spinning rods or 4- to 6-weight fly rods are good for fishing high-country lakes. Three pounds is big for fish at elevations of 2,600 to 3,000 feet, where growing seasons are short. Anglers using spinning gear will find 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament plenty strong. Spinners and spoons in Nos. 0-2 are good choices for trout, grayling and char.

Fly-fishers will generally have the best luck using floating lines and 10- to 12-foot-long leaders with something like a 4-pound-test tippet. Leech patterns, an assortment of dry flies and some No. 18 or 20 Griffith’s Gnats or some chironomids fished below the surface can be very effective.         

Getting There

Admission to solitude and pristine waters waits just beyond that first ridge. Start hiking — or mountain biking, or hire a horseback outfitter, or charter a floatplane (often surprisingly affordable should time or physical ability limit more strenuous options) — and you’ll discover firsthand that Alaska’s sprawling 365 million acres extend far beyond its meager highway system. Within a mile of the roads most traveled, you’ll enter the far-flung, truly wild places that time and most anglers have forgotten.