When I look at a cutthroat trout, I am reminded of a shy child, freckled, cast out of the mainstream because it is small, less aggressive. The name “cutthroat” is derived not from the creature’s disposition, but from its appearance. Cutthroats lack along their lateral lines the decisive red stripes of rainbow trout, wearing them instead in distilled vividness beneath their lower jaws. In fact, Alaska’s coastal cutts are particularly susceptible to bullying. When spawning they often seek tiny streams — muskeg trickles, remote headwaters, springs barely a foot wide — to avoid competition with belligerent coho and steelhead.
In some waters they are found in both sea-run and resident forms. No one seems to know exactly why one fish spends time in the ocean while another in the same stream does not. In the end cutthroats are where you find them, one day among the barnacles chasing minnows, the next sipping mayflies from a freshet.
In their own subtle way, cutthroat trout are metaphors for Alaska as I’ve long known it: beautiful, wild, innocent. Vulnerable. They are worth finding and catching and letting go, to remain in the heart like poems of sunlight, shadow, hemlock and spruce, and days spent on the water in the world’s last, great wilderness.
A story of a southern gentleman, duck hunting, and the heartbreak of September in Alaska.
By Ken Marsh
September was nearly over and, even though Harry was a fine man – a South Carolinian and southern gentleman in the truest sense – I didn’t feel much like talking. We sat side by side on a drift log, a great weather-bleached cottonwood, next to a pond on the Susitna Flats. A cold wind blustered, pinched our cheeks and turned them pink while we waited for ducks that came in fits and starts, cup-winged over the decoys.
This was Harry’s first trip to Alaska. He’d waited for more than 60 years to get here, working 40 of those years as a heart surgeon. Saving lives for a living or, at the very least buying time for the doomed, he was a miracle worker by any measure. Yet there I sat, three feet away, silently nursing something broken inside that he could not fix.
The two of us had shot poorly all afternoon. The ducks came fast on the autumn wind and we suspected we were not allowing proper leads. Perhaps on that day there was not enough lead in the world; maybe the ducks and the wind were simply faster than reflex, powder, and shot.
Duck hunters sometimes have to wonder where the birds come from; one moment the sky is a lifeless place of wind and clouds, the next you hear overhead the jet-engine rip of wings cutting air. And there they are. This time it was a group of wigeon, a dozen or more in a tight wedge. I just had time to stand, point, and shoot. There was the report of my gun, the solid splattering contact that you feel deep in your chest, and then a bird from the flock’s tail end dropping like a stone out of the sky.
There had been no time for Harry to shoot. The ducks had vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Harry was happy. For me. And for himself.
Earlier in the week I’d taken Harry hunting for ruffed grouse over my orange-and-white Brittany. When the dog locked up in some yellow grass at the base of a hill, Harry had stepped up and bagged the first ruffed grouse of his life. The bird had flushed with wings beating like a frenzied, racing heart, and the surgeon had coolly pointed his shotgun and squeezed. For a flash there was silence, a cloud of feathers hanging in the air like someone had torn open an old-fashioned pillow. Then the kindly, silvered-haired southern gentleman stood and yelled like rebel at Fort Sumter. Later, Harry told me that he liked Alaska. “It’s a man’s country,” he’d said.
More ducks came and we dropped a few, including a headshot bluebill that flew perfectly for 300 yards before folding up in an odd, delayed reaction. And Harry made a fine shot on his first canvasback, a huge drake that splashed down among our decoys with a definitive finality. Then the sky grew dusky and we gathered our spread and motored off in a beat-up johnboat across the pond’s dark, troubled waters.
We were staying with two others at a duck shack (a plywood outbuilding set upon stilts to avoid flooding by the highest Cook Inlet tides) far away from the forest, yet I imagined that I could hear leaves falling even as winter’s darkness fell and the night’s frost came on. Oddly, Alaska appears more crisp and vibrant in September, even as it seems to die. Within a week the trees would scratch the raw sky with aching, naked limbs. The duck flats would lie bare and silent, ponds sealed in ice, the air dead, the last wigeon and greenhead gone. Like always, a hollowness would expand like a balloon in my chest and for no tangible reason I would feel the need to hold back tears. A courtship would have died and I would find myself left alone because time and its season do not wait. That is the heartbreak of September. And no heart surgeon in the world can fix it.
You may love all seasons, but you may not live them all at once. You must take each one singly, as it comes, and no matter how much you yearn for another, you are committed by time to remain where you are.
That night the clouds parted and gave way to stars, a full moon, and complete stillness. By the glow of a propane lamp, we played cards and sipped scotch. Outside the moon glared, illuminating the flats and creating a black-and-silver world that was surreal. We could hear geese yelping all night long, leaving with the frost under the light of the moon. The card game grew subdued and it is possible that we all knew just where we sat: on a cornice, the threshold of winter.
Next morning the sun rose over the Chugach Range, a bright circle of fire that burned cold like frozen steel. The ponds had frozen and ice crystals glittered in the hard blue mud. No geese called or peppered the pale sky, and the ducks of the day before were gone.
Harry remained upbeat, as always, which made me think of the stories he’d shared over our decoys the day before. In one story he’d diagnosed a woman with terminal cancer. The woman had been told that her life could be extended with chemotherapy, but she refused to accept the diagnosis and, against Harry’s advice, left the hospital. A year passed. Then one day Harry had glanced up and there was the woman – still very much alive. She’d never felt better. An examination showed that her cancer was gone. She’d had no treatment, and Harry remained to that day happily puzzled. He was a spiritual man and had often felt a greater presence while performing grave operations. His stories made me think. They offered hope.
We flew in a small plane back to Anchorage late that morning, over the lifeless duck flats, through a mass of gathering clouds spitting snow. And somewhere between the Susitna River delta and Lake Hood in Anchorage, I felt a sudden warmth and knew my heart was healing. Maybe it was something the surgeon had said. Or perhaps it came from somewhere else.
The mountains were lovely today, alternately sulking in shadow and beaming in light; they were a bright, fresh presence in a country that will always be home, even if home is a place that lives only in your heart.
Anglers seeking big surprises and some of the largest, meanest rainbow trout on Earth need look no farther than the trout streams of wild Alaska.
By Ken Marsh
My very first rainbow trout startled me: It struck hard, wrenching my wrists, my shoulders; it stole my breath and stirred a strange tickle deep in my chest. The fish snatched my bait in the shallows of a famous Alaska river, the Kenai, and ran fast for the deep, swift water in the main channel. My instructions were to sit and not move, no matter what, but to call out should a fish be hooked.
So I held on and cried out to my father who cast for trout from a gravel bar upriver a good, hard shout away. My fishing rod wasn’t much – maybe three feet long, cork-handled, white with red wrap, and rigged with a secondhand, single-action reel that my father had dug from an old box and cleaned of rust and spray-painted red. The outfit was fine for a 5-year-old boy, the rod stout enough to provide the leverage I needed to hold that fish as my father splashed and stumbled across the river to the little slough where he’d left me.
I landed the trout, much to my father’s delight – and to mine – and later a second rainbow trout followed, a three-pound twin of the first. I’ve long lost track of a snapshot recording the event, a print already creased and fading last I saw, taken by my father of his grinning crew-cut kid holding up both fish by the gills.
Enough water has flowed from Alaska’s trout streams over the ensuing 45 years to form an ocean and, in that time, I’ve caught many, many rainbow trout. But the images of that day have never left me. Even today every rainbow trout I catch, large or small, is measured against a time when I was very young and the world was new and everything that happened came as a surprise.
The element of surprise is a large part of the rainbow’s allure, particularly in Alaskan waters where the next trout hooked might be a three-pound scrapper, or a heart-stopping heavyweight three feet long. The fish come in two forms here, resident and sea-run, and both grow big. The state record, a sea-run version caught in briny Southeast, weighed 42 pounds, 3 ounces, and stories of resident fish busting the 20-pound threshold are written on our rivers every summer.
Rainbow trout are native to Alaska’s southern third, a roughly California-size hunk of wild lands, streams and lakes spanning a procession of geographies and climate zones from temperate Southeast, north and west to the Susitna Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, and far beyond to the tundra reaches of Bristol Bay, Kodiak Island and the western Alaska Peninsula.
Most common are the resident trout that spend their lives within given stream or lake systems. These may be honey-colored creatures, freckled like leopards, such as those of the tannic brooks and ponds south of the Alaska Range; or flashy chrome-flanked behemoths that lurk among spawning salmon in the great lake systems of Bristol Bay.
Sea-run rainbow trout, called steelhead, are generally found close to the coast where their life cycles mimic those of Pacific salmon. Steelhead spawn and rear in freshwater, but spend several years maturing and growing in saltwater. Once mature, the sea-run rainbows return to natal streams to spawn and the cycle comes full circle. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead may recover after spawning to return to the sea and reappear in subsequent years to spawn again.
Steelhead come and go with the tides of spring and fall; anglers seek them in more than 300 Southeast Alaska streams and in others more sparsely distributed north and west around the Gulf of Alaska and ultimately far west toward Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. Steelhead runs in Alaska are generally small, with annual returns ranging from highs of up to 6,000 fish in Yakutat’s Situk River to fewer than a hundred in many smaller systems.
To fish for rainbow trout in an Alaskan river at dusk is to tempt a monster. Depending on where you’re fishing – say, a wilderness dream like Southwestern Alaska’s Alagnak; the swift, mountain-clear waters of Southcentral’s Russian; or an evening tide in April on the whiskey-tinted streams of Southeast’s Prince of Wales Island – nighttime here is the venue of 20-pound legends.
At the moment, it’s mid-September and I’m back on the upper Kenai River, not far from the spot where those first rainbows stole my heart 45 long years ago. Everything has fallen quiet now that the sun has dropped for the night behind the Kenai Mountains; everything, that is, except the river. The angling author Roderick Haig-Brown wrote that a river never sleeps, and now, in the late-evening murk, the current’s gushings and gurglings – the sounds of water hustling along, folding against logs and rocks – seem eerily amplified. A chill has crept into the air, and I’m casting my fly rod as much to stay warm as to find a fish.
We started fishing late that day. I’d driven the hundred or so miles south from my home in Anchorage on the scenic Seward and Sterling highways to meet Paul, a friend from my college days, and his 85-year-old father, Pat. By the time we rendezvoused outside the upper Kenai River community of Cooper Landing and loaded up Paul’s pontoon raft, the night’s frosts had dissolved and the usual fleet of anglers in drift boats and rafts had long departed, leaving broad stretches of river to us alone.
The day was brilliant. The sun burned brightly over the mountains as we rode the glacial blue-green Kenai, fishing and watching the world flow by, the hours framed by yellow cottonwood leaves backlit and glowing against powder-blue skies. We caught fish all day long, a few two- and three-pound rainbow trout and many impressive Dolly Varden – red-bellied, pink-spotted char resembling overgrown brook trout – weighing five and six pounds apiece. At one point as we drifted silently along, a brown bear stepped out of the brush and trundled down the shoreline, picking at the scores of dead, spawned-out red salmon that lay helter-skelter at the river’s edge like casualties of an epic battle.
The bear ignored us as we drifted silently past. Powerful muscles rippled beneath its shaggy hide and its long claws clicked like sabers against the shoreline cobbles. For a moment the world seemed a dangerous place where salmon die by the thousands and a monstrous grizzly was king. None among us seemed aware that a monster might be lurking in the water beneath us, too, waiting for nighttime to strike.
Alaska’s biggest rainbow trout, fish that eclipse an almost unbelievable 30 inches in length, are most often linked to the state’s great salmon rivers. Because many of the most productive salmon rivers are those fed by great lakes, anglers in search of the world’s largest, most abundant rainbow trout will do no better than the lake-and-river systems of the Bristol Bay region. Here, sockeye, or “red,” salmon return each summer by the millions to rivers draining enormous lakes like Iliamna, Naknek, and Aleknagik. The lakes provide critical rearing habitat for young sockeye, and important wintering water for rainbow trout.
The relationship between salmon and trout works like this: When the salmon return from the Pacific en masse each summer to spawn, the rainbows are waiting. Like wolves following a caribou herd, trout shadow the salmon schools upstream to spawning gravel where they wait to feed on freshly dropped eggs. The salmon eggs are protein-rich and available in abundance throughout the summer and well into the fall. And once the salmon die after spawning, their carcasses litter streambeds to provide more protein-rich provender for meat-hungry trout.
Outside remote Bristol Bay, the easily accessible Kenai River is a major producer of salmon and trophy-size rainbows. The Kenai River drains Kenai and Skilak lakes and hosts annual returns of more than a million sockeye. Large returns of spawning Chinook, pink, and coho salmon also contribute eggs and carcasses to the river, further extending the availability of excellent feed for ravenous rainbows. As a result, nice trout – fish weighing 6 to 8 pounds – are not uncommon in the Kenai. But it’s the truly big fish, the fabled 20-pounders, that make this already famous river even more so among anglers.
Other highly productive and easily reached rainbow trout waters flow through Southcentral’s Susitna River drainage. Anglers who travel the Parks Highway north of Anchorage enjoy banner days fishing the region’s many smaller streams where trout may range from a foot- to two feet long. Lacking the dynamics of the Bristol Bay and Kenai River systems, 30-inch-long fish are all but nonexistent in the Susitna River drainage. Even so, the venue is a Mecca for anglers who enjoy catching two- and three-pound trout all day long – along with the occasional five- or six-pound lunker – in the very shadow of Mount McKinley.
Highlights of my own summers include days spent prowling the region’s fern-bordered streams, catching and releasing untold hundreds of Susitna Valley beauties, each speckled prize seemingly hand-painted by Mother Nature Herself and sharing a universal rainbow-trout fragrance reminiscent of wild grass, feral water, and pure, fresh, sweet fish.
Back on the Kenai it is late and I’m casting into the chilly night more by feel than by sight. Paul has stopped us on a gravel bar a mile or so above Jim’s Landing, our take-out point, in a stretch of water that gallops like an oversized mountain stream.
The fishing for rainbows, steady all day, only improved as the sun sunk low and the trees cast long shadows across the river. I caught a good six-pounder – pot-bellied and strong from a summer salmon-egg diet – that led me first upriver, then down, the fish running deep before charging the surface and leaping again and again. Minutes later, Pat caught and released a pink-flanked trout more than two feet long that weighed maybe seven pounds. It was, remarked the World War II Navy veteran, a man who’s seen just about everything, the biggest rainbow trout of his life.
Fish like that are enough, really, so strong, heavy and fast; they make it hard to imagine that much bigger fish – true monsters – are out there.
But here in Alaska, monster rainbows are out there. And now on the upper Kenai River where nighttime is prime time, it occurred to me those 20-pounders were already sliding into the main current from dark lairs beneath cut-banks and logjams.
Which is why I should have been prepared when it happened.
One moment I was focused on river sounds and the murmurs of Paul and Pat talking in the darkness upstream, the next it seemed my fly rod had been struck by lightning. I had no time to shout, to alert the others that something big was brewing; it was all I could do to hold on, focus, to maintain my composure.
The strike was that of a rainbow, vicious, jarring, but the fish didn’t turn instantly and run as most trout do. Instead, it stayed put and leaned into the current with a startling heaviness. My 8-weight fly rod, stout enough to conquer crazy-fighting sea-bright sockeyes and even the occasional thick-shouldered Chinook, seemed suddenly inadequate. I yanked back on my rod tip to try and move the trout, to get it running so that it might wear itself out.
Then, as in a recurring nightmare I used to have as a young man, the fish turned and lunged straight away. In the dream I would hold on, a giant fish the size of sailboat pulling me in deeper, deeper, until I lost my footing and fell headfirst into darkness.
But this was no dream. The trout gained speed, headed for the fast water in the center of the river. I knew right away that the combination of fish and current was too much. The trout was too heavy and strong, the river too swift. Expensive fly line peeled off my reel. I feared the fish would spool me – run out my entire line and backing, then break off the works with a shake of its head. I was whipped.
Wrapped in the night’s shadows, knee-deep in the surging river, I pointed my rod at the fish and clenched my whirling reel. There was a final tug and my leader popped like thread. The trout was gone.
For a heartbeat or two I simply stood there, overwhelmed by an undeniable rush. I don’t know how much that rainbow would have weighed – 20 pounds? Possibly. More poignant was the sense that I’d recaptured a connection to my past; the thrill I’d known when I was very young and the world very new had returned. It was a bit like growing up and discovering that you actually can go home again. Alaska’s trout streams are powerful that way; every rainbow hooked here, large or small, is a reminder that no matter your age or how long you’ve been fishing, big surprises wait just a cast or two away.
So, what do I do with those bunnies I hunt? This time, it’s Bunny and Dumplings – good, old-fashioned comfort food. Three bunnies made for a huge pot. Braised for three hours in chicken stock with onion, carrots, celery, garlic, potatoes, some thyme and pepper, the dumplings were added at the end.
The meat (which I boned when tender after two hours of braising) is delicious. Like dark chicken thigh, but richer … close to turkey dark meat. Definitely worth going wild, hunting, and cooking up.
Yesterday’s trip up Southcentral Alaska’s Glenn Highway started off with winds gusting to 65 mph. I almost turned back, but found Eureka area relatively calm, if cold (around 0 degrees F, not including a light chill factor). It was a perfect afternoon for snowshoeing – and hunting up some snowshoe hares. Some I shot with camera, a few I took with the .22 Henry. The scenery along the way was exquisite.
The immature northern goshawk above, seen yesterday near Gunsight Mountain, followed me for close to a mile. The local snowshoe hare cycle is high and I kicked up many as I walked. The bird used this to its advantage, eventually disappearing into the brush on what I assume was a successful hunt.
Sometimes, the hunt is less about game harvested than getting outdoors and playing a living role in the some the most beautiful country on Earth.
Success of yesterday’s hunt will be measured this evening in a nice meal of hare and dumplings.
Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and good luck.
By Ken Marsh
I’d arrived late in the day, after a long drive followed by a hike into the hills. By the time my tent was pitched and camp organized, little time remained for hunting, maybe half an hour at most. Already dusk rose from the ground shadows, muting the light around me and gathering overhead like campfire smoke. Still, it was worth a look; moose move on windless September evenings like this one, the kind that promise a full moon and hard frost. I thought I might spot a bull, if I were very lucky, in the meadow before dark.
So I picked up my rifle, a decades-old bolt-action Remington 30.06 purchased new with paper route money when I was a boy, and left camp, walking slowly, quietly toward a point overlooking the meadow nearby. I’d scouted the place the previous fall and discovered promising signs: moose trails worn into the duff, generations of antler rubs marking the saplings, a wallow where bulls had rolled during the rut. Drained by a brook and set in a small spot burn, the meadow was backed on its far side by a grass- and alder-covered mountainside that swept up into crags 3,000 feet high. Bulls would file down to this place from their high-country summer ranges with the cooler days of fall. On my side of the meadow, a forest of aspen and spruce stood where the burn tapered off, providing cover for moose and safe places for them to bed.
I found an opening among some charred stumps and settled in to watch. My riflescope would gather the light remaining and allow me to scan the meadow edges for a bull. Around me the country was still, the air cold and tangy with the sweet-and-sour smells of autumn-ripe berries.
A hunter remembers best his first bull moose and his last, and even as those past bulls flashed their antlers in my mind, each with a rack distinctive in spread and symmetry, a shadow in the meadow filled my scope. The shadow vanished when I lifted my head and peeked over the rifle, so I looked back into the scope and found it again – and this time recognized the smoky-gray shoulder hump and unmistakable flowing stride of a moose. At nearly the same time, I spotted the antlers.
The bull was headed for thick cover at the meadow’s edge, so calculations on its rack had to be hastily made. Pause for much more than a heartbeat and the moose would vanish, perhaps forever; shoot before determining whether or not the antler width made the bull legal – 50 inches was the minimum – and I would risk breaking the law.
I measured the antler spread against what I figured to be the foot or more of space between the bull’s ear tips. The beams were tall and the palms flared widely, extending far beyond the ears, and I reckoned the animal was just legal.
Flame shot from my rifle muzzle, blinding me momentarily. I ejected the spent cartridge and shoved in a fresh round. When I brought the scope back up, the bull appeared unscathed and had almost reached cover. At stake now was a comfortable winter of good eating – delicacies like back-strap steaks with mushrooms and Dijon, stroganoff over brown rice, and roasts braised in red wine. So with the bull quartering away, I placed the crosshairs near the top of its head, squeezed carefully, and fired again.
By the time I picked my way through the burn rubble to where the bull lay, its 52-inch-wide rack reflected the light of a full September moon.
Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and chance. The best hunters, the alleged 10 percent said to consistently take 90 percent of the game, are those who prepare thoroughly to maximize their odds of success. These hunters cultivate their own “good luck” by studying the game they hunt, scouting the country to be hunted, owning quality equipment, and spending adequate time in the field hunting.
As a young man, I spent many Septembers hunting moose in the forests near my home in Southcentral Alaska. I refined my tracking skills along the way, learning not only to find hoof prints in the mud and moss, but to gauge how much time had passed since a moose made them. I learned to look for the bone-white trunks of saplings left bare after a bull scraped off the bark while rubbing the velvet from its antlers – the antler-scraping bull, and others too, usually lingered nearby. I discovered that moose trails worn along the open edges of lakes and swamps were places to watch only in the late evenings and early mornings; by day, the moose were mostly bedded out of sight in tall grass shadows and hilltop alder thickets.
I learned these truths and many others about moose in my region and eventually began bringing home meat consistently. By taking some of the mystery out of finding a bull, I’d become a lucky moose hunter. Even so, I still had much to learn. You need only butcher in the field with a 4-inch Swiss Army knife one 900-pound bull moose to ever after carry not one but at least two proper sheath knives or large folding knives with skinning blades. You need only burst shirtless once (OK, twice in my hard-headed case) from the cool September forest, your bare chest crisscrossed with devil’s club scratches and white-sock bites, because the shirt you’d worn had to be cut into strips and hung from trees to mark a route from the kill to the road. These days, I never hunt moose without bringing along a roll of survey tape for that purpose; more sophisticated hunters use handheld GPS units to pinpoint their kills.
Unlike that bull in the burn, most of my moose have fallen with a single shot from my 30.06 Remington BDL loaded with 180-grain silvertip bullets. Some hunters swear by more powerful rifles and heavier bullets, but really, I’ve learned, there’s no substitute for proper shot placement. Conventional wisdom suggests Alaska big game hunters’ riflescopes be sighted to place bullets two inches high at 100 yards. This is because hunting over the state’s open tundras and treeless mountain ranges often calls for longer-range shooting. But for hunting in my Susitna Valley forests and thickets, where moose are most frequently encountered at close range, I dial in my rifle to punch out a dime at 100 yards. The lesson here is not to tear down conventions, but to know your game, your distinctive terrains and equipment, and to hunt accordingly.
News in the Nelchina basin travels in the wind, rain, and snow. One night in mid-September, I heard wolves howling near my camp and knew the last of the caribou were passing through. Wolves follow caribou herds, picking off the straggling old, lame and unlucky; as I lay in my sleeping bag listening, a cold rain pattering against the tent fly, I wondered if perhaps I’d come too late.
Earlier that day, I’d stood on the shore of a lake near camp, watching bands of caribou, mostly cows and calves, hustle through the stubby spruces on the lake’s far side. Hoping for a bull, I let them all pass. I would settle for a barren cow, given no other choice. But a bull would provide more meat for my effort.
Next morning, the rain had stopped and the wolves were no longer howling. The temperature had fallen sharply, and I realized as I awoke that my nose was cold and a peculiar brightness glowed outside the tent. I dressed warmly, picked up my rifle, and opened the fly to newly fallen, shin-deep snow.
Alaska hunters live for September. The month, or at least the better part of it, marks our brief autumn, a season that for most of us slides too quickly into winter. That brevity has a way of heightening one’s sense of mortality. Even as we enter September’s cool days and brittle-cold nights, the willows and aspens gold against scarlet hills of bearberry and dwarf birch, it’s difficult to escape a profound sense of urgency. Time simply doesn’t linger the way it does in January’s post-solstice darkness, or during late June’s endless days. Instead, life in September accelerates, the days measured as grains in an hourglass, falling ever faster as winter’s shadow grows long and dark.
From a breezy hillside a short hike beyond camp, I scanned the country that morning for game. Nothing. Even the cows and calves had moved on. Lunchtime came and went; I grew cold and impatient. Finally, I decided to take a walk and, within a mile or so, left the open country and entered a section of broken timber. The Nelchina basin’s taiga – a botanical edge formed where boreal forests dissolve into open tundra – can be problematic to hunt. Thickets of willow and weather-stunted black spruce (a particularly tall tree might exceed 12 feet high) limit visibility, and caribou blend well into the black, gray, and white mosaics of spruce, shrubs and early-season snows.
In the timber, tracks marked the fresh snow and it was clear that several bands of caribou had passed that morning without me seeing them. Not that caribou are especially sneaky creatures, but instinct serves them well. On open tundra they tend to follow natural convolutions – subtle seams and gullies – that conceal them from distant, meat-hungry eyes. Timbered stretches hide them equally well.
I’d paused over some moose tracks, and was considering following them, when antler tines appeared bobbing through the trees nearby. Caribou. I saw them in flashes as they bounced through openings in the brush, a group of heavy-racked bulls headed east toward winter range in Canada, like the cows and calves before them. Unable to find an open shot, I chased the bulls, like a two-legged wolf, to the timber’s edge. The closest bull trotted broadside less than 50 yards away, jaw tipped slightly skyward, tall rack cradling its back. I raised my rifle, found the heart, and ended my hunt with a single shot.
After that the work began, the skinning and butchering and packing meat to camp. But it was good work, the kind that follows successful hunts and sheds warm light against the darkness of the coming winter.
At its most remote, Alaska resembles Stanley’s Dark Continent. The state is unfathomably huge and mostly roadless; many mountains, valleys, streams and lakes remain tucked away in distant corners, unnamed and unvisited. As hunters we are drawn to the mystique of it all, to the promise of seeking game in North America’s last, great unspoiled wilderness.
In this sense, to hunt Alaska is to embark on safari. Reaching the dream venues – places like the Brooks Range for Dall rams, the high Arctic tundras for caribou, the rocky coasts of the Inside Passage for bear and black-tailed deer, the Interior’s trackless forests for moose – requires travel. And travel over endless miles of hummocks, muskegs, bays, mountains, rivers, and interminable jungles of devil’s club and alder requires imagination, research and, often, more than a little money.
Hunters here frequently step off passenger jets at regional hubs – Dillingham, Yakutat, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and others – and onto small commuter-type flights (Alaskans call them “puddle jumpers”) to remote villages and outposts. From these isolated communities, hunters may climb into even smaller planes, chartered in advance, or perhaps riverboats, for further 50-, 100-, or 200-mile shuttles into the backcountry. For many, even that won’t be the final destination; as the engine hum of the plane or boat fades into the distance, some hunters turn to long, hard climbs into the heart of the country, where the big grizzlies den, or the Dall sheep feed, or where the mountain goats await. Get this far and you’ll have traveled back in time. You’ll experience complete wildness, and get a sense of North America as it was before Lewis and Clark, or even prior to Christ and the Crucifixion.
You’ll see that reaching Alaska’s hinterlands is rarely easy or inexpensive (hunters seeking Dall sheep, grizzly bear or moose with a guide may spend $15,000 to $25,000); weather is always a complicating factor and gasoline in the Bush is a particularly precious commodity. But for many hunters, getting there is half the battle. For the rest of us, it is half the charm.
Your hunt began two days ago, at a port along Alaska’s Southcentral coast – someplace like Whittier, Cordova, Valdez, or Yakutat; or perhaps a venue much farther southeast, out of Ketchikan, Petersburg, or Craig. You stepped into a friend’s open fishing boat (really an oversized dory) and, framed by the world’s most exquisite scenery, traveled the coastline in a rare stretch of still weather and sunshine. Already a dozen black bears have shown themselves, trundling along remote mountainsides, out of reach. Even so, you’ve found sport in the searching and finding, in the visual pursuit. You’re aware, of course, that spotting bears is only one phase of the game.
Around mid-morning on your third day, a coal-black silhouette appears on a mountainside high above you. You raise your binoculars and feel your heart speed up; a tickle flutters in your chest as you realize that this bear is a possibility. The animal is meandering north along the mountainside, stopping to feed and sun as it makes its way casually toward a shallow ravine a half-mile or so beyond. That ravine is your key; it will provide you a pathway up the mountain to an open bench the bear must cross, and allow you to stay out of sight as you move. Now the real stalk begins.
Soon you’re scrambling up a fan of broken shale – it’s like climbing a mountain of poker chips – your lungs heaving as you suck thin air. Your sprint will take you 2,500 vertical feet up from the beach, beyond a belt of hemlocks, through barriers of clutching alders and clawing salmonberry brambles, and finally into broken alpine tundra. If you’re lucky, if you’ve been quick enough and quiet, and the wind hasn’t betrayed you, you’ll reach the bench first.
You’ve heard of more creative stalks. A friend once recounted the time his father climbed after a large, berry-feeding black bear on a Kenai Peninsula mountainside, only to have his approach blocked by a flock of wandering Dall sheep. Figuring the bear would flee if the sheep spooked, your friend’s father reached into his pack and wrapped himself in white toilet paper. On hands and knees he crept unnoticed by the feeding sheep and, without further incident, killed the bear.
You’re exhausted by the time you reach the bench at the top of the ravine, your thighs worn from the fast-paced climb. Worse, there’s no bear in sight. Not to worry, a little rest will be good, allow you to steady your breathing and better place your shot when the bear does arrive.
But the bear does not arrive. You wonder if perhaps you’re too late, or maybe the bear changed course for, an hour later, the animal has not appeared. Still sweating from the climb and feeling a little defeated, you figure it’s time to descend back to the skiff.
You’ve started picking your way down the mountain, wondering what might have gone wrong, when a strange feeling makes you stop. You turn to look back up the mountain and, by god, there the bear stands, so close you could hit it with an easily-chucked stone. You’re startled, and for an instant you hesitate. Then your body acts, even as your mind looks on, as in a dream.
The first shot sends the bear tumbling toward you down the slide, and you figure that it is dead, your hunt over. But it catches itself suddenly and springs with incredible agility to all fours. Your second shot is a reflex directed at the fleeting target that vanishes too quickly into thick brush in the center of the ravine.
There’s nothing to do now but wait. Wait a half hour or so, like the professional hunters in Africa do for lion and Cape buffalo, for the animal to weaken. Wounded bears are best approached with backup, but you’ve done this before. Stay sharp and calm, work slowly, and you’ll be OK.
When the time comes, you are locked and loaded, wondering. The blood spoor is easily found and, to your relief, the trail is short. The bear is lying dead in knee-high grass. Your shots were solid and now you may savor the afterglow, as would a mountain climber on reaching a summit, or an athlete scoring a winning goal.
Later you will linger in the sunlight on a boulder above the beach while a friend climbs another mountain for another bear. Rufus hummingbirds will flash among the salmonberries and you’ll watch a pair of black-tailed deer feed along the base of a mountain. The air will smell strikingly fresh, slightly fishy, as it always does near the sea. And in the skiff, the bear’s meat and hide, rolled and tucked out of the sun, will mark a spiritual gain snatched from an intangible passing.
Roads are few in Alaska’s remote Copper Basin, but the Gulkana River makes passage as simple – and wonderfully adventurous – as stepping into a raft or canoe.
By Ken Marsh
We’d rafted downriver from Paxson Lake a bend, maybe two, our five-day float trip barely begun, when the splashes of feeding grayling drove us in for a hasty landing. Five men and a boy piled out of our two-boat flotilla and briefly, as we rummaged for fishing gear among dry bags and waterproof totes, the world sang only to the tune of the river.
I had my rod together in minutes, fitted it with light reel, line, and a dry fly the size and color of the mosquitoes buzzing around my face. Then, framed by spruce forests and rolling hills, the river sliding black and smooth out front, I began a series of false casts, my focus narrowing into what the late author Norman Maclean famously described as “a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish would rise.”
My fly dropped onto an eddy and I watched it spin idly atop a tiny whirlpool before vanishing in a splash. I yanked my rod back, felt the line tighten. And just that quickly my connection to the river was complete.
That recent float was my latest in a lifetime of treks on Alaska’s Gulkana River. A National Wild and Scenic River, the Gulkana is quietly renown for its accessibility and wildness. Connected to the world by the state’s road system, the river is easily reached from several points even as its remote wanderings keep it starkly detached from the 21st Century.
From its sources in the Alaska Range halfway between Denali Park and the Yukon border, the Gulkana’s main stem flows south, entering and exiting 10-mile-long Paxson Lake. From there it continues on, joining with its West Fork and the West Fork’s South Branch to alternately meander and dash through more than 180 miles of perfect wilderness. En route to its terminus at the Copper River – a broad, brown, glacial giant – the Gulkana drains a primal basin larger than the state of Delaware.
Anglers are lured by grayling that swarm like sail-finned piranhas, and by salmon – Chinook and sockeye – and rainbow trout. Indeed, plentiful grayling and trout to 8 pounds were behind my recent early-August main-stem float. But fishing is only one reason to board a raft, kayak, or canoe and float the Gulkana.
I’ve floated the river’s main stem, forks, and branches many times over the years simply to camp and explore the far-out, lonesome Copper Basin country through which it runs. Thirty years ago, my first time on the Gulkana, I accompanied a Bureau of Land Management survey team on a 10-day canoe trek down the South Branch of the West Fork. The crew was to assess the South Branch’s potential for preservation under National Wild and Scenic status by paddling 150 miles downriver from a headwaters lake to the Gulkana’s main stem.
Interestingly, that starting-point lake was uncharted; it didn’t appear on maps of the time, an omission that underscored the depth of wilderness we would traverse. During our days on the river we surveyed bird species and nesting sites; floral variety and distribution; recorded the presence of fish and wildlife; and logged evidence of historical use by the region’s first people, the Ahtna Athabascans. In the sandbars we found the signatures of wild creatures – mink, moose, otter, grizzly. And once, rounding a bend, we encountered a lone gray wolf.
That first journey was an expedition of the Lewis-and-Clark kind, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of exploration and discovery that set the tone for every float since. Of course, discovery is a relative term. And in Alaska where roads are few and “remote” takes on distinctive meaning, it’s heartening to know that your next grand adventure can begin by simply choosing a river and boarding a raft, kayak, or canoe.
Getting Your Feet Wet
The Gulkana is but one of 12,000 Alaska rivers, most of them navigable for experienced rafters, canoeists, and kayakers. Backcountry camping skills, research into whitewater potential, and planning are critical for do-it-yourselfers preparing to float any Alaska river. For first-timers, hiring a river guide is the safest bet.
From the 1,980-mile-long Yukon River – Alaska’s own Mississippi – to streams with abbreviated runs like Kodiak Island’s 24-mile-long Karluk River, there’s an Alaska float trip perfect for you. Here are a few ideas:
For simple, scenic daylong or overnight canoe or kayak floats, the Maclaren River Lodge offers numerous options at affordable prices.
An easy day’s drive north of Anchorage at Mile 42 Denali Highway, the lodge rents canoes and will transport your party and canoe upriver via jet boat into the heart of the Maclaren Valley. Day-trip drop-offs start at $50 per person; spend the day canoeing downriver to the lodge. Grayling fishing is excellent, the country open with stunning mountain views and opportunities to see wildlife including caribou, moose, and bear.
Few better ways exist to see Denali State Park than from a raft on the Chulitna River. Located off the Parks Highway roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Chulitna is a glacial river. On clear days, enjoy truly breathtaking views of 20, 310-foot Denali and its rugged Alaska Range peers. Several Talkeetna-based river outfitters offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day trips. Go with a guide or consider a DIY option with raft rental and drop-off provided. For more information, check out:
Famous for its distinctive emerald-green waters, superb fishing, wildlife, and mountain scenery, the Upper Kenai River (pronounced “Keen-eye”) out of Cooper Landing is a popular float destination. Located about a 90-minute drive south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway (an official National Scenic Byway and All-American Road) and Sterling Highway, the 12-mile-long stretch of river flows through the quiet community of Cooper Landing and into the wild Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Numerous river guides offering raft or drift boat floats ranging from two hours to all day. These trips are worth doing for the mountain views, but anglers will want to look into outfitters offering fishing options. For a listing of local rafting businesses, visit http://www.alaska.org/destination/cooper-landing/rafting-tours
More than 300 Pacific Flyway bird species funnel through Southeast Alaska each spring, crowding the skies in numbers sure to inspire even a casual birder.
By Ken Marsh
Salmon Bay Lake on Prince of Wales Island was alive with birds that late-April evening, proof that even here in Southeast Alaska no winter lasts forever. In the cedars away from the shoreline varied thrushes trilled and Pacific wrens sang, while across the water a pair of common loons called in their high-pitched, howling way. Woodpeckers in the hills above the lake tapped rhythmically against dead spruces and the sky seemed a country of its own where winged creatures passed in droves, honking, quacking, and tweeting.
Roy and I had taken a skiff down the lake to scout for fish, returning at dusk by the guiding light of a campfire Tony had built on the beach. The air smelled of skunk cabbage and wood smoke, and by the time we’d joined Tony at the fire the stars had come out. Flights of geese passed low overhead as we settled around the coals, talking quietly. Even after midnight when we entered our rented U.S. Forest Service cabin to sleep the geese continued flying; we listened to them all night long, yelping and whooping in the darkness.
Over the years I’ve traveled many times in April from my home in Anchorage to Southeast Alaska, always for the same reasons and always with the same results: To search not for birds, but for spring steelhead – big, bright sea-run rainbow trout. Yet on every trip birds – not fish – have proven the common denominator. Cued this time of year by the mild days of an advancing spring, they descend upon local wetlands, coastlines and forests, often in startling numbers. On these trips, fly rod in hand, I’ve come to count on watching birds, listening to their calls and identifying as many species as I can, whether or not the tides bring fish.
Southeast Alaska extends some 600 miles from Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island’s southernmost tip just north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A wet, temperate, coastal region where sunken mountain ranges off the mainland rise from the sea to form hundreds of islands and islets, Southeast encompasses more than 35,000 square miles of land area and nearly 10,000 miles of shoreline. The region is home to the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest – the largest national forest in the United States – and is a natural thoroughfare for more than 300 species of Pacific Flyway birds.
Waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, even tiny hummingbirds arrive between late March and early May, many en route to breeding grounds a thousand miles farther north. Some stay on to nest and raise young in the region’s seaside bluffs, estuaries, and rain forests. Mixed in with the snowbirds are familiar resident species like bald eagles, great blue herons, Steller’s jays, and sooty grouse.
The migrants’ return is a celebrated spring event in many Southeast communities. From Ketchikan’s April-long Hummingbird Festival and Wrangell’s Stikine River Birding Festival to Yakutat’s Tern Festival in late May and early June, the birds are welcomed, logged on checklists, and captured in pictures and art contests. Meanwhile, beyond the region’s isolated fishing hamlets, legions of winged things pass unheralded through the far-flung, out-of-the-way places.
Back at Salmon Bay Lake next morning I sat outside our cabin sipping tea in the sunlight. The geese had passed in the night, but thrushes still sang and an early-rising woodpecker knocked on a hollow spruce nearby.
I’d pulled on my waders and my steelhead rod leaned against the cabin, rigged and ready, when a flash of color caught my eye. Not two feet from my nose a rufous hummingbird hovered, its metallic-raspberry chin patch glowing in a sunbeam. Drawn by a splash of hot-pink embroidery on my ball cap, the diminutive bird paused on buzzing wings before breaking off and vanishing into the forest.
I can’t recall now whether I hooked a steelhead that morning; they’re fickle fish to be sure. But I’ve never forgotten the hummingbird. Perhaps that says something about me, that I’m more birder than angler. Or maybe it speaks to the power of Southeast Alaska and the spectacle of color and sound delivered here each spring on millions of northbound wings.